Tangier Library Seeks a Strong But Subtle Social Role
Scene: On Rue Khalid Ibn Oualid, a North African street known for prostitutes, gambling and a French-owned bookstore that cross-pollinates between European and African culture.
Enter a sweating group of older expatriates—mostly French and white—caught under the blushing blaze of Tangier. The men are sweltering through linen blazers. Women are covering their damp bodies in loud scarves and louder jewelry. Silent girls in summer dresses clutch their mothers’ hands. A Moroccan family of muhajbi women stands apart.
Then along comes Stéphanie Gaou, the Cannes-born proprietaire of librairie les insolites. Brown hair swirling over a sleek black jumpsuit, she encourages the crowd to enter the bookstore’s brewing heat, sit down in wicker chairs and accept plastic cups of Coca Cola from Alphonse, the shop’s only African-born employee.
An ex-diplomat, Jean-Yves Berthault, introduces his epistolary novel The Passion of Mademoiselle S., and Gaou gives voice to the erotic French love letters within. Listeners close their eyes, stare nostalgically at bookcases and covertly observe one another. A woman, shoulders wrapped in an orange silk button-down shirt, cools herself with a wooden fan, snapping it periodically for effect. A coughing woman responsibly removes herself. The Arab family disappears.
“You must be losing your mind here,” says a pinstriped Americano, referencing my life in Morocco. He pretends ignorance of Wisconsin, my home, and promptly tries to figure out if I’ve been invited to a party later on in the “American Sector.” I haven’t.
As a man lurchingly films Gaou with his phone over the author’s shoulder, Moroccans gather outside, standing apart from expats crowding the store’s doorway. They radiate discomfort, self-consciousness.
But they are here, and Gaou wants them. She wants to make her six-year-old buttercup-colored bookstore an interactive space for artists, authors and community members, who she says too often consider books as reserved for the country’s intellectual elite. Gaou features volumes in Arabic, French, Spanish and English, hosts Moroccan and foreign authors for public readings and reads at public schools and Tangier’s French Institut to spark children’s interest.
Nevertheless, this evening could just as well take place in Paris as in Tangier. How open are Tangerois, especially youth, to Gaou’s endeavors? Is interest in the local literary culture already strong, or is Gaou creating something new for the people of Tangier?
At least one young person is interested. “It’s an amazing library,” says Aya Nadir, 12 years old. “It’s calm. There are so many books. It smells good, and there are so many things that I like. There’s the history of Morocco in Spanish, and history of letters, and all the things about Shakespeare and doctors.”
According to Gaou, literary culture barely exists among local people, despite Tangier’s fame internationally as a safe harbor for authors like Paul Bowles and Gertrude Stein. Missed opportunities to cultivate interest start early, she says. Tangerois children are not exposed to literature due a lack of interest within a culture more concerned with everyday economic survival than literary wealth and book prices themselves. Although publishing houses receive government subsidies, says Gaou, children’s books are still not affordable for many families.
In Morocco’s collectivist culture, Gaou believes, conformity is highly prized, and reading as exposure to alternative thought is discouraged.
“For many people, the book is dangerous,” said Gaou. “You never know what’s concealed inside.” Books can be controversial, she says, because they contain strong opinions.
Dissenting opinions among youth, says Gaou, are especially discouraged. But she believes that by providing an outlet for those struggling toward self-expression, books can form the diversity in thought essential to representative civic decision-making.
Gaou tries to provide exposure to intellectual challenges—such as self-expression and strengthening of personal opinions—which she believes essential to development as an individual and citizen.
“You can’t be a citizen if you… can’t construct your ideas… (or) have (the right) words to express yourself,” said Gaou.
Pursuit of strong decision-making is a way to create hope, adds Yomad Nadia Essalmi, Gaou’s colleague and a co-founder of a children’s publishing house. Hope, she believes, is necessary for a generation plagued by joblessness and what she terms “empty” diplomas from an educational system uninterested in cultivating curiosity.
According to Essalmi, who is based in Rabat, Morocco marginalizes youth and offers few cultural spaces, such as cinemas and libraries, for children. How can Moroccan society help citizens cultivate themselves and literary interests, she asks, if it refuses to provide for children’s development?
Gaou sees children’s self-development as especially critical for society due to their malleability. She says children challenge her for presenting stories that fall outside of dominant societal ideas. Children have disputed one tale, says Gaou, for featuring a goddess, because it defies the Islamic belief in one male God, and another because it described a man who engaged in housework and thereby challenged local gender roles.
Gaou welcomes criticism, and believes that through her bookstore readings, children test their opinions and strengthen their self-confidence.
“I try not to tell them they are wrong and I’m right,” said Gaou. “Just to make them understand there are other views. The world they know is not the only one.”
Gaou says les insolites’ popularity among Moroccan clientele is growing, and sees this increase as representative of a greater cultural shift toward literature in Tangier. Residents, she says, were cautious at first regarding les insolites. Now, parents especially increasingly come in to buy books for their children.
In Tangier’s Franco-British expatriate society, it seems many members have bought into Tangier’s Bowlesian myth of a place for foreigners to be alone. Though her bookstore appears very much a part of this society—a Frenchman, calling himself Michel, lovingly described to me the store’s “French coziness” and the availability of literature from his home country—Gaou, with her small bookstore, more strongly pursues encouragement of local people to redefine and develop themselves and their sense of place.
“It’s a long path,” said Gaou. “It’s not finished, but until now, we can be proud of what we do.”