Reading on the Road in Morocco: Nonfiction

Thursday, November 26, 2009 | Morocco

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:

Conquest of morocco douglas porchThe Conquest of Morocco by Douglas Porch
This blow-by-blow retelling of the French Saharan forces' slow, deliberate, but wholly unauthorized creep westward into Morocco contextualized everything else I read about the country. Though tedious at times (at least for those of us not obsessed with military history), Porch's narrative is sprinkled with fascinating tidbits about Morocco's eccentric turn-of-the-century rulers, Jewish minority, and new French overlords.
Skeletons on the Zahara by Dean King Skeletons on the Zahara by Dean King
Few historical narratives are as genuinely exhilarating as King's account of an 18th-century American merchant crew's shipwreck on the Moroccan coast, and the enslavement, starvation, and brutality they endured over the ensuing months. Not all survived, but those who did left enough of a record for King to weave a deft narrative that reveals much about its subjects' era, their profound ignorance of other cultures, and the hardships man can endure to save his skin.
In Morocco by Edith Wharton In Morocco by Edith Wharton
Wharton traversed Morocco a century ago—a time when "Morocco still lack[ed] a guide-book"—and wrote this informative volume as "a first step toward remedying that deficiency". That its over-the-top Orientalist tone played a role in reinforcing Western views of Morocco—and inspired future generations of guidebook writers, to my eternal chagrin—is regrettable but almost excusable, as her keen descriptions of the country, its terrain, and its inhabitants shines with a vividness absent from so many modern writers' prose. Though of considerably less use as a practical guide in today's Morocco, Wharton's account remains a highly informative—if insensitive—historical account for anyone interested in the country.
The Sword and the Cross by Fergus Fleming The Sword and the Cross by Fergus Fleming
A long exploration of the lives of two of France's greatest Saharan conquerors, one a soldier and the other a priest. Not for the history-averse, Fleming's tale recounts the story of French expansion into North Africa from the perspective of the ambitious, patriotic, but often petty romantics on the ground.
Voices of Marrakesh by Elias Canetti The Voices of Marrakesh by Elias Canetti
For the uninitiated, Canetti's short series of anecdotes from his first days in Marrakech are perhaps the best window into what life is like in "the red city"'s old medina. Beggars, faux guides, street peddlers and nighttime performers—Marrakech in a nutshell.
For Bread Alone by Mohamed Choukri, Paul Bowles For Bread Alone by Mohamed Choukri (trans. Paul Bowles)
Since the end of colonialism (and partly because of it), the Muslim world has grown more conservative, and Morocco has kept pace. "Strict" and "conservative" are words that quickly come to mind when I reflect on Morocco's public culture. For this reason, it's fascinating to read a memoir bursting with alcohol, sex, profanity, drugs, homosexuality, prostitution, murder, and more. In today's Morocco, these phenomena are so hidden and repressed that Choukri's description of them seems almost unbelievably fantastical. But perhaps I just haven't spent enough nights out in Tangier.
Dreams of Trespass Tales of a Harem Girlhood by Fatima Mernissi Dreams of Trespass: Tales of a Harem Girlhood by Fatima Mernissi
I actually read this in a Middle Eastern studies course several years ago at Georgetown, but still think back to it frequently. Mernissi's story is a fascinating one, but neophytes to the country should approach with caution—much in Moroccan society has changed since her "girlhood" in the old medina of Fes and much has not, but discerning the two is not always straightforward.
Stolen Lives Twenty Years in a Desert Jail by Malika Oufkir Stolen Lives: Twenty Years in a Desert Jail by Malika Oufkir with Michele Fitoussi
When she was a young girl, Malika Oufkir's father, a high-ranking Moroccan general, was killed in an attempted coup he was said to have orchestrated. King Hassan II avenged this offense by punishing the alleged plotter's family—Oufkir, her mother and five siblings. Her tale of their disappearance—and the decades of secret imprisonment that followed—exposed the monarchy's dark side to readers outside Morocco. A jaw-dropper of a memoir, and what's more, a well written one.
Glory in a Camel's Eye Trekking Through the Moroccan Sahara by Jeffrey Tayler Glory in a Camel's Eye by Jeffrey Tayler
It's best to approach with caution any book that would portray the Arab world as a vast expanse of sand dotted with camel-riding bedouins. But Tayler is an Arabic speaker experienced in the region, and his story demonstrates an understanding of Moroccan culture beyond the superficial. (Leading me to wonder if perhaps the camels of the title and cover weren't his publisher's idea.) As he traces his odyssey through the Moroccan Sahara, Tayler writes with healthy appreciation for the humor ever-present in his bizarre interactions with the locals (his story's true stars).
Humor and Moroccan Culture by Matthew Helmke Humor and Moroccan Culture by Matthew Helmke
Admittedly, the writing is fairly poor, but as an English-language text that gives insight into Moroccan culture, this quick read is pretty top notch, and humorous to boot.

And here are some others I would have liked to read:

Arts & Culture


History & Politics

Moroccan Society

Religion & Identity


Update: Check out the rest of my "Reading on the Road in Morocco" series here.


Clare from Fes said...

That is an impressive list! Good work.

Pseudo name @ self serving said...

Nice list, a useful reference for anyone who wants to learn more about Moroccan culture.
Unfortunately I haven't taken the time to read any books about Morocco whilst staying here (Shame on me).
Enjoy your howlee tomorrow.

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