Writing Marrakech

Alexander Elinson on Yassin Adnan

In 2011, as the Arab Spring spread from Tunis to Egypt and across the Arab world, we heard time and again about the importance of Twitter, Facebook, and other social media in mobilizing mass protests and, in many cases, bringing down regimes that had been entrenched in power for decades. Just a year after Egypt’s Hosni Mubarak was ousted from power in January 2011, Jose Antonio Vargas wrote in The New York Times “how an Egyptian Revolution began on Facebook.” Social media can provide a megaphone to anyone with an internet connection, but it is also important to remember that revolutions existed long before the internet, and that the mass movements of the Arab Spring were rooted in years of local and international activism. That said, we now live in a world where political campaigns are waged on Facebook and policy debates are conducted on Twitter, and like it or not, reputations can be made or destroyed online. This new virtual social and political landscape is as real as the people who inhabit it, and Yassin Adnan’s debut novel, Hot Maroc, is the first Moroccan novel of and about the internet. It examines how, after its appearance in the late 1990s, the internet completely transformed Moroccan society, and how these changes connect to a literary, political, and social culture that dates back centuries.

I first heard of Yassin Adnan when Hot Maroc was one of 16 titles longlisted for The International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2017 (out of a total of 186 nominations). As I started to see his name pop up on social media sites, on Arabic literature blogs, and in the mainstream Arab press, it became clear to me that he was a rising star on the Arab cultural scene, although he has not been translated much into English save for some poems and stories here and there, a few excerpts of Hot Maroc online (which I am currently translating), and in the recently published Marrakech Noir (2018). In fact, Yassin has been an important fixture on the Moroccan literary scene since the early 1990s when he published Aswat mu‘asara (Contemporary Voices) and al-Ghara al-shi‘riyya (Poetry Raid), two poetry journals that embodied the new poetic sensibility prevalent in Morocco at the time. In 2006 he started hosting a weekly cultural television program “Masharef” (Thresholds) on Morocco’s Channel One, and in 2018, he started a new series entitled “Bayt Yassin” (Yassin’s House) for Egypt’s AlGhadTV in which he interviews leading Arab intellectuals, writers, poets, and musicians. He is the author of four collections of poetry: Manikan (Mannequins, 2000), Rasif al-qiyama (Resurrection Pavement, 2003), La akad ara (I Can Hardly See, 2007), and Daftar al-‘abir (Rambler’s Notebook, 2012). He also has three short story collections: Tuffah al-zill (The Shadow’s Apples, 2006), Man yusaddiq al-rasa’il (Who Believes in Letters?, 2011), and Farah al-banat bi-l-matar al-khafif (Girls’ Joy in the Light Rain, 2013). He co-wrote Marrakech: asrar mu‘lana (Marrakech: Open Secrets, 2008) with Saad Sarhane. He is also the editor of Shahrazad al-Maghribiyya: shahadat wa-dirasat ‘an Fatima al-Mirnisi (The Moroccan Scheherazade: Testimonies and Studies on Fatima Mernissi, 2016) and Marrakech: Lieux évanescents (Marrakech: Places Fading Away, 2018). What runs through all of Yassin’s work is a deep connection to the Arabic literary tradition, as well as a curiosity that constantly leads him far afield on creative expeditions yet always brings him home again, to Marrakech.

The intellectual and activist scene in Morocco is a tight-knit one. Yassin and I were initially introduced by a longtime friend who has been involved in Moroccan civil society and feminist and pro-democracy circles for years who, as we were talking about my interests in translating Moroccan literature, said to me, “You really should meet my friend Yassin.” Just like that, Yassin and I developed a long-distance relationship that initially revolved mainly around my interest in translating Hot Maroc, which I had recently read and been very much taken by. As a researcher interested in political and ideological debates as they are played out through language, diversity in language registers, and changing writing practices in Morocco, this novel checked all the boxes. As a reader and translator of contemporary Moroccan fiction, Hot Maroc is, quite simply, a delight.

Hot Maroc is a novel that examines political and personal struggles, the rapid urbanization of Moroccan society, social changes occurring in the streets and online, and petty personal grudges. It is the story of a struggling democracy where battles are hard-fought, yet people barely vote. It is an age-old tale of traditional culture and its valorization tussling with a younger generation striving to make its voice heard. It is the story of a generation that has found the internet: a space where one can be whomever they want to be, say whatever they want to say, and achieve the victories and successes that are nearly impossible to attain in their real lives. At the center of the drama is Rahhal Laâouina, aka the Squirrel, who runs the Atlas Cubs Cybercafé, his personal kingdom and escape from the filthy poverty of his childhood.

Painfully shy, not that bright, and not at all popular, Rahhal imagines himself a hero. A luckless college graduate with a useless degree in classical Arabic literature, Rahhal finds his calling in the online world where he discovers email, YouTube, Facebook, and the news site Hot Maroc. Through these platforms, he can express himself aggressively, boldly, and anonymously as he chases after “likes” and makes a name for his various online personas. Online, Rahhal can be whomever he wants to be. He can revisit lost childhood memories, fight battles with longtime adversaries, and, like Big Brother, secretly observe and enter the lives of everyone around him; as the resident cyber-expert in the café he runs, Rahhal helps the customers open email accounts and Facebook profiles, all while keeping their account information handy. He knows everything about them as he follows their virtual movements, unbeknownst to them.

But all of this is just an innocent hobby until he is coerced by the security apparatus to write for Hot Maroc under a pseudonym to bait and troll other fans of the site, all in the service of the state. Nonetheless, Hot Maroc comes to mean everything to Rahhal. It is his refuge and his savior, a way out of his mundane life, much like the graffiti he used to scrawl on the walls of his middle-school bathroom.

Hot Maroc was a free ticket that brought Rahhal back to his country. Just like an emigrant who has been overseas for years, completely cut off from home, and then, here he is, finally coming back—without having to bear the cost of travel—to drown in its affairs.

But Hot Maroc was more than just a news site to Rahhal. It was a space for him to express himself and defame others. His new toilet stall. At first, he couldn’t believe his eyes when he noticed that the comments section was open to all. There was a space for comments underneath each article and news item. It was amazing! You can write whatever you want, Rahhal, without the smell clogging your nose. Comment as you please, sitting relaxed at your desk, not crouching with your legs bent under your belly, twisting your guts on the toilet. Now you can interact with what you read from your spot here in Massira in the Atlas Cubs Cybercafé. You can freely express your opinion in total secrecy without anyone asking about your name or identity. Check out the list of commenters. There are full names. There are first names: Karim, Khalid, Mouna, Saeed. People sign off according to cities or regions: Samira from Marrakech. Farid from Meknes. The Casaoui. A Guy from Sefrou. The Sahraoui. A Free Amazighi Berber. Girl from the North. Just write your name and email address, and comment to your heart’s delight.

Marrakech is where it all happens; where rapid change and modernization struggle with conservative forces that are religious, secular, and cultural. Few cities have been written about as much—and are in as much need for a re-write—than Marrakech, and as Juan Goytisolo writes in his preface to Marrakech: asrar mu‘lana / Marrakech: secrets affichés (Marrakech: Open Secrets), which Adnan wrote with fellow poet Saad Sarhane as an homage to their city: “Marrakech has been described more often by foreign visitors than by its own people.” Descriptions of Marrakech as an exotic tourist playground and desperate den of tricksters and thieves abound in literature and film. In George Orwell’s famous essay “Marrakech” (1939) he asks the reader, “What does Morocco mean to a Frenchman? An orange-grove or a job in government service. Or to an Englishman? Camels, castles, palm-trees, Foreign Legionnaires, brass trays and bandits.” In The Voices of Marrakesh (1967; 1968 English translation), Elias Canetti depicts the glum destitution and impenetrable chatter of the city’s inhabitants. As he steps off the bus in Marrakech, Jimmy Stewart’s character, Dr. Ben McKenna declares his desire to see “one of those Arabian nights,” realizing that he has arrived in “mysterious Morocco” in the 1956 film, The Man Who Knew Too Much. Andrew Jessel (played by Tony Randall) breathlessly announces that he has “always wanted to see Marrakech” before getting caught in a web of murder and intrigue in Our Man in Marrakesh (US title: Bang Bang You’re Dead) (1966). Even Homer Simpson in the animated series The Simpsons visits in 1991 (although with his characteristic cluelessness, he isn’t quite sure whether he’s in “Morocco” or “Monaco”). In Marrakech’s famed Jemaa el-fna Square, he ends up buying a magic monkey paw that grants wishes to whoever possesses it, providing a silly and spooky narrative thread for that year’s Halloween special.

For most non-Moroccans, and even some Moroccans, Marrakech is known mainly for its old medina quarter, which is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, and the Jemaa el-fna Square, which Spanish writer Juan Goytisolo, instrumental in gaining UNESCO status for the square’s literary and cultural importance, described as “a great melting pot of folk cultures where the Berber and gnawi traditions converge.” With its acrobats, snake charmers, monkey performers, Gnawa dancers and musicians, traditional healers, food and drink vendors, and no small number of hucksters, it draws crowds of people who form circles, or halqat, around them to take in the entertainment on offer. There is no place on earth quite like Jemaa el-fna, which is why millions of tourists visit it each year. This is the Marrakech that so many visitors have in mind as the “authentic Marrakech.” Frankly, it was the Marrakech that I had visited over the twenty years I have been traveling to Morocco, with my research focus and contacts being mainly in the northern Casablanca-Rabat-Kenitra-Fez areas. But of course, the old medina of Marrakech and Jemaa el-fna, while important parts of the city, don’t tell the whole story.

As Marrakech seems to inform this novel and much of Yassin’s cultural universe, his writings tend to focus on the Marrakech that exists largely outside of the Jemaa el-fna square and the tourist haunts of the old medina. Hot Maroc is a novel that aims to take the reader to places where only a true Marrakechi would roam; it is a novel that dives deeply into the rich and complex fabric of Marrakech outside of its importance as Morocco’s tourism capital. This Marrakech must, then, include not just monkey trainers, snake charmers, traditional storytellers, and healers but also lower-class college students, middle-class ladder climbers, people just trying to catch a break, pompous traditionalists, and corrupt politicians. This Marrakech cannot just be the historical city founded in 1062 by the Almoravid ruler Youssef Ibn Tashfin and that has served as an imperial and regional capital ever since. It also must include the wealthy neighborhoods of the old medina, the slums and shantytowns that dot the city’s landscape, and the satellite neighborhoods built in the 1970s and 1980s to accommodate the vast influx of migration into the city following years of drought and crop failures, and the subsequent growth and movement of a new middle class in need of new housing and services.

When I first met Yassin in person in January 2018, we had already been working together on translating Hot Maroc into English for about a year. As soon as he met me at the train station, we set out on a tour of the city informed almost entirely by Hot Maroc. We visited the slum of Ain Itti, where the novel’s protagonist, Rahhal grew up, a slum that has only grown in the last few decades as more and more people from rural areas move to the city in search of a livelihood. We walked around the slightly better neighborhood of Moukef inside the old city walls, which literally means “standing place” for the day laborers who stand there waiting for someone to come along and hire them. We stopped by the Abdelmoumen Middle and High School where Rahhal was bullied and harassed, where he developed his fear of others, his cynicism, and his pent-up rage toward the powerful and successful. And we couldn’t leave the central city without paying a visit to some of the grand mansions of Mouassine where Marrakech’s elite have lived for centuries, and where Rahhal’s wife, Hassaniya, comes from; a poor daughter of a woman whose livelihood depended on her relationship and proximity to the much wealthier Qatifa family.

The fictional school and cybercafé are located in the Massira neighborhood of Marrakech, a relatively new suburb meant to house the rapidly growing new middle classes. However, this neighborhood, with Dakhla Avenue running through its center, is going through its own rapid changes as the once modern housing, services, and amenities are being overburdened; where unlicensed vendors of cheap imported goods clog the sidewalks; and where the cybercafés that for a period of time served as social hubs for young people are already almost gone, replaced by stores selling cellphones, personal computer equipment, and SIM cards. And everywhere you go in Marrakech—the old medina, upper-middle-class neighborhoods such as Gueliz, and along Dakhla Avenue in Massira—there’s always a cart selling snails in hot broth! We visited the cemetery that inspired the one Adnan had Rahhal’s poor father work in reciting Qur’anic verses to mourners for a pittance, the grand Hassan II Boulevard that had once been lined with beautiful old ficus trees that were killed and uprooted to make way for cheap real-estate development, and the Royal Theatre where the novel’s climactic political rally and riot takes place. These were all stops on our tour of that “other Marrakech.”

Besides helping me work out some of the many linguistic puzzles and cultural references (high and low) of the text, Yassin felt it was just as essential that I visit the city of the novel. To feel the bustle, get jostled by the illegal street vendors, get stuck in its traffic, hear the angry honking, smell the smells, and, of course, take multiple breaks to eat the snails that end up playing a central role in the corrupt electoral battle that erupts in the Marrakech of Hot Maroc. This novel is not so much about Marrakech as it is of Marrakech, a city that is the inspiration for so much of Yassin’s work. And while it could not be set anywhere else, it speaks eloquently in the many voices that make up countless cities around the world to the pressures that so many people face when political elites continue to make decisions that are meant only to benefit themselves, when cities are buckling under the pressures of the neoliberal order that results in ever-widening cultural schisms and economic inequality. For Yassin, the Jemaa el-fna and the old medina are just one part of this city that has also seen exponential growth in the past fifteen years with real estate prices skyrocketing and new developments and luxury hotels being built to serve domestic and international moneyed elites, while leaving the majority of Moroccans behind, forced to fight over the crumbs. This struggle is playing out in the old medina and the Ville Nouvelle alike; this is a struggle rooted in economic policies run amok, and centuries-old traditions and cultural references.

Much of Yassin’s literary activity is an elegy and a love song for his beloved city of Marrakech, with all of its history and grandeur, poverty, and glitz—“the capital of tourism, the city of joy and sadness, the city of simple living, the city linked to international capitals through daily flights, the city of the new European community, a winter resort for French retirees, and a refuge for immigrants from sub-Saharan Africa.” To walk the streets of Marrakech, and to read the city, with Yassin Adnan is to walk through the city’s political, cultural, and literary past and present. It is to see, hear, smell, feel, and breathe a city pulsing with life, with contradictions, with power struggles, and with shared memories.

Yassin is a tireless traveler, always on the road in Morocco or traveling around Europe, the Arab Middle East, and the Gulf. He often writes about these peregrinations. As in so much Arabic poetry dating back to the sixth century, pre-Islamic qasidas (long odes) that evoke spaces that poets are always traveling away from and back to, and that are always in danger of disappearing, place is ever present in Yassin’s writing. In his recent Marrakech: Lieux évanescents (Marrakech: Places Fading Away), Yassin embarks on a literary restoration project of sorts, essential in his view because “these places are fading into oblivion and are being replaced by buildings with not even the slightest regard for aesthetics.” In a long poem he wrote about time he spent in California for a writers’ retreat, Yassin describes driving through Silicon Valley, visiting the Santa Cruz mountains, San Francisco and the famous City Lights bookstore there. It is clear that all roads lead back to Marrakech, “the red city”, “the joyful city”:

Then you came back to the grass where you nap
On scattered palm fronds
Among the orange trees
And the pomegranates
You said: Greetings, Marrakech 
O Mother of Gardens
I was thirsty so I reached out for the spring
O spring, increase my thirst
For my blood is colored with water
My blood is tainted with