“English is not important itself," he said. "It is also not better than any other language. It is simply a reference for human knowledge. It is a pool of knowledge.”
Rabat – Tucked away from the busy streets of Morocco’s capital, Rabat’s only all-English bookstore is a hidden gem. You can only really recognize the store by a discreet sign and its business hours, handwritten in both Arabic and English. It is hard to not be amazed by the sheer number of books on sale, carefully placed in categories such as fiction, women’s studies, media, or human sciences.
Muhammed Belhaj opened the bookshop in 1985. Saddened by the sudden death of his father, he returned to Morocco from London, where he was completing his studies.
Belhaj, the sole owner of the bookstore, is originally from Fez. Born in 1941, his studies took him to Rabat at the end of the 1950s. At first reluctant to leave his hometown and the city’s vibrant medina in which he grew up, Belhaj said his options were somewhat limited when choosing where to continue his education. At the time, Morocco’s only modern university was in Rabat, where Belhaj studied political science.
His interest in politics developed at the historic moment when King Mohammed V of Morocco was forced into exile by the French colonial authorities.
“At that time, everyone was talking about the independence and colonialism. I happened to be in Rabat at the moment when King Mohammed V was exiled. That inspired me to learn more about the society and how it functions,” Belhaj explained to Morocco World News.
This is also when he started learning English, an unusual undertaking for the majority of Moroccans at the time. “I realized that French is not an international language,” said Belhaj.
“English is not important itself. It is also not better than any other language. It is simply a reference for human knowledge. It is a pool of knowledge,” he added.
He started taking English classes at the British Council in Rabat. This eventually led him to London, where he spent two years studying the language. He also traveled extensively throughout Europe at this time, a part of his life which he considers to be particularly formative.
After decades of running the bookshop, he noticed a drastic change in the type of customers that he sees on a daily basis. “At first foreigners, mostly Europeans that did not speak French, came to my store. Over the years this has changed dramatically,” said the owner.
Young Moroccan university students are currently his main customers. Belhaj jokingly added, “I think that explains why my English has been getting rusty,” given that he now spends most of his time talking to people in Moroccan Arabic as opposed to English.
He also sells books in other languages at the store, such as Spanish and German.
The process of ordering books can occasionally be tedious, he continued. Determined to always make his purchases directly from the publisher as opposed to resellers in Morocco, as a way to support the original businesses, Belhaj said the import duties on foreign books can be quite expensive.
Even with the extra costs, Belhaj is determined to keep the bookstore running. “There is a need for learning English. The government desperately wants to keep French as the second foreign language, but Moroccans are more and more interested in English,” said the owner.
He measures interest by the number of people requesting certain books. Belhaj feels strongly about the kind of literature he has at the store, but is also very open to suggestions from young Moroccans. He keeps track of each request by a customer on a sheet of paper, noting down the name of the book and the author.
The owner added that his own personal interest in politics, anthropology, Islamic studies, and Sufism eventually prevails when choosing which types of books he sells at the store.
“I like to think that I influence what people read, but I also take notice of what they want. It is expensive to get books, so all of my decisions are calculated,” said Belhaj.
He also feels strongly about the recent trend of turning books into movies. “I don’t go to the movies. Ever. A movie is just one interpretation of the book. Reading an actual book can give you endless interpretations,” said Belhaj.
He also makes sure to update the categories of books that he sells. Belhaj recently added a self-help and a business section, seeing an increase in interest in literature from those fields.
Belhaj cheerfully said, “Selling books is not like selling tomatoes.” His humor, warmth, and good intentions are something that the customers like about the store, which is why they keep coming back. When a couple of university students studying English at Mohammed V University approached him with specific book requests, he jokingly responded with: “Selling books to students is so boring. They ask way too many questions.”
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