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 Tangiers 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 books 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 Wests hegemonic constructions.
To support the argument that Akbibs discourse in Tangiers 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 Meriams 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 Marshs 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 girls 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 necessaryiv
If the Nazarenes Eye with its presumed harmful effect on the innocent native childis 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 colonizers/Orientalists 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 writers 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 Westerners 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 Westerners 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 authors 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 Meriams ignorance and the fqihs queer and fatal prescription, the author is clearly aiming at foregrounding the
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 represent 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 fathers 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 hairpubic 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
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: Shell never try to give me tseuheur, he boasts. Id 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