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By Tijana Tamburic

Marrakesh is known as the Red City or Ochre City because all the buildings have to be painted ochre red by law as it’s the easiest colour to look at in the bright sun. It is this colour that greets you as you arrive to the sublime La Mamounia, followed by its subtle yet distinctive signature amber scent. Owned by the King of Morocco, it’s not hard to see why Condé Nast awarded it the title of Best Hotel in the World 2015. It’s palatial, vivid and indulgent; like stepping into honey.

But what makes it so interesting is its continued patronage of arts and culture, exemplified by the La Mamounia Literary Awards, which aim to encourage and promote francophone Moroccan literature. This September they held their sixth annual installment of the prestigious award. The jury, comprised of seven internationally renowned writers, had to choose between a shortlist of five books by Moroccan writers published in French over the past year. The winner received 200,000 MAD (the equivalent of €18,000).

The jury could choose something cliche; a social and political drama set in one of Morocco’s 700 riads, a story of cultural displacement, a dichotomy of secular versus religious or modern versus traditional life, in other words a undoubtedly well written tale but nothing to shake the hundred-year-old olive trees or cause ripples in the chlorine-free, mosaic-tiled pools. Yet, since it’s inception, ‘predictable’ has not been a word associated with the award.

In the second year of the festival’s existence the winning book’s author was awarded posthumously as he sadly died prior to the awards. Two years ago the subject of the novel was homosexuality, which is still illegal in Morocco. This year’s winner did not disappoint. Leïla Slimani, a beautiful young Moroccan writer, was not only the first female to ever win the award but her protagonist, Adele, is a Parisian sex-addict.

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“Leïla Slimani, a beautiful young Moroccan writer, was not only the first female to ever win the award but her protagonist, Adele, is a Parisian sex-addict.”

Since the 50 Shades of Grey boom, it seems as though writers have been jumping on the sexual narrative bandwagon, but this is not new, it’s been a narrative base since Madame Bovary got bored at home. What truly makes Leïla’s book Dans le Jardin de L’ogre (In the Ogre’s Garden) controversial is that no erotic novel by a female has ever won a literary award in the Islamic world.

Adele and Richard appear to be a happy couple. She’s a journalist, he’s a doctor, and, together, they raise a little boy in their beautiful Parisian apartment. Taking advantage of the freedom she has to do whatever she wants with her time, she looks for opportunities to meet men. Left to her own obsessions, Adele determinedly progresses towards a life of bleak loneliness, extremely depraved sexual encounters and even great danger. However, Richard uncovers the truth. First blinded by rage and grief, he overcomes the urge to leave Adele, and tries to bring her back to him. In the Ogre’s Garden is a dizzy tale of a person on a quest for absolute truth. Leila Slimani’s precise, raw writing rends open poetic breaches that get more and more emotional, and fleshes out the mysterious silhouette of a female character that is at once timeless and totally modern.

Many were surprised that a more obviously ‘Moroccan’ work was not chosen, but the fact that Adele is French and lives in Paris is “wonderful” according to judge Douglas Kennedy, author of twelve published and internationally acclaimed works; “Every real writer has to escape their own culture, and we commend that. The winner should not simply be a native informant but a Moroccan writer.”

But controversy it not the reason why it won.

As Christine Orban, French novelist, playwright, lyricist and president of the jury for the fourth consecutive year, said, “There are innumerable good stories but what makes great literature is the style and the editing.” Fellow judge Vincent Engels, a Belgian writer and professor of contemporary literature and history, added that, “a great writer will show and not tell; make the reader feel something without explaining it.” Mohammed Nedali, judge and previous winner, corroborates that, “style distinguishes a great author from a good one and Leïla’s writing has a very mature and intellectual style.”

Further to her great masterly of language and the quality of her writing style, Leïla’s deep rooted themes were of great interest to Douglas Kennedy. “Addiction but also boredom. Boredom is such a huge subject and it’s everywhere – it’s interesting how different people find their own melodrama. Sex is also a form of identity and personal definition. There is a very strong perception of someone trying to define themselves through addiction in this book. An internal modus vivendi. Leïla doesn’t try to analyse or give moral life lessons; she doesn’t sensationalise the sexual experiences, just retells them as facts. It’s more like American Psycho than 50 Shades of Grey.”

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February 8, 2016