Challenging Illiteracy in Morocco, a Bookseller Pursues Paradise

Aziz Mohammad, 66, has owned his bookshop in Rabat’s medina for over 50 years, since he was 15. He has handpicked some 4,000 titles from different neighborhoods around Rabat.
Aziz Mohammad, 66, has owned his bookshop in Rabat’s medina for over 50 years, since he was 15. He has handpicked some 4,000 titles from different neighborhoods around Rabat.

By Hannah Rehak

Photographs by Will Matsuda

RABAT, Morocco – Magazines spill out onto a busy street and blue painted shutters stretch open, exposing Aziz Muhammed sitting on a dusty pillow. As always, he is reading, eyes focused on an orange-bound book, spectacles resting on his prominent nose. Though tucked away behind the work of hundreds of authors, Muhammed is known throughout the medina, the oldest part of Rabat, for his unique aesthetic. He is a 66-year-old bouquiniste, a proud bookseller, in a country with an adult literacy rate of approximately 67 percent.

Mohammad’s collection is vast, creeping up the walls of his tiny shop and spilling out onto the street. He carries texts in Arabic, French, and with a little bit of digging, Soviet mechanical engineering books from the 1940s can be found hiding in the stacks.

Despite low literacy rates, Muhammed has successfully managed to own his shop for more than 50 years. After being orphaned at the age of six, Muhammed was only able to pay for school until the age of 15. It was that same year, 1964, that he opened his bookshop. As his newly independent country went through a transitional period, he started supporting himself by touring Rabat’s distinct neighborhoods in search of books – new and old – to sell on Rue Muhammed V.

“I go to all the neighborhoods, l’Ocean, Agdal, Challel,” he said, embracing the literature each neighborhood has to offer.

Muhammed behaves exactly as one might expect of a bookseller. He meticulously cleans off his oval spectacles, he claims to know the title of every single one of his books, and when a customer comes by, he is hard-pressed to look up from his reading.

Above all else, Muhammed is a pious man. He works from 10 in the morning to 10 at night, only leaving his shop to pray at a nearby mosque. His religion is his key source of motivation. Though the store has allowed Muhammed to support his wife and six children, for him, it is primarily a dedication to knowledge and the pursuit of a well-deserved afterlife.

“The Quran says it is necessary to read. That if you know, you will move to the next world, the other world,” he said

Yet the majority of Moroccans do not share Muhammed’s vast experience with the written word. Muhammed considers this a great disappointment and even though he rarely leaves his reading to engage with the people perusing his merchandise, he has paid close attention to changes in patronage over the years.

“Oh, this generation doesn’t read. They use machines. They don’t know anything about literature or culture,” he said, reminiscing over the late ‘60s when his client base was largely comprised of French-speaking men. “Now it is girls and women.”

Muhammed is correct that the literacy rate among young women is increasing significantly. But this trend is not exclusive to young women. Data shows that younger generations are, in fact, far more literate than they were even 20 years ago. Today, 84 percent of males and 74 percent of females are able to read and write.

Despite this improvement in literacy, lack of education and underemployment are still large issues within Morocco’s borders.  While Muhammed has been able create a life among the works of great scholars and indulge in scientific novels (his favorite genre when he was a kid), he sympathizes with the plight of those who are not so fortunate.

“My brothers and my sisters are really poor,” he said. “They don’t work. In Morocco, it is difficult to work without any education, without people in your family who are educated and able to introduce you to other people.”

 

While some careers in Morocco may be dependent on familial ties and educational opportunities, Muhammed has chosen the life of a bookseller. For him, being a bouquiniste is more than a career, it is a continuous investment in this life and the next.

“In the Quran, what does God say?” he asked. “Those that know are not the same as those that do not.”

Hannah Rehak

Hannah Rehak is an English and American Studies major at Macalester College in St. Paul, MN. Originally from Chicago, Illinois, Hannah's interests range from social justice to improv comedy. With a background in creative writing and critical race theory, Hannah's academic and personal goals are creativity and integrity.

3 thoughts on “Challenging Illiteracy in Morocco, a Bookseller Pursues Paradise

  • September 21, 2014 at 3:09 am
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    this is my way back home everyday from school.. i rarely see him talking to people or just sitting around.. always reading a book i’d definitely call him a bookworm. and i definitely would love to get to know him.. such an interesting man.

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  • April 29, 2015 at 9:35 am
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    I had the privilege of meeting Mr. Muhammed last January while living in the Rabat Medina. Thank you so much for this story, of all the amazing people I met during my time there, he really stuck with me. My friend asked him for a certain book and he immediately knew where the rite was and located it in seconds from his floor to ceiling stacks. Inspiring to meet someone with so much passion for what they do. Thanks for writing!

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