A Dispatch from the Casablanca Book Salon
Casablanca— Last week Morocco’s biggest and busiest city—hosted the 23rd edition of the Salon de L’Edition et du Livre, the country’s national publishing and book fair.
More low key than the Cairo International Book Fair, which I attended and wrote about for Al-Fanar Media last year, the Casablanca salon is nevertheless an important date on Morocco’s cultural and intellectual calendar. It is usually marked by the publication of a number of significant works, and this year is no different.
For example, Asma Lamrabet, a prominent Moroccan public intellectual and feminist, has two new books dealing with the status of women and Islam: Croyantes et feministes, un autre regard sur la religion (“Believers and feminists, another view of religion”) (Edition du Sirocco) and Islam et femmes, les questions qui fachent (“Islam and women, the annoying questions”) (En Toutes Lettres).
Lamrabet is a medical doctor and the director of the Center for Women’s Studies in Islam in Rabat whose views owe a considerable debt to the work of the late sociologist, Fatema Mernissi. In her book Islam and Women, she says her goal is “to clear up the confusion between the spiritual message of the sacred Text and institutionalized, interpretative orthodoxy. To rectify the great number of sexist and sometimes defamatory prejudices that have been transcribed into the Muslim tradition in the name of divine precepts. And to denounce what a patriarchal culture has forged in the spirit of Muslims: the devalorization of women.”
Book fairs are one of the best places for readers in the Arab world to find a wide, affordable selection of publications. And one of the reasons they are so important is that book distribution networks are very weak—both across borders and within each country. In Morocco, there is much talk of “a crisis of reading.” A recent survey by a Moroccan cultural association found that 85 percent of Moroccans do not have library cards, and 64 percent have not bought a book in the past year. Print runs are very modest, many towns have no library or even bookstore, and writers and publishers struggle to make a living.
Today in Morocco, “it’s not the reader who searches for the book, but the book who is searching for a reader,” says Abdeljalil Nadem of Editions Toubkal, one of the country’s best-known publishing houses, founded by a group of academics and intellectuals 30 years ago. Toubkal publishes translations into Arabic of notable writers like the French literary theorist and philosopher Roland Barthes; books by Moroccan scholars such as Abdelfattah Kilito; and works of literature, literary and art criticism, and linguistics. Nadem says he has been told his catalogue is just for “the elite.” But as a publisher, he says, he makes his choices “individually and historically,” both out of personal passion and “for future generations.”
The King Abdul Aziz Foundation for Human Sciences and Islamic Studies—a Saudi-funded association and library dedicated to encouraging research in the Maghreb region—has just issued its second report on publishing in Morocco. The report catalogued 3,304 new publications in 2016, including 497 academic journals (it excluded textbooks, manuals and publications in the hard sciences). Literary works make up the highest percentage of the publications (25 percent), followed by writing on the law (14percent) and religion (10 percent). About a quarter of all books are self-published, and 86 percent of the authors are male.
The share of Arabic-language publications has steadily increased, reaching over 80 percent of the book market today. The book fair features a large official stand for books in the recently recognized Tamazight language (a standardized version of the Berber languages spoken by over a third of the country), but the report found that only 2 percent of publications were in this language.
The Casablanca salon is a remarkably polyglot, cosmopolitan affair. It’s not just that panelists have the common North African tendency to toggle back and forth between French and Arabic in the span of a single sentence; several events this year highlight the connection between Spain and Morocco, and a number of new translations from Spanish to Arabic. The work of Edmond Amran El Maleh, the Moroccan Jewish writer and committed anti-colonialist and communist activist, is being celebrated on the 100th anniversary of his birth. And the salon’s main focus this year is on African literature, with authors invited from countries across the continent to discuss questions of pan-African cooperation; the contribution of women writers; immigration and alternatives to globalization; and “the end of the post-colonial era.”
Of course the question of writers and readers—and their absence—is intimately tied to education. Morocco’s National Human Rights Council is one of several associations offering its own schedule of public debates. At a panel on youth and universities, the speakers and the audience were unanimous in their view of the higher education system as failing, and their concern over the growing gap between public and private universities.
If university education used to be “a social elevator,” everyone seemed to agree it has now broken down. Hamid Elafdil, a prominent investor and head of an association that aids talented, impoverished students, spoke of the need for “positive discrimination” to provide not equality, but at least an “equality of chances.” Another speaker suggested that it would take a generation to find a solution. In the meantime, about 200,000 Moroccan college graduates enter the labor market every year.
These graduates may be motivated to continue their learning by investing in books. But it is easy to see why the million or so young people aged 15-24 who are neither working, studying nor enrolled in any kind of training might see little reason to attend a literary salon, or to spend the average cost of 61.10 Moroccan Dirhams (about $6) on a book.