Over the past few years, people have often asked me what sort of books they should read about Morocco. That’s a tough question as there are quite a few really great books about this little kingdom nestled on the northwest corner of Africa. Still, I have my favorites. What follows has been born from an email exchange with a JBT client (and fellow University of Washington alum!). It is a list of what I believe to be the Best Books about Morocco. These are my favorite by Moroccans and non-Moroccans alike. Any one of these will help you to pull back the curtain, dive straight into the souks, into the mountains and desert, and understand even more about Morocco before your plane touches down.
Morocco Reading List: Non-Fiction
Required reading for those interested in male-female dynamics in Morocco (or really, anywhere in North Africa). Morocco’s leading feminist studies the status of women. She argues that fundamental Islam is, in part, a defense of the rise of women in the workplace and shifting roles of genders in a largely conservative society. This is a staple read in university classrooms throughout the world. Though Mernissi penned this decades ago, it feels so modern and in-touch with contemporary Morocco that it could have been written yesterday. For those looking for an academic update to this, Dr. Katja Žvan Elliott’s Modernizing Patriarchy is an incredible look at gender relations in the smaller, conservative villages of Morocco’s vast countryside.
A classic tale of a family’s rise and fall, Shakespearean in tragedy and scope. Set in Marrakesh and the soaring kasbahs of the High Atlas, follow the rise to power of the Glaoui family during the French Protectorate Era, and their sudden, swift and total demise. A gripping, intriguing, true story of Morocco torn straight from the pages of its opulent, often violent, history. This is one of those history books that’s hard to put down.
The chances are that if you love to read and are traveling to Morocco, you’re going to love this book. Shoemake, a former school master in Tangier, weaves the tale of this city poised at the northwestern-most point of Africa, just a 35-minute boat ride away from Spain. In it, you will discover not only about the influence Tangier had on icons of the Beat Generation, from William Burroughs to Tennessee Williams, but also go back in time to when a young Mark Twain first stepped foot off the boat and even further back, when the eponymous Ibn Battuta left for his maiden voyage from his home of Tangier to make the pilgrimage across the Sahara to Mecca. Stories are arranged around the individual neighborhoods of Tangier, each with its own distinct taste of history… but perhaps none so inviting as that first sip of mint tea on the steps of Cafe Hafa. Full disclosure, Journey Beyond Travel did an interview with Josh Shoemake about this book not too long ago!
For whatever reason, Tangier holds a special place among the hearts of writers, musicians, and adventurous travelers from around the world. Though none of the writers appearing on this list were born in Tangier, many wrote about the city later after it had become their home. BBC Journalist Richard Hamilton uses his keen nose for a story as he tracks down current addresses of contemporary Morocco. These people and places serve as a window into Tangier’s often sordid past. Discover a little about the magic Tangier holds as a beacon for drifters and layabouts, scallawags and ruffians… and the artists who follow.
Morocco Reading List: Travelogues
At the age of 36, best-selling, acclaimed writer Tahir Shah got a chance to purchase Dar Khalifa, a crumbling ruin of an estate in the depths of one of Casablanca’s roughest, seediest neighborhoods. Recalling the Moroccan vacations of his childhood, Shah couldn’t pass up the opportunity so he packed up his wife and kids. What follows is the comedy of a family adjusting to a new life and the restoration of a dream, complete with quests deep into Casablanca’s underbelly to find the proper ingredients for appeasing the djinn haunting the estate’s well, as well as the more common travails of adjusting to a new country and a new way of life – all too relatable for those who have spent time in Morocco. A must-read for those who dream of restoring a riad or plan on moving to Morocco more permanently. For those looking for a bit more of a swashbuckling adventure for the plane or those famous long Moroccan train rides, check out Shah’s latest novel that dives into the secret depths of Marrakesh’s ancient Medina: Hannibal Fogg and the Supreme Secret of Man.
Follow the story of one of JBT’s founders, Thomas Hollowell, and his experience in the Peace Corp where he meets and befriends an older man by the name of Azeddine. The two slowly become friends and, as they sip tea and talk in Azeddine’s kitchen, Azeddine’s tragic history as a prisoner of war in one of Morocco’s most terrifying underground prisons slowly unravels. Part adventure and part tragedy, ultimately this is a true story about faith and the power we have to overcome the most difficult of obstacles life places before us.
Morocco Reading List: Novels
This critically acclaimed bestseller retells ghastly accounts of the desert concentration camps. These dark camps underground in the farthest reaches of Morocco are where the former king, Hassan II, kept his political enemies after a failed coup. With no food, no light and no hope, this is the story of men on the edge of death. Recounted with close help from one of the prison survivors, this is a story that sheds light into the darker places of the world. Somehow, in the midst of this darkness, hope is kindled.
Though not Bowles’ best-known work (that title belongs to The Sheltering Sky, a story that actually takes place in Algeria) this is perhaps his best Moroccan novel. Set in Fez against the backdrop of the national uprising that foreshadowed Moroccan Independence in 1956, the novel takes readers on a voyage into the most labyrinthian of Moroccan cities. A brutal, honest view of when “East meets West” and the confusing, often tragic consequences that evolve from people unable to comprehend the new world around them, as one expects from the longtime Tangier resident, Paul Bowles, who spent 50 years living in Morocco. The dilemma of the western traveler, here in the guise of American ex-pat Stenham, is Bowles at his most evocative and, in parts, beautiful.
This fast-paced, heartrending novelization of the author’s life is a snapshot into the underbelly of Morocco. Set in the early 50s, against the backdrop of Tangier’s “Interzone,” Mohamed charms and steals his way through the world. He experiments with drugs, sex and alcohol along the way, all taboo. After a short spell in prison, his life changes in unimaginable ways. Translated by the Beat-generation writer, Paul Bowles. This is a classic of modern Moroccan literature and after years of being censored, is now found throughout the country.
General Reading on Islam and Arabic
Arabic, as a language, and Islam, as a religion, are twined closely. Though there are Arabic-speaking countries that are not muslim (such as Malta) and muslim countries that are not dominantly Arab-speaking (such as Indonesia). However, Arabic is considered by most to have been “codified” in the writing of the Holy Quran. It would do any scholar or armchair traveler well to read any of the following with those concepts in mind.
The Holy Quran
In English, it’s perhaps surprisingly difficult to find a really good translation of the Holy Quran. Most translations are heavy-handed and work hard as a sort of “proof” of the translators school of Islam (of which there are three major: Sufi, Sunni and Shia). My go-to translation is The Study Quran (ed. S.H. Nasr). It’s a thoughtful translation that includes footnotes on nearly every line in the text from leading scholars around the world. If you wanted to know more about Islam, this is where you should start. The essays include in afterword are excellent and provide even more insight. I can’t recommend this enough.
In 1325, Ibn Battuta set out for the Hajj, the annual pilgrimage to Mecca that able muslims are required to do at least once in their life. The pilgrimage saw him set out from his home in Tangier and across North Africa. He wouldn’t return for another 29 years. Instead, Battuta follows employment prospects across the Middle East and Asia, his travels surpassing those of Marco Polo. His collected journals are a fascinating insight to the medieval world and medieval Islam. For budding scholars and history buffs, it doesn’t get any better than Battuta.
If you’re trying to learn Arabic or even just thinking about it, read this book first! In this travelogue through the four countries in the Middle East and North Africa, O’Neill tries to pick up her Arabic studies where she left oft. After years of living in New York, though, she found that she had forgotten (or perhaps misplaced) much of the Arabic she had learned while in Egypt. Understanding this difference between studying “Modern Standard Arabic,” confusingly the type of Arabic everyone studies yet nobody really uses, O’Neill delves into country-specific Arabics, becoming more comfortable… until, that is, she arrives to Fez, Morocco.
If you are interested in learning Moroccan Arabic, I haven’t found a better written resource than the guide that the Peace Corp publishes. As a word of warning: even for those with an ability to pick-up languages, this can be difficult under taking. It’s maybe best to work on a few common phrases first before delving into the intricacies of holding a more elaborate conversation. You can download Moroccan Arabic free. Just click on the title above.
About the Author
Written by Morocco expert, award-winning author and photographer Lucas Peters. After spending years traveling to the distant corners of Morocco and writing about his adventures, he penned the best-selling guidebook Moon Morocco as well as Marrakesh and Beyond. He lives in Tangier with his wife and son. Once upon a time, he was also a university professor who taught a course on Moroccan Literature.