“Les Marocaines chez elles” by Edith Wharton (Section I)

The following text is my translation of part I of “Les Marocaines chez elles,” a piece written in French by Edith Wharton and published in the French periodical La Revue des Deux Mondes on June 15, 1918. One year later, Wharton published in English four essays about Morocco in Scribner’s Magazine which, along with an additional essay published in volume IX of the Yale Review, were then published together as the book In Morocco by Charles Scribner’s Sons in 1920. I was surprised that these French and English texts were at many parts distinct, since all these texts are accounts of Wharton’s three weeks of travel in Morocco starting in the fall of 1917. According to Frederick Wegner in his essay “Edith Wharton on French Colonial Charities for Women: An Unknown Travel Essay” (Tulsa Studies in Women’s Literature 17.1 [spring 1998]: 11-21), this tour was organized by the French government, who had colonized Morocco and recently suppressed a rebellion. Keeping in mind that this text was written from a colonial mindset, please note that several aspects of this text would be considered racist, including a few words and phrases that are kept here because they also appear in the English text In Morocco.

For the most part, the two dictionaries used in this translation are the modern WordReference English-French Dictionary, and the 19th century Littré, both of which are available online. I am not especially fluent in French, so there are definitely several errors in this translation. Errors or uncertainty in the translation are obvious in many places, but keep in mind that my lack of knowledge will have an effect throughout this text. Parentheticals in this text explain the meanings of some uncommon words. I have kept in French some words which do not seem to have an accurate enough English translation, where acceptable. The sentence structure has been changed in most sentences, since many of the French sentences would seem to run on too long if translated directly to English. Any French speakers are welcome to leave their comments on how I can improve. The original French text had no images. Images in this translation and their captions were taken from the Project Gutenberg text of In Morocco. The images do not necessarily depict the scenes described in this translated text, but hopefully help paint a better picture of them.

Between the unmoving ranks of the royal guard, we traverse the sun-scorched courtyard. At the entrance of a door, a negresse waits to lead us through another courtyard that is completely tiled in multicolored ceramics – the courtyard preceding the ceremony rooms of the Grand Chief.

From a photograph by Felix, Marrakech
Marrakech—the great court, Palace of the Bahia

We pass a third door guarded by the head Eunuch, a great negro with eyes of enamel, and then a labyrinth of indoor courtyards where the sound of water fountains and myriad colors surround slaves in dull clothes, who line up against the wall to let us pass. Of the large rooms overlooking these halls – the kitchens, the bureaus, and wash-houses – one cannot know. Curious, the negresses watch us from the threshold, having run up at the sound of our arrival. Here, in a corner, sitting on a bench decorated with mats, a slave is watching three of four grey parrots perched on top of their cages. At the end of another hallway, we walk up a very narrow wooden staircase.

On the first floor, a young woman appears, graceful and adorned with jewelry, wearing a festive dress and babouches (“Turkish” slippers) embroidered with gold. Cheerfully, she offers a hand and regards us with great welcoming eyes. She accompanies us, all the while chirping words that are, alas! incomprehensible. At the second floor, a second person appears. This time, it is a little creature – a young, gay, blushing girl wearing a splendid caftan of red brocade spangled with silver threads and a belt made with the gold cloth of Fez, tight as a corset, and adorned with a diadem bejeweled with stones. She also takes us by the hand, smiles at us, and accompanies us with the pretty warbling of a bird. Then a third joins us on the third floor. Guided and surrounded, we are finally met with a great “mirador” at the top of the palace where, through the many windows, one can see the dusty plains bordered by red walls, the white city over those walls, and the shining blue-green Atlantic.

But here still more pretty young women arrive – women of a particular beauty which I have not seen elsewhere in the course of my travels. Where did they come from, these women with round faces, cheekbones gently pronounced, beautiful, slightly slanted Asiatic eyes tinted brown and rose like ripe pomegranate? Their strong red lips open in a smile infinitely sweet, revealing pretty, even teeth. Matching supple hands reveal themselves from the heavy sleeves of their caftans. They all have the same quick and lively movements, a little hindered by their special dresses which they have donned for the grand traditional festival. They will keep these dresses on until evening because the Master fetches the singers to brighten his afternoon.

I try, while exchanging compliments through our interpreter, to note down the details of their dresses. But how shall I describe the complex jumble of the gauze thrown on the heavy brocades? The lovely movements made with thick silk ribbons in large gold loops which are slipped under their underarms and lift their heavy sleeves? The fullness of the beautiful fabric, with folds like those in a Veronese painting, high above the large rigid belts? And, above all, the incredible complexity of their hair? Their black hair, curled and shaved at the bulge of the forehead, makes only a black line below the gold diadem or cloth band that a jewel holds just above their arched brows. The heavy scaffolding of black braids is mixed with black wool, and outlined behind the head is the contour of a double arch, the top of which is veiled by a coil of light cloth on a silk headscarf in dazzling colors. Braids fall over every other part of their face; over their ears, which are laden with heavy earrings, coral pendants, big gold rings with emeralds or pearls, “bijoux de juifs” (jewels of the Jews) made in the blue Mellahs (Jewish quarters) of white cities. The countless necklaces fall on the gleaming of rich caftans, above the little pink, blue, or white gauze frills in the style of Watteau. On a narrow neck of black velvet: necklaces of gold, amber, coral, eccentric combinations of amulets and rough stones crafted in the same goldsmithery in the Mellah. All this forms an ensemble of extraordinary radiance, where the pink gauze blends with the blue and gold brocade, the white gauze with old rose gauze and violet or green-apple belts. Through the group weaves in and out a little négrillon (negro boy) with the sweet little face of Zamor, whose violet silver-spangled caftan is encircled by a beautiful raspberry-pink silk scarf.

The young women have removed their gilded babouches at the entrance to the mirador. Light and silent on their henna-decorated feet, they guide us towards the divans which surround the inside of the room. With every movement, a subtle scent wafts from their draperies – the smells of ambergris, sandalwood, and rosewater. They constantly watch us with their large eyes, gentle and curious, studying the details of our poor tailleurs (suits), and our ridiculous shoes, while their feet, the color of écorce de grenade (dried and ground pomegranate rind used as a beauty product) appear under the voluminous folds of their beautiful dresses. Without doubt, they find our style unusual, and envy our shoddy wool dresses, our shirt-blouses, and all that which in our dress is practical and dull, comparable to the least splendid of their attire. The same childish instinct that arises in us, us Western and emancipated women, towards all the extravagance of fashion irrespective of its ugliness or poorness, that instinct without doubt makes these dream-like princesses desire to exchange their gilded slippers for our yellow leather “Oxfords,” their luminous brocades for our sad woolens. We realize that what they envy the least, is perhaps the best of what we have – the more understated elegance of jewelry, the raffinements du linge (refinements in under-garments) which one does not see.

The mirador where we sit opens onto a large room, a long gallery towering over all the other buildings of the palace. On one side the windows overlook the sea, and on the other the white city and the red plain. At the border of the gallery lies a ceremonial bed raised on a platform. The two rooms are paved in ceramic tiles on which modern Moroccan rugs of violent tones are thrown. Divans-matelas (Upholstered divans) are arranged along the walls, covered in a type of brown canvas and large stripes. An uncountable number of cushions are piled up on top, the majority in white muslin covers. Truth be told, it is a cloth used for the humblest curtains in Europe. Some seats are grouped together on the rug. They are gilded in a vaguely Louis-Philippe style, maybe Italian or Spanish, and covered in a light lampas (a type of silk fabric). But the main ornament of the two rooms is a long series of clocks aligned against the walls. Clocks have forever been the preferred ornaments of Muslim palaces; everywhere, clocks symbolize luxury and the refinement of the master of the house. But that which distinguishes the clocks which surround the two rooms where we find ourselves is their gigantic, disproportionate size. The clocks have large English or Dutch pendulums that are elongated and monumental, made to hover over the ground in halls or on the landings of stairs. Among these, one finds others with a massive Louis XIII-style pendulum in front, which is ordinarily placed on furniture or a hearth. The latter, to an equal extent, are inordinately large, and when placed on the ground appear like an arrangement of a row of cabinets. Other than the clocks, there are miscellaneous ornaments in the two rooms, in addition to a single banal bronze statue.

But here now the young women wave to us to come to the windows of the narrow loggia (a room with open sides) which circles the mirador, where one can look over the main courtyard and the area surrounding the palace. These windows are made of stained glass of bright, brilliant tones, like the rug thrown under our feet. Someone motions us to open them, but carefully, without letting too much of ourselves be seen. Then the small group retreats giggling to the middle of the room, so as to not be seen over the shoulders of the roumi (non-Muslim) women leaning outside without precaution.  

Beyond the walls of the courtyard, on the side with large traditional tents, a cloud of red dust rises up. Through the veil of dust, we make out a deployment of the last tribe, galloping below their flag towards the doors of the city, the ceremony having ended. Then the dust falls, leaving in the atmosphere of overwhelming heat only a trail of pink vapor, a slow white procession heading towards us. On the stark hills around the palace, bursts of artillery crack, and the solemn march continues through the smoke from the rooms perched on the banks.

From a photograph from “France-Maroc”
A clan of mountaineers and their caïd.

The doors of the main courtyard open, and the bosses and chamberlains, grand dignitaries of the house, rush over. All draped in white, they lower the stirrup of the Master, the border of their clothes snowy. Then the procession crosses the ceramic-tiled courtyard interior on foot, between two rows of servants, soon diving into the arc beyond the ceremonial gallery at the bottom.

From a photograph from “France-Maroc”
The Sultan entering Marrakech in state

Suddenly, somebody gestures again, and we return to the loggia. An older woman, who would appear aged in our country, but who is maybe not even fifty, has just arrived. We know that it is the mother of the Master of the house. Even if we had not known, we would have divined that we had found ourselves in the presence of a person of exalted rank.

Respectfully and affectionately, the young women encircle her, and she comes towards us. She is small, stocky, brunette, and wrinkled as an old pomegranate, but still noble and majestic under her hairstyle of multiple gauze headscarves, which appear like a crown. To each of us she extends her small oily hand. Then she sits and chats, serene and cheerful, but so alert, so humane, in comparison to the others, these young creatures all the same and childish, who we always seem to see through gauze as deceptive as a stage set!

The old princess is Circassian. She comes from the country of beautiful women who have always been the most sought after for princely harems; and perhaps she also had once been beautiful. That which is striking in her now is above all the alert intelligence in her face, both shrewd and benevolent, the sparkle of those black eyes, the ironic smile and lenience in her wrinkled lips. It is above all the dignity of the old woman who does not seek to feel young, but who carries with pride the mark of years of experience. It is said she is a remarkable woman, a guide listened to respectfully by her sons; and one can tell that her intelligence is always practiced, never left to stultify in the soft torpor of the harem. It is then that we feel, us other Westerners, suddenly so close to her, save for the obstacle of an unknown language: a brain lives behind this beautiful front buried in veils, and regards us through those quick eyes, like two open windows in the impenetrable wall of the seraglio.

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