6 Books That Will Transport You to the Deserts and Medinas of Morocco

6 Books That Will Transport You to the Deserts and Medinas of Morocco

Monday, 9 March, 2020

For most of us, especially in the West, Morocco seems like a dreamscape of exotic aromas, bright colors, and shimmering heat. There’s an irresistible temptation to follow just one more winding alley to see what’s around the corner.

These books set in Morocco, both fiction and nonfiction, will immerse you the culture. It’s a destination with a vibrant culture of folklore and magic. There’s also warfare in its past, both with European colonists and the Berbers next door. The breathtaking scenery — the drifting sand dunes of the Sahara, the domineering Atlas mountains, the gritty, glamorous, confounding cities — plays a major role in these stories, alongside heroes and heroines on adventures grand and small.

To hear us discuss these books and more, listen to our podcast Morocco: Couscous, Camels, and the Kasbah.


A Street in Marrakech - Elizabeth Warnock Fernea

A Street in Marrakech
> Elizabeth Warnock Fernea

In the 1970s, American author and mother Elizabeth Warnock Fernea moved to Marrakech, Morocco, for a year with her professor husband and three children. She could never have imagined the challenges and adventures that awaited her in the twisting alleys of the city.

She speaks Arabic and has rented a house in the medina (old town), but she and her family don’t fit in. For starters, they speak the wrong dialect — Egyptian, not Moroccan. Although their home is built in the traditional style — a warren of rooms behind windowless walls hiding an internal courtyard — it’s more lavish and has much more space than those of their neighbors. Despite their best intentions, everything about the family says ‘privilege’ and ‘Western.’

As she learns more about the daily lives of her neighbors and friends, we learn along with her. It’s a rare peek inside the rose-colored clay walls of the city. Her stories are funny, touching, and exhilarating. {more}

This was no fairy tale, I told myself. We were alone, strange, and alien in a strange and alien world. — Elizabeth Warnock Fernea

The Diver’s Clothes Lie Empty - Vendela Vida

The story opens with an unnamed narrator on a plane from Miami to Casablanca. We know a tragedy has befallen our heroine, and even the guide book she flips through to distract herself has an ominous tone: The first thing to do upon arriving in Casablanca is get out of Casablanca. She has booked a room for three nights in Casablanca; it is, perhaps, a bad omen.

At check-in, distracted and hobbled by the rigors of jetlag, someone steals her nondescript black backpack. Inside is everything that identifies her as her: passport, laptop, credit cards, cash, camera, toiletries, a pair of coral earrings.

This troubling loss sets off a chain of events that takes surprising turns. Cut adrift from her identity both by geography and paperwork, she becomes a chameleon. As she moves further from her real life, we learn more about the tragic events that sent her on the run. And we’re forced to consider how we’d react in similar situations, even as we marvel at the puzzling decisions she makes.

Noirishly dark, this novel is a gleefully wicked examination of how we recognize ourselves when we’re detached from everything we think defines us. {more}

Your plan was to go to Fez, to Marrakech, to the desert, but these places no longer have appeal. You try to imagine when they did have appeal. You try to remember the person you were when planning this very trip. — Vendela Vida

The Last Storytellers - Richard Hamilton

The Last Storytellers
> Richard Hamilton

For a thousand years, professional storytellers, known as hlaykia, have told their tales in Jemaa el Fna square in Marrakech, Morocco. But this art form is slowing fading, replaced by TV, movie, and the internet. In 2006, journalist Richard Hamilton traveled to Marrakech for the BBC. While there, he interviewed the storytellers — ‘without exception, elderly men at the end of their career’ — about their art form. Then for three years, he tracked down more and more of these artisans to document their stories, translating from the original Darija (Moroccan dialect) to English.

This collection of 37 tales dives deep into folklore with murder, mystery, and magic. There are evil relatives and animals that talk and creatures that transform from one thing to another. There are happy endings and tragic finales. Like the Western tradition of Grimm’s fairy tales, these stories are filled with morality lessons in which characters get their due, both for ill and for good.

With this book, Hamilton beautifully captures these stories so they can live on for at least another thousand years. {more}

When I first arrived in Marrakesh, it felt more like 1006; it seemed to be somewhere that had not changed for a thousand years… There are rich and poor, merchants and mad men, beggars and thieves, travelers and tarts, hustlers and holy men, dark-eyed beauties and disfigured cripples, and they all swirl around the giant plug hole that is the main square of Marrakesh. — Richard Hamilton

The Salt Road - Jane Johnson

The Salt Road
> Jane Johnson

This is a story of sweeping romance and formidable bravery, played out against the backdrop of the beautiful and dangerous deserts of Morocco.

Meet Izzy, a somewhat straight-laced accountant doing her best to be a responsible adult in London. Her mom and dad were both successful archaeologists and terrible parents. In the wake of her father’s death, she learns she’s inherited a mysterious amulet, and she sets out for Morocco to learn more.

Meet Mariata, a descendant from Berber royalty, living the deserts of Morocco in the 1960s. She fiery and adventurous and aches to see the world.

As the story unfolds, we travel back and forth in time to learn the stories of these two remarkable women. Eventually, the two strands of the story intertwine, and the true meaning of the amulet is revealed. {more}

The desert tracks to the salt mines in the depths of the Sahara, the routes the traders took with their caravans of camels. The roads to and from the markets at which slaves were bought and sold, exchanged for salt and other goods. The Tuareg often use the term to mean ‘the road of life,’ or even ‘the road of death.’ And sometimes it is used to mean all those things at once. — Jane Johnson

Skeletons on the Zahara - Dean King

In 1815, 12 American sailors were shipwrecked off the coast of Africa, captured by desert nomads, and sold into slavery. With their unfriendly captors, they traveled for two months in the debilitating heat and dire conditions of the Sahara desert.

The journey started uneventfully enough. Captain James Riley and the crew of the Commerce set out from Connecticut on calm seas for New Orleans. But the ship got hung up on a rocky outcropping just off the shore of Morocco, and after a day or so of battering waves, they abandoned ship. And that’s when the real adventure began. The men were robbed, captured, starved, and pushed to the limits of their humanity.

King’s narrative is based on accounts written by two survivors of the ordeal, as well as his own experiences recreating some of their journey himself in the desert of Morocco. {more}

What they could use and carry from a shipwreck, the Sahrawis took. What they could not take, it was their custom to burn. To the victims who witnessed this destruction of their personal articles and the cargo of their vessel, it was often the last cruel blow before they assumed the life of a slave to some of the poorest people on earth, living in some of the harshest conditions imaginable. — Dean King

Tangerine - Christine Mangan

> Christine Mangan

Set in the twisty alleys of a medina in 1950s Tangier, Morocco, this novel is like a Hitchcock film translated to the page. Our two protagonists — the always-audacious Lucy and the painfully diffident Alice — are former best friends who met at Bennington College. They’ve had a mysterious falling out, and that conflict drives everything that befalls them.

Alice has moved to Tangier with her new husband, and she’s not adjusted well to her new life. As she struggles with anxiety, Lucy (Alice’s old frenemy), shows up unexpectedly. As the women fall into old patterns, a new mystery surfaces and the knots of tension twist tighter and tighter.

The evocative descriptions of the city and its sweltering, breathless atmosphere will transport you to mid-century Tangier — while the spiraling plot draws you into the stark shadows of a place that’s both threatening and enticing. {more}

It is in these moments — when the air is thick and hot, threatening — that I can close my eyes and inhale, when I can smell Tangier again. It is the smell of a kiln, of something warm, but not burning, almost like marshmallows, but not as sweet. There is a touch of spice, something vaguely familiar, like cinnamon, cloves, cardamom even, and then something else entirely unfamiliar. — Christine Mangan

Top image courtesy of Renato De Santis/Shutterstock.

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