Among the features is a literary playlist for Youssef Fadel’s “Years of Lead” trilogy.
All three of Fadel’s Hassan II-era historical novels are in English translation: A Beautiful White Cat Walks with Me (tr. Elinson), set around palace politics in 1980s Morocco; A Rare Blue Bird Flies with Me (tr. Jonathan Smolin), set around a woman in 1990, who is searching for her husband who’s held in the infamous Tazmamart Prison; and A Shimmering Red Fish Swims with Me, set in late-’80s and early ’90s Casablanca, in the shadow of the construction of the giant Hassan II mosque.
In the opening pages of the father-jester’s account, he tells us he launched his career as con artist and entertainer in Marrakesh’s famous square, Djemaa El-Fna, as a street performer. He learned “to recite love poetry and accompany it with the oud, because many of those I visit in their palaces love this.” The album Ecstatic Music of Jemaa El Fna, recordings of live performances by Hisham Mayet, was released in 2010 and is filled with the energy of the square.
Popular Egyptian music is a vivid presence throughout the trilogy. Life changed for the real Mohammed Binebine when Um Kulthum visited Morocco for the first time in 1960. That’s when Binebine reportedly stepped in to charm the great Egyptian singer and was, subsequently, hired on by the king. In A Beautiful White Cat Walks with Me, the son’s beloved, Zineb, is a singer he meets at a TV talent show. “Zineb loved Oum Kulthum, she loved me, and it was as if she was addressing me directly when she sang, ‘How could they remind me if I haven’t forgotten you?’”
Batma was the frontman of the popular Moroccan group Nass al-Ghiwane, which came together in Casablanca in the mid-60s, emerging out of the worlds of theatre, Sufism, and melhoun poetry. The direct energy of this short solo performance (“when, my people, when?”) gives voice to the anguish of the estranged son.
With the possible exception of Hassan II, all the men in these three books are lost. This song was read as a critique of the state in the ‘70s and ‘80s. But, according to Driss Maghraoui, writing in Revisiting the Colonial Past in Morocco, when Larbi Batma wrote his memoir in the late ‘90s, he said this song had been written in the back seat of a car after Batma had been disappointed in love with a Frenchwoman. The tangled skeins of disappointed love and justice echo here.
Young Zina, in A Rare Blue Bird Flies with Me believed her beloved Aziz looked like the Egyptian singer Abdelhalim Hafez, and so, “I went to the market and bought, ‘Why Do You Blame Me?’ so I can sing it everywhere I go. At the hammam. On the street when I’m walking with Aziz. In bed when I’m sleeping or awake or thinking of him.” Abdelhalim reappears in A Shimmering Red Fish, in the popular cassette tapes sold by the central narrator’s uncle, who had refused to donate to the construction of the mosque and was confronted by police on the eve of his wedding. It was Abdelhalim who carried love between the uncle and his fiancé: “In the streets where he walked, he wore Abdelhalim songs rather than clothes. At home, the singing didn’t stop until late at night. As if it was playing for her. And on the eve of his wedding, instead of opening the door for her, he opened it for three gendarmes.”
The father in A Shimmering Red Fish is dead, and the mourners have gathered. Unexpectedly, the central narrator’s mother turns on the TV and starts to dance: “Brahim El Alami the singer, the one with the red hair and the long coat, gets them singing while Mother dances to the song’s tune. ‘Leave me far away. I’m afraid of falling for you.’ She moves to the rhythm of El Alami’s music. And what do the other women do? The celebration surprises them and they are unprepared. They have cried enough. Luckily, Mother reminds them of that. Could there be a better time to celebrate the death of a tyrant?”
As for the father’s corpse: “Father lies on his side watching Brahim El Alami sing. Without taking his eyes off of the screen, he asks for some water, without saying anything, with a gesture of his hand. He’s more alive than he was before, as if he had woken all of a sudden from a short nap. Father always loved Brahim El Alami.”
The narrator’s mother, in A Shimmering Red Fish, is leaving Casablanca, and she begins humming this song: “People change when they move from one place to another. As I swayed from side to side atop the cart, I found myself humming an old song I had always liked: ‘The blanca, mon amour. I’ll marry her without any magic allure . . .’”
Farah often sings hits by the legendary Lebanese songstress Fairouz. Here, for instance, on the building site of the mosque: “Open and closed at the same time, between the marble columns, under the silver moonlight coming in from the dome and the sides of the mosque, all of which enriched and infused the voice with a magical echo. I felt nothing except for my eyes filling with tears.” Farah sings: “I wish we could have lit the old lamp in El Kantara. Maybe someone would have found their way.” Fairouz’s ephemeral voice echoing the strangeness of the night.
“While waiting to become a singer like Naima Samih, Farah used to love to roam between the mosque’s towering columns, walking around the marble fountains, listening to her singing echo all around: ‘There’s no one, no use in calling, there’s no one . . .’” Samih, one of thirteen children in a Casablanca family, started singing at nine. Her break came when she appeared on the talent show “Mawahib.” These tiny threads of chance weave through the novel A Shimmering Red Fish, if only to tease our main narrators with the possibility of being heard.
Finally, a contemporary song, written long after the books’ action takes place, but still speaking to the characters’ essential aspirations: the Moroccan rapper Gnawi’s enormously popular “Aacha Chaab.” Gnawi was sentenced to a year in prison in November 2019, ostensibly for contempt of police, but it’s widely believed his sentence was a punishment for this popular song. The following month, an 18-year-old was given three years for sharing its lyrics on Facebook. The song speaks: “In the name of the people, long live the people, long live the poorest.” It’s an anthem for the suffocated, the imprisoned, and could speak to all the characters in the trilogy who were silenced by a long-lived king.
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