Moroccan books in Paris

David Tresilian , Tuesday 11 Jun 2024

Morocco was the guest of honour at this year’s Maghreb des Livres book fair in Paris, writes David Tresilian



A regular rendez-vous for French readers interested in books about the Arab Maghreb, this year’s Maghreb des Livres book fair, taking place in Paris on the weekend of 1-2 June, saw Moroccan literature happily installed as the guest of honour.

As has been the case over previous years, this year’s edition of the fair, the 30th, was housed in the 19th-century splendour of the Paris Town Hall. While the weather had done little to help produce a suitably Maghreb atmosphere, with grey skies and drizzle being the order of the day instead of sunshine, a respectable turnout of visitors was in evidence, attracted by the prospect of enjoying the fair’s usual mix of discussions, book signings, and purchases.

The unseasonably cold weather had produced a contingent of visitors enjoying the hot meals on offer at the fair’s “Moorish café,” which was also offering a selection of typical North African sweets and mint tea.

Many of the strengths and weaknesses of the event were in evidence at this year’s fair, which featured the participation of dozens of authors. While the opportunity to sit in on interviews with many of these was of course welcome, as was the opportunity to hear them speak in the 15-minute blocks set aside for authors to describe their work, few of them appeared to be living in the Maghreb countries or publishing with Maghreb publishers.

Anyone hoping to gain a sense of literary or other types of publishing in the Maghreb countries, among them of course guest of honour Morocco, would thus have been disappointed.

While the Paris bookstore Le Tiers Mythe, which specialises in books in French about the non-Western world, had been invited along to present a selection of books in French on the Maghreb and appeared to be doing brisk sales, it would have been even better if publishers from the Maghreb countries had been invited to present their books as well, in French and Arabic, thus providing visitors with the opportunity to understand more about the local publishing industries.

Useful as it was to look over the selection of French books on North Africa or by North African authors published by French publishers and provided by the friendly and knowledgeable staff of Le Tiers Mythe, it would have been even better if North African publishers had also been in evidence.

Perhaps this was impossible because of the costs involved or for other reasons.

Yet, even with these caveats there was much to enjoy at this year’s fair and certainly more than enough to escape the unseasonal wind and rain that had set in in Paris for a couple of hours in the congenial company of books and authors.

Books that may have caught the eye of visitors included a new French translation of Egyptian cartoon-book author Deena Mohamed’s Subeik Lubeik, well-received when it appeared in English some years ago (as Your Wish is My Command) and now available to French readers, and the autobiography of French historian Benjamin Stora, titled L’Arrivée, de Constantine à Paris. Stora is well known for his books on Algeria, and his memoir details his arrival in France from Algeria as a child.

There was also a newly published collection of autobiographical reflections, titled Autobiographie impossible, by the late Tunisian author Albert Memmi, whose essays Portrait of the Coloniser and Portrait of the Colonised contributed much to the debate about French colonialism in the Maghreb countries when they first appeared in the 1950s.

Mohamed and Stora were on hand at the fair to sign their books.

Other titles generating discussion included a new book on French author Albert Camus, born in Algiers and often taking Algeria as his theme, by former French foreign minister Hubert Védrine (Camus, notre rampart), also on hand to sign copies on the second day of the fair, and books on Palestine by well-known French authors Jean Pierre Filiu (Comment la Palestine fut perdue) and Alain Gresh (Israel, Palestine: Vérités sur un conflit), both of whom were on hand for signings.

There was an intriguing new title on the late Egyptian singer Umm Kulthoum, Oum Kalsoum, l’arme secrete de Nasser, a cartoon book by French author Martine Lagardette, a clutch of titles on writing by women, also the subject of a roundtable discussion on the fair’s second day, and some valuable books on human geography.

The latter included a survey of modern Algerian architecture (L’architecture en Algérie de 1830 à nos jours by Vincent and Soraya Bertaud du Chazaud and published by the French architectural review Le Moniteur) and an account of the transformation of the Moroccan port of Tangiers into one of Africa’s largest container terminals (Tanger, fortunes et infortunes d’une ville by Mohamed Metalsi).

Notable titles on Maghreb women’s writing included Assia Djebar, femme écrivant by Maissa Bey, an essay on the work of the late Algerian novelist and member of the Académie Française, Littérature en thérapie, expériences littéraires des femmes du Maghreb by Hedia Khadhar, detailing writing as a form of self-help, and, in a different way, Sagesse des femmes du Maghreb by Nora Aceval.  

Visitors interested in the extraordinary expansion of Algerian literature in French during and after the Algerian War of Independence will have noted new titles on some now-classic authors, such as Hend Sadi’s Mouloud Mammeri au coeur de la bataille d’Algiers, published by the innovative Editions Frantz Fanon in Algiers, and Hervé Sanson and Tassadit Yacine’s Relire [Mouloud] Feraoun (from Editions Koukou, also in Algiers), as well, of course, as Maissa Bey’s new book on Djebar.

Assassinated by French terrorist group the Organisation de l’armée secrete (OAS) just days before the end of the Algerian War in 1962, Feraoun was a sensitive and accomplished writer of novels about his native Kabylie, among them the trilogy beginning with Le Fils du pauvre.

Franco-Tunisian academic Kalthoum Saafi was present on the fair’s second day to sign copies of her new translation of works in Arabic by the late 19th-century Egyptian writer Qassim Amin (tahrir al-mara and al-mara al-jadida), presented under the title Qacim Amin, les Lumières en contexte islamique.

Strange to say, Amin’s works, available in English within a few decades of their Arabic publication, have had to wait until now before making it into French.


Roundtables: As well as meeting authors and attending book signings, visitors to the Maghreb des Livres can also attend panel discussions on aspects of North African literature spread out over the two days of the fair.

This year’s edition did not disappoint, and there were discussions on the themes of “culture and science,” “surviving exile,” and “injustices in the banlieue” (the often-disadvantaged suburban areas that surround many French cities), among others, on the first day of the fair and on “architecture in the Maghreb” and “women writers in Morocco” on the second.

While it was unfortunately not possible to attend all these events – among other reasons because they overlapped – the Weekly party was able to listen in on some of them. As is so often the case at the Maghreb des Livres, this was an opportunity to be introduced to books and authors that it might be difficult to encounter elsewhere.

“Surviving exile” saw authors Celia Cuordifede, Suzanne El Kenz, Saber Mansouri, and Marc Terrisse discussing their recent works with moderator Yves Chemla. Cuordifede, author of Ceux qui restent: En Afghanistan, au Liban, au Sénégal, au Guatemala, en Tunisie, spoke about what she had seen during her research in West Africa and elsewhere, notably regarding the push and pull factors that can encourage people to leave their homelands for lives abroad, while Mansouri explained some of the experiences behind his Paris est une dette, a novel about disillusionment with the French capital among recent arrivals from Tunisia.

Terrisse, an academic, spoke on the background to his New York, portrait d’une ville arabe, a non-academic account of following in the footsteps (though he apparently used a bike) of the Syrian immigrants who once lived in New York City in such numbers that an area of the Lower West Side, more or less where the financial district is today, was once called “Little Syria” at the end of the 19th and beginning of the 20th centuries.

Their story is well-known in both Arabic and English, thanks in particular to the work of mahjar (emigrant) generation writers such as Gibran Khalil Gibran and (writing mostly in English) Ameen Rihani, and to the important historical work by US historian Alixa Naff, today preserved in the Smithsonian Museum in Washington.

However, perhaps it is less well-known to French-speaking readers, and it seems that Terrisse’s book, colloquially written with many autobiographical touches, may introduce many new readers to this important episode in Syrian and Lebanese history.

Later in the day, panelists Rita El-Khayat, Myriam Jebbor, and Ghizlaine Mamouni spoke on a roundtable on the “reform of Moroccan family law” moderated by Driss El-Yazami. El-Khayat and Jebbor were also promoting books at the fair (Les violences traditionelles contre les femmes and La trahison, respectively), while Mamouni is a Moroccan lawyer.

While many members of the audience might have had only an approximate knowledge of Moroccan family law, sometimes called “personal status law” as a translation of the Arabic mudawwanat al-aḥwal al-shakhṣiyyah, most would presumably have been aware of the stakes of reforms that touch upon issues such as marriage contracts, divorce, the bringing up of children, and inheritance, particularly as these touch upon religious (canon) law.

Mamouni spoke about the reforms to family law, notably regarding divorce and childcare, that had taken place in Morocco in 2004, when there were demonstrations both in favour and against them, making them a polarising issue in society. Following the 2004 reforms, the country’s 2011 Constitution, brought in following that year’s Arab Spring, set out principles that were neither fully reflected in the 2004 reforms nor in the text of the family law. There were now moves afoot in Morocco to introduce further changes intended to bring about true equality between men and women in these areas, she said, adding that this could bring about further polarisation.

At a panel discussion on “injustices in the banlieue,” authors Aicha Bechir, Karim Miské, Mabrouck Rachedi and Nedjib Sidi-Moussa spoke with moderator Nadia Agsous about the ways in which their books represent life in disadvantaged areas of French cities where there may also be high concentrations of people of immigrant, notably North African, origin.

Over recent years, issues of this sort have become more familiar to international audiences, not least because of the protests by young people living in such areas against high levels of unemployment, poor facilities and a lack of opportunities, and police violence against them, sometimes leading to periods of rioting such as were seen in 2005 and 2023 as well as in other years.

Sidi-Moussa spoke about his book Le remplaçant: journal d’un prof (précaire) de banlieue, a diary of his work as a temporary teacher in disadvantaged areas of the French suburbs, where the teachers, as well as the students, are apparently confronted by ever-worsening conditions, dead-end jobs, and the feeling that the wider society either ignores or has nothing to offer them.

Warming to this theme, Mabrouck Rechedi explained that his novels, aimed at young-adult readers and most recently including Tous les mots qu’on ne s’est pas dits, have emerged from his own experience growing up in an originally Algerian family in the suburbs of Paris. Experiences such as those presented in Sidi-Moussa’s memoir were not new to him, he said, though they are presented in fictional form in his novels.

Similarly, Aicha Bechir, also reflecting on her experience as a newly qualified teacher having to deal with the under-resourced schools of the French banlieue, explained how she had presented her conclusions in fictional form in a first novel, L’Accusation. Karim Miské talked about his banlieue-based thrillers, the most recent of which is La Situation, a glimpse of a dystopian future, and the best-known probably Arab Jazz, which won the Grand Prix de Littérature policière on its appearance in 2012.

Maghreb des Livres, les lettres marocaines à l’honneur, Paris, 1-2 June.


* A version of this article appears in print in the 13 June, 2024 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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