Casablanca Book Fair Roulette

In Growth Markets by Amanda DeMarco

A dramedy of errors starring North African literati, Italian bureaucrats, and an innocent American journalist lost among the phone trees of Morocco.

By Amanda DeMarco

SIEL

MOROCCO: The road to SIEL is paved with good intentions. This I learned while trying to write an article for Publishing Perspectives on the SIEL (Salon international de l’édition et du livre) Book Fair in Casablanca, to coincide with my trip to Morocco prior to the fair this February. Considering the fair in Cairo had been canceled and what with the political relevance and all, I thought it would be interesting to talk to the organizers about how things were going with SIEL. Italy was guest of honor, and I also wanted to ask their organizer what it’s like for Europeans to be the focus at a Maghrebian book fair. Once I had a better idea of the shape of the story, I could follow up with relevant publishers, writers, or translators.

Sounds like an article you want to read, right? It sure was an article I wanted to write.

When I landed in Marrakech I had already been trying to make contact for weeks. Once I found a suitably palatial riad, I opened my laptop in the courtyard and checked my email for the billionth time. (Yes, the modern riad has wi-fi.) The project had begun to take on the aspect of a BDSM-submissive’s fantasy: denial, humiliation, pain. Despite my compulsive, definition-of-insanity emailing, calling, and faxing, I hadn’t succeeded in reaching anyone connected with SIEL. I started keeping a list, just to have something to show for my work:

Attempts at Contact, Abbreviated:

  • Telephone listed on Moroccan Ministry of Culture’s website (fair organizer) non-functional (tried from multiple numbers)
  • Fax number on MMC website is non-functional.
  • Contact form on MMC website is non-functional
  • MMC email address provided by conference planning company non-responsive
  • 2010 guest of honor does not know how to contact MMC
  • Italian representative disconnects calls after 10-15 seconds (tried from multiple numbers); does not return calls
  • Italian representative lists only general query email and responds from no-reply address but provides neither contact information nor answers to any questions
  • Italian Cultural Institute in Morocco incomprehensible on phone
  • Italian Embassy in Morocco does not respond to queries of any kind

From Marrakech to Rabat, Rabat to Casablanca, I pursued my opponents across North Africa. Like Patton. Unlike Patton, my main tactical maneuver was to justify to myself continually postponing the article’s publication date: An informative article prior to the fair would have been nice, but a timely article during wasn’t bad either. And while a report during the fair would have been relevant, an edifying follow-up once I was back in Berlin wouldn’t bewithout interest.

My first job in Berlin was teaching high school English. My youngest students were twelve and when I told them I was from the US they looked at me with the desperate loneliness of the shipwrecked and breathed “Co-ol!” (It has two syllables here.) Then came the questions: “Know you Mylie Cyrus?” “Have you Barack Obama met?” “Gives there in Chicago many stars?”

You could say a higher-order version of this American celebrity mystique is often at work in international publishing. It’s not just that having a book translated into English is the holy grail of many a foreign rights department; I benefit from it too. People are usually eager to talk to me. If the allure of contributing to the open exchange of publishing knowledge doesn’t win their hearts, the free English-language publicity usually does.

Except when it doesn’t and the poker-faced Moroccan-Italian book fair cartel snubs my tender overtures with their flinty, sphinx-like indifference, rattling my delicate American ego to its core.

All in all, trying to write about SIEL left me feeling pretty D-list. In their defense, the Italian Ministry of Foreign Affairs may have briefly flirted with the idea of nearly almost bothering to give me an interview: they returned one of my calls. A secretary said she was happy to have received my query, but the organizer of the guest of honor activities was ill and not in the office. His substitute was possibly unqualified to answer my questions, but we could try.

Sielo Substituti (let’s call him) did send me an essentially content-less email from a no-reply address, which is an ingenious torment if you stop and think about it. He recommended I contact a colleague, who in turn never responded. Substituti’s one mistake: leaving a telephone number in his signature. His secretary didn’t seem to speak English, but I repeated his name, and she said something purposeful-sounding that I imagined meant, “Yes, I’ll put you right through,” then disconnected me.

Over the coming days, I called again and we reenacted our previous call; sometimes I tried French with the same result. German seemed unlikely, but what the hell, right?  Let me emphasize that this was the high-water mark in my research.

When I think back to my attempt to write about SIEL, working through the Kübler Ross model, I try to remind myself that people are busy, organizations overtaxed, communication technology imperfect. Still, it gnaws at me: why wouldn’t or couldn’t someone, anyone talk to me? Barring SIEL being a massive hoax staged to teach Amanda the true meaning of patience, humility, and acceptance, something must have made absolutely everyone unreachable. My admiration to that man or woman who gets in touch with them to ask.

A regular contributor to Publishing Perspectives, Amanda DeMarco also edits and contributes to Readux: Reading in Berlin.

DISCUSS: What is Your Worst Book Fair Experience?

About the Author

Amanda DeMarco

Amanda DeMarco is a freelance writer and translator living in Berlin. Originally from Chicago, her work for Publishing Perspectives focuses on German-language publishing news.