Civilization and its Discontents

The train pulls out of the station, carrying a very tired duo of tourists away from the crowded streets of Marrakech. On our way home to Rabat, Maia and I watch the country side rush by, resting our feet on the opposite bench. We let ourselves fall in the rhythm of the passing scenery, the rolling wheels, the comfortable drone of train against tracks.

The man strikes, waking us from our resting reverie, as he brusquely reaches over to close the curtains, thus shielding us from both sunlight and soothing scenes. We look at him interrogatively; we get no answer, but a shrug of shoulders and a few grunts. Maia pulls the curtain back, a teasing ray of sun penetrates the cabin, landing directly on the man's chest. He addresses us furiously:

'Close the Curtains; this is a Civilized country. I don't know what it is like in your world, but here you close the curtains'

Maia is not short of answers:
' This is my first and perhaps only time in Morocco, and you won't deprive me of the scenery.'

He growls and leaves the cabin. Only the abandoned newspaper strewn across the seat hints at his past presence.

"Civilized"... I can't help but wonder at his use of the word. Given the context, it wasn't really appropriate, as the argument pertained to two people fighting for their respective comfort, rather than differing conceptions of 'what is proper'. In either world, France or Morocco, it could be argued that he had a claim to be shielded from sunlight, just as she had the right to stare out the window. It was a personal debate, not a cultural one.

Yet, he deliberately chose the word. As if he were addressing a silent issue, an undertone one, a set of prejudices he imagined us to hold. He was responding to the 'colonial discourse', the shortsighted , bigot perspective on the relative 'progress' and 'sophistication' of colonized lands. Turning things upside down, he had borrowed this mindless rhetoric, applying it to us, and blaming us for the flaws decades of colonialists have mocked the Moroccans with: uncivilized, barbarian fools.

So as Maia and I innocently rode the train home, minding our own business, and acting just as we would in any other part of the world, he threw us into a century old debate on the comparative 'evolution' of societies and the scars colonialism may have left behind. Funny that it should erupt over a matter of curtains!

Incidents like these are rare. Mainly because the Moroccans are a charmingly polite people and would never dream of putting anyone in uncomfortable situations. But also, because Moroccans don't really carry the scar of colonization. The French were in Morocco for less than 50 years. They didn't officially colonize the place, as it was a 'protectorate'. And for many Moroccans, the French did more good than harm- leaving the country with a set of institutions that has enabled them to work with the Western world. So French nationals (and by extension, all tourists) are usually treated gracefully, with a tint of nostalgia.

Odd that this man should have chosen to fight a war that so few people are committed to. Odd that he should chose two tired young women. Even odder that he should give up when one of the young women speaks up for her concept of "Civilization".