Perhaps not what people first consider when thinking of Morocco, is the rich history of book trade and literature in this most curious country.
We are walking through an age where tablets and smartphones dictate much of our lives. Designed to make all of our needs accessible in one portable device, our phones make it possible for us to stay one step ahead.
There is of course, always a catch. This digital age is quickly pushing many of our well known learning resources into the land of irrelevance. With the birth of devices such as the kindle, our books are at risk of being left behind.
You might have heard of the Khizanat al-Qarawiyyin library, located in the ancient medina of Fez. The library was founded in the 9th century, by the daughter of a wealthy Tunisian merchant. It is widely recognised as the oldest library in the world and after heavy restoration to it’s former glorious state, the library re-opened to the public in 2016.
The walls of this impressive library house some very important pieces of literature. Perhaps the most notable, is a ninth-century copy of the Qur’an, written in ornate Kufic script on camel skin. This is a hugely significant part of Islamic history, and pre-dates a vast number of politically skewed versions of the Holy Qur’an. Of course, this book is kept safely locked in a secure room with temperature and humidity controlled climate.
What you may not know, is that Marrakech also has it’s own connection to historical book trading and preserving.
When you picture the vibrant souks of the city, you probably think of swathes of hanging textiles, wonky stacks of leather poofes, pointy babouche and aged metal jewels; but before many of these shops existed, there were booksellers.
The famous 12th century Koutoubia mosque itself, is known as the Mosque of the Booksellers and the thriving shops of the Jemaa El Fna which now stock a selection of modern artisanal goods aimed at tourists; were once the marketplace for handwritten works of literature and religious scrolls. Each bookstore was family owned, and the role of the bookseller was passed down through generations.
As the tourist trade has grown in Marrakech, the booksellers have been pushed outside of the walls of the ancient medina. Although many local Moroccan’s recognise that their place is truly in the heart of the medina, the government works in favour of boosting the tourism economy by replacing these historical stores with hard-sellers and items aimed specifically at souvenir buyers.
The booksellers were somewhat kicked aside to make space for a vast number of street food stalls & souvenir stands, which all participate in creating a bustling tourist hot spot. There is no denying the magic, exoticism of the Jemaa El Fna; with snake charmers, monkeys, drumming circles, acrobats, belly dancers and fortune telling – it is truly like stepping into a festival every single day.
The authorities’ determination to maintain this perceived tourist ideal of an oriental Marrakech, has forced the booksellers to settle in a new area of the city. Although numbers of book stalls have vastly diminished, you will still find these vendors in the district known as Bab Doukkala. This busy area is perched just on the edge of the old medina walls, and is home to not only the book sellers, but a typical fruit market and the main bus station.
Not much to look at from a first glance, the book stalls are made up of make-shift shacks from metal frames with plastic sheet covers. Do not be put off by first appearances, as this is really a joyful place to browse and shop; free from hassle or hard-sell.
Each store is packed with cardboard boxes full of amazing books in all genres. Many fictional novels have found their way into the corners of these shacks, from travellers old and current. There are also very useful travel guides of Morocco, with focuses on different aspects of Moroccan culture. Sometimes you might meet school children and students shopping for learning resources, or local Moroccans buying pieces of old religious script. Often, you will find copies of the Qur’an which have been translated from Arabic to English, French or Spanish; although some Moroccan muslims may tell you that it is not possible to literally translate the Qur’an.
Unfortunately, this trade has much to compete with in order to stay relevant. The livelihoods of the booksellers wholly depends on people valuing the books that they stock. Not only do they have to compete with the low literacy rates that exist in Morocco, they also have to compete with modern technology.
Of course, when you’re discovering a new country you might not feel implored to spend your time buying books; but a visit to this surviving market is recommended! Perhaps you might find a book title which really speaks to you. You could even consider buying a few books to donate to one of the many educational charities or orphanages that are working hard to improve social aspects of Moroccan life. Alternatively, you could leave a book in a cafe as a “pass it on” gesture.
To find the book market, you can use our recently updated Marrakech Riad Travel App Guide. It’s free to download on all devices and will lead you straight to the destination or on any scenic route you might choose.