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

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The Independent Culture

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.