Morocco Bound DISORIENTING AMERICA'S MAGHREB, FROM CASABLANCA TO THE MARRAKECH EXPRESS
By Brian T. Edwards
Duke University Press Copyright © 2005 Duke University Press
All right reserved. ISBN: 978-0-8223-3609-9
Chapter One AMERICAN ORIENTALISM
Shortly after his arrival in Casablanca on November 8, 1942, General George S. Patton Jr. had a chance to notice his surroundings. Unlike many American travelers to Morocco, Patton had arrived on Moroccan shores amid gunfire. He was the leader of the Moroccan portion of Operation Torch, simultaneous surprise landings at Casablanca, Oran, and Algiers that marked U.S. entry in the North African campaign, which extended until the liberation of Tunis in May 1943, a turning point in World War II. After the relatively quick victory over Vichy-loyal forces at Casablanca, Patton wrote his wife, "This town (Casa) is a cross between the ultra modern and the Arabian nights but is quite clean." A couple of days later, he revised his initial impression, describing Casablanca as "a city which combines Hollywood and the Bible." Since the French were under conflicting orders and there were no German or Italian troops in Morocco-Allied forces were engaged with them further to the east in Libya and Tunisia-Patton remained based in Moroccountil early February, when he was finally summoned to Tunisia. In the meantime, often frustrated that his talents were being wasted, he read, worked on his French, wrote a short story about a soldier in combat, and recorded his observations. A self-professed "profound student of history," Patton paid careful attention to detail in his elaborate descriptions of Moroccan palaces and interiors. On November 17, Patton described his first meeting with the Moroccan sultan at Rabat in another letter to Beatrice: "I certainly wish you could have been along yesterday.... It was the most colorful thing I have ever seen and would be worth a million in Hollywood ... What I saw inside the palace and what Marco Polo saw did not differ except that the guards had rifles in the court[;] but inside, the twelve apostles had long curved simaters in red leather scabbords which stuck out like tales [sic] when they moved." In his diary, describing the same scene, Patton changed the referent: "Having passed through this second gate, we came into the Old Testament, a large court which was completely encircled by men dressed in white Biblical costumes."
Patton's sense of being at once within the Arabian Nights, the Bible, on the Silk Road with Marco Polo, and on a Hollywood soundstage echo and conflate the impressions earlier Westerners visiting Morocco had expressed. Edith Wharton, who visited in 1917, kept seeing the Bible when she wasn't evoking "Haroun-al-Rachid land"; Claude McKay felt in Fez as if he were "walking all the time on a magic carpet"; Wyndham Lewis tracked down American film director Rex Ingram "faking a sheik" in Morocco in 1931. Indeed, despite his key role in the Operation Torch landings-which relied on their very timeliness to surprise German forces in Africa-Patton's unselfconscious time travel places his diaries and correspondence in the company of accounts that confused North Africa with the romantic Orient of the Arabian Nights.
Patton's profession, however, and the political and military importance of U.S. presence in North Africa distinguish his writings and place them in proximity to foreign relations of the most immediate sort. Patton did not choose to travel to North Africa, but while there he was intrigued by the spectacle of religious festivals, "ornate" pashas' palaces, the pomp of the Moroccan court, as well as banquets and belly dancers and boar hunts. At the same time, as official representative of the United States he spoke frequently with the Moroccan sultan and his representatives about the war and U.S.-Moroccan relations in the future. In his letters, Patton remarked on the importance of maintaining the respect of the Moroccan people and government, while stepping cautiously around the French protectorate's relationship to its colony. Patton's analysis was that "the prestige of the French Army is the only thing holding the Arabs in check." Since he saw his primary role as "to maintain Morocco as a gateway for the Americans entering the continent of Africa," Patton felt he needed to reject a preexisting plan to have the French surrender to the United States. "Morocco could not be used as a gateway if it were in the throes of an Arab uprising," he wrote, and he estimated the number of troops needed to occupy the country. Taking a markedly different tone in his diaries, he wrote an ethnographic essay called "Notes on the Arab," which speculates on the cultural meaning of turbans, burial rites, agricultural "habits," and "the similarity between the Arab and the Mexican".
The interest of Patton's writing is not the complexity of its analyses of Moroccan culture, or the literary quality of his descriptions of festivals and interiors, but rather the ease with which Patton moves between such writing and diplomatic dealings with the Moroccans and the French. Or, put another way, that Patton took time at all to describe the cultural forms of the land that he briefly administered and saw himself as the American heir to Marco Polo helps us to identify the intertwined nature of representations of Maghrebi people and culture and the military and diplomatic objectives of the North African campaign. Patton's way of understanding North Africa is symptomatic of the wave of attention given to the region by American writers, journalists, filmmakers, and regular GIS during the North African campaign. Seeing the Maghreb as Oriental, as Patton did, was a common first impulse. It was frequently followed for American observers, however, by the sense of disillusion that the Maghreb wasn't Oriental enough, which often led to the identification of a frontier aspect to the desert landscape and sometimes elaborate comparisons of the Maghreb to the American Southwest (as in Patton's thoughts about Mexicans). By invoking the popular imaginary of the American West, journalists and filmmakers explained U.S. actions in North Africa by further distancing the campaign from the actual North Africa. The most sophisticated of the journalists who did so were aware of the trick-the New Yorker's A. J. Liebling later attempted to theorize it-yet the success with which the North African campaign was imagined as a Western allowed the United States to make sense of an otherwise foreign setting and confusing military action. The foreignness of North Africa and the complexity of the political landscape-with Free French and Fighting French, the ambiguous position of the French colonial administration, and Italian, German, Spanish, and British colonial holdings and ambitions in the region-could be made understandable if reduced to a frontier tale. Indeed, the images that were arguably the most successful in depicting the campaign-and have lasted the longest in the popular imagination-were those in a spate of Hollywood combat films and melodramas that adopted the Western motif to a desert terrain.
Reference to the frontier is, of course, a common and long-standing American response to foreignness. In the case of the war in North Africa, however, it produced a peculiar relationship to an important theater of war that encouraged American observers to project domestic concerns-particularly regarding race-onto their understanding of North Africa. The representations that issued provided a way to bracket the deep paradoxes of World War II and of the North African campaign in particular: the segregation of African American troops and the concentration camps for Japanese and Japanese Americans on the home front in the former case, and the alliance with the French colonial regime in the latter. To be sure, these paradoxes were frequently and eloquently noted by members of the Negro press and by left-leaning journalists. The Chicago Defender, for example, had a notably different perspective on the North African campaign that did not fall victim to the impulse to write o the native population of colonized Africa-though some pieces in the Defender did draw firm lines between North Africa and African America and implicitly differentiated sub-Saharan Africa from the Maghreb. The Negro Quarterly too noted that the war to end Hitlerism and the colonial domination threatened by the German Führer should attend to similar forms of domination in Africa exercised by the Allies. In the fall 1942 issue of Negro Quarterly, John Pittman, an editor for People's World, wrote that he hoped that the "coming influence of the United States in determining the future of Africa" would bode well for both African peoples and African Americans. In the following issue, Kweku Attah Gardiner chastised the mainstream press: "We hear of troop movements and the capture of towns, but nothing is ever said of North Africans. What has happened to the Arab national 'fanatics' who were being imprisoned by the French even before the outbreak of the war?" For Gardiner, identified as a recent immigrant from West Africa, American journalists refused to discuss European colonialism in Africa or to poll African opinion: "African leaders ... are not the ignorant, care-free, child-like peoples globe-trotters say they are. They alone know the yearnings and demands of their people for freedom." And Kenneth Crawford argued that the U.S. government's collusion with French colonial bureaucracy was "disillusioning and distressing," part of "a series of fatal moral compromises." In August 1943, in a foreword to a collection of his war correspondence, Crawford lamented: "Some [liberals] argued that, in winning the battle for North Africa, we had lost the moral values for which the war was being fought."
But such accounts circulated far less widely than the syndicated columns of embedded journalists working for the major papers, or Hollywood's fantasies of the war in North Africa, and did not determine the prevailing narrative of the campaign. While W. E. B. DuBois noted, in early 1943, that the Negro press was finally gaining the attention of white America, the dominant narratives about North Africa as a theater for war were written elsewhere. Those representations in turn provided a means by which to manage, by narrativizing, the potentially disturbing implications of the allegiance with the French in Africa. Portraying modern Moroccans and Algerians and Tunisians as Biblical characters-and later as American Indians-not only rendered them in a different temporal register from Americans in general, but it also dissociated them from a more immediate fraternity with African Americans who were deeply interested in the global dimensions of the war. Patton's writing is therefore a cipher for a strategy that recurred multiply and that worked to turn American attention-whether the Americans were African American or not-away from the association of African Americans with colonized North Africans.
Recently historians have drawn extensive parallels between the philosophy and practice of racism in the domestic United States and American foreign relations. World War II is a key turning point in this complex matrix, because of the deep racial crises that marked the war years on the home front, the racial aspect of the war with Japan, the rhetoric and practice of the Nazi regime under Hitler, and the ascension of the United States as a global power concomitant with victory during the war-an ascension that would leave the United States in a particularly influential position after World War II as Europe's colonies struggled for their independence. Drawing on historian John Dower's work, which documented the racial character of the Pacific War, Thomas Borstelmann comments: "World War II was not racial in its origins, but in the Pacific it became for most American soldiers a racially coded conflict". Borstelmann himself describes gracefully the complexity of American racism and the European war: the United States was fighting "the most murderous racists in modern history" but itself expanding the reach of Jim Crow overseas via a policy of segregating troops. The war years led African American intellectuals such as W. E. B. Du Bois to call publicly for recognition of the international linkages between oppressed peoples, including both African Americans and peoples in European colonies. Such discussions entered and framed the debate over the new United Nations charter in 1945. The charter, under the pressure of the divided U.S. delegation, supported the principle of nondiscrimination-"a significant symbolic step"-but "refused to take a strong stand against colonialism."
The North African campaign posed a special challenge to thinking about the role of the United States in the war, since race and European colonialism were central. Because the Maghreb was already imbricated in generations of narratives that had sought to define it-from European Orientalism to more recent American films and travelogues-it is not surprising that it would fuel such representational energies. In the Negro press, there was ambivalence and hesitation about how to respond to North Africa. The Maghreb-and greater North Africa-has a complicated relationship to the conceptualization of Africa both outside and within the continent. For geopolitical reasons-the expanse of Sahara that separates North Africa from the rest of the continent, the history of Arab slave trading, and the political strength of Arab regimes-North Africa has a troubled relationship to sub-Saharan Africa, to which most African Americans trace their ancestry. Historians and theorists of Africa such as John Hunwick and Achille Mbembe have, however, encouraged us not to see the Sahara as an unbridgeable divide. Mbembe has recently urged outsiders to recognize a different and multiple set of borders operative within the continent.
Before the North African campaign, the idea of a North Africa connected to sub-Saharan Africa was available in African American letters. Claude McKay, a key figure of the Harlem Renaissance, had spent extensive time in Morocco and published a widely read account of his time there in his 1937 autobiography A Long Way from Home. McKay's self-portrait of his time in Morocco, "When a Negro Goes Native," made affiliations between North Africa and African America imaginable. In 1930, while living in Tangier, McKay completed a short story titled "Little Sheik," which he published in his 1932 collection Gingertown. "Little Sheik" responds to the craze occasioned by Rudolf Valentino's Sheik films, a phenomenon that fused racialized desire and anxiety about immigration to the United States in the 1920s. McKay's story depicts a "rose-ivory tint[ed]" American woman, "one of those independent U.S.A. girls a little difficult of placing, socially or financially," who travels alone in a "Moorish" country. There she encounters a "slender youth" with a complexion McKay describes as the color of "blood under brown." McKay reverses Edith Hull's story by having the white woman, filled with desire, "kidnap her brown idol," at least in metaphor. The "little sheik" guides her around the city, a world McKay describes as "Afroriental." But when he leaves her briefly at an Islamic medersa, she is greeted by the unwelcome advances of an Arab student, whose complexion is likened to "a full-ripe lemon." McKay's Maghreb contains both the brown African sheik and the lemon-yellow Arab student, an Afroriental world that Miss U.S.A. describes in terms that mix the Islamic and the African: "Her delight in the striking diversity of that life and its whole cohesive unity. Color, devotion, music, form, all welded in one authentic rhythm" (270). McKay's Maghreb thus privileges the African but sees a native harmony between North African Arab and sub-Saharan. In other work McKay began in Morocco, a story called "Miss Allah" that he apparently did not complete, he imagined what he called the "Afra-Arab mind." There McKay provided a sense of the racial diversity of Morocco, distinguishing "Albino-type Riffian[s]," Moors, and those living in the Moroccan south, "where the sun was gorgeously warm and the native population sympathetically Negroid".
Excerpted from Morocco Bound by Brian T. Edwards Copyright © 2005 by Duke University Press. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.