A Week in Books: Crossing more thresholds than most in Marrakesh

I was introduced to an eminent Jewish novelist last week by fellow-authors who clearly revered him. Sometimes dubbed his nation's own James Joyce, this venerated man of letters hardly lacks for official blessings either. His country's head of state has invested him with an order of merit and an arts foundation bears his name. Nothing too remarkable about all that, you might imagine, unless you swallow the clash-of-civilisations poison that too often sours our expectations of the Arabic and Muslim world. To my regret, I had not come across Edmond Amran el-Maleh before. Now that I have, I know that no living writer in Morocco enjoys more lavish public recognition.

If the task of any cultural shindig is to unlock new doors, then last weekend's inaugural Arts in Marrakesh festival crossed more thresholds than most. I won't be so blasé as to pretend it didn't matter that those doors opened on sumptuously restored riad courtyards and palace patios in the pink-walled labyrinth of the ancient medina. Yes, as a venue to hear Hanif Kureishi or Esther Freud, Deborah Moggach or Hari Kunzru (some of the British participants at AiM), the sort of Marrakesh club or hotel that now grabs glossy space in the style mags arguably did have a slight edge over a sodden marquee in a field on the Welsh border. But what made the festival for me was the range of voices from across the world of Arabic writing that carried through the warm night, sometimes vying with the faint recorded chant of the muezzin from a nearby mosque.

The Moroccan writers ranged from the leading poet and critic Mohammed Bennis - a proud citizen of Fes not quite convinced by Marrakesh chic - to the local artist-novelist Mahi Binebine. After two decades in France and the US writing books such as Welcome to Paradise (shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize), Binebine has returned to the city of his youth. "Now I'm back here," he said, pinpointing an old paradox of creativity, "I only want to write about Paris." And I won't quickly forget the sound and sight of Saadi Youssef reading from a new elegy for New Orleans in the gorgeous riad-turned-art gallery of Dar Charifa. A great Iraqi exile poet, resident in Britain, intoning a rapt blues-lullaby for the African-descended poor of the American South in a medieval mansion in Morocco - sometimes, globalisation does have its virtues.

Yet globalisation can also mean the smug winners of world culture pursuing loud, navel-gazing conversations on someone else's lovely turf. There was an element of that in Marrakesh as UK publishers, writers and journalists carried on habitual Soho spats - and mea culpa, since I spat with the best of them. But local voices soon mocked our narcissism to underline the tough realities of a country with 50 per cent literacy, fragile basic education (especially in rural areas) and scant resources to support the kind of splashy, glitzy book scene that the British always love to hate. "It was so curious to hear you talking," teased the Marrakshi poet, editor and teacher Yassin Adnan. "It was as if you're coming from another planet." No arguing with that.

Down the lane on the square of Djemaa el Fna, the traditional storytellers weave an older kind of verbal magic. In Morocco, arts of language still thrive in the spoken as well as written word. And global culture may even lend a new spin to those skills. At the Kssour Agafay club (a driving force behind the festival), the AiM programme closed with folk-tinged Marrakshi rap from the baseball-capped dudes of the group Fnaïre. One of their numbers is called "Don't Touch My Country", a reminder - and a sad coda to a joyful gig - that, with the Casablanca bombings of 2003, the local blood-brothers of Al-Qa'ida started murdering Moroccans before they moved on to Londoners.

Arts and Entertainment

Film Leonardo DiCaprio hunts Tom Hardy

Arts and Entertainment
And now for something completely different: the ‘Sin City’ episode of ‘Casualty’
TV
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

    US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

    Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

    'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

    VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

    Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
    The male menopause and intimations of mortality

    Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

    So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
    Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

    'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

    Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
    Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

    Bettany Hughes interview

    The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
    Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

    Art of the state

    Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
    Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

    Vegetarian food gets a makeover

    Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks
    The haunting of Shirley Jackson: Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?

    The haunting of Shirley Jackson

    Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?
    Bill Granger recipes: Heading off on holiday? Try out our chef's seaside-inspired dishes...

    Bill Granger's seaside-inspired recipes

    These dishes are so easy to make, our chef is almost embarrassed to call them recipes
    Ashes 2015: Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

    Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

    A woefully out-of-form Michael Clarke embodies his team's fragile Ashes campaign, says Michael Calvin
    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

    Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

    Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
    HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

    Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
    Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

    'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

    Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
    Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

    The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

    Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen