The book has its problems, of course. Wharton earnestly contemplates the “Eastern apathy” and “the riddle of the mysterious North African civilization.” She praises General Lyautey (the book is dedicated to him) for saving Morocco from the encroaching Germans, as well as the Berbers and Sahraoui tribesmen, but all is couched in the assumption that Morocco needs to be rescued by more civilized (i.e., European) powers. While she observes over and over how Morocco’s beauty is in vast decay, she never once considers the damage colonialism may have inflicted across northern Africa and beyond. She writes: “Overripeness is indeed the characteristic of this rich and stagnant civilization. Buildings, people, customs, seem all about to crumble and fall of their own weight: the present is a perpetually prolonged past.”
The most compelling moments in Wharton’s writing come when she and Lyautey’s entourage are invited indoors, into the company of other women. She records her interactions in a chapter entitled “Harems and Ceremonies” with a true sense of empathy. At the home of a “high government official, a Moroccan dignitary of the old school,” Wharton has tea overlooking a stunning view of Rabat. She engages in conversation with the host’s brother-in-law and the many women of the household:
Had I any children? (They asked it all at once.)
“In Islam” (one of the ladies ventured) “a woman without children is considered the most unhappy being in the world.”
I replied that in the western world also childless women were pitied. (The brother-in-law smiled incredulously.)
Knowing that European fashions are of absorbing interest to the harem I next enquired: “What do these ladies think of our stiff tailor-dresses? Don’t they find them excessively ugly”?
“Yes they do;” (it was again the brother-in-law who replied.) “But they suppose that in your own homes you dress less badly.”
“And have they never any desire to travel, or visit the Bazaars, as the Turkish ladies do?”
“No, indeed. They are too busy to give such matters a thought. In our country women of the highest class occupy themselves with their household and their children, and the rest of their time is devoted to needlework.” (At this statement I gave the brother-in-law a smile as incredulous as his own.)
It is classic Wharton: a splendid mix of her own comic timing, her keen perception of the social order (the one man speaking for everyone else) and her blunt understanding of the devastating truth that women, no matter where in the world, were trapped by their own society. Wharton may have had grave blind spots, but she knew very well that her own freedom — as an educated woman unencumbered by children, with a great inheritance and a greater intellect — was rare. There is something magically uncensored and unanxious about Wharton in Morocco, her writing built on the simple premise that she wrote what she saw and said what she thought. Because why wouldn’t she? She belongs to a small canon of great women explorers (Isabella Bird, Jane Bowles) who disobeyed the notion that they needed to follow the rules and stay put. Instead, she set forth — the ochre-colored dust of the desert swirling past her — and expected the rest of us to catch up.