Morocco's desert

Image: Ryan MacEachern/Penguin

Nestled on Africa’s north-westerly tip, bridging the Atlantic Ocean and Mediterranean Seas, Morocco’s combination of Arabic, Berber and European cultural influences makes it a fascinating place to visit – and read about. From Essaouira’s windswept city walls, to Chefchaouen’s blue ones, through the understated beauty of the Atlas Mountains and down to the desert’s baking sands, Morocco has plenty to offer. And that’s before its more famous city offerings: the bustling souks of Marrakech and Fez, the coastline of Casablanca. Ripe sights, sounds and smells to inspire the writer: and here are the best books to start with.

The Caliph’s House by Tahir Shah (2006)

One to read on the plane, as it departs grey little Great Britain. This was the journey made by Tahir Shah, with his expecting wife and young daughter, in 2003. Shah was fed up with the small, drab existence offered by London, but also sought to retrace the steps of his heritage. Shah is the great-grandson of an Afghan chieftain; his grandfather spent his final years in Morocco. As a child Shah holidayed in the High Atlas mountains. By moving his family to Morocco, he believed, he was fulfilling a “duty” of passing on that same “gift of cultural colour” to his children.

What ensues is rather more, well, logistical, as Shah moves into a crumbling, abandoned mansion, complete with orange groves and swimming pools, but also burst pipes. To add to the drama, Shah’s arrival collided with British troops’ invasion of Iraq. Nevertheless, the family persist – and the year in which they renovate The Caliph’s House is charted beautifully in this entertaining book.

Secret Son by Laila Lalami (2009)

Moroccan-American author Laila Lalami's Secret Son is a strange mirror to The Great Gatsby, a coming-of-age narrative about Youssef, a sensitive boy who grew up in the slums of Casablanca finds, at 19, he was actually fathered by a rich man. His swift ascendancy to the glittering realms of the Casablancan elite collides with the power that militant Islamists hold for Morocco’s poverty-stricken. In the process, Lalami depicts the social challenges at the country’s core.

Sex and Lies: Sex Life in Morocco by Leila Slimani (2017)

As a novelist, Leila Slimani (who is French-Moroccan) has plated up race, class and gender in piercing tomes (Lullaby, Adele). In this, her first non-fiction book, Slimani has pulled back the curtain on the same themes with eviscerating detail after gathering Moroccan women’s stories of desire and discretion while on book tours in the country. In the process, Slimani offers a call to arms to reform the punitive and antiquated laws that keep women, and their sexuality, repressed.  

The Sheltering Sky by Paul Bowles (1949)

A familiar sight among Morocco’s backpackers, Paul Bowles’ debut novel tells the semi-autobiographical story of an American couple who emigrate to the Moroccan desert, and find themselves in a world unlike any they’ve previously experienced. It proved to be the start of quite the life-change for Bowles, a composer from New York whose musical career was fairly successful, before he disembarked for Tangier and remained there for the next half-century.

This Blinding Absence of Light by Tahar Ben Jelloun (2001)

Shortlisted twice for the Nobel Prize for Litearture, Tahar Ben Jelloun is one of France’s most revered writers. But he was born in Fez, the son of a spice-seller and tailor, and grew up in the souk. As a teenager, though, he spent 18 months in an army camp, having been arrested for taking part in student protest demonstrations; a smuggled copy of Ulysses, translated into French, inspired a writer’s spark.

After captivity, Ben Jelloun moved to France to study at 26, in 1971. At the same time, his home country, a man named Salim was participating in a coup to oust King Hassan II of Morocco. Its failure saw him imprisoned in the desert for 20 years. This Blinding Absence of Light is Ben Jelloun’s telling of Salim’s story, one in which humanity perseveres with the help of storytelling itself.   

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