The Sub-Saharan African Turn in Moroccan Literature
Morocco’s newly acquired status as a destination for tens of thousands of sub-Saharan migrants has spurred a sub-Saharan African turn in Moroccan literature. Morocco’s current reality is seeping into the country’s multilingual cultural production, which has begun to capture the complex social and cultural dynamics of this migratory shift over the past decade.
Until recently, literary Moroccans usually turned their gaze toward Europe and the Middle East, at the expense of the African continent. Divided along linguistic lines between Arabic and French, the vibrant Moroccan (and by extension Maghrebi) literary output largely ignored sub-Saharan Africa. Moroccan literature, however, is going through a period of renewal, which includes the emergence of a rich Amazigh subgenre as well as a growing “mnemonic literature,” in which young Moroccan Muslim novelists revisit the history of Jewish-Muslim relations in the country. The works that mark this sub-Saharan African turn have their finger on the pulse of the deep demographic change taking place in contemporary Morocco as they grapple with race, racism and transgressive migration—a term that captures the insurgency and resistance that fuels the journey of the people who are called undocumented. Of the 86,000 immigrants who live and work legally in the country, 50,000 hail from sub-Saharan Africa. According to estimates from 2014, Morocco also hosts between 25,000 and 40,000 undocumented sub-Saharan Africans.
The ubiquity of sub-Saharan African migrants and the discursive practices around their presence have thrust Moroccan society into an era of racial consciousness, which has made racial difference and its attendant issues part of a critical public and societal discourse. This awareness has ended the state of racial oblivion that either trivialized or silenced race-related questions. The sub-Saharan African turn in Moroccan literature reflects the transformations ensuing from the presence of Black immigrants in Moroccan writers’ milieu. Unlike their predecessors, contemporary novelists endow Black characters with agency and portray them as proud individuals fully capable of facing challenges and charting their paths with determination and dignity.
Recent Portrayals of Sub-Saharan Africans in Fiction
Tahar Ben Jelloun’s Le marriage de plaisir (The Pleasure Marriage) is part of the constellation of novels that marked the beginning of the sub-Saharan turn in Moroccan literature. Published in 2016, the novel revisits the little-known history of the dadas in Moroccan urban society. Dadas were Black women contracted by wealthy Moroccan merchants for temporary marriage during their business trips to West Africa. Based on a passionate love and marriage story between Amir, a Fassi spice merchant, and a Senegalese Dada named Nabou, the novel uncovers the intergenerational racial ramifications of their remarkable union.
Unfolding from the late 1940s through the 2000s, Le marriage follows the racialization of Nabou and Amir’s progeny through the story of their twin sons Hassan and Houcine. Although twins, Hassan was born Black while Houcine was born white. The difference in their skin colors predestines them to different futures. Houcine is able to build a successful perfume business, have multiple love affairs and lead a prosperous life. But Hassan, his Black brother, suffers failure after failure in love, business and social connections due to prejudice. Color-based racism and the ensuing psychological disorders do not, however, impact Hassan alone. Salim, Hassan’s only child, also inherits the complications of being born Black in a society that values white skin.
Even more dangerous is the association police officers make between dark skin and foreignness. Although Morocco has an old indigenous Black population, there is still a widespread misconception that associates Blackness with foreignness and enslavement. This misconception is further exacerbated by the draconian immigration measures that target thousands of sub-Saharan immigrants in the country. In the novel, Salim’s Blackness leads to his deportation to Senegal despite the fact that he tells the police that he is Moroccan. By focusing on the binary opposition of Black and white in Moroccan society over a period of 60 years, albeit in a reductive way, Le mariage reveals Moroccans’ troubling stigmatization of Blackness between the 1940s and the present and takes a critical stand against forms of systematic and institutionalized racism.
The police officers’ abuse of Black characters draws attention to widespread racist attitudes held by people in positions of authority while the larger picture drawn in the novel shows that being white or Black makes a significant difference in how people are treated by all levels of society.
Ismail Ghazali’s 2019 novel Thalāthatu ayyām fī Casablanca (Three Days in Casablanca), unlike the more linear Le mariage, recounts an impressive maze of events that unfold over a period of three days in the city of Casablanca. Three days are sufficient to demonstrate the imbrication of the Moroccan characters’ lives and destinies with those of sub-Saharan African immigrants. The most populous city in Morocco, as well as its economic capital, Casablanca’s glitzy side hides an underbelly where a wide array of characters eke out a living, navigate a disorderly urban space and use cunning and oftentimes immoral means to carve out spaces to survive. Although the novel depicts both the bourgeois and working classes, it is among working-class Moroccans that the connections between Moroccan and sub-Saharan African characters acquire more vividness and humanity. While bourgeois characters take pride in acquiring African art and even trot out sophisticated talking points about African American music, the filmmaker Imran is the one who strikes up a friendly relationship with the three Black women Kesia, Camaria and Sassandra. Furthermore, Fadoua, an art history student and a friend of Imran’s, works hard to preserve the memory of Bikila, an Ethiopian immigrant who loses his life in the ruins of the historic Lincoln Hotel in Casablanca. Imran’s friendship with the four women pushes him to help bury the non-Muslim Bikila and recite the Surah al-Fatiha (the opening chapter of the Quran) over his grave. The intersection of the lifeworld of subaltern Moroccan characters with that of Black sub-Saharan Africans leads them to forge relationships of solidarity that the author portrays as absent among members of the upper class. In contradistinction to the xenophobic misconceptions about sub-Saharans as vectors of illness and prostitution, Kesia, Camaria and Sassandra—who are respectively a hair braider, a sculptor and a musician—reveal the usually overlooked entrepreneurial and artistic face of sub-Saharan immigrants.
Le mariage and Thalāthatu ayyām reverse the typical migratory path from south of the Sahara toward Europe. Both novels expand upon this reverse migration by depicting Moroccan characters travelling from Morocco to sub-Saharan Africa. For instance, Salim is deported by the Moroccan police to Senegal, where he has to make a living and struggle to survive. Salim must traverse the desert during his return trip to Tangier, undergoing the same rite of passage sub-Saharans go through to reach Morocco. Throughout Salim’s journey to the north, the trip is recorded and commented upon through his Moroccan eyes, which allows him to occupy the privileged position of being both an insider and an outsider. Zulikha, a wealthy Moroccan character who kills Issian—a Liberian immigrant—in a drunk driving accident, decides to travel to Mozambique through the desert to atone. Zulikha not only covers Issian’s hospital fees but she also undertakes the journey south, reversing Issian’s trip from Mozambique to Morocco: “She decided to cross the same distance that the Liberian Issian has crossed since he left his daughter ‘Tea Flower’ with the intention to return to her as a hero. He left Mozambique for South Africa, then Namibia, Angola, the Congo, Cameroon, Nigeria, Benin, Burkina Faso, Mali, Mauritania and then Morocco, where he arrived in Tangier. Inversing his trip, Zulikha left Tangier in the opposite direction toward his point of departure, Mozambique.” Similar to Issian, who had to rely on Moroccan smugglers to cross into Europe, Zulikha has to rely on sub-Saharan African smugglers to “protect her from waylayers and the terrifying dangers of migration.” Just like many migrants moving north, Zulikha, although traveling in the opposite direction, is kidnapped in the Nigerian desert where all trace of her is lost.
M’barek Rabi’s 2018 novel Gharb al-mutawassiṭ (West of the Mediterranean) also participates in this sub-Saharan literary turn. Evoking Abdulrahman Munif’s prison masterpiece Sharq al-mutawassiṭ (East of the Mediterranean, 1975), Gharb al-mutawassiṭ takes readers inside the oppressive situation for sub-Saharan Africans in Morocco as they wait to cross into Europe. The plot is constructed around the lives of Saman and Saffia. Saman, also misnamed Salam by his Moroccan friends, is an Accra-born Ghanaian immigrant who takes all sorts of petty jobs to make a living in Rabat. Saffia, originally from Essaouira, lives in the working class Taqaddum neighborhood in Rabat, known for being a hub of sub-Saharan migration. A primary school teacher in a private school, Saffia’s life is scarred by failed love and a vindictive husband who denies her a divorce, but she finds both solace and company in Saman. As Saffia slowly falls in love with him, a rumor that her powerful and frightening husband may have tracked her down to the neighborhood pushes her to join Saman in Tangier in an attempt to flee to Europe. Their story comes to a tragic end under the watchful lights of the Spanish and Moroccan coast guards. As Saman drowns in the Mediterranean, Saffia “places her hand on her belly” and cries out “Saman…Saman…I am pregnant…I am pregnant.” But it is already too late, as Saman drowns while Saffia survives to carry their biracial baby.
Beyond Saman and Saffia, Gharb al-mutawassiṭ depicts a journey inside the complicated world of transgressive migration, a look at the intersecting networks of pimps (including white Europeans who traffic in women), immigration lords who smuggle people for a fee and ordinary individuals who keep attempting to escape their dire social and economic conditions. Like the prison regime described in Munif’s novel, transgressive immigration is an oppressive system that thrusts individuals into its crushing machine. Highlighting this cruel condition, Saman’s friend Butu is sexually trafficked to Tangier before she is able to cross to the northern shores of the Mediterranean.
All three novels, and others in their category, endeavor to re-Africanize Morocco. Kesia puts it clearly in Thalāthatu ayyām: “[B]eing a Black hair braider in Casablanca means that you are endowing this place with its lost African melody.” By now any educated Moroccan should experience a sense of dissonance when North Africans use the phrase “les africains” or “al-afāriqa” (the Africans) to refer only to sub-Saharan Africans. Although the Maghreb is geographically and culturally part of Africa, Maghrebis have often set themselves apart from other Africans. Decades of colonial legacies have solidified the idea that North Africa is its own space, an island whose African identity is blurred by “whiteness,” Arab culture and Islam.
As a result, Maghrebi intellectuals, scholars, artists and writers have rarely engaged with the rest of Africa. European and Middle Eastern influences have primarily shaped the Moroccan cultural scene, with the exception of the Souffles/Anfas group, a cultural journal and the precursor of the Moroccan Marxist-Leninist Movement, which looked toward Africa as a site of decolonial struggle and Third World solidarities.
The vividness and vigor with which Moroccan novelists now represent sub-Saharan African characters in their fiction embodies the human, racial and religious continuum between North and sub-Saharan Africa. Instead of reinforcing the north-south divide, the three novels discussed here place Morocco within a complicated African cartography that stretches from Tangier to Mozambique and Ghana to Ethiopia, allowing readers to mentally experience a long-overlooked African geographical continuity. The different scenes in which Moroccans and sub-Saharan African migrants attempt to cross borders together create a sense of equality in suffering and emphasize their shared destiny. Moroccan novelists’ inversion of the usual direction of the migratory movement pushes Moroccan characters—and Moroccan readers by extension—to experience what it is like to traverse the desert, brave the wild and survive the ordeal of travel to the unknown. Moreover, the use of sub-Saharan African Muslim characters positions Islam as a pivotal connector between the two parts of the continent without excluding the diverse religious practices across Africa. This re-Africanization disorients readers who have not been acculturated to reading literature in which Moroccan characters are immersed in sub-Saharan African life.
Decades of focus on narrow religious, business and political opportunities have stalled Moroccan curiosity about the rest of Africa, which is reflected in characters that remain generic and superficial in the novels under study. But the fact that Moroccan novelists endeavor to integrate sub-Saharan Africa into the Moroccan literary scene is both significant and transformative. These novelists have enunciated a new imagination of Africa and a transformation of the way the continent has been viewed from its northern peripheries. They have certainly opened up more space for in-depth reflection on hitherto taboo topics of race and racism, interracial marriage and the inhumane treatment of immigrants and asylum seekers by Moroccans. The sea change that has taken place in Moroccan literature since 2010 tells us that sub-Saharan Africa is no longer south of the Sahara—it is instead transferred to and reimagined from the heart of Rabat, Tangier, Casablanca and even in the hinterlands of Morocco.
[Brahim El Guabli is assistant professor of Arabic studies and comparative literature at Williams College.]
See original article: Brahim El Guabli “The Sub-Saharan African Turn in Moroccan Literature,” Middle East Report 298 (Spring 2021).
 Brahim El Guabli, “Racial Transitions: Islam, Transitional Justice, and Morocco’s (Re)Africanization,” in Abdullah Zain, ed. The Routledge Handbook of Islam and Race (London: Routledge, forthcoming).
 Tahar Ben Jelloun, Le mariage de plaisir (Paris: Gallimard, 2016).
 Chouki El Hamel. Black Morocco: A History of Slavery, Race, and Islam (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2013), pp. 3–4.
 Ismail Ghazali, Thalāthatu ayyām fī Casablanca (Milano, Italy: Manshūrāt al-Mutawassiṭ, 2019).
 Ibid., p. 182.
 Ibid., p. 183.
 M’barek Rabi. Gharb al-mutawassiṭ (Beirut: al-Mu’assasa al-‘Arabīyya li-al-Dirāsāt wa-al-Nashr, 2018).
 Ibid., p. 328.
 Ghazali, p. 190.
How to cite this article:
Brahim El Guabli “The Sub-Saharan African Turn in Moroccan Literature,” Middle East Report 298 (Spring 2021).