Tang of Orientalism

In his book blog “Beat and dust: Tangier’s tang of history“, published in the Guardian newspaper, 23 November, 2010, Sam Jordison explores the counter cultural heritage of Tangiers, which was once a hub for experimental writers Like Paul Bowles, Jack Kerouac and William S Burroughs, Kenneth Williams and Andre Gide.

The writer has read some of the literature set or written there and went to Morocco to look for that fictitious landscape, the Tangiers of the mind. There is so much to take issue with in his colonialist, eerie piece, but I will concentrate on the following extract:

˜Then there’s the Hotel el-Muniria, where Burroughs did most of his work on the Naked Lunch. When I visited, it was shuttered up. It looked like a place that has never really seen better days and may not see many more days of any kind at all. But the fact I couldn’t get in didn’t matter: there was more than enough atmosphere just from walking down the street, with its tang of urine and fear, and dark corners that made the hairs on the back of my neck stand up even in the midday sun. The place hummed with the paranoia and disgust of Burroughs’s sick masterpiece, which made me feel better equipped to understand the state of mind that could produce such a book.”

My experience of Hotel el-Muniria is totally different. The fact that I could get in did matter because I wouldn’t have slanted it without experiencing it first. We arrived in the afternoon, siesta time, and the place was quiet. There was a magical hush in the garden yet we were welcomed warmly by the receptionist and waiters. I still remember clearly that view. How rich was the architecture and the interior design! How beautiful the tea glasses and how delicious the gazelle horns! How unique their civilisation! The air was warm when we walked out and laden with the scent of mint, dates and orange blossom. The streets were welcoming.

There was no tang of urine or fear and the place did not hum with paranoia or disgust. The paranoia experienced by Burrough was not related to the sedate landscape and its people, but to the amount of drugs he had injected and smoked. My copy of the Naked Lunch, given to me by playwright Trevor Griffiths, is old, published by Corgi in 1968. The book is structured as a series of loosely-connected vignettes. The reader follows the narration of junkie William Lee, who takes on various aliases, from the US to Mexico, eventually to Tangier and the dreamlike Interzone. The vignettes (which Burroughs called “routines”) are drawn from Burroughs’ own experience in these places, and his addiction to drugs, heroin, morphine, and while in Tangier, ˜Majoun”, a strong marijuana mixture. The image of Morocco portrayed by Burrough is mostly a product of a drugged mind and unrelated to its complex reality then.

The location and the Moroccan people are incidental to Burrough and Jordison. The writing is mainly preoccupied with the self. The Moroccans, although the villains of the piece by implication, are consequential and neither the subject nor the object of the blog, which belongs to a long tradition of representing the other to consolidate your own subject status. The dominant subject in the above passage is built on conceptual binary of verbal fluency-power versus mutism-subalternity.

The Moroccans were muted and cannot speak in a way that would carry any sort of authority or meaning for Jordison without altering the relations of power/knowledge that constitute it as subaltern in the first place. The subaltern is invisible to the writer therefore it was˜disappeared”. The country of Morocco and its people are irrelevant and are neither the subject nor the object of Jordison’s blog. The ˜cruel” landscape was conveniently depopulated so he could represent it freely and to his own ends. The inability to see the native or engage with him/her reeks of Orientalism. Plus plus ça change plus c’est la même chose.

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