Monday, January 12, 2015

Wonderful Moroccan Literature

We didn't notice this piece when it first appeared a few months ago in the Independent. But its not too late to appreciate now.

The wonders
of Moroccan literature

Boyd Tonkin
Thursday 02 October 2014

Most visitors to Marrakesh know the name of the lovely 12th-century mosque whose minaret towers over the old city: Koutoubia.

Those with a smattering of Arabic, or the curiosity to ask, will be aware that – in honour of the dozens of stalls that once crowded around it – this is the Mosque of the Booksellers. And this most literary of minarets looks out over the glorious gardens of La Mamounia – the hotel where Winston Churchill, a regular guest, found his own kind of paradise.

In addition to its fame as a celebrity retreat, La Mamounia now sponsors a literary prize: not a ceremonial bauble, but a scrupulously judged award for Moroccan fiction in the French language that gives almost £15,000 to the winner. This year’s jury, headed by the Casablanca-born writer Christine Orban, included both the bestselling American in Paris (and Independent contributor) Douglas Kennedy, and that genial dynamo of the francophone literary scene in Africa: Alain Mabanckou, the French Congolese novelist whose Broken Glass was shortlisted for the Independent Foreign Fiction Prize.

I thought of Mabanckou’s tragi-comic heroes – aspiring, educated Africans who still find doors slammed in their faces both at home and abroad – when I read the winner of the fifth La Mamounia prize. To readers who imagine that contemporary fiction from the Arab world must always dwell on the region’s intersecting crises of war, power and faith, Le Job by Réda Dalil might come as a jolt. Thrown out of work by the sub-prime meltdown of 2008, 30-year-old financial whizz-kid Ghali finds himself on the slide and on the skids in Casablanca – the sprawling metropolis whose stories fuel so much Moroccan fiction. In this teeming city of both “filth” and “brilliance”, Ghali the ejected ex-yuppie plunges fast into the abyss. Pretty soon he finds that “500 dirhams [£36] separated me from social euthanasia”.

We’re close here to the hectic mood, and style, of a Jay McInerney or a Bret Easton Ellis. British readers might catch a whiff of younger Martin Amis. In a series of comic but mortifying misadventures, downwardly-mobile Ghali faces “the extinction of dignity”. Meanwhile, the escape sought by best friend Ali – also out of work, but with a wife and daughter – highlights another aspect of the choices that ambitious but precarious young people face across the Arab lands. Despite his lack of any conspicuous piety, he opts to travel to Saudi Arabia to train as an imam: generous stipend guaranteed.