Language Arts in Morocco: reflections on the new Mohammed VI Modern & Contemporary Art Museum & a conversation with translator Zakaria Alilech

Author ········· George Bajalia
Published ······ Online, Nov 2014

Section ·······  Art & Design

In October, after a decade of construction, the Mohammed VI Modern and Contemporary Art Museum finally opened its doors to the public. Its first exhibition is a collection entitled, 1914-2014: 100 Years of Creation, and according to the museum’s official Facebook page, it garnered over 30,000 visitors within a month of opening. 1914, far from being an arbitrary antecedent to 100 years of creation, also marks the year the French Protectorate formalised its presence in Morocco. After having put down rebellions near Casablanca and Fez, postage stamps formerly bearing the label “Poste Français” were superimposed with a rubber stamping noting the “Protectorat Français.”

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The title of the show implies a continuity of Moroccan creation between the protectorate and post-independence periods, an implication that undermines the distinction Benjamin Sutton notes in artnet news: “[this is] the first major museum built since the country gained independence from France in 1956.” Sutton’s claim as to what constitutes a major museum is disputable; the Moroccan government opened the Museum of Amazigh Heritage in 2000, major if simply for its recognition of Morocco’s Amazigh history. Countless other museums have opened in the nearly 60 years since Morocco’s independence, not a few of which are related to foreign NGOs and state cultural bodies.

Nonetheless, the Mohammed VI Museum of Modern and Contemporary Art is significant in that it designates a distinct home for artists to engage with a Moroccan public, an act that stands in stark contrast to the somewhat exclusive foreign salons and private gallery spaces. Moreover, the opening show is an attempt to reclaim artistic production during the protectorate period. Instead of framing Moroccan art from 1914-1956 as art of the “Protectorat Français” and that of 1956-2014 as post-independence, 100 Years of Creation attempts to assert a continuum that exists regardless of colonial history. Is is possible to remove colonialism from the writing of this art history?

Perhaps, and perhaps not. Linguistic capital in Morocco is complicated and the language of the arts in Morocco is no exception. In fact, it’s rather contentious. Language abilities dictate funding opportunities, employment positions, and exhibitions. Admission into major international festivals, curated shows, artist residencies, and visas for such residencies all depend on artists defining themselves in languages legible to their potential patrons. Ultimately, however, it is the job of curators, critics, bloggers, and patrons to work with such artists to ensure that the landscape of the Moroccan art discourse is not monolingual, as its artists are most certainly not. Some Moroccan artists choose, and will continue to choose, to work in Moroccan Arabic (Darija). Others choose Standard Arabic, Tamazight, Tashelhit, or Tarefit, while others choose, French, English or Spanish. For conversation of language politics in Morocco, I turned to Tangier based translator Zakaria Alilech.

George Bajalia (GB) | This is a conversation we’ve been having for quite some time, Zak. What is the language of arts in Morocco? Obviously, that’s a big question. In Morocco, you could encounter artists working in Tamazight, Fosha (classical Arabic), Moroccan Arabic (Darija), French, Spanish, or English. That’s not even including Moroccans abroad. So let’s narrow it down a bit. Some artists work in a particular language in order to secure funding, to bolster a portfolio with an eventual aim of a job with one institution or another, or simply because they feel more comfortable in one language than another. Let's take you for instance. You recently translated Sarah Kane’s Crave into Darija. Why did you choose this piece, and why did you choose to translate it into Darija? Did you have a particular audience in mind for the translation?

Zakaria Alilech (ZA) | I wouldn’t know how to answer that question properly. It was a decision I made one day without even thinking so much. It was a period when I was very much into Sarah Kane’s writing, and I thought for some reason that play would work perfectly in Darija. I could feel its intensity and its violence expressed in my mother tongue. I think that piece goes deep inside subconscious areas of people’s minds, and maybe that’s why it made sense for me in Darija. I imagined the sentences in Darija before I started. Afterwards, I thought it was also interesting to work with the alternative theatre scene here in Morocco since they are the ones who work on let’s say different types of pieces that are not mainstream comedies or classical elite theatre. I don’t know much about this alternative scene yet since [it exists] mostly in Rabat and Casablanca, but I’ve been told they do interesting things – more and more [of it] in Darija since they’re exploring contemporary theatre that wouldn’t work really with Fosha. [Fosha is really] more of a Shakespearean language [per say] if we think of a theatre equivalent. Even [though] French is still present in the theatre scene, I think artists are now more eager to do things in Darija because it’s the best way to explore adapted plays and contemporary theatre in general, especially if you are expressing somehow the Moroccan reality or adapting foreign pieces to it, which is the [latest] tendency, even to get funds from the government.

GB | So if more artists are feeling the need to work in Moroccan Arabic, do you think this will be reflected in print culture as well? I know a few years ago the magazine Nichane had quite a readership, but they closed down. Do you see a situation where more writers and publishers are interested in working specifically in Moroccan Arabic as opposed to Fosha or French?

ZA | I don’t think they do it “as opposed to Fosha and French”, I think for now it’s just another language to use. [Darija] even used as a ‘hipster’ kind of thing sometimes. I don’t feel that for now editing things in Darija is a matter of identity or a way to establish Darija as a future ‘new written language’. Especially since, in general, people still assume that the written languages are Fosha and French, and Darija is just a dialect [used] to communicate. That doesn’t stop people from wanting to establish Darija as a way of expression for arts or journalism. I don’t even know if not having Darija as the main language for papers and television news for example is really an issue among people here. I guess sometimes as outsiders some people would judge things like that as an identity crisis (and maybe there is a truth in that assumption) and some Moroccan artists explore those crises from within that point of view, but the reality sometimes shows up to be more simple and coherent to a certain degree. It’s even enriching to have many cultural and linguistic influences. That doesn’t mean it’s not tricky, because Morocco has a lot of different realities that sometimes don’t even involve Arabic. There are some areas in Morocco where people speak just Berber. [Language] is a huge subject and too big to be simplified or reduced to an identity drama.

GB | Do you think this movement towards Moroccan Arabic is reflective of larger trends in Morocco, or perhaps in North Africa at large? In one sense, I see a desire to work for a Moroccan audience, to be in conversation with a group that may not necessarily be conversant in Fosha, French, Spanish, or English. In another sense, I see a sort of “claiming” of Moroccan identity, or even Arab identity, in opposition to oft circulated tropes based on racist, pejorative, and deeply problematic stereotypes. In working in Moroccan Arabic, do you think artists are seeking to place their work within a specifically Moroccan canon, as opposed to a European one? Can we identify this as a shift in artistic discourse?

ZA | But there have always been things in Moroccan Arabic for a large Moroccan audience… and Fosha is not even that present in Morocco. But now, even in those circles with a strong foreign presence there’s Moroccan Arabic on one hand because people need to do contemporary art and literature involving their language and that’s the good thing. But on the other hand, and [this is] the perverted part, the tendency now in some of those circles is instead of “[we’re] bringing you our culture” [it is] “we give you lessons about your own”, and some artists and writers play the game because they want to be part of those circles and explore identity issues in a way that would impress or confirm that vision of things. The “we support Moroccans who dare to talk about their reality” kind of thing. [It's] like they know everything about it. And some of those Moroccan artists tend to reject their reality without working on it. The same with some militants.

GB | It is not always that simple, though. Working in Moroccan Arabic does mean allowing access to a public that may not otherwise engage in the work, but there are plenty of people more comfortable in languages other than Moroccan Arabic. Indeed, some artists find themselves in this position. Turning to visual and fine arts, photography, film, and video art allows such artists to transcend post-colonial language politics and communicate by way of another aesthetic language. Abdel-Mohcine Nakari, another artist born and based in Tangier, seizes this problem as an opportunity to put forth his own identity pastiche, a patchwork mediated by the languages of his own existence and work as an artist. After all this discussion, I should ask, do you see it as a problem, or more simply a situation within which artists are working, or perhaps even as an opportunity?

ZA | I would never see as a problem a way or a language an artist feels comfortable working with. The problem for me is opportunism, misjudgments, and lack of sincerity. Maybe Abdel-Mohcine would answer that question better. I really like [his] piece. I do think some people are so fed up with following the standards of a culture that targets them every now and then with prejudices or even rejection, and I completely understand how some artists – not necessarily go back to Moroccan canons – but use modern art expressions, which I believe are universal to express their reality in their own language using their way of doing things, regardless of whether it has foreign influences or not. I don’t know if it’s a shift, [but] it’s definitely a reaction; the trick with reactions is that sometimes they take you to another extreme. I think you have to create a balance in which you can be yourself with all the experience and the influences that you have managed to put together.

George Bajalia is currently a doctoral student at Columbia University in the Department of Anthropology. His research interests include cultural globalization, borderlands, and post-colonial performance. From 2011-2013 he lived in Tangier, Morocco as a Fulbright grantee, and has worked in Morocco, New York, and Chicago as a director and adaptor for stage and film. He can be found online at or on Twitter @ageorgeb.