Here at Spear’s we are very familiar with Book Awards. Awards that celebrate business books, biographies, large format illustrated coffee table books are commonplace — but those celebrating the world of foreign language literature are, to be honest, a little foreign to us.
In preparation for the Spear’s Book Awards, I popped over to Marrakech to investigate La Mamounia Literary Award, which celebrates excellence in Francophone literature in Morocco.
It is fair to say that Francophone Moroccan literature is quite a niche area of literature and often considered inaccessible to outsiders, and so one of the main purposes of the weekend was to overcome this preconception and make a wider audience aware of the literary works of a country much better known for its oral tradition.
What better way to win people over than send them to a glorious hotel and charm them with a rather glamorous jury comprised of eight internationally renowned experts from Morocco, Senegal, Belgium, Canada and France and chaired by French novelist and songwriter, Christine Orban.
Having left a grim, murky London behind to arrive in a hazy, sunny Marrakech — I immediately warmed to Francophile book awards, and as a German graduate, the prospect of 36 hours of French-language press meetings was rather intriguing.
I have to say, the whole experience was fascinating. Being less than fluent in French I rather enjoyed seeing how much could be gleaned from a look or gesture or the odd word I recognised (sadly there was no mention of my favourite French word — pamplemousse. Ah, bof), before quizzing some poor journalist, who happened to be bilingual in the relevant languages, on the actual course of events.
Even I managed to understand that in trying to choose from a diverse group of 7 texts, the jury struggled to come to a unanimous decision. The prize was eventually awarded to Mohamed Nedali for his novel Triste Jeunesse, which documents the struggle of the young and unemployed in Morocco through the eyes of his student protagonist, fighting against corruption, class and repeated disappointment.
The novel, although not hugely sophisticated in its language and construction (I was told by one of the jury members over lunch – my French really isn’t good enough to have understood that directly) was described as ‘easy to read’ and ‘compelling’ and as a result narrowly beat Aicha Benamour Benis’s more linguistically impressive Lettre de Fes to the 200,000 Moroccan dirham (£14,570) prize.
Much like in lectures, some of the local press seemed more concerned with letting the rest of the room know how thoroughly they had read all of the texts rather than asking actual questions, but those who did quizzed the jury on topics ranging from the gender, age and experience of the authors, to the technical details of the judging process.
The British contingent was equally interested in how French women, and more specifically Christine Orban, manage to look effortlessly chic wherever they are. Not a literary musing, but an interesting one nonetheless.
Away from the other international delegates, we managed to snatch a few brief hours snaking through the labyrinthine passages of the souk, buying ‘artisan’ wooden spoons, leather shoes and exquisite cashmere coats, and taking in the colours, smells and goat brains before returning to the hotel.
Luxurious North-African design showcased in La Mamounia’s rooms
A small dash of authentic Morocco within five minutes of the grandeur of La Mamounia, which after its refurbishment, is truly beautiful: traditionally decorated but with a hugely luxurious gloss to it all, from the heavy silk drapes at the windows to the Hermes-style orange leather boxes and accessories that fill the suites.
The gardens that surround the hotel complex are beautifully lush and tropical and stand in stark contrast to the bare Atlas mountains just visible beyond the garden walls. It was a real treat to indulge an appreciation of good food, good books and good company in such a wonderful setting.
From the deep ultra-marine of the hotel spa to the heady burnt umbers of Le Marocain restaurant, the call of the muezzin rumbling through the streets at dawn and dusk and the intoxicating smells of dried fruit and spices in the depths of the souk, the whole 36 hours were packed full of sensory and intellectual stimulation.
If the hotel could bring in a few international agents and one or two dedicated translators next year, the weekend would be an even greater success and perhaps encourage the wider world to take a greater interest in written as well as oral Moroccan culture.
Read more by Emily Rookwood