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Books—and an ode to reading Morocco.

June 21, 2010

I always carry a book with me, wherever I go. I like the feeling of disappearing for a while in the pages of some book.

And because I am in love with Morocco, it’s just natural that I like to read about it. Because sometimes, when I’m home, I just let the sentences of those books carry me there. To Morocco. To Morocco.

Some time ago
(when I was still Essaouira Walking), 760 days in Morocco invited to prepare a Moroccan reading list. I was honored. Pleased. Happy. I got right to it, and this is “the list.” It was originally published in January 2010 on 760 Days. It was also featured on Morocco Blogs, as part of their Morocco Books section.

Books by non-Moroccan Authors

Fiction

  • The Road to Fez, by Ruth Knafo Setton – A book of love and self-discovery, The Road to Fez is a collection of fragments of memory, desire, and loss. Knafo Setton manages to convey the story with precision and a fantastic language. She introduces the reader to a vibrant Sephardic family in Morocco, and through this family, the reader feels the longing and pain of a forbidden love; plunges into the mysteries of the brief, tragic life of a young girl; and explores issues of identity, exile, and home. The questions the author raises about love and identity resonate, as she creates and successfully sustains an abstract atmosphere of tension and mystique throughout the story, and her descriptions of the land and its characters are so vivid and concrete they are almost tangible. This book will make you want to go to Fez!
  • The Tangier Script, by Victor Barker – The most impressive aspect of this book is the way it evokes Tangier, one of the most portrayed Moroccan cities. The Tangier Script creates a series of interesting and colorful characters that lived in Tangier and contributed to the essence of the place. It is a wonderful, interesting drama that takes you right into the alleys of the city and makes you feel like you are there as well. The first chapter can be read here, and you can also check reviews here.

Other Suggested Reading

Non-fiction

  • Women of Fes: Ambiguities of Urban Life in Morocco, by Rachel Newcomb – This book is considered a textbook of contemporary ethnography, but it is an engaging and very well-written study of women and gender change in contemporary Morocco. Employing the narratives of several Fassi women, the reader is led into a world where women consciously try to create and then embrace their own forms of modernity, while dealing with the social challenges of a traditional society. Women of Fes is a very good read for anyone interested in contemporary Morocco.
  • Allah’s Garden: A True Story of a Forgotten War in the Sahara Desert of Morocco, by Thomas Hollowell – Allah’s Garden takes you in an unforgettable and intriguing journey. From the author’s introduction to Morocco through the Peace Corps through the tortured story and eventual release of the main character (Azzedine Benmansour), Allah’s Garden will keep you involved with a moving account until the end. A must read for anyone interested in this fascinating country, its culture, its people, its religion and the tumultuous history they have overcome. And as an added plus, if you are not a big fan of nonfiction reading, Allah’s Garden is a nonfiction book that reads just like a novel.
  • Casablanca Notebook: A Collection of Tales from Morocco, by Louise Roberts Sheldon – Casablanca Notebook takes place between 1975 and 1996, a period that was one of critical importance in the history of Morocco, and of the Arab world: King Hassan II’s pro-Western stance encouraged all manner of contacts with Americans. This book is the fruit of that policy. The author, a seasoned reporter and illustrator, traveled from the circles of wealth and power to the far corners of the country and even into the Western Sahara to witness the fighting between Moroccan forces and the Algerian-backed Polisario. Her eyes saw the big picture, as well as the small one, with fair clarity and sympathy, and her portraits of the ordinary people, Arab and Berber, ring true. From the hazards of inter-cultural city marriages to the intricate rituals of a Berber wedding in the High Atlas, she takes the reader on a voyage of discovery. This is a fascinating look into a land that can sometimes feel very foreign.
  • Morocco: The Traveller’s Companion, by Margaret Bidwell and Robin Bidwell – This book is a collection of the writings of well-known travelers about their travels to Morocco—it offers a fascinating picture of Moroccan culture through their eyes and impressions of the place. In addition, to sketches of sumptuous entertainment, colorful festivals, and the infamous Barbary corsairs, this book contains descriptions of childhood, marriage and the practice of medicine in old Morocco. As a treat, it also includes some favorite Moroccan folk-tales and recipes.
  • A Year in Marrakesh, by Peter Mayne – This book was originally published in 1953, but it is still in publication after all these years because it’s simply a classic! A Year in Marrakesh offers light and a compassionate view of life in Marrakesh. Mayne relocated to Marrakesh and became a part of the city, he came to know it in a way that very few foreigners do. There are many lively characters here, painted with a comprehensive brush that shows them to be real and interesting people. It’s a fun and enlightening read.
  • A Street in Marrakech: A Personal View of Urban Women in Morocco, by Elizabeth Warnock Fernea – If you don’t get a chance to move to Marrakesh and live in the old medina, this book will give you the most accurate portrayal of what that feels like. The author is an anthropologist who speaks fluent Arabic, from having previously lived in Iraq and Egypt. This enables her to converse with people daily and understand them accurately, which helps her to give a very detailed look at an aspect of life which is nearly impossible for most outsiders to penetrate: the hidden life of Medina women and of what takes place behind the high, closed walls. It should be noted though that this book is not intended as an anthropologic study. Instead, it is the detailed, personal history of one family’s year-long experience of living and immersing itself in the life of Marrakesh. It’s told from a woman’s perspective, and focuses on domestic life, the sharp difference between public and home behavior in Islamic societies, the pervasiveness of religion, and male-female roles.

Other Suggested Reading

Books by Moroccan Authors

Fiction

  • The Last Friend, by Tahar Ben Jelloun  – Written in chapters of 2 or 3 pages, The Last Friend is a captivating novel about the trials and tribulations of a life-long friendship in a country torn apart by colonialism, it is a tale of friendship and betrayal set in twentieth century Tangier. Written in Ben Jelloun’s inimitable and powerfully direct style, the novel explores the twists and turns of an intense friendship of 30 years between two young men struggling to find their identities and sexual fulfillment in Morocco during the late 1950s, a complex and contradictory society both modern and archaic. The book is an exploration of the mystery of friendship itself.
  • This Blinding Absence of Light, by Tahar Ben Jelloun – Told in a very straightforward manner, it generally lets the events speak for themselves. There are times when it is so grim and relentless that it is hard to keep reading, but a great reward awaits the reader who persists, as this is not a story about the depths of human suffering and cruelty, but about the depths of human resilience and compassion, which are deeper still. The book will make you enter a world where untold cruelty and human suffering were a daily part of life.
  • Leaving Tangier, by Tahar Ben Jelloun  – Leaving Tangier is a sad book—it is a portrait of immigrants and would-be immigrants, who reluctantly leave, or are forced to leave their homes and families for what is often the false promise of a new and more rewarding life in a different country and culture. These unwanted departures are necessary because Morocco cannot provide them with any reasonable opportunity for a decent future, and these are people who are unwilling to accept that fate so early in life. The stories are heartbreakingly sad and accurately reflect the experiences of thousands of immigrants who struggle to build new lives in countries where they are not really welcomed; where their cultural background, physical looks and limited education keep most of them outside the new culture and at a permanent disadvantage economically and socially.
  • Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, by Laila Lalami – Dealing with illegal immigration, Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits tells the stories of four people who try to cross the Strait of Gibraltar to Spain in an inflatable boat. Laila Lalami paints a vivid picture of life in contemporary Morocco, and the poverty, political repression and desperation driving these people to risk their lives in search of a better one. Some fail, some succeed, and Lalami does a “before and after” comparison of their lives. Despite dire circumstances, Lalami tries to show that these people still dare to hope, or perhaps, that they have no choice but to hope, as the alternative is despair. The story is well-written and told, and gives a great introduction into the culture of Morocco and the struggles that some audiences may not be aware of.
  • Secret Son, by Laila Lalami – Secret Son is a wonderful literary tale of a very “real” story. This book helps readers to understand not only Arab culture, but a common situation in modern Morocco. Secret Son is the story of one young Moroccan’s struggle for self identity in the midst of a society that is undergoing economic, political and cultural changes, albeit changes that are not enough to keep up with the country’s population growth and aspirations. The book can be poignant and uncomfortable at time, but it is an engaging story that depicts Morocco and its modern society.
  • The Last Chapter, by Leila Abouzeid – The Last Chapter is a realistic novel about a Moroccan woman’s struggle in her own community. It depicts her struggles as she tries to be both modern and religious. Abouzeid attempts to argue for the misconceptions that have circumscribed Islam, as religion is a major part in the Muslim lives and can’t simply be denied. She explains how religion is sometimes manipulated for personal or political ends, but how in reality, Islam dictates that “Seeking knowledge is the religious duty of every Muslim man and woman”. The book highlights the misinterpretations of Islam and its position towards women.
  • Year of the Elephant, by Leila Abouzeid – Year of the Elephant proved to be a pretty enlightening novel, it is told from the point of view of Zahra, the protagonist who finds herself in a constant struggle for independence. Year of the Elephant is the first novel by a Moroccan woman to be translated from Arabic to English, and it provides readers with a different vantage point from which to view North African life. Many of the events of Abouzeid’s narrative (divorce, the struggle against poverty, interfamilial conflict, etc.) are common themes in contemporary Moroccan literature, but are presented here in a new perspective—that of a woman.
  • Abu Musa’s Women Neighbors: A Historical Novel from Morocco by Ahmed Taufiq – This book is a passionate tale, and the most beautiful invitation to Moroccan, and Arabic, literature and Islamic culture. As Taufiq’s first literary work, Abu Musa’s Women Neighbors reinvents the genre of hagiographic and mystical tales into the contemporary form of an Arabic novel. At the threshold of history and fiction, it pushes the limits of both towards an artistic creation. which is at once a vivid restitution of life, and a journey into the intricacies of the human soul, the passions and abuses of power and government, and the enigma of destiny. One special characteristic of this book is that, unlike other contemporary reinvestments of vernacular and mystical themes in Maghribi literature, it is not addressed to a European or American audience, and it does not cast a nostalgic gaze. Instead, Taufiq writes for his fellow citizens, for Moroccans, and yet his way of telling the story, and his exploration of the turns of history and the meanders of the human soul, make this work accessible and involving for an international reader.

Other Suggested Reading

  • Flutes of Death, by Driss Chraibi
  • Le Passe Simple, by Driss Chraibi (In French)
  • Mon Maroc, by Abdellah Taia (In French)
  • A Life Full of Holes, by Driss Ben Hamed Charhadi
  • Love in Two Languages, by Aldelkebir Khatibi
  • The Lemon, by Mohammed Mrabet
  • The Polymath, by Bensalem Himmich

Non-fiction

  • For Bread Alone, by Mohamed Choukri – For Bread Alone is the autobiography of Mohamed Choukri. The definite must-read of Moroccan literature, a book that Tennessee Williams herself described as “A true document of human desperation, shattering in its impact.” This book is one of the first works by Choukri, a chronicle of his life as he moved himself from illiteracy to become a renowned writer and professor in his homeland. It is a frank narrative into the customs and often hidden behavior of Moroccan life, in earlier times. It will make you think.
  • Islam and Democracy: Fear of the Modern World, by Fatima Mernissi- In this book, Mernissi provides an interesting social perspective of Islam and its fear of democracy; while providing a solid argument for the need for Islam to embrace democracy. Islam and Democracy argues that the positive aspects and practice of Islam would flourish if the Muslims were to choose their faith freely, rather than choosing out of ignorance or fear. The positive aspects of the religion would provide no threat to other cultures and religions, as that is true Islam. The book is provocative and offers profound insights about Islam.
  • Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood, by Fatima Mernissi- This book offers an insight into what life used to be like for Moroccan women, and an understanding of the traditional culture. This is the collection of stories of a group of women who spent their growing up years behind high walls and closed doors, hidden from the outside world. But it is much more than simply a memoir of a childhood lived within a secluded harem, Dreams of Trespass is also a story of a process of change that took place decades ago as the country of Morocco was becoming an independent nation state. The stories are told with sympathy and compassion, as well as a deep respect for, and understanding of, Islam.
  • Scheherazade Goes West , by Fatima Mernissi- This book can be a challenging read for Western women, but it is really magnificent and truthful. The advice is to read it with an open mind, and use the author’s observations to confront and question what you already “know”. As a Muslim scholar, Mernissi gives us a fresh perspective on women’s positions in both the Islamic and the Western world. This book is about claiming freedom—the freedom for women to think about who they are, about the courage it takes to push through the unexamined female prisons of both Western and Islamic insularity, to view themselves in a wider place, and choose who they will be and who their daughters will be.

Other Suggested Reading

Cookbooks

Photography Books

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