Moroccan Academic Plays Matchmaker Between Books and Readers

Mohamed El Mansour has retired from teaching history at Mohamed V University in Rabat, but he keeps himself busy. He writes books and articles on historical subjects, and he runs a unique online business, Ketabook, which assists foreign libraries and scholars in finding books from the Maghreb.  

The first challenge is simply to be aware of what is being published in Morocco and neighboring countries—no simple task. 

The Maghreb book market remains very unstructured and informal, El Mansour told me when we met for a coffee in Rabat, and distribution is weak. Because of this, he and his team “work on a small scale, on the basis of personal relations. You have to go knock at the [bookstores’] door.”

Few bookstores or publishers in Morocco or its neighbors have an online presence. Books are
printed in small runs (if a book sells two to three thousand copies, it is considered a best-seller). About 30 percent of books are self-published. El Mansour’s own latest book—an edited collection of the memoirs of a Moroccan ambassador in Istanbul at the end of the eighteenth century—is “self-published and self-distributed,” he said.

A reported 3,304 new publications in Morocco came out in 2016, including 497 academic journals. “There is a lot of publishing here, but publicity does not always follow,” says El Mansour. “A book might be on the shelf somewhere but nobody knows about it.”

Mohamed El Mansour, Ketabook founder

In fact, every year archivists from the King Abdul Aziz Foundation—a library and research center in Casablanca—travel around the country to inventory new books. Moroccan law does not require publishers to deposit a copy of books in a national library, and the foundation has found that many titles never leave the town in which they were published.   

Books also struggle to make it across borders. El Mansouri says he usually stocks up on the latest publications from Algeria and Tunisia at the yearly Casablanca book fair.

In late March, Morocco was the guest of honor at the 2017 Paris Book Fair. It was an opportunity to showcase the country’s writing but also to take stock of its low level of reading. A recent survey found that 85 percent of Moroccans do not have library cards, and 64 percent have not bought a book in the past year. As I’ve written about before, this is a problem endemic to the region, with many overlapping causes. (I will probably write about it again, too. It’s an issue I care deeply about.) It is also an issue that civil society is increasingly focused on, organizing mobile libraries and many initiatives dedicated to valorizing reading. But ultimately it is too big a problem to be solved without government intervention and particularly educational reform.

El Mansour Studied at the School of Oriental and African Studies and taught at U.S. universities as a Fulbright scholar. This made him familiar with Western universities and aware that it was hard for scholars there to access books from the Maghreb. 

For scholars of the Arab world, particularly those who are restricted to English, Morocco has long been “a poor cousin,” says El Mansour. The fact that few scholars specialize in the region is linked to the scarcity of materials and to the linguistic challenge it presents: scholars may need to learn French as well as Arabic and perhaps Amazigh. But in recent years, El Mansoour says he has noticed “a small scholarly shift towards North Africa.” That may be in part because so many other countries in the region have become difficult and dangerous for academics to visit.

El Mansour’s son in Ketabook’s San Francisco office.

Ketabook is a small family business (El Mansour’s son helps from San Francisco now) aimed at a niche market, and it relies heavily on El Mansour’s familiarity with the publishing scene and the scholarly fields in Morocco.

The website features a selection of titles that El Mansour thinks might be relevant to scholars—they range from best-selling novels to political biographies; from the work of contemporary Moroccan scholars to new editions by local universities of classic works by French Orientalists. The focus, reflecting El Mansour’s own expertise, is on the humanities and the social sciences. The Moroccan professor and his team also offer reading suggestions tailored to scholars’ research projects.

Ketabook ships about 1,000 books a year to customers in the United States, Australia, Germany, the United Kingdom, Canada, Spain and the United Arab Emirates. The Bibliotheque Nationale in France is a customer, as is the American University in Cairo.

I was thrilled to stumble across this small, smart, creative venture. I hope it grows, but I also hope that all the many elements in the region’s book market – publishers, distributors, book stores, book reviews, public libraries, and of course readers — develop to a point where one well-read historian isn’t my best chance of finding out what’s being published in Morocco these days.  


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