Interview by Abdelatif Abilkassem (MAP)
Rabat – The International Prize for Arab Fiction “Arab Booker”, which is this year in its 15th edition, the winner of which will be announced on May 22, has seen in recent years an increasingly strong presence of Moroccan works, many of which have were selected on the long and short lists, one of which, “Al Kaouss Wal Faracha” by Mohamed Achaari, was crowned in 2011.
Mohamed Achaari, Mohsine Loukili, Abdelkrim Jouiti, Bensalem Himmich, Mohamed El Maâzouz, Youssef Fadel, Abdelmajid Sebbata… Through these names and others, the Moroccan novel was able to strengthen its presence in the Booker lists, thus competing with works from the Mashreq and arousing the admiration of the juries of the prestigious literary competition.
In this interview with MAP, the writer Abdelmajid Sebbata and the literary critic Oussama Seghir express themselves on this remarkable presence of the Moroccan novel at Booker, the profiles of the Moroccan writers selected on its lists and the chances of the novel “Assir Al Bortoughaliyine” (The prisoner of the Portuguese) by Mohsine Loukili to win the prize for this edition.
The Moroccan novel has distinguished itself in recent years in the long and short lists of the Arabic Booker. What does this growing presence mean?
For years now, the Moroccan novel has imposed itself with force in the Arab literary landscape. By integrating the lists of prestigious prizes, Moroccan writers have demonstrated the ill-foundedness of the clichés that circulated before, according to which the people of the Mashreq had an innate gift of narration while those of the Maghreb were only gifted for criticism. Moroccans have proven themselves by drawing from various literary schools (helped in this by a favorable geographical position), thus giving rise to a singular literary production in terms of style, themes and influences. That said, prices are only one link in the chain; otherwise, the value of a literary work depends on several other criteria.
Your observation is true to a large extent. For a long time, Morocco was considered as a school of criticism, literary production being the prerogative of the Machreq according to the doctrine of a so-called centrality of the Machreq in Arab culture. It is true that the East was the cradle of the Arab cultural renaissance, since it was there that the first printing presses appeared, creating a divide with the Maghreb at a certain time in history; it is no less true that culture and knowledge are not something fixed, but it is a process in perpetual evolution. Today, the Arab cultural and literary landscape is experiencing a wind of change that has swept away received ideas and broken the myth of the centrality of the Mashreq. This is how a generation of novelists appeared in the Gulf and in North Africa, but also among the Arab diaspora in Western countries. It is in the light of these cultural developments that one should understand the remarkable presence of the Moroccan novel in the long and short lists of the Booker as well as in other Arab prizes such as Katara and the Sheikh Zayed Book Prize.
The Moroccan works included in the Booker lists show great diversity with regard to the profiles of the authors (age, ministerial or political positions held, etc.), but also with regard to the themes addressed. What does this diversity reflect?
As I just said, Morocco has the specificity of having had access to different literary schools. Obviously, in terms of literature, there is no reason to speak of a fully-fledged Moroccan school, since it is a question of experiments begun for the most part after independence or, perhaps, some time before. These experiments have, however, been concerned with making the most of both the Machreq school (Egypt in particular) and the Western one (France in the first place then Spain and perhaps also the American schools and Latin American later). These influences certainly had their negative side, but it is clear that the Moroccan novel was able, thanks both to the generation of founders and pioneers and to that of young people, to consolidate its place in the Arab literary landscape. As far as the evaluation of literary works is concerned, it is the text alone that counts, apart from its author. It was therefore quite natural that ministers and officials should be in the running for these literary prizes, as well as young writers, some of whom have managed to reach advanced positions with their very first novel.
This diversity can be explained, in my opinion, by the change in values that has taken place in the Moroccan cultural and artistic landscape, in the wake of developments on a global scale. These changes have accelerated with the new communication technologies which have installed new creative and artistic choices both in terms of content and form. While “classic” authors are struggling to ride the wave, young people find themselves there like a fish in water because it is part of their culture and the environment in which they grew up.
Apart from the publicity stunt given to the selected novels and their authors, how is this presence beneficial to Moroccan literature?
The prizes were a great contribution to Moroccan and Arab literature in general. Certainly, the Arabic novel has developed a great deal, with increased competitiveness as a result, which has given rise to a dynamic of innovation and diversification in terms of styles, techniques and themes dealt with. The other side of the coin is that these prizes have contributed to the emergence of what can be called “the authors of the prizes” who, on the lookout for distinctions, confine themselves to pre-established patterns, undermining the notion even creativity. I would therefore say that the prizes have done a service to Arabic literature by rewarding us with fine writers who perhaps would never have been able to emerge from the lot if they had not reached advanced stages in these competitions. These competitions also have the merit of having pushed seasoned writers out of their “comfort zone” to renew themselves and challenge themselves. But, moreover, I believe that the development of the Moroccan literary scene cannot be measured solely by the yardstick of prices; much broader and deeper considerations come into play.
For me, prices are a controversial subject, as is the whole Arab cultural landscape. I am not here in denigration: the absence of these prices would have aroused misunderstanding and a shower of criticism. These kinds of competitions, despite all the blame they may have, show that writing makes noise and has an effect. In addition, they shine the light on the writer, attract the attention of the reader and the media to him and give him the motivation to develop his creative experience. On the other hand, prizes, when misused, can harm literature and the writer himself. In this case, the prize can either deal a mortal blow to its laureate – many authors are literally dead after their consecration – or outrage creativity by consecrating mediocrity and creating false idols, as it was unfortunately the case for certain editions of prizes organized in Morocco and in the Arab world.
Your novel “Al Milaf 42” (Dossier 42) entered the Booker 2021 short list. What did this experience bring you?
It was a very important experience that gave me confidence and motivation to move forward. It is, indeed, timely because I was deeply disappointed by the fact that my novel was published a month before the confinement following the appearance of Covid-19. I was convinced that it was an unlucky work because, due to the pandemic, it was not entitled to the signing ceremonies or the distribution and promotion circuits. The announcement of the preselection of my novel in the short list of the Booker 2021 was therefore for me the best compensation, because what mattered most to me was that my writing and the themes it addressed – in particular the drama of the adulterated oils of post-independence Morocco that I wanted to bring out of oblivion- can reach the maximum number of readers. The Booker helped me achieve this goal. Today, my novel will soon be translated into English with the support of the prize organizers.
The 2011 edition was the only one that saw a Moroccan win the Arab Booker. For this year’s edition, the novel “Assir Al Bortoughaliyine” by Mohsine Loukili, shortlisted, is in the running. What do you think are the chances of seeing the Moroccan novel repeat the feat?
Friend and colleague Mohsine Loukili is an old acquaintance. For me, he is the very definition of an intellectual who works in silence. It was on the shelves of the school library where he works that I read some of his works, before “Assir Al Bortoughaliyine” and, even then, I realized that the experience of this writer has something different and original that deserves to be rewarded. I was happy to hear that his novel was able to make the long and then the short list of the prize and that it met with positive feedback from readers. I believe the competition will be tight this year. Some candidates seem more publicized than others, everyone has their predictions, but I’m confident that a good text knows how to win. Besides, I hope from the bottom of my heart that the Booker will be Moroccan this year.
Mohsine Loukili has accumulated great narrative and imaginative experience throughout his writings. “Assir Al Bortoughaliyine” is therefore the fruit of this journey, in which the author draws on the imagination and the literary heritage of the 16th century, in particular the character of Scheherazade which constitutes a world literary heritage. Like her, the Moroccan hero who survived the war and was taken prisoner by the Portuguese uses storytelling to ward off death. Indeed, appealing to the historical imagination in a literary work is not an easy exercise. However, the author succeeded in this challenge because he is versed in history, a field in which he specialized during his university studies. In addition, the fact that he has experimented with short stories and theater has made his dialogues convincing and his statement clear and impactful, without frills or artifice. To tell the truth, I didn’t consult the other works included in the short list to be able to make a comparison. In short, prices have their own logic and their own criteria. Of course, Mohsine Loukili’s novel has a chance of winning the prize.
We would like to say thanks to the writer of this article for this incredible web content
The Moroccans of the ”Booker”… Perspectives from the novelist Abdelmajid Sebbata and the literary critic Oussama Seghir