Baraka and Black Magic in Morocco

[27 January 2005]

By Ryan Paul

Ugly Americans

Travelogues are a difficult genre to evaluate. For one thing, the authenticity of the accounts is always in question. One never knows if the author was completely truthful in his or her travel stories, or if the adventures were spiced up for public consumption. Plus, one person’s experiences in a foreign country are rarely representative of that land’s character. A traveler who goes strictly first-class will see a very different side of a country than the student who backpacks from hostel to hostel.

Rick Smith, artist and co-creator of Temporary, has created what feels like a fairly honest and open graphic diary of his journeys in Baraka and Black Magic in Morocco. While one can’t be sure if their own experiences in the country would be anything like Rick and his wife Tania’s, one can be pretty positive that the author didn’t exaggerate the stories, primarily because he doesn’t come out of them looking too great.

Perhaps I should qualify that statement. Smith certainly doesn’t come across as a bad person from his work. Throughout his travels, he maintains his composure throughout difficult situations, and manages to be respectful of the customs and people he encounters in Morocco. As someone who has also traveled abroad, this is no mean feat. From the minute you step off of the plane, out of the train, or off the boat, you are marked. No matter if you wear the same clothes, have the same skin color, or even speak the same language as the “natives,” you are immediately known as an outsider, and you become prey. This phenomenon is even more marked in countries with radically different cultures than your own, such as Morocco. You are a sheep just waiting to be fleeced.

One exchange between Rick and his wife demonstrates the pressures of overseas travel. After exploring a house in Ait Benhaddou, Rick is pressured into paying the owner more than he expected to, and Tania explodes in anger. She complains to her husband, “I’m just so sick of never knowing the rules. There are no fucking rules here!... I’m just tired of having to guess at every turn.” Rick replies, quite perceptively, “It’s just how they operate. They make the rules up as they go along. You just need to go with the flow or it’ll eat you alive.”

Neither Rick nor Tania makes the mistakes that make Westerners, and especially Americans, disliked overseas. They don’t insult or look down upon their hosts, nor do they act as though they should be accorded any special treatment because of their nationality. Even more remarkably, they avoid being ripped off too badly, even when drugged and faced with hard-sale Berber carpet pushers. No, what reflects most poorly upon Rick and his wife is not their attitude, but their actions. It seems that the vast majority of their trip in Morocco was spent stoned.

It might just be the pet peeve of a non-drug user, but pot stories get old real quick. Of course, that’s not all that the book is about, nor is it all they do. As mentioned before, they explore the cities as well as the countryside, and see plenty of the sights that Morocco offers. But Smith misses a unique opportunity to provide some insight into pre-9/11 Morocco (their travels took place in late 2000). The most adventurous and “authentic” experience he has is to drink some opium tea.

There are moments when Smith allows us to see some of the country’s culture, but they are brief and mostly superficial. A splash-page illustration of Rick and his fellow travelers enjoying some Berber music is more about how fun it is to listen to music when high, rather than an insight into the role of music in Berber culture. Rick meets a philosophy student studying the Berber language, but instead of discussing how their language reveals unique elements of their society, the two smoke some “kif” (marijuana). Even the hard-sale carpet pushers are ripe for more analysis: what does it say about the effect of globalization that people are so quick to turn traditional arts into commodities?

Smith clearly has the observational skills and intellect to hold these kinds of discussions. Baraka is littered with minor notes and observations that might go unnoticed on a first read, notes that make it clear that even if he was stoned most of the time, he wasn’t bleary-eyed and stumbling through the countryside.

Looking at the big picture, perhaps Smith provided us with all we should expect. It is, after all, a travel narrative, not a cultural study. Should he decide to do so later, I’m sure Smith could publish some intriguing visual essays on the culture of Morocco as it appeared to American eyes. Baraka and Black Magic ultimately is only what it sets out to be: some entertaining travel stories told with complete honesty, and as a reader, honesty is about all one can truly expect from any writer.

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