A Shimmering Red Fish Swims with Me by Youssef Fadel, translated from the Arabic by Alexander E. Elinson, Hoopoe, 2019
A massive construction project looms in the background of Moroccan author Youssef Fadel’s novel Farah (2016), beautifully translated from the Arabic by Alexander E. Elinson and published under the title A Shimmering Red Fish Swims with Me (Hoopoe 2019). The project in question is the building of Casablanca’s Hassan II Mosque, named after the Moroccan ruler who commissioned it. As Elinson explains in a concise and illuminating foreword to his translation, King Hassan II (r. 1962-1999) announced his plan to build a grand mosque on Casablanca’s Atlantic shoreline during his 1980 birthday celebrations. The mosque was inaugurated in 1993, on the eve of the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday. Designed by a French architect and built by a French firm, the mosque project required the labor of over thirty thousand workers, including thousands of master craftsmen who carved, chiseled, sculpted, and formed its dazzling array of tile mosaics, stucco moldings, and decorative woodwork. The structure that emerged from this massive effort accommodates up to one hundred and five thousand worshippers, making it the largest mosque in Africa and one of the largest mosques in the world—but such grandeur comes at a huge cost, both financial and human. The mosque came with a whopping price tag of over half a billion US dollars, and much of the financial burden fell on Moroccan citizens, who were required to help pay for the mosque through a public subscription program. The project also upended life in Casablanca, particularly for the people who lived in the densely populated neighborhood that was razed to create room for the new mosque.
These upheavals are at the heart of Fadel’s novel, which explores the experiences of the Moroccans who both lived in the shadows of, and contributed to, the construction project, and who were eventually displaced to make room for the massive mosque that they had helped build. A Shimmering Red Fish Swims with Me is Fadel’s tenth novel and the final book in a trilogy about contemporary Morocco. The novel centers on an ill-fated love story between two young Moroccans: Farah, who escapes her hometown of Azemmour and comes to Casablanca to pursue her dream of becoming a singer, and Outhman, who works with his father as a carpenter at the mosque. The lovers’ fate is sealed in the novel’s first chapter, where we learn that Farah is the victim of a brutal acid attack, witnessed by Outhman. The rest of the novel is devoted to unpacking the events leading up to the acid attack on Farah. The story is told through an intricate narrative structure that unfolds along multiple timelines and from multiple perspectives, meting out information in suspenseful portions whose full meanings do not become clear until the last page. Each of the novel’s seven sections opens with a chapter narrated from the perspective of a third-person omniscient narrator located in the present, some twenty-three years after Farah’s death. The internal chapters of each section are narrated in the first person from Outhman’s perspective, beginning at the time he met and fell in love with Farah while working at the mosque’s construction site. The last chapter of each section is narrated in the first person from the perspective of another character in the novel, such as Farah or Outhman’s mother. The result is a kaleidoscopic view of working-class life in Casablanca, one that uses the tragic love story between Farah and Outhman as a launch pad for exploring the tensions running through Moroccan society in the 1980s and ’90s and, in particular, for laying bare the tremendous costs that the Hassan II Mosque inflicted on the people living around it.
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In honor of Asymptote‘s Summer 2018 edition, which marks our milestone 30th issue and includes a dazzling Multilingual Writing Feature, Podcast Editor Layla Benitez-James explores what it takes to create multilingual spaces by taking a visit to the IV Encuentro Internacional de Artistas de la Kasbah in Alicante, Spain. This festival, now in its fourth year, brings together over twenty artists from around the world in an effort to foster greater cultural exchange and artistic friendship. There, she chats with Colombian artist Manuel Antonio Velandia Mora about his work, as well as founders Nourdine Tabbai and Natalia Molinos about the event’s origins. READ MORE…
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.
Lee Yew Leong: First of all, how would you classify this new book from Tahar Ben Jelloun? The story opens with an autobiographical narrator (Ben Jelloun himself) talking about his ailing mother, but then changes mode with italicized passages, where we get stories about his mother’s past recreated from her perspective.
Ros Schwartz: Do we have to classify it? I think there’s a problem with trying to categorize books by non-Western writers which often don’t follow a linear narrative arc according to traditional European classifications. I appreciate that doing so makes life easier for publishers—and is essential when entering books for prizes and applying for subsidies—and for booksellers, but my experience of translating Francophone writers such as Ben Jelloun and Dominique Eddé (Lebanese author who writes in French) is that their books defy categorisation. So while this book is strongly autobiographical, recounting the demise of Ben Jelloun’s mother, it also has a strong fictional element where he imagines what might be going on in his mother’s Alzheimer’s-raddled mind.
Lulu Norman: Yes and also into the past, when he imagines her life as a girl and what it must have been like for her in the Fez of the 1940s; there’s a more obviously ‘fictional’ feel in those passages. The narrator, who is called Tahar, pieces together the story of her life, constructing a narrative out of what he knows and what he imagines. Ben Jelloun calls the book a novel, in order I suppose to give himself the fullest leeway and perhaps avoid any ruction in life, since everyone’s memory is so subjective.
LYL: Could you share with our readers what went on behind the scenes of this project? How both of you got attached to this translation, for example? How did English PEN play a part in the materialization of the book, and how long did you take to complete the manuscript?
RS: This project is very dear to my heart. I’ve wanted to translate Ben Jelloun ever since I read L’enfant de sable in 1985. A couple of years ago I’d just finished translating Escape by Dominique Manotti for Gary Pulsifer at Arcadia and he mentioned that he’d just acquired Sur ma mère. Gary, this one’s for me, please. It’s funny because as a translator you can get typecast. Gary had me down as doing crime fiction. Anyway, he immediately said yes, and wrote to Tahar to make sure he was OK with my doing the translation. In the meantime, there was a radical change of management and direction at Arcadia, and the project was dropped. I was devastated and wrote to Anne-Solange Noble, rights director at Gallimard, to ask if I could seek another publisher. I took the book to Lynn Gaspard at Saqi who snapped it up. Sadly Gary passed away before the book was published, which is why we have dedicated our translation to him. READ MORE…