What a leftist Moroccan journal from the 60s can teach us about today’s cultural crises.
Next March will mark the fifty-year anniversary of Souffles, a short-lived but incendiary publication founded in the wake of the brutally repressed March 1965 student protests that inaugurated the decades-long period known as “the years of lead” in Morocco. Initially a poetry and culture review, Souffles and later its Arabic-language twin Anfas became the unapologetic platforms for the disgruntled Moroccan youth that took to the streets in 1965. In 1971 the journal’s editor-in-chief, Abdellatif Laâbi, and dozens of fellow Souffles-Anfas activists were arbitrarily arrested, tortured, and imprisoned, effectively putting an end to this remarkable journal, if not to political dissidence, which continued unabated in the jails of Hassan II.
Moroccan writers and artists broke with stagnant French models and Arabic canons in order to forge new artistic forms.
A repository of seminal 1960s texts from across the colonized and postcolonial world, Souffles-Anfas provides a window onto the transnational cultural and political movements that mark the heyday of Third Worldism and anticolonial theory. The sentiments and political grievances expressed in Souffles-Anfas are precursors to contemporary progressive movements—from the pro-democracy revolts collectively termed the Arab Spring to struggles for racial justice in the West. The journal proved instrumental in establishing dialogues between writers, artists, and activists from Africa, Asia, and the Americas. It published seminal works by tricontinental writers and political activists the likes of Haitian writer René Depestre, the Syrian poet Adonis, and Amilcar Cabral, the leader of the struggle for independence from Portugal in Guinea-Bissau, as well as key revolutionary and postcolonial texts, such as the Black Panthers’ Ten-Point Program or the Argentine manifesto for a Third Cinema.
Frantz Fanon, the theorist of decolonization and prophet of postcolonial disillusionment, was a particularly important interlocutor for the journal’s founding members. Heeding Fanon’s call to leave Europe behind, Laâbi advocated for what he called “cultural decolonization”—a process by which Moroccan writers and artists would break with stagnant French models and Arabic canons in order to forge new artistic forms and literary languages in dialogue with the rest of the decolonizing world.
The Souffles-Anfas writers’ struggles to achieve cultural decolonization resonate with the renewed, intensifying civil rights movements in the United States today. In the journal’s earliest issues, Laâbi vehemently rejected the cultural stagnation brought about by colonial acculturation and the subordination of Moroccan arts and culture to the whims of imperial French tastes. Laâbi believed ardently that “political and cultural struggles go hand in hand,” and, as such, saw the reassertion of Moroccan culture as the opening salvo in a political fight against colonialism and its legacies. He called upon the country’s young writers to confront the social and political issues facing their newly independent country and produce a critically grounded Moroccan national culture.
The provocative poetic tactics of Souffles-Anfas find a not-so-distant echo in the ongoing struggles for decolonization and racial justice here in the U.S. Laâbi’s scatalogical offenses, Khaïr-Eddine’s overwhelming blocks of enraged text, and the aggressive second-person address in Ben Jelloun’s “Dawn of Tombstones” and “Planet of the Apes” all spout vitriol against political disappearances, economic repression, Orientalist tourism, and other injustices—including second-class citizenship—that plagued post-Independence Morocco:
you who no longer have anything
you live under the heavens waiting for a piece of land
you who must be hidden from the eyes of foreigners
you are not to be displayed, negative merchandise
for a negated folklore
no you are not to be displayed
you might scare off the yanks who walk beneath our sun to bury
—Ben Jelloun, “Dawn of Tombstones”
Similarly, Claudia Rankine’s recent, much-discussed Citizen interpellates her readers to remember or imagine themselves as victims of race, gender, and class-motivated macro- and micro-aggressions, as in this minimalist vignette that retells the story of Ellison’s Invisible Man from a twenty-first-century woman’s point of view:
In line at the drugstore it’s finally your turn, and then it’s not as he walks in front of you and puts his things on the counter. The cashier says, Sir, she was next. When he turns to you he is truly surprised.
Oh my God, I didn’t see you.
You must be in a hurry, you offer.
No, no, no, I really didn’t see you.
—Claudia Rankine, Citizen
Such critiques of minorities being rendered invisible or unworthy of being seen are gaining traction among college students who campaign ever more vigorously to make on-campus racial and sexual assaults visible and to hold institutions and perpetrators accountable.
A group of writers of color known as the Mongrel Coalition Against Gringpo (MCAG) has spoken out on social media with comparable vehemence against the white privilege-enabled dominance of conceptual poetry in the United States. At Brown University, when Kenneth Goldsmith’s reading of a rearranged version of Michael Brown’s autopsy report unleashed an outpouring of disapproval, MCAG responded swiftly. “We are distraught that it required the body of Mike Brown to push some poets into questioning the ‘practice’ and ‘theory’ behind current self-declared ‘conceptualist’ poetry,” they wrote on their website; “We won’t forget that it takes bodies to make you consider your allegiances.” The disaffected aesthetic exploitation of injustice that attended Goldsmith’s recitation reinforces the very conditions of structural violence that made it possible, MCAG argued. MCAG’s goal—much like the goal of Souffles-Anfas—is to overturn these conditions through a socio-cultural leveling in which the valorization of the historically least-privileged groups becomes the primary focus:
WE'RE HERE BECAUSE WE CAN IMAGINE WRITING WITHOUT WHITE SUPREMACIST HETERO PATRIARCHY WHAT THE FUCK ARE YOU HERE FOR— Mongrel Coalition (@AgainstGringpo) November 18, 2015
The texts published in Souffles-Anfas also resemble, in sometimes haunting ways, efforts by present-day American writers of color to undo the mis-appropriation of minority races and cultures by networks of white literary privilege. In September, Americans were scandalized by the discovery that a white poet, Michael Derrick Hudson, had published a poem under the Chinese pseudonym “Yi-Fen Chou” in the hope that using a minority name would facilitate its publication. As many an Asian-American writer noted, Hudson’s pseudonymous misadventure proves not that he is a victim of diversification, but rather that he continues to benefit from legacies of discrimination in the training and publishing of women and minority writers.
Five decades ago, Souffles-Anfas similarly criticized the co-opting of formerly colonized cultures by metropolitan artists and organizations. Abdallah Stouky’s review of the 1966 World Festival of Negro Arts in Dakar, for example, protests the festival’s objectification of African culture. By using venues such as museums and Italianate theaters, the festival divorced African cultural objects from their contexts, Stouky argues. And in an interview with the French theater director Jean-Marie Serreau who produced plays by Aimé Césaire, Kateb Yacine, and René Depestre for French audiences, Noured Ayouch takes issue with the disparities between the conditions of theatrical production in France and its former colonies. Souffles-Anfas, like today’s social justice movements, also put forth some clear political agendas: Laâbi’s calls for linguistic and cultural plurality in the Moroccan educational system resembles today’s language minority groups’ demands for bilingual education access.
Meanwhile, the U.S. faces a renewed social justice crisis abroad, as nativist fears accelerate in the wake of the attacks on Beirut, Paris, and Mali, leaving the fates of Syrian refugees in dire straits—and this, despite the fact that the U.S. extensively screens all potential refugees before they can enter the country. The Syrian-American hip-hop artist Omar Offendum invokes Syria’s pivotal role in world history to promote solidarity with Syrian refugees: “It’s the place where the very first alphabet was recorded, the first musical notation, some of the first mosques, churches, synagogues in this world. Syrian history is world history.” While these historical milestones are an inarguable source of pride, the fact that Offendum feels compelled to invoke them once again signals the pervasiveness of hierarchical othering in the United States by suggesting that without such credentials Syrian refugees would not be worthy of assistance. In these momentous times, we would do well to re-read Laâbi’s poem “We are all Palestinian Refugees,” published in solidarity after the Six-Day War, as well as many more Souffles-Anfas texts that, in giving voice to a period of significant historical change, call us to be present to our shared condition of human vulnerability:
Arab Arabs Arab
a name to be remembered
of my seismic deserts
a people marches on
through 8000 kilometers raises tents
how many are we
yes how many gentlemen statisticians of pain
advance a number
and the prophetic masses retort
with infallible equations
we will create
TWO… THREE… FIFTEEN PALESTINES
—Abdellatif Laâbi, “We Are All Palestinian Refugees”
In the midst of the Syrian civil war and the BlackLivesMatter movement—not to mention the aftershocks of the mass uprisings and street protests of 2010-2011, from Madrid to Wisconsin and from Tunisia to Egypt—what lessons can be culled from the pages of Souffles and Anfas? Though the dreams of the Arab revolts seem to be unraveling before our very eyes, and though civil rights face galvanizing challenges in US politics and art—or perhaps for these very reasons—it seems especially important to be reminded of earlier examples of political protest, if only to take stock of the slow and sometimes tortuous path political change can take. As the experience of Souffles-Anfas shows, cultural resistance to aesthetic and political hegemony can play a tremendously important role in the formation of collective identities that stand in opposition to the colonial and postcolonial state. No print journal or blog will ever change the status quo—but it can help create the conditions for this change.