Although a recently restored bookshop in the northern Moroccan city of Tangier might reasonably have the sale of books off its shelves as its chief concern, this smart urban intellectual centre is setting its sights higher. On its agenda is the task of revitalising a literary review, planning new translations into Arabic as well as creating links between the main centres of Arabic publishing around the Mediterranean.
"It's important to have a bookshop here," says Moroccan architect Khalil Benani, an avid reader who has just climbed up the handcrafted library steps to select a tome from the top shelves. "Tangier has always had a nucleus of intellectuals and writers. It gives a boost to have a bookshop like this. They sell books in Arabic, French, Spanish and English. And It looks better even than most bookshops in France."
It's true that the chic and stylish Librairie des Colonnes, with its Farrow and Ball specially mixed brick red paint and black and gold lettering created by the British graphic artist and Tangier resident Anthea Mynott, has all the allure of the most sophisticated boutiques in Paris, London or New York, but the shop has a more important task than merely looks.
Although it was long in need of refurbishment, the old Librairie des Colonnes was a bit of an institution and set the tone for intellectual Tangier. For just over 60 years it stood on the main thoroughfare that cuts through the city. 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 their home either permanently or for even a few months.
Mohamed Choukri, Jean Genet, Paul Bowles, Samuel Beckett, Marguerite Yourcenar, Driss Chraibi, Amin Maalouf, Patricia Highsmith, Tennessee Williams, Joe Orton, the list is endless - all add to the reputation of this bookshop that attracts the philosopher as well as the student in search of a textbook. The connection worked both ways adding lustre to Maghrebi 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 remain largely French as they were when the shop was opened by the Belgian family Gerofi. Its management was taken over in 1974 by Tangerine Rachel Muyal who spent the next 25 years ensuring that no customer left without a good book tucked under an arm. She retired 10 years ago just when bookselling took off online. She is back in the shop today, but as a customer, and is excited at the prospect of snapping up a book that has been out of print for a number of years. "I got the same feeling just now, walking into the shop as when I was 18," she explains. "It's like coming up to the high altar of culture and knowing that you will come away with something that will hold you fascinated for hours."
La Librairie's director Simon Pierre Hamelin, is determined to take the bookshop into a new era and is at the helm of a number of literary endeavours. His priorities are giving fresh life to the literary review, Nejma (or Star) and taking Arabic book publishing to a new level of co-operation. He is also keen to see more books translated into Arabic and to set up a literary prize.
"We have a growing Arabic section and we are going to build on that," he says. "The world of Arabic publishing is in need of a bit of a shake-up. We would like to see links set up between the centres of Arabic publishing in countries around the Mediterranean - Beirut, Algiers, Cairo - and, of course, Tangier."
According to Abdeslam Kadiri, who helps run the bookshop, the team have 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 tells me. "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. This is better than going through the internet".
Also browsing in La Librairie is playwright Zoubeir ben Bouchta. "One problem facing writers is that we are poorly distributed," he complains. " Here publishers and distribution companies operate only on a national basis and don't send the books to other Arab countries. And there is no promotion of any of my works."
Like Ben Bouchta, the well-known Tangerine writer Tahar Ben Jalloun feels that the initiatives of La Librairie will bring books to a wider audience and serve to establish new ways of promoting new titles. "Hopefully, this private initiative will show the way forward," he says. "A book that's published in Egypt - you won't find it in Beirut, in Tangier or in Algiers. There's a huge difficulty for books to circulate from one Arab country to another."
Hamelin recognises the size of the challenge facing him. "We may not be able to achieve exactly what we are aiming for, but we will start with translating the French writer Jean Genet into Arabic," he says. "Genet is well known in the Arab world, but he hasn't been translated. 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."
As a gaggle of young Arab students come into the shop keen to see what is on the shelves, Kadiri explains that in the old days there was a sort of invisible barrier at the entrance to the shop. "People who speak and read only Arabic would hesitate to come in, "he explains. "They saw the shop as a colonialist hangover and only for the French. That's changed. We are going to up the number of books in the Arabic language in stock and hold a round table each month with Arab writers. That is the best way to make the Librairie accessible to everyone".
With more than 6,000 titles in stock and eminent literary figures popping in when they are in town, the Librairie des Colonnes will be extending its reach even further shortly with the announcement of a new prize for literature. For readers and writers around the Mediterranean it seems as though the literary world has turned over a new page.
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