5 Book recommendations to get a fuller picture of the diversity of Morocco and Moroccans

When I got my Peace Corps assignment to Morocco, I immediately sought out recommendations of books and movies from friends who had been there and especially Arabic professors who provided a more nuanced view on the history, culture, and politics. It was hard to find books and movies in the public library in my small town but many titles are available in the Peace Corps Morocco library. The readings helped me to prepare for my Peace Corps experience by describing the peoples and place of Morocco. This list might be helpful to anyone that wants to learn more about Morocco.

  1. Any or all of world-renowned Moroccan feminist writer and sociologist Fatima Mernissi’s books (She passed away last year)! Her books are often referenced in Middle Eastern studies classes in US colleges and around the world. I read excerpts from Beyond the Veil, The Veil and the Male Elite, and Islam and Democracy in college classes that helped me to begin to understand the complex topic of gender and Islam. Dreams of Trespass, a memoir about Mernissi’s life living in a harem from age 5 to 10, is her most popular work. If I had to recommend one book by Fatima Mernissi, it would be Scheherazade Goes West. It reveals Mernissi’s experiences as an independent Moroccan women living in Western culture and describes feminism in the West and East as well as the influence of Orientalism. I identified with her from the first pages where her grandmother told her,

To travel is the best way to learn and empower yourself.

which is relevant to Peace Corps volunteers!

Doing Daily Battle: Interviews with Moroccan Women portrays women’s social and economic struggles in their own words.

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  1. The first section of Edith Wharton’s In Morocco has rich descriptions of the landscape and history of the major tourist route- Rabat, Sale, Volubilis, Moulay Driss, Meknes, Fez, and Marrakesh. The 19th century American author visited Morocco after their independence from the French and well before Morocco knew tourism. She meets with and gets her information from French officials and other Westerners and not many Moroccans though. It was probably difficult for her to communicate directly with Moroccans, especially women, who according to her, were still locked away in the harem. I really like this part, probably because it reminds me of my site and dispels the notion of the desert as just sand:

Between these nomad colonies lies the bled, the immense waste of fallow land and palmetto desert: an earth as void of life as the sky above it of clouds. The scenery is always the same; but if one has the love of great emptiness, and of the play of light on long stretches of parched earth and rock, the sameness is part of the enchantment. In such a scene every landmark takes on an extreme value. For miles one watches the little white dome of a saint’s grave rising and disappearing with the undulations of the trail; at last one is abreast of it, and the solitary tomb, alone with its fig-tree and its broken well-curb, puts a meaning into the waste. The same importance, but intensified, marks the appearance of every human figure…

  1. The Moroccan Mohamed Choukri’s, For Bread Alone, is another necessary but heartbreaking read. This internationally acclaimed autobiography narrates his homeless life and survival on the streets of Tangier as a child, after fleeing a violent father and poverty in the Rif mountains. When it first came out in 1973, it was censored as offensive for its references to teenage sexual experiences and drug abuse. The movie, Ali Zaoua: Prince of the Streets by Nabil Ayouch, is an adaptation of the book. It is a must watch.

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  1. The famous American expatriate first composer, then author and translator Paul Bowles’s Sheltering Sky is about a couple who travels into Northern Africa to save their marriage. I love the movie adaption by Bernardo Bertolucci. I find Bowles’s books sometimes tend to generalize and disrespect Moroccan people. His autobiography Without Stopping is more interesting because it describes his life as a composer, something many people do not know.

Bowles’s translations of Mhamed Mrabet’s “Love With a Few Hairs” and “M’Hashish” are wonderful though but hard to find. Mrabet met Bowles in Tangier in 1960 and so impressed with his storytelling tales, taped, transcribed, and translated them. The storybooks I have been able to get my hands are written in a candid language and describe Moroccan peculiarities like black magic and the culture around smoking hash:

Two friends, Farid and Mansour, had stalls side by side in the market. Since they both liked to smoke kif and eat hashish, they decided to live together. They found themselves a house with only one room. They had a reed mat, a small table, a chest, a brazier and one cooking pot. They made their tea in a tin can. But they had two mattresses, one for each, and each mattress had its own blanket…

If I had to recommend one, it would be “Love With a Few Hairs.” It is a love story in Morocco, something taboo and exciting!

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  1. The last, but certainly not least, author I must recommend is the newly acclaimed Moroccan American, Leila Lalami. Her novels are written like best sellers and are fast reads. Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits, her first novel, tells the stories of four Moroccan immigrants crossing over illegally to Spain. I devoured it in two days. Secret Son follows Youssef as he discovers that his long deceased father, whom he believed to be a poor, respected schoolteacher, is actually a wealthy businessman living in Casablanca. Lalami’s latest novel of historical fiction, The Moor’s Account, shares the testimony of the first black explorer of America, a Moroccan slave called Mustaafa al-Zamori or Estebanico. I find all the topics of her novels very relevant to Morocco today and thus interesting. If I had to select one book out of Lalami’s, it would be Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits. It contrasts nicely with the other recommended books in this list, all which present a fuller picture of the diversity of Morocco and Moroccans. As Wharton thoughtfully writes:

For centuries, for ages, North Africa has been what America now is: the clearing-house of the world. When at length it occurred to the explorer that the natives of North Africa were not all Arabs or Moors, he was bewildered by the many vistas of all they were or might be: so many and tangled were the threads leading up to them, so interwoven was their pre-Islamite culture with worn-out shreds of older and rich societies…

Please add any books you recommend as a comment to this post. I’d like to expand my reading list.

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