Lit Arts in Morocco

When I came across news of the Arts in Morocco Festival on the Literary Saloon yesterday, my first thought was: Why am I the last one to find out? (My second thought was: Why wasn’t I invited? I want a free trip to Marrakesh! Just kidding. Really. I would’ve paid to be there.) The festival was held in what looks like lavish surroundings (Ksour Agafay or Agafay Palace), though unfortunately it doesn’t sound as though it was open to the public.

Over at the Independent, Boyd Tonkin appears to have thoroughly enjoyed the city (lucky bastard). He sounds genuinely surprised that one of Morocco’s best-known writers, Edmond Amran El Maleh, is Jewish, and notes, en passant, that Moroccan writers don’t (can’t) really have the kind of ‘navel-gazing conversations’ so often heard in literary circles.

But local voices soon mocked our narcissism to underline the tough realities of a country with 50 per cent literacy, fragile basic education (especially in rural areas) and scant resources to support the kind of splashy, glitzy book scene that the British always love to hate. “It was so curious to hear you talking,” teased the Marrakshi poet, editor and teacher Yassin Adnan. “It was as if you’re coming from another planet.” No arguing with that.

Adnan is also quoted in this Telegraph piece by Sam Leith, where he says:

What a luxury to be able to complain that you are getting publicity for your hairstyle rather than your nifty way with a caesura.

What an astonishment to exist in a world of government subsidy; of well-stocked bookshops; of extensive literary pages in newspapers; of a world in which the best writers make a living.

When you look for a publisher in Morocco, he said, you aren’t arbitrating between the competing attractions of a chic independent and one with the promotional muscle of TimeWarner: you are trying to find someone who will print your book without you paying for the privilege. The readership you can expect consists, like as not, of the friends to whom you give copies of your book.

Morocco’s literacy rate is 50 per cent. There is no government help. Your chances of being translated into French are slim; into English, microscopic (only 0.6 per cent of Arabic writing, I was told, gets Englished). The whole thing – in the context of our quarrel – put me in mind of Alan Bennett’s remark that asking him if he was gay was like asking someone who had just crawled across the Sahara desert whether they preferred Malvern or Perrier water. We all, rather, looked at our shoes.

What surprised me wasn’t Adnan’s statements, obviously, but rather Leith’s admission that he’d read so little Arabic literature (he cites Mahfouz and the One Thousand and One Nights.) I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry. Not that Leith could have read much if he’d wanted to: So little Arabic fiction is being translated, and what gets translated isn’t even reviewed in the papers. Arabic literature needs its own Medici.