Jamila Hassoune: Connecting Readers and Books, from Marrakesh to the High Atlas

Book activist Jamila Hassoune was at this year’s Abu Dhabi International Book Fair at an event with Italian writer and blogger Chiara Comito: 

By Chiara Comito 

Jamila Hassoune and books.
Jamila Hassoune and books.

“If there have been the Arab springs in the Arab world it’s because there are people like Jamila,” said Moroccan sociologist and writer Fatema Mernissi to Santina Mobiglia, editor of The Bookseller of Marrakesh, published in 2012 by the Italian publishing house Mesogea. The book recounts the story of Jamila Hassoune, a Moroccan bookseller by profession and a nomadic bookseller and cultural activist by vocation, who has become famous in Morocco and in Europe as “the bookseller of Marrakech.”

It all started when Hassoune’s father opened the first family bookshop in 1994, in the center of the city of Marrakesh. The young Jamila grew up surrounded by books that allowed her a window to the outside world, from which she was excluded during her childhood. The oldest child in a large family, Jamila would spend her time taking care of her younger brothers and sisters, studying and reading the many books that filled the house. And she also fought to find more spaces of freedom outside her home.

When the time came to find a job, together with her siblings she decided to open a new bookshop: a move that at that time might have been hazardous but eventually gave her the chance to get in touch with the world of books—both readers and retailers. In her book, she writes that opening the bookshop “was a way of entering this profession, exploring its many different aspects and developing its cultural dimension, not just the commercial one, by keeping alive our role as readers before being booksellers.”

When the bookshop opened, readers were few and felt intimated by the many books displayed, since for many, books were more often seen as a sacred object and the act of reading was more duty than pleasure.

Hassoune soon realized that…the bookshop had to “open towards the outside” and that she had to have the books walk towards those who did not have the chance to meet them…

Hassoune soon realized that in Morocco, where spaces left for books and reading were few and scattered, the bookshop had to “open towards the outside” and that she had to have the books walk towards those who did not have the chance to meet them, like the people living in southern Morocco or in the villages of the High Atlas mountains, the rural areas where the majority of the university students in Marrakesh came from.

Thus, the Rural School Book Project was born in 1996: its main aim was to bring books to the High Atlas villages. The positive response soon convinced Hassoune that she was on the right path. In 1997 Hassoune met Fatema Mernissi and the two of them developed together the Civic Caravans project, aimed at connecting urban areas with the countryside. Through the caravans, representatives from Moroccan civil society could meet with local people and with those working for local and international aid associations based in the villages.

In 2006, the Civic Caravans turned into the Book Caravan: a week of meetings organized every year in a distant oasis or village where Jamila and her colleagues would take books and hold discussions and workshops involving writers and intellectuals. The activities were usually held in local schools, for the main aim was to spread and promote book culture in the schools, and to have the students become young ambassadors of the reading in their own communities.

imagesEach trip was also an occasion to rediscover the local environment and its historic roots, and a way to think about how to best exploit the capacities that these forgotten places had to offer. International projects and local partnerships were born and Hassoune started travelling the world, bringing her experiences to Europe and the Arab world, including an invitation in 2005 to Bahrain.

The Bookseller of Marrakesh came about when Santina Mobiglia met Jamila during one of her Book Caravans, after which Mobiglia felt that Hassoune’s experience had to be turned into a book. The book also includes a personal tale of Hassoune’s first steps into becoming a nomad bookseller.

Through the dialogue between Hassoune and Mobiglia, the book developed into addressing changes that have taken place in Morocco. Hassoune is not reticent about discussing the so-called “Years of Lead” during the 70’s, and the many problems Morocco has yet to resolve, including the absence of public policies for the young. As she sees it, there are still too many young people who hope to cross the Strait of Gibraltar and reach Europe, although many die in the attempt.

A long section of the book is concerned with the issue of Moroccan women and their changing role in a changing society, where the approval in 2004 of the new family code, the Moudawana, introduced new rights and more spaces of freedom for women.

As Hassoune said during a conference held in Turin in 2012, if the women in a society do not get educated, how can a country think of having better citizens tomorrow?

Chiara Comito blogs at editoriaraba.wordpress.com.