Souffles-Anfas: A Critical Anthology from the Moroccan Journal of Culture and Politics, eds. Olivia C. Harrison and Teresa Villa-Ignacio. Stanford University Press. 302pp., $21.95.
Less than a decade after gaining independence, Morocco, once again, found itself in the throes of turbulence. For many, “self”-rule—the return of the historical monarchy—hadn’t ameliorated the day-to-day indignities of the French colonial era, and by 1965 politics looked like it was reaching a breaking point. Protests were spreading quickly across the kingdom. Mehdi Ben Barka, the Moroccan Left’s most notable mouthpiece, had “disappeared” in Paris, and the student movement, active in universities throughout the kingdom, was ballooning in size, with high school students interpreting a newly implemented law that limited access to secondary school as a rallying cry.
In response, the newly minted King Hassan II cracked down violently on anti-monarchy demonstrators. “Allow me to tell you,” he once went on television and told his public, “there is no greater danger to the state than the so-called intellectual; it would have been better for you to be illiterate.”
Enter Souffles, a Moroccan magazine of culture and politics. Hassan II’s aforementioned broadcast had mapped a how-to of sorts—in this instance, how to best pose a threat to the monarchy—and, heeding the call, a group of young poets and artists decided to start a magazine. Abdellatif Laâbi was the group’s main instigator. The twenty-four-year-old poet ran the magazine out of his apartment, penned the first issue’s opening salvo and served as the magazine’s editor throughout its five-year lifespan, from 1966 to 1971. In the prologue to the first issue Laâbi wrote with a brash confidence and made his intentions clear: those involved with his magazine intended to “demonstrate that they are less continuers than they are initiators.” A young country with young writers was charting the course toward cultural decolonization.
Because the time demanded, “a clearer relationship between aesthetic and political practices in the post-colonial context,” the magazine’s founding editors aimed toward a new kind of literacy. Not only would they provide the young and politically inclined with a new platform for publishing, they would also forge ahead with new vocabularies through which to conceptualize the world, inside Morocco as well as in neighboring states recently freed from the grips of colonialism.
As a literary journal, Souffles put poetry next to book reviews and book reviews next to political diatribes—some on the problems plaguing the formerly colonized world and many others on how to solve them. The magazine championed the ideas of the prior generation of left-wing radicals, such as psychoanalyst Frantz Fanon and Algerian author Kateb Yacine. It published scathing takedowns rebuking Martiniquan poet Aimé Césaire’s negritude (“abstracted from the historical context of the revolution in the Third World, and separated arbitrarily from the immediate needs of the global tricontinental struggle”), Dakar’s World Festival of Negro Arts (“insidiously suggests that you be a good little tourist and leave your critical senses on the other side of the border”), Albert Camus (a “regal mummy”), and almost always “the paternalist playboys of North African French-language literature,” an establishment that had the tendency to write what Laâbi called “tourist brochures” because they described Morocco in clichés, as a “land of contrasts.”
The editors and writers of Souffles intentionally and explicitly toted a youthful idealism, premising their work on the idea that “political and cultural struggles go hand in hand.” They believed in the transformative potential of words and, as writers and poets, considered themselves to be essential participants in the decolonization process: they were engineering a new ideological framework and providing the colonized with the means of understanding their reality. “[Souffles] should not be a stopgap,” wrote Laâbi, “but rather bear witness to a ‘reality in action,’ open up perspectives that will ultimately define a path and impose a new vision.”
Souffles poetry was novel and engaging. It melded playful, everyday life metaphors with combative political rhetoric in a way that sounded young, fresh and pretty without being belletristic. “It is no big deal I say,” wrote Mostafa Nissabouri in an untitled piece that mixed poetic enjambment and prose paragraphs, “if nearly every day I am forced to swallow the plate of couscous on which death has been laid out all plantlike and if the street is of anxiety.” Reading today, it’s clear that poems more than anything, were Souffles most potent form of political expression. Laâbi’s “We Are All Palestinian Refugees” from issue 15 begins as follows,
at last I reemerge from my body
I come out of it bearing essential questions My scream
ready Carried high cutting through the Scandal Dismantled
I am armed from head to toe
my armor is strong to oppose any erosion my memory is long to
force any embargo My laughter indistinguishable . . .
Reemergent bodies “bearing essential questions” encapsulate what happened to Souffles after the Six-Day War in 1967. Witnessing the Palestinian struggle energized the staff and prompted the magazine’s pivot toward more militant stances. Laâbi appropriated the word “terrorist” as virtuous and, in response to these essential questions, began to define Souffles’s fight as more transnational in nature. Palestine, as an “integral part of the movement for world revolution,” played an “avant-garde role . . . in the liberation of Arab peoples and their anti-imperial struggle,” the editors co-wrote, and Souffles intended to “accelerate history by clarifying, ideologically and politically, the possibilities for struggle in the Arab world.” This shift wasn’t subtle. The events of 1967 forced Souffles to reconsider many of its founding premises, most notably their conviction regarding the ethics of writing in French. The magazine’s evolution ultimately became most visible when the editors began to transition their time and effort towards publishing what was to be Anfas, an Arabic-language equivalent to Souffles.
Souffles sometimes came off as pompous when it inflated the magnitude of its whither-the-Left type questions. Its editorials convey the sense that the Souffles team thought the stakes were high, seeming to operate on the premise that a little magazine published out of somebody’s apartment could vanguard the masses toward revolution. It’s fair to be critical of young people who believe that the fate of the world somehow hinges on their editorial discretion, but the kind of earnestness this informs both merits respect and makes for captivating reading; the magazine’s polemic are energizing and free of cynicism.
In 1972, Morocco banned Souffles-Anfas and Laâbi was sent to prison, effectively ending the project. However, after magazines stopped being printed in Laâbi’s apartment, the writers and poets involved more than endured and a few—including poet-novelist Tahar Ben Jelloun and poet Mostafa Nissabouri—went on to become among Morocco’s most celebrated writers. Souffles’s lasting presence most recently made itself visible when members of February 20 Movement—Morocco’s iteration of the “Arab Spring”—invoked its legacy. The magazine represents a time that left-wing movements in Morocco had the fame, repute, and fresh-faced style necessary to threaten the monarchy enough to merit imprisonment.
Now Souffles has been compiled and made available in English for the first time. Souffles-Anfas: A Critical Anthology from the Moroccan Journal of Culture and Politics is the result of ten years of work led by scholars Olivia C. Harrison and Teresa Villa-Ignacio. Harrison and Villa-Ignacio compiled 39 pieces from Souffles and Anfas and recruited an army of translators who could bring the journal to English-speaking audiences.
While crafting the anthology, the editors allowed each of their translators to bring along their personal style, they write in their introduction. One might worry that this strategy risks undermining the book’s overall cohesion, but for the most part, the anthology reads smoothly, perhaps because its mishmash nature mimics the collaboration required by any attempt to assemble a magazine, where it’s the editor’s job to amass a stable of writers and put their pieces together in a way that makes sense to readers. The range of poetry, essays, reviews, and manifestos Harrison and Villa-Ignacio have compiled is engaging in parts and as a whole. Even for those looking for an individual piece, there’s an urge to keep reading in order to witness the intellectual development of Souffles’s writers and editors. It’s like reading a story.
The one exception to this cohesion is that the pieces translated from Arabic read differently than those translated from French, and it’s very easy to tell the two apart. This perhaps mirrors a conscious choice on behalf of the original writers: Souffles’s editors wrote their goal with Anfas, the magazine’s Arabic-language counterpart,was to write in a more accessible manner. Perhaps the disjointedness in translation stems for this conscientious adjustment of style, or the varied traditions of Arabic and French translating. Whatever the reason, a side-by-side comparison of Souffles and Anfas highlights the constant struggle the editorial team faced, of how to oppose colonial and neo-colonial injustices, while writing in the language of the colonizer.
Souffles was audaciously insistent in confronting this question of language head-on. In the magazine itself and in Harrison and Villa-Ignacio’s anthology, this is the character-defining thread, a quandary that links the first issue of Souffles to the last issue of Anfas. Could one be anti-imperialist in French? The editors’ answers evolved over time as the world changed and the magazine adapted a more radical posture. Consider the following three passages from 1970 and 1971 respectively:
During the colonial period Maghrebi writers were accused of betraying their people by choosing to express themselves in the language of the oppressor, one that had been substituted for their own, which now suffered a devalued, if not clandestine, existence.
This is an arbitrary accusation . . . they expressed themselves in the only language they could wield with ease: French. . . . The fact that these writers wrote in French cannot in any way depreciate the witness they bear to our society and the revolutionary combat role they play within it. You do not betray your people by glorifying its struggle, whatever that means.
—Souffles 1, First Trimester 1966
There is no doubt that one of the grave ambiguities we faced from the outset, increasingly burdensome as our focus extended beyond culture, was that, despite our ideological and cultural commitment to the anti-imperialist struggle, our ideals were flagrantly compromised by the fact that we expressed them in a foreign language.
We want to state clearly that the literature we envisage for tomorrow must definitively overcome bilingualism for the sake of its future effectiveness, coherence, and aesthetic appeal.
—Souffles 18, March-April 1970
Today more than ever before . . . the struggle against imperialist francophonie and the use of the Arabic language in all domains of thought and expression are one of the fundamental conditions of our disalienation and of our true commitment to the liberation struggle.
—Souffles 22, November-December 1971
In unsigned editorials, the magazine goes from explaining and justifying its use of French to advocating for a future without French, then ultimately repudiating its initial position. This evolution—on how to deal with Morocco’s linguistic dualism—tracks the magazine’s shift toward less compromising politics. How did Souffles come to believe that “[their] actions contradicted [their] words?” In the present, linguistic choices continue to reflect some political tension in Morocco and throughout North Africa. Materials used to persuade voters in any election throughout North Africa are instructive: Islamist polities prefer Arabic, Establishment parties employ a combination of French and Arabic and some parties even use Amazigh, a language indigenous to North Africa that preexisted Arabic.
Harrison and Villa-Ignacio’s introductions are brief and contained; it seems like they tried to make sure they weren’t distracting their readers with lengthy takeaways. A conclusion chapter is noticeably absent, but the introductions preface the translations by putting the past into conversation with present in ways most nostalgic rememberers of the late 1960s do not. The editors forewarn those who may be tempted to romanticize the past that “the journal is characterized by the populist, masculinist, and militarist imagery typical of radical leftists and pan-Arabist discourses of the era.” They also transport Souffles into contemporary times by calling its goals, “an early example of the protean pro-democracy movements that have swept across the Arab world since late 2010,” highlighting the “transnational character” of the upheavals of 2011.
Like many small independent magazines currently being published in the United States, Souffles advances an argument that there’s a place for literature’s imagination in politics. Indeed, perhaps a literary sensibility must be present in order to imagine how the future might look and start the conversations that will inevitably shape its contours. “Each generation has its truth,” Mohammed Berrada wrote in Souffles’s tenth issue, “a Zeitgeist that tempts the artist above anyone else. It emerges from the changes that occur from time to time, forces that break monotony and renew values and concepts.” Souffles’s longevity, and the significance of Harrison and Villa-Ignacio’s project, stems from capturing of this kind of “truth,” a truth very much a product of the upheavals of a particular moment and best articulated by the young.
Sam Metz is a Fulbright Scholar who has written for Quartz Africa and the Los Angeles Review of Books, among others.
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