How To Make It In Morocco #4 : Tanger

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Jonah Gold, notre contributeur américain et amoureux du Maroc, est de retour sur Lioumness pour une nouvelle chronique. Un récit de voyage dans lequel il revient sur sa rencontre avec Tangier, ses légendes populaires, son passé subversif, et le souffle nouveau que la ville semble redonner à la culture littéraire au Maroc. En anglais dans le texte.

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Tangier and its literary renaissance

During my time in Morocco it was a popular refrain for individuals to describe the country as one largely devoid of a contemporary literary culture. All too often someone would proclaim that “Moroccans don’t like to read.” The nation’s greatest writers and chronologists, from Ibn Battuta and Leo Africanus to Allal al-Fassi and Mohammed Choukri are long gone, replaced by serialized soap operas and pirated DVDs. America has suffered from a similar transformation, and it is a well quoted fact that while Americans read a book for an average of five minutes a day, they watch TV for over four hours. When I shared this with my students they often believed that Moroccans likely read even less and watch even more.

But all is not lost. More Moroccans are reading today than ever before, and whether it is grabbing a newspaper from a street vendor, or reading koora.com, the country is undergoing its own print media transformation. Nowhere is it on display greater than on the streets and in the shops of Tangier.

Tangier’s debaucherous underbelly, and lawless reputation led a great many of America’s most famous beat writers to travel and live here, including Jack Kerouac, Allen Ginsberg, William Burroughs and most famously Paul Bowles. It was Paul Bowles in fact who first translated Mohammed Choukri’s seminal work, Al Khoubs Al Haffi into English.

Thus it would come as no surprise that I stayed at the El Muniria Hotel, where Burroughs lived for most of his time in Tangier. Ownership has changed hands since, but the hotel still retains some charm, and one of the best roof terraces in the city. The Tanger Inn in the basement just happens to be one of the city’s most welcoming bars, full of old beat photographs captioned by the writers themselves.

Tangier has always been an intoxicating place, both metaphorically, and physically, and at times I have felt almost addicted to the city with its unique rhythms, its magnificent views, its dark corners. But the places where I have become most attached are the city’s two preeminent bookstores, Les Insolites and Librairie des Colonnes. The two stores seem to exist in separate worlds, one looking forward, one looking back. Much like Morocco itself.

I first discovered Colonnes on my first visit to Tangier while wandering down Boulevard Pasteur, one of the city’s most popular thoroughfares outside of the medina. As the store’s name implies, entering is much like entering a time capsule. Oum Kalthoum is playing over the loud speakers as individuals carefully and quietly browse the store’s multi-lingual collection. Librairie in French and library in English are distinctly different words, but never have they felt so similar in their application. The store is formal to a point. The book seller, a Moroccan ex-journalist in his early thirties, is wearing a button down shirt and a sweater, the owner, a French expat, sports a blue blazer.

Colonnes’ most prominent display is filled with books recently printed by the publishing house Les Editions Frontispice in Casablanca. The books are largely reissues of colonial French anthropological texts, ranging from descriptions of Rabati textiles, to Moroccan jewellery and the history of region’s Jewish tribes. Each text is beautifully bound and illustrated, a veritable work of art and literature. They are also, unsurprisingly, expensive. After prolonged deliberation I decided to purchase the book describing North African Berber Tattoos.

I leave Colonnes thoroughly satisfied, and after stopping by Cinema Rif, and wandering through the medina, I head back towards the next destination, Librairie Les Insolites, located just a few blocks away on a small side street, Rue Khalid Ibn Oualid. Initially, Insolites seems as much an art gallery as a bookstore. Hanging on the walls are the latest prints from Yassine Morabite along with recent street fashion photographs by Joseph Ouechen.

I’m greeted by the store’s attendant Hicham Bouzid, with the pleasant offer of a cup of espresso, which I gladly accept. It’s a welcome gesture, and I immediately feel at home amongst the sounds of Erykah Badu and Prince. Hicham wearing black from head to toe, is just 21, although he stands almost a full head taller than me. He is eager to share his insights on Les Insolites, explaining store position vis-à-vis the city succinctly,

“In Tangier, we’re cultivating the past, but we can’t forget the present and the future.”

The store seems decidedly modern, from its art decoration, to its repurposed metal furniture, to its vibrant paint job. It stands in stark contrast to a city, where peeling paint, narrow alleys, and poorly lit bars dominate.

!In the front of the store, underneath Morabite’s prints, are a series of books no larger than an index card. These books, written by a variety of authors, both Moroccan and foreign are all published by Khbar Bladna, a relatively new publishing house based out of Tangier, founded by Elena Prentice. These micro-books are released in formal Arabic, Darija, French, and English. Some of the texts even feature a front half in one language, and a back half in another, others are only picture books. Their titles range from “Lettres du Maroc” to “Why Rabat is better than Amsterdam” to “La Modernité” to the aptly named “Tangier Notebook.”

No other books seem to embrace Moroccan’s dynamic cultural present like these. Their small size and short length is convenient, and their linguistic variety can appeal to all facets of the country’s population. They were designed for the casual reader in an era where immediate consumption and ease of access have become paramount. They are as much a product of and a counter to the internet generation. And it is that synthesis, that duality, which perfectly embodies Morocco today.

There is no doubt that in the future more newspapers will fail, and some bookstores will close. And maybe people will watch even more TV. But Librairie Des Colonnes, Les Insolites, and Khbar Bladna illustrate the resiliency of a Moroccan literary culture that may just be rediscovering its stride.