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marrakech

Essay


As the corpse went past the flies left the restaurant table in a cloud
and rushed after it, but they came back a few minutes later.

The little crowd of mourners-all men and boys, no women--threaded
their way across the market-place between the piles of pomegranates
and the taxis and the camels, wailing a short chant over and over
again. What really appeals to the flies is that the corpses here
are never put into coffins, they are merely wrapped in a piece of
rag and carried on a rough wooden bier on the shoulders of four friends.
When the friends get to the burying-ground they hack an oblong hole a
foot or two deep, dump the body in it and fling over it a little of the
dried-up, lumpy earth, which is like broken brick. No gravestone, no
name, no identifying mark of any kind. The burying-ground is merely a
huge waste of hummocky earth, like a derelict building-lot. After a month
or two no one can even be certain where his own relatives are buried.

When you walk through a town like this--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.


When you go through the Jewish quarters you gather some idea of what the
medieval ghettoes were probably like. Under their Moorish rulers the
Jews were only allowed to own land in certain restricted areas, and
after centuries of this kind of treatment they have ceased to bother
about overcrowding. Many of the streets are a good deal less than six
feet wide, the houses are completely windowless, and sore-eyed children
cluster everywhere in unbelievable numbers, like clouds of flies. Down
the centre of the street there is generally running a little river of
urine.

In the bazaar huge families of Jews, all dressed in the long black robe
and little black skull-cap, are working in dark fly-infested booths that
look like caves. A carpenter sits cross-legged at a prehistoric lathe,
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.

I was just passing the coppersmiths' booths when somebody noticed that I
was lighting a cigarette. Instantly, from the dark holes all round,
there was a frenzied rush of Jews, many of them old grandfathers with
flowing grey beards, all clamouring for a cigarette. Even a blind man
somewhere at the back of one of the booths heard a rumour of cigarettes
and came crawling out, groping in the air with his hand. In about a
minute I had used up the whole packet. None of these people, I suppose,
works less than twelve hours a day, and every one of them looks on a
cigarette as a more or less impossible luxury.

As the Jews live in self-contained communities they follow the same
trades as the Arabs, except for agriculture. Fruit-sellers, potters,
silversmiths, blacksmiths, butchers, leather-workers, tailors,
water-carriers, beggars, porters--whichever way you look you see nothing
but Jews. As a matter of fact there are thirteen thousand of them, all
living in the space of a few acres. A good job Hitler isn't here.
Perhaps he is on his way, however. You hear the usual dark rumours about
the Jews, not only from the Arabs but from the poorer Europeans.

"Yes, MON VIEUX, they took my job away from me and gave it to a Jew. The
Jews! They're the real rulers of this country, you know. They've got all
the money. They control the banks, finance--everything."

"But," I said, "isn't it a fact that the average Jew is a labourer
working for about a penny an hour?"

"Ah, that's only for show! They're all money-lenders really. They're
cunning, the Jews."

In just the same way, a couple of hundred years ago, poor old women used
to be burned for witchcraft when they could not even work enough magic
to get themselves a square meal.


All people who work with their hands are partly invisible, and the more
important the work they do, the less visible they are. Still, a white
skin is always fairly conspicuous. In northern Europe, when you see a
labourer ploughing a field, you probably give him a second glance. In a
hot country, anywhere south of Gibraltar or east of Suez, the chances
are that you don't even see him. I have noticed this again and again. In
a tropical landscape one's eye takes in everything except the human
beings. It takes in the dried-up soil, the prickly pear, the palm-tree
and the distant mountain, but it always misses the peasant hoeing at his
patch. He is the same colour as the earth, and a great deal less
interesting to look at.

It is only because of this that the starved countries of Asia and Africa
are accepted as tourist resorts. No one would think of running cheap
trips to the Distressed Areas. But where the human beings have brown
skins their poverty is simply not noticed. What does Morocco mean to a
Frenchman? An orange-grove or a job in government service. Or to an
Englishman? Camels, castles, palm-trees, Foreign Legionnaires, brass
trays and bandits. One could probably live here for years without
noticing that for nine-tenths of the people the reality of life is an
endless, back-breaking struggle to wring a little food out of an eroded
soil.

Most of Morocco is so desolate that no wild animal bigger than a hare
can live on it. Huge areas which were once covered with forest have
turned into a treeless waste where the soil is exactly like broken-up
brick. Nevertheless a good deal of it is cultivated, with frightful
labour. Everything is done by hand. Long lines of women, bent double
like inverted capital Ls, work their way slowly across the fields,
tearing up the prickly weeds with their hands, and the peasant gathering
lucerne for fodder pulls it up stalk by stalk instead of reaping it,
thus saving an inch or two on each stalk. The plough is a wretched
wooden thing, so frail that one can easily carry it on one's shoulder,
and fitted underneath with a rough iron spike which stirs the soil to a
depth of about four inches. This is as much as the strength of the
animals is equal to. It is usual to plough with a cow and a donkey yoked
together. Two donkeys would not be quite strong enough, but on the other
hand two cows would cost a little more to feed. The peasants possess no
harrows, they merely plough the soil several times over in different
directions, finally leaving it in rough furrows, after which the whole
field has to be shaped with hoes into small oblong patches, to conserve
water. Except for a day or two after the rare rainstorms there is never
enough water. Along the edges of the fields channels are hacked out to a
depth of thirty or forty feet to get at the tiny trickles which run
through the subsoil.

Every afternoon a file of very old women passes down the road outside my
house, each carrying a load of firewood. All of them are mummified with
age and the sun, and all of them are tiny. It seems to be generally the
case in primitive communities that the women, when they get beyond a
certain age, shrink to the size of children. One day a poor old creature
who could not have been more than four feet tall crept past me under a
vast load of wood. I stopped her and put a five-sou piece (a little more
than a farthing) into her hand. She answered with a shrill wail, almost
a scream, which was partly gratitude but mainly surprise. I suppose that
from her point of view, by taking any notice of her, I seemed almost to
be violating a law of nature. She accepted her status as an old woman,
that is to say as a beast of burden. When a family is travelling it is
quite usual to see a father and a grown-up son riding ahead on donkeys,
and an old woman following on foot, carrying the baggage.

But what is strange about these people is their invisibility. For
several weeks, always at about the same time of day, the file of old
women had hobbled past the house with their firewood, and though they
had registered themselves on my eyeballs I cannot truly say that I had
seen them. Firewood was passing--that was how I saw it. It was only that
one day I happened to be walking behind them, and the curious up-and-down
motion of a load of wood drew my attention to the human being underneath
it. Then for the first time I noticed the poor old earth-coloured
bodies, bodies reduced to bones and leathery skin, bent double under the
crushing weight. Yet I suppose I had not been five minutes on Moroccan
soil before I noticed the overloading of the donkeys and was infuriated
by it. There is no question that the donkeys are damnably treated. The
Moroccan donkey is hardly bigger than a St Bernard dog, it carries a
load which in the British army would be considered too much for a
fifteen-hands mule, and very often its pack-saddle is not taken off its
back for weeks together. But what is peculiarly pitiful is that it is
the most willing creature on earth, it follows its master like a dog 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
and the village dogs have torn its guts out before it is cold.

This kind of thing makes one's blood boil, whereas--on the whole--the
plight of the human beings does not. I am not commenting, merely
pointing to a fact. People with brown skins are next door to invisible.
Anyone can be sorry for the donkey with its galled back, but it is
generally owing to some kind of accident if one even notices the old
woman under her load of sticks.



As the storks flew northward the Negroes were marching southward--a
long, dusty column, infantry, screw-gun batteries and then more
infantry, four or five thousand men in all, winding up the road with a
clumping of boots and a clatter of iron wheels.

They were Senegalese, the blackest Negroes in Africa, so black that
sometimes it is difficult to see whereabouts on their necks the hair
begins. Their splendid bodies were hidden in reach-me-down khaki
uniforms, their feet squashed into boots that looked like blocks of
wood, and every tin hat seemed to be a couple of sizes too small. It was
very hot and the men had marched a long way. They slumped under the
weight of their packs and the curiously sensitive black faces were
glistening with sweat.

As they went past a tall, very young Negro turned and caught my eye. But
the look he gave me was not in the least the kind of look you might
expect. Not hostile, not contemptuous, not sullen, not even inquisitive.
It was the shy, wide-eyed Negro look, which actually is a look of
profound respect. I saw how it was. This wretched boy, who is a French
citizen and has therefore been dragged from the forest to scrub floors
and catch syphilis in garrison towns, actually has feelings of reverence
before a white skin. He has been taught that the white race are his
masters, and he still believes it.

But there is one thought which every white man (and in this connection
it doesn't matter twopence if he calls himself a Socialist) thinks when
he sees a black army marching past. "How much longer can we go on
kidding these people? How long before they tum their guns in the other
direction?"

It was curious, really. Every white man there has this thought stowed
somewhere or other in his mind. I had it, so had the other onlookers, so
had the officers on their sweating chargers and the white NCOs marching
in the ranks. It was a kind of secret which we all knew and were too
clever to tell; only the Negroes didn't know it. And really it was
almost like watching a flock of cattle to see the long column, a mile or
two miles of armed men, flowing peacefully up the road, while the great
white birds drifted over them in the opposite direction, glittering like
scraps of paper.















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