It is fair to say that love and hate helped to bring about Moroccan writer Yassin Adnan’s debut novel Hot Maroc. A lifelong love of literature provided the rationale. A barrage of hatred from anonymous online trolls in 2011 gave him the inspiration.
“The attacks were arbitrary and aggressive,” Adnan, 51, tells The National. “I wanted to know who these people were and why they wanted to hurt me. I later discovered that many friends were suffering from the same problem. And that this is a phenomenon in Moroccan society. These people are against any type of success, they don’t want to see others having any kind of self-realisation. And they can hide in the virtual world where there are no rules and laws.”
Determined to get to know his enemy – “to understand and condemn this character” – Adnan utilised his talent. “I am neither a sociologist nor a psychologist, so all I could do was write to analyse this social disease,” he says.
With two published collections of stories under his belt, he decided on a short tale and created the shy, cowardly misfit Rahhal Laaouina as its protagonist.
As he wrote, he realised he had the potential to craft something more substantial. He fleshed out the character and padded out the story. Five years later, he completed Hot Maroc.
At more than four hundred pages, and comprising, in its author’s words, “a big jumble of events, plots, subplots, and main and minor characters”, this dark comic satire takes the reader on a long, rollicking ride through modern-day Marrakesh and into the murky recesses of the web.
To Adnan’s delight, the book was longlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction in 2017. It has just been translated into English by Alexander E Elinson, who has masterfully captured the various speech registers and rhythms of the novel’s diverse cast.
Adnan tracks Laaouina from slum child to mediocre university student to faceless villain. He gets his first taste of power when he lands a job managing the Atlas Cubs Cybercafe. There he discovers Hot Maroc, “Moroccans’ number-one news source, their shaded electronic oasis”. Through it, he battles and settles scores with those who have overlooked or undermined him.
But what starts as a hobby soon becomes an occupation. Laaouina is recruited by the security services and tasked with writing for Hot Maroc. Adopting numerous identities, he embarks on a series of smear campaigns against enemies of the state. This paid troll is in his element “dancing on virtual tightropes, fabricating lies, fattening up rumours and poking others with electronic needles.”
When asked what he wanted to achieve with the book, Adnan replies succinctly: “To protest against manipulation and defamation.” To this end, he has succeeded admirably, for the book is a scathing critique of political corruption.
But at the outset, Adnan had another aim. “I also wanted to write a Moroccan novel which could be read and appreciated in the Arab world,” he says. “In Morocco, we have the feeling that our country does not take the place it deserves in the Arab world, and maybe also worldwide.”
It was perhaps inevitable that Adnan would write a novel – he has been engaged in literary pursuits his whole life. He studied English literature at Cadi Ayyad University and has had his poetry and collections of short stories published. “I consider myself a poet who writes fiction,” he says.
He also terms himself “a professional reader” as a result of his foray into broadcasting. He prepares and presents two cultural television programmes – Masharef on Morocco’s Channel One and Bayt Yassin for Egypt’s Al-Ghad TV – each involving discussions about books with leading Arab writers.
In addition to this work, Adnan has edited several books on Marrakesh, the city he calls home. One of those books, an anthology of stories called Marrakech Noir, for an American series, initially proved problematic.
“Morocco has no tradition of noir literature,” Adnan says. “The Marrakesh writers I approached were keen to contribute stories about the city’s secrets and scandals, but not about darkness and crimes.”
For Adnan, not only is Marrakesh crime literature thin on the ground, but so is quality literature by local authors. “I have always had the impression that important literary texts about Marrakesh are written by outsiders,” he says.
“Elias Canetti gave us The Voices of Marrakesh. There is Marrakch Medine by Claude Ollier and various novels by Juan Goytisolo. Why don’t we have a great novel written by a Marrakeshi? Mohamed Choukri wrote about Tangier perfectly and became the writer of Tangier. We need good writers from here to write [about] our city.”
Adnan is surely one of them. He has created a rich, panoramic portrait of a fascinating city. During his journey, Laaouina explores all corners of Marrakesh, encountering people from all walks of life along the way. In doing so, he experiences societal upheavals and transformations.
“Marrakesh was, in a sense, the main protagonist,” Adnan says. “I was keen to trace the modern city with its complex changes and avoid the kind of folkloric depiction of the place that is often presented elsewhere.”
Remarkably, none of the book was actually written in Marrakesh. “I began writing it at a writers’ residency on the Cote d’Azur while I was working on a poetry book,” Adnan explains. “I wrote parts of it during two other writers’ residencies in America. And I finished it in Belgium. We had elections in Morocco at the time, and I watched them take place while in Brussels. This gave me the idea to write the last section of the novel about the elections.
“I needed the distance. But now I’m working on a second part and, because of Covid-19 restrictions, I am writing it entirely in Marrakesh.”
Adnan has realised that his protagonist – at once a hapless hero and an unloveable troll – has life in him yet. “It seems that Rahhal’s electronic adventures are endless.”