Kick off your virtual travel with our Morocco Top 5 Books and Movies, as well as a good gateway CD.
Morocco Top 5 Books and Movies, and a little Music
Novel: The obvious choice is Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky. It’s a gorgeous and sad book (read more about it on our longer listing of Morocco Books). 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. (Contact your local bookseller or library.)
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.
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.
Want a longer list? We’ve got a whole bunch of other recos on our Morocco Books page. And if that’s not enought, here’s a great Morocco Book List from Vagrants of the World.
Feature Movie: I hate to break it to you: Casablanca was shot on a studio set. It’s a great movie, but they really could have named it anything from “Gibraltor,” to “Algiers,” to “Tunis,” to “Cairo.” Casablanca, of course, has a marvelous ring to it. Anyway, watch it as a great classic. But don’t watch it thinking it really has anything to do with Morocco. (Ditto Morocco, in which Marlene Dietrich is jaw-droppingly sexy. Again, little to do with Morocco, though there is a pretty iconic desert shot in the last couple of minutes.)
Now while I would love to recommend a movie made by Moroccans in their native country, they’re not easy to find in the west (though there are a few more listed below). I had read the book Hideous Kinky and didn’t care for it a whole heap. But the movie is quite good, and Kate Winslet thrives under director Gillies MacKinnon’s clean gaze, free of the annoying Victorian Valley Girl whinge of Titanic.
Filmed in Marrakech, the movie does one of the best jobs I’ve seen of conveying the particular feeling of being stuck in a country, completely unsure of your next move. [great to link to Peru book here]. Playing opposite her, Saïd Taghmaoui, a French actor of Moroccan descent, charms and infuriates. The two meet when Taghmaoui’s character is performing in Djemaa el Fna square.
Documentary: As with a feature, I didn’t have an easy time finding a documentary made in Morocco, about Morocco, by Moroccans. So I’ll settle for an introduction from one of my favorite travelers of all time, Michael Palin. His series Sahara, in which he crosses that desert, kicks off with Tangier, crosses the Atlas Mountains to Fez and Marrakech, and spends a little time with the Berber people.
Palin’s curiosity and chilled-out presence get occasionally slightly ruffled in that quiet way that only British people get slightly ruffled. Their eybrows go up just a fraction, their mouths tense just a fraction, their heads tilt just a fraction—and all the while you can tell they’re experiencing some sort extreme agitation internally, but they’re too polite to show it. It’s adorable.
If you’re at all interested in North Africa, the entire series is a fine intro. Palin doesn’t shy away from some intense topics. At one point in a later episode, he has a quiet but disconcerting discussion with a French aid worker on the practice of female genital mutilation. So it’s not all fluff and watching him uneasily learn to ride a camel. Watch Episode 1 of Sahara on YouTube.
For other movies in brief, please visit our Morocco Movies page.
Music: If you already love the wild undulations and mournful glissandos of Arab and Middle Eastern music, you don’t need me. But if you’re just arriving at it, check out Putumayo’s Arab Beats, which you can buy directly from them as a download or CD.
(Of course, your streaming service or local library are potential sources.) The Putumayo compilations are excellent gateways; use them to point the way to artists, who will in turn inspire algorithms that lead you to more.
Alternatively, music critic Tom Moon says that “World of Gnawa”, a 2001 album “gets it driving rhythm from West Africa….and its devotional orientation from Islam.” The first track, a “12-minute appeal to the prophet Muhammad” is “intended to ‘purify’ the intentions of the assembled musicians.”
Since the album isn’t on the streaming service that I use, I just type in “gnawa” and click on a playlist or album. The music is hypnotic, repetitive, and while the West African influence is clear, so is the clapping of flamenco (or maybe flamenco has the clapping of gnawa), against the gentle thrumming of ouds, the beautiful Moroccan lutes.
Call for Entries: Read any good books lately? Seen movies? Heard music? Please leave a comment!
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