I went to Morocco for a year in 2014 to translate a book of poetry by Ahmed Bouanani. I was originally introduced to Bouanani’s work in the summer of 2013 by Omar Berrada, the director of the library at the international arts residency Dar al-Ma’mûn, located just outside of Marrakech, where I would volunteer for the year. From my first day in Morocco, I tried to keep my eyes and ears open for more Moroccan writers whose work resonated with me, for writing that was doing new things with language or interesting things politically. I ended up reading and meeting many exciting authors, and I wanted to get other translators involved in bringing some of their words into English. Words Without Borders allowed me to do just that.
French is the language, and France is the country, with the highest percentage of books translated into English every year. However, very few francophone writers from countries other than France—such as Morocco, Algeria, Tunisia, Lebanon, Haiti, Madagascar, etc.—are finding their way to English-language readers. In 2015, 15% of books in translation were from the French, and just 8.8% of those 113 books were from outside of Europe and Canada. During my year in Marrakech, I started looking into which Moroccan writers had already been translated. I assumed the renowned Moroccan writers had all managed to find their way into English at some point. I would soon learn just how untrue this was. In the entire history of Moroccan writing, written in any language—be it French, Arabic, or any of the local dialects—I managed to find only roughly thirty Moroccan writers with full-length works translated into English. Of course, it’s possible that I missed some authors and there may be books that are out of print or not easily accessible. But how will English speakers who don’t have grants or other ways of spending meaningful time in Morocco be able to access what Moroccan writers have had to say if none of their stories are readily available in English?
I discovered the writers found in these pages by stumbling upon books in the Dar al-Ma’mûn library, with the help of its wonderful librarian Juan Asís Palao Gómez, and by getting recommendations from the artists in residence and others involved in the Moroccan literature scene. I went to Casablanca’s Salon du Livre and to the few bookstores sprinkled throughout the country. Arabic-speaking friends helped me track down books in the Bibliothèque Nationale in Rabat. Writers put me in touch with other writers they admired, usually via Facebook. I read Salim Jay’s Dictionnaire des auteurs marocains and Abdellatif Laâbi’s anthology Poésie marocaine de l’indépendence à nos jours. I also looked through English-language journals that had published their own Moroccan writing issues, but I found that the same few prominent, francophone Moroccan writers were often translated over and over, and that the majority of these issues focused on writing from either French or Arabic, without celebrating the diversity of Moroccan languages by putting these languages side by side in conversation.
The ten authors you’ll read here by no means represent a definitive list of the country’s best writers, nor all the languages spoken there. Rather, they are what I hope might be a starting point for anyone interested in discovering work coming from Morocco. These authors are doing important things in post-independence Moroccan writing, a period fueled with a new energy, vitality, and honesty. None has had a book-length work translated into English; the young arabophone writers Mohammed El Khadiri and Soukaina Habiballah have not even published so much as an excerpt. Their writing is translated from classical Arabic and French, but also from Darija (Moroccan Arabic), in the case of Mourad Kadiri’s playful, rhyming poetry; and from Tamazight, in the case of Khadija Arouhal’s militant feminist work. Two of the pieces have been translated from bridge languages: Arouhal’s Amazigh poem was translated into French for Hakima Lebbar’s anthology Femmes et Religions: Points de vue de femmes du Maroc, where I came across it, and then from French into English for this issue; Mohamed El Khadiri, who moves freely between both languages, opted to translate his short story from Arabic into French. Some of the writers are in their twenties and just getting started on a promising career in writing, such as El Khadiri and Habiballah; others have passed away, as in the case of Malika Moustadraf, a pioneer of the Moroccan short story who died tragically at age forty-four in 2006. Their writing varies in theme, from the poet Siham Bouhlal’s meditations on love and loss to Mohamed Leftah’s surreal, fictional treatment of a suicide; from Fouad Laroui’s humorous commentary on globalization to Ahmed Bouanani’s mourning of a Morocco of the past to Abdallah Zrika’s prose poetry on the everyday. For anyone interested in getting an idea of the vast range of writing coming from Morocco and its incredibly diverse writers and languages, these are ten writers that I think you should read. And then go on to discover some others.