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Eye For Eye?

A Reading in the Travel accounts of P. Bowles and A. Akbib

This paper aims at drawing a brief contrast between two travel books by two
different writers: Their Heads Are Green by the American Paul Bowles and
Tangier’s Eyes on America by the Moroccan Abdellatif Akbib.
i
This juxtaposition is justified, in my opinion, by at least one important reason.
Regardless of their respective close personal relations to Tangier,ii these two
writers can, to a large extent, be regarded as representing two opposite trends in
the field of cultural studies and discourse. For while Bowles was undeniably one
of the most conspicuous American Orientalists, whose diverse literary texts place
him squarely at the centre of what is known as hegemonic colonial discourse,
Akbib is certainly one of the emerging post-colonial voices or figures that have
just started to ‘write back’ to the metropolitan Centre. The difference between
these trends can be well illustrated by the way each of the two writers
‘appropriates’, so to speak, the city of Tangier to articulate symbolic meanings
that are inextricably associated with the cross-cultural relation between the
Western metropolis and its peripheries. In Bowles’ case, Tangier was for a long
time the object of his Orientalist gaze and the site of his representations of
cultural Otherness. Not only did it serve as the indispensable source of
inspiration without which he could not become a creative writer, as he himself
once confessed, it was also itself deployed as a rich material for many of his
discursive products like his famous novel Let It Come Down. In addition to this,
Tangier also served him, metaphorically speaking, as a private Panopticon or
look-out from which he as systematically observed and represented Morocco as
well as the rest of North Africa and the Moslem world. Conversely, while Tangier
is for Akbib also an important source of literary inspiration, iii his travel book has
unequivocally declared and advocated for this strategic city the active role of a
subject rather than merely an object of representation. The book’s title itself, as it
will be soon clarified, endows Tangier with eyesight and, by implication, with
insight and agency by means of which it has started to resist and subvert the
West’s hegemonic constructions.

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To support the argument that Akbib’s discourse in Tangier’s Eyes on
America is antithetical and oppositional to Bowles’ discourse in Their Heads Are
Green, it must be first shown how the latter book is in effect part and parcel of
the Western Orientalist tradition. But as a way of broaching this crucial subject,
it may be very expedient to start with a brief look at an interesting short story by
Bowles, significantly entitled ‘The Eye’ and set in Tangier. This story is about a
‘Nazarene’ (i.e., Christian) young man called Duncan Marsh, who has been living
in Tangier for a dozen of years but gets finally poisoned by Meriam, one of his
Moroccan servants. The problem starts with Meriam’s superstitious belief that
this Nazarene has cast his evil eye on her little daughter after deliberately
scowling at her so that she might be less noisy. So in an attempt to remove the
spell from her child, the mother is induced by the local ‘fqihs’ to dose that man
some strange concoctions, which inadvertently lead to his death. The scene of
Marsh’s innocuous intimidation of the child is described in the following words:

One day he went quietly around the outside of the house


and down to the patio. He got on all fours, put his face
close to the little girl’s face, and frowned at her so fiercely
that she began to scream (…). The little girl continued to
scream and wail in a corner of the kitchen, until Meriam
took her home. That night, still sobbing, she came down
with a high fever. For several weeks she hovered between
life and death, and when she was finally out of danger she
could no longer walk.
Meriam, who was earning relatively high wages,
consulted one fqih after another. They agreed that ‘the eye’
had been put on the child; it was equally clear that the
Nazarene for whom she worked had done it. What they told
her she must do (…) was to administer certain substances
to Marsh which eventually would make it possible to
counteract the spell. This was absolutely necessary…iv

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If the Nazarene’s ‘Eye’ —with its presumed harmful effect on the innocent native
child—is taken symbolically as a metaphor for what has come to be known as the
imperial/Western gaze,v the above passage can certainly yield a number of
insightful remarks that are deeply pertinent to the topic under discussion. In the
first place, this quotation suggests that the colonizer’s/Orientalist’s eye or gaze
on the native people and landscapes is far from being neutral or innocent. This is
because this gaze is usually a sign of bad omen for the colonized people, given
that it is often the real source of their cultural subordination and ultimate
deterritorialization. Indeed, such “gaze”, as David Spurr has rightly pointed out,
“is never innocent or pure, never free of mediation by motives which may be
judged noble or otherwise. The writer’s eye is always in some sense colonizing the
landscape, mastering and portioning, fixing zones and poles, arranging and
deepening the scene as the object of desire.”vi. For in the context of colonial
relationships, the power to gaze and survey is always hardly separable from the
power to appropriate and to exercise hegemonic mastery over the cultural Other.
In the second place, because this Other is systematically positioned as a victim
and as the object of the Westerner’s surveillance, he frequently finds himself
compelled to react against that act of subjugation, no matter how powerless he
might be. This reaction often comes in the form of either an open resistance or a
rather covert subversion of the authority inherent in the Westerner’s ethnocentric
practices. In the case of Meriam, for instance, one can say that her secret
manipulation of the Nazarene is symbolically counter-hegemonic in the sense
that she has been actively looking for an antidote to the accursed plight that has
been imposed on her by this Western ‘master’. Finally, the third important idea
that is suggested by Bowles’ above passage has to do with the ideological
question of Othering, or what Edward Said calls: ‘Orientalizing’ the Orientals.
This point is of course related to the first one, but much more emphasis is laid
now on Bowles’ own discursive practice —construed here as part of an
Orientalizing process that reveals this author’s deep affiliation to the Western
hegemonic ideology. In this respect, the above passage itself (and the whole story,
as a matter of fact) provides a good example of how Bowles’ own eyes are keen on
capturing the signs of the Moroccans’ Otherness in an attempt to amuse his
Western audience. Indeed, by emphasizing Meriam’s ignorance and the fqihs’
queer and fatal prescription, the author is clearly aiming at foregrounding the

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exoticism and the sense of radical difference that characterize the Moroccan
universe. But in the process of such discursive representation Moroccans are
ideologically othered and constructed negatively as being culturally backward, if
not fact helplessly primitive. The idea of primitiveness is indeed what the ending
of this short story seems to stress, as the narrator closes his account by
commenting that the mysterious death of Marsh has been unwittingly
perpetrated by “a mother moving in the darkness of ancient ignorance.”vii
This “darkness of ancient ignorance’, which Bowles has certainly meant to
stand as a strong sign or marker of cultural difference between the Orient and
the Occident, is in effect what Bowles’ eyes often sought to capture and to re-
present in many of his fictional and non-fictional narratives. In his travel account
‘The Rif, To Music’, for instance, he elaborates on the Oriental phenomenon of
poisoning, or what he frequently refers to as ‘tseuheur’, by confirming that in
Morocco:

The poisons are provided by professionals; Larache is said


to be a good place to go if you are interested in working
magic on somebody. You are certain to come back with
something efficacious. Every Moroccan male has a horror of
tseuheur. Many of them, like Mohammed Larbi, will not eat
any food to which a Moslem woman has had access
beforehand, unless it be his mother or sister, or, if he really
trusts her, his wife. But too often it is the wife of whom he
must be the most careful. She uses tseuheur to make him
malleable and suggestible (109).

His case in point is Mohammed Larbi himself, his travel companion who resides
in Tangier and who has been once exposed to such devilish manipulation by his
father’s fourth wife. In what resembles a marvelous and fantastic tale from The
Arabian Nights, Bowles recounts how Mohammed has been served a tajine with a
morsel of meat within which he discovers a sewn pocket full of diverse powders
and drugs such as: “powdered finger-nails and finely cut hair—pubic hair (…)
along with bits of excrement from various small creatures (…) like bats, mice,
lizards, owls…”(109). That is why Mohammed has grown suspicious of any food

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made by a Moslem woman, and that is why he does not trust even his wife,
whom he rather beats up regularly lest she should think of manipulating him:
“She’ll never try to give me tseuheur, he boasts. I’d kill her before she had it half
made”(110).
By thus foregrounding the signifiers of strangeness, incivility and social
disharmony, which he apparently regards as being typical of Moroccan society,
Bowles is actually Orientalizing his objects of representation and emphasizing
their state of cultural difference and irretrievable backwardness. His concern is
not so much with any accurate or objective portrayal of this society and its
culture as in fact with the sense of exoticism and mystery that he wishes to
communicate to his Western readers.viii For he knows very well what these
readers expect of him, and he is only too pleased to cater for their desires,
regardless of any generalization, exaggeration or distortion which he might make
in the process of his cultural representation.
In ‘Africa Minor’, Bowles asserts that when he asks the Americans who
visit North Africa about what they have expected to find in it, their answer is
unanimously: “a sense of mystery”(68-9). And in effect, as he explains, they
usually find it, among other things, in:

the unexpected turnings and tunnels of the narrow streets,


in the women whose features still go hidden beneath the
litham, in the secretiveness of the architecture, which is
such that even if the front door of a house is open, it is
impossible to see inside (69).

What must be first noted here is that Bowles’ inquiry about the preconceived
expectations of his compatriots is itself expressive of his great attentiveness to
the tastes and the preferences of his Western audience. But the unanimous
answer he gets is equally revealing of how much this interest in the ‘mysterious’
Orient is in reality a mere “mediated desire.”ix Which means that even before
reaching their destinations these visitors are already mentally conditioned by
what they have read or heard about the Orient so that their experience of this
region seems to be performed at second hand and their emotional response is
often predictable and pre-established. For it is quite true, as Heather Henderson

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has confirmed, that there are travelers who go just “to reread an already written
landscape”, and whose “imaginations are so fired by what they have read that
their entire journey attempts to follow in the footsteps of another traveler, real or
fictional.”x And while it is beyond question that Bowles usually sought to ‘fire’ his
readers’ imaginations by means of his strange Oriental accounts, he himself was
in effect a traveler whose desire for the East was hugely mediated by the
discourses of his Orientalist predecessors. As a matter of fact, despite the
apparent uniqueness of his exilic experience in Morocco, his whole outlook and
discursive practice have been, in a way or another, strongly influenced by the
examples of these former Orientalists. Indeed, even the notable association of his
name with the city of Tangier is far from being an incontestable proof of the
exceptionality and originality of his Oriental experience. This is because more
than forty years before Bowles saw the light in 1910, his compatriot Mark Twain
had already expressed the view that: “Tangier is the spot we have been looking
for all the time… We wanted something thoroughly and uncompromisingly
foreign… and lo! In Tangier we have found it.” xi And since this significant
statement is an outright expression of the Orientalist desire of not only M. Twain
but also of several Western visitors—especially the artists, as the pronoun ‘we’
tacitly hints at—Bowles’ adherence or affiliation to the Western tradition of
Orientalism is a question that seems hardly debatable.
In a memorable description of his favourite city, Bowles has written:

If I said that Tangier struck me as a dream city, I should


mean it in the strict sense. Its topography was rich in
prototypal dream scenes: covered streets like corridors with
doors opening into rooms on each side, hidden terraces
high above the sea, streets consisting only of steps, dark
impasses, small squares built on sloping terrain (…) with
alleys leading off in several directions; as well as the
classical dream equipment of tunnels, ramparts, ruins,
dungeons, and cliffs.xii

Apart from its obviously intentional emphasis on the dreamlike topographical


make-up of Tangier, this statement is striking in its echoing of the previously-

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quoted passage that cites the elements which make Morocco and North Africa
mysteriously appealing to Bowles’ fellow Americans. In both statements indeed
one can see clear indications that there is something enigmatic about this region
of the globe and that the visitor’s ‘Western eyes’ are sorely desirous to penetrate
this secret of the East, but in vain. All such matters as “the unexpected turnings
and tunnels”, the female faces ‘hidden beneath the litham”, the open but
inaccessible homes, the “covered streets”, the “hidden terraces” and the “dark
impasses” combine to constitute the chief sites of desire which ignite the
Westerner’s curiosity and fill him with an overwhelming sense of wonder and
exotic mystery. And, in fact, any Westerner who cherishes such a desire vis-à-vis
the Orient—whether he is Bowles himself or any other American of European
outsider—can well be stigmatized as an Orientalist since both his ‘vision’ and
discourse construe this region in terms of its cultural Otherness and radical
opposition to the Occident.xiii
In the above description of Tangier, Bowles has used the ‘past’ rather than
the ‘present’ tense as he wants to focus on how this city first impressed him
during his earliest visit there in 1931. According to him, the glorious and
romantic aspect of that early colonial period has started to lose much of its lustre
ever since the independence of Morocco on account of the growing tide of
nationalistic change and Westernizing modernism. For him, this natural socio-
historical evolution of Tangier and Morocco as whole is a regrettable and
undesirable thing because, from his biased and nostalgic Orientalist perspective,
any change is detrimental to that ‘virgin’ and ideal state that has originally
enthralled him. Even if this change might mean progress and prosperity for both
Morocco and the Moroccans, it remains quite damnable, in his opinion, because,
as he himself confessed in the introduction of his travel book: “the visitor to a
place whose charm is a result of its backwardness is inclined to hope it will
remain that way regardless of how those who live in it may feel” (7). Needless to
say, such a view is not only nostalgic and egoistic but utterly ethnocentric and
reactionary too. In his appropriative Orientalist approach to Morocco and its
culture, Bowles seems ready to sacrifice anything and wishfully freeze the flow of
time and stop historical progress so that he could keep intact his visionary image
of this country and thus achieve a better and ideal gratification of his romantic
self.xiv This attitude is suggestive of how much the self-centredness of the West

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renders it imperialistically mindless of the fate and the rights of the marginalized
Rest.
In spite of what he perceives as a gradual eclipse of that platonic colonial
picture of Morocco, Bowles never completely lost his faith in the charm and the
exotic richness of this Oriental country. For he was still able to find much
wonder and fascination in some residual ‘primitive’ features, not only in
Moroccan culture but also in the overall social and topographical context of
North Africa. Hence his primitivistic interest, for instance, in the occult practices
of such native brotherhoods as “the Derqaoua, the Aissaoua, the Haddaoua, the
Hamatcha, the Jilala [and] the Guenaoua”, whose quaint rituals involve “self
torture, the inducing of trances, ordeal by fire and the sword, the eating of
broken glass and scorpions” (72). In his view, the ‘ cult-worship’ of these groups
has its roots in some ancient native religion which the “Arab conquerors”
supplanted through what he considers as a regrettable imposition of Islam on the
indigenous Berbers. But luckily for him, some vestiges of that primitive religion
are still present in those marvelous rituals, which he finds particularly
fascinating and inspiring:

To me these spectacles are filled with great beauty, because


their obvious purpose is to prove the power of the spirit
over the flesh. The sight of ten or twenty thousand people
actively declaring their faith, demonstrating en masse the
power of that faith, can scarcely be anything but inspiring.
You lie in the fire, I gash my legs and arms with a knife, he
pounds a sharpened bone into his thigh with a rock –then,
together, covered with ashes and blood, we sing and dance
in joyous praise of the saint and the god who make it
possible for us to triumph over pain, and by extension, over
death itself (72).

One may be surprised at Bowles’ insistence on the ‘great beauty’ and the
‘inspiring’ quality of these paranormal ritualistic sights. More surprising still is
his obvious inclination to identify with those native ‘worshippers’, as is implicitly
indicated by his rhetorical use of the pronouns ‘I’ and ‘we’. It is as if the mere

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observation of such fantastic scenes plunges him instinctively in a deep and
active participation, whose delight and queer exhilaration are akin to those of a
mystical experience. Yet Bowles’ case is not so much that of a mystic as that of
an Orientalist, who ideologically believes in the possibility of deriving his
aesthetic inspiration from a certain contact or identification with the elements of
a culture or society which he assumes to be primitive or strongly related with the
early stages of human civilization. Such ideology is basically racial and
Orientalist since it conceives of the East not only as a mere ‘primitive’ site where
the ‘civilized’ Westerner can metaphorically descend to see aspects of his low
origins and remote ancestral past but also as a locus of romantic desire where he
can egoistically give full vent to his wild and fantastic projections.
Doris Lessing has noted that all the Western writers who have—like herself
—written on Africa are guilty of using it as a mere peg on which they could hang
their egos.xv This observation is aptly applicable to Bowles, who actually made of
Morocco and North Africa the main field of his narcissistic desire and romantic
self-identification. This pragmatic attitude—besides being deeply Orientalist and
Africanist, in the sense that it is predicated on the othering of the sites and the
people that are classified ideologically as belonging to the margins or the Rest—is
paradoxically symptomatic of the presence of atavistic and primitive forces within
the deeper self of the Westerner himself. In other words, when an Orientalist like
Bowles is attracted by a ‘primitive’ culture or when he feels an irresistible urge to
get identified with his ‘barbarous’ Others (as in the earlier description of the cult
practices of the native Berbers), this means that there is a huge correspondence
between the presumed wild and savage character of the latter and his own
supposedly ‘civilized’ self. The ironic implication of this resides in the notion that
primitiveness is not exclusively restricted to the other; it is also a positive force
that inheres in the Westerner’s self as well as in his civilization.
At times, Bowles’ discourse tends to be less obviously Orientalist and the
viewpoint he adopts seems generally objective and ideologically neutral. In
‘Baptism of Solitude’, for instance, he even appears to be portraying North Africa
in positive and laudatory terms. Indeed, his evocative description of the charming
beauty of the North African Sahara amounts to a frank lyrical idealization of this
particular setting, which he equates with something paradisiacal. Despite his
tacit recognition of the hardships that are usually associated with the life of the

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Sahara, Bowles cannot help vizualizing this latter as the embodiment of what he
poetically terms “the absolute”. To his own question about the reason for going to
such an alien place, he rhetorically states:

The answer is that once you have been under the spell of the
vast, luminous, silent country, no other place is quite
strong enough, no other surroundings can provide the
supremely satisfying sensation of existing in the midst of
something that is absolute. The traveler will return,
whatever the cost in comfort and money, for the absolute
has no price (131).

On the one hand, such a capacity for perceiving and savouring the pleasurable
sense of ‘the absolute’ in the barren landscape of North Africa might be construed
as a clear evidence of Bowles’ authentic infatuation and positive identification
with this Oriental region. Yet, on the other hand, this same sensibility is equally
suggestive of the rather romantic quality of his Orientalism. This implies that in
spite of his unmistakable idealization of this setting, Bowles is still discursively
operating—perhaps unwittingly— within the vast framework of the Western
Orientalist tradition. In this sense, his idealistic vision of the Sahara as the locus
of the absolute is no more than a form of aestheticization that is intrinsically
related to the Orientalist ideology of appropriating Otherness. On realizing that
the alien and exotic North African Sahara is a potential source of his creative
inspiration, Bowles does not hesitate to appropriate it for his proper use and to
idealize it as one might idealize a real human lover. But without its exotic
Otherness and its association with the naturalness of a primeval landscape,
Bowles could never pay any attention to it.
In ‘A Man Must Not Be Very Moslem’ Bowles presents another instance of
his attempt to appropriate and to Orientalize the Other through his account of
his journey to Turkey, accompanied by his Moroccan friend: Abdeslam. From the
outset, this illiterate Moslem is portrayed in a rather negative light as he is
constructed as a mere puppet in the hands of his Western master. While
explaining the reason behind taking Abdeslam to Turkey, Bowles says that he
wants him to serve as a guide for him— “a kind of pass-key to the place. He

10
knows how to deal with Moslems (…). He can lie so well that he convinces himself
straitway, and he is a master of bargaining” (48). By contrast, Bowles himself
“can read signs, but can’t lie or bargain effectively” (48). From this short piece of
characterization one can see the cultural bias implicit in Bowles’ representation
of both himself and Abdeslam. While he stands here for an educated Westerner
who “can read signs” and who is morally superior as he “can’t lie”, Abdeslam is
both illiterate and devoid of scruples, despite his being “very Moslem”.
Furthermore, since Abdeslam is presented here as only one typical Moslem,
Bowles’ underlying implication is that all the Moslems are corrupt and
unscrupulous, and that is why he needs a man of their calibre to function as his
‘key’ to his dealings with them. But in addition to this essentialist generalization
about the Moslem morality, Bowles is clearly reproducing the Orientalist
ethnocentric myth or assumption that the Moslem world is so mysterious,
irrational and dark that it is hard for the ‘civilized’ Westerner to penetrate and
comprehend it adequately.
To illustrate further how Bowles’ stance is inherently Orientalist, it may be
worth adding here that ‘Abdeslam’ is only the pseudonym of Bowles’ actual friend
Ahmed Yacoubi, who in effect went with him to Turkey and was really subjected
to the scrutiny of Bowles’ masterful gaze. While referring in his autobiography to
a similar trip which both made to India, Bowles significantly exposes his
Orientalist intention as he states bluntly: “I would drop Ahmed Yacoubi, from the
Medina of Fez, into the middle of India and see what happened” (311). Thus in
both cases, whether in Turkey or in India, a Moroccan Other is appropriated like
a mere object to be “drop[ped]” in an alien environment so that Bowles could
“see” this Other’s awkward reactions. This implies that Bowles’ ‘Western eyes’
are, from the very beginning, prepared to capture any sign that might allow him
to Orientalize his Moroccan friend, who is thus systematically doomed to stand
as no more than a mindless object of Bowles’ cultural representation.

All in all, one cannot but conclude that the discourse of Bowles’ travel
accounts is in effect basically Orientalist. Though there is evidently some
variation in their representational strategies, it is quite clear that in all of them
Bowles has assumed the role of a viewer who, from his privileged position of a
subject, surveys the objects of his representation with some vested and

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appropriative interest. From this commanding position, Bowles has accordingly
operated as the monologic enunciator of an ethnocentric discourse that is
certainly intended not only to gratify his own romantic ego but also to quench the
Western readers’ thirst for the exotic and the quasi-archaic. Bowles’ overall
discursive practice thus attests to his profound complicity in the Orientalist
ideology and reflects— albeit somehow opaquely and ambivalently—his
hegemonic views about

the centrality and the superiority of the West as opposed to the marginality and
the cultural backwardness of the East and the Rest.xvi

* * * * * * *

Unlike Bowles’ Their Heads Are Green, which is composed almost entirely
of completely independent accounts, most of which are set distantly from each
other in both space and time, Akbib’s Tangier’s Eyes on America lends itself
readily to perusal and classification as both a unified travelogue and a collection
of independent travel narratives. On the one hand, given the fact that it relates
the events of a single and specific travel experience in the States during a period
of no more than three months, and given the fact that its accounts are generally
ordered in what seems a strict chronological sequence starting with the author’s
departure from his homeland and developing to end with his return to it, these
seemingly separate accounts are fairly readable as interconnected chapters or
episodes in a closely-knit travelogue. On the other hand, since each of the
included accounts enjoys a great deal of autonomy and can be thus read quite
independently and nearly without any reference to the other ones, the whole
book is equally readable in the way a collection of autonomous short stories is
read, as Mohamed Laâmiri has noted while stressing the aesthetic
distinctiveness of this travelogue.xvii
But if Akbib has succeeded in producing a highly competent travel book,
one thing is certain: he himself is not a real traveler —at least in the sense in
which P. Bowles and classical travel writers have been. According to Bowles’ own
definition, Akbib seems to be more a tourist than a traveler. In his famous novel

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The Sheltering Sky, Bowles writes the following about his protagonist Port
Moresby, who is also a writer:

He did not think of himself as a tourist; he was a traveler.


The difference is partly one of time, he would explain.
Whereas the tourist generally hurries back home at the end
of a few weeks or months, the traveler, belonging no more
to one place than to the next, moves slowly, over periods of
years, from one part of the earth to another. Indeed, he
would have found it difficult to tell, among the many places
he had lived, precisely where it was he had felt most at
home.xviii

What Bowles wants to suggest here is that the traveler seems to be always
homeless and constantly on the move through different regions of the world. By
comparison the tourist is always attached to his country and can never pass a
very long time away from it. This is precisely the case of Akbib, who not only
entitles his last account ‘Home Sweet Home’ but also goes on to confess that his
three-month absence from home is too much for him and that: “I had never been
away from home for so long! (…) And the countdown actually began the moment I
left my home that early August morning” (76).
Nevertheless, my contention is that if Akbib is not a traveler, he certainly
is not a tourist either. What he actually is is a promising post-colonial
intellectual, who has self-consciously taken advantage of his academic visit to
America, to inaugurate (at a national level) a counter-hegemonic discourse whose
main objective is the interrogation of the West’s cultural stereotypes against its
‘marginal’ Others. What the author of Tangier’s Eyes On America has wanted to
do is, in other words, to “write back” to the centre so as to contest and even
subvert its imperialist and ethnocentric ideology. In fact, the very title of the book
bespeaks this subversive intention as Tangier, which stands here for the whole
Orient and the rest of the marginal and formerly colonized world, is endowed
with agency by dint of which it is forcing the West—symbolized by America—to
assume the role of the object of its observation and surveillance. If Tangier (and
the world it stands for) has for so long been subjected to the systematic mis-

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representation of Western hegemony, now it is its turn to be both a viewer and a
representer, just as it is her duty to show that it is quite capable of declaring its
revenge if a more balanced and cosmopolitan dialogue is not substituted for the
West’s denigrating discourse of power and Otherness.
As a matter of fact, the entire book is informed by this counter-hegemonic
spirit, and most of its accounts can be read as a series of confrontations that
combine to dramatize the author’s conviction that a more rational alternative
discourse is much needed. The book seems to be generally structured in such a
way as to reflect the author’s growing disillusionment and awareness that it is
his duty and that of all post-colonial subjects/intellectuals to engage in an open
criticism and challenge of Western ethnocentrism so that a real decolonization
could be attained. In the following pages, I discuss very briefly how the author
has waged his criticism and how he has attempted to proclaim implicitly the
need for overcoming such ideological binaries as Occident/Orient or
Centre/margins.
In ‘An Early Flight-of Imagination’, the author attempts from the very
beginning to create the impression that he is about to cross the threshold of a
universe that seems somehow fantastic and incomparably different from the one
he is accustomed to. Though he has already visited the States a dozen of years
earlier, he is quite sure that a great civilizational transformation has taken place
there; his only curiosity now is to see the nature of this metamorphosis and to
assess its inevitable great “impact on the American people in terms of attitudes
and lifestyle”(11).
So it is important to notice here how the author is already positioning
himself as an ‘observer’, who is very interested in discovering and broadening his
knowledge about America and its people. More important than this is the fact
that he is going to look at America with critical eyes, rather than with any sense
of amazement or exotic wonder. For this introductory account is really full of
significant details which not only help to set the ironical tone of the whole book
but also reveal that the author has already started his criticism of America and
its civilization. In fact, his allusions to such diverse matters as Nagasaki,
Hiroshima, cowboys, and Depleted-Uranium are clearly meant to condemn, from
an early stage, the violence—if not in reality the barbarism—inherent in this
civilization. Such other references as Hollywood, Dolly, and unnatural

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procreation point out, on the other hand, to the shallowness and artificiality that
inform the life and culture of Uncle Sam’s dream-like world. So when the author
ends this opening account with his tongue-in-cheek statement: “Patience.
America was now only a flight away”(11), the reader must construe its implicit
irony as a warning that America will not be spared the pungent criticism and the
uncompromising post-colonial gaze of its prospective visitor.
In his next account, the author describes his transatlantic flight and
arrival at the New York airport metaphorically as a crossing of the cultural
boundaries that separate the metropolitan West from its under-developed
margins. ‘Marocain à New York’, with its displaced French title, is in effect a
splendid evocation of the author’s sense of displacement and cultural alienation
as soon as he sets foot on the first American airport. For his eye is quick to
discover that he and all the other non-natives are ill-treated and discriminated
against. While still queuing up to have his passport checked, he cannot help
feeling immensely overwhelmed with unease and estrangement as a result of
what could observe:

I looked about me and realized that though theoretically I was


on American soil, practically I was not. This feeling was
engendered by the architecture of the place: the sinuous
queue was checked by a line of demarcation that no one had
the right to cross without permission, and between this line
and the immigration services (…) there was a no man’s land,
symbolically significant although only about a couple of
yards wide(13-4).

In this highly symbolic passage, the author depicts in microcosm the great
unbridgeable gap—indeed, the absurd “no man’s land”—that seems to have been
created intently to demarcate the borderline between the Centre and its
peripheries. As an Oriental subject, who has just begun to tread in the New
World, the author seems to be faced from the outset with the invisible catchword
inscribed on the thick walls of that magical borderline echoing again and again:
“Eat is East, West is West” (according to the memorable opening words of
Kipling’s poem ‘The Ballad of East and West’).xix Nonetheless, being intent on

15
letting no such clichés pass unchallenged, he soon starts his series of defying
confrontations. The first duel is with the very airport officer who has been
fumbling with his passport in a haughty and snobbishly provoking manner.
When the officer asks him: “What do you do in your country?” he replies not with
a direct answer but with his own question:

“Do you speak Arabic?” I asked.


“No.”
“French?”
“Only English.”
“Pity. It’s written there. In both Arabic and French” (16).

Here, instead of being put on the defensive, the author is tactfully turning the
tables on his apparently racist interlocutor, who is significantly obliged to
recognize his ignorance of all languages except his own. The author’s last
expression of ‘pity’ is thus an eloquent subversive comment that is aptly directed
to destabilize the complacent hegemonic stance of that American.
When finally released by that officer to have his “share [of] the American
dream”, as he sarcastically puts it (17), much of what he finds is, as a matter of
fact, something of a ghastly American nightmare. First comes the prehistoric gift
—a rotten, inedible meal, offered to him exclusively as ‘a distinguished dinner’ by
a shameless stewardess. Not only does he respond by promptly remonstrating
with that Havishamian lady; the incident itself is strategically set against a
background that is counter-discursively impregnated with the loud ironic echoes
of the pompous, ethnocentric phrase: “This is America.” This idiomatic epithet is
implicitly subverted in such a way as to mean: “This is only America,” and not a
paradise of freedom, justice and equality; so if you meet with any act of racism,
discrimination or violence, you have but to accept it as a matter of course,
especially if you are a mere ‘trespasser’ from the peripheries.
Immediately after this shocking incident, the author finds himself face to
face with the nightmare incarnate, during that ‘midnight duel’, when his whole
life is put at stake by the careless mistake of a hotel receptionist. As he
trespasses innocently on the room of a ‘cow-boyish’ man, the latter mercilessly
aims his weapon at him and cries out menacingly: ‘Hands up, son of a bitch.

16
Move an inch, and I’ll blow up your brains” (28). The author has but to attempt
some narrow escape, for no explanations or apologies could avail in a moral
jungle where “the survival [is] for the quickest” (30), and where “weapons [are]
sold like a gastronomic commodity”(31). The author’s implicit question here is:
Does not barbarism, after all, lurk just beneath the polished surface of the
‘civilized’ West?
At any rate, if an armed duel is the last thing an academic visitor to the
States can conceive of implicating himself in, now in both ‘A Dogtail Party’ and
‘Camels to the university’ the atmosphere is ripe for engaging in open—but
fruitful—contests with his fellow intellectuals. In the former account, the author
is disconcerted by the request of having to describe to the Americans present in
that party what Moroccan people are like. Sensing that the question is not free of
racial and ethnocentric implications, he cannot help thinking that the man who
has asked it is a “professor of Natural History”, who “wanted to check my
description with Darwin’s theory of the origin of species in case there was a new
evolution” (41). His temptation at first is to reply that man simply by saying: “You
should go and see them yourself!” but he finally faces him with the more tactful
answer: “look at me” (42).
This defiant reply is highly strategic indeed as its implicit ideological
import is equivalent to asking: “Do you really believe that you are better or more
human than me and the rest of your cultural Others?” In evoking Darwin’s
evolutionary theory the author is in effect aiming at taking issue not only with
that man’s stereotypical attitude but also with the Western textual archives that
have nurtured the racial assumption that the Westerners occupy a higher (nay,
the highest) stage in the scale of humankind’s evolution from lower species, and
hence the apex of human civilization. He wants to show precisely that such
concepts as progress, culture and civilization are quite relative issues and that
human beings are not to be judged collectively in terms of their racial or
geographical origins. That is why when the same questioner notes irrelevantly
that people in Tunisia eat dogs in their birthdays, the author comments that
even if such an allegation is supposed to be true, then it must be only “a matter
of taste” (43). For what on earth makes dog-eaters in any marginal country less
human or less civilized than their pig- and frog-eater counterparts in the
metropolitan West?

17
In ‘Camels to the University’ the author likewise launches a vehement
challenge at the same ethnocentric attitude he has observed in his audience
while discussing a video presentation on Morocco. All of them seem to have
expected to find in Morocco no more than an exotic field where the semi-primitive
residents are engaged in eccentric practices like riding ‘camels to the university’.
What seems striking is that even though that audience has been constituted of
academics from different Western countries, they all seem to share the same
denigrating view of whatever is culturally Other. This has prompted the author to
realize that “the ‘camels to the university’ expression was not restricted to
American students; it was a universal expression —reflected in, and confirmed
by, the universal questions asked after the video show” (46).
What is shocking for the author here is the way groundless cultural
prejudices can be so unquestioningly elevated to the status of eternal and
universal truths. Still more shocking is the amount of those people’s ignorance
and misunderstanding of their Others’ culture and social reality in spite of their
own academic background. One of the things he discovers, for instance, is that
“Everything they knew about Islam was either exaggerated, distorted, or
altogether wrong” (46-7).
Yet the author does not lay the blame for such distortion and
misrepresentation on the Westerners alone; indeed the subaltern intellectuals
have the greatest share of responsibility for the Othering ideology that is
hegemonically perpetrated against their nations:

Of course it is our duty to see to it that the other should


receive the correct image of ourselves and ours. Are we
doing this? I asked myself. And if we are, are we doing it
the way it ought to be done? (47).

Such awareness of his role and responsibility later drives the author to engage in
a series of polemical duels with those Westerners in an attempt to correct their
biased attitudes and to prompt them to adopt a “cosmopolitan outlook” (47). The
result seems to be promising, since he succeeds at least

18
in challenging what they had hitherto considered universal
truths. In the course of subsequent meetings, I could descry
on their faces signs of internal debates deliberating the ethics
of the stereotypes and prejudices they had so far held as
sacred and definite (48).

After these climactic assertions, in which there is a powerful message to all


post-colonial intellectuals, the author’s narrative strategy alters noticeably from a
dramatization of duels and polemical contests to the portrayal of some aspects of
the American socio-political life and civilizational achievement. These
descriptions attempt significantly to capture both positive and negative features.
Thus without generalizing on the American character, he shows in such a piece
as ‘A Poe-tic Invitation’ how an American can be as vulgarly snobbish and
incredibly uncivil as ‘the quarter-muffin lady’, or else as admirably generous and
decently ‘poe-tic’ as El. Hartman. In ‘The Speakers’ Corner’ he also shows that
Americans can be so consciously committed as to defend such a noble cause as
anti-abortion; yet what about their reaction to more urgent and frequent crimes
like those related to drug, sex and racism? And what about the imperialistic
crimes perpetrated internationally against America’s cultural Others like the
notorious case—mentioned in ‘Home Sweet Home—of the Egyptian plane, whose
catastrophic crash is patently attributable to political reasons?
In ‘The Road to Missoula’, the author holds in high esteem the
practicality of the Americans and the efficiency of their ‘team-work’. In
‘Dreamland’, however, he launches a sweeping attack on the racism, injustice
and inequality that still bulk large on the face of the presumed civilized American
life. Neither the Red Indians nor the black Afro-Americans have yet been treated
fairly according to the ideal advocations of “the declaration of Independence,
which solemnly declares that all men are created equal!” (72). The author himself
cannot conceal his great frustration and disappointment at finding that he is
likewise not fully entitled to share, even for a while, the American Dream given
that he is a mere intruder from the West’s margins. But his shock does not seem
to be unexpected because he knows beforehand that his Otherness may not let
him fare quite freely and enjoyably in Uncle Sam’s dream world. Yet in punning
on the word ‘dream’, the underlying suggestion is that the ‘American Dream’ is

19
nothing more than a big lie and a fantastic mirage which no scrutinizing eyes—
especially Tangier’s eyes—can fail to detect in that actual dream-world.

From the foregoing discussion then, it becomes obvious that A. Akbib has
attempted to kill two birds with one stone, as the saying goes. On the one hand,
he has deliberately aimed at levelling a deep criticism of the American society
and civilization. This is clear from the way he systematically pokes fun at the
American Dream by revealing both implicitly and explicitly how the American’s
idealism is profoundly violated by the spread of violence and the reign of injustice
and inequality among all the citizens of the United States. More than this,
through his depiction of such people as the ‘quarter-muffin lady’, the professor
with the swelling “bags under his light green eyes” (42), and the woman who is so
helplessly illiterate that she asks: “whereabout is Morocco in the United States?”
(37), the author wants to warn that an American as well can be ‘othered’ and
subjected to cultural stereotyping. On the other hand, from this latter warning he
strategically intends to show to the Westerners that their former victims are quite
capable of striking back and resisting or subverting their hegemonic ideology.
But instead of lapsing to such policy of tit for tit, Akbib seems to say, let us
rather engage in a more fruitful and alternative discourse —an edifying dialogue
whose key resides in the adoption of an enlightened cosmopolitan worldview.
This is what the author himself has tried to underscore towards the end of his
book when he succinctly states in the ‘Afterworld’ that

it is a misconception to suppose that only the West is


capable of nourishing stereotypes vis à vis the East, we are
capable of that, too. But as it is our duty to stem the tide of
such negative attitudes, we can’t afford to deal with the
other by adopting what we want him to get rid of (85).

This suggests, in the last analysis, that Tangier’s Eyes on America is a warning
and an invitation at the same time. Its author seems to spell out his message to
the Centre in the following words: the borderline between such constructed
binaries as Self/Other and Centre/Margins is not difficult to cross or subvert. So
if it must be ‘eye for eye’, we are quite capable of it. Yet, is it not better for all of

20
us to dispense altogether with all discourses of Orientalism and Occidentalism so
that we could create and establish a more rational and edifying inter-cultural
dialogue?

In conclusion, it may be said that this paper as a whole has strategically


placed Bowles and Akbib ‘eye to eye’ so as to probe the extent to which the latter
author has opted for a post-colonial politics of ‘eye for eye’ vis-à-vis the cultural
constructions of Bowles and his likes. In the first section, the argument has been
mostly concerned with the delineation of how Bowles’ travel accounts are
actually enmeshed in the ideological labyrinth and the discursive structures of
Orientalism. The fact that these accounts generally reproduce the Western
hegemonic assumptions about the cultural marginality and the radical
Otherness of the Orient has logically led to the verdict that Bowles can be
justifiably stigmatized as Orientalist. By contrast, the second section has
examined the discourse of Akbib’s travel book in such a way as to highlight its
underlying counter-Orientalist meanings and strategies. At first sight, one may
note that the counter-hegemonic reverberations of this discourse are so strong
and vehement that the author could easily be taken for an ‘Occidentalist’. Indeed,
he himself has made use, both implicitly and explicitly, of a number of ideological
binary oppositions (like self/other, East/West, and periphery/center) in a
manner that has enabled him subversively to counteract the hegemonic
discourse of Orientalism with what might be justifiably termed Occidentalism.
Yet when one reads closely between the lines, one soon realizes that Akbib has
not only ‘used’ these discursive categories but he has also ‘abused’ xx them so that
he could drive home his message about the urgent need for a more rational and
enlightened discourse. His ‘tit for tat’ strategy is therefore only a means to a
mutually profitable end: the creation of a cosmopolitan inter-cultural dialogue
which is fit to make us all transcend the ethnocentric ideology inherent in such
binary categories as Occident/Orient, West/Rest, or Centre/ peripheries.

21
22
Notes

23
i

Paul Bowles, Their Heads Are Green (London: Sphere Books Ltd, 1990); and Abdellatif
Akbib, Tangier’s Eyes On America ( Imp. ADO Maroc s.a.r.l, 2001). The references to
these source books are indicated by the direct inclusion of their respective page-numbers
at the end of the quotations.
ii
While Akbib is a native of Tangier, Bowles chose this city as his exilic ‘home’, where he
lived for more than fifty-two years.
iii
It is significant to mention here that Akbib found it impossible to write creatively while
he was in America. “I was not able to write a word,” he confessed, because “ I was away
from my source of inspiration.” ‘ Home Sweet Home’, 78-9.
iv
Paul Bowles, ‘ The Eye’, Stories (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1988), 275.
v
‘Imperial Eyes’ is the main title of Mary Louise Pratt’s famous book: Imperial Eyes:
Travel Writing and Transculturation ( London: Routledge, 1992). David Spurr also speaks
of the imperial “ ideology of the gaze” and of “the penetrating inspection of the Western
eye” in The Rhetoric of Empire: Colonial Discourse in Journalism, Travel Writing, and
Imperial Administration ( Durham & London: Duke University Press, 1993), see pages 15
and 21 respectively.
vi
D. Spurr, The Rhetoric of Empire, 27.
vii
P. Bowles, ‘The Eye,’ 276.
viii
Edward Said has noted, in this connection, that the Orientalists and Africanists
usually write “with an exclusively Western audience in mind,” Culture and Imperialism
( New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1996),66.
ix
Heather Henderson, ‘ The Travel Writer and the Text: “My Giant Goes With Me
Wherever I go”,’ New Orleans Review, 31.
x
H. Henderson, 30-1.
xi
Quoted in ‘Nineteenth Century Tangier: Its American Visitors: Who They Were, Why
They Came, What They Wrote,’ Priscilla H. Roberts, Tanger 1800-1956: Contribution à
l’histoire récente du Maroc ( Rabat: Les Editions Arabo-Africaines, 1991), 138.
xii
P. Bowles, Without Stopping: An Autobiography ( New York: The Eco Press, 1985), 128.
xiii
See Edward Said’s Orientalism, 2-3.
xiv
Bowles expresses the same idea fictionally in his novel The Spider’s House (London:
Sphere Books Ltd,1955) through his protagonist John Stenham, who is obsessed- on
the eve of Morocco’ independence– with the fear that if Fez, “the great medieval city,” falls
in the hands of the nationalists,“it would cease for all time being what it was.(...). When
this city fell, the past would be finished. The thousand-year gap would be bridged in a
split second...”(167). Before this impending change, Stenham used to give the French
colonizers credit since “ they’ve at least managed to preserve Fez intact” (168).
xv
See David Ward, Chronicles of Darkness (London: Routledge, 1989), 1.
xvi
One has to be alert to the misleading ambivalence of Bowles discourse and ideological
position. Some might even argue that he is not an Orientalist but rather an anti-
Orientalist since he even repudiated his Western civilization and fell in love with
Morocco, where he became a sort of ‘insider’. He himself once stated that “Each day lived
through on this side of the Atlantic was one more day spent outside prison. I was aware
of the paranoia in my attitude and that each succeeding month of absence from the
United States I was augmenting it,” (Without Stopping: An Autobiography, 165). Yet when
asked in a 1990 interview—after more than forty years of residence in Morocco—whether
he still felt to be an American, he did not hesitate to confirm: “I am an American,”( See
Soledad Alameda, ‘Paul Bowles: Touched by Magic,” Conversations With Paul Bowles, ed.
Gena Dagel Caponi (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1993), 218). Also when
asked about the possibility of his getting integrated in the Moroccan society, he confesses
in a way that well exposes his Orientalist vision: “there is no such thing as going
backwards, really. You can’t identify with a culture that is several centuries behind what
you know (...). If a Westerner encounters an archaic culture with the idea of learning
from it, I think he can succeed. He wants to absorb the alien for his own benefit. But to
lose oneself in it is not a normal desire. A romantic desire, yes, but actually to try and do
it is disastrous,” (See Michael Rogers, ‘Conversations in Morocco: The Rolling Stone
Interview’, Conversations With Paul Bowles, 77).
xvii
In his introduction to Akbib’s Tangier’s Eyes On America, Mohamed Laàmiri wrote
that: “this is not a travel account in the classical sense of the term. [ These] pieces are a
collection of impressions and recollections of the author’s three-month visit to America in
1999. The very structure and organization of the pieces remind one of collections of short
stories” (1-2).
xviii
P. Bowles, The Sheltering Sky (London: Flamingo, 1949), 13.
xix
R. Kipling, ‘The Ballad of East and West’ A Choice of Kipling’s Verse, 111. See also E.M.
Forster’s dramatization of the same idea in A Passage To India (New York: Harcourt,
Brace & Co, 1952), 322.
xx
I have borrowed here the terms of Linda Hutcheon, who notes that “postmodern culture
uses and abuses the conventions of discourse. It knows it cannot escape implication in
the economic(...) and ideological(...) dominants of its time. There is no outside. All it can
do is question from within. It can only problematize what Barthes has called the ‘given’
or ‘what goes without saying’ in our culture.” A Poetics of Postmodernism: History,
Theory, Fiction ( London: Routledge, 1988), XIII. Regardless of any similarity that may
exist between the ‘poetics’ as well as the politics of postmodernism and post-colonialism,
it might be said that this quotation is highly suggestive of the problematics which most
post-colonial writers are faced with: like the question of writing in a foreign (colonial)
language and the use of narrative tools and discursive structures that originally belong
to the Western culture. But since there seems to be “no outside” from which they can
produce their private discourses, these authors can well “use” and “abuse” the
representational conventions of the West to “problematize” the latter’s cultural
assumptions and “question from within” those authority and hegemonic ideology by
means of which it has traditionally managed to control and denigrate its marginalized
cultural Others. (It may be worth adding, in this connection, that J.M. Coetzee’s novel:
Foe (Harmondsworth: Penguin Books, 1986) provides a good illustration of a text that
consciously deploys postmodernist techniques to articulate post-colonial concerns –
mainly that of writing back to the metropolitan Centre).

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