Literature in the Maghreb “First poetry, then journalism”

The moroccan author and journalist Yassin Adnan at an event organized by the Goethe-Institut at the Leipzig Book Fair 2016
The moroccan author and journalist Yassin Adnan at an event organized by the Goethe-Institut at the Leipzig Book Fair 2016 | Photo: Andreas Wünschirs

At the Leipzig Book Fair, the Moroccan author Yassin Adnan spoke with Klaus-Dieter Lehman and Donata Kinzelbach about the impact of the Arabellion on writers in the Maghreb. In this interview he speaks with Kersten Knipp about how his work reflects Morocco’s social transformation, how the Islamic State uses Islam as a pretext for its crimes and why literature and poetry are so crucial in this situation.

Mr Adnan, in recent weeks, Germans have turned their attention to refugees coming to Germany from Morocco. Now the kingdom, along with Algeria and Tunisia, has been declared a safe country of origin. Nonetheless, how do you feel considering the attempts by young Moroccans to reach Europe?

As far as I can see it, in spite of its economic problems, Morocco is still a safe country. There is no war and the citizens are not subjected to any ethnic, ideological or religious discrimination. If some young Moroccans are seeking asylum in Germany, they are mainly attempting to profit from the flow of Syrian migrants. For them it’s a golden opportunity to fulfil their dream of living in an Eldorado called Europe.

Unlike many other countries, in recent years Morocco has not gone through much political upheaval. Why is that?

In the spring of 2011, the Moroccans also went to the streets, but they did not demand the overthrow of the regime. Years before, Morocco had attained democratic breakthroughs for freedom of speech and freedom to protest. In addition, ten years before the Arab Spring, the Moroccan government introduced sweeping economic and development policy initiatives. They stimulated the income of more than nine million people, especially in marginalized communities. The state also took care of the food security of the citizens, as well as jobs in rural areas. There were also investments in tourism and infrastructure development. Also, Morocco created a new constitution in 2011. It is considered one of the most progressive in the Arab world. It pains me, however, that Moroccan agricultural products are at a disadvantage on the European market due to the trade interests of European agricultural lobbyists.

The terrorist organization Islamic State (IS) is now also present in the Maghreb, particularly in Libya. What is it that makes radical Islam so appealing to some Arabs?

Islam is the greatest victim of IS simply because it serves as a pretext for all the crimes committed by the IS, Al-Qaeda and other terrorist organizations. None of this has anything to do with religion and religiousness. It is an expression of the historic depression in the Arab world that began with colonialism and since the displacement of the Palestinians. Many Arabs also consider the Gulf War and the dismantling of Iraq as evidence that the west pursues a policy of double standards and places its own interests above all else. This west also supported corrupt regimes that allowed regions to become impoverished and ignorance to grow. This, in turn, solidified the absence of education and the arts. All this is now coming back down on the west like a boomerang.

The children and grandchildren of the emigrants are living in Europe with split identities. They are familiar neither with the foundations of the Muslim religion, nor Arabic grammar. Yet they see in this religion a justification for their violence and their hate for the societies of the west, societies that did not deem it necessary to integrate these young people.

I am not justifying the terrorism, but explaining its origins. In Morocco and the other Arab countries we must work against obscurantism and nihilism and battle poverty and marginalization. We also need to advocate academic reading of the Qur’an that opposes false and extremist interpretations.

“First poetry, then journalism.” You described your work in this way. What drives you as a poet?

Shoshana Liessmann, Klaus-Dieter Lehmann, Donata Kinzelbach and Yassin Adnan at the Leipzig Book Fair Shoshana Liessmann, Klaus-Dieter Lehmann, Donata Kinzelbach and Yassin Adnan at the Leipzig Book Fair | Photo: Andreas Wünschirs Literature and poetry give the individual a voice; they articulate his uncertainty, his doubts and his mistrust. In this way, poetry is an obstacle to extremism that manifests absolute self-certainty. It is also a counterweight to the media and their generalizations, clichés and stereotypes. All of us in the Arab world who occupy ourselves with poetry and literature are waging a dual battle. First, we argue on behalf of the individual and his fragility as well as his right to freedom, to dream and even to make mistakes. Secondly through our books – when they are translated into foreign languages – we attempt to prevent the humanity and national identities of the Arab people constantly being reduced to terrorism in the international media.

In your book Le Livre du passage you write of a “poète voyageur,” a “voyager poet.” What guides you to use this imagery?

I love travelling. In the “book of the passage,” a long poem of over 200 pages, I described the free movement of my body and spirit between international capitals, airports, train stations, cafés and bars in Spain, France, Belgium, Germany, Austria, Scandinavia and America. The poem is a kind of walk with no barriers, a potentially endless dialogue. I wrote over 30 pages of the poem while in Germany, in Berlin, Bavaria and Frankfurt. As I was working, Hölderlin stood closer to me than any Arabic poet.

You’ve now published your first novel, Hot Maroc. What is it about?

The novel is about Morocco and the changes this country is going through. It is about Marrakesh and the changes in the city, for example the decision to sacrifice the trees and plants to urban renewal. It is about the university and student mobility. It is about the decay of the culture of debate on the Internet and about cutting digital connections. The novel’s protagonist is Rahal Laouina, a shy and cowardly young man who attacks others only from the anonymity of the Internet.

I gave the characters animal features. Each protagonist has traits that are usually attributed to an animal. It is an “animal comedy,” but its heroes are people of flesh and blood with real feelings. It is also an “electronic comedy,” because part of the adventure and events takes place on the World Wide Web, mainly on Facebook.

Hot Maroc is a contemporary novel that also observes the social milieu and artistically grapples with its problems. It is an urban novel about Marrakesh, where local and international traditions intermingle. It reveals the Marrakesh of the middle class, people who deal with the old city and the tourism centre. But the novel also shows the Marrakesh of the slums that grow larger every day. It is about a city to which new people move year after year and in which life is becoming ever more difficult.

The interview was conducted by Kersten Knipp. He is a journalist and author who has been writing about international politics and culture for over 15 years, primarily from the world between the Arab peninsula and the Maghreb.