By David Giovacchini, Middle East & Islamic Studies Librarian
In mid-February, I traveled to Morocco to attend the Casablanca Book Fair, one of the biggest in the Arab world. I flew from Philadelphia to Amsterdam where I met my companion for the trip, Dr. Fawzi Abdurazzak, proprietor of Dar Mahjar, the Library’s supplier of North African books. From there we flew to Casablanca, a major port and industrial city in Morocco. From the airport we took a special train towards Rabat, the capital city. We had decided to stay in Rabat rather than Casablanca because this was where Fawzi’s agent was based; Fawzi consulted with him on each day’s purchases at the Fair. We changed trains at a halfway point, which gave me time to soak in the sights of the lush and green countryside. and to see that ramshackle houses clustered everywhere, each one with a satellite dish even if they lacked glass for the windows.
Eventually we arrived at our destination, a hotel that must have been a grand sight during the French colonial period but whose glamour and luxury had faded with the years. The next day we enjoyed pastries and strong Moroccan coffee for breakfast at a nearby café, which seemed frozen in time since the 1950s, and took the train back to Casablanca for the first day of the Book Fair. The walk from the station to the Fair took us past the docks, where I was amazed by the size and number of facilities for moving and storing cargo. We also passed the Moroccan naval academy and the old fort which guarded Casablanca’s harbor under the Sultans.
The Book Fair was awesome in all respects. The building in which it was held was the size of the three football fields, completely festooned with flags and posters. On the grounds there were three restaurants and numerous food stands selling everything from kebabs to cotton candy. We immediately got to work, making our way through the labyrinthine passages between the stalls. Here, too, everyone from the porters to government officials greeted Fawzi with a kiss or a hand shake. This was a part of the book trade process and served as a great way for me to meet them all.
In the five days I was there, we managed to visit all the academic and government publishers, such as the Royal Institute for Berber Studies, the Muhammad V University Press and the Royal Academy of Historical Studies, as well as commercial publishers, large and small, from all over the Arab world. I could walk from the stall of an Algerian publisher – where I found a major new study on North African cinema – to a stall staffed by scruffy Libyan students selling privately published books about Qaddafi’s overthrow, to the stall of a local Moroccan publisher who specialized in civil law books. At the stall of the Ministry of Culture of the Sultanate of Oman, I discovered a number of rare works on the Ibadi sect of Islam.
There were many surprises among the riches on offer. One was the stall of the Movement for Unity and Reform, Morocco’s one legal Islamist party, which was displaying CDs of all their official literature – an extremely rare and important find! Another surprise was the stall of the Society for the Preservation of Andalusi Music. Andalusi music is a form of Arabic classical music, which originated in Spain, and was brought to Morocco by immigrants from Spain during the Spaniards’ flight from the Christians after 1492. Casablanca was a center for this type of music and the Society had a number of CD box sets documenting the scene there since the 1950s. After I purchased these, the man running the stall invited us to attend a musical evening at the Society. After the Fair closed, he drove us through the rough urban neighborhoods of Casablanca to the Society’s home, a beautiful Spanish-style house in a peaceful moonlit square. The house was filled with mementos of musicians from Casablanca who had made the music famous. Soon, men, women and families arrived; some with instruments and some without. After a snack of fried dough, they started to play and sing. It was heavenly—an Andalusi jam session.
One morning we took the time to explore the old market in Rabat. There were all sorts of things on offer: fish, meat, spices, clothing, jewelry. We visited several antiquarian book sellers and a CD shop. It was fun to sift through the dusty piles of old books at the book sellers. I was hoping to find some Fes lithographs for our collection, but none were on offer; it is difficult to get such things out of Morocco as there is a ban on removing manuscripts and these lithographs look like manuscripts to the untrained eye. I was very excited to go into a CD shop. I love Moroccan chaabi or folk pop music, and came out of the shop with an armful of CDs by my favorite groups like Nass el Ghiwane and Jil Jilala.
The food I had in Morocco was incredible, fresh and tasty. Mostly I had whole grilled fish of various local varieties, all excellent. Friday is the day for couscous and all the times I have had it elsewhere pale in comparison to the dish I had in Morocco. We usually had Moroccan wine with dinner, which was a real treat, and possible only because Moroccan society is very liberal. In Morocco, Islam is a personal religion, not a state one, and local wine and beer are readily available. Women work in all kinds of jobs and are not required to wear the hijab, but may do so if they desire.
Fawzi and I worked hard each day at the Fair – I considered the trip a job well done – but the end of the week still came too quickly. All told, I had acquired for the Library approximately 3,300 hard to get items from all over the Arab world and they were much more reasonably priced than if they were available and on offer in the US.
As my flight home rose into the air, I saw in my mind’s eye the monumental form of the Hassan II Mosque with its massive minaret, the world’s tallest, rising up over the Book Fair. I will never forget this sight, which greeted me every day at the fair; I hope to see it again soon on my return to Morocco.