Mohammed Kabbaj, knowledge bookseller in Essaouira

Bookstore specializing in old books from the history of Morocco, Mohammed Kabbaj has been established in Essaouira for 14 years. In this historic coastal town that has now been transformed into tourism, the 69-year-old has rediscovered his love of knowledge.

“I am not a bookseller, but a bookseller. There is a difference. The bookseller is the one who sells the new. I’m a bookseller. The interior is complete. In the small town of Essaouira, where the wind never blows, Mohammed Kabbaj’s bookstore “La Bibliographie” is located in the bend of the small alleys, away from the hustle and bustle of the countless shops on the main street of the medina. The blue on the shop window is barely noticeable as it is so close to the high ocher walls of the ramparts. The books and posters presented seem as old as the decor of the city.

Inside, the scent of old works is mixed with that of the store’s old stones. In the background, behind a desk to the right, a man with a beard and gray hair looks engrossed in sorting through his books. It seems small compared to all these works yellowed by time. A pipe screwed into his mouth, his hoarse voice echoes between the walls as he greets his customers. There is a benevolent warmth from Mohammed Kabbaj, a touch of mischief as well. Behind the glasses, his eyes sparkle as soon as we talk about his job. “I specialize in books on the history of Morocco, before and during the period of the French Protectorate,” he said.

Birth of a profession Mohammed Kabbaj developed it very early, as he is passionate about books. Born in 1953 into a modest family in Casablanca, he was not immersed in an educated environment. “My father was orphaned and had no education, but I had an uncle who was self-taught, he had many books at home and we went there every weekend,” he says. As a child, he participated in the violently suppressed demonstrations on March 23, 1965. “I was in a very hot area.” With the emergence of the movement, high school students who defended their right to study were threatened by an ongoing reform. Mobilization is gaining momentum, high school students are joined by their parents, workers, unemployed and slums.

The repression left at least a thousand dead, according to foreign press, and King Hassan II declared: “There is no danger as serious to the state as that of a so-called intellectual. It would have been better if you were all illiterate.” These events give a first direction to the life of the young Mohammed. “We were under the bullets of General Oufkir who led the oppression, I was very touched by what I experienced. I, who was worried about social inequalities, it affected me a lot. Especially on an emotional level. I witnessed a murder, such as a protester being shot dead by a soldier. It was a very painful time. These events strengthened his interest in philosophy, political science and Marxism. “It was a real awakening,” he explains. “I did not understand everything I read, but I felt things.”

Mohammed Kabbaj reads Descartes, Camus … “Doubt and the absurd”, he laughs. He has only one idea in mind: to study these texts at university. For that, he has to go to Rabat, but his family’s funds do not allow him to change cities. He then transferred to political science at the University of Casablanca. “A great disappointment,” in his words. “At that time, everything was considered socially or philosophically subversive. All its subjects were therefore emptied of their political essence. In addition, our generation did not care a bit about the diploma, because there was no concern for work, we had other motives, namely to be cultivated.” He therefore closed down the Moroccan University and flew to Paris where he received a scholarship at the age of 24. Gilles Deleuze, Nicos Poulantzas, François Chatelet … Between philosophy at the famous Paris 8 University of Vincennes, and sociology at the Sorbonne, is Mohammed Kabbaj a fulfilled man: “The courses finally interested me”.

After a few years, he began a dissertation on Marshal Lyautey, administrator of the French Protectorate of Morocco between 1913 and 1925. “We had a course on political legitimacy,” he says. I then asked the question of whether Lyautey had succeeded in establishing French legitimacy in Morocco, it was by working on this period that I developed my passion for these old books. »

Returning to Morocco When he returned to Morocco in 1986 with his wife and children (his first son was born in 1985), he quickly turned away from the administrative professions that his level of study allowed him to achieve. “I did not want to sit on my conviction, I was marginal … I wanted to remain independent, I tried to work with my uncle in a signaling company, he wanted me to take over. I never succeeded, he said with a wide smile. However, I tried for six months … so I was looking for a job that could allow me to remain intellectually free. »

Mohammed decides to combine business with pleasure. “I knew all the old booksellers and booksellers in Paris, when I went to a bookseller and saw them sitting behind their desks and reading with their glasses, I said to myself why not me, why not in Morocco?” Then he started a first bookstore, first at the flea market Derb Ghalef in Casablanca, organized antique fairs and began to make a name for himself in the Moroccan intellectual milieu. “The ministers came to talk to me in the salons and the researchers often consulted me for their study work,” Mohammed recalls, “it must be said that the old books on Morocco (in French) were quite rare here!” »

The young bookseller regularly travels back and forth to Paris, “to hunt for old books”. There he finds one of his friends from the flea market Clignancourt, where in addition to his studies he worked in a mattress sales shop during his eight years in Paris. “We started hearing about Essaouira. A city on the rise, we were told. So we decided to open a restaurant there. His bookstore in Casablanca did not survive the economic recession of the early 1990s has not fed, so I will feed the stomach. »

Essaouira, a city “with a cultural vocation” At that time, Essaouira was “a cemetery of houses”, believes Mohammed. The city was founded in 1760 and experienced a flourishing period in the 18th century. Known as the “port of Timbuktu”, it was a hub of the sub-Saharan slave market. But from the French protectorate, the city is closed. “It was Lyautey who killed Essaouira. The births of the port of Casablanca and the city of Agadir killed. The industrial district is a ruin elsewhere,” the bookseller regrets. “There was still one very important music: Moroccan blues, Gnaoua. Our restaurant was the first to present these musicians to an audience.”

This restaurant, Mohammed stayed there for more than ten years. He witnessed the transformation of the city, one of the poorest in Morocco, by the return of tourists who mainly came from the Gnaoua festival. “There is a form of schizophrenia,” he laments. Villas and luxury hotels are rubbing shoulders with very poor people on the streets. “In 2008, Mohammed Kabbaj left the restoration and returned to his first love, old books.” La Bibliographie “was born in Essaouira, a city that according to him “can only have one cultural calling”. “When it’s 44 degrees in Marrakech, it’s 20 degrees in Essaouira … People said it would be Saint-Tropez, but that’s nonsense! There is a mysterious dimension, a very important Jewish-Arab history … This city is made to highlight its heritage, not for mass tourism ”.

At 69, Mohammed Kabbaj now welcomes people in search of history to his shop in a city that has it all. There is a breath and a man who will have dedicated his life to the search for knowledge.

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