Going Native in Hav: the Projection of Desire

Randall Bass, '91, English

At one point late in Jan Morris' Last Letters from Hav, the narrator comments on dressing Hav-style, about which she remarks:

But then the advantage of going native in Hav is that nobody knows what native is. Now as then, you can take your choice! Chopin, for example, when he came here with George Sand in 1839 after their unhappy holiday in Majorca, chose to live in the Armenian was, rented a house in the Armenian quarter of the Old City and briefly took Armenian lessons with the city trumpeter of the day. On the other hand James Joyce spent nearly all his time at the Cafe Munchen, the famous writers' haunt on Bundstrasse, while Richard Burton the explorer, as one might expect, went entirely Arab, strode around the city in burnous and golden dagger, flagrantly snubbed the British Resident and was rumored to have got up to terrible thinks in the darker corners of the Medina--he himself put it around that he had decapitated a man in a bath-house (155).

There is a serious and very political implication to the capacity of foreign visitors to pick and choose their version of the native. Perhaps that is one of the images that Hav is meant to render in the reader's imagination -- the archetypal third-world city where an image of the native is a mere projection of the dominating culture's desire of what it wants to see there. This is in many ways what Edward Said means by Orientalism, in his very influencial study of the way Europe has traditionally seen the Middle-East through its own need to construct an inferior civilization to its own, partially as a rationalization for dominating it economically and politically up until the second half of this century.

While the "charming" force of Last Letters from Hav derives from its clever intermixing of the fictional and the factual, we have to ask how any country that is not "ours" (that is all other countries than our own) are (at least partially) fictional constructions of our projected imaginations. Everytime we learn something more, in detail, about Hav, we in a sense know less, new mysteries are opened, new questions left unanswered.

In this sense, then, how is Last Letters from Hav not only in the tradition of travel writing, but a metaphorical meditation on the "representational" aspects of travel writing, as well as the cognitive and experiencial dimensions of being a traveller in a country that is not one's own?

United Kingdom Last Letters from Hav