Yassin Adnan: ت ماروك (Hot Maroc)
Our hero is Rahhal Laâouina. Rahhal however is not a hero in the traditional mould. He is not very bright, he is lazy, he is devious, and he is dishonest. Unlike traditional heroes he is not very successful with the opposite sex.
We first meet him in Marrakech in the 1990s. He is at university and we see him using his favourite tactic against a supposed enemy, namely kneeing him. However he is also a coward so the kneeing is entirely in his imagination.
Rahhal does not come from a lucky family. It seems that from generation to generation, the family has had bad luck, though the stories we hear indicate that incompetence is often a factor. His Mother for example is constantly berating her husband and her only son because of their incompetence.
One of Rahhal’s traits is to identify everyone as an animal and as he claims to know animal behaviour well, he judges them accordingly. He himself, for example, is a squirrel. His mother, Halima, is a pelican, as she waddles around. His father, Abdeslam, is a mantis.
Rahhal attends the local Marrakech Univieristy. However, he is expelled after failing the first-year exams in the Department of History and Geography. The Student Union has been fighting the authorities to get expelled students reinstated, so Rahhal joins the Union. He is taken by Comrade Atiqa (her animal is the cow). He gets reinstated and switches subjects to Arabic literature. He continues to attend Union meetings, while attending the classes of Professor Bouchaib Makhloufi. Professor Bouchaib Makhloufi is another incompetent. He got the job only because there are a lot of vacancies, following the departure of the French. All his students, provided they follow his procedures, get seventeen out of twenty. This will help Rahhal get his degree. Woe betide, however, any student interested in Marxism, structuralism, Bakhtin, Barthes, or Lukacs,
Professor Bouchaib Makhloufi’s procedure is to divide his class into teams of two to five people and have them focus on a a topic, when doing their thesis. He selects certain pre-Islamic poets. Rahhal gets Amr ibn Kulthum and one partner – Hassaniya Ben Mymoune. Hassaniya is brighter than Rahhal (not difficult) and has little patience with him. She will – eventually – be deemed a hedgehog. However, she finds an old Syrian magazine about the poet and they use that. Indeed, the professor is so impressed with their work that he praises them in class.
Fouad Wardi is a fellow student. Fouad has worked out that Rahhal and Hassaniya have not come up with all these ideas on their own and plans to expose them. Rahhal may have many weaknesses but he does have a low cunning. He is able to spread the rumour in the Union that Fouad is a police spy. Fouad has no idea where the source of ths rumour is coming from and is so intent on dealing with it that he abandons his exposure of Rahhal and Hassaniya.
Hassaniya has her career mapped out. Emad Qatifa is a well-to-do businessman, married to Hiyam, whom he adores. She wants to run a school so he opens one for her but she is not very good with the administration. It is clear to both that Hassaniya would be ideal to help. Obviously Hiyam could not work with a man and Hassaniya is not only competent but very conservative (she wears a veil). As soon as she graduates, she will become Hiyam’s assistant.
Hassaniya, who is very competent, realises a husband would be useful. She and her mother have found a suitable one – Rahhal. Rahhal (and we) are surprised as Hassaniya belittles Rahhal all the time. Nevertheless he accepts, not least because his mother thinks Hassaniya is the best he is going to get. He even gets a job at the school, which is basically errand boy and chauffeur.
However, apart from low cunning, Rahhal seems to have one other skill – typing, which is, of course, more complicated in Arabic than in English. He is given a garage to open a typing/photocopying/public telephone shop.
The couple marry. Rahhal had read a sex manual but Hassaniya is having none of it. Do it as the Prophet intended, she intones. Rahhal is disappointed and lusts after Hiyam.
As time goes by and we move into the 2000s, the shop becomes a cybercafé. Rahhal is in his element. He sets up email accounts (and later Facebook accounts) for all his customers so knows all their passwords and therefore all their secrets.
However, his great joy is an instant news site called Hot Maroc which allows comments. Son of the People initially attacks the poet Wafiq Daraai. He had come across him before when he had criticised him at a poetry reading and Wafiq Daraai had put him down. (He is the one mentioned at the beginning whom Rahhal had imagined kneeing in the face.) Wafiq Daraai has now won a prize and Son of the People exposes him as a police spy and others (all Rahhal under different names) attack him. Soon Son of the People has a huge following as he attacks all and sundry. However, we know, even if he does not, that his IP address can be traced and, indeed, it is, by the police. The police threaten him but want to co-opt him, which they do.
The rest of the book is a fascinating insight into Moroccan politics. Do not let that put you off. Firstly, Morocco has issues which can be found all over the world: corruption, the role of the press, freedom of the press, public health, feminism, pornography, marital (in)fidelity and public facilities. All these and more come up. Rahhal is involved either directly or indirectly, as his cybercafé becomes, firstly a hub for many locals with differing views and differing agendas and, secondly, a hub for the local elections between the interestingly named Octopus Party and Camel Party.
There are, of course, local issues. There is a fatwa. Snails become a key issue in the election and apostasy becomes an issue as does how to slaughter a sheep for Eid. Rahhal, himself, takes on various identities online and works for the police but also for his own devious ends.
Poor old Rahhal. While some things do work for him, the author, who speaks to Rahhal on several occasions in this book, comments Life is somewhere else, Rahhal. All too often, Rahhal seems to be getting somewhere but then he becomes somewhat marginalised. In his cybercafé, Yazid seems to take over. As a commenter he has some success but so do others. His marriage is not terribly successful, either on the sexual front or as a relationship. He lusts after Hiyam and inadvertently blurts out her name when having sex with Hassaniya.
The only areas where he seems to have mild success is when he is operating under an assumed identity and, even then, it does not always work out as planned. Commenting was your hobby, Rahhal, and here it has become your occupation. A strange occupation befitting the son of Abdeslam Laaouina and Halima Zanboub. A mother whose hobby is pretending to be sick, and whose occupation is illness. And a father whose hobby is silence, and whose occupation is accompanying the dead to their graves.
However, overall, it really is an interesting book as Adnan takes us into the heart of Moroccan politics, both local and national, for the most part through the eyes not of a hero or clever man, but through the eyes of a weak and devious man, a man who can never really achieve much, a man for whom life is elsewhere.
First published in Arabic in 2016 by Fennec Publishing
First published in English in 2021 by Syracuse University Press
Translated by Alexander E Elinson