Translating Moroccan culture in Modern verse
As evidenced in the renaissance of the poetic genre, al-shafawi ('' the oral'')-so easily associated with ‘'time immemorial'' – is being inscribed into a particularized history; al-maktub (“”the written”) – in the Arabo-Islamic world, a sacrosanct domain of transcendent authority –is being infused with the irreverence and relativization of popular humor and critique. Among the most vocal proponents of the movement for the canonization of zajal in the Moroccan literary realm is Ahmed Lemsyeh, a well-published poet (in classical and Moroccan Arabic), a long-time socialist, and, a member of the Moroccan writers guild (l'Union marocain des écrivains). Lemsyeh posits an oedipal relation between classical Arabic and spoken dialect; he compares the dialect to a young bride who is ensorcelled and killed by her jealous cowives, only to turn into a dove that flies above them, making music high above their heads (Lemsyeh. 1992, pp. 7-12). She is life, regenerating, transforming, allusive. For Lemsyeh, the mother tongue is a voice that translates “the [acultural] being. “ He asserts that he speaks neither in the name of the “people,” nor the party, nor the nation, but rather for the rights of the individual.” Despite this, the poetry of Lemsyeh overflows with allusion to popular culture; he uses proverbs, song lyrics, and history. His prose is densely weighted in the particular:
I went down in my soul to look for the remains
I found happiness defending spring
I said, a head without a strategy [a trap]
And I intoned,
Two pigeons singing, they on the palm tops
He who doesn't love beauty is mournful
He who has fawn should keep his hand upon it
One hawks his life, another is the pawnbroker.
Lemsyeh begins by going down in his soul (ruh), looking for “the remains.” What he finds are verses that exist in the oral tradition. The first of the couplets is based on a proverb: ras bla nashwa qatiya halal, literally, “a head without fragrance-or passion-its decapitation is permitted,” but Lemsyeh changes the words slightly ras bla nashba y-tsehel-quatiya: “a head without a strategy, or a trap [presumably for one's enemies] deserves to be cut off.” Here he comments on the necessity to be savvy and alert to the silent battle of those in power (“silence has become their weapon,” he says in another line). The second two couplets recall lines from the popular song genre of l-‘alwa, a genre performed by women that is often associated with the lower classes: juj hmamat y-ghaniyu, fawq an-nakhla y-battu/ lli ma y'ashq az-zin, y t'aza fi hiyat-u and lli ‘and –u shi ghaziul, y-hat idit-u ‘l-ih / wahed y erham ‘amr-u u lakhur y-uta lu fi-h. Using these verses, Lemsyeh cites the remains” of popular culture, repeating and recycling the oral repertoire into the written work. He thereby infuses the written work. He thereby infuses the written word-associated with high culture-with the images and metaphors of oral folk performance.
The verses below, for example, play with parallel structures well known in the oral repertoire of marketplace discourses; however, they change the content of the metaphors to reflect a discourse on writing itself:
Words are not bed and cover
Words are a path and people are letters
Words are not true or false
Words are a spring whose water encompasses it
Paper is a shroud sewn with white
Writing enables the eye to see
The robe becomes dotted with life,
Its clothes and light, its meaning, are wool.
When you spin it, you find your love around it.
Exchange is rapture, joy, and fear
Wear goodness and it means elegance
Feather the wind, leave the sky plucked
The paper's blood is mixed with ink
Its life doesn't want to stop.
(Lemsyeh, 1994, p. 94)
Compare these verses with the following well-known formulas recorded in the Moroccan marketplace:
l-mra ash ka-t-tsamma?
Bir, u r-rajal ka-y-tsamma dlu.
l-mra ka-t-tsamma dwaya, u r-rajal ka-y-tsamma qalim.
l-mra ka-t-tsamma hawd u r-rajal ka-y-tsamma sgiya.
l-mra ka t-tsamma-a frash u-rajal aghta.
The woman, what is she called?
A well and the man is a bucket.
The woman is an ink well and the man a pen.
The woman is called a field and the man, the irrigation.
The woman is called a mattress and the man, a cover.
The density and parody present in Lemsyeh's recycled verses present profound resistance to translation. These verses are woven into time and history, “restricted”, in Bernstein's sense of the word (1975), to a particular audience, and enigmatic to another. They are also dense with puns, which, as Bourdieu notes, depend a shared habitus, a shared past, a notion of collective memory and language. Not only is the language in dialect, however, but it uses regionalisms. Employing dialectal variation in poetry bring the Moroccan reader solidly into difference. Lemsyeh is lobbing for the validation of this difference. He notes (1992.pp. 7-12 the word for dialect in Moroccan Arabic-darija-comes from the trilateral root witch means to roll across the surface of something, to circulate like gossip, but also to pass away, to be extinct. The etymology of zajal, on the other hand, is related to play and musical entertainment. According to Lemsyeh, Moroccan poetry in dialect express a relationship between that which exists and that which is forgotten, because it is ephemeral. Lemsyeh is memorializing an oral/aural world of popular culture that is “passing away” from collective memory by playing with it and inscribing it as written text that nonetheless vies, because of its artistry, with the high and the official. At the same time, he uses these oral formulas to make searing political critiques. Zajal, he says, is a “thunderous music”, opposed to the aristocratic and serious poetry of classical Arabic, containing the subversive laughter of the lower classes as well as metaphors of the lower bodily strata. Not surprisingly, the translation of this oral genre into written literature has been received a as a transgression and, in Lemsyeh's words, has “encountered an ideological stoning and whipping from fervent opponents”. At the same time, he say's it has (also) suffered from a different stoning, the stoning of its body (dhat) as it struggles with the tribulation of composition and the chaos of vowelization in the [written] language” (mahnal-‘iyagha wa fitna tashk- il b-l-lugha; Lemsyeh, 1992, p. 8) here Lemsyeh refers to one of the biggest obstacles in the translation of Moroccan Arabic into written (Arabic) script; namely, the absence of any rules for the vocalization of vocabulary in dialect. Because zajal is written without vowels (Arabic being a trilateral-root language whose consonants are marked for vocalization and syntax through the use of diacritics), the interpretative activity or reading becomes fore fronted as a matter of course. The reader must struggle with the written utterance and its context; it is a work of engagement with sound and meaning, an active poesies. Critics of zajal say that it must be pronounced, that zajal that is not verbally performed is not zajal at all. On the other hand, zajal's dependence on its pronunciation (ntaq) transforms the act of reading itself, making it synaesthetically deep, a moving experience. Thus, not only does the poetry of Lemsyeh make memories come alive through his use of oral formulas, he requires the active engagement of the reader to sound it out from the page to its new life in cultural and written memory..