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Morocco is in the northwest corner of Africa, so it gets to kick off my African education project.

Morocco is an constitutional monarchy, and King Mohammed VI has been fairly accommodating of democratic reforms in the wake of the Arab Spring. The economy is closely tied to Europe, though, so the problems in Europe are filtering down.

Edith Wharton wrote this book in 1918. It was intended to be a tour guide for English-speaking visitors. Wharton spent a month on Morocco, a trip cut short by transportation problems due to the First World War. She was very excited about the new French administration, which she thought would allow the country to stabilize as a uniquely Moroccan place.

The issue with Morocco, though, is that it is a country of oases that surround a major port. It is a mix of Spanish, French, Arabic, and Berber; there are Christians, Jews, Muslims, and Animists. It is a place for travelers to converge and for trade to take place. This creates a lot of excitement and diversity, but it has, at times, led to unrest and foreign takeover.

Much of the book is given over to Wharton’s marvel at things that would not marvel us now. She saw veiled women for the first time, but veiled women are not much of a novelty in 2013; it’s not typical to see a woman dressed that way on the streets of Chicago, but it is not a freakish occurrence, either.

She loves the couscous and the markets. She’s shocked that what she assumes to be mirage is a large travel party. She’s surprised and amused by the actions of one particular griot.

And, she is an advocate for women’s rights. She has the opportunity to meet some groups of women who live in wealthy polygamous families that have servants, and she is surprised by their lack of any sort of skills. They don’t read, they don’t leave the house – and they also don’t cook or clean or do any of the hands-on work of running a household and raising children. She’s disappointed by their vacuity; she can’t learn from them in her brief visits because they have nothing to say.

One of the reasons that female literacy is a measurement of economic development is that the children of literate parents – plural – learn more at home. Literate women raise literate sons, and that’s important even in  strictly patriarchal societies. Right now, Morocco has a young population (45.8% under age 24) and relatively low female literacy (43.9%). This is the challenge and the opportunity.

“In Morocco” is in the public domain, so you can get a free copy online or for whatever e-reader you use. (Click on the picture of the book to get a copy for Kindle.)

Next up: Algeria.