Before visiting Morocco, many tourists will read a few travel guides which they will often, sensibly, take with them on their holiday.
But it’s also a very good idea to read some books about the country that are fiction or autobiographical tomes, based on the personal experiences of the writers. Some of these could be westerners, some Moroccans; it’s a great way to get a feel of the culture, traditions and history of Morocco and a better understanding of how and why Moroccans think and feel as they do.
Morocco is unique, the varied geography from coastlines to mountains to the desert creates diversity, as do the historic cross-cultural influences of Berbers, Arabs, the French and Spanish colonizations, migrants from more southern African countries, a past strong Jewish heritage and the more modern impact of Britain and the USA.
From the exotic to the erotic, the ancient to the modern, orientalism to anti-colonialism, the mayhem of the larger medinas to the tranquillity of country life, these books will help transport you to this beguiling place. These are just a few of the many books to read about Morocco that will carry you away to a mystical land that you will soon experience for yourself in all its majesty.
Hope And Other Dangerous Pursuits. – Laila Lalami (2005) ; The Secret Son (2009); The Moor’s Account (2014)
My personal favourite, Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits. Leila Lalami’s story begins on a small boat heading across the Straits of Gibraltar from Morocco under the cover of darkness, with a cargo of illegal immigrants seeking a new life in Spain.
The tale is told through the eyes of four of the travellers, two men and two women and the central section of the novel explores their varying reasons for being desperate enough to risk their lives in leaving Morocco. Their back-stories are beautifully crafted and explore some of the darker aspects of modern Moroccan life; the pressure for men to have a good job to support their families, misogyny, domestic violence, the belief in magic and criminal behaviour.
But the characters are all sympathetic and you will root for them. The final part of the book describes what happens to each and what they hope will be their futures. It all feels very real and true to life and some of the descriptive passages are beautiful.
If you enjoy this book, then you will also like reading some of the author’s other works, The Secret Son, that deals with politics, class and religious extremism, and The Moor’s Account, which is a fictional account of a black Moroccan slave who accompanies Cabeza de Vaca, the first black explorer of America in the sixteenth century.
The Caliph’s House: A Year in Casablanca – Tahir Shah (2006)
Tahir Shah is an English travel writer and The Caliph’s House: A Year in Casablanca is a sometimes very funny, other times quite upsetting account of the author’s move with his family from London to Casablanca. It’s in a similar vein to “A Year in Provence” and describes how everything that should be easy becomes increasingly more convoluted.
Their house is infested with djinns, the neighbours attempt to steal everything that they own and the renovation work does not go entirely according to plan. The book deals with the clash of cultures and religion, Culture Shock, the different experiences of visiting Tangier, Marrakech and the Sahara Desert, but through everything that is thrown at the family, the irresistible joy of Morocco and its many delights.
A House in Fez. Building a Life in the Ancient Heart of Morocco. – Suzanna Clarke (2007)
Suzanna Clarke is an Australian journalist, broadcaster and author who is married to the writer Sandy McCutcheon, many of whose novels also include action in Morocco.
A House in Fes. Building a Life in the Ancient Heart of Morocco, follows the trials and tribulations and the joys and successes of the couple as they renovate a dilapidated riad in the medina of Fes and restore the building to its former glory.
But at its core, this is a book about friendships and the decency, generosity and hospitality of the people of Morocco. Sometimes funny, sometimes sad, sometimes frustrating, the couple’s journey is a compelling and thoroughly enjoyable read.
Travels – Paul Bowles (2011); The Sheltering Sky (1949); The Spider’s House (1955)
The late, great Paul Bowles was a famous travel writer who lived for more than fifty years in Tangier and adored Morocco. The book “Travels” is a collection of his published articles and essays, but a couple of them are about his love for Tangier. It’s well worth a read as it gives a wonderful insight into his style and the influences on his works of fiction.
The Sheltering Sky is a novel about the journey of an American couple’s attempts to rekindle their failing relationship with a trip across Morocco and Algeria and the calamitous events that transpire. This is a bleak novel, all the characters, Western and North African are ghastly and there isn’t a happy ending. But it is one of the best-written books of all time. Read it, but don’t bother with the film version.
The Spider’s House is set in Fes during the struggle for Moroccan independence from France and features the relationship between a disillusioned American writer and a rebellious Moroccan teenage boy. Their lives become inextricably enmeshed.
In Morocco – Edith Wharton (1920)
A bit of an older book here, but well worth your time, the famous author Edith Wharton’s book is the true diary of her journey through Morocco’s major cities and her travels in the Sahara Desert and is a very interesting perspective of Morocco a hundred years ago.
It is fascinating to compare the country as it was a century ago to the country of today, you’ll be surprised by how many things have remained unchanged and by how others are unrecognizable from what we experience today.
This book is still recognized as a classic of the genre of Travel Writing.
The Voices of Marrakech : A Record of a Visit – Elias Canetti (1968)
Elias Canetti was a Bulgarian novelist who won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1981. He only visited Morocco and Marrakech for a few weeks, but the experiences he had during this short time were to stay with him until the end of his life and inspire him to write “The Voices of Marrakech”.
He vividly describes the assault on all the senses that Marrakech provides, the smells of the spices and camels, the sights of the red walls and souks, the atmosphere and feel of the place, the taste of tagine and sweet tea, but most of all, he focusses on the sounds of the city from the beggars demanding alms to the shrieks of the children and the calls to prayer, the general hustle and bustle to the contrasting and stony-cold silence on the rooftops and terraces away from the throng.
Marrakech by Design – Maryem Montague (2012)
Quite a recent book, Marrakech by Design by Maryem Montague is the definitive guide to traditional Moroccan styles of decor. She covers tiled floors, carpets and rug, painted walls, doors, archways and sculpted ceilings, the fabrics for soft furnishings, traditional interior garden design, the fountains of riads and even Berber tents.
For anyone planning on refurbishing or renovating a Moroccan property in the traditional look, this is an essential book.
Dreams of Trespass – Tales Of a Harem Girlhood – Fatema Mernissi (1994)
This book is often said to be about the author’s life or semi-autobiographical in the reviews, but this is not the case.
Fatema Mernessi uses the lead character, the girl Fatima who grows up in a harem in Fes, as a medium to explain the problems facing Moroccan women in general; a desire for education, equality and, most of all, freedom.
A prisoner in her grandfather’s harem during the 1940’s and early 1950’s, Fatima and the other girls fight against the un-Islamic male control of their oppressors. The book challenges the western stereotypes of Arab women and shows how thoughtful, intelligent and powerful they can be, finding their paths to freedom and happiness despite the patriarchal society that they live in.
For Bread Alone – Mohamed Choukri (1972)
Mohamed Choukri was a famous Moroccan author, playwright and novelist who was perhaps best known for a wide range of short stories about life in Morocco. For Bread Alone is his most well-known work today and is the first of the three volumes of his autobiography.
It’s fairly depressing in many respects, as the young Mohamed’s family had no money, moved to Tangier from the Rif Mountains and then, when his father cannot get a job, he beats his wife and children, killing the author’s brother on one occasion.
Mohamed becomes a thief and conman and enjoys drinking alcohol, taking drugs and having sex with various women. He is imprisoned where a fellow inmate instills in him a love of poetry and writing.
Unsurprisingly, the book is extremely controversial in Arab countries and was banned until quite recently, but the English translation, by Paul Bowles was a success in the USA and Britain.
Hideous Kinky – Esther Freud (1992)
Esther Freud’s Hideous Kinky is the autobiographical story of the author’s childhood in Morocco with her mother and elder sister. They reside in a rundown hotel in Marrakech and don’t have much money, little being sent by their father from London and their work repairing clothes not earning them much more than the minimum required to survive.
The girls set their mother up with a Moroccan acrobat called Bilal who falls in love with her but she goes off to become a student of Sufism in a remote retreat. But Bilal won’t give up on them.
It’s a very good depiction of life in Morocco, but you will want to strangle the mother, she is so irresponsible.
There is a film with Kate Winslett of Titanic fame playing the mother, but it’s not very good.
There are many Best Books To Read About Morocco, but the selection above should provide you with something interesting, fun and informative whatever your tastes.