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Morocco in foreign literature

Both close to Europe geographically but sufficiently far enough away culturally to constitute a genuine difference, Morocco has attracted a whole legion of foreign writers and travellers. In his travel tales, Au Maroc , Pierre Loti describes the places he visited by camel and his meetings with the inhabitants. The sheer quantity of information and the elegant literary style of Travels in the Moroccan Empire in 1791 by Jan Potocki have made it a literary and historic masterpiece. Invited by Resident General Lyautey five years after the Protectorate was inaugurated, the American writer Edith Wharton relates her amazement and delight in her travel tale In Morocco . The brothers Jérôme and Jean Tharaud devoted a work to each Imperial city; in Fès and Islam’s Middle-Class the details are vivid even if the overall colonialist flavour of the work does somewhat deter modern readers. Arsène Roux, a specialist in Arab-Berber literature, compiled a volume on Berber popular poetry. Fascinated by Let It Come Down in which Paul Bowles describes the meeting between Nelson Dyar and Tangier’s captivating culture, a whole host of American Beat Generation writers (Truman Capote, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, William Burroughs) couldn’t resist sampling the North African town for themselves. Oscar Wilde ’s anthology of short stories, Aristotle at Afternoon Tea presents the caustic British humour of Mr Hugh Stutfield’s travels in Morocco. Among JMG Le Clézio ’s many works inspired by Morocco, Désert shows the town of Taroudant under a harsh light and Gens des nuages , co-written with his wife, Jemia, relates the emotional return to her roots in the Aroussiyine tribe in the far south of Morocco. Elias Canetti ’s The Voices of Marrakech totally immerses the reader in the pink city’s legendary magic.

Moroccan writers

Given Morocco’s historic and cultural links with France, it is perhaps natural that many of its intellectuals and writers should write in French, even today. The best-known Moroccan writer in French, Tahar Ben Jelloun has won literary prizes and critical acclaim. His novel The Sacred Night received the prestigious Prix Goncourt in 1987, continuing a tradition of poetic and militant action made famous by works such as Harrouda , Solitaire and Silent Day in Tangier . Driss Chraïbi ’s novel Heirs to the Past , came out in 1954 when it caused such a scandal that it was banned for 20 years. Deliberately provocative, the author denounces the hypocrisy and cowardice of the majority of social relationships. Ahmed Sefrioui was the first Moroccan writer in French to win the Moroccan Prize for Literature in 1949 with his work Le Chapelet d’ambre , an anthology of tales which can be read like counting the beads on a rosary (in French, chapelet ). The sociologist and novelist, Abdelkébir Khatibi discusses bilingualism in Love in Two Languages and investigates mystical movements in Le Livre du sang . The intellectual Abdellah Laraoui , who writes in Arabic and French, examines Morocco’s nationalist movement and the Algerian war in his novel Awraq . Abdelhak Serhane ’s novel Le Soleil des obscurs denounces the injustice prevailing in a corrupt society obsessed purely with profit. Jean-Paul Sartre and Simone de Beauvoir together with Beckett, Césaire and Senghor, acclaimed the talent of Mohamed Khaïr-Eddine , a poet exiled in France who denounces patriarchal, divine authority in Agadir (1967). Mohamed Choukri , who writes in Arabic, achieved public recognition with his work For Bread Alone , an autobiography of his childhood marred by paternal violence and poverty. Edmond Amran el-Maleh was responsible for projecting Jewish-Moroccan literature in French into the limelight. In Café bleu Zrirek this philosophy teacher based in Paris expresses his nostalgia for his country and regrets some of the changes that modernity has brought about.

Moroccan women writers are determinedly feminist in outlook, focusing their work on the condition of Moroccan women in particular, and Muslim women in general. Among the best known works are Beyond the Veil by the sociologist Fatima Mernissi ; Vivre musulmane au Maroc by the lawyer Fadela Sebti ; Le Maghreb des femmes by the psychiatrist Ghita el Khayat ; Ma vie, mon cri by Rachida Yacoubi ; Au-delà de toute pudeur by the sociologist Soumaya Naamane Guessous . Among recent novels are: Cérémonie by Yasmine Chami Kettani , Fracture du désir by Rajaa Benchemsi and Oser vivre by Siham Benchekroun .


Morocco in western painting

In 1832, Eugène Delacroix visited Morocco and was struck by the intensity of the light together with the inhabitants’ proud bearing and noble posture which he termed “Living Antiquity”. His Moroccan works, the most famous of which depict the fantasia and Jewish weddings, were to revolutionise western painting. Orientalism was conceived here and inspired both Impressionism and modern painting. Between 1850 and 1880, among the painters to visit Morocco were Benjamin Constant, Alfred Dehodencq, Henri Regnault and Mario Fortuny, all of whom further developed the exotic Orientalism of Morocco’s hammams and warriors.

Following in Delacroix’s footsteps, Matisse was also bewitched by Tangier’s light. He spent two periods in Morocco, the first at the beginning of 1912 and the second in the winter of 1912-13; these stays inspired him to paint some 20 canvases and over 60 ink drawings depicting ordinary life in Morocco, as well as the medina in Tangier and some still-lifes. Jacques Majorelle discovered Marrakech in 1917. Entranced by the town’s beauty, he moved there definitively in 1932. The beautiful house he had built on the edge of a palm grove overlooks a lush garden, a truly magical place now known as “Majorelle’s Garden”. The kasbahs and landscapes of the Atlas were the main sources of inspiration for this painter who is still known as the “painter of Marrakech”.

Moroccan painters

From 1940, a young generation of self-taught artists emerged. Inspired by popular oral and written tales, they produced brightly coloured pictures populated by fantastic beings. Their work sometimes has an almost childlike quality. Among them, the most representative are Ben Allal , Moulay Ahmed Drissi and Yacoubi , some of whose works are based on Paul Bowles’ novels. Louardighi , Aït Youssef , Chaïbia and Fatima Hassan ’s approach is derived from a representation of utopia which is more poetic than naïve. In response to the emergence of so many home-grown artists, a school of fine art was founded in Tetouan in 1945 and another in Casablanca in 1950.

The 1960s saw the rise of a new artistic trend, promoted by major artists such as Cherkaoui and Gharbaoui . Cherkaoui, who was heavily influenced by modern art movements, revived Morocco’s oldest cultural symbols, using a vivid and colourful palette. Gharabaoui, inspired by his colleague, attempted to translate a primitive vitality using lyrical, yet jerky brush strokes. Employing modern plastic media, the modern painters of Casablanca’s fine art school claimed responsibility for a popular art movement based on traditional crafts. The works of Belkahia , Chebaâ and Melehi are abstract representations of calligraphic inspiration.

In the early 1980s, figurative painting came to the forefront. The paintings of Meriem Meziane depicted traditional scenes of life in the countryside, while Hassan El Glaoui chose to illustrate the daredevil fantasia riders. In the 1980s, the visual arts became more and more diversified as artists sought new forms and materials. Mustapha Boujemaoui used newspapers, and leather replaced canvas in Farid Belkahia ’s works. In 1972, the Moroccan Fine Art Association was created and this has contributed to promoting the work of Morocco’s artists internationally.


Since time immemorial, public displays of song, dance, mime and story-telling have been an integral part of Arab and Berber artistic expression. Western “modern” theatre emerged in 1923, when troupes were formed in Casablanca, Fès, Meknès and towns in the north. Many of these works were censored by the French Protectorate because of their exalted patriotic and anti-colonialist sentiments. Thus Mohammed el-Quarri was banished to the Sahara, after performances of his plays L’Orphelin mou , Les Tuteurs and Vertus et conséquences de la science . Founded in 1953, the Moroccan Centre for Theatrical Research at Rabat developed a new trend of national dramatic arts, staging adaptations of European works. In 1956 the first professional Moroccan troupe, Firqat et-Tamthil al-Arabi (Arab Moroccan Drama Troupe), performed an adaptation of the Fourberies de Scapin and a play called Le Balayeur at the Theatre of Nations Festival in Paris. This was the start of the export of Moroccan theatre, which from the 1960s was to revive popular traditions through an original, modern, artistic concept. Among the most famous artists (playwrights and directors) are Nabyl Lahlou , known for his legendary originality and corrosive sarcasm, Abdelhaq Zerouali who adapts the traditional tales of the public squares, and Tayeb Saddiki , some of whose plays are almost musicals.


Moroccan cinema was born during the French Protectorate. In 1946, the construction of cinema studios in Rabat was designed as much to produce local films as to compete with Egyptian cinema. Among the thirty or so films made between 1945 and 1949, the most notable were by André Zwoboda : La Septième Porte (1947) depicting daily life in Morocco and Noce de sable (1948) which is the tragic, mythical tale of two lovers. Towards the 1960s, fictional colonial cinema was replaced by short films. Among the many films made, Six Douze by M Rechich , A Bouanani and MA Tazi constitutes a precious, unusual documentary on Casablanca. Soon after full-length films began to appear: Quand mûrissent les dattes by L Bennani and A Ramdani (1968), dealing with the effects of modernism on rural life, and Soleil de printemps by L Lahlou , relating the laborious life of a country-born civil servant. In the 1970s, Moroccan cinema finally blossomed with two masterpieces: Wechma by H Bennani , a deep analysis of the language of film and Mille et Une Mains by S Ben Barka (1971) which examines social discontent through the ordinary lives of a family of dyers in Marrakech. When a Cinema Support Fund was set up with public money in the 1980s, Morocco’s cinema took off and a large number of high-quality films were produced, among which was Une porte sur le ciel (1988), by the Moroccan woman director, Farida Benlyazid , which depicts a moderate Islam where bodily needs are in harmony with spiritual desires.

Morocco has always been a great favourite with foreign directors due to the diversity of its grandiose natural landscapes, fantastic light, cooperative officialdom and a cheap, skilled labour force. Since Louis Lumière’s brief stay in 1887, over 500 foreign films have been shot in Morocco. Lawrence of Arabia , starring Peter O’Toole, Alec Guinness, Anthony Quinn, Anthony Quayle and Omar Sharif was filmed on location in the kasbah of Ait Benhaddou, subsequently reconstructed for Zeffirelli’s Jesus of Nazareth . Bernardo Bertolucci shot The Sheltering Sky , based on Paul Bowles’ 1949 novel, on location. Orson Welles also filmed much of Othello on location, as did Alfred Hitchcock , in The Man Who Knew Too Much , with Doris Day and James Stewart. The most recent blockbuster production was Ridley Scott ’s Gladiator , shot in the Atlas studios at Ouarzazate. Ironically, however, the legendary Casablanca , starring Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall, was entirely filmed in Hollywood!


A land of colours, shadows and light, Morocco has inspired legions of native and foreign photographers. In their works, the artistic aspect often takes precedence over realism in order to convey the mystery of a landscape, a house or a face. In the work of the Moroccan photographer, Touhami Ennadre , all the human shapes are veiled in black. His most recent project, begun in the 1980s, entitled Les mains, les dos, les pieds , was shown in Paris in 1999. Ali Chraibi , a young photographer from Marrakech, took part in the International Festival of Photography in Madrid in 1998. On the theme “Transhumance”, his photographs evoke mankind’s voyage to the eternal land. Nabil Mahdaoui is another Moroccan photographer of international standing. His latest works address the issue of immigration and daily life in the Parisian inner city. The French photographers Jean Marc Tingaud and Gérard Rondeau have also delved into Morocco’s rich pageant of culture, landscapes and people for their inspiration.

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