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Selling Books in a Country That Cannot Read

One devout man’s vendetta on an education lost has been bringing literature to the Rabat medina for decades.

14 Apr 2019

Rabat – Sprawled on a rug, under the shade of a street-side tree, Mohammed Aziz began taking his revenge by re-reading one of the nine books he owned.

Orphaned at the age of six, Aziz attempted to fish as a means to afford his dream of graduating high school. At 15, Aziz awoke to the reality that he would not be able to finish his education—the textbooks were too expensive.

Angry and without a diploma Aziz’s more than half-century career as a bookseller began.

“This is how I take my revenge on my childhood, my situation, my poverty,” Aziz told Morocco World News, disturbing a precarious tower of outdated magazines by waving at his shop.

After more than 43 years in the same spot, Aziz is the oldest bookseller in Rabat’s medina (old city).

The sight of him reading by the door frame of his five-by-five-foot bookshop is a landmark of Mohammed V Avenue, which runs through the heart of the old city in Rabat. In his store customers can find tabloid magazines for MAD 5 ($0.52) and medical textbooks for MAD 700 ($73).

Aziz works a 12-hour day. He begins with a walk around Rabat’s neighborhoods searching for book vendors with similarly humble setups to the start of his career. After buying the best from the competition, Aziz heads to the shop and adds his new books to the stacks. When asked how many books he has crammed into his store, he replied, “Not enough.”

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Mohamed Aziz began selling books in 1963. His career started under the shade of a tree, with a rug and nine books. Now, he runs a shop in the heart of Rabat and owns thousands of books. Photo taken on Tuesday, March 5 by Stephen Higgins/Morocco World News.

Mohamed Aziz, a devout 71-year-old bookseller reads a passage from the Qur’an before taking his ritualistic walk to a nearby mosque for his late afternoon asr prayer. Photo taken on Tuesday, March 5 by Stephen Higgins/Morocco World News.

Bookseller Mohamed Aziz sits in his store, which he has owned for more than 50 years, and uses sunlight to illuminate the words in his book. Photo taken on Tuesday, March 5 by Stephen Higgins/Morocco World News.

By the light from a single yellow bulb, 71-year-old bookseller Mohamed Aziz reads a passage from the Qur’an moments before walking to a mosque for his sunset maghrib prayer. Photo taken on Wednesday, February 27 by Stephen Higgins/Morocco World News.

Mohamed Aziz covers the books outside of his shop before leaving to a nearby mosque to pray. Photo taken on Wednesday, February 27 by Stephen Higgins/Morocco World News.

He then perches himself on his door frame to start reading—only stopping to eat, pray, smoke, and help customers. On average, Aziz makes one or two sales a day.

Fight for Literacy

In the 55 years Aziz has been performing this daily ritual, Morocco’s illiteracy rate has decreased from 87% in 1960 to 32% in 2014, according to the High Commission for Planning (HCP), the country’s state-run statistics agency. But all that means to the frustrated bookseller is that roughly three in 10 Moroccans still cannot enjoy his books.

The one he wants to share the most is his red Qur’an, which he studies before each call to prayer. Reading the holy words off his Qur’an’s yellowing pages has strengthened Aziz’s faith.

By keeping his shop open and giving the public a chance to read, Aziz hopes to strengthen their faith as well—if not in God than in themselves.

“I’ll be here till everyone can read,” Aziz said. “I’ve read more than 4,000 books, so I’ve lived more than 4,000 lives. Everyone should have that chance.”

But he knows not everyone does.

Only two things infuriate the devout 71-year-old—books with missing pages and children working instead of studying.

Five times a day Aziz closes his red Qur’an to walk to a nearby mosque and pray. Each day, he passes boys working in shops or playing in alleyways instead of attending school—and each day, that is the first thing he prays about.

“Reading is a gift from God and a command,” Aziz said, directly referring to the Qur’anic passage, 96:1 to 96:5, which states, “Read in the name of your Lord who created you. He created man from a clot. Read, and your Lord is the Most Honorable who taught with the pen, taught man what he did not know.”

Aziz attributes the country’s continued low literacy rate to the percentage of students, that, like him, do not finish school.According to USAID, only 53% of students enrolled in middle school continue to high school.

“This problem isn’t new,” Aziz said. “It happened to me 50 years ago, and it’s happening now.”

Annoyed at the disturbance, 71-year-old Mohamed Aziz puts his book down for just a moment to pose for a portrait picture and give the camera an exasperated look. Photo taken on Tuesday, March 5 by Stephen Higgins/Morocco World News.

At the end of each school year, students off to summer send a cascade of used textbooks to Aziz’s shop—forcing the creation of new science, math, religion, and language stacks.

Not needing a reminder of how expensive textbooks can be, Aziz marks prices down for future students, in the hope that expensive books are no longer the reason why students cannot attend school.

Not being in class however did not stop Aziz from learning.

Love for Language

Tiled with the colorful spines of books, Aziz’s shop became a melting pot for people from all over Morocco and the world. Many of them, like those summer-bound students, left their used books at the shop.

By engaging with the donors in long conversations and by later reading their donations, Aziz self-taught himself standard Arabic, French, and Spanish.

His shop reflects his love for languages, with books and magazines in more than half a dozen languages. Aziz has read them all, or has tried, admitting sheepishly that he is still a novice at German and Italian.

Having grown up speaking Darija, the unwritten local Arabic dialect in Morocco, the two languages Aziz worked hardest to learn were standard Arabic and French, the country’s two main languages. To become fluent, he filled his shelves with books in these languages, which to this day make up the majority of his library.

Aziz became fluent in French and Arabic without ever having finished school, but he found a new challenge in 2011. In the wake of the Arab Spring, the government established a new Constitution, and Article 5 officially recognized the Amazigh language (Berber) as a national language.

In eight years, Aziz has only been able to add one Amazigh book to his collection, a faded 700-word dictionary he does not remember buying, and he uses it as the foundation of a stack of travel guides.

“I hope somebody donated this to me,” Aziz said. “It would have been a waste to buy it because no one reads or writes in Amazigh.”

According to the sixth General Census of Population and Housing data report conducted in 2014 by the HCP, 26.7% of Morocco’s population speaks Amazigh, compared to the 89.8% that speak Darija and the 66% that speak French.

A local Maghreb cigarette dances between his lips as Aziz thumbs through the hard-bound dictionary and sounds out familiar words. He blows embers off a page as he stumbles over a new term. Bringing the book closer, he mouths over the term “lqamar listina’i” — “satellite” in English.

Closing the book, Aziz stabilized his travel section by returning the dictionary to its former spot—he admitted to giving up on learning Amazigh because of the language’s lack of literature. The written form of Amazigh has only been in use for the last 16 years, following its creation in 2003 by the Royal InStitute of Amaghigh Culture (IRCAM).

Providing books in all of Morocco’s languages is a dream Aziz hopes to one day fulfill as long as he gets a few hours with the books first.

“My life revolves around reading,” Aziz said. “In life, I care most about my ability to read and that I can read until the end of it.”

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