Emma Ramadan guest-edited the March 2016 Words without Borders issue on Moroccan literature. The issue included her translations of poems from Ahmed Bouanani’s collection, Photogrammes, which she completed while on a Fulbright grant in Morocco.
Immediately following Moroccan independence, it became obvious to many artists and intellectuals that the battle for a liberated Morocco had only just begun. The generation that had seen its national culture wiped out by the French protectorate then saw it denied or confined to the realm of folklore by the post-independence government in an effort to keep the Moroccan people weak, alienated, and unable to come together through anything resembling tradition or national pride. Only foreign and occidental artistic and literary canons were taught or valorized in school following independence. As a result, living traditions began to disappear, to be forgotten. Ahmed Bouanani, and others in his generation, believed that tradition held the key to a country’s heart and identity. Concerned with the disappearance of his country’s traditions, Bouanani studied them and incorporated them into his work where they would live on, resisting oblivion.
Bouanani dived into oral tradition. He contributed an extremely detailed essay on oral poetry to the literary journal Souffles, played an active role in the Marrakech Popular Arts Festival, and took extensive notes on Berber jewelry. He wrote a history of Moroccan popular traditions, detailing myths and other stories that had been passed down for generations, as well as a history of Moroccan cinema. Bouanani wanted his films and his writing to paint an accurate picture of Moroccan civilization by engaging with traditional content and ideas critically, rather than just descriptively. By stripping tradition of its archaisms, its creative potential would be unleashed. Bouanani and his peers believe that this was not only possible but necessary. They believed that contemporary creation had to build off of artistic traditions and make them modern in order to reconcile the traditional with the avant-garde; they wanted to use popular culture to propel the traditional into the contemporary.
In an interview, the journalist Najib Refaïf asked Bouanani: “None of your works are autobiographical?” Bouanani replied:
“No, I don’t like that. Talking about oneself isn’t very interesting, but talking about oneself by way of myths, that is interesting, because myths never die. They endure. It’s another way of speaking about oneself. This is what we call popular literature. For example, storytellers return to stories that were created by others, but they do it in their own way. It’s another means of perpetuating the current of the narrative, but each storyteller gives his two cents, and for me, that is creation.”
From the disappearing ruins of former days, Bouanani sought to create, build, and rebuild. His book of poetry Photogrammes is imprinted with these ideas. He plays with the classical rhyme form but distorts it, making unusual turns and placing rhymes in unexpected places, or sometimes abandoning the form altogether. Some of the poems have a clear AABBCC rhyme scheme and others have no rhyme at all. All of them reference myths, traditions, or Morocco’s history while remaining rooted in the (at times gruesome) realities of Bouanani’s present.
Though he did his best to record and incorporate Moroccan traditional culture in his essays, writing, and films, Bouanani knew he was fighting a losing battle. His poems are attempts to give the traditions a new life on the page if not in reality. They lament the loss of his country’s memory while simultaneously recording its cultural traditions and ensuring they will endure in literature and art if not in practice. In Photogrammes, Bouanani turns the classical rhyme form on its head, inserting and manipulating it as he pleases, using it to contrast traditional forms with gruesome scenes, graphic descriptions, swear words, denouncements, and rage.
The combination of rhyme and traditional cultural references made translating Photogrammes extremely difficult. Normally when translating rhyme, I let myself be a bit loose with the content. I make sure I’m still getting across the idea, the concept, the feeling, the sounds, but know I may not be able to keep the exact word for word translation of the original because it wouldn’t sound right, wouldn’t rhyme. And I favor maintaining the rhyme scheme when it serves an important function in the work. In Bouanani’s poetry, the playful rhyme scheme contrasts and highlights even further the sad scenes of poverty and oppression he describes; he does violence to the classical form by altering it and forcing it to express taboo themes. While translating, I struggled because all of his words felt so intentional and his lines were so sparse. Bouanani’s work is laced with Moroccan cultural references, and allusions to stories, rituals, events, and ideas, and I was hesitant to change words in case a specific phrase was meant to reference something in Moroccan culture that I didn’t understand and would thus be eliminating. In order to translate his work, I needed to research and understand the culture that he was referencing.
Living in Morocco, working alongside Bouanani’s daughter, Touda Bouanani, and having access to his archives, to books that shed light on Moroccan traditions, myths, and culture, as well as to books written by and about the political climate of his contemporaries, were all essential to effectively translating his work. When an Arabic word was inserted into the text I would ask a Moroccan colleague or friend for a translation. When a reference was alluded to but I couldn’t find anything online, I would ask the librarians at the Dar al-Ma’mûn artist residency’s library to recommend a book to skim.
My English translations of Bouanani’s poems were done while I spent time in his home country, within the walls where he used to live. I hope that the translations will allow the traditions embedded in his poems to endure.
The following are two poems from Ahmed Bouanani’s Photogrammes that appear in the March issue of Words Without Borders. The coloring in the original indicates how Bouanani incorporated rhyme into his poems, and the corresponding coloring in my translations indicates how I attempted to maintain the same rhyme scheme in English.
 Bouanani, Touda, “Mémoire sauvée du feu,” Nejma 9 (2014): 13.