Morocco Books: 11 Great Ways to Virtually Travel There

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Morocco Books: 11 Great Ways to Virtually Travel There begins with our top book picks, then is followed by a list of books by Moroccans. We round out with a list of non-Moroccan authors, and end with a couple of books I wasn’t so crazy about but that may just be your cup of tea.

I begin with those by Moroccans, and then move on to those by non-Moroccans (in this case, American and British. And, in addition to my top 11 picks, I’m including a couple reviews of books that I wasn’t so crazy about, but that may work for you. Enjoy.

And please: If you have a pick of your own, or a bone to pick with one or our recommendations (or non-recommendations), please leave a comment!

Morocco Books: Top Picks

If you’ve already read the post: Head Roam’s Morocco Top 5, you may want to skip directly to Morocco Books by Moroccans or Morocco Books by non-Moroccans.

Novel: The obvious choice is Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky. It’s a gorgeous and sad book (see more below). But it’s by an American. One who understood Morocco well, but still viewed it as the great unknown.

If you want to read a superb novel written by a Moroccan, you want This Blinding Absence of Light by Tahar Ben Jelloun.

morocco books

The author based the devastating book on a three-hour interview with a survivor of an 18-year prison sentence—there was no trial—13 years of which were in windowless cells half-buried in the earth, not tall enough to stand up in. Prisoners were fed starvation rations, the guards telling them that the king wanted them to rot away as slowly as possible. The novel’s unnamed protagonist finds his memory of reading classics—including Camus’ The Stranger—is nearly photographic under the conditions, and he becomes their storyteller. This book is a testament to the extraordinary power of narrative, which literally keeps some of the men alive. If you don’t end up feeling insanely grateful for absolutely everything you encounter over the course of reading it, you’re not paying attention.

A novel related in a dungeon, in the presence of death, cannot have the same meaning, the same consequences, as it would when read on the beach or in a meadow, in the shade of cherry trees.

The Blinding Absence of Light, Tahar Ben Jelloun

Memoir: There’s a nice symmetry here. The Ben Jalloun book reads like a memoir, and this memoir, The Caliph’s House by Tahir Shah, reads like a novel.

morocco books the caliph's house

There’s even a sequel, In Arabian Nights. Shah, raised in England and of Afghan descent, decides to buy a house that once belonged to a caliph in Casablanca. It comes complete with three Moroccan guards, who all swear that the house is haunted by djinns. Shah’s adventures in trying to relocate himself, his wife, his toddler daughter and infant son, to the new digs are by turns hilarious and suspenseful. For Westerners, his immersion into Moroccan culture is easy to relate to. Every Moroccan he meets, from the butcher who loans Shah a car stained with goat blood and excrement, to the Western-educated doctor who sees to the family’s bout of food poisoning, takes the existence of djinns for granted. And for anyone who’s ever tackled a home renovation, the details on bringing the caliph’s house back to some semblance of its former glory fascinate.

Morocco Books by Moroccans

Learn about Tahar Ben Jelloun in this article from the Guardian. (And while you’re there, please consider supporting The Guardian, one of the great newspapers of the world.) In addition to This Blinding Absence of Light (above), he’s written multiple novels and works of non-fiction. I’m currently reading About My Mother, a tender tribute to his mother and her life in post-war Morocco. It’s as beautiful and luminous as the previous book, but naturally less relentless and intense.

Morocco Books Tahar ben Jalloun

Mohamed Choukri’s For Bread Alone is another harrowing and utterly absorbing look at life on the mean streets of Tétouan and Tangier. Choukri grew up poor, dodging beatings from his abusive father, who whaled upon pretty much any human in view smaller than himself. Illiterate until he was 20, Choukri decide at that age to learn to read and write. He eventually became a teacher and worked with Paul Bowles, who translated the book to English and found an American publisher for it.

The author’s frankness about his poverty, stealing, and time spent with prostitutes earned him a ton of censure. It’s a blistering read, yet an entertaining one. Along with Ben Jalloun’s work and the movie Much Loved, it’s a necessary glass of ice water to the warm fuzzy idea that Morocco is Magic Carpet Fantasy Land. Choukri, like Ben Jalloun, once again shows the power of story and writing to free oneself from a prison, in his case one of poverty and crime.

Laila Lailami’s Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits is similarly bracing, and additionally has a very cool structure. Beginning on an overcrowded raft as it perilously crosses the sea from [] to Spain, the novel then gives us back stories on the boat’s occupants. The execution is flawless, and the book whallops you like an unexpectedly aggressive and chilly wave when you thought you were out for a nice day at sea. Having lived in the US since 1992, Lailami’s won acclaim and awards, including finalist status for the Pulitzer Prize for her 2015 novel The Moor’s Account. You can find out more at her website.

Lailami worked with author Fouad Laroui to translate his short story collection, The Curious Case of Dassoukine’s Trousers. I’ve so far only read one story, but it’s great, strange fun. If you’ve read the great Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz and like his style, you’ll like this one, too.

Detective novels are often easy entries into a foreign place; you wander the streets and have regular food with the lead detective, who tends to be enigmatic, super chill, intelligent, hard-boiled and world-weary, and all that. Though born and raised in London, author Saeida Rouass is of Moroccan descent, and her conjuring of 1906 Marrakesh pulses with authenticity in The Assembly of the Dead. Named for a translation of Djemaa el Fna, the city’s most famous square, the book follows enigmatic, super-chill, world-weary, etc. detective Farook Al-Alami as he tries to solve a series of abductions of young women.

It’s slow-burn of a narrative. There are nasty descriptions of torture, the food sounds pretty awful, and, well, like our other recommendations for books by Moroccans, it’s not exactly going to whisk you away to a jasmine-scented courtyard. But if you’re after winding your way through dusty alleys and understanding some Moroccan history, it’s great.

Morocco Books by Non-Moroccans

Below are the books I always see on “What to Read Before You Go to Morocco” lists. A particular comprehensive such list is available from Vagrants of the World.

Published in 1920, Edith Wharton’s In Morocco remains a delight to read—and is surely at least partly responsible for Westerners’ gauzy and romantic view of the country. This article in praise of it from The New York Times Magazine’s 2018 Travel issue arrives complete with a fashion shoot, where you can wonder which lamp you have to rub for the Balenciaga genie to emerge and bestow upon you an $1800 sweater. The article’s included fashion show struck me as pretty silly. But definitely read Thessaly LaForce’s lovely and appreciative essay on Wharton. In Morocco is easy to find in its entirety online, or to buy for next to nothing.

The Sheltering Sky, Paul Bowles’ chronicle of a dying marriage, stretches across the Moroccan Sahara. Tennessee Williams, a close friend of Bowles who had spent plenty of time in Tangier, wrote this original review of the novel for The New York Times. Referring to it as “a chronicle of startling adventure against a background of the Sahara and the Arab-populated regions of the African Continent”, Williams writes that in the characters, “the rational mechanism is gradually upset and destroyed….the end of this novel is as wildly beautiful and terrifying as the whole panorama that its protagonists have crossed.”

I didn’t have time to read In Arabian Nights, Taher Shah’s sequel to The Caliph’s House. Steve, however, was hooked by the first book and tore through this second one. He loved it, and again found the magic power of storytelling to be a major narrative theme. Read the Rory MacLean review in the Guardian here.

Also on my list: The Last Storytellers: Tales from the Heart of Morocco by Richard Hamilton. The author sought out the increasingly rare master practitioners of the trade in Djemaa el Fna, and records their narratives. If you’ve seen a great storyteller live and in action, you know how extraordinary the experience can be. The author’s website has lots of excellent info, including a video description from Mr. Hamilton. This would make a great documentary.

Morocco Books: Not for Me but Maybe for You

In 2018, Christine Mangan’s Tangerine made a bit of a splash; it frequently pops up on lists of “books to read before you go to Morocco.” Mangan appears to have read a lot of Patricia Highsmith, and the novel’s twists and turns are entertaining like a beach read. Still, the author’s choices felt lazy to me. A stranger uses the Paul Bowles line about whether one is a traveler or a tourist, referenced by pretty much every travel guide in existence.

The description is similarly by the book; there is little that feels fresh or immersive. On the plus side, it’s a quick read and will probably get optioned to be a movie. May it fare as well as Hideous Kinky in being the rare film that improves upon its source material.

Of older vintage, and falling into all sorts of clichés about the Exotic Barbary Coast, Ann Bridge’s The Lighthearted Quest is a strange little artifact. (The vintage cover speaks volumes.)

Bridge invented a female sleuth, Julia Probyn, a sort of British imperialist Nancy Drew, who makes no bones about how good colonization is for the world. Gratingly tone-deaf now, it may have been less so on its original release in 1956, when England was still clinging rather desperately to the vastly reduced holdings of its dwindling empire. The writer continually remarks on how Ms. Probyn can’t possibly have a brain in her head because she is blonde and pretty. Certainly, Ms. Probyn is not particularly sensitive, making all sorts of quaint observations about the Barbarian Race (or whatever; I didn’t take notes). Still, author Bridge, a diplomat’s wife, writes fantastic descriptive passages. The Lighthearted Quest leads Ms. Probyn on a merry chase round the country, to Fez, the Atlas Mountains, Marrakech, Tangier, and a few other places. So I enjoyed it when I didn’t cringe. If you have access to the book for free, it’s worthwhile. And if you find Ms. Probyn charming despite her antiquated point of view, there’s a whole slew of books that feature her.

Call for Entries: Read any good books lately? (From anywhere, not just Morocco.) Let us know in the comments!

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