The wonders of Moroccan literature

In Morocco and across the region, you can never disentangle this landscape of social insecurity and lopsided modernisation from other motifs that preoccupy Arab novelists

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Most visitors to Marrakesh know the name of the lovely 12th-century mosque whose minaret towers over the old city: Koutoubia.

Those with a smattering of Arabic, or the curiosity to ask, will be aware that – in honour of the dozens of stalls that once crowded around it – this is the Mosque of the Booksellers. And this most literary of minarets looks  out over the glorious gardens of  La Mamounia – the hotel where Winston Churchill, a regular guest, found his own kind of paradise.

In addition to its fame as a celebrity retreat, La Mamounia now sponsors a literary prize: not a ceremonial bauble, but a scrupulously judged award for Moroccan fiction in the French language that gives almost £15,000 to the winner. This year’s jury, headed by the Casablanca-born writer Christine Orban, included both the bestselling American in Paris (and Independent contributor) Douglas Kennedy, and that genial dynamo of the francophone literary scene in Africa: Alain Mabanckou, the French Congolese novelist whose Broken Glass was shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.

I thought of Mabanckou’s tragi-comic heroes – aspiring, educated Africans who still find doors slammed in their faces both at home and abroad – when I read the winner of the fifth La Mamounia prize. To readers who imagine that contemporary fiction from the Arab world must always dwell on the region’s intersecting crises of war, power and faith, Le Job by Réda Dalil might come as a jolt. Thrown out of work by the sub-prime meltdown of 2008, 30-year-old financial whizz-kid Ghali finds himself on the slide and on the skids in Casablanca – the sprawling metropolis whose stories fuel so much Moroccan fiction. In this teeming city of both “filth” and “brilliance”, Ghali the ejected ex-yuppie plunges fast into the abyss. Pretty soon he finds that “500 dirhams [£36] separated me from social euthanasia”.

We’re close here to the hectic mood, and style, of a Jay McInerney or a Bret Easton Ellis. British readers might catch a whiff of younger Martin Amis. In a series of comic but mortifying misadventures, downwardly-mobile Ghali faces “the extinction of dignity”. Meanwhile, the escape sought by best friend Ali – also out of work, but with a wife and daughter – highlights another aspect of the choices that ambitious but precarious young people face across the Arab lands. Despite his lack of any conspicuous piety, he opts to travel to Saudi Arabia to train as an imam: generous stipend guaranteed.

Ghali and Ali’s plight – trained up to take their place in bourgeois society, then slung back onto the scrapheap by the vicissitudes of the market – is commonplace across the developing world. Dalil himself, once a financier, now works as for a magazine (although he insisted that “my status as journalist didn’t play any role in the book”). Le Job breaks free of sociological reportage to deliver a delirious portrait of a westernised wannabe clinging to the wreckage of his hopes. Let’s hope it attracts an English version soon: a translator who captured Ghali’s sassy, sardonic voice could really go to town. And that English title: why not “Le Boulot”, a French journalist asked? “In the financial world, you come across a lot of anglicisms,” Dalil said.

Language matters in Morocco. To write not in Arabic but French may (just as with anglophone authors in India) carry overtones of post-colonial elitism. Yet francophone authors stoutly defend their authenticity, even though – as Casablanca radio presenter and critic Melanie Frerichs-Cigli told me – they remain “a minority within a minority”. Modern Standard Arabic is not even the mother tongue of most Moroccans. They speak Darija, the flavoursome national dialect (think Glaswegian versus BBC-style Received Pronunciation), or one of three varieties of the ancient Amazigh (Berber) language.

In multi-lingual Morocco, you grasp that the literature of the Arab world need not always be written in Arabic – although British readers should know that, given their exposure to first-rate novelists such as Hisham Matar (Libya), Robin Yassin-Kassab (Syria) and Ahdaf Soueif (Egypt). And the sharpest, wittiest chronicler of the Palestinians’ experience within Israel writes not in Arabic but Hebrew: Sayed Kashua.  Whatever their choice of medium, the La Mamounia shortlistees showed no reluctance to dive into Morocco’s lower depths. Naima Lahbil Tagemouati goes there in La Liste, in which an idealistic architect confronts a matriarch of the Casablanca slums he wants to clear. As does Reem Laghrari Benmehrez in Ordonances et Confidences: a fascinating tissue of intimate histories, drawn from her clients’ confessions, woven together by this pharmacist-turned-novelist. I was struck too by these writers’ abiding concern with literacy as the key to opportunity and citizenship. Morocco has an overall literacy rate of 67 per cent (Unesco, 2013 figures) – but with a significantly lower score for women, especially in rural areas.

In Morocco and across the  region, you can never disentangle this landscape of social insecurity and lopsided modernisation from other motifs that preoccupy  Arab novelists. They include the lure of jihadi fundamentalism and the quest for salvation via emigration to an imaginary heaven in the West. Another francophone novelist, Marrakesh-based Mahi Binebine, has brought both subjects to  life: the former in Horses of God,  the latter in Welcome to Paradise (both Granta). Meanwhile, in Arabic, the enduring scourge of terror and tyranny, foreign invasion and civil strife, still offers sadly fertile ground. This year, the exiled Iraqi writer-filmmaker Hassan Blasim won the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize for his searingly compassionate and wildly inventive collection of stories about his ravaged homeland: The Iraqi Christ.

We need visionary witnesses such as Blasim. Too often, though, we expect from Arab fiction merely a sort of blood-stained exoticism: conscience-stirring bulletins from the front-lines of conflict, extremism and dictatorship. My trip into Morocco’s francophone fiction showed another side of the coin, in stories about the dreams and ordeals of metropolitan life shared by many cultures.

Globalisation does bring us together – although sometimes in irritating ways. I wandered into the winding souks of Marrakesh and  (although I had visited before) once more got hopelessly, pleasurably, lost. Deep in the medina, kids  wanted to talk about the travails of Manchester United. Where in the world can you escape Louis  van Gaal?