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The Library at Dar Al-Ma’mûn

Photograph of a library with framed portraits, by Khalil Nemmaoui
  • By Anna Della Subin
  • Issue 7
  • Shelf Life

“I often stopped in front of the souk butcher, so as to better admire the slabs of raw meat hanging from hooks or spread over the white tiles of the counter… health-ruining legs of lamb, delicious veal tenderloins, minced beefsteaks that simply cried out for a good grilling, beef shanks, lamb chops.” In the Moroccan novelist Mohamed Nedali’s Prime Cuts, a boy dreams of becoming a butcher, much to the horror of his family, descendants of an illustrious line of Quranic scholars. “I loved the brains that had been lovingly arranged on sprigs of coriander, the sturdy beef hearts, now gone as quiet as dumbbells. I even loved the shiny, dripping rolls of tripe still quivering with life,” the protagonist rhapsodizes. “All these heavenly delights had been showcased in such a manner as to ensure that even the most indifferent of passers-by would be lured into their trap.”

The same is true of the books of Dar Al-Ma’mûn, a library and artists’ residency in the sunbaked village of Tassoultante. It’s thirteen kilometers down the road from Marrakech but feels much farther away. The library, a modernist ocher building with a dome, is surrounded by palms, cacti, and rosemary bushes, and trees heavy with ripe limes. The Atlas Mountains supervise from a distance. Goats pummel one another in their pens, horses stomp flies away, and rabbits meditate quietly. A treehouse built for humans has been taken over by hundreds of swallows. Smells of dung and distant fires waft over; peppers grow in the sun. The sound of bleating sheep mixes with ambient techno and gnawa from the hotel restaurant, punctuated now and then by the call to prayer.

Cryptic quotes on the doors of the library lure the reader inside. “This was supposed to turn transcendent,” reads a line from the poets Keith and Rosmarie Waldrop. Dust has no time to settle on the books. Ever since it opened in 2011, the library, offering titles largely in Arabic, French and English, has been an active hive of composition, translation, and collaboration. At the moment, Nedali’s translator, André Naffis-Sahely, is here working on the rest of Prime Cuts, from the French. Zinzi Clemmons is finishing a novel. I am collaborating with the Moroccan photographer Khalil Nemmaoui. We are fed tagines—chicken with olives, lamb with prunes—every six hours or so. Tiny, eager stray kittens can be counted on to feast on the spoils.

The central stacks of the library are sheltered by a domed ceiling, inscribed with Arabic verses from the blind tenth-century Syrian poet Al-Ma‘arri. All the brains are here: from Etel Adnan to Lucretius, Juan Goytisolo to Krishnamurti, Mircea Eliade, and Adonis; the Moroccan greats, like Mohammed Khaïr-Eddine, Abdelkebir Khatibi, and Mohamed Choukri. A spiral staircase leads up to a second floor. I unearthed old issues of Souffles, the radical Moroccan literary magazine from the 1960s edited by the poet Abdellatif Laâbi. Souffles often featured the work of the luminous writer and filmmaker Ahmed Bouanani. His daughter Touda is here, working with the translator Emma Ramadan to prepare his book on the history of Moroccan cinema for posthumous publication. Elsewhere on the shelves, I found Patti Smith inches away from the god Shiva, in poems translated by A. K. Ramanujan. The mythographer Marina Warner’s book on the tales from the 1,001 Nights, Stranger Magic, is not far from the historical geographies of Guy Le Strange.

The librarian Juan Asís Palao Gómez appears to have read every book in the place—there are ten thousand—but he denies it. Juan believes that, on principle, a librarian should avoid reading the books in the library in which he works, to maintain objectivity or a critical distance. “To stay clean,” as he puts it. Many of the books were chosen by the artists and writers who have passed through, in line with their own idiosyncratic needs. Who else pored over the The Elixir of Gnostics? Who required a copy of Sociologie des maladies mentales au maroc? Who lingered with Meditations of a Hermit by Charles de Foucauld, the French priest who lived among the desert Tuareg? Scanning the bookcases is a bit like following animal tracks in the sand. Now and then a mirage might hover into view. In determining my own small addition to this miraculous library, I chased after one: when asked what I’d like to see on the shelves, I requested, by accident, a book that doesn’t exist.

Anna Della Subin has written for the New York Times and the London Review of Books, among other publications. She is a contributing editor at the Middle East arts and culture magazine Bidoun.

Photos by Khalil Nemmaoui