Been All Around This World: A Trip to Morocco

This post was contributed by Sean Swanick, the Librarian for Middle East and Islamic Studies at Duke.

This past summer I was fortunate to visit Turkey and Morocco. I was on the lookout for books, ephemera and related materials to enhance Duke University Library’s growing Middle East and Islamic Studies Collections. This post concerns my two weeks in Morocco. A second post in the coming weeks will detail my adventures in Turkey.

Egyptians make the claim Masr Umm al-duniyā (مصر أم الدنيا), Egypt is the Mother of the World. Moroccans have come to accept this but with a sense of humour add Masr Umm al-duniyā wa al-Maghrib abūhā (مصر أم الدنيا والمغرب أبوها), Egypt is the mother of the world and Morocco is the father.

While in Morocco I visited Casablanca, Rabat, Fes, and Tangier. I was able to meet with colleagues, visit some incredible museums, make a pilgrimage to the tomb of the famous world traveller Ibn Battuta and, of course peruse many, many bookstores.

Morocco’s book publishing industry is thriving with reportedly 6,000 books published in 2018. Books are published in Arabic followed by French, Amazigh and Spanish. For further reading about the Morocco’s book culture, Anouk Cohen published Fabriquer le livre au Maroc that explores many of these aspects. Duke’s collection though young contains approximately 3,000 titles from Morocco mostly in Arabic and French though we are working to acquire some works in Amazigh, especially language manuals. Amazigh is the language spoken by the Berber population of Morocco, which is approximately 10-12 million or 40% of Morocco’s total population. As the Librarian for Middle East and Islamic Studies, I strive to collect the documented heritage of all peoples who live within these boundaries.

My first stop was Casablanca, the capital. A visit to the Hassan II Mosque (cf. Elleh, Nnamdi. 2003. Architecture and power in Africa. Westport, CT: Praeger), the largest in Africa, is compulsory. Photos cannot translate its magnitude, though I have attached one that I took. It is set on the seaside with the calm sounds of the waves of the Atlantic Ocean crashing into the shore. The mosque fits some 100,000 worshipers, 25,000 of whom will be inside the mosque while the rest will be in the large adjacent courtyard. This is the only mosque in Morocco that non-Muslims are permitted to enter.

A large concentration of Casablanca’s bookshops is located in the Habous neighbourhood. Habous has an interesting history as Henri Prost, the famed French architect, redesigned it during the French Protectorate (1912-1956). Hosting suqs (Arabic for market or commercial place within an inhabited area) and cafes, Habous is also home to some 20 bookstores including the important Arab Cultural Center.

Casablanca also has the only Jewish museum in Arab majority countries. A terrific museum hosting a wide variety of cultural artifacts dedicated to preserving the history of Moroccan Jews. There remain approximately 2,000 Jews living in Morocco.

The next stop was Fes, founded at least in the 9th century during Idrisid Rule (788-974). Fes remains the intellectual capital of Morocco, with many schools, writers, and scholars calling it home. While all cities will contain a suq, Fes’s suq is a UNESCO heritage site. It is an amazing tour de force and nothing short of a labyrinth. Small alleys and corridors with high walls help the beginner become confused and even lost. Navigating the suq is best done by trial and error. After a few confusing moments, one learns the routes without the help of the local ‘guides.’ The suq is designed in such a way as to minimize direct sunlight – Fes in summer averages in the 40s Celsius (110s Fahrenheit).  However, the reward of adventuring is an incredible array of crafts, arts, carpets, leather works, cafes, restaurants and historic sites like the University of al-Qarawiyyin (جامعة القرويين), considered the oldest center of learning. The traditional arts of mosaic tilework and leather production in the tanneries are ubiquitous.

While in Fes, I was also fortunate to meet up with fellow Blue Devils Profs. Mona Hassan and Mustafa Tuna and their family for a late afternoon lunch in the Rcif neighborhood.

From Fes I travelled by train to Tangier, the famous port-city that has been a point of cultural diffusion and trade since Phoenician times.  Tangier is also home to the world traveler Ibn Batutah. Batutah traveled around not just Muslim majority countries but also to China and beyond. Unfortunately, his tomb in Tangier pales in comparison to his contribution to literature and knowledge. There are four tremendous bookstores in Tangier: Librairie des Colonnes, Les Insolites, ARTingis, and Librairie Papeterie Marocaine (المكتبة المغربية). Librairie des Colonnes was founded in 1949 and became the literary culture center with such characters as Jane and Paul Bowles, Samuel Becket, Jean Genet, Juan Goytisolo, Tennessee Williams, and Truman Capote as well as others who frequented, if not entrenched themselves in this beautiful landmark building. Les Insolites and ARTingis are relatively new stores with a nice variety of new, old, and popular works in French, Arabic, Amazigh, and English. Librairie Papeterie Marocaine is the largest of the stores containing almost exclusively Arabic publications from Morocco.

Finally, I would be remiss if I did not mention the historic and important Cinema Rif, perhaps the most important movie theater in Morocco. Its history is documented in this recent publication: Album cinématheque de Tanger by Azoury, Philippe, Yto Barrada et al., soon to be at your favorite research library.

My last stop was Rabat, which was hosting a small book festival with some 15 publishers and vendors displaying their materials in tents on Avenue Mohammed V and Rue Gaza au centre ville. There are three very important bookstores in Rabat: Dar al-Amane, Kalilah wa Dimna, and Librairie Livre Services. Dar al-Amane offers a terrific array of Arabic books on religion, philosophy, traditions of Islam, law, etc. while the other two shops offer books in Arabic and French on a wide variety of topics including literature, poetry, popular culture, photography, etc. Rabat also contains a variety of historic sites and a lovely suq, which is decorated in street art like this incredible mural.

There is much more I could say about this trip; Morocco offers a unique experience with its diverse population, climate, foods, and, of course, books. I would like to thank the Duke University Libraries for this opportunity. A special thanks to our esteemed Arabic cataloger, Fouzia el-Gargouri.

One thought on “Been All Around This World: A Trip to Morocco”

  1. Hi Sean,
    Thanks for your tantalizing review of some of the highlights of Morocco. Steve, in his younger days, travelled to and through Tangier, Rabat and Fez. His many experiences in those cities in the early 1970s did not include many (any?) bookstores or libraries, but the tanning vats of Fez remain etched in his memory.
    More recently, the two of us have done a 10 day trek through parts of the Moroccan Sahara ( no bookstores), and even more recently spent a few days in Marrakech followed by travels through the deep south of Morocco, and into Western Sahara, which was formerly Spanish Sahara , and is now claimed by, and under control of, Morocco. We seemed to have missed all the bookstores, but do have admiration for Ibn Battuta, one of the great travellers of all time, and wished we had an opportunity to visit his tomb.
    We hope you are well and continuing to enjoy your work ( and passion).
    With affection,
    Steve and Alison

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