In Morocco — George Orwell, Bread, and Stirrings of Post-Colonialism

George Orwell

George Orwell spent the winter of 1938-1939 in Morocco, for reasons of poor health. Author of stinging commentaries on colonial imperialism [Full-text: Burmese Days (1934) and “Shooting an Elephant” (1936)], as well as 1984, Animal Farm, and Down and Out in Paris and London, Orwell turned his blazing pen on French Morocco that winter. The following short passage comes from his essay, “Marrakech.” (Please remember that Orwell is writing a blistering indictment of colonialism, in spite of the way the paragraph reads below. I can’t encourage you enough  to go to the link provided and read the whole piece.)**

When you walk through a town like this [Marrakech] — two hundred thousand inhabitants,  of whom at least twenty thousand own literally nothing except the rags  they stand up in — when you see how the people live, and still more how easily they die, it is always difficult to believe that you are walking among human beings. All colonial empires are in reality founded upon that fact. The people have brown faces — besides, there are so many of them! Are they really the same flesh as yourself? Do they even have names? Or are they merely a kind of undifferentiated brown stuff, about as individual as bees or coral insects? They rise out of the earth, they sweat and starve for a few years, and then they sink back into the nameless mounds of the graveyard and nobody notices that they are gone.

And even the graves themselves soon fade back into the soil.

Sometimes, out for a walk, as you break your way through the prickly pear, you notice that it is rather bumpy underfoot, and only a certain regularity in the bumps tells you that you are walking over skeletons.

I was feeding one of the gazelles in the public gardens.

Gazelles are almost the only animals that look good to eat when they are still alive, in fact, one can hardly look at their hindquarters without thinking of mint sauce. The gazelle I was feeding seemed to know that this thought was in my mind, for though it took the piece of bread I was holding out it obviously did not like me. It nibbled rapidly at the bread, then lowered its head and tried to butt me, then took another nibble and then butted again. Probably its idea was that if it could drive me away the bread would somehow remain hanging in mid-air.

An Arab navvy working on the path nearby lowered his heavy hoe and sidled towards us. He looked from the gazelle to the bread and from the bread to the gazelle, with a sort of quiet amazement, as though he had never seen anything quite like this before. Finally he said shyly in French:

I could eat some of that bread.”

I tore off a piece and he stowed it gratefully in some secret place under his rags. This man is an employee of the Municipality.

The Otherization of colonized people made colonialism possible, yes  indeed. Yes.

And now? Post-colonial studies (or theory) attempt to deconstruct all the nuances and facets of colonialism. One now-classic (and controversial) interpretation of colonialism comes in Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak’sCan the Subaltern Speak?” (1988).  As for the food question … good question.

Pre-Colonial Morocco, 1911
Pre-Colonial Morocco, 1911

**For the next few weeks, I am going to be on a “working vacation,” so my posts will be somewhat more abbreviated. I will still provide you with something substantial to chew on, though!

© 2009 C. Bertelsen


5 Comments Add yours

  1. cbertel says:

    Yes, he worked there — Down and Out in Paris and London is really quite a read.


  2. cbertel says:

    Thanks, Mae. I’ve always been an Orwell fan.


  3. mae says:

    See —
    — you can read Orwell’s diaries from his trip to N.Africa — they are published every day on the day he wrote. Today, July 2,1939, he’s back in England; he wrote about the potential occupation of Danzig by the Germans and also — “Both the hens guarding chicks have begun laying eggs & the younger one showed a tendency to stray away.” But the earlier entries go back to the trip you mentioned. I have enjoyed them in “real” time for around the last year.


  4. Louise says:

    And “chew” I will. Enjoy your “working” vacation Cynthia. I’m off to read the rest of that piece.

    If I recall correctly, Orwell worked in the sweltering kitchens at Maxim’s while in Paris.


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