Mektoub. Taleb. Mesquin. Cheb. Bezef. Each of these French words is also Arabic, albeit represented in French orthography. Through long proximity by colonization and immigration, Arabic influence has bled—at some moments more overtly than others—into the French language, and Azouz Begag’s 1986 autobiographical novel Le gone du Chaâba engages with this reality in each word choice and every line of dialogue.
The son of an Algerian migrant worker who settled permanently in France in 1949, not long before the brutal war for independence began, Begag employs a remarkable mixture of French, spoken Arabic, and Lyonnais slang to illustrate the linguistic realities of his community—something that poses problems for a translator who wants to retain its linguistic flavor without rendering the text totally opaque. Written in the eighties, the book and its projet linguistique is perhaps even more relevant at a time when so many Westerners think the Arabic phrase “Allahu akbar” is exclusively synonymous with terrorism.
Rita Stirn is a translator, author, and musician who lives in Rabat, Morocco. Her book, Les musiciennes du Maroc: Portraits choisis (Morocco’s Women in Music: Selected Portraits) was published by Marsam in late 2017. Asymptote’s Editor-at-large Hodna Nuernberg spoke with Stirn about her new publication, Moroccan music, and language politics in the region.
Hodna Nuernberg (HN): How did you decide to write a book on Morocco’s women musicians? And how did being a woman musician yourself shape your approach to researching and writing the book?
Rita Stirn (RS): I’ve always been interested in the silences of history concerning women in art and music. When I started listening to the blues as a teenager, I realized music was a man’s world. Sure, there were plenty of female singers, but very few instrumentalists; I wanted to learn about hidden talents—the women in music who weren’t getting much recognition.
I came to Morocco in 2011. I paid a lot of attention to what was going on here musically. Whenever there was a celebration out on the streets—a marriage, for example—there were inevitably women playing music. So, I’d talk to them. They’d say, “Yeah, sure, people know us,” but none of them were online anywhere. They got all their gigs by word of mouth, and little by little, I began to find out about more and more women musicians.
Around the same time, I was looking though archives for photographs of women in music. All the images were of men. There was no focus whatsoever on women’s talents or the tradition of women instrumentalists, and that’s when the book project started to take shape in my head.
Diverse languages and artistic disciplines intersected at the Youmein Festival in Tangier where artists and writers from Morocco, Algeria, Spain, and France created pieces to reflect the interplay between tradition(s), taqalid, تقاليد, and imitation, taqlid, تقليد.. Asymptote’s Tunisia Editor-at-Large Jessie Stoolman and writer Alexander Jusdanis report from Tangier.
For the past three years, Youmein (“Two Days” in Arabic) has brought together diverse artists in the city of Tangier to create art installations based on a central theme over a 48-hour period.
The festival is run by Zakaria Alilech, a translator and cultural events coordinator at the American Language Center (ALC) Tangier, George Bajalia, a Ph.D. candidate in anthropology at Columbia University, and Tom Casserly, a production manager at Barbara Whitman Productions. They’re quick to emphasize their hands-off approach. “We’re not curators,” says Alilech. Instead, they see themselves as facilitators, providing artists the initial inspiration, space and support to realize their ideas. The trio stressed that Youmein is less about the final product and more about the process of making art.
They intend the festival to be an opportunity for the artists and audience to discover Tangier through the lens of each year’s theme. While strolling through the city’s streets, historically a meeting point for peoples from around the Mediterranean and beyond, it is not uncommon to hear any combination of Rifiya, Darija, Spanish, French, English, and Italian. Thus, it is perhaps unsurprising that language has played an essential role in selecting the theme of the Youmein festival from its inception.
We are back with your weekly dose of literary news from around the world. Our very own Jessie Stoolman takes you on a journey through the cultural landscape of Morocco and Qatar. Following, our editor-at-large on the ground Omar El Adl writes about the latest goings-on in Egypt, and last but not least, Reverie Powell brings you the latest from the buzzing literary scene in Texas.
Jessie Stoolman, Editor-at-Large from Morocco, reports from Morocco and Qatar:
The 21st Annual Salon International de Tanger des Livres et des Arts just wrapped up on May 7 after four days of roundtables, workshops, concerts (including the iconic Moroccan rock band, Hoba Hoba Spirit), and appearances from world-renowned authors like Mohamed Kacimi (featured in our latest issue), Sapho, and Tahar Ben Jelloun (Prix Goncourt winner). In conjunction with the book fair, Darna Theater’s Dakirat al Mostakbal – Memoires d’Avenir presented “Nous Sommes”, a piece outlining the lives of two young Moroccans that asks “[s]ommes-nous condamnés à n’être que ce que l’on nous sommes d’être?” Darna Theater is a local non-profit situated outside Tangier’s old city that provides community members opportunities in drama education. “Nous Sommes” was presented in both French and Darija (Moroccan Arabic.)
Don’t fret if you weren’t able to attend the book fair because there is still a chance to see Abdellah Taïa at the Librairie des Colonnes in Tangier on May 9, where he will present a brand-new translation of his novel, Un pays pour mourir, into Arabic (بلد للموت). At the book fair, Taïa gave a conference about his writing and the difficulties facing society today which was structured as a conversation between him and young Tangerines. Taïa’s letter “Homosexuality Explained to My Mother” and an interview with the author appeared in Asymptote’s July 2012 issue.