Reading on the Road in Morocco: Conclusion, with Some Final Thoughts on Literacy

Monday, November 30, 2009 | Morocco (map)

In Essaouira, the Marjana Cooperative offers literacy classes to the women who work in the argan oil production process.
I hope you've enjoyed my Reading on the Road in Morocco series over these last few days.

Before I leave the topic of reading, I have one final note—a disappointing observation, really. Yes, it's a generalization, but one of the truer ones I've told: in spite of the rich body of literary and narrative works written by Moroccans and about Morocco, this country still has no culture of reading.

The first few times I rode the train in Morocco, I felt something amiss. At the start of every long, dull ride, Jacqueline and I would sit down and immediately reach for our books. All around us, the Moroccans chatted with each other, stared at the wall, stared out the window or, more often than not, stared at us, generally doing little to fill the free time. (That I find their inactivity so bizarre is, I realize, also a reflection on my own, very Western inability to sit still.)

Reading on the Road in Morocco: Blogs

Saturday, November 28, 2009

 
Internet access continues to grow in Morocco, and with it the Moroccan blogosphere is expanding as well. Though many Moroccan bloggers write in French or Arabic, an increasing number use English—a reflection of the language's growing popularity here.

Because of the risks associated with expressing critical views—particularly on national politics—Moroccan bloggers tend to tread carefully. But in the expat communities in France and elsewhere, many have embraced blogging in order to share their unfiltered views of their homeland. (Their key role in the 9% movement is a recent example.)

In addition, a dedicated group of non-Moroccan bloggers—both in Morocco and abroad—also contribute to online discussions of events in the country.

So, for those looking for something more substantial than my own entries on Morocco, here are the blogs I have been following throughout this year, on topics related to Morocco and the greater North Africa region:

Reading on the Road in Morocco: Travel Guidebooks

Friday, November 27, 2009 | Morocco (map)

Guidebooks are the necessary evil few travelers can ever really escape. They warp our view of places, both by prejudicing us before the fact and by orienting our visit, once on the ground, toward a certain narrow selection of destinations (often the same ones every other foreigner seems to be visiting).

In no country does this appear more true than Morocco. Something about the place just seems to make every writer want to liberate their inner Orientalist: Welcome to a land of ancient enchantments, of labyrinthine cities perfumed in exotic spices, of secrets yet untold, hidden behind the veil. Welcome... to Morocco.

Wincing, shuddering, and cringing yet, all at the same time? Me, too. Thankfully, not all the guides are created equal. Here are my impressions of those I've used personally:

Reading on the Road in Morocco: Nonfiction

Thursday, November 26, 2009 | Morocco (map)

Morocco's unique history, geography, and social composition make it fertile ground for academic studies, travel writing, and historical narratives.

Many of those currently published in English are written by outsiders, but Moroccans continue to produce ever more works on their country, including a growing body of reflective personal histories and memoirs.

Here, in no particular order, are the nonfiction books on Morocco that I have read during my time here:

Reading on the Road in Morocco: Fiction

Wednesday, November 25, 2009 | Morocco (map)

Particularly within the context of English-language literature, both the fiction about Morocco and the fiction of Morocco are dominated by one man—Paul Bowles. As the novelist emeritus of American expats in Morocco, Bowles is known worldwide for his own writing as well as his contribution to the "discovery" of many now-famous Moroccan authors. To many, he remains an icon of Tangier's heyday as an international capital of arts and debauchery. Several generations of Moroccan authors owe him a debt, though the country's literature continues today to evolve in new and unexpected directions, having been reclaimed by Moroccan luminaries like Tahar Ben Jelloun and a new generation of stars.

In no particular order, here are the novels and story collections on Morocco I've read this year:

Reading on the Road in Morocco: Introduction

Tuesday, November 24, 2009 | Morocco (map)

Since I first tore through The Crusades Through Arab Eyes while exploring Crusader castles in Syria a few years back, I've been a firm believer that reading a novel or historical narrative while actually in the place where it is set is a special experience. Both the travel encounters and the reading can be richer and more engaging for it.

So, among the suitcase-loads of books that Jacqueline and I lugged to Morocco last year, we selected many that are set in the country. Now that I've read them all, I thought I might share some impressions. I've split my comments into several entries, which I'll be posting in the next few days.

I hope you enjoy my reviews and recommendations, and I encourage you to read some of these works—they are a great way to learn about Morocco, particularly if you're interested in traveling here someday.

Bonne lecture:

The Final Countdown: Southern Comforts in Essaouira

Saturday, November 21, 2009 | Essaouira, Morocco (map)

Above, the classic shot of Essaouira's medina walls, on Morocco's southern coast.
For my birthday weekend, Jacqueline and I planned to celebrate by escaping Rabat. But we were only two blocks from home, the clock still showing an hour until dawn, when the shit hit the fan.

Bound for Essaouira, Jacqueline and I had just left our apartment, blurry-eyed but with coffees in hand. At the first traffic light, Jacqueline's stick-shifting prowess gave out. We stalled once, twice, three times. Each time the rental car bucked like a rodeo steer, sloshing more hot coffee on us and the vehicle's interior. Soon Jacqueline and I mutually decided that I should drive the trip's first leg.

Solving the "who's driving" debate also solved the "which route to take" debate. As driver, I unilaterally decreed that we would take the scenic coastal route the whole way to Essaouira, 450km south of Rabat.

We skirted Casablanca (الدار البيضاء), and passed through El Jadida (الجديدة), where a cop pulled us over

Lonely Planet Polls Self, Disappoints Readers

Saturday, November 14, 2009

Window with Arabic calligraphy (Medersa el Attarine, Fes).
The travel guide publisher Lonely Planet is forever on the fence. It wavers somewhere between being the budget travel sector's equivalent of a benevolent, can-do-no-wrong Google, or its incompetent, ultra-corporate opposite, Microsoft.

This week, LP took a step toward the incompetent side—and managed to disappoint some of its followers—by publishing a "Top 10 Countries for 2010" list without first polling its readers. Judging from their comments, those readers care less that LP clearly missed out on a chance to create a fun, interactive exchange with its fans, and more that the publisher just seemed to choose lame countries.

While the choices of El Salvador, Malaysia, and Suriname seemed to earn LP some kudos, Germany, Greece, New Zealand, and the USA certainly didn't seem like adventurous picks. Morocco, Nepal,

... and Hello, Horses

Thursday, November 12, 2009 | Meknès, Morocco (map)

Above, a happy horseback moment with Jon, Jen, and our guide from Club Farah. It was a beautiful afternoon for a ride, not that I had much time to soak in the atmosphere. (photo by Jacqueline)
About a year ago, Jacqueline and I had tried to go horseback riding but never managed to organize a trip. But on the Sunday afternoon of our Fes finale weekend, along with an eager Jon and Jen, we rode the train to Meknes, then a taxi to Club Farah, a riding club in the hills outside the city.

Jon and Jacqueline both knew the basics, having ridden a few times, while my experience was limited to one quick, exhilarating ride a few years earlier in Petra. That left Jen—as the only member of our party with any considerable riding experience—to help the stable hands select suitable mounts for us. ("Stallions?! Um, no. Mares—do you have any old, slow mares? Very calm?")

Soon I was bouncing across the nearby fields, at just a trot yet already a mess of flailing limbs, swinging stirrups, and lost reins, trying for dear life to cling to my rock-hard saddle. Jen helped considerably to sort me out, adjust some straps, and help me overcome my instinct to clamp my

Farewell, Fes...

Wednesday, November 11, 2009 | Fès, Morocco (map)

The newly refurbished Medersa el Attarine sports ornate plasterwork and cedar carvings.
It was supposed to be our final visit to Fes, a city with which I now feel we share a long and tarnished history. In truth, it was no more than half a year, rendered longer by the harsh weather and still harsher social climate (which I've described before—see "Running the Gauntlet: Street Harassment in Fes").

Jacqueline and I visited the few friends we have left in the city, poked aimlessly around the medina for an afternoon, and picked up a few cheap gifts. Long under renovation, the 14th-century Medersa el Attarine (مدرسة العطارين) was newly reopened, so we checked it out, too. Staying with our friends Jon and Jen was, as always, a highlight, but during the hours on our own in the city, we soon ran out of activities and sights.

What has changed in Fes, since our departure? Almost nothing. Well, there is the new fountain in