Beyond Morocco’s Literary Divide: Interview with Leila Abouzeid

By Pamela Nice
Web-based image of Leila Abouzeid.

I spoke with Leila Abouzeid in her apartment in Agdal, a beautiful section of Rabat. She is a diminutive woman, perhaps not even five feet tall, but was colorfully dressed and expressed herself with intensity. She is now working on a collection of short stories, based on a collection published already in Beirut in Arabic, to be published in English by the University of Texas Press under the editing of Elizabeth Warnock Fernea. Abouzeid studied under Fernea at the University of Texas in Austin for two years, and they have continued a close personal and professional relationship since then.

We first spoke about the issue of language among Moroccan writers. According to Abouzeid, those who choose to write in French (the Francophone writers) and those who write in Arabic are split into sharply divided camps, as are the intellectuals and literary critics who support each group. “They don’t even try to interact,” she said. “They don’t read each other’s books.” Abouzeid herself doesn’t understand why Moroccan writers would still choose to write in French. “Under colonialism, writers had no choice – they were taught in French, schooled in French. But still they tried to express their Moroccan culture – their way of thinking and being was Moroccan. French was and still is a foreign language.

“When I use French or English, it is to communicate with other cultures, as I am doing with you now. I must express myself in the language I learned from my mother – that is why it is called the ‘mother tongue.’ French is not my mother tongue – I learned it in books, in school. Imagine Hemingway or Steinbeck or Faulkner writing in German or French!”

There is considerable discussion in some Moroccan literary circles about this issue. The Moroccan vernacular, or Darija, is only used in Moroccan plays, films, and some television shows. Modern Standard Arabic (MSA) is the lingua franca of the Arabic world, the written form of the language used in the media and official discourse, which enables those in one Arab country to be understood in another. In every Arab country, the literature of the 20th century has been written primarily in MSA.

There are movements in some countries, however, such as Egypt and Morocco, to use the colloquial form in fiction and poetry. In Morocco, a written form of Moroccan Arabic is being developed, Middle Moroccan Arabic, which would fuse some aspects of MSA and the vernacular. This process has been controversial since it is breaking with notions of appropriate discourse for Arabic literature. I asked Abouzeid if she wrote her books in MSA or in the colloquial Moroccan dialect. Abouzeid explained that she writes primarily in MSA. “I can’t express myself in the vernacular,” she said. “I never give talks in vernacular. If we wrote in the vernacular, neither Moroccans nor other Arabs would be able to read it. It’s not a written language, so the reader wouldn’t be used to vernacular in print.

“Poets might recite in the vernacular because it’s a spoken language; but there was a Moroccan poet who published a book of poems in the vernacular, and no one would buy it. So I write in Modern Standard Arabic except when I cannot translate an expression into it. Then I keep it in the vernacular – but only in dialogue. And then I must make a footnote for Arab readers who are not Moroccan. I try to avoid the vernacular, except for maybe one or two percent of my writing.”

Moroccan writers face the challenge of a miniscule reading public. “If the literacy rate of Morocco is 50 percent, then with a population of 30 million, you would think there might be a potential readership of 15 million,” said Abouzeid. “However, when a book is published in Morocco, the first – and usually last – printing is only 1,000 copies.”

Why is the readership so small? Abouzeid dismissed the economic argument – that most Moroccans cannot afford to buy books. “‘Year of the Elephant’ only costs 30 dirhams (about $3.75 in U.S. dollars). Everyone smokes at least a pack of cigarettes a day. If they can afford this habit, they could buy books instead. Most of the people who could read books are sitting in cafes talking nonsense. We have a saying here: ‘Between one cafe and the next, there is another cafe.’ We have an oral culture, an oral tradition, and we see it here. People do not read. They sit and drink coffee or tea and talk. Also, many of those who are now literate grew up in homes where neither parent was literate, so there wasn’t the habit of reading, or books in the home.”

In spite of this, Abouzeid has found a reading public for her books. “I have been lucky to have four editions of ‘Year of the Elephant,’ with 2000 copies printed each time.” A further problem is that Moroccan publishers do not export their books to other Arab countries. They say they can’t compete with the Egyptian and Lebanese publishers, and high customs and transportation costs. Additionally, publishers in other countries, such as Egypt, want foreign writers to pay them for publishing their works. Thus Abouzeid has found it difficult to expand her audience to other Arab countries, though she has recently found a Lebanese publisher who will make this possible.

Abouzeid, like every Arab writer, wants to reach a wide Arab readership while expressing her own culture and mining that culture for her stories. What is it that makes the Moroccan culture distinctive to her? “Islam and the Arab and Berber cultures,” she said succinctly, “and our traditions.” She writes eloquently of what Leila Ahmed has termed “women’s Islam” – the Islam of the heart that is taught by mothers in the home and is part of the simplest actions of everyday life. This type of Islam figures prominently in “Year of the Elephant,” whose title refers to a miraculous event in the Quran.

“Elephant” tells the story of a woman who experiences a traumatic divorce from her nationalist husband after independence, a situation that Abouzeid said was very common in Morocco at that time. Men who had worked for the nationalist cause were often socialists; their wives were more religious, and because of that, more traditional. When the nationalists gained power, they often dropped their first wives in favor of more modern women – who spoke French, smoked cigarettes, and didn’t eat with their fingers. It is the spiritual journey of this divorced woman that interests Abouzeid. The scenes with the local sheikh show how the protagonist comes to terms with her catastrophe through a spiritual understanding.

“For me, personally, faith is very important,” she said. “In life, there must be a balance between the body and the spirit. The Prophet Mohammed said, ‘You should work in this life as though you will live forever, and work for the afterlife as though you were to die tomorrow.’”

This interview appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 10, No. 49, 2004.

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