Today I received a letter from a friend who recently moved to Morocco. A native of Ireland, this friend has lived in more countries over the past few years than I have ever seen. When I turned a page in my address book to scribble down his newest residence, it was the seventh address entered beneath his name.
The move did not surprise me, but the destination? Why Morocco? I asked. He'd found a copy of Partir (translated Leaving Tangier) by Tahar Ben Jelloun while in London, my friend wrote back, and he had booked a ticket soon after he'd finished the novel.
I recognized the name. Last week a customer told me she was traveling to Morocco. We headed to the Destination Literature section, where we found Jelloun's This Blinding Absence of Light, in which prisoners tell each other stories to endure their internment in desert concentration camps. Next to Jelloun was Paul Bowles, whose fiction is full of Americans encountering the culture of North Africa. We also found For Bread Alone a memoir of Moroccan Mohamed Choukri, a friend of Bowles.
In solidarity with my friend's move, I picked up a copy of Leaving Tangier for myself. It's a desperate story of those who long to leave their country and take life-destroying measures to do so. The main character, Azel, sells himself to a rich Spanish lover in order to make the crossing, then writes heartbreaking anguished letters back to a country he loves and hates with an irreconcilable tension.
In reply to my friend's letter I am sending him a small Moroccan guidebook I found from the '60s. While the information is long out of date, the aesthetics of the book pleased me: a tiny 4x6 volume of dark navy with the country's name etched in gold across the cover. But it was the cartography that drew me. Several detailed, full-colored maps of various cities fold out from the thin pages.
In the back of the guidebook, I gingerly unfolded a full sized map the country. I stared at the northernmost tip, at Tangier, and at the strip of water that separates it from Europe. Something in the very topography of that place speaks of borders and boundaries, of the lines that define nations and races and individuals, of voices that speak across channels and oceans, of longing that reaches the viewer from the flat dimensions of a page.
While few of us can claim such versatile itineraries for our lives, books often play the same role as they did for my friend, that is, books function as maps, leading us into worlds we have never seen. It seems appropriate then, that we're bringing in a rich array of maps to supplement our travel section at Booksmith. Look for them downstairs, bordering the walls of our events' space. Books and maps illustrate the world for us in much the same way, connecting us across distances that once seemed impassable.