Doha Boraki, Moroccan feminist, translator, novelist
By Suzanne Ruta
For Moroccan women, life looks promising. As of 2004, the country has a new family code—one of the most liberal in the Arab world—that establishes equality of the sexes in matters of marriage and divorce, severely restricts polygamy, and provides protection for single mothers. The new code, first promulgated in October 2003, was young King Mohammed VI’s courageous response to the Islamist movement, seriously discredited when lethal terrorist bombings in Casablanca shocked the country earlier that year. The king’s wife is a computer engineer, and one of his close counselors is a woman. Several women head important government agencies, and a new quota system brought 35 women into parliament in 2002.
For Moroccan women, life looks grim. Domestic violence is legion. Well over half the country’s women are illiterate, including ninety percent in some rural areas. Only half of girls go to school in the cities, and only a third in the countryside. For those who graduate, joblessness looms. Thirty percent of university graduates are unemployed. Islamism, with its misogynist discourse, flourishes in vast and growing slums . Nearly half the country lives in poverty or near it.
Last July, as bombs exploded in Britain and Egypt and Iraq, Moroccan feminist Chemseddoha Boraki spoke to Women’s Review of Books by phone and e-mail about peace, tolerance, and the urgency of providing an alternative to the deadend rhetoric of Islamist demagogues. Doha Boraki, born in Tangiers in 1957, is a teacher, translator, novelist, literary historian, radio personality, and active volunteer at Tangiers’ innovative Maison des Femmes (Women’s House).
Boraki’s French has been translated by the interviewer.
Suzanne Ruta: Your family has lived in Tangiers for six generations. How have your roots in this mythic city shaped your worldview?
Doha Boraki: Tangiers is a city open to the world, bathed by two oceans, the Atlantic and the Mediterranean. The Phoenicians landed here, and after them, the Carthaginians, Greeks, Romans, Visigoths, and Arabs. Later came the Portuguese, Spanish, French, and Italians. Today’s Tangeri are a product of this mix.
We judge others not by race or religion but by their humanity and their ability to act for the common good. When I was a child, my mother told me, with rage and disgust in her voice, how Franco abused the Reds. My father told me, with rage and disgust in his voice, how Hitler persecuted the Jews. These were my first lessons in humanity and inhumanity, long before I started school.
In Tangiers we literally spoke the language of tolerance, mixing phrases of Spanish, Arabic, Berber, French, and English. It was my good luck to be born in a home where the grownups spoke Spanish when they didn’t want the children to understand, where one person read in French because he couldn’t read Arabic, and where another could read only the Arabic of the Koran.
SR: In a recent essay, you place your hopes with “women who refuse to live as their mothers did.” You yourself were such a woman.
DB: In my first photo ever, I’m a year old, wearing a caftan, surrounded by my father and five of his pals. My father always took me with him to bars, cafes, public gardens, the beach, the alleys of the old city. I was his shadow. He taught me to read, to speak French, and to paint.
SR: Was he a painter?
DB: No, he managed a wine company and later drove a taxi. When he wasn’t home I replaced him: I watched my mother to make sure she didn’t go to the window to chat with the women next door; I kept an eye on my grandmother’s visitors; and I listened in everywhere, so I could answer my father’s questions. I could do whatever I wanted as long as I remained first in my class at school. At a time when girls rarely went out, I played in the streets with the neighbor boys. I was free.
Then I hit puberty and suitors began to appear, and my father felt duty bound to curtail my freedom. The weight of society was too strong for him, except where my studies were concerned. He would not deprive me of an education as long as I continued to meet his high standards of academic success.
I began to write very young—at age ten, to prove to my father that I deserved his love. He was the only child of a traditional family. I was his pride, the only person he could talk to, his sweet revenge after early loneliness. Even now, I love what he loved: reading and writing. By writing, I defy the stupidity of rigid minds. The act of writing is not exactly restful in a country where women’s roles are defined in advance, but writing is preferable to the rage that takes you by the throat when you’re confronted with injustice and evil. We call that feeling of impotent rage, disgust, and humiliation hogra. I would have been miserable if I couldn’t write.
SR: Were you free to read whatever you liked?
DB: In the late sixties, perhaps because religious prohibitions were less prevalent, we could read Choderlos de Laclos [the eighteenth-century French author of Dangerous Liaisons], Simone de Beauvoir, Jean Paul Sartre, Fatema Mernissi [the Moroccan historian of women in Islam], and Nawal El Saadawi [the Egyptian novelist and psychiatrist]. The only thing my parents forbade me to read was romance comics—photonovelas—“crap,” they called it. At an age when most girls were learning about love, I was forbidden to know about this dangerous emotion. And yet my parents were deeply in love with one other, and my father was always telling me, “Love is stronger than death.” Another contradiction in that generation, torn between modernity and tradition.
SR:What were your schooldays like?
DB: After Moroccan independence in 1956, sending one’s daughters to school was felt to be a citizen’s duty, at least in the cities. (In the countryside the situation remains problematic even now.) The schools were not always coed, but there was great solidarity between boys and girls from the same family or the same neighborhood. The majority of our teachers were women, French or Moroccan Jews, who encouraged me and defended me when my father refused to allow me to attend a lecture or a film.
SR: And then came marriage?
DB: Women married in those days between ages seventeen and twenty. Beyond that, a girl was considered old. Girls were prepared for marriage rather than for a professional career. I was nineteen when I met my husband in school, where we were both training to be teachers. We were very good friends, in the noble sense of the word. A few months later, we were married, quite simply, without all the traditional ceremony. There was his dowry and his promise to to let me continue my studies and my writing. I didn’t need beautiful caftans or a solid gold belt. I needed to feel loved, protected, and assisted in the pursuit of my dreams. Revolution for me in those days meant succeeding as a writer, with a cigarette between my lips and a husband I chose for myself, who did all the cooking for the first ten years of our marriage, while patiently waiting for me to learn. Later on, when I had eye trouble (a detached retina, three eye operations in France), he encouraged me to challenge myself and to study for the agregation [an advanced degree, roughly the equivalent of a US doctorate minus the dissertation, granted in France, and in Morocco in cooperation with the French university system]. It was a crazy undertaking: in two years we had to prepare for the same exams as French candidates, but with Arabic language and literature as well. I passed first in the region, second in the country. There are less than a hundred of us agreges in Morocco.
SR: Great preparation for a translator!
DB: I have translated Mohamed Choukri, the self-taught novelist who was first translated by his mentor Paul Bowles, from Arabic to French. Choukri was a great friend. I was a homebody who hardly ever went out, until he took me to underground Tangiers. My children called him uncle, and we used to work in my kitchen, which he called my office.
I also translated a novel of Georges Perec from French into Arabic.
SR: Perec, a French Jew whose mother died at Auschwitz, seems an unusual choice.
DB: Not at all! There are several translations of his work by Moroccans. [In fact, there was an international conference on Perec at the University of Rabat a couple of years ago.] Perec has also been translated in Egypt by Amina Rachid. I translated his novel W, or the Memory of Childhood in 1998, for classes I was teaching on the theme of the human and the inhuman. Sixty years after the Shoah and fifty after the Nakba [the cataclysm, as Palestinians refer to the founding of Israel in 1948], our dreams of peace in the Middle East were sunk in a quagmire, which allowed some to rationalize their cruelty and terrorist acts. I wanted to show that there are Jewish humanists who have suffered and understand the suffering of others. And I wanted to show there are Muslims, myself among them, who refuse to have their voices mortgaged to justify inhuman acts. Translating W was my way of denouncing terrorism.
SR: A beautiful gesture.
DB: Just normal. Morocco is a tolerant country. We Moroccans are Muslim and Arab but have never renounced our Berber roots. Our customs and our culture prove that Islam was grafted onto a substratum that was previously Roman, Jewish, Christian, perhaps even animist. Tangiers never had a Jewish quarter. We all lived jumbled up together.
SR: That’s the subject of La Rue Josaphat (Josaphat Street), a lively, nostalgic novel you completed in 2003. In French, it deals with the old Tangiers you never knew.
DB: La Rue Josaphat presents the life of a little side street in Tangiers, in the days of the international zone (1923 through 1956). Four boys grow up as friends. Then, with Moroccan independence, the communities are torn apart. Jew, Muslim, Italian, and Spaniard, the boys can’t understand why they have to separate. As they embark on adult life, their memory of Josaphat Street preserves them from hatred. I had heard about that period from my father, mother, grandmother, father-in-law, and husband. In Tangiers, we like to talk a lot because we’re good storytellers. But you shouldn’t call it a nostalgic novel, since after all the international zone was a colonized area. Or rather, the nostalgia is for peace and conviviality.
SR: But your publisher rejected it.
DB: She felt that a book on Jewish-Moroccan friendship would not be well received here. She’s wrong. I’ll find another publisher.
SR:You are about to join 12,000 other Moroccan teachers in taking voluntary retirement, under a World Bank plan to shake up Morocco’s cozy bureaucracy and open careers to a new generation of university graduates. But you taught for over 25 years. Tell me about your students.
DB: Most recently, I taught two kinds of students. Some were preparing to take the entrance exams for the country’s top engineering institute. They were the cream of the crop. I also taught in a private school of business management. The former group, despite their excellence, are threatened with unemployment. A third of our university graduates are jobless. The latter group, however mediocre, can count on going into business, because their parents are rich. Both schools are coed. Most of the girls in the preparatory school have begun to veil themselves by the end of their first year.
SR: What’s the source of the pressure on the young women who adopt the veil?
DB: For people living on the edge, there’s so much fear. Fear of the future, of the unknown, and of poverty can make them the target of fundamentalists. But the question of the hijab, whether it takes the form of a stylish headscarf or a complete, dark covering, or chador, is not simple. Some women cover up to hide their poverty, others to signify their social commitment. The way the covering is worn may reveal the outlook of the wearer. When a girl who has lived with great freedom decides to adopt the veil, she shows to society that she has decided to settle down. The hijab symbolizes her virginity. But not all girls who wear the hijab are as straitlaced as people in the West believe. In Tangiers, you can see women wearing the hijab who live freely with their pals, have a sexual life before marriage, and smoke.
SR: For ten years now, Italian and North African feminists have been cooperating, through the Rome-based Istituto per il Mediterraneo (IMED) to create new resources for women in the Maghreb region of North-Central Africa. You’ve been involved through the Moroccan Reseau/Espace de Citoyennete and the Tangiers Maison des Femmes. You wrote a fascinating essay for an IMED study of women in the Maghreb, Una Cittadinanza in Disordine (Confusion over Citizenship).
You interviewed women who had demonstrated in the streets of Casablanca in 2000 against a program of reforms intended to improve their lives. Even women who needed to work to survive opposed the laws favoring equality, on the grounds that they went against Islam. It wasn’t the Islamists they feared. They feared divine retribution. Obviously, you didn’t share their viewpoint, yet you spoke of them with tact, sympathy, and even solidarity. You found the source of their fear in fallacious Islamist propaganda, in which women are viewed from a mythico-religious perspective, in a timeless golden age—outside of history. Everyone who comes after that mythic, heroic time—male or female—is devalued in his or her own eyes. You see the potential for violence in this kind of unreal thinking. So, how do you fight this kind of propaganda ?
DB: The fundamentalist threat is prevalent among the disadvantaged classes, in the slums ringing our big cities, where poverty and illiteracy are rife. We need the courage to examine ourselves continuously. We must examine our history, publicly and in a language accessible to all, especially on the radio, which is listened to by ninety percent of Moroccan men and women, especially in the big city slums and in rural areas. We have to demythologize the golden age and clear away an official history that glorifies men and treats women as “the devil’s own lieutenants.”
SR: You yourself examine history in several ways. On the radio, where you’ve been a presence since 1991, you recently produced a series of roundtable discussions on the meaning of the new Moroccan family code and on the history of women in Islam. This year, you completed a long, scholarly work entitled The Absence of Women’s Voices, in which, as if assuming the role of your maternal grandfather, who was a fquih, a theologian, you reread the Koran, the hadiths, or sayings and deeds of Mohammed, and other classics of Arabic literature to show how the voices of women were suppressed throughout most of Muslim history. I have to confess that for someone who was raised with the bedrock principle of separation of church and state, this return to sacred writ can seem like a passionate but mysterious scholasticism.
DB: My book only makes complete sense when you understand that our conservatives and Islamists claim that Islam gives women their full rights, so they have no business asking for more.
And it’s important to understand that in my country, Islam is both religious practice and human conduct. The Koran is part of daily life. The king is both commander of the faithful and head of state, responsible for guiding the spiritual life of his citizen-subjects. In amending the family code he said, “I cannot allow myself to forbid what God has permitted.” The code introduces universal rights. It establishes equality between spouses in the conduct of family life, the protection of children, and the distribution of property when a marriage is dissolved. It sets restrictions on polygamy that make it all but impossible. Yet the Moroccan people are afraid of this new family code!
SR: How can this fear be allayed?
DB: It’s a question of culture. The Maison des Femmes School of Equality [coed courses on the family code, taught by Boraki and others] showed us that young people want positive, democratic change. We have to bring their experience to more Moroccans. It would be easy, if we could reach a larger audience, stir up the debate on the radio, television, and in magazines, but—
SR: —lack of funding must be a recurring obstacle. Air time costs money. But you continue to make big plans.
DB: At the Maison des Femmes, we want to hold an international seminar on peace, inviting participants from around the world, with an emphasis on young people. We envision this seminar, for which we still need to find a backer, as the starting point of a long range project with socioeconomic and cultural components. Peace is not a natural state—at least, current events suggest otherwise. We need to find ways to teach young people that they can succeed in life, and that they have cause for hope. Once they have something of their own to defend, they’ll work for an enduring peace.
SR: Let’s go back to your origins. When you talk about Tangiers, there’s often a sense of a comedown, almost of a paradise lost.
DB: Northern Morocco, historically a rebellious region, was neglected by the government for forty years as punishment for a 1958 uprising. It’s a region scarred by crime, the drug trade, and illegal immigration. The beach just outside Tangiers, where I spend my weekends, is an antechamber of death for young men from all over Africa. They cross to Spain, ten miles away, in leaky fishing boats. Many drown en route. The new king is now trying to end the isolation of the region by constructing a megaport. The city is changing before our eyes.
SR: Tangiers with its horrendous disparities is the subject of a novel you wrote just last year, in Arabic this time: Beni Makada.
DB: I was born in [the Tangiers neighborhood of] Beni Makada, a sprawling neighborhood of both decent homes and shantytowns. I didn’t live in the shacks, but a number of my girlfriends did. I know it well, even if I moved away thirty years ago.
Recently I returned to Beni Makada to work at the Maison des Femmes. And this is what happened: I was going home one afternoon with my sister, and a madman accosted us in the street. You see a lot of madness in Tangiers, because of drugs. He frightened me. But afterwards my sister said to me, “You didn’t recognize him? That was Mustapha.” We had known Mustapha for ages. He was not crazy, not a drug addict either, but a fanatic—he supported Sadam Hussein in the first Gulf War. But to go from there to losing his mind! I decided to investigate. I spoke to his mother and his neighbors. And then I wrote a novel where corruption, influence peddling, and the erosion of ethical standards drive a man to madness. My own childhood is in that novel too—I settled a lot of scores. I wrote it in two weeks!
SR: What is the source of your tremendous energy?
DB: Not quite five feet tall, 120 something pounds, nearly blind in one eye, I’m on the frail side, but ferociously determined not to fall into the slothfulness peculiar to our women—not to resemble one of those well upholstered objects we call oeiyalate [female creatures]. There”ll be plenty of time to rest when we’re dead.
Doha Boraki can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Her group, Maison des Femmes, welcomes comments and contributions from friends around the world.
Suzanne Ruta is an author and translator and long time contributor to Women’s Review of Books.