The rain-swollen river, "agitated ... and splashing its muddy waters," lies across the caravan's path. To the handful of Europeans in the expedition, the Oued M'cazen in northern Morocco looks impossible to ford.
But the Moroccan chiefs think differently. First a man, then a baggage mule, are sent across. At the last minute, a reed raft arrives to ferry the caravan's principals across, including the new French ambassador to the Moroccan court.
Then the "handsome Arab cavaliers" plunge into the stream, their robes held high above the water, their legs gripping their horses' flanks "like vises of bronze." Horses struggle and rear; some tumble with their riders into the chill waters. The camels and pack mules fare little better.
Finally, all scramble up the sheer, slick opposite bank. The caravan, muddy and wet but having suffered "neither drownings nor losses," resumes its journey through a countryside decked with asphodels and blue irises.
Does this sound like the opening scene from a new Indiana Jones thriller? It's not: it's real—or as "real"as it can be when recorded by the romantic and irrepressible French novelist Pierre Loti, who journeyed to the imperial cities of Fez and Meknes in Morocco's heartland 103 years ago last spring.
Loti was 39 when he took part in a French mission to the court of Sultan Moulay Hassan in April and May of 1889. Invited by ambassador-designate Jules Patenôtre to chronicle the journey, Loti, in fact, did much more than that when he wrote Au Maroc (In Morocco), published in 1890. Already a writer of some renown—he would be elected to the prestigious French Academy in 1891—Loti was uniquely prepared to observe and describe what he saw. The Morocco he discovered was one of "neither trains, nor cars, nor roads," he wrote; it was a Morocco he hoped would long remain free from all such modern developments.
Loti had first found an affinity with the Muslim world on a voyage to Algeria as a midshipman in the French navy in 1869. In fact, he wrote that those reading Au Maroc might suspect him of "partiality for Muslim countries" and admitted he had always felt he had a "half-Arab soul."
He had written nine books by the time he rode into Morocco, three springing wholly or in part from his experiences in the Muslim lands of Turkey, Senegal and Algeria. Probably the best known of those works is the first, the semi-autobiographical love story Aziyadé, set in and around the Ottoman capital, Constantinople.
By 1889, Loti had also become an avid collector of animals and artifacts acquired on his travels. His souvenirs quickly took over much of the family home in Rochefort, on France's Atlantic coast. In 1895, he purchased the house next door, and his collection spilled into it. Items ran all the way from a turtle he had picked up on his first trip to Algiers to the supposed tombstone of Aziyadé, the tragic heroine of his first novel.
The turtle is long dead and buried, but the tombstone is on display today in Loti's house, acquired by the Municipality of Rochefort in 1969 and turned into a museum. The three-story structure—modest outside but resplendent indoors with examples of the Islamic architecture, art and craftsmanship that Loti admired so much and collected so sweepingly—is to be found at 141, rue Pierre Loti.
The museum includes a suite of rooms designed by Loti whose furnishings reflect his romantic fascination with the Islamic world: the Turkish Salon, with a delicately carved cedarwood ceiling reminiscent of the Alhambra in southern Spain; the Arab Room, featuring windows of Arab design and 17th-century Turkish tiles; and the so-called Mosque. This last, in fact, is the reconstruction of part of a fire-damaged mosque in Damascus which Loti purchased in 1894 as authorities were about to raze it. He brought its stones to Rochefort, along with a team of Syrian workers who rebuilt it in a specially remodeled second-floor room.
While home between stints of sea duty, Loti spent much of his free time in those rooms, sitting on low divans, remembering and writing.
Born Louis-Marie-Julien Viaud, the youngest child of a middle-class Huguenot family, Loti's naval service provided the inspiration for many other books, including Le Manage de Loti, about Tahiti, Madame Chrysanthème (Japan) and Pêcheur d'Islande (Brittany and Iceland). Though he had long kept a diary, it was his family's financial difficulties early in his career that started him sketching and writing in French journals for a public anxious to learn about foreign lands.
Indeed, Louis Viaud received part of his pen name in Tahiti, where in 1872 he wrote some of his first articles. When "Viaud" proved hard for a Polynesian friend to pronounce, she called him "Loti," after an island flower.
It was the actress Sarah Bernhardt who first called him "Pierre." After seeing her perform in Paris while on leave in 1875, the story goes, the spellbound Loti, determined to meet her, had himself rolled up in a Persian carpet and delivered to Bernhardt's room by men in Arab dress, who unrolled it, and him, in front of her. The ploy worked, and two became fast friends.
Following his cruise to the South Seas and a period in Senegal, Loti sailed to Turkey in 1876. He went first to Salonika, now in Greece, where he met the girl whom he would call Aziyadé, and then traveled on to Constantinople. There he immersed himself in Turkish life, adopting local dress, learning the Turkish language and even taking quarters in the village of Eyüp, on the Asian side of the Bosporus. By the end of his stay in 1877, he could go where he pleased without attracting notice.
Loti's penchant for dressing in foreign costume, whether in Turkey, in Morocco or at the elaborate soirées he held in Rochefort, came partly from his desire to slip into a world other than his own. It reflected his wish to be someone other than who he was—a small-statured man who was never quite comfortable with the time and place into which he had been born—to Marie-Pascale Bault, curator of the Municipal Museums of Rochefort.
"He said of himself when he was young that he wasn't of his 'genre.' That's to say: 'I don't like myself; I don't please myself,"' she explains. "Thus his costumes, and his need, over and above costuming himself, to costume his house."
Loti returned to Constantinople many times, officially and privately, and wrote no fewer than seven books about Turkey. On his last visit, in 1913, he was welcomed by a cheering crowd when his ship docked. He was hosted at a dinner at the Topkapi Palace, a rare honor for a European, and lodged in splendor in the old part of the city that he loved. On the day he was buried in France, June 10,1923, flags flew at half-staff in Constantinople.
A globetrotter by nature as well as by profession, Loti also paid return visits to Algeria and traveled in Egypt, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, India, Oman and Persia, writing books about many of those places.
In 1894, he journeyed from Cairo through the Sinai Peninsula to Palestine, traveling in style but taking a circuitous route over little-used caravan trails. From that journey came the trilogy Le Desert, Jérusalem and Galilée. Souvenirs of the voyage, now in Rochefort, include his dashing red leather boots, no bigger than size seven.
Loti visited Persia in 1900, stopping in Oman en route from India. In Muscat, the sultan gave him a dagger and a sword from his personal collection. The writer added them to the assortment of Arab arms already in Rochefort, including a silver-plated gun and a damascened saber that were gifts from the sultan of Morocco in 1889.
In Persia, he went to Isfahan, and also visited Shiraz, Qum and Tehran, traveling in the spring, "the season of roses." Vers Ispahan (Toward Isfahan) was published in 1904. "He who wants to come with me to Isfahan in the season of roses," Loti begins, "must ride by slow stages, as in olden days.... Who comes with me toward some lost oasis in fields of white poppies and gardens ... will find an old town of ruins and mystery, its blue domes and minarets of changeless azure...."
The book's flavor, it seems, has grown finer with age. Notes Leslie Blanch in her 1985 biography of Loti, "In the hotels and bookshops of Iran, new editions of Vers Ispahan have always taken pride of place among the latest travel books and guides of the region."
In 1907, Loti visited Egypt as a guest of Khedive Abbas Hilmi and nationalist leader Mustafa Kamel, and traveled slowly up the Nile by boat from Cairo to Aswan. That trip gave birth to La Mort de Philae (The Death of Philae), referring to an ancient island temple in Upper Egypt that was being flooded as a result of construction of a dam. In the book, Loti laments the modernization of Egypt and decries the invasion of pampered tourists, whom he calls "Cookis" and "Cookesses" after their sponsor, the English travel company Thomas Cook and Son.
In Cairo, Loti prevailed upon authorities to open the Egyptian Museum for him at night so that he could view the exhibits by candlelight. He was certain he would find himself there as he was in an earlier life, in Pharaonic form, and finally he did: in the mummy of Ramses II. Loti went so far as to have his profile printed on a postcard alongside that of the remains of the 14th-century BC Egyptian ruler, to show their resemblance. At the top of the card, he wrote: "Alas! It is him at the left whom I will soon resemble!"
Loti's world-weariness in Le Mort de Philae contrasts markedly with his sense of wonder—some might call it naivete—in Au Maroc. The latter, sometimes more poetry than prose, was Loti's first pure travel book, and as such it contained many of the themes he developed later. In its introduction, he urges readers seeking a political study of Morocco to look elsewhere. Neither, he writes, will they find a treatise on how the country can join the "modern movement."
Instead, he presents Morocco as an unspoiled land, an almost-Eden still free of foreign influences, a country that is "silent, wild, inundated with light," where the ground is covered with "a carpet of flowers" and where even the wild animals don't fear him. Loti cites examples of the severe justice of the sultan, and doesn't hesitate to describe unattractive urban landscapes. But he focuses his heart on the country's charms, not its obstacles.
He marvels at the whirlwind of fantasias —the great, galloping, gun-firing Moroccan celebrations—that greet the official caravan he is part of on its 12-day journey from Tangier to Fez. He is awestruck by the openness of the countryside and the simplicity of life, "the same today as it was a thousand years ago."
He compares the fine Moorish architecture he finds in Fez and nearby Meknes with that of the Alhambra in southern Spain. The masterpieces in Andalusia lie "under a layer of dust," he feels, but in Morocco they seem to him to be alive "in all the splendor of their new-made freshness."
In Fez, where the French ambassador presents his credentials to the sultan, Loti occupies a house far removed from the rest of the French delegation, to better taste, feel and see the city and her people. Wearing local clothes, he disappears into the crowds. He is happiest when he is greeted as a native on the street—and, as an author, he is at his best when painting word portraits of what he sees there.
In Fez, white-veiled women watching a procession look, from a distance, like "heaps of white pebbles" atop the city's ramparts. Walking through the labyrinth of streets of the old town is tantamount to "being at the bottom of a well... one gets only glimpses of the sky and it's impossible to orient oneself in the intractable web." In Meknes, the interior of a richly furnished house is spotlighted by sunlight streaming through stained-glass windows in striking rays of blue, yellow and red.
Toward the end of his month-long stay in Morocco, he writes: "Soon these familiar things will seem very astonishing, when I'm back in the modern world and I reconstruct them from afar."
Finally, the author begs Morocco to reject "progress" in order to hold tightly to its heritage. He pleads with the country to "turn your back to Europe and seal yourself in the past."
So, was Loti just a raving romantic, living blindly in a past that suited him better than his own time? The answer depends upon whom you consult.
His patron, Ambassador Jules Patenôtre, quickly distanced himself from Loti's appeal, in Au Maroc, against progress for Morocco, although he expressed support for "the thought which dictated your book." The critique by Louis Lyautey, the first resident-general of the French protectorate in Morocco, which ran from 1912 to 1956, was less diplomatic: Au Maroc, he said, depicted "Loti's Morocco" and bore no resemblance to the real thing. Modern critics call Loti an orientalist, and cite as outdated his "exoticism" and the central importance he gave to physical sensations, instincts and impulses, though they also admire his talents as a penetrating and accurate observer and a limpid stylist.
French artist Henri Matisse, who visited Tangier twice in 1912 and painted some strikingly colorful canvases there, puts Loti in another light. Through reading Au Maroc, Matisse said, he had gained both a familiarity with Morocco's landscapes and an appreciation of Loti's powers of description, whose brilliance he only realized when he witnessed similar scenes firsthand.
A romantic, for certain, then; outspoken, no doubt. But blind, never.
Arthur Clark, a Dhahran-based staff writer for Saudi Aramco, recently read Pierre Loti as a re-introduction to Morocco nearly 20 years after he left that country.