Friday,22 February, 2019
Current issue | Issue 1339, (6 - 12 April 2017)
Friday,22 February, 2019
Issue 1339, (6 - 12 April 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Books on a Moroccan breeze

Morocco was the guest of honour at this year’s Paris Book Fair, bringing a taste of the Arab Maghreb to the French capital last weekend

Paris Book Fair

Making up a triad with the Frankfurt and London events, the annual Paris Book Fair is an essential port of call for all those professionally interested in the world of books. However, the Paris Fair is significantly different from its two European peers in that it is directed towards readers as well as publishers. Unlike the Frankfurt and London events, which are primarily trade shows, the Paris Fair is also an opportunity for readers to gorge themselves on books for the three days of each year’s event.  

This they have done each year in March since the Fair’s foundation in 1981. Last year’s visitor figures were edging up towards the 200,000 mark, and judging by the crowds at this year’s Fair, held last weekend as it has been since 1994 at the Porte de Versailles exhibition grounds on the edge of Paris, it seems that this year’s event will continue this tradition. Unlike the other two main European fairs, the Paris Fair also encourages visitors to buy copies of the books on show, making it an important commercial opportunity for publishers in much the same way as the Cairo International Book Fair.

Also unlike its European competitors, the Paris Fair is designed above all to showcase books in French and the work of French and francophone authors and publishers. The London Fair may be one of the world’s pre-eminent professional events for publishing in English, but perhaps counter-intuitively it is not usually seen as the most important one. That title goes to the Frankfurt Fair, where first-time visitors can be bewildered by the comparative absence of books in German. Surely Frankfurt is still in Germany, they might be heard to ask. Where are the German books produced by German publishers?

The Frankfurt Fair is predominantly a trade event, and German publishers now control much of the English-language publishing industry, including one of the jewels in the crown, Penguin-Random House. Visitors to the German Fair may thus forget that they are in Germany, so insistent is the surrounding Anglosphere. There is no risk of anything similar happening to visitors to the Paris Fair, which, with the Beirut and Montreal Book Fairs, is the world’s most important French-language publishing event. It underlines the continuing position of French as one of the world’s most important languages for writers and publishers.  

Of the thousand or so publishers from 50 countries present at this year’s Paris Fair, according to official figures, there were few, if any, Anglophone publishers. French and francophone publishers all had stands at the Paris Fair, and this year event, like in previous years, featured an impressive turn-out of visiting authors and others.  

Scattered among the stands of the commercial publishers at this year’s Fair, some of them, such as the large and long-established names of Gallimard, Le Seuil, Hachette, Albin Michel and La Matinière, managing impressive presentations, were the stands of the French Centre National du Livre, a public-sector body aiming to promote the French publishing industry and the work of French authors, and the Ile de France Region of which Paris is a part, reminding visitors of the strong state support available to many French publishers.  

Also scattered among the stands were impromptu studios designed for reporting from the Fair, including spaces occupied by France Télévisions and Radio France. To the left of the hall in an area close to an “agora” used for book signings and other events was an area dedicated to African Literatures, meaning the publishing industries of the chiefly francophone West Africa countries of Benin, Burkina Faso, Cameroun, Congo Brazzaville, Cote d’Ivoire, Gabon, Guinee, Mali, Niger and Senegal.  

Some three dozen francophone African authors were on hand at various times to discuss their work with interested audiences, among them well-known names such as Alain Mabanckou, Elikia Mbokolo and Achille Mbembé. Towards the back of the hall in a space ringed by traditional Moroccan tea-shops and restaurants was the Moroccan pavilion, hosting, in addition to a display of recent books from Moroccan publishers, areas for book signings and panel discussions.

Morocco was the guest of honour at this year’s Paris Fair, the first time that an Arab country or Arabic literature has been so honoured. Looking at the list of countries whose publishing industries have been honoured over the 35 years of the Fair’s history, perhaps it is not surprising to see certain favourites appearing more than once. Japan figures twice, for example, the first time in 1997 and then again in 2012, bearing witness to the French love affair with Japan that was so memorably described by the French critic Roland Barthes in his L’Empire des signes, a memoir of a visit to the country.  

China is also there, another French favourite and similarly memorialised by Barthes, this time in his Carnets du voyage en Chine. Russia is there, and so in recent years have been South Korea, Argentina and Brazil. It is sometimes said that the “Latin American literature boom” of the 1960s, a decade which saw the establishment of the international reputations of writers from the South American continent such as Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Carlos Fuentes, and Mario Vargas Llosa, among many others, was orchestrated from Paris, the French capital playing its traditional role as the arbiter of international taste.  

Perhaps the presence of these literatures at the Fair over recent years has underlined the strong connections between French intellectual life and that of the Latin American countries. 

Morocco honoured: This year it was Morocco’s turn to occupy the spotlight, and for visitors to the Fair the Moroccan pavilion and the substantial presence of Moroccan writers and publishers was a welcome opportunity to acquaint or reacquaint themselves with the country’s sometimes little-known or under-appreciated literatures.

The Fair itself was opened by Moroccan princess Lalla Meryem last Friday, and representatives of what seemed to be all strands of the country’s intellectual life had made the trip to Paris in order to mark the first time that any Arab country has been guest of honour at the Paris event. Writing in the daily supplement published by the Moroccan government to mark the country’s participation in the Fair, Moroccan minister of culture Mohammed Amine Sibhi explained that the event was an opportunity for visitors to gain a proper perspective on Morocco, a country “open to diversity and difference, rich in heritage and culture, and resolutely turned towards the future.”

It was perhaps this emphasis on diversity, initially primarily linguistic, that visitors to the Fair may have noticed first about the Moroccan presence. The Moroccan pavilion itself was adorned with literary extracts in at least three languages, Arabic, Amazigh (Moroccan Berber) and French, reflecting their standing as official Moroccan languages, and among the subjects up for discussion by visiting Moroccan authors were the “French authors of Morocco,” “cultural and linguistic diversity,” “Morocco and Africa,” and “Jewish-Moroccan heritage” on the day the Weekly visited.

These discussions were held by an impressive roster of Moroccan figures. According to press material, more than 50 Moroccan authors had been invited to speak or to sign books at this year’s Fair, including many of the best-known figures in Moroccan letters. Poet Mohamed Bennis was there, well-known for his work in Arabic both inside and outside Morocco, as was novelist and critic Mohamed Berrada, perhaps the best-known of all Moroccan writers writing in Arabic, and poet Abdelatif Laabi, editor of the French-Arabic review Souffles in the 1960s, a leading journal of the Moroccan avant-garde.

These very well-known figures were supplemented by others, sometimes writing in French and looking towards both Moroccan and European audiences. They included the veteran Franco-Moroccan novelist Tahar Ben Jelloun, winner of the prestigious Prix Goncourt for his novel La Nuit sacrée as far back as 1987, the journalists and commentators Abdelfattah Kilito and Fouad Laroui, the philosopher Ali Benmakhlouf, and, from the younger generation of Moroccan francophone writers, the novelists Abdellah Taia and Mahi Binebine.  

Mohamed Berrada was discussing history writing in Morocco on the day of the Weekly’s visit, though it was a matter for regret that his discussion of Moroccan “languages and literatures” had been the previous day as this seems likely to have been an important statement from one of Morocco’s most important critics. But there was more than enough other material to satisfy even the most exigent of visitors, with Abdellah Taia talking interestingly of his new book Celui qui est digne d’etre aimé (The One Deserving Love) in a nearby session on “writers and mourning” in the African Literatures pavilion in the company of the French West African writer Patrick Chamoiseau (discussing his La Matière de l’absence) and the Congolese novelist Jussy Kiyindou (Quand tombent les lumières du crépuscule).  

Ali Benmakhlouf, well-known for his recent book Pourquoi lire les philosophes arabes (2015), which reads the mediaeval Arab philosophers through the lens of modern analytical philosophy (he has also written books in French on Russell and Frege) could be found discussing the Islam des lumières, the “Islam of the Enlightenment,” with Senegalese philosopher Souleymane Bachir Diagne, formerly professor of philosophy at the Cheikh Anta Diop University in Dakar, Senegal, but now a member of the philosophy department at Columbia University, New York, at the nearby “Literary Scene” forum in a key event on that day’s schedule.  

Such events made for many happy hours, and as usual it was a matter of regret that it had not been possible to be present longer, or on earlier days, perhaps particularly in order to attend the rich programme of events put together at the African Literatures pavilion, surely with the Moroccan programme the highlight of this year’s Paris Book Fair. However, the few hours that it was possible to be present provided much nourishing food for thought.

Paris Book Fair

Moroccan industry: There was, for example, the helpful information provided by the Bureau International de l’Edition Française (BIEF), a French professional body, on the contours of the Moroccan publishing industry that suggested interesting comparisons with publishing in other Arab countries and not only in the Maghreb.  

Immediately following independence from France and in the period from 1960 to 1980 some 40 per cent of the books published in Morocco had been in French, this information said, with the rest in Arabic, whereas today because of the official policy of Arabisation that has been followed since then, notably in education and government, 81 per cent of Moroccan books are in Arabic.  

The information did not say whether similar trends have been seen in neighbouring Algeria and Tunisia, also formerly under French colonial rule, but what it seems to indicate is the emergence in Morocco of a major Arabic-language publishing industry, perhaps challenging the longer-established and traditionally much larger ones in Lebanon and Egypt. Some 2,700 books were published in Morocco in 2014-2015 and some 2,440 in 2015-2016 in all subject categories, with, at the moment, only a tiny minority of these appearing in Amazigh (1.1 and 1.8 per cent, respectively). Most of these outside educational textbooks have only small print runs of between one thousand and two thousand copies and few, if any, reprintings.  

Most Moroccan publishing is on an artisanal scale, with, of the 308 publishing concerns surveyed in 2016 by the Fondation du Roi Abdel-Aziz in Casablanca, a cultural NGO, only 40 publishing more than ten publications a year, nine of these being public-sector publishers. Books in Morocco remain expensive for many people, even locally produced ones – imported books in French and other languages are beyond many budgets – and it seems that reading books has not become a significant cultural activity among much of the Moroccan population.  

However, it also seems that changes are afoot to strengthen the Moroccan industry and to promote the country’s intellectual production more resolutely both at home and abroad. The patronage provided by Moroccan king Mohamed VI in this regard may turn out to be particularly important, the king’s words and portrait figuring prominently at this week’s Paris event. According to Younes Ajarrai, in charge of the Moroccan pavilion at this year’s Paris Fair and speaking last week to the French newspaper Le Monde, Moroccan publishing is not only growing “but is also moving towards the highest international standards.”

“In the 1950s and 1960s, a number of Moroccan authors, including Ahmed Sefrioui and Driss Chraibi [both important Moroccan writers], only became well-known because they were published by French publishers,” Ajarrai said. Today, this would no longer be the case, since the Moroccan industry was both more highly developed and more outward-looking. The quality of the translation work being carried out in Morocco today could be a further index of successes on the horizon, since although translations, chiefly from French and English, still made up a small proportion of overall book production in Morocco, the BIEF said (at 5.9 per cent of the total), this also could be set to change.

“A large proportion of the translations that have appeared in the Middle East and the Gulf countries have been done by Moroccan translators,” the BIEF said. “As a result, after many years spent as a peripheral market for Egyptian and Lebanese publishing, Morocco is now exporting more and more of its authors and translators to Middle Eastern markets.” This process, according to Le Monde, is likely to continue to grow because of the climate of openness now seen in Moroccan society.

Quoting Abdelatif Laabi, the newspaper said that the freedom of expression enjoyed by many in Morocco today meant that more writers and more publishers might be expected to emerge in coming years, especially as they had also received official government blessing. Laabi, whose journal Souffles was banned in 1972 and who then spent the following eight years of his life in prison, is perhaps especially well-placed to talk about the relaxed atmosphere in Morocco today when compared to the “years of lead” in the 1970s.  

One of the new books promoted at the Moroccan pavilion at last week’s Paris Fair was an important collection of articles by Laabi covering his writing over the last three decades (Petites Lumières, écrits 1982-2016, published by La Différence in Paris). Similarly, novelist Mahi Binebin, whose work was also being promoted at the Moroccan pavilion at the Paris Fair, is the author of Le Fou de Roi (The King’s Fool), a new novel which casts a satirical and disenchanted eye over the reign of former Moroccan king Hassan II, Mohamed VI’s father, whose reign was characterised by often harsh clampdowns on the freedom of expression and other abuses.  

It seems that the climate of openness in Morocco today, the reforms carried out by Mohamed VI in the early years of his reign, and a determination on the part of the Moroccan authorities to promote diversity and pluralism in the country as a whole may now be bearing fruit.

Livre Paris, Salon du Livre de Paris, 24-27 March.

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