In Morocco, European literature is well established. Now, an influential bookstore in Tangier plans to strengthen the Arab publishing industry and help Arab authors go international.
La Libraire des Colonnes in Tangier has been a cultural center for many years
The role call of famous European writers connected with the modest Tangier bookshop, La Librairie des Colonnes, is impressive: Jean Genet, Joe Orton, Samuel Beckett, Marguerite Yourcenar, Patricia Highsmith and Paul Bowles, to name a few.
However, the shop is not content to only supply the northern Moroccan city with the best of books from France, Spain and the UK, but also hopes to revitalize a literary review, plan new translations into Arabic, and create links between the main centers of Arabic publishing around the Mediterranean.
According to La Librairie's manager, Simon-Pierre Hamelin, the bookshop's European connections will continue, but there is a sense of urgency to its new mission: encouraging Arabic publishing.
"The bookshop has been refurbished thanks to the bibliophile Pierre Berge," he told Deutsche Welle. "We have a wonderful shop and an unparalleled opportunity to push Arab publishing into the modern era."
New distribution paths
Although the sale of books off its shelves will remain an important concern, this smart urban intellectual center is putting in place a structure that will allow books published in Beirut, Algiers or Cairo to be distributed in Morocco and other Arab countries.
"It's all matter of creating connections and persuading distributors to step into unknown territory," added Hamelin.
According to Abdeslam Kadiri, who helps run La Libraire des Colonnes, the team has already created links with publishers and distributors throughout the Arab world at a series of book fairs.
"We believe in human relationships, so we're in direct communication with editors of Arab publishing houses," he said. "We're trying to have direct links so that everyone benefits, from the writer to the end customer. We want to remove the intermediaries and to import directly. That is better than going through the Internet."
La Libraire des Colonnes isn't out to break ties to Europe, but to strengthen the Arab publishing industry
Culture center with tradition
Moroccan architect Khalil Benani, an avid reader and customer at La Librairie des Colonnes, says that Tangier is the ideal location for the bookshop.
"Tangier has always had a nucleus of intellectuals and writers," he said. "This is where they have always met. Now we can come to readings, debates and find newly published books on sale. The boost to Arab publishing is a bold and positive move."
The old Librairie des Colonnes, long in need of refurbishment, was a bit of an institution and set the tone for intellectuals in Tangier. It is located on the main thoroughfare that has cut through the city for over 60 years. Opened in 1949 as an outpost of the French publisher Editions Gallimard, the shop on Boulevard Pasteur came to be associated with the long list of writers who made the city of the Straits of Gibraltar their home either permanently or for a short time.
The connection with France worked both ways, also adding luster to Maghreb novelists associated with the well-stocked shelves. Mohamed Mrabet, for example, was the first Moroccan writer to be published by Gallimard and was translated into 14 languages.
Today, the books on the shelves are largely in French, as they were when the shop was opened. Its management was taken over in 1974 by Tangier local Rachel Muyal, who spent the next 25 years ensuring that no customer left without a good book tucked under their arm.
Independence for Arab publishing
La Librairie's manager Simon-Pierre Hamelin is hopeful that revitalizing the literary review Nejma (Star, in English) and having it published in Beirut will show that Arabic publishing can become international.
"At the moment, most Arabic books with international reach are published in France or the United States," he said. "We want to make Arabic publishing independent and profitable."
One potential beneficiary of this new approach is the young Moroccan writer Abdellah Taia, who emigrated to Frace. He has edited the current issue of Nejma and recently became the first Arab writer to win the Prix de Flore, a prestigious French literary award.
"I would like to see a properly functioning Arab book industry where affordable books in Arabic are circulating freely not only those imported from third countries," he said.
Well-known Tangerine writer Tahar Ben Jalloun is confident that La Librairie will do just that.
"Hopefully this private initiative will show the way forward," he said. "With readings and regular signings, we expect that books will find their proper place and bring a real cultural exchange between Arab countries."
Simon-Pierre Hamelin's first plan is to have the works of French writer Jean Genet translated into Arabic.
"Genet is well known in the Arab world but he hasn't been translated," said Hamelin. "Using our quarterly literary review, Nejma, as a launch pad, we're planning future issues published in Beirut and Algiers. It's a means of communicating directly across the Mediterranean basin in Arabic and cutting out the need to involve France or the United States."
Author: Sylvia Smith
Editor: Kate Bowen