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Out From the Margins: 6 Must-Read Moroccan Authors

Marcia Lynx Qualey By Marcia Lynx Qualey Published on January 20, 2017
This article was updated on April 4, 2017

While Morocco has three official languages, the local literati write in at least four. The two in widest circulation are the standard Arabic that’s been around Morocco for a millennium and the French that arrived in 1912. There’s also a growing body of new work written in Darija, the colloquial Arabic of western North Africa, and Tamazight, a language finally recognized by the Moroccan constitution in 2011.

Hundreds of Morocco’s great creative and philosophical works have been composed in literary Arabic, with many classical scholars gravitating to Moroccan universities. Where once there was the great travel writer and scholar Ibn Battuta (1304-1369 CE), there is now philosopher Abdessalam Ben Abdelali and philosopher-novelist Bensalem Himmich.

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poster for Souffles/Anfas magazine

A vibrant strand of twentieth and twenty-first-century Moroccan literature has also been written in French. One of the most important regional literary magazines of the late 1960s and early 1970s was Souffles, co-founded by the great Moroccan writer Abdellatif Laâbi. It ran work in French, but also published an Arabic edition, Anfas. Had the magazine not been banned in 1972 and Laâbi arrested, Moroccan writers and publishers might have claimed a much larger role in the region.

As it is, many Moroccan authors continue to address their work to French audiences, not only because a number of Moroccan schools make French a primary mode of instruction, but also because it’s been easier to earn a living, distribute books, and gain a steady readership in French. Some Moroccan authors, like Tahar Ben Jelloun, have reached huge global audiences. Other popular writers, like 2016 Goncourt winner Leila Slimani, have followed in Ben Jelloun’s footsteps—to largely enthusiastic reception by French critics and more mixed reaction by Moroccan ones.

But while a handful of Moroccan writers who live in Paris are very well-known, many other talented writers are not.

“Thousands of French readers who have read an Arab Francophone writer ([Assia] Djebbar, [Amin] Maalouf, Ben Jelloun, etc.) have never read an Arab writer translated into French,” French translator and scholar Richard Jacquemond said over email.

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Moroccan authors who write in Arabic are often further marginalized from the mainstream of Arabic literature. This is even true of widely acclaimed Moroccan authors, such as “the godfather” of the modern Moroccan novel, Mohammed Zafzaf and the great Mohamed Choukri, who is less known for his writing and more known for the protests his For Bread Alone sparked in Egypt at the end of the 1990s. Bensalem Himmich’s modern classic The Polymath is hardly as well-circulated as it should be, either in Arabic or in translation.

Moroccan and Algerian Arabophone authors, Jacquemond says, “are victims of a double domination: they are dominated by their French-speaking fellow-citizens and by the Arab-speaking Eastern writers.”

Yet they continue to write in new and arresting ways. The internet and new pan-Arab literary prizes have forged fresh connections, bringing a younger generation to wider Arabic readerships. These exciting young authors include experimental short-story writer Anis Arrafai, shortlisted for the prestigious Al-Multaqa Prize in 2016, and poet Yassin Adnan, longlisted for the 2017 International Prize for Arabic Fiction with his debut Hot Maroc.

The diaspora has also take Moroccans to other languages and landscapes. Moroccan novelist Abdelkader Benali, laureled in 2009 as one of the “39 great Arab writers under 40,” writes in Dutch, as does award-winning short-story writer and novelist Rachida Lamrabet. Moroccan-American Laila Lalami’s most acclaimed novel, The Moor's Account, is written in English and set in the territory that will become the United States.

Still, despite its vibrancy, Moroccan literature is little translated into English. More surprisingly, Moroccans who write in Arabic aren’t much translated into French. “Except for [Palestinian poet] Mahmoud Darwish – who used to sell more books in France in the 2000s than any living French poet! – it is very difficult to sell anything but novels,” Jacquemond says. “And the more a novel conforms to what the French audience expects from an ‘Arabic novel,’ the better it will sell. The bestsellers are Al-Aswany’s L’immeuble Yacoubian and (far behind in numbers) Khaled al-Khamissi’s Taxi.”

The only Moroccan novel Jacquemond put in the list of French top-sellers was Mohamed Choukri’s Le pain nu (For Bread Alone).

Six starters beyond Choukri’s Le pain nu:

Memoir: Abdellatif Laâbi

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 Start with The Bottom of the Jar, translated from the French by Andre Naffis-Sahely. Then leap off into his poetry collections, perhaps In Praise of Defeat: Poems by Abdellatif Laâbi, translated from the French by Donald Nicholson-Smith. This collection was shortlisted for the 2017 PEN Translates prize.

Poetry: Rachida Madani

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Start with her Tales of a Severed Head, translated from the French by Marilyn Hacker. “What city and what night / since it’s night in the city / when a woman and a train-station argue over / the same half of a man who is leaving? / He is young, handsome / he is leaving for a piece of white bread.”

Philosophy: Abdelfattah Kilito

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Start with The Clash of Images, of which Elias Khoury said, “Its power lies in its ability to create a magical relation between storytelling and critical thought.” Translated from the French by Robyn Creswell. If you’ve already read Kilito, then you must read Bensalem Himmich’s The Polymath, in English translation by Roger Allen.

Short fiction: Malika Moustadraf, one of the great lesser-known Moroccan authors. If you can’t find her in translation, then Anis Arrafai, in translation by Emma Ramadan. Jordanian short-story writer Hisham Bustani calls Arrafai “innovative, relentless, and an agitation to the imagination.”

Genre fiction: Abdelilah Hamdouchi. Start with the fast-paced police procedural Whitefly, competently translated from the Arabic by Jonathan Smolin.

Cult classic: Ahmed Bouanani. Start with Bouanani’s cult novel L’Hôpital, set to be released in translation from the French in 2017 by New Directions.

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Also, to read online: Emma Ramadan put together a special issue for Words Without Borders, “Crossing Boundaries: Ten Moroccan Writers,” includes work by Moustadraf and Bouanani. 

Marcia Lynx Qualey is a court poet, ghost writer, and itinerant scribe with a focus on Arab and Arabic literatures. Writes for The Guardian, The Chicago Tribune, Deutchse Welle, The National, and ... Show More


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