‘History of Ash’: A Discussion on Light, Darkness, and Writing and Translating the Political Prisoner

By M Lynx Qualey

Published this month by Hoopoe Fiction, History of Ash is a fictional prison account narrated in turns by Mouline and Leila, both imprisoned for their political activities during Morocco’s “Years of Lead,” a period in the 1970s and ’80s characterized by heavy-handed state repression. The novel, published in 2000, arrived during a new period, when authors and former prisoners were beginning to narrate their experiences. Earlier this week, we ran an excerpt from the novel, tr. Alex Elinson, and a list of Arab prison narratives compiled by Elinson and ArabLit staff. Today, we have a three-way conversation about History of Ash that brings together author and translator.

Khadija, one of the things that really struck me about the political work the characters discuss — particularly Mouline — was how frustratingly non-specific it was. He wasn’t organizing a strike, or demanding a change to a specific law, or a new constitution. Although characters could talk about Gramsci, they didn’t seem to be able to articulate what they want in a way that might make sense to any normal person, such as poor Rabiha, who is used as a tool without anyone explaining political change in ordinary terms. In fact, I couldn’t understand it either! What were they fighting for? What were they fighting against? 

Was this an intentional choice, to keep the reader a little in the dark? 

Khadija Marouazi: This is a legitimate question both about History of Ash and political action in general, because it lays hands on a problem that sums up the truth of what happened: Were these people arrested because they belonged to an alternative political project that was clear in its principles, objectives, and language? Or did the arrest come before the completion of the project and thus abort it, continuing to be expressed in general slogans and condescending rhetoric that created a gap between those who had an idea of change and the general public?

The political and social sciences would be required to delve into an answer to a questions such as whether change was difficult because of the rigidity of the political system, or because of the immaturity, incompleteness, and lack of clarity in the projects that carry the slogan of change before attempts at reform. Reform requires dismantling the thing which is to be reformed and defining the scope and aims of the intervention, while radical change stems from the idea of eradication and demolition, which makes it a priority to create a break, and also personalizes the conflict, reducing it to a preoccupation with symbols or names at the expense of the problems and issues that are the justification for the people’s demand for reform.

This is a challenge that the novel also tries to interrogate in a way that makes the reader embrace the same question: Why are these arrests carried out in these years? The lack of creative scrutiny of these issues can focus attention on the enormity of the deprivation of people’s freedom due to their political opinions—and not the political project in and of itself.

Alex, your translational oeuvre isn’t all prison and Years of Lead (since there’s also Hot Maroc), but it’s a near thing. What draws you to difficult novels, or novels describing trauma? What makes you decide: Yes! This is a book I want to spend time bringing into English! 

Alexander Elinson: It is true that the authors and works I have translated up until now do focus on the Years of Lead (1970s-1990s) and the struggles Moroccans have engaged in for improved human rights, democratic reforms, press freedoms, government transparency, and more. I suppose this can be at least partially explained by the fact that these topics have been preoccupying many Moroccans for the last twenty-five years. In the late 1990s, a number of reforms were put in place that allowed Moroccans to come to terms with and search for a way forward out of the Years of Lead when freedoms were severely curtailed and the repressive security state acted with impunity to stifle voices speaking out against it. One of the results of the legal reforms, loosening of censorship laws and norms, and the establishment of commissions to examine and document the abuses that occurred during the Years of Lead was that, at that time and into the early-aughts, there was an explosion of writing about the Years of Lead and the social, political, and mental toll they took on Moroccans.

It was exactly at this time, the late 1990s, that I went to Morocco for the first time. Many of the people I met and formed close friendships with were human rights pro-democracy activists. My now-wife first met Khadija Marouazi through her work on human rights and the women’s movement in Morocco, and introduced me to her.

I first came across Youssef Fadel’s work mainly through my interest in the use of Moroccan darija in writing which he experimented with quite early on. It is also important to note that language choice and language-register choice are not just linguistic and literary choices. Rather, they can strongly reflect an author’s relationship to traditional norms and values, which can sometimes have a stifling effect on creative expression, and their views on the democratization of writing and the free exchange of ideas. Youssef Fadel has always been an outspoken critic of the regime, and a creative and experimental writer of theatre works, film, television, and fiction, so it came as no surprise when I sought to meet and work with him that he was very politically involved during the Years of Lead, both as an activist and a writer.

You include Yassin Adnan’s Hot Maroc as an exception to my interest in the Years of Lead, but he is, in fact, someone I met through friends in the same circle of pro-democracy activists. While Hot Maroc isn’t specifically about the Years of Lead, the novel examines many of the same themes that occur in earlier works including police brutality, political corruption, the tyranny of tradition, economic stagnation, and more. In fact, Adnan strives to express the worries, anxieties, and concerns of a generation that comes after those who lived through the Years of Lead. Memories of those years remain very much alive in Hot Maroc, but the focus is on the next generation’s struggles.

Finally, I suppose I am drawn to these particular works as I am fascinated by the human element that is so much a part of these political struggles. The Years of Lead and the reforms that followed are interesting on their own. However, I think what really draws me to these works is the sensitivity, strength, humor, and humanity that these authors give voice to. It’s inspiring. 

Khadija, there are so many difficult moments in Leila’s life, but when her neighbors embrace her after she comes back from prison, I wanted to cry from happiness. How do you balance light and dark when writing about such a difficult subject? 

KM: The logic of writing, and the ways in which it functions, can’t be understood in the moment of doing, and I must admit that since the period in which I wrote History of Ash I have not read it again, and it seems I’ve lost touch with many of its details. But what I remember well is the continuous act of writing without cease over a period of weeks, in total retreat from the world, until one particular morning I felt suffocated, as though I had turned into a sort of prisoner, and I needed more oxygen than was in the room. I opened the window of our family home in the city of Asfi, stuck my head out, and saw the houses all lined up in a row. The place was filled with the laughter of the neighbors’ children and the smell of bread on its way to the neighborhood oven. That image was a catalyst for writing with some oxygen, or rather, to end the book through an approach that does not leave us in the darkness of others, or in whatever darkness that might rob you of the faraway light that you’re searching for—the light that may only dwell near you, and sometimes within you.

Alex, you call this, in your introduction, a “brutal and tender story that ultimately provides hope and paves a way forward.” Can you say a bit more about what you mean by that, paving a way forward?

AE: I think the premise of this, and other works that treat this dark period in Moroccan history, is that there can be no reconciliation with the past and movement forward without acknowledgement of the violence that had been committed, and documentation of that violence. While the novel is fiction, it is informed by real-life testimonies (written and oral, published and anecdotal) that were circulating around the time the novel was written. The context in which the novel takes place and was written is clearly reflected in the characters and scenes that are horrific, joyful, and intimate. The characters, and the reader, feel anger, frustration, and sometimes hopelessness for sure, but there is a comradery and even a certain amount of joy and optimism in these stories. The hope is that through acknowledgement, documentation, and telling and re-telling of these stories a better present and future is possible.

Khadija, when you first sat down to compose History of Ash, what idea or image did you start from? These two characters and their relationship? The site of the prison and its side for women and for men? Something else?

KM: I started from the truth of my inability to imagine how a prisoner lives when deprived of his freedom inside a closed space for days, months, years, and even decades. Indeed, the starting point was not an image or a situation, but rather an idea—and the fact that there is no middle position between freedom and a lack of freedom.

Alex, as you note, there are a number of intertexts, some easier for the reader to grasp and others perhaps more difficult (such as the role Tali’ a’-‘Urayfi from Here & Now and al-Kulaybi in Banquet for Seaweed). Indeed, you mention the prevalence of intertexts in your introduction. What role did you see them playing in the novel?

AE: These intertexts derive, first of all, from the author’s own cultural, professional, and intellectual background as an academic and university professor who is well-acquainted with seminal works of contemporary Arabic and world literature and the arts. In the context of the novel, the narrators – Mouline and Leila – and their compatriots, have come up in the same milieu, steeped in a wide range of world culture. In my mind, the references to these works serves to ground these characters is the educated circles where many of them first became aware of the wide range of human experiences that closely relate to their own. At the same time, and we see this mainly in Leila’s section of the novel, it is clear that a gulf exists between the educated activists who aim to affect change on behalf of the people, and the people themselves. As Leila says at one point: “No one in prison can understand that a political detainee has anything to do with them, these exhausted masses…The distance is vast. A chasm that cannot be filled with just words.” Don Quixote, Antonio Gramchi, Paul Guiragossian, Mahmoud Darwish, and others are part of the cultural fabric that connects members of the educated intellectual class, but it also underlines the sometimes vast disconnect that exists between them and the rest of the population. Marouazi is keenly aware of this tension, and I think these cultural references both enrich the narrative and place them into tension with popular movements that are comprised of people from very different backgrounds and experiences, and that speak different cultural languages.

Khadija, why did you decide to use the longtime prisoner Tali al-‘Urayfi from Abdelrahman Munif’s Al-an… huna, aw sharq al-Mutawassit marra ukhra, and Banquet for Seaweed, and even Nizar Qabbani — to help Leila tell her story? It really struck me that Leila is thinking not of Nawal El Saadawi’s prison memoir, or Inji Aflatoun or Salwa Bakr, but of all texts by men.

KM: When one recalls a narrative or poetic text while writing, it may reflect a pause in the imagination or a slowdown in the writer’s creative energy, although it may also reflect what marked us and occupied our memories, in terms of characters or images from previous works. I read those books nearly four decades ago, and after all that time, I no longer remember anything from the story or plot, but I still carry with me the emotions of people who will not die, such as Tali al-‘Urayfi or Fulla Bouanab (from Banquet for Seaweed).

But evoking images and characters form previous texts, immortalizing and honoring them in later texts, is mainly a factor of the internal logic of the narration.

Alex, what translational challenges were particular to this novel? 

AE: I would have to say that the raw depictions of violence and torture, especially scenes of torture that Leila describes, were extremely difficult to read, and to render into English. Of course, in choosing to translate a novel that focuses on prison and torture, I knew what I was getting into. Still, I can honestly say that the text achieves what I think is one of its goals which is to not allow the reader to look away, to gloss over difficult passages, to soften things. Translating requires the closest of readings, but there is something about closely reading scenes of humiliation and torture over and over again, that is indescribable. I always strive to do the very best translation that I can, but there is something in these scenes that served as a constant reminder to be extra mindful of the little details that distinguish these descriptions from what one might find in an official human rights report. It was both the emotional trauma and the little details that I wanted to be sure to capture.

There is also an abstract quality to the novel that is challenging, and that I wanted to maintain. What the characters are fighting for is somewhat vague, while at the same time, there are sections where they get into deep and detailed discussions about their activities. The narration is in the first person which gives the novel a very intimate quality, but I think the reader can sometimes feel outside of things, as if they have walked into a room or space where the conversation has already started and involves issues and people the reader isn’t necessarily familiar with, but those talking about them obviously are. More than once I found myself resisting an urge to understand more, to get more details from the author and explain those details in some way in my translation. In fact, I think the inside/outside quality of the novel is fascinating. Once I became comfortable sitting with what I didn’t know, I was more able to focus on how to translate the characters’ interactions and discussions about things they most certainly did know. In the end, the details of the political movement can be less important than the emotional effects of incarceration, the movement, interactions, suspicions, and state violence on the characters. It was those emotional effects that I wanted to bring out.

Khadija, there are so many wonderful details that feel real — for instance, the R4 used for women while the secret police pick up Mouline in a Mercedes, and the chains placed around Moha’s gravesite. What research (or interviews, or testimonies) did you draw on to write this novel?

KM: The goal of writing is to dig into some of the details and minutiae that make the fictional seem real, or at least factual, and writing may use this in order to elevate the tragic—or so as not to accept the tragedy of a situation—and to mobilize awareness of these small details that may unearth a forest of grievances and discrimination.

The conversation with Khadija Marouazi was conducted in Arabic.