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

Monday, November 30, 2009 | Morocco

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.)

Without exaggerating, I can count on one hand the number of times I've seen a Moroccan crack open a book and start reading on the train. True, at rush hour an occasional businessman or two will unfold one of the local newspapers, but you can almost forget about books. And even fewer women seem to even read the newspapers—again, after a year here I can also count those sightings on one hand. Just compare this state with American commuters' obsessive reading habits.

To a great extent, the remarkable lack of a reading culture is probably tied to the high rate of illiteracy in Morocco. Over 40 percent of all Moroccans over age 15 can't read, including more than half of the country's women. The figures for rural areas are even worse. (The government's full data are available here in French.)

While I rarely act on my frequent complaints about Moroccan society and its frustrations, for once, I can proudly say that this problem is one which I have actually done something to help solve. For the last nine months, I have been working to help launch a sizable US-government-financed adult literacy project here in Morocco, which over the next four years aims to train almost 70,000 men, women, and youths.

I hope that this program—along with all the other important efforts that the Moroccan government and civil society are currently undertaking—makes a dent in the coming decades. Morocco could be a very different place if a culture of reading ever took hold. I'll be watching to see how this story ends.

Thank you for reading, and I hope you've enjoyed this little series. If you missed the earlier entries, check them out here.


Jillian C. York said...

I think you're quite right. I also think the lack of reading is affected by two other major factors:
1. Even literate Moroccans have to juggle three (or more) languages, and while for most darija is the true mother tongue, nothing is written in darija, and most affordable (and accessible) fiction is in French.
2. The cost of books in Morocco is still prohibitively high for many. A book printed in Morocco runs for 20-80dh, a book printed in France from 50-100dh, and elsewhere, often more. Sure, many of the businessmen on the train can afford that, but if they couldn't when they were young, the culture of reading was simply not instilled within them.
I started, with my school's director, an English-language library at the ALC Meknes a few years ago. Although I realized it would only affect those fortunate enough to read English well, one student told me something shocking: Despite her love of reading, she only owned 5 books and had no access to a library, ever. She was lucky, because teachers had always loaned books to her, but because Meknes doesn't (or didn't then) have a municipal library, she simply didn't have consistent access.
If I could do anything in Morocco with limitless funds, it would be to start libraries.

Jen said...

Lovely piece.
It always shocks me when I go to Rabats tiny second hand bookshop to find that decent books start at 70 Dh upwards. I just bought a beautiful (virtually brand new) copy of War and Peace in Europe for the equivelent of 15Dh. I'd be lucky if I could get it for 100 Dh in Morocco... It's safe to say that I barely ever buy books here.

Andrew G. Farrand said...

Great points on high books costs and the lack of libraries, Jillian.
I imagine that the issue of high costs for books in Morocco is somewhat related to demand - most American publishers reap some economies of scale by printing in large volume, but that's based on a huge demand from America's large reading population, which clearly doesn't exist yet in Morocco. I imagine this problem would gradually diminish if more people started reading.
As for the libraries, you're right that there are so few. But worse still is the fact that what libraries do exist are guarded like fortresses. In my experience in the Arab world, libraries are definitely not the happy, open, community center-type places they are in America. (Some libraries here in Rabat don't allow the public to take out books unless they provide character references, and won't allow visitors to bring in backpacks or notebooks - just a single sheet of paper and a pen!) These measures are ostensibly for security, but their effect is to deny entire populations from accessing vast stores of knowledge - a true shame.

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