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Yassin Adnan takes us inside Morocco in the age of the internet

April 18, 2020 at 9:02 am

Yassin Adnan at a book signing of his first novel Hot Maroc on 7 March 2020 [Yassin Adnan/Twitter]

Hot Maroc is the first novel by Moroccan journalist, poet and short story writer Yassin Adnan. It immerses the reader in today’s Morocco, between the real world and the internet fantasy. Hot Maroc is a cynical satire about the eternal human and social comedy, and has been selected for the prestigious International Prize for Arabic Fiction.

In Adnan’s novel, the city of Marrakech, where the author was born, is as important as the fleshy characters of his book. However, the city is not the Marrakech of oriental clichés. For Adnan, it is also an inspiring city for writers, even though he admits that the literature about Marrakech has sometimes limited the city to the same clichés: a tourist destination from the Jemaa el-Fna square across to the Medina. It is actually a denser and more complex city; a multiple city.

“I am showing a city that is not only socially plural, but also architecturally plural,” he tells me. “Through my characters, I describe the underprivileged neighbourhoods that surround the city, a belt of poverty made up of people from the rural areas. I also talk about the new neighbourhoods which are characteristic of the petite and middle-class bourgeoisie. Buildings are growing rapidly and young couples are moving in.” Thus, Marrakech offers a perfect setting for this satirical comedy.

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It is in the yellow and imperial city that the main protagonist of the novel lives: the humble Rahal Laâouina. He has low self-esteem and views himself as the eternal victim of circumstances and of others. Rahal knows that he is a coward and deep down he is resentful of this, so he takes harsh revenge on bullies during his semi-awake dreams. The digital revolution will offer him the possibility of becoming a potential Iago: a manipulator, a great organiser and a small disorganiser of the lives of others. Under different pseudonyms, he then distils a venom of perfidy through the comments he spreads on social media. Even better, thanks to his job at a cyber café, he will influence the lives of his clients thanks to the access he keeps to their email and social media accounts. Rahal Laâouina ends up being noticed by obscure internal security services, precisely because of his talent for shaping public opinion through denunciation and sweet perfidy. He will then end up being paid to exercise his talents on demand. His name suits him perfectly. It almost means the “great traveller”. He navigates the worldwide web. His surname literally means “little eye”, a word that also means “snitch”, Adnan explains.

The cover of Hot Maroc by Yassin Adnan

How does one live for four years with such an anti-hero? That’s how long the author took to write his dense novel. Adnan answers like an omniscient writer who refuses to judge his characters. “He is an apathetic character, but we must not forget that he is also a victim. A harassed, abused child, an insignificant and humiliated adult. He is a victim who uses his weaknesses to dominate and control the virtual lives of others, but controls nothing in his own life. He is totally unable in real life to maintain his dignity. In the virtual world, he gets revenge.” His novel, Adnan explains, is a way of denouncing the behaviour of this kind of informer on the internet. “And I also wanted to show the social and psychological complexity of this phenomenon. Those who run the country use this kind of person to poison the atmosphere and people’s lives. Let’s not forget that Moroccan youth are now hyper-connected. They spend three to four hours a day in this virtual world. We have had a real electronic mafia that has been able to crack down in Morocco.”

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The country has indeed experienced various scandals related to the use of the internet, such as the famous “Hamza mon bb” account, administered by one or more mysterious anonymous characters, which led to many private photos and videos of Moroccan celebrities being leaked online. For Adnan, Rahal’s case is not individual and mundane. And the real challenge today is to put an end to impunity on the internet without touching freedom of expression.

In Hot Maroc, Yassin Adnan describes a Moroccan society where there is little room left for the individual: each character is caught in the web of social conformity and religiosity, burdened by the constant surveillance of civil society. “Every society is like this, making the individual bear the weight of its laws. The characters are conditioned, but also hesitate. Just like the country itself. Between those who want to leave the country, those who don’t know if they’re going to stay, everyone is on the threshold of something else. The characters are as if suspended, trapped.”

Nothing misses the author’s ferocious eye, no environment is spared, including the university and its artificial political struggles choreographed in advance between revolutionary and Islamist movements. He criticises the way that love is in reality social conformism and sexual hypocrisy, and how journalism has turned into gossip and hasty scoops on the lives of starlets and “influencers”, made of business arrangements and fuelled by hatreds.

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In this Marrakech, people are compared to a bestiary. Adnan makes his characters look like animals: Rahal is a squirrel; his wife Hassaniya a bristling hedgehog with cruel spikes; his father a thin mantis; and a woman he secretly loves, a swan. It’s a bestiary that also allows us to characterise the characters, their destiny inscribed in their animal resemblance.

The author claims his Balzacian influences, in an obvious way. “Balzac wrote The Human Comedy because men are not alike and everyone has a role to play in this world. I wrote an animal comedy, the characters resemble animals, zoomorphically, but beyond that, each one feeds off the other.”

Hot Maroc Couverture éd. Le Fennec

Hot Maroc Couverture éd. Le Fennec

Adnan’s book allows the reader to grasp the mutations of Morocco. It strikes by its narrative vein and the author’s ability to depict human beings and society with lucidity and finesse. Its action takes place between the end of the reign of Hassan II and the beginning of that of Mohamed VI; it is also an in-between. In this respect, the novel is an inventory of “a country that wants to be modern, but whose institutions and conservatism hold the country back.” For Adnan, through his writing, Morocco is a country that finds it difficult to open its windows on the world but, he insists, there is a will among Moroccans to jump these obstacles. “There is an accumulation of small stalls that prevent progress. I have observed how the internet is now being used to amplify these existing hindrances. Social media amplify these burdens. I, too, have suffered from the damage of the internet. I started to think about how it causes harm and destruction, while also offering tremendous opportunities for mobilising Moroccan civil society. I am not neglecting this aspect. But instead of investing this space to bring freedom of expression, the internet has become an instrument for exercising freedom of defamation. The Moroccan people are watered down by social media influencers and even the political class plays this unhealthy game to influence an opinion or weaken an opponent.” This, adds Adnan, prevents any significant political awareness among the people.

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The novel is translated from Arabic into French in what is a remarkable translation, which allows the layers of the narration, the tones and colours of the words used to be restored. The aim was indeed to render the subtleties of the Arabic used in the book, from Moroccan popular Arabic to classical Arabic. “In the book, I use Qur’anic Arabic, pre-Islamic poetry Arabic, official Arabic, administrative Arabic, journalistic Arabic, social media Arabic and darija, Moroccan dialect Arabic. The novel is written in standard modern Arabic, which is the Arabic of the narrator. But the narrative layers use these different modalities of the language. The voice of the narrator uses this standard Arabic in order to pose a form of neutrality; then I am against any form of sacralisation of the Arabic language. Arabic is a living, dynamic language and it must remain so.”

Hot Maroc is both a satire and an X-ray. A fable and a tale. “People in Marrakech are known for their sense of humour and are always ready to make fun of themselves. It is a city of oral tradition, full of storytellers. And since I was a child, I’ve been listening to them. Their stories are full of humour and folk wisdom. I find these stories very optimistic because they are really realistic, they name things, point out the problems etc… That’s what the frontal X-ray in this novel is all about.”