Gaza, Congo, Sudan: African Book Festival speaks truth to power

African Book Festival: Palestine, colonialism, and humanity
4 min read
22 February, 2024

Under the February sun of Marrakech, African minds met on a critical mission: to forge humanity amid global fractures, from Gaza to Congo and Sudan.

On February 11th, renowned philosophers converged at Étoiles de Jamaa Lfna, a cultural centre reborn from a traditional Riad. Joined by a packed crowd of authors and students, Moroccan philosopher Ali Ben Makhlouf, Haitian poet Rodney Saint Éloi, and Senegalese philosopher Soulaymane Bachir Dagne fostered a dialogue hailed by poet Abdellatif Laabi as a "glimpse of the Pan-African dream realised."

As Saint Éloi proclaimed, "Each day, I awaken to a world waiting to discover - or rediscover - its humanity." This gathering marked the start of a powerful conversation, challenging the world to bridge its divides and reclaim the essence of being human.

"We can give space to each other...listen to understand the specificities of each struggle, and identify our blind spots"

Across the three-day festival, Gaza and Palestine was, expectedly, a major point of discussion at The African Book Festival, with Ali Ben Makhlouf initially steering the debate.

The Moroccan philosopher argued that the world often forgets the authenticity of Palestinian suffering, requiring constant reminders to counter a desperate attempt to turn a blind eye. Maklouf went on to slam the Moroccan government's refusal to meet with pro-Palestinian activists and accept their anti-normalisation petition, calling it another "blatant injustice." 

African book festival, Marrakech, Morocco
From left to right, moderator Khalid Lyamlahi, Souleymane Bachir Diagne, Ali Ben Makhlouf and Rodney Saint-Éloi at the African Book Festival in Marrakech [photo credit: Basma El Atti]

Gaza: A powerful symbol of resistance

Throughout the festival, the theme of a "fractured world" became deeply personal and speakers and attendees grappled with the ongoing crisis in Gaza.

In particular, 102-year-old French philosopher Edgar Morin spoke about the tragedy of Israel's genocide in Gaza. "It's an outrage that the descendants of the people who have been persecuted for centuries have not only colonised an entire people and driven them from their homes but, as we speak, are engaged in a veritable massacre of Gaza," he said to large applause. 

Yet despite state inaction, the discussions held at the African Book Festival serve as a stark reminder that addressing a fractured world requires acknowledging and confronting human suffering wherever it exists. The Palestinian struggle has become a powerful symbol of the urgent need for global solidarity and action in the face of injustice. 

"The world is dying, the world is waking up. Be the world, make the world," Rodney Saint Éloi urged, with Soulaymane Bachir Dagne adding, "Expressing powerlessness is a power. Continue to speak truth to power because when we speak up we show our collective humanity."

'Forgotten Africa"

Beyond the impassioned demands of roundtable debates, nestled amongst the throngs of the four-day book festival, quaint Moroccan bookshops stood like storytellers' havens.

Their stalls overflowed with narratives of the land, its scars of oppression and whispers of resistance, echoing across Africa and beyond. From Diagne's thought-provoking In Search of Africa(s) to Laabi's lyrical translations of Mahmoud Darwish's poetry, the collection was an invitation.

Festival-goers could reunite with cherished favourites, signed and ready to be revisited, or delve into lesser-known voices, each a gem waiting to be unearthed.

A collection of books and translations by African authors. (TNA)
A collection of books and translations by African authors displayed at the African Book Festival in Marrakech, Morocco. (TNA)

Yet despite the openness of discussion and selection of books, for some students, the focus of the festival was called into question. Adama, a Senegalese student at Marrakech University, spoke to The New Arab about his frustration at the lack of attention given to the ongoing crises and conflicts within Africa, especially Congo and Sudan.

"There's been a lot of discussion about Palestine today," Adama stated, "but none on the ongoing genocides in African countries. Do African lives and struggles matter less?"

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For the Senegalese student, the Palestinian struggle represents a case study of resistance against occupation, drawing inspiration for many in Africa. However, he emphasised the need for a broader conversation encompassing the diverse struggles and tragedies across the continent.

Adama's passionate plea resonated with Haitian poet Roodney Saint Éloi who acknowledged its importance. He explained that while the Palestinian situation serves as a powerful rallying point, it shouldn't overshadow other ongoing tragedies.

"We can give space to each other," Saint Éloi stated, "listen to understand the specificities of each struggle, and identify our blind spots."

It is this appreciation for shared, interwoven struggle that makes the African Book Festival in Marrakech a special event. Despite the tapestry of different identities, languages, religions and struggles, Africans and their diaspora have shown a willingness to understand one another in the hope of a world that fosters inclusivity and sustainability, where all can flourish, and truth is spoken to power. 

Basma El Atti is The New Arab's correspondent in Morocco.

Follow her on Twitter: @elattibasma