| Interviewed by Dr. Mokhtar Ghambou
1. Let me say without exaggeration that you are one of the most successful Moroccans in the US; you are a professor and department chair with several important publications, including the novel Si Yussef and the book Unveiling Traditions. What is the story behind this brilliant career?
You are very kind, Mokhtar, but I must remind you that, without exception, everyone who has been profiled by Wafin is certainly more "successful" than I am. Many are out of my league altogether. I am merely a humanities professor in a culture that places a higher premium on science (particularly high tech and medicine) and business. What makes your case and mine unusual is that we are both from a Francophone, Arabic, and Amazigh speaking society teaching in institutions where English is the primary language of instruction. One would expect us to be working and writing in French. But there you go--the world is changing and we are now teaching literature and the humanities in American universities.
My career began humbly enough in Tangier where I was born and raised. As you know, Tangier is quite a cosmopolitan place. With the amazingly international teaching body at our school system, I developed an early fascination with foreign literatures and cultures. So I majored in English in Fez and eventually in the US, where I completed my graduate work. I started writing screenplays, novellas, and short stories almost from the moment I arrived. I won an honorable mention in a contest at City College (which I attended for my Master's), received some unexpected praise from Grace Paley, and taught English Composition for three semesters before I moved "upstate" to finish my doctoral work on American literature at Syracuse University. While I was in Syracuse, I got a part-time job teaching at the Auburn Correctional Facility, a maximum security prison. That turned out to be one of the most meaningful teaching experiences in my career.
I continued writing fiction--mostly to deal with my home sickness--while I concentrated on American literature in my graduate studies. My master's thesis at City College was on William Faulkner and my dissertation on Granville Hicks and the Dilemma of American Radicalism. I have been teaching American literature off and on since then.
2. What attracts a Moroccan to English literature or the literatures of the Anglophone world at large?
I often tell my colleagues that English is an "exotic" major for Moroccans, much like, say, Italian or Arabic is for Americans. (I must say that with what is called "globalization," English is taken more seriously in Morocco nowadays.) I have always been fascinated by things "English." When I graduated from high school, my French teacher gave me André Maurois's Histoire d'angleterre. A truly amazing account of how the people of a small insular island eventually dominated half the globe. I also like the English language--it's so different from French or Arabic. It strikes me as more concrete and yet capable of rising to high levels of literariness.
3. Could we take your novel Si Yussef as an example of a nascent "North African Anglophone Literature"? If so, how does this emerging literary experience relate to or challenge the so-called "North African Francophone Literature"?
Well, yes, I would like to think that Si Yussef is part of an emerging Anglophone Moroccan literature, but I am well aware that this genre may take time to develop (if it ever does), since Morocco is a non-English speaking country. We are not like India, Pakistan, Nigeria, Ghana, or even Egypt. However, one can try. I wrote in English because, by the time I started writing, I had been studying English literature for years, and to have written in any other language would have defeated the purpose of my education. To be honest with you, when I started writing my very first novella, the ghost of Faulkner (the Faulkner of Absalom, Absalom! ) was hovering over my shoulders. His style was able to evoke truths that resonated deeply with me. Eventually Gabriel García Márquez and probably many others were added to the mix. The voice of Moroccan storytellers and "fuqha" may inhabit some part of me too.
4. I cannot resist asking the traditional question: what does it mean to articulate one's creative concerns in a language other than one's own?
Well, you ask the tough questions. I remember once reading Tahar ben Jelloun saying that French allows him to say things he cannot say in Arabic. Quite frankly, I feel the same. There is a sacredness to Arabic that makes it harder to say things. That's my feeling, anyway. I am also more familiar with the literary traditions of the "West," which I read mostly in English, and before that in French. I probably would not have been inspired to write had I not read Faulkner. Who knows? There is an emotional quality to his prose that almost transcends language, region, and nation. But the most important reason for me to write in English is to continue to strengthen my mastery of the language and communicate a certain Moroccan consciousness to American and English readers. Or even to English-speaking Muslims and Moroccans. Many Western writers have done a great job conveying colorful pictures of Morocco to a Western readership--I am not too sensitive about Orientalist misrepresentations--but the literary picture of Morocco needs to be complemented by a more "indigenous" perspective. An American Muslim student once wrote to me from California saying that he identified with events and characters in the novel. That is my ultimate test of success.
5. I find your book Unveiling Traditions rich and interesting. The turn of events after September 11th has made the book even more timely in regards to the perception of Islam and Islamic culture in the West. What's the poignant message you hope the American reader will get from your book?
The central question that animates my work is how to envision a world in which cultures maintain their sustaining traditions while pursuing a progressive agenda of change and fruitful dialogue with one another. Very often, we find people rightly criticizing the reactionary tendencies of Islam (which can reach grotesque dimensions, as we have witnessed recently) or attacking Western colonialism; but rarely do people critique both at once. To these two I add the present economic system which, according to every major statistic or study, is in the process of endangering the entire human patrimony. We need cultural diversities as much as we need biological ones--it's that simple. Even the Qur'an states this obvious truth. Just as it serves no one's long-term interests for the Amazon jungle to be deforested, no culture or society--not even the West itself--will benefit from the complete Westernization of the world. And because such cultural homogenization is underwritten by a seemingly blind economic system, I argue that we must be critical of such a system if we want to save humanity from total alienation. The world has become too crowded for supremacist attitudes. I am making a simple and yet complex argument for a truly multi-dimensional problem.
Here's another thing: if Sep. 11 were to teach us anything, it should remind us that we--all of us, Moroccan, French, American, Mexican, etc.--should periodically suspend our narrow patriotic allegiances and think about human civilization in the singular. For after all, we are ONE in our diversity. The educator's role is to insist on this principle. That is our job.
6. Let me now go back to your teaching at the University of New England in the state of Maine. How paradoxical is it for a Moroccan professor to help American students reach a deeper understanding of their own culture and civilization?
Another tough question! The most striking thing for me about teaching in an American university is the generosity of my students. I examine the American literary and cultural traditions critically, and this may not always sit well with some. But most students enjoy the experience and thank me for it. In fact, the literature we study, particularly the early colonial period, is very often new to them--which only goes to show that, under the constant barrage of television culture, the American past has literally become a foreign place to Americans and non-Americans alike. Non-natives often see things that remain invisible to the natives. The best books I read on Morocco are by non-Moroccans. St. Jean de Crevecoeur and Alexis de Tocqueville had brilliant insights into the emerging American nation. There are others. In fact, at one time I thought of writing my own observations on the United States. I may still do it. I find American culture to be endlessly fascinating--and I don't even watch TV!
7. We are profoundly impressed by your academic success, the range of your cultural interests, and your active presence in the American intellectual scene. Where does Morocco fit into these exciting achievements and projects?
Morocco is always with me. I acquired all my intellectual foundations in Morocco. In all my work, I depend heavily on the art of textual analysis (explication du texte) that was drilled in me--to some extent--in high school, but mostly in Fez. I continue to read Moroccan writers--fiction and non-fiction--and I lead educational tours to Morocco every now and then. This May, I am planning on taking students on a course called "Morocco: Dialogue of Civilizations." I have created international programs for my university and have taken students to Mexico (by the way, an absolutely fascinating civilization) and Morocco. The first tour I led to Morocco was in 1993. I have since then developed my own collection of slides and synthesized my own information on almost every aspect of Moroccan life. Maybe a travel book on Morocco without the hotels and restaurants is next? I am very proud of Morocco and of being Moroccan. Right now, I am looking at a framed picture of the inaugural 1987 US stamp commemorating Morocco's 200 years of friendship with the United States. This country is quite probably the best place for a Moroccan to be--outside of Morocco. In my 18 and a half years here, I have encountered nothing but good will and genuine respect for Morocco.
Here is a trivia question: Did you know that Abraham Lincoln was profoundly inspired by a Moroccan trader who freed a few Americans from captivity in the desert? The Moroccan's name is Sidi Ahmed, and so popular be became in the US that a Southerner named his own son after him. Moroccan camels were also exported to the US and were used against Indians and even fought in the Civil War. There is more. . .
8. I'm sure the Wafin audience would love to read your novel and your book. Can you tell us a few words about them that would "inflame" our curiosity?
Si Yussef is about the life of an average book keeper from Tangier. But it's about more than that. Much more. Anyone who knows Tangier knows that it is not a "typical" city. It's famous for its transgressions and sins! Even St. Francis despaired of it when he visited. Mark Twain had the same reaction. A Spanish doctor attributed the Tangerian mood to the relentless "shergui" that always blows on the city. Whether Tangier is cursed or not, it somehow inspires. There is something about it. I once read that Kafka was read in Tangier before he was in Europe. Ah, and one of my favorite writers is a Tanjawi--Mohamed Choukri.
Unveiling Traditions , on the other hand, is a theoretical, academic book. I would be honored if the Wafin audience bought it, but I have been told by several colleagues that the book is not easy reading. So buyer, beware!
9. I don't know if you are aware of the fact that Moroccans in the US have been trying to establish a cultural community that would give them a strong voice among the diverse cultural groups of this country. From your perspective as an established academic learned in languages and cultures of the West, can you think of any particular ideas that might facilitate the creation of such a forum, a forum that would potentially appeal to Moroccans and Americans alike?
A Moroccan cultural organization in the United States could serve a variety of functions, such as introducing people to our rich culture and heritage, but also using this heritage to establish a bridge between West and East, the US and Islam, Europe and Africa. We could deal with the issue of slavery (the fate of Muslim slaves in the Americas is still largely undocumented), find out about early Moroccan travellers to this continent, study Moroccan responses to the American Civil War, etc. Does the Native American ever appear in Moroccan writings? Actually, Morocco is everywhere in the Americas. You can hardly travel in Mexico--and in the American Southwest and West--without coming across some residue of the Moorish civilization--architecture, cuisine, language, etc. We could expand our focus to include all the Americas. Such a cultural organization could be the Wafin of Anglophone humanists around the world. We should also connect with our brothers and sisters in Morocco. I attended a conference in Casablanca last year and was highly impressed by the caliber of our colleagues working in Moroccan universities. A few are doing truly cutting-edge work on the relationship between literature and epistemology, geography, feminism, and more. It was the best conference I had ever attended.
10. Your conclusive word to the broad audience of Wafin.
Let us be ourselves and move ahead as a community of proud Moroccans. We may disagree and argue, but we must remember that we are the inheritors of a magnificent legacy, one that is liberal and tolerant, neither Eastern nor Western. Moorish civilization, which blended Spanish, Berber, African, and Arab cultures, has given us an identity that cannot be easily erased, replaced, or duplicated. We are our geography--open to all four corners of the world yet mysteriously elusive. We are the country of Atlas; the land of shurfa and awliya. Morocco is the fabled land of Atlantis, the sunken paradise on earth. Morocco's history is engraved on our faces--the faces of jbella, rwafa, shluh, Jews, and others (whoever they are). Morocco is neither here nor there; it is everywhere. Morocco is us.