The Life and Logic of Imagination: A Dialogue with Khadija Marouazi

THE LIFE AND LOGIC OF IMAGINATION

A DIALOGUE WITH KHADIJA MAROUAZI

Khadija Marouazi is a professor of literature at Ibn Tofaïl University in Kenitra, Morocco, and a human rights activist. She is a member of the scientific committee for the Moroccan magazine Dafatir al-sijjin (Prisoner’s Notebooks) and Majallat dirasat huquq al-insan (the Journal for Human Rights Studies), and the General Secretary and founding member of the organization al-Wasit min ajl al-Dimuqratiya (the Mediator for Democracy and Human Rights). History of Ash is her first novel. She lives in Morocco.

Saliha Haddad

BY SALIHA HADDAD

This interview took place between Algeria and Morocco, through emails.

Saliha: Congratulations on the publication of this essential prison novel. Thank you for putting it out into the world, and thank you to the translator, Professor Alexander E. Elinson, for translating it into English with so much care and faithfulness, ensuring that the poetic language of the original Arabic novel was captured.

History of Ash is one of the most grueling novels I have ever read. While I was captivated by the language and by the fate of the characters, I suffered from nightmares and goosebumps, brought on by the graphic descriptions of what it meant to be a political prisoner during that time, and even now, in Morocco, and perhaps everywhere in the world.

You start the novel with an homage to poetry where Mouline says that “Poetry can often act like a compass that keeps you from getting lost.” Do you hold this belief in a world that is constantly giving reasons not to?

Khadija: Thank you for your views, which I appreciate, about the novel, and about the high quality of the translation. Regarding poetry in History of Ash, often the logic of writing exceeds the writer’s perceptions of it. When I started writing the novel, I was motivated by little more than an impulse that was determined by an accumulation of Arab prison narratives, along with a question that came up again and again about the lack, or absence of this kind of prison writing in Moroccan literary production despite the existence of political detention here. 

These were questions I had in the 80s, and when I took up the challenge of diving into this experience at the beginning of the 90s, the incarceral imagination couldn’t yet conceive of the novel as a space to write about prison. It was still the domain only of those who had a lived experience of political detention. 

In response to your question concerning whether I still believe that poetry is like a compass that keeps us from getting lost in a world that constantly gives us reasons to lose our way, I can’t be sure because it is Mouline’s belief, in the novel, not mine. Constructing characters emotionally and intellectually is something I constantly think about, with voices that contain all the different possible and available points of view. It was imperative for Mouline, who was in prison for over twenty years, that poetry becomes one of his necessary tools of enduring and resisting in order to survive in a place where the soul is suffocated within a limited space.

“. . . the imagination has its own logic, its own life, and its own dynamics that are born with each line, excerpt, and page in opposition to any prior authority set for the writer.”

Saliha:  Can you tell me about the poems that provide the most comfort to you in the darkest times?

Khadija: Mourid Barghouti’s poetry has a special place in my heart for all circumstances, both happy and sad. I came across Mourid’s poems by chance as I was flipping through the pages of a magazine of my father’s. I was in high school in Safi at the time, and after I started attending college in 1982 in Marrakech, I tried to adapt some of his poetry into a dramatic play that was performed by children and teens in one of the youth centres that host artistic and cultural activities in Safi. Sometimes, after having taught at the university for three decades, I still can’t think of a more expressive form than his poems and metaphors to describe certain situations to my students. My students are dazzled by his collection, The Logic of Creations, and how he can, in two or three lines, make all those objects speak –the pen, the vase, the mirror, the lamp post, the laundry cord…

Saliha: The novel does not shy away from graphic descriptions of prison conditions, particularly torture scenes. The one that stayed with me the most was this one:

“And then for me to find myself hung upside down, then thrown on the floor with the whip tracing lines of blood all over my body, blood from inside me. When I realized that I was menstruating, I cried so hard because I had forgotten about it. I forgot to forget that I was a woman. I cried harder than I had ever cried before.”

How did you conduct research about prison practices? And how does your work as a human rights activist and a member of the scientific committee for the Moroccan magazine, Prisoner’s Notebooks, inform your writing?

Khadija: To write about prison and detention, I didn’t feel the need to do prior research. What I did need was an understanding of the general and particular political contexts of the country, the elites, and expressions that would be subject to persecution and detention in the 70s and 80s. It was the context in which rights and freedom activists were daily in friction with and struggled against. Alongside that, I visited fewer prisons prior to writing History of Ash than I did afterwards. I believe that writing can be just as nourished from reading as it is from plunging into reality, but imagination doesn’t happen without some distance. Some prisons may, to some extent, be present or inspire some shadows of reality, but the imagination has its own logic, its own life, and its own dynamics that are born with each line, excerpt, and page in opposition to any prior authority set for the writer.

Saliha: Censorship and control don’t end when the detainees are put in prison for mostly long-term prison sentences. One of the practices of censorship and control is to keep the prisoners separated from one another during the initial years in prison as described in the novel’s first pages. What do you think the need is for censorship, even in prison behind its closed doors? Is it because even in prison, the political detainees still hold power in some way, and censorship is the government’s implicit acknowledgement of this power, needing to take measures to contain it?

Khadija: So true, and that’s what experiences of political detention around the world confirm, where there is flagrant breach of laws related to a trial and what follows. In Morocco’s case, that was deemed to be unjust detention by the Commission of Equity and Reconciliation – the commission Morocco installed in 2004 to look into violations that occurred between 1956 and 1999 in order to discover the truth of what happened, decide on who was responsible, what reparations were owed, and come up with recommendations for it not to happen again. 

Saliha: While reading the novel, I was struck by the mention of Palestine and its coverage in the media. It’s crazy that after decades have passed since the events of the novel, Palestine and its coverage in the media is still a big issue. What do you think about this and why did you choose to include this brief but striking observation of Palestine and its coverage in the media? What are your thoughts on what is happening there right now?

'History of Ash' by Khadija Marouazi
"History of Ash" by Khadija Marouazi © The American University in Cairo Press

Khadija: With reference to writings available before arrest or that made their way to detainees through the prison bars, the Palestinian issue seems to be fundamental in the thinking and consciousness of both the Moroccan right and left, including those who have been arrested. It is also a fundamental issue for Moroccans of all sorts and ages, so in writing one cannot avoid it. Today, I don’t possess the details of what I wrote about Palestine in a novel that is three decades old because the time period during which I wrote it is not the same as its publication date. However, I remember some attempts prior to “History of Ash” when I wrote for a brief time, in 1989 I think, on the page eight of the Moroccan Al-Alam newspaper each Tuesday, three portraits of Palestinian women, some of whom were martyred or sitting in prisons of the occupation. I can still remember the names FatimaBernawi, Randa Nabulsi and Hayat Bilbeisi.

Saliha: Censorship, bans, expulsion, and cancellation are all words that are used in relation to many artists, journalists and academics whenever they speak in favour of a ceasefire in Gaza. What is your position on all of this, first as a writer, then as an academic working closely in the domain of political censorship and political imprisonment?

Khadija: It is not only the artist, the journalist, and the academic who have demanded a ceasefire. Populations around the world demand it, and the world’s voice is clear in siding with what is right, with the Palestinian people. That is a valuable gain, but it comes at a great cost given how many people across generations have been murdered, injured, and maimed. It is a gain that, at the same time, is founded on a historic shift in relation to awareness and international public opinion on the issue. Regarding my work as an academic, it is not related in any way to the field of political censorship except in what creative texts provide as places for discourse analysis. That is my field of specialisation in the Faculty of Languages, Humanities, and the Arts where I teach.

Saliha: The translator, Professor Alexander E. Elinson did an outstanding job with his translation of the novel. How was your collaboration? Did you face any problems or challenges throughout the process?

Khadija: There were no difficulties working with Professor Elinson. He impressed me with his seriousness, patience, literary sensibility, and how he made sure each time we communicated through writing, his questions were precise. As well, his examination of words within their general lexical use and their special uses within the local dialect and their contexts and representations was highly dedicated and persistent. 

When I wrote History of Ash, my only goal was to write a political novel from pure imagination, and my intention was to write it for Moroccan readers, though it could reach other Arab readers as well. I never imagined that “History of Ash” would be translated into English, nor did I think it would be so lucky to be translated by as great a translator as Alexander Elinson. I will always be grateful to him and remain impressed by his skills and persistence in working on the novel and seeing its way out from behind its bars to make it available text outside of Morocco and the Arab world.

Saliha: I think I read somewhere that you are working on a new novel. If so, can you tell me more about it? I do hope I am right, and I look forward to your next work.  

Khadija: Indeed, I put aside the second novel I wrote twenty years ago, ten years after the first, because I felt it was incomplete. I returned to it a few times and every time I did, I felt the gaps not only needed to be arranged and to find ways through them to finish some work, but I also recently found some of the elements that had eluded me in my writing journey, as well as in the last five months in the context of what has been going on in the international context, and particular reactions to that. I hope I will succeed in filling those gaps with what fits the topic.

The interview has been translated from Arabic into English by Saliha Haddad and Professor Alexander Elinson.

Saliha Haddad

Saliha Haddad has worked as a literary interviewer at Africa in Dialogue and her reviews of books have appeared in the other side of hopeThe New Arab, and Transnational Literature. Haddad’s creative work has been published or forthcoming in AgbowóIsele Magazine and New Lines Magazine. In 2021, she was shortlisted for the African Writers Awards and won first place in the inaugural ANTOA Writing Contest.

SALIHA HADDAD

INTERVIEWER FOR FICTION

Alexander Elinson

Alexander Elinson is Associate Professor of Arabic and Head of the Arabic Program Hunter College of the City University of New York. In addition to his book Looking back at al-Andalus: the poetics of loss and nostalgia in medieval Arabic and Hebrew Literature, he has written extensively on classical Arabic and Hebrew poetry and prose, as well as on contemporary language politics and ideology, prison narratives, and oral and written culture in Morocco. He has translated two novels by Youssef Fadel: A Beautiful White Cat Walks with Me and A Shimmering Red Fish Swims with Me, the latter of which was shortlisted for the 2020 Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation. He has also translated Hot Maroc by Yassin Adnan which was shortlisted for the 2022 Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize. His translation of Khadija Marouazi`s prison novel History of Ash was published in 2023 and shortlisted for 2024 EBRD Literature Prize. He is currently translating Amara Lakhous`s latest novel, The Night Bird, and Saïd Khatibi’s The End of the Sahara.

ALEXANDER ELINSON

TRANSLATOR

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