Casablanca book fair draws crowds
Casablanca - The 22nd International Publishing and Book Fair (SIEL) kicked off in Casablanca with the United Arab Emirates as the guest of honour, boosting historical and cultural ties between Morocco and the Gulf state.
More than 650 exhibitors, including publishing houses, government agencies, institutes, universities and civil associations from 45 countries, are taking part in the book fair, which runs February 12- 21.
There are 350 new Moroccan titles among tens of thousands of books exhibited at SIEL, which offers more than 130 activities, including thematic roundtables, retrospectives and re-creating missing cultural symbols as well discussions between the audience and writers.
This year’s fair focuses on the Moroccan experience in education, translation and literary and intellectual research, symbolically paying tribute to Moroccan researchers and authors in recognition of their contributions to the promotion of the country’s culture.
Long queues at the ticket offices were clearly visible, which showed Moroccans’ rising interest in the book fair.
Moroccan author Muhammad Ali Haider said the fair is one of the rarest cultural events that relink Moroccans with books as reading is not the average Moroccan’s choice pursuit.
Morocco ranks 162nd in reading, according to a report from the UN Development Programme. The budget dedicated to promoting reading is a mere 0.03% of the state budget and there is one public library for every 130,000 inhabitants in the country.
A study by the High Commission for Planning (HCP) in 2014 revealed that Moroccans read less than 2 minutes a day and spend 134 minutes watching television.
“Moroccan readers only find out about the latest book releases when they come to the fair because the media is not playing its role as it should do,” Haider said.
“In Europe, printed and visual media give literary criticism a huge importance, which is some kind of free advertising for the latest releases in the market. We lack such a thing in Morocco.”
Haider blamed educational institutions and the Ministry of Culture for not doing enough to promote reading among Moroccans.
“Substantial money is spent on music festivals while financial funds are needed to promote reading among both children and adults,” Haider said, calling on the ministry to help state schools take students to the book fair.
“State school teachers used to instil the love of reading into their students by asking them to swap their own books and write summaries. Nowadays, this trend is quasi-absent as most teachers see education as a means of earning a living rather than a profession of high moral character,” Haider stressed.
He expressed pessimism about the future of reading in Morocco unless everyone concerned, including schools, parents, media and government institutions, played their role efficiently and effectively.
Some exhibitors at the book fair, such as Dar Al Masar publishing house, tried to do their part by selling books for as little as 5 dirhams (52 US cents).
“We set these prices in order to encourage people to read,” Said El Bouri, owner of the publishing house, said. “Children’s books are the best-selling items in my stand.”
There is more interest in children’s and religious books than any other types of material.
“Interest in religious books is not unusual at the fair,” said writer Jawad Mdidech.
“The problem with most visitors is that they mainly come to SIEL to hang out. Those who are into reading look for books throughout the year,” he noted, adding that easy access to information and e-books on the internet and tablets was also taking a toll on printed books.
France is participating in SIEL as part of the France-Morocco Cultural Season organised by the French Institute of Morocco and the embassy of France in Rabat. About 50 lectures, meetings and debates involving more than 40 novelists, essayists, researchers, bloggers and cartoonists from both countries, are scheduled to be part of the fair.
“In a tormented Mediterranean, when terror strikes every day many territories and throws on the roads of exile thousands of men, women and children, it is important to allow writers to speak, to think this new state of the world, to fight against the confusion of minds, for shared culture to prevail over the [culture shock],” said a statement from the French Institute.
German poet Volker Braun, who won the 2015 Argana prize by Bayt Achiir (the House of Poetry) in Morocco, received his award during a ceremony at SIEL.
“Volker Braun has remained faithful for half a century to the essence of poetry, with verses in tune with their time, radiant with hope, always in quest for balance in a troubled world,” Bayt Achiir said in a statement.