Why Moroccan lit? Why today? Because I wanted to steal some of my friend Esen’s gorgeous photographs of Chefchaouen, Morocco. I have concluded that: either a) Chefchaouen is one of the most beautiful places on Earth or b) Esen is one of the world’s greatest photographers.
In which case she should abandon that poli sci PhD.
Laila Lalami’s characters, in her novel Secret Son, talk a good deal about how Morocco is the most beautiful country on Earth. I thought it was just a bunch of hot air; you know, like how Egyptians are convinced that they’re the funniest people on Earth, and have the best pyramids. Well, maybe we do have the best pyramids.
But perhaps, after all, Morocco is just that beautiful.
My favorite Moroccan author who writes in Arabic is Bensalem Himmich, whose The Polymath is a philosophical page-turner—not a common combination. His novel The Theocrat is #83 on the list of the Arab Writers Union’s top 105. Why 83? Why The Theocrat and not The Polymath? Your guess is as good as mine.
Other Moroccans on the top 105 list are Mohamed Choukri, with his popular and controversial For Bread Alone (#26), translated by Paul Bowles. Mohammed Berrada’s The Game of Forgetting is at #46. An English translation of Berrada’s book was published by Quartet Books in 1987, translated by the generally quite reliable Issa Boullata. But I haven’t read it.
Other writers on the list who haven’t been translated into English: Mubarak Al-Rabih, Mohamed Zafzaf (“the godfather of Moroccan literature), Mohammad Ezzeddine Tazi, and Abdul Karim Ghalib.
Missing from the list is Leila Abouzeid. Several of her books can be found in English: Year of the Elephant, Return to Childhood, The Last Chapter, and The Director and Other Stories from Morocco. I didn’t go wild about any of them, but I thought the ones I’ve read well-done.
Of course, many more Moroccans write in French: Tahar Ben Jelloun is one of the most celebrated and prolific. Two long poems of his, collected in The Rising of the Ashes, just came out in English this spring, and they’re quite spare and wonderful. And you certainly can’t feel you’re keeping up with Moroccan-French lit unless you’ve read the young Abdellah Taia, whose Salvation Army came out in English last year.
And, as Bibi notes, the excellent Driss Chraibi is available in English; you can read Mother Comes of Age; it came out from Three Continents Press in 1984.
And a number of diaspora Moroccans (surprisingly?) write in Dutch: A recent issue of Banipal spotlighted seven of these Dutch-writing Moroccans, the most celebrated of whom is probably Abdelkader Benali. However, my favorite—and I insist that you read her—is the Moroccan-Dutch writer Rachida Lamrabet, whose short story “Ammetis, the Sleeper” (from the collection Een kind van God, published in Dutch in 2008) is surprising, adept, smart, wonderful. I hope to soon find it in English.
As for Moroccans who write in English, I can only think of Laila, although there are surely many others.