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Volume 46, Number 1January/February 1995

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Coming Up for Air in Morocco

Written by Daniel Pawley
Illustrated by Norman MacDonald

At the height of the Cold War, George Orwell, "one of England's great and necessary writers," again became a major topic of conversation. His apocalyptic novel Nineteen Eighty-Four and his savage satire Animal Farm left the impression that he might prove to be the 20th century's chief social forecaster. Might Big Brother become fact in the century's closing decades? And might Newspeak and Doublethink indeed vitiate human language and memory in an information-crazed world?

Then communism collapsed—on a global scale—and the dangers Orwell described seemed to disappear. His reputation as a social forecaster became that of a warning intellect, but his admonitions are valid today. Orwell's fear for the language remains relevant amid the din and ambiguity of political rhetoric and advertising lingo. So do his warnings about creeping totalitarianism, though on a different scale today than when Nineteen Eighty-Four was published nearly 50 years ago. Reading him can help us move toward a clearer understanding of the post-war and post-Cold War world.

Of course, every good writer is more than the sum of the ideas in his greatest book, and George Orwell is more than the gloomy pessimist who wrote Nineteen Eighty-Four.

For another picture of Orwell, we can look at him just 10 years before that book appeared, when he was basking in the pleasure of the Moroccan winter, spending six months in Marrakech, resting, observing, thinking and writing. What he accomplished there helps round out our picture of the century's compassionate social critic.

Orwell's Morocco interval is most significant because it marks his transformation from a conventional novelist distinguished by empathy with the oppressed to a powerful and astute political writer.

His best earlier books—Down and Out in Paris and London (1933), Burmese Days (1934) and The Road to Wigan Pier (1937)—reflect the sensibilities of a compassionate, yet objective, observer of the working-class poor. Books that followed his Moroccan stay include his brilliant portrait of the Spanish Civil War, Homage to Catalonia (1938), and Coming Up For Air (1939), a novel written while Orwell was in Morocco. Both books represent his transitional period and in many ways foreshadow the coming of his masterpieces, Animal Farm (1945) and Nineteen Eighty-Four (1948), which together have sold more than 20 million copies in 30 languages worldwide.

While in Morocco, Orwell also produced a significant essay, "Marrakech" (1939), which has frequently found its way into anthologies and even into textbooks on essay writing. In addition, he wrote several book reviews whose content reveals his maturing political views, and commentators have called Coming Up For Air Orwell's most fully realized novel. The Morocco interval was a fruitful one, despite the fact that it began as a sabbatical.

Orwell suffered from lung disease most of his life, and after his first diagnosed attack of tuberculosis in 1938, his physician recommended that he winter in a temperate climate. Funded anonymously by another British writer, Orwell and his wife traveled south that September, taking up residence in the Rue Edmond Doutte on the outskirts of Marrakech.

Orwell's letters from Morocco yield poignant observations of Marrakech which, like his early books, pay special attention to the plight of the working class. Repeatedly he stressed that he wished to make contact with the local people, but that his situation as a tourist kept him from working alongside them and identifying with them. He wrote on his arrival: "One thing I have always believed...is that one really learns nothing from a foreign country unless one works in it, or does something that really involves one with the inhabitants. This trip is something quite new to me, because for the first time I am in the position of a tourist. The result is that it is quite impossible...to make any contact with the Arabs, whereas [under other circumstances] I should immediately have the entree to all kinds of interesting society, in spite of the language difficulty."

He knew, from his days as a struggling writer on the bum in Europe, that to know people involves working with them, sharing their struggles. This was a central theme in Down and Out in Paris and London, where Orwell's narrator finds himself on society's bottom rung, struggling to survive as common laborer. It is also a theme in other early work.

"I am as usual taking careful notes of everything I see," he wrote in Marrakech, "but am not certain what use I shall be able to make of them afterwards." But his notes, limited though he felt they were, offer revealing glimpses of Marrakech between World Wars I and II.

The poverty, for instance, seemed worse than what he had observed in Burma. And, as it did in other western writers with social concerns, the poverty oused in Orwell scorn for the ruling power. As E.M. Forster had condemned the British presence in Egypt years earlier (See Aramco World, January-February 1988), Orwell attacked France's hold on Morocco with intensity.

He wrote in November 1938, "The French are evidently squeezing the country pretty ruthlessly. They absorb most of the fertile land as well as the minerals, and the taxes seem fairly heavy considering the poverty of the people. On the surface their administration looks better than, ours and certainly rouses less animosity in the subject race, because [the French] have very little colour-prejudice. But I think underneath it is much the same."

An intriguing result of such observations—and one that could come only from Orwell's politically sensitive mind—was his perspective on a possible Arab revolt against the French. Any uprising among the Moroccan population, he believed, would be unproductive: Since any hint of political activity was suppressed by the ruling power, a revolt could amount only to a national expression of defiance.

It was his observations of the colonial situation in Morocco that gave rise to Orwell's essay "Marrakech." Written with clarity and controlled passion, "Marrakech" again shows Orwell's attention to the dignity of workers. "A carpenter sits cross-legged at a prehistoric lathe," he writes, "turning chair-legs at lightning speed. He works the lathe with a bow in his right hand and guides the chisel with his left foot, and thanks to a lifetime of sitting in this position his left leg is warped out of shape. At his side his grandson, aged six, is already starting on the simpler parts of the job."

Beyond the dignity, however, Orwell also shows us despair. Workers struggle to grind out an income, producing goods only the wealthy will enjoy, while the poor themselves remain invisible. "All people who work with their hands are partly invisible," Orwell writes, "and the more important the work they do, the less visible they are." This theme pervades Orwell's early work.

And in Morocco, the invisibility of the poor to their colonial masters is compounded by the fact that the people have brown skin. Here Orwell sounds an impressive theme: that Western imperial powers exist and rule because of the presence of the poor, dark-skinned, working class. Orwell: "When you walk through a town like this...,when you see how the people live, and still more easily how 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."

We oppress because we do not see, Orwell believed, and we do not see because skins are dark and people are poor. Thus, the imperial power's activities are based on the most insidious prejudice, and on the perception that the colonized people "are... merely a kind of undifferentiated brown stuff, about as individual as bees or coral [polyps]." With this in mind, Orwell wanders about Marrakech observing locals who have been recruited by the French for infantry duties. A young Senegalese marches in step with a thousand other non-French soldiers, crammed into shoes that are too small, wearing a helmet that is too large, his individuality sacrificed to his French military uniform and the metaphorical uniform that is his non-French dark skin.

"How much longer can we go on kidding these people?" Orwell writes. "How long before they turn their guns in the other direction?"

The fact that Orwell asked such questions in "Marrakech" ties the essay to his earlier work on oppression and poverty. But "Marrakech" also foreshadowed future work. We have faint glimpses of his classic animal allegory, for instance.

Animal Farm was still six years in the future, yet in "Marrakech" Orwell displays his close attention to the personalities of animals, and their significance in illustrating social issues. While feeding bread to a gazelle in the public gardens of Marrakech, Orwell described how the animal took the bread but butted away the giver. Another time, he offered a description of a donkey that paralleled his view of the human situation. "It follows its master like a dog," he narrates, "and does not need either bridle or halter. After a dozen years of devoted work it suddenly drops dead, whereupon its master tips it into the ditch...."

Clearly, Orwell's routine observations of animals were being stored up for the indictment of Soviet communism that he was to write in Animal Farm. As early as 1937, on his return from the Spanish Civil War, he had equated the relationship between man and beast with that between the wealthy and the workers.

He had written, "I saw [in Spain] a little boy, perhaps 10 years old, driving a huge cart-horse along a narrow path, whipping it whenever it tried to turn. It struck me that if only such animals became aware of their strength we should have no power over them...."

While "Marrakech" connects Orwell's early and later work, most of his other Moroccan writing fits better into the later category. In his essay "Why I Write," he had pointed out that his involvement in the Spanish war had radically changed his outlook. Orwell's book commentaries and his novel Coming Up For Air, written in Morocco, strongly reflect this political reorientation. In his review of Bertrand Russell's Power: A New Social Analysis, for instance, he attributes the rise of Hitler, Mussolini, Franco and Stalin to "bully worship," and argues that "under various disguises, [it] has become a...religion."

Orwell expressed his fear of totalitarianism, before writing Nineteen Eighty-Four, in the pages of Coming Up For Air. Bertrand Russell, repaying Orwell's review of Power, reviewed the novel himself. He wrote: "Depicts with very great power the horrors of a well-established totalitarian regime of whatever type. It is important that the western world should be aware of these dangers, and not only in the somewhat narrow fear of Russia." Wittingly or unwittingly, one of the century's most prominent intellectuals and one of its most insightful novelists had come to the same conclusions about the political horrors of the time.

To appreciate Coming Up For Air , it is helpful to note Orwell's mind-set while he was living in Moroa . His letters, written in Marrakech between Septembt 26,1938, and March 5,1939, reflect a common anxiet) about the threats of war and fascism. Fresh from the Spanish Civil War, where he had taken a bullet in the throat, Orwell's already gloomy nature was further darkened by an impending second world war.

To Jack Common, his friend and fellow writer, Orwell complained: "I don't know whether or not you will be fitting on your gas mask by the time this gets to you, but things look pretty bad and are perhaps even worse than I think.... If war does break out it is utterly impossi-bje to foresee what will happen.... The whole thing seems to me so utterly meaningless that I think I shall just concentrate on remaining alive."

If war does break out, then what? The question obsessed Orwell as he wrote his essay and book reviews, and as he created Coming Up For Air. If war comes and totalitarianism wins Europe, what will life be like under a Hitler or a Stalin? Like Nineteen Eighty-Four, Coming Up For Air explores this question.

The novel tells the story of George Bowling, a middle-aged English insurance salesman who revisits Lower Binfield, the setting of his boyhood. In a familiar innocence-lost portrait—like Thomas Wolfe's You Can't Go Home Again , also published in 1939—Bowling discovers that his hometown has changed beyond recognition. "Where was the town I used to know?" Bowling asks. "It might have been anywhere. All I knew was that it was buried some where in the middle of that sea of bricks."

Regretting the loss of his beginnings, Bowling finds his experience intensified by threats of war. Bombers fly overhead and the reader senses that the entire country will one day soon be blown to bits. One recalls Orwell's fear of war while in Marrakech. Then, toward the end of the novel, we discover an intense passage that sounds like a preface to Nineteen Eighty-Four . The fear of war, as revealed by Bowling's consciousness, comes first:

War! I started thinking about it again. It's coming soon, that's certain. But who's afraid of war? That's to say, who's afraid of the bombs and the machine guns? "You are," you say. Yes I am, and so's anybody who's ever seen them.

And then as the narrator's voice flattens out, we seem to hear Orwell's own voice and its familiar tone, warning of the world to come:

But it isn't the war that matters, it's the after-war. The world we're going down into, the kind of hate-world, slogan-world. The coloured shirts, the barbed wire, the rubber truncheons.... And the processions and the posters with enormous faces, and the crowds of a million people all cheering for the leader.... It's all going to happen.

That passage, written in Morocco, is as dark as anything Orwell ever put on paper. And it shows where his imagination was headed: away from the streets of poverty, past the wars, away from the surface oppression of earlier works, and all the way to the dark world of Nineteen Eighty-Four. It is perhaps owing in some small way to Orwell's prophetic vision that that world has not come fully true.

Would Coming Up For Air have been written had Orwell never wintered in Morocco? Possibly. But midway through his time there, he wrote: "I am spending the winter here for the sake of my lungs, which I think it is doing a little good to. Owing to this blasted health business I have had what is practically a wasted year, but the long rest has done me good and I am getting on with a new novel, whereas a year ago after that awful nightmare in Spain, I had seriously thought I would never be able to write a novel again."

His best work still lay ahead, however, as Morocco, in its unique way, contributed to the development of Orwell's genius and achievement.

Daniel Pawley, on sabbatical from his professorship at Northivestern College in St. Paul, Minnesota, has written earlierAramco World articles on connections between English-language literature and Middle Eastern history.

This article appeared on pages 8-13 of the January/February 1995 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


Check the Public Affairs Digital Image Archive for January/February 1995 images.