Eye for Eye?

A Reading in the Travel accounts of P. Bowles and A. Akbib

(Editor's note: the article below is an abbreviated version of the original paper - the full length version is available for download, click here)

This paper aims at drawing a brief contrast between two travel books by two different writers: Their Heads Are Green by the American Paul Bowles and Tangier’s Eyes on America by the Moroccan Abdellatif Akbib. This juxtaposition is justified, in my opinion, by at least one important reason. Regardless of their respective close personal relations to Tangier, these two writers can, to a large extent, be regarded as representing two opposite trends in the field of cultural studies and discourse. For while Bowles is undeniably one of the most conspicuous American Orientalists, whose diverse literary texts place him squarely at the centre of what is known as hegemonic colonial discourse, Akbib is certainly one of the emerging post-colonial voices or figures that have just started to ‘write back’ to the metropolitan Centre. The difference between these trends can be well illustrated by the way each of the two writers ‘appropriates’, so to speak, the city of Tangier to articulate symbolic meanings that are inextricably associated with the cross-cultural relation between the Centre and its peripheries. In Bowles’ case, Tangier has for a long time been the object of his Orientalist gaze and the site of his representations of cultural Otherness. Not only has it served as the indispensable source of inspiration without which he could not become a creative writer, as he himself once confessed, it has also been itself deployed as a rich material for many of his discursive products like his famous novel Let It Come Down. In addition to this, Tangier has also served him, metaphorically speaking, as a private Panopticon or look-out from which he has systematically observed and represented Morocco as well as the rest of North Africa and the Moslem world. Conversely, while Tangier is for Akbib also an important source of literary inspiration, his travel book has unequivocally declared and advocated for this strategic city the active role of a subject rather than merely an object of representation. The book’s title itself, as it will be soon clarified, endows Tangier with eyesight and, by implication, with insight and agency by means of which it has started to resist and subvert the West’s hegemonic constructions.

But is Akbib simply confronting the traditional discourse of Orientalism by an opposite or oppositional discourse of Occidentalism? This is what the following reading will attempt to discuss and elucidate.

Unlike Bowles’ Their Heads Are Green, which is composed almost entirely of completely independent accounts, most of which are set distantly from each other in both space and time, Akbib’s Tangier’s Eyes on America lends itself readily to perusal and classification as both a unified travelogue and a collection of independent travel narratives. On the one hand, given the fact that it relates the events of a single and specific travel experience in the States during a period of no more than three months, and given the fact that its accounts are generally ordered in what seems a strict chronological sequence starting with the author’s departure from his homeland and developing to end with his return to it, these seemingly separate accounts are highly readable as interconnected chapters or episodes in a closely-knit travelogue. On the other hand, since each of the included accounts enjoys a great deal of autonomy and can be thus read quite independently and nearly without any reference to the other ones, the whole book is equally readable in the way a collection of autonomous short stories is read, as Mohamed Laâmiri has noted while stressing the aesthetic distinctiveness of this travelogue.

But if Akbib has succeeded in producing a travel book, one thing is certain: he himself is not a real traveler –at least in the sense in which P. Bowles and the classical travel writers have been. According to Bowles’ own definition, Akbib seems to be more a tourist than a traveler. In his famous novel The Sheltering Sky, Bowles writes the following about his protagonist Port Moresby, who is also a writer:
He did not think of himself as a tourist; he was a traveler. The difference is partly one of time, he would explain. Whereas the tourist generally hurries back home at the end of a few weeks or months, the traveler, belonging no more to one place than to the next, moves slowly, over periods of years, from one part of the earth to another. Indeed, he would have found it difficult to tell, among the many places he had lived, precisely where it was he had felt most at home.

What Bowles wants to suggest here is that the traveler seems to be always homeless and constantly on the move through the different regions of the world. By comparison the tourist is always attached to his country and can never pass a very long time away from it. This is precisely the case of Akbib, who not only entitles his last account ‘Home Sweet Home’ but also goes on to confess that his three-month absence from home is too much for him and that: “I had never been away from home for so long! (…) And the countdown actually began the moment I left my home that early August morning.”

Nevertheless, my contention is that if Akbib is not a traveler, he certainly is not a tourist. What he actually is is a promising post-colonial intellectual, who has self-consciously taken advantage of his academic visit to America, to inaugurate (at a national level) a counter-hegemonic discourse whose main objective is the interrogation of the West’s cultural stereotypes against its ‘marginal’ Others. What the author of Tangier’s Eyes On America wants to do is, in other words, to “write back” to the centre so as to contest and even subvert its imperialist and ethnocentric ideology. In fact, the very title of the book bespeaks of this subversive intention as Tangier, which stands here for the whole Orient and the rest of the marginal and formerly colonized world, is endowed with agency by dint of which it is forcing the West –symbolized by America- to assume the role of the object of its observation and surveillance. If Tangier –and the world it stands for- has for so long been subjected to the systematic mis-representation of Western hegemony, now it is its turn to be both a viewer and a representer, just as it is her duty to show that it is quite capable of declaring its revenge if a more balanced and cosmopolitan dialogue is not substituted for the West’s denigrating discourse of power and Otherness.

As a matter of fact, the entire book is informed by this counter-hegemonic spirit, and most of its accounts can be read as a series of confrontations that combine to dramatize the author’s conviction that a more rational alternative discourse is much needed. The book seems to be generally structured in such a way as to reflect the author’s growing disillusionment and awareness that it is his duty and that of all post-colonial subjects/intellectuals to engage in an open criticism and challenge of Western ethnocentrism so that a real decolonization could be attained. In the following pages, I discuss very briefly how the author has waged his criticism and how he has attempted to proclaim implicitly the need for overcoming such ideological binaries as Occident/Orient or Centre/margins.

In ‘An Early Flight-of Imagination’, the author attempts from the very beginning to create the impression that he is about to cross the threshold of a universe that seems somehow fantastic and incomparably different from the one he is accustomed to. Though he has already visited the States a dozen of years earlier, he is quite sure that a great civilizational transformation has taken place there; his only curiosity now is to see the nature of this metamorphosis and to assess its inevitable great “impact on the American people in terms of attitudes and lifestyle.”

So it is important to notice here how the author is already positioning himself as an ‘observer’, who is very interested to discover and broaden his knowledge about America and its people. More important than this is the fact that he is going to look at America with critical eyes, rather than with any sense of amazement or exotic wonder. For this introductory account is really full of significant details which not only help to set the ironical tone of the whole book but also reveal that the author has already started his criticism of America and its civilization. In fact, his allusions to such diverse matters as: Nagasaki, Hiroshima, cowboys, and Depleted-Uranium are clearly meant to condemn, from an early stage, the violence –if not in reality the barbarism- inherent in this civilization. Such other references as: Hollywood, Dolly, and unnatural procreation point out, on the other hand, to the shallowness and artificiality that inform the life and culture of Uncle Sam’s dream-like world. So when the author ends this opening account with his tongue-in-cheek statement: “Patience. America was now only a flight away”, the reader must construe its implicit irony as a warning that America will not be spared the pungent criticism and the uncompromising gaze of its prospective visitor.

In his next account, the author describes his transatlantic flight and arrival at the New York airport metaphorically as a crossing of the cultural boundaries that separate the metropolitan West from its under-developed margins. ‘Marocain à New York’, with its displaced French title, is in effect a splendid evocation of the author’s sense of displacement and cultural alienation as soon as he sets foot on the first American airport. For his eye is quick to discover that he and all the other non-natives are ill-treated and discriminated against. While still queuing up to have his passport checked, he cannot help feeling immensely overwhelmed with unease and estrangement as a result of what could observe:

I looked about me and realized that though theoretically I was on American soil, practically I was not. This feeling was engendered by the architecture of the place: the sinuous queue was checked by a line of demarcation that no one had the right to cross without permission, and between this line and the immigration services (…) there was a no man’s land, symbolically significant although only about a couple of yards wide.

In this highly symbolic passage, the author depicts in microcosm the great unbridgeable gap –indeed, the absurd “no man’s land”- that seems to have been created intently to demarcate the borderline between the centre and its peripheries. As an Oriental subject, who has just begun to tread in the New World, the author seems to be faced from the outset with the invisible catchword inscribed on the thick walls of that magical borderline echoing again and again: “Eat is East, West is West” (as E. M. Forster has written in A Passage To India). Nonetheless, being intent on letting no such clichés pass unchallenged, he soon starts his series of defying confrontations. The first duel is with the very airport officer who has been fumbling with his passport in a haughty and snobbishly provoking manner. When the officer asks him: “What do you do in your country?” he replies not with a direct answer but with his own question:

“Do you speak Arabic?” I asked.
“No.” “French?”
“Only English.”
“Pity. It’s written there. In both Arabic and French.”

Here, instead of being put on the defensive, the author is tactfully turning the tables on his apparently racist interlocutor, who is significantly obliged to recognize his ignorance of all languages except his own. The author’s last expression of ‘pity’ is thus an eloquent subversive comment that is aptly directed to destabilize the complacent hegemonic stance of that American.

When finally released by that officer to have his “share [of] the American dream”, as he sarcastically puts it (17), much of what he finds is, as a matter of fact, something of a ghastly American nightmare. First comes the prehistoric gift –a rotten, inedible meal, offered to him exclusively as ‘a distinguished dinner’ by a shameless stewardess. Not only does he respond by promptly remonstrating with that Havishamian lady; the incident itself is strategically set against a background that is counter-discursively impregnated with the loud ironic echoes of the pompous, ethnocentric phrase: “This is America.” This idiomatic epithet is implicitly subverted in such a way as to mean: “This is only America,” and not a paradise of freedom, justice and equality; so if you meet with any act of racism, discrimination or violence, you have but to accept it as a matter of course, especially if you are a mere ‘trespasser’ from the peripheries. Immediately after this shocking incident, the author finds himself face to face with the nightmare incarnate, during that ‘midnight duel’, when his whole life is put at stake by the careless mistake of a hotel receptionist. As he trespasses innocently on the room of a ‘cow-boyish’ man, the latter mercilessly aims his weapon at him and cries out menacingly: ‘Hands up, son of a bitch. Move an inch, and I’ll blow up your brains” (28). The author has but to attempt some narrow escape, for no explanations or apologies could avail in a moral jungle where “the survival [is] for the quickest” (30), and where “weapons [are] sold like a gastronomic commodity” (31). The author’s implicit question here is: Does not barbarism, after all, lurk just beneath the polished surface of the ‘civilized’ West?

At any rate, if an armed duel is the last thing an academic visitor to the States can conceive of implicating himself in, now in both ‘A Dogtail Party’ and ‘Camels to the university’ the atmosphere is ripe for engaging in open –but fruitful- contests with his fellow intellectuals. In the former account, the author is disconcerted by the request of having to describe to the Americans present in that party what Moroccan people are like. Sensing that the question is not free of racial and ethnocentric implications, he cannot help thinking that the man who has asked it is a “professor of Natural History”, who “wanted to check my description with Darwin’s theory of the origin of species in case there was a new evolution.” (41) His temptation at first is to reply that man simply by saying: “You should go and see them yourself!” but he finally faces him with the more tactful answer: “look at me” (42).

This defiant reply is highly strategic indeed as its implicit ideological import is equivalent to asking: “Do you really believe that you are better or more human than me and the rest of your cultural Others?” In evoking Darwin’s evolutionary theory the author is in effect aiming at taking issue not only with that man’s stereotypical attitude but also with the Western textual archives that have nurtured the racial assumption that the Westerners occupy a higher (indeed the highest) stage in the scale of humankind’s evolution from lower species, and hence the apex of human civilization. He wants to show precisely that such concepts as progress, culture and civilization are quite relative issues and that human beings are not to be judged collectively in terms of their racial or geographical origins. That is why when the same questioner notes irrelevantly that people in Tunisia eat dogs in their birthdays, the author comments that even if such an allegation is supposed to be true, then it must be only “a matter of taste” (43). For what on earth makes dog-eaters in any marginal country less human or less civilized than their pig-and frog-eater counterparts in the metropolitan West?

In ‘Camels to the University’ the author likewise launches a vehement challenge at the same ethnocentric attitude he has observed in his audience while discussing a video presentation on Morocco. All of them seem to have expected to find in Morocco no more than an exotic field where the semi-primitive residents are engaged in eccentric practices like riding ‘camels to the university’. What seems striking is that even though that audience has been constituted of academics from different Western countries, they all seem to share the same denigrating view of whatever is culturally Other. This has prompted the author to realize that “the ‘camels to the university’ expression was not restricted to American students; it was a universal expression –reflected in, and confirmed by, the universal questions asked after the video show.” (46)

What is shocking for the author here is the way groundless cultural prejudices can be so unquestioningly elevated to the status of eternal and universal truths. Still more shocking is the amount of those people’s ignorance and misunderstanding of their Others’ culture and social reality in spite of their own academic background. One of the things he discovers, for instance, is that “[e]verything they knew about Islam was either exaggerated, distorted, or altogether wrong”. (46-7).

Yet the author does not lay the blame for such distortion and misrepresentation on the Westerners alone; indeed the subaltern intellectuals have the greatest share of responsibility for the Othering ideology that is hegemonically perpetrated against their nations:

Of course it is our duty to see to it that the other should receive the correct image of ourselves and ours. Are we doing this? I asked myself. And if we are, are we doing it the way it ought to be done? (47).

Such awareness of his role and responsibility later drives the author to engage in a series of polemical duels with those Westerners in an attempt to correct their biased attitudes and to prompt them to adopt a “cosmopolitan outlook”. The result seems to be promising, since he succeeds at least:

in challenging what they had hitherto considered universal truths. In the course of subsequent meetings, I could descry on their faces signs of internal debates deliberating the ethics of the stereotypes and prejudices they had so far held as sacred and definite. (48)

After these climactic assertions, in which there is a powerful message to all post-colonial intellectuals, the author’s narrative strategy alters noticeably from a dramatization of duels and polemical contests to the portrayal of some aspects of the American socio-political life and civilizational achievement. These descriptions attempt significantly to capture both positive and negative features. Thus without generalizing on the American character, he shows in such a piece as ‘A Poe-tic Invitation’ how an American can be as vulgarly snobbish and incredibly uncivil as ‘the quarter-muffin lady’, or else as admirably generous and decently ‘poe-tic’ as El. Hartman. In ‘The Speakers’ Corner’ he also shows that Americans can be so consciously committed as to defend such a noble cause as anti-abortion, yet what about their reaction to more urgent and frequent crimes like those related to drug, sex and racism? And what about the imperialistic crimes perpetrated internationally against America’s cultural Others like the notorious case –mentioned in ‘Home Sweet Home- of the Egyptian plane, whose catastrophic crash is patently attributable to political reasons?

In ‘The Road to Missoula’, the author holds in high esteem the practicality of the Americans and the efficiency of their ‘team-work’. In ‘Dreamland’, however, he launches a sweeping attack on the racism, injustice and inequality that still bulk large on the face of the presumed civilized American life. Neither the Red Indians nor the black Afro-Americans have yet been treated fairly according to the ideal advocations of “the declaration of Independence, which solemnly declares that all men are created equal!” (72) The author himself cannot conceal his great frustration and disappointment at finding that he is likewise not fully entitled to share, even for a while, the American Dream given that he is a mere intruder from the West’s margins. But his shock does not seem to be unexpected because he knows beforehand that his otherness may not let him fare quite freely and enjoyably in Uncle Sam’s dream world. Yet in punning on the word ‘dream’, the underlying suggestion is that the ‘American Dream’ is nothing more than a big lie and a fantastic mirage which no scrutinizing eyes –especially Tangier’s eyes- can fail to detect in that actual dream-world.

From the foregoing discussion then, it becomes obvious that A. Akbib has attempted to kill two birds with one stone, as the saying goes. On the one hand, he has deliberately aimed at levelling a deep criticism of the American society and civilization. This is clear from the way he systematically pokes fun at the American Dream by revealing both implicitly and explicitly how the American’s idealism is profoundly violated by the spread of violence and the reign of injustice and inequality among all the citizens of the United States. More than this, through his depiction of such people as the ‘quarter-muffin lady’, the professor with the swelling “bags under his light green eyes”, and the woman who is so helplessly illiterate that she asks: “whereabout is Morocco in the United States?” (37), the author wants to warn that an American as well can be ‘othered’ and subjected to cultural stereotyping. On the other hand, from this latter warning he strategically intends to show to the Westerners that their former victims are quite capable of striking back and resisting or subverting their hegemonic ideology. But instead of lapsing to such policy of tit for tit, Akbib seems to say, let us rather engage in a more fruitful and alternative discourse –an edifying dialogue whose key resides in the adoption of an enlightened cosmopolitan worldview. This is what the author himself has tried to underscore towards the end of his book when he succinctly states in the ‘Afterword’ that:

it is a misconception to suppose that only the West is capable of nourishing stereotypes vis à vis the East, we are capable of that, too. But as it is our duty to stem the tide of such negative attitudes, we can’t afford to deal with the other by adopting what we want him to get rid of. (85)

This suggests, in the last analysis, that Tangier’s Eyes on America is a warning and an invitation at the same time. Its author seems to spell out his message to the Centre in the following words: The borderline between such constructed binaries as Self/Other and Centre/Margins is not difficult to cross or subvert; so if it must be ‘eye for eye’, we are quite capable of it. Yet, is it not better for all of us to dispense altogether with all discourses of Orientalism and Occidentalism so that we could create and establish a more rational and edifying inter-cultural dialogue?

Mohamed Elkouche
Faculty of Oujda


“Eye For Eye? A Reading in the Travel Accounts of P. Bowles and A. Akbib,” in Margins of Theory and Theories of Margins, Abdelmalek Essaadi University, Tetouan, 2003.