Teaching with Arabic Literature in Translation: Once and Future Moroccos

ArabLit’s ongoing series on Teaching with Arabic Literature in Translation continues with a conversation between ArabLit’s editor and Prof. Alexander Elinson, Associate Professor of Arabic at Hunter College. Elinson is translator of Youssef Fadel’s A Beautiful White Cat Walks with Me, and has also translated Moroccan authors Allal Bourqia and Yassin Adnan, and numerous zajal poets. Elinson talked about how he might structure a course on teaching Moroccan literature. The conversation began in person and continued over email: 

What works would you teach in this imagined course on Moroccan literature? 

Alexander Elinson: I must say that until now, I’ve never taught a course on Moroccan literature because I felt there hasn’t been enough work available in English. That’s changing though. I feel like I’m now ready to start thinking about such a course.

When I put a course together, I do it thematically. Because it is so much a part of Morocco’s past and present, we would need to have a human rights unit in which we would read Youssef’s A Rare Blue Bird Flies with Me (translated by Jonathan Smolin), and perhaps Bensalem Himmich’s My Torturess (translated by Roger Allen). As a companion to those works, we’d use Slyomovics’s critical work, The Performance of Human Rights in Moroccoan amazing book on the Years of Lead that examines the different ways Moroccans, including writers and artists and activists, have recorded and expressed what was going on.

I imagine something around humor, teaching Fadel’s A Beautiful White Cat Walks with Me together with Mahi Binebine’s more recent Le fou de roi — as they move around the same public figure of the court jester, who was Binebine’s real father. 

But where would you go next?

AE: Those two books, I would definitely include.

Because of my own strong interest in language, and in language issues, I would focus on the linguistic debates that are going on in Morocco about darija vs. French vs. literary Arabic vs. Berber. There are numerous critical works and socio-linguistic works by Kathleen Miller, Dominique Caubet, and others who’ve done work on language and language change in Morocco.

As far as creative works in that realm, there’s one writer I’m particularly fond of, Youssouf Amine Elalamy, who writes in French, but has also dabbled a little bit in darija writing, and he has had a couple of his works—two novellas—translated into English.

So for the “human rights” unit, you have Rare Blue Bird, My Torturess, and The Performance of Human Rights in Morocco, as a start. What intersections and cross-chatter do you see in these books? What questions (aesthetic, as well as socio-political) do they raise? 

AE: I would also want to include something representing the huge amount of material published immediately following the death of King Hassan II. In the early 2000s with a relative opening up of the political climate, dozens of testimonials, memoirs, poetry collections, and novels were published that, for the first time, spoke of the Years of Lead (1960s-1999) in Morocco, a period notable for forced detentions, torture, disappearance, and a general atmosphere of fear. One of the first publications of this period (published in 2001) was the memoir by Ahmed Marzouki entitled Tazmamart, Cell 10, which detailed Marzouki’s eighteen-year imprisonment and torture in the secret prison of Tazmamart following a failed military coup against the king in 1971. The book was quite popular and remains in print and for sale in Moroccan bookshops. Other choices might include In the Bowels of My Country, a graphic novel by Abdelaziz Mouride published in 1982 (at the height of the Years of Lead); Stolen Lives: Twenty Years in a Desert Jail by Malika Oufkir (she was the daughter of General Mohamed Oufkir who was accused of orchestrating a coup attempt. The book was an Oprah pick!); This Blinding Absence of Light by Taher Ben Jelloun (based on the testimony of Mahi Binebine’s brother, Aziz Binebine, who was imprisoned in Tazmamart and who, in 2009, published his own account entitled Tazmamort: Dix-huit ans dans le Bagne de Hassan II); Talk of Darkness, by Fatna El Bouih.

In terms of framing the unit, there are multiple important themes that I would want to include: memory, the importance of writing and giving testimony, fictionalized versus real-life testimony, the question of whether a writer has a responsibility or an obligation to speak out or not, who has the right to tell these stories, institutional and governmental support of writing and speaking about the Years of Lead and the implications of that, more current examples and discussions of human rights abuses in Morocco (especially following the April 2003 bombings in Casablanca that really kicked off Morocco’s own version of the ‘war on terror’), telling the story of this period to non-Moroccans and a discussion of how this all is packaged and marketed. Critical works by Brahim El Guabli would be particularly useful in framing many of these issues.

One thing that I find interesting about Youssef Fadel’s A Rare Blue Bird (published in 2013) and Bensalem Himmich’s My Torturess (2015) is that they come years after this initial burst of activity of books written about human rights abuses in Morocco. In fact, Himmich’s book is much more contemporary in that it discusses these issues in the context of American ‘extraordinary rendition’ and the ‘global war on terror.’ So, it would also be important to talk about what this older and more recent history can tell us about Morocco and the human rights situation there today.

Could you point to any particular works by El Guabli?

AE: Two works by El Guabli on Moroccan prison literature that I have found particularly helpful are :

“Littérature Carcérale Marocaine: Regards sur l’Etat et la Société au Maroc des ‘Années de Plomb’”

“The ‘Hidden Transcript’ of Resistance in Moroccan Tazmamart Prison Writings”

 I also read with interest El Guabli’s “Translating Maghregraphic Poetry: An Introduction.” What sorts of poems and poetics might you include in this hypothetical/mythical course, and why? What about Pierre Joris and Habib Tengour’s Poems for the Millennium anthology of oral and printed literatures of the Maghreb?

AE: As far as poetry, Joris and Tengour’s anthology is a great resource. Deborah Kapchan has an anthology of Moroccan poetry entitled Poetic Justice coming out that I’m very much looking forward to reading as well.

A language unit sounds fantastic. Can you talk more about which texts you might use, both creative and critical? What issues you’d be getting at, how this might help a student reflect on the roles language plays, their own relationship to language and register?

AE: Critical works on language – Réda Bensmaïa’s Experimental Nations: Or, the Invention of the Maghreb, Jacqueline Kay and Abdelhamid Zoubir’s The Ambiguous Compromise: Language, Literature and National Identity in Algeria and Morocco. Katherine Hoffman’s work on Berber language and women, Catherine Miller, Dominique Caubet, Atiqa Hachimi (socio-linguistics), my own work on the topic of darija in writing and publication of zajal poetry.

Creative works on language – I might include works I have translated by zajal poets Driss Mesnaoui, Ahmed Lemsyeh, Adil Latefi, Mourad Qadery, and Nouhad Benaguida. We could also draw on Youssef Fadel, Yassin Adnan, Mohamed Berrada in order to examine how Moroccan writers approach the use of Moroccan darija in novelistic works. Abdelfattah Kilito’s Thou Shalt Not Speak My Language. And we can’t talk about Moroccan Francophone literature without talking about Taher Ben Jelloun, Leila Slimani, their Goncourt Prizes, and their popularity in France. Without even getting into the quality of their work, it is essential to talk about how writers from Morocco are received in other countries and why.

Discussion of all of these works might revolve around issues of language, identity, standard language ideology and the control of literary production, the role of the internet in the way that writing is produced and consumed. In all of my classes, whether they are Arabic language classes or literature in translation, the question of language hierarchies and so-called ‘proper’ speech is always front and center. We talk a lot about the situation in Arabic where language consists of many registers that overlap, with some more ‘appropriate’ for certain functions than others. I like to stress that this isn’t just an Arab-world phenomenon, and that we are always negotiating these different registers, in whatever language we use.

Also necessary here would be a discussion of translation, the (in)availability of Moroccan literature in translation, the status of French vs. Arabic and how Moroccan literature is packaged and received in the Francophone/Arabophone world, etc.

If you’re talking about the role of the internet, you might include a section of your translation of Yassin Adnan’s Hot Maroc?

AE: A fantastic idea! The novel examines the role of the internet and social media in the lives of young Moroccans, and the ways they interact with one another, and with the regime. Published in 2016, the novel really got me thinking about “fake news” and the power of the internet to shape social and political discourse (before ‘fake news’ became a hashtag!). It would also be interesting to look at and discuss some online publications, blogs, bloggers, and Facebook personalities that are known and followed in Morocco right now to see what sorts of interactions and discussions are happening there (www.goud.mawww.charlie-maroc1.blogspot.com; Mohamed Sokrat and others).

You also mention gender and sexuality. If you were going to do a unit around this, what works might you choose, by which authors? 

AE: Fatna Bouih’s Talk of Darkness (a prison memoir that, among other things, really speaks to the author’s gendered experience in prison)

Leila Abouzeid’s Year of the Elephant (a classic)

Abdellah Taïa’s Salvation Army (a coming out story)

Abouzeid’s Year of the Elephant certainly is a classic…are there other, newer books or articles you might work in? There is Leila Slimani’s controversial Sex and Lies, although not in translation. Malika Moustadraf? There are a few short stories (1, 2) available in translation, at any rate.

AE: I haven’t read Leila Slimani or Malika Moustadraf, but they are definitely on my list. I think it would be very interesting to read Slimani’s latest, The Perfect Nanny (orig. Chanson douce) not only on its own merits (from what I’ve read, it sounds like a rich and interesting novel) as a cutting examination of class, parenthood, expected gender roles, and more, but also as part of a discussion on Moroccan literature in France, the politics of literary awards, and American strategies for marketing translations (just the title change from French to English warrants a full discussion!).

What other units or themes come to mind? Once Hot Maroc is published, what would you teach with that? 

AE: Other units or themes:


Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits by Laila Lalami – a novel with multiple narrators each of whom tell their story of how they came to be on a small vessel attempting to cross the Straits of Gibraltar to Spain.  

A great companion to Hope and Other Dangerous Pursuits would be Youssouf Amine Elalamy’s The Sea Drinkers (orig. Les clandestins). I’ve taught that work and it made for a very lively discussion. It’s an experimental novella about poverty, hopelessness, and the search for a better life elsewhere. It is very much a Moroccan story about a failed attempt to cross the Straits of Gibraltar to Spain, but it is a story that happens every day, in border zones all over the world where people take incredible risks to support themselves and their families. Elalamy said that he wrote the book in response to the almost daily front-page photographs of bodies washed up on Mediterranean beaches; images that have become so normal that they are barely questioned or even noticed. The novella fixes its lens on the lives of those lost, and of the families and friends left behind in order to humanize each and every story. 

Jewish life and culture in Morocco

Edmond Amran El Maleh

Two films that talk about Morocco’s lost Jewish communities as a result of emigration to Israel – “Tinghir-Jerusalem” by Kamal Hachkar; “They Were Promised the Sea” by Kathy Wazana. This section would necessarily include a discussion of Morocco’s relationship to its Jewish heritage as well as its complicated, and not always monolithic, relations with Israel and Zionism.

To answer your question about Hot Maroc, it has a little bit of everything. It’s a lively and funny portrayal of young people’s life in Marrakech with the coming of the internet and social media in the 1990s and early 2000s. It’s a novel replete with Marrakechi history, folklore, Arabic literary history, current popular culture, and political and social commentary, discussing the many pressures young people face today (peer pressure, social inequalities, negotiating authority, finding one’s voice in an environment that is both encouraging of expression and stifling it, and more). I haven’t read anything like it, quite frankly, and I think what’s unique about the work is its youthful voice. Most of the known, published writers in Morocco today are in their fifties, sixties, and older. Adnan’s work speaks to the concerns young people in Morocco have today, and this is something I have not seen in Moroccan writing.

The novel could be included in a unit on youth culture and hip-hop, and might be read alongside Dominique Caubet’s film “Casanayda” which looks at recent developments in Moroccan youth culture and music.

Are there other classic works or authors you might include (or not include), such as Choukri, Zafzaf?

AE: Definitely. Mohamed Zafzaf simply because it would seem strange not to include him in a course on Moroccan literature. Same goes for Abdelkebir Khatibi (Love in Two Languages), Abdelkarim Ghallab (We Buried the Past), and Driss Chraïbi (The Simple Past).

I’ve taught Mohamed Choukri a number of times, and besides being a powerfully eloquent and terribly violent novel in its own right, it provides great fodder for discussing the role of literature and whether or not it should adhere to certain aesthetic norms (certain criticism of the novel reminds me of Yahya Haqqi’s criticism of Sonallah Ibrahim’s That Smell for being “disgusting” and “nauseating”). Discussion would also include the lively debate around AUC’s banning of Choukri’s novel in a course taught by Samia Mehrez in the late-1990s, and the late Magda Al-Nowaihi’s strident defense of the work and its place in the Arabic literary canon.

Yes, indeed, which Samia writes about in Egypt’s Culture Wars. If anyone asks, I found the short stories « The Baby Carriage » and « The Street Sweeper » by Mohamed Zafzaf particularly compelling in the collection Monarch of the Square, tr. Mbarek Syrfi and Roger Allen. There’s also The Elusive Fox, also translated by Syrfi and Allen, which gives an interesting view of foreigners who thronged to Moroccan beaches in the 1960s. I suppose I’ll have to re-read it now that I’m a foreigner who’s thronged to Morocco.

AE: And since you bring up those foreigners thronging to Morocco in the 1960s, it could be fun to have a section on just that topic, which would include travel writings by those foreigners – for example, Elias Canetti’s The Voices of Marrakesh, Paul Bowles’ The Sheltering Sky or The Spider’s House, and more recently, Tahir Shah’s The Caliph’s House – in order to examine how Moroccans and non-Moroccans write about their encounters with one another.


Alexander Elinson teaches Arabic Language and Literature at Hunter College/CUNY and directs the Hunter College Summer Arabic Program. His research interests cut across the Middle East and North Africa, and include Arabic and Hebrew literature from the pre-Islamic to the modern period. He has translated Youssef Fadel’s A Beautiful White Cat Walks with Me, and is currently at work on Fadel’s Joy and Yassin Adnan’s Hot Maroc.