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Contemporary French and Francophone Studies

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The Novel in Morocco as Mirror of a Changing


Gonzalo Fernández Parrilla

To cite this article: Gonzalo Fernández Parrilla (2016) The Novel in Morocco as Mirror of
a Changing Society, Contemporary French and Francophone Studies, 20:1, 18-26, DOI:

To link to this article: http://dx.doi.org/10.1080/17409292.2016.1120547

Published online: 12 Feb 2016.

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VOL. 20, NO. 1, 18 26

The Novel in Morocco as Mirror of a Changing Society

Gonzalo Fernandez Parrilla

The purpose of this article is to explore the possible meanings of the notion of
roman maghrebin in the Moroccan context. The phrase has been a dynamic
concept since it was coined by Khatibi in the 1960s, and has changed along
with transformations in Moroccan society and the development of the genre.
Since the 1980s the novel has become one of the most relevant phenomena in
the Moroccan cultural field. Already aware of the dynamic nature of literary
genres and “national” cultures, Khatibi’s visionary insights seem to contain all
the elements of the cultural future of Morocco. With this in mind, I will explore
how the novel and the critical debates around it reflect new perceptions of the
national sphere in the twenty-first century.

KEYWORDS Morocco; Moroccan literature; novel; Arabic literature; Amazigh; national identity

It has been advocated in debates around Francophonie and Postcoloniality
that at a certain moment language (French) should start to free itself from
its exclusive pact with the nation. Inverting the terms, it could also be
argued that at a certain moment nations might start to free themselves
from their exclusive pact with a single language. At least this could be true
in the case of Morocco, which by expanding the boundaries of the national
has freed itself from its exclusive initial pact with Arabic. Although offi-
cially recognized as such only recently, Morocco is a multilingual society
where “language is at the centre of the current cultural and political
debates” (Ennaji xi) and where the perception of a “national” language has
changed drastically in the last few decades. In fact, one of the most crucial
issues that has dominated the intellectual scene has been that of “defining
a national entity […] which necessarily implies redefining the geolinguistic
space” (Bensma€ıa 103).
I argue that among the “symbolic architectures” that shape nations, the
relationship with languages and literature is especially relevant (Romero 9).

CONTACT Gonzalo Fernandez Parrilla gonzalo.fernandez@uam.es

This article is part of the broader research project “Islam 2.0: cultural markers and religious markers in
Mediterranean societies in transformation” (FFI2014-54667-R).
© 2016 Taylor & Francis

The emergence of a “Moroccan literature” in colonial (and post-colonial)

times is related to the historical process that Pascale Casanova has character-
ized as the “right to literary existence” (71). In Morocco, this initial phase was
intimately bound to the Arabic language (Graiouid 147). The first works
devoted to Moroccan literature conceived of it as a national (Arabic) litera-
ture, such as al-Nubugh al-maghribı fı al-adab al-ʿarabı (Moroccan Genius in
Arabic Literature (1938)) by ʿAbd Allah Kannun, and are inseparable from
the program of nationalists and the anti-colonial movement. However, fol-
lowing Casanova, I will show how in the Moroccan context, the national and
the literary constitute a world of changing frontiers, where national borders
and literary space do not necessarily fit.
As a landmark of modernity and the hallmark of literary maturity, the
novel can be viewed as a characteristic sign of the formation of new concep-
tions of the world (Siskin). For scholar Mdarhri Aloui, the novel in
Morocco is “the essential revelation” (7) of the literature of the twentieth
century, while for Khatibi it is “the testimony of a time” (Le Roman 28).
Furthermore, the development of the novel offers a unique and productive
perspective into the process of the creation and re-creation of Moroccan lit-
erature. The genesis of the novel reflects the evolution, variety, and com-
plexity of Moroccan society: writers began producing fiction in Arabic and
French simultaneously in the mid-twentieth century (Fernandez Parrilla
127), but in the twenty-first century the literary scene is witnessing the
emergence of the Amazigh (Berber) novel, and even of the novel written in
Darija (Moroccan Arabic), not to mention the many diasporas and lan-
guages in which Moroccans have been actively engaged for decades. The
novel serves as well to illustrate the “Maghrebian paradox,” the ambiguous
and contradictory status of Francophone literature: “neither indigenous nor
national” (Mortimer 3). Paraphrasing Moroccan author Youssouf Amine
Elalamy, Valerie Orlando suggests that the novel in Morocco has always
reflected its era (xiv).

Khatibi’s vision and impact

Khatibi’s Le Roman maghrebin is considered a foundational essay in the
debates on the novel genre by Moroccan critics. However, there are two previ-
ous contributions to this debate, Abdallah Laroui’s chapter discussing the
Arabic novel in L’Ideologie arabe contemporaine (1967), and the academic
study on modern narrative forms in Morocco Fann al-qisṣ ạ fı al-Maghrib,
1914 1966 (Narrative Craft in Morocco, 1914 1966 (1967)), by prominent
critic Ah ̣mad al-Yaburı. Khatibi himself had already posed the question of
the roman maghrebin written in French in 1966 (“Roman maghrebin et cul-
ture nationale”), highlighting its problematic status, since for some

Moroccans this literature is “not Maghrebi at all because it’s written in a for-
eign language” (11).
At a time when the logic and idea of a monolingual (Arabic) nation was
still hegemonic, the existence of a literature written in French by Moroccans
was controversial. The ambiguities and dislocations of writing in French for
this first generation were difficult to overcome at the time (Laroussi). Being
Moroccan and writing in French was somehow contradictory. The debut of
the Moroccan novel written in French in 1954 with Driss Chra€ıbi’s Le Passe
simple and Ahmed Sefrioui’s La Bo^ıte a merveilles was contentious, even
“heretical” (Tenkoul 15), and these authors were seen with distrust by the
nationalist elite. In fact Khatibi, along with Albert Memmi, subscribed to the
idea of a “literature condemned to die young” (Mouzouni 26), while Tahar
Ben Jelloun thought his generation would be the last to write in French (Bratt
12). However, “contrary to pessimistic forecasts, Maghrebi literature has con-
tinued to be written in French” (Bensma€ıa 5). Furthermore, not only did it
not disappear, it became crucial in the development of intellectual, academic,
and cultural life in Morocco and the Maghreb.
Khatibi’s Le Roman maghrebin also introduced new coordinates of identity
and analysis, placing the Moroccan novel in a transnational space. For Kha-
tibi, “the roman maghrebin is mostly related to the writers of French lan-
guage, while those writing in Arabic have cultivated especially, poetry, essay
and short story” (Le Roman 112). Nonetheless aware of the strong interrela-
tion between the novel in Arabic and French since the beginning (Butayyib ̣
8), Khatibi included Arabic texts such as the foundational Fı
al-tufula (In Childhood (1957)) by key Moroccan writer ʿAbd al-Majıd b.
Jallun in Le Roman maghrebin. This Arabic-French interrelation goes beyond
creative writing and also informs the critical discourse. Le Roman maghrebin
was not only a cornerstone for understanding the Francophone novel in the
Maghreb, but it was also decisive in stimulating debates on the novel genre in
Morocco. Prominent critic Muh ̣ammad Barrada (Mohammed Berrada)
quickly translated Khatibi’s book into Arabic (al-Riwaya al-maghribiyya,
1971). Berrada’s foundational essay “Al-Usus al-naz ̣ariyya li-l-riwaya al-
maghribiyya al-maktuba bi-l-‘arabiyya” (“The Theoretical Foundations of the
Moroccan Novel Written in Arabic”) already published in 1969, included
references to novelists writing in French, and served as the epilogue to his
Arabic translation of Le Roman maghrebin.
It is likely that Berrada had to specify “Moroccan novel written in Arabic”
due to Khatibi’s previous formulation. However, after this inaugural essay,
there was no longer a need to specify that the Moroccan novel was written in
Arabic (officially the national language) when writing in Arabic about the
Moroccan novel; and later critics dealing with French writing would resort
for decades to expressions such as roman marocain de langue/expression
française (Bachnou; Raj). Moreover, Yaqtın ̣ has explored how Moroccan

literature in French or Amazigh literature were indeed new categories devel-

oped in postcolonial Morocco (40).
Maghrebi literature was also a new category. The idea of a Maghrebian
literary identity was foundational, first with Memmi’s Anthologie des ecrivains
maghrebins d’expression française (1964) and then in the open-minded spirit
of the Souffles journal. Souffles was launched in 1966 by Abdellatif La^abi and
included many Francophone Moroccan writers who would become well
known, including Khatibi. Souffles soon adopted the subtitle Revue litteraire
et culturelle maghrebine. Coincidentally, Khatibi and Berrada wrote the fore-
words of the first bilingual issue of Souffles (1968) dedicated to “the young
Maghrebi literature in Arabic and French (d’expression arabe et française)”
(Souffles, “Prologue” 10 11). This inclusive sprit of dealing with Arabic and
French together as ineludible features of a bilingual (trans-)national entity
has been understood as a rejection of both the colonial legacy and the mono-
lingual state (Dobie 37). Other Moroccan critics such as Lahcen Mouzouni
followed this line of thinking, writing that the “semiotics of the novel will not
be satisfactory unless dealing with the Moroccan novel in its double expres-
sion Arabic and French” (Mouzouini v).
Khatibi (and Souffles) faced the paradoxes of being an Arab author writing
in French, and of bilingualism, conceived as a transitory stage in the formation
of an authentic national (Arabic) culture: “Our literature, no matter the lan-
guage in which it’s written in this particular phase of decolonization, is an inte-
gral part of Arabic literature, to which its destiny is linked” (Souffles, “Position”
99). Nonetheless, despite these contradictions, they also contributed to the
obsolescence of the bilingual dichotomy Arabic/French and of other debates
centered on binary oppositions. Khatibi and Souffles manifested a latent Berber-
ity in the way they highlighted the importance of popular culture. For instance,
they claimed oral popular culture as an unequivocal sign of cultural identity,
and of transnational identities in the Maghreb. This aesthetics of orality was to
become characteristic of many Moroccan novels in French and Arabic marked
by all sorts of rich oral Moroccan culture, even if some critics pointed to the
“delusion” of this attempt to restore orality (Kaye and Zoubir 61).
However, since this brilliant and inclusive debut of Khatibi and Souffles,
historians of Moroccan Arabic literature have tended to pay exclusive atten-
tion to Arabic texts, while Francophone approaches have generally disre-
garded texts in Arabic, not to mention Amazigh, the true subaltern in
Moroccan political and cultural history. Nonetheless, the wisdom of Khatibi’s
visionary approach and conceptualization has become evident in the twenty-
first century, since Moroccan critics such as Khaled Zekri (who has affirmed
that the history of Moroccan literature is “yet to be constructed” (145)) and
Mdarhri Aloui have given critical attention to novels in both French and
Arabic, seeing them as essential constitutive elements of a new multilingual

The roman maghr

ebin in Morocco in the twenty-first century
Since Khatibi’s formulations, Morocco has witnessed important changes in
the status of languages. Amazigh and Darija, neglected in the first configura-
tions of the national, have emerged in the twenty-first century as “the lan-
guages of change” (Ennaji 229). In the amended Constitution of 2011
Amazigh was finally recognized, together with Arabic, as an official language.
This new and diverse Morocco also encompasses Darija, which though not
officially recognized, is socially and culturally relevant, with increasing
debates around its status in Moroccan society. In addition, Ḥassaniyya
(colloquial Arabic from the Sahara) and the popular culture of the Sahara
appear as crucial elements in constructing this new Morocco where linguistic
and cultural “minorities” occupy a prominent place, as reflected in the
amended constitution, where Morocco is defined as: “Arab-Islamic, Amazigh
and Saharan-Hassani, nourished and enriched by its African, Andalusian,
Hebraic and Mediterranean affluents”. Khatibi’s visionary reflections in
Maghreb pluriel (1983) already recognized this complexity and plurality, as
he even tackled the status of Darija and Spanish: “We Maghrebis took four-
teen centuries to learn Arabic (nearly), more than a century to learn French
(nearly), and from time immemorial, we have not known how to write
Berber. Which means that bilingualism and multilingualism are not recent
developments in this region” (179).
In what follows, I will focus more specifically on how the novel and the
critical debates around it reflect a changing perception of the national and
how besides literature written in Arabic, other vernacular, colonial, and
diasporic languages have been “nationalized” in Morocco. My argument is
that authors writing in other languages are now recognized as Moroccan
authors. For instance, in al-Adab al-maghribı al-muʻasir,̣ 1926 2007 (Modern
Moroccan Literature, 1926 2007), published by the Ministry of Culture in
2009, Muh ̣ammad Qasimı, one of the most dedicated bibliographers, includes
the novel, together with poetry, the short story, and theater, among the char-
acteristic genres of modern Moroccan literature and its “various languages”
(3). The Moroccan novel is presented not only as Arabic (and French), as had
been generally addressed, but also as Amazigh, as well as Spanish and English,
both of which are relevant languages in the educational and cultural realms.
Qasimı, like many other critics, challenges long-accepted views of the novel,
proposing non-canonical texts and new beginnings. For instance, he proposes
Ṭaha (1941) by Ah ̣mad al-Ḥasan al-Sakkurı for Arabic, and La Voix des
monts (1934) by Sa€ıd Guennoun for French, while the hegemonic canon pla-
ces al-Zawiya (The Small Sufi Mosque (1942)) by Tuhamı al-Wazzanı and
Chra€ıbi’s Le Passe simple (The Simple Past) and Sefrioui’s La Bo^ıte a merveilles
(The Box of Wonders) at the beginning. For Amazigh he suggests Mohamed
Chacha’s Rez ttabu ad teffegh tfuct (Breaking the Taboo and Letting the Sun

Appear (1997)) published in Amsterdam. For Spanish he proposes El caballo

(The Horse (1993)) by Mohamed Sibari, published in Tangier. As for the
Moroccan novel in English, he places its beginnings in 2001 with three novels
published in Morocco, including Creeds and Weeds, by Abdelkader
Together with the inclusion of books published in Morocco in Spanish and
English, the recognition of migrant authors as “Moroccan authors in other
languages” (Mdarhri Aloui 29) means a shift in the perception of Moroccan
national identity that for decades revolved around the Arabic language and
Islam, blurring the frontier between national and foreign languages. These
institutional attitudes that include diasporic authors as part of a plural
Morocco have to be framed in a national policy that includes ministries that
deal with the “Moroccans of the world” (marocains du monde/magharibat al-
ʿalam) as the Ministere des Marocains Residant a l’Etranger et des Affaires de
la Migration refers to them. Since 2000 the Morocco Writers’ Union has con-
vened a series of conferences and publications under the motto al-Hijra wa-
al-ibdaʿ (Migration and creativity) in order to deal with “Moroccan literature
in whatever place and language” (38) and supporting the translation of such
works into Arabic.
Among those novelists who stand out are Laila Lalami in English with such
novels as Secret Son (2010), and her prize-winning The Moor’s Account
(2014); in Dutch, Abdelkader Benali with Bruiloft aan zee (Wedding by
the Sea (1996)); in Italian, Mohammed Lamsuni with Il clandestino (The
Clandestine (2002)), and in German, Noureddine Belhaouari with Die Fremde
(The Stranger (2009)). Although Moroccan literature in Spanish can be traced
back to colonial times, the novel genre does not appear until the end of the
twentieth century. I already mentioned El caballo, but some critics argue that
the first novel was El despertar de los leones (The Awakening of Lions (1990))
by Abdelkader Uariachi. However, novelist Mohamed Bouissef Rekab whose
work includes La se~ nora (The Lady (2006)) is the most successful, with recog-
nition even in Spain (Ricci 87). Furthermore, migration more than colonial-
ism has been the triggering factor for the emergence of a new generation of
writers. Above all Najat El Hachmi stands out, having won the prestigious
Ramon Llull prize for literature in Catalan in 2007 with L’ ultim patriarca
(The Last Patriarch) (Campoy-Cubillo 137); and in 2015 the prestigious Sant
Joan prize of literature in Catalan with La filla estrangera (The Foreign
Daughter), which, like her first two novels, deals with migration and integra-
tion as well as the Amazigh question.
Thus, at the turn of the century, it was not only novelists in Arabic and
French and diasporic authors who were contributing to the development of
the novel genre. Fiction writing also started in other (now) official languages
such as Amazigh, using the Arabic, Latin, or Tifinagh alphabets (the last being
the dominant tendency since the foundation of the Royal Institute of the

Amazigh Culture in 2001). Critics attribute the honor of being the first Ama-
zigh novel to Asekkif n-inzaden (Hair Soup (1994)) by Ali Iken, followed by
the already mentioned Mohamed Chacha. Other key novelists are
Mohammed Bouzeggou, Lhoussain Azergui, and Mohamed Akounad, author
of novels such as Tawargit d imik (More Than a Dream (2002)), the story of
a village where the imam decides to preach in Amazigh. If the Moroccan
novel in Arabic and French has undergone profound aesthetic and thematic
ruptures in these decades, for the novel in Amazigh this is less the case; it is
still attached to Berber themes and straightforward narratives, understandable
since these writers are in the process of constituting a new literary field
Murad ʻAlamı, who often advocates for the recognition of Darija as the
Moroccan language, published the first novel in Moroccan Arabic, Al-Rah ̣ıl,
demʻa mesafera: OUT (Departure, a Traveling Tear: OUT) in 2005. He is not
alone in this struggle for the development of Darija in fiction, and other writ-
ers using it are ʻAzız Regragı, who has published four novellas, including Ḥay-
ah ̣at al-basha (The Pasha Campaigns (2007)), and Idrıs Misnawı
̣ (b. 1948), in
works such as Taʻirurut (Rose (2009)) (Elinson).
After initial debates concerning the problematic issue of writing in French
by the revolutionary elan of the Souffles group, Tahar Ben Jelloun’s Goncourt
prize for La Nuit sacree (The Sacred Night) in 1987 has to be taken into
account in the development of Francophone literature in Morocco. The Gon-
court was a decisive factor in enhancing the reputation of French writing in
Morocco, serving to overcome its original problematic status and to finally
nationalize (and coopt) French as a literary language. The prize also served to
internationalize Moroccan authors, since it gave momentum to the transla-
tion of those writing in French, especially Ben Jelloun, into the languages of
the world, Arabic included. If poetry was previously considered the most cul-
tivated genre, the 1980s inaugurated the decades of the Francophone novel,
with the rise of an incredible roster of women writers such as Bahaa Trabelsi
and Noufissa Sba€ı. The rise of women writers seems to be a distinguishing
feature of the apogee of Moroccan fiction in all languages in the twenty-first
century, as is the blurring of fiction, autobiography, and history that contin-
ues to dominate the Moroccan novel (Al-ʻAllam 101). In the twenty-first cen-
tury, names such as Fouad Laroui, Mohamed Nedali, and Abdellah Ta€ıa,
recognized beyond Morocco and the Francophone world, stand out.
The contemporary Arabophone cultural scene has also attained recogni-
tion at an international level through prizes (e.g., Mohammed Achaari, co-
winner of the 2011 International Prize for Arabic Fiction with Al-Qaws wa-l-
farasha (The Arch and the Butterfly (2011))), and translation (e.g., Bensalim
Himmich with titles such as Al-ʻAllama (The Polymath (1997))). However,
the first Moroccan novelist writing in Arabic to transcend Moroccan borders
was Mohamed Choukri, with probably the most popular and polemic text (it

was censored for many years), together with Le Passe simple, of modern
Moroccan literature, al-Khubz al-h ̣afı (For Bread Alone (1982)) translated
into English by Paul Bowles and into French by none other than Ben Jelloun
as Le Pain nu. Nonetheless, since the 1970s there are other writers who have
contributed to the development of the novel, but with less recognition outside
Morocco, such as ʻAbd al-Karım Ghallab, Muh ̣ammad Zafzaf, Mubarak
Rabıʻ, Ah ̣mad al-Madını, Muh ̣ammad ‘Izz al-Dın al-Tazı, and
Al-Mıludı Shaghmum.

Concluding remarks
Even if the transnational dimension applies to all the languages of Morocco,
the national frame of reference remains of pivotal importance. In this contin-
uous and adaptive process of reinvention, where the national has taken differ-
ent forms—monolingual Morocco, bilingual Morocco, multilingual Morocco,
or Morocco beyond its borders—there is, nonetheless, a persistent and resil-
ient sense of “Moroccanness”. And, within this, novelists, no matter what lan-
guage they write in, articulate themes that demonstrate the diversity of
Moroccan society, as well as its multilingual and heteroglossic nature.

Notes on contributor
Gonzalo Fernandez Parrilla is the author of a history of modern Moroccan literature,
La literatura marroquı contemporanea (Ediciones de la Universidad de Castilla-La
Mancha, 2006), dealing with the rise of the novel genre. He teaches at Universidad
Autonoma de Madrid (Departamento de Estudios Arabes  e Islamicos). His research
and articles revolve around Moroccan literature and culture, the Arabic novel, and
translation from Arabic.

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