WELLINGWORDS

Welcome to welling words, a place of litterary delight

NGO FORUM 

 BEIJING SEPTEMBER 1995

WORKSHOP ON:

 EXPRESSION – IMPRESSION

 Signs and Sounds of Maghrebi women

Presented by:

Hafsa Bekri-Lamrani

Representing the Moroccan Association

 «  Femmes et Développement »
CONTENTS

INTRODUCTION

PART ONE:

A. SIGNS, PAST AND PRESENT

  1. SIGNS OF THE PAST
  •   Pre-colonial expression-impression female traditions: The historical heritage
  • Female impression-expression traditions as observed and used by colonial authorities

    B. SIGNS OF THE PRESENT
     
  • Traditions turning into exploitable « folklore » and enslaving industry for girls and women.
  • Fruitful female artistic expression today: art, literature traditions; solving the sameness-otherness anxiety

 Tradition and colors

  • Baya Mahieddine (Algeria)
  • Chaïbia  Talal)  (Morocco) 

Fiction Writing

  •  Noufissa Sbai (Morocco)
  • Yamina Machakra (Algeria)

 

PART TWO:

PAST AND PRESENT SOUNDS

  1. SOUNDS OF THE PAST
  • Oral tradition in the Maghreb
  • Social Rejection, Illiteracy and Poetry:

 Fadhma Amrouche
Mririda N’Aït Attik

 

  1. SOUNDS OF THE PRESENT

* Encounter with the self : seeking harmony between and past, some new voices:

 

Poetry and Music:
Taos Amrouche (Algéria)

Houria Aïchi (Algéria)
Touria Hadraoui (Morocco)

 Playwriting:
Fatéma Chebchoub (Morocco)
Movie Producing:Assia Djebbar (Algeria)
Izza Genini (Morocco)
Farida Balyazid (Morocco)


CONCLUSION

  • WHAT AWARENESS TO DEVELOP?
  • AWARENESS FOR WHAT?  perspective and actioN
  • Co- operation for survivaL

                                                                      

                       

INTRODUCTION

When one deals with literacy in Islamic countries, the word « Iqra » (Read!) comes to everybody’s mind, literate or illiterate alike (the Cor’an being largely based on oral recitation). This word is the first word Prophet Mohamed received from His God. For several centuries thereafter, Muslims have sought knowledge, encouraged as they were by their prophet’s motto: « Seek knowledge even as far as China ». Well, we are in China this September of 1995 (or 1416 Muslim calendar or 5755 Jewish calendar, etc.). What is left today of this message in my region of the Muslim world?

Regardless of any nostalgia of « great-moments-of-the past », this research aims at giving a greater extent to the concept of literacy. Literacy is usually linked in people’s mind to school, books, pens, computers, and paper as a support material for communication. I will try to approach the specific reading and writing of the Maghrebi world from a historical, semiological, sociological, and modern global perspective. The communication revolution of the turn of the twentieth century questions everybody’s literacy worldwide and raises questions such as:

– In how many ways can you be illiterate today (ignorant PhDs and learned skillful hands!)?

– How can positive aspects of our oral and artistic traditions be enhanced and become more
productive with the help of modern technology and open-mindedness.

– What kind of Brave New World have we created?

– What models have we followed?

This approach proposes a wider perception of what traditional women have expressed-impressed with their own means, their own codes, and an analysis of what this perception and awareness could result in for:

  • « Modern » women:  Meeting with their identity and, abolishing the schizophrenic boundaries between modern and traditional concepts, for a global cooperation for the development of their region.
  • Traditional women: Finding new ways of expressing themselves yet using their own traditional know- how and art, in chosen vs. imposed enslaving ones;
  • countries/region involved: A  move from rejection of women in « informal » sectors and instrumental rationality to a more genuine development based on solidarity for survival

This paper has therefore  no  other  pretense than  sensitizing on  the  variety  of fields  for  less  elitist, more humanistic, and more practical  » readings » of what women have produced and are still producing today.  No genuine action can be reached; no situation can progress without perception. For several centuries, we have simply added, North, South, East and, West, men and women,  one mere blindness to another. Yet, we are a global village, now watched inside-outside from the sky, but we « see» without perceiving one another in our countries, regions or planet.

No pretense for a complete, accredited academic work; just an attempt to  find out in my region, about women who have  for a long era, been creating signs for us to read on one hand, and  university graduate women who are awakening  to this sometimes fading heritage and learning to read it, on the other hand. Both categories of women are bound to perceive and read each other. This type of reading involves a much more humanistic impute than the simple assembly of any alphabet. Language says Roland Barthes is: « an area of action, the definition and the expectancy of something possible, (…) the undivided property of human beings and not that of writers. »(R.Barthes: Le degré zéro de l’écriture) It is in this framework of a give and take approach that I undertook this research on:“Signs and Sounds of Maghrebi Women

 

PART ONE:

SIGNS, PAST AND PRESENT

  1. SIGNS OF THE PAST
  • Pre-colonial expression-impression female traditions

Bert Flint, a non colonial lover of rural art in Morocco, says: « rugs are the most authentic artistic expression in Morocco; and a popular expression, not that of any elite. There are hundreds of thousands of women who have inherited of the art of rug making (…) My interest for rugs has increased since I realized that they are a faithful reflection of a way of life. »(B. Flint – 1988).

I would add that even historical, geographical conflicts and harmonies throughout the centuries can be found on Moroccan / Maghrebi rugs and other handicraft objects produced by women.  From pre-historical times, human beings have always found ways to leave tracks of their lives; a desire for posterity, a challenge to death.  One can find and read symbols of the various civilizations that influenced Morocco/the Maghreb: signs of the Romans (mosaics), the Jews (six pointed stars), and the Arabs (flowery calligraphy style) (cf. slides), all embedded in the oldest Moroccan civilization The Imazighen civilization (Berbers).  Symbols classified then weaved, embroidered, tattooed along centuries by girls and women. The role of freedom of expression takes a very important place in this traditional conception of a rug. Though the various techniques were sophisticated, women were freely translating their historical and social environment on their rugs, embroidery, pottery, baskets, etc.

In the mid XIX  century northern winds blew on North Africa. France needed more territorial space to solve its internal economic problems (in 1848, 4000 workers were sent as soldiers after the closing of Les Ateliers Nationaux, and 75% of the country was rural), and keep up with England in the expansion race. The fashion in this era was knowledge of otherness for domination.

It is in this framework that the « bible » of the North African rugs and other textile handicraft was compiled and written by Prosper RICARD within close to twenty years (1920-1940).

  • Impression-Expression traditions as observed and used by colonial authorities

Prosper Ricard was employed by the French government as the Manager of the Indigenous Arts Service in the Ministry of Public Instruction. He wrote many volumes on Morocco and Algeria’s textile handicraft. His study of Moroccan rugs involved 400.000 square meters corresponding to 100.000 rugs in 13 Moroccan areas. He achieved the same type of work in Algeria. (P. Ricard – 1928 & 1934). Regardless of the colonial views, now belonging to the past, one can find in this colonial anthropological approach a valuable source of information for a dynamic semiological and semantic classification of  the vocabulary  linked to the signs Maghreb women had, at the time, been using in their craft. (See slides)

Now, this is our historical heritage in terms of weaved messages of the past. Can we « academic », « learned » women of today read these messages? This is the question I asked myself when I realized I had walked all my life as an ignorant robot on the history of my region patiently weaved by girls and women who have been pigeon-holed as” ignorant” and” illiterate.”

 

  1. SIGNS OF THE PRESENT

TRADITIONS As exploitable folklore and enslaving industry for girls and women

The divisions between past and present, colonial versus independent eras, are perhaps practical for analysis but they could prove inadequate when one deals with human being traditions. Things could be a lot simpler if we only spoke of our mothers being illiterate and exploited, or free to face their rugs or embroidery and freely create. Today, young women, young girls born a little before or after the independence (1956) are not only still illiterate but do not even have the same possibilities of being creative.

« Because of (these) perceptions of the folk as « not us », as the « other, as lower class or marginal social groups, folklore is perceived as one explanation for oppression, something to be overcome or seen through. » Says Sabra Webber in an excellent article where she analyses the very notion of folklore in the Maghreb. (Sabra Webber – 1984). If colonialism designated our traditions as folkloric and exotic curiosities to exhibit, we continued after our independences either  to degrade handicraft by considering it a thing of the past, in some maghrebi   countries ; or to exploit artisans industrially without any consideration for the girls and women producing them  under shameful inhuman conditions in modern dark ages, in other maghrebi countries. Solutions to abolish the mental walls woven around women with such tremendous know-how and appropriate technologies and to stop child slavery (Malika Benradi – 1992) have to be found urgently.

Initiatives  to give more  artistic and  financial  independence  as well  as self  confidence  to  these

women  who  have  the  know-how  but  no material  means,  have  been  undertaken  by  NGO’s  like ENDA-Maghreb in Rabat which is a great rug making are. NGO Femmes et Développement – Maroc (Women & Development – Morocco) has established contacts with    ENDA – Maghreb for an exhibit of the « poor women rug » in Casablanca in the fall of 1995.

 

 

FRUITFUL FEMALE EXPRESSION TODAY: Traditions, Art, Literature

Solving the sameness-otherness problem

 Tradition, Colors and Art

Very fortunately, Maghrebi women are gradually becoming aware of their dynamic
cultural heritage behind the artificial, static, and folkloristic products sold to tourists in five
star hotels. This awareness enhances women to produce authentic art and writing. Here
again, the frontiers between literate and illiterate could be abolished when « illiterate »
women with talent are given recognition. This was the case for two maghrebi « illiterate  »
artists: Moroccan Chaïbia Talal and Algerian Baya Mahieddine, introduced to the
European world of art by respectively by Pierre Gaudibert (in the sixties), and André Breton
(in 1947);

What strikes us most in both Chaïbia’s and in Baya’s Art, is the feast of colors in their
paintings. After several attempts of classification, they were called colorists. It seems that in
spite of all the hardship they encounter, Maghrebi women still keep the capacity of
expressing happiness and sharing joy. The case of Chaïbia is a live example: A girl from
the countryside, she was married at 13, she had a son at 14 and became a widow at 15; she
worked as a maid and painted at night after a long work day. She is known worldwide today.
When she addresses Fatima Mernissi, the most renowned Moroccan feminist, she says: « What’s happening literate lady? » and yet, when Fatima answers: « You have nothing to envy to
university scholars », Chaïbia comes up with a painful statement:«  I insist on education
because illiteracy is a wound. We must prepare Morocco as a country where no woman could be wounded any more. »(Traces du present – 1995)

This type of statement is to serve as a challenge for learned women working in any field, but the challenge is more impending on women artists, writers, playwright, singers, and movie
producers since their raw material is made of their socio-psychological environment, and
they have the power through visuals arts and fiction writing to act on mentalities. And
Maghrebi women are taking the challenge! In Dec 1994 there was a brilliant exhibit
twelve female artists of Morocco whereas art exhibit had been until the seventies an all male
field. Other women are writing.

Fiction writing:

Choice is always so difficult and embarrassing. Though all forms of writings are important in countries where illiteracy is average 50 % and striking more women than men, themes
treated in fiction writing can reach more of people’s imagination and mentalities. Among the francophone writers I chose two maghrebi women who only wrote one book and
concentrated so much life in it: Algerian Yamina Machakra for her very powerful book, La
Grotte Eclatée (The shattered Cave). Moroccan Noufissa Sbai’s book: L’enfant Endormi (The sleeping Infant). In L’enfant Endormi (The Sleeping Infant), Noufissa Sbai shows how fruitful an encounter and a constructive relationship between two women could be;  a learned middle class woman, divorced and struggling with her two girls, and a lower class maid illegally pregnant
after having been raped by her brother in law. Noufissa’s book treats many crucial aspects
such as: illiteracy, unquestioned male power in the Maghreb, legal violence against women, women’s and girls’ education, solidarity between middle class and lower class, etc. Her book
could serve as an excellent scenario for a film and find a great maghrebi and international audience.    Presently, Noufissa is the president of an association of the promotion of women
and youth in Rabat. (A.F.J.EM.)

in La Grotte Eclatée, Yamina Marchaka, now a psychiatrist in the South of Algeria,,
presents the Algerian woman relieved of all artifacts. She abolishes all frontiers not only between men and women (The story evolves in and out of a cave, symbol of a woman’s womb
where genders meet), but also between the same/different three Mediterranean religions:
« for me heaven comprises three great worlds where I have no frontiers: that of Moses, that
of Jesus, that of Mohammed. » In every page one faces women’s endurance, their struggle to
free their country, their mothering of men and children, the writing of their
lives and their .civilization on rugs and in their singing poetry.

In these two novels, writing is a tool for responsible creative art which denounces social evil.
In a region where oral literature has such a great impact, story telling still touches our
imagination and can be very effective for the transmission of vital and constructive messages on crucial social issues, which leads us to the second part of this paper: The sounds of
maghrebi women.

 

PART TWO

PAST AND PRESENT SOUNDS

  1. Sounds of the past
  • Oral Tradition in the Maghreb

Zohra Mezgueldi (Casablanca University), in an analysis of the Legend of Agoun’chich
written by Mohamed Khair-Eddine,  says about orality : » The mother’s speech, because not
written and not brought up to the concept of a text, maintains the memory of the story and
it’s genealogical primacy even when reversed and deported to an absolutely different
language ». She quotes Khair-Eddine who talks about women as « providers of hidden
meanings of the world ». (Mezgueldi – 1993).

This is confirmed by Moroccan Joseph Chetrit, now based in Haifa, who distinguishes between the
conceived and the perceived in the use of either Hebrew or Judeo-Arabic in Moroccan
Jewish poetry. Hebrew is used for sacred texts, while Judeo-Arabic is used for the socio-
cultural life of the Moroccan Jewish community. (Joseph Chetrit- 1978)

In an article entitled the « The Weakest Link », Zineb Ali Benali says about women story
tellers: « The weakest Link? The female ferrywoman saves from death. (…) A difficult
task, because orality is fragile and memory fallible but it gives the possibility to the smooth
surface of the written text to re-emerge in boiling voices. » (Zineb Ali-Benali – 1993)

Oral tradition in the Maghreb enjoys (still) a very vast space. The voices of our memory
are however disappearing. The voices of illiterate mothers, who have received and transmitted
our collective memory, are gradually disappearing.  Now, are we ready to take over; put our transcription capacities, our scientific means at their disposal to gather the essence of our
identity? Or are we going to keep turning our back. » Only with a progressive encounter with
our cultural legacy could we really advance. What voices of the past what relieving voices?

  • Social Rejection, Illiteracy and Poetry

Two rejected women, two poets: Algerian Fadhma Amrouch and Moroccan Mririda N’ Aït
Attik

 Fadhma Amrouch:

Very fortunately for Fadhma Amrouch, two of her children survived: a son who became a
poet and gathered all songs of Kabylie that peopled his mother’s memory (Amrouch – 1988),
and a daughter who became a writer and a singer.  She was thus able to dictate the story of
her mother rejected for adultery in her village and later all the songs traditionally sung in
her family. This is a good example of the cultural saving of oral tradition in the Maghreb! « By
giving these Berber songs to the public I feel I am delivering a private treasure and parting
with a family possession. » Says her son, Jean Amrouch.  (Jean Amrouch – edited in 1988). Are we up to such a gift?

Mririda Aït N’Attik

In his preface to the book where René Euloge translates Mririda’s poetry, Leopold Sedar
Senghor gives two etymologies for the word Poetry : the Greek one :   » the act of creation »,
and the Senegalese Peul one : « Words that soothe the heart and the ear. »
René Euloge was one the first Europeans to reach  this remote region of the Berber land; he
learned the Berber language, found and lost Mririda at the souk (market place) where she
had ended up as a prostitute probably after reprobation for adultery in her mountain
village of Magdaz.

Thanks to  M. & Mrs. Chalumeau (Edition Belvisi – Casablanca) who published Mririda’s poems, we are today, able to appreciate her keen sensitivity for her natural environment,
her poetry of women’s joys and sufferings, their natural environment, their social pressures in
a simple yet wild and sophisticated poetical power.

  1. sounds of the present

 

  • Seeking harmony between the past and the present: some new female voices

In several cultural fields, women have been developing for the past twenty years an
awareness of the vital necessity to reconcile with their past and find a sound balance
between their modern university acquisitions and the rich oral cultural space they grew up
in.

Music

Taos Amrouch (Algeria) is Fadhma Amrouch’s daughter mentioned above. She sang her
mother’s poems’. gatheredby her brother Jean Amrouch. She won the first record prize of
the French academy for records in 1967 in Fes-, Morocco.

 Houria Aïchi (Algeria) has moved to Paris, to study and later teach sociology. She also
sings the Berber legends and poems popular among the women of her Algerian Mountains:
The Aurès. In an interview with French television she says: « I started singing when I was
very young, I also cultivated and weaved rugs. With other girls in the courtyard where I grew
up, we used to take our Bendirs (percussion instrument) and sing in every house where there
was a feast.

 Touria Hadraoui (Morocco), graduate studies in philosophy, now a journalist  and a singer of Malhoune, a typically Moroccan musical genre, either sacred (Medh) praising God and Mohamed his prophet, or more secular describing everyday life or narrating the
happy or unhappy love of a woman in which case the « Qacida » (story song) bears the name of a woman. Malhoune has been up to now only written and sung by men. This is where Touria intervenes. To my question: » In Morocco and elsewhere you are known as a journalist, what brought you to sing this very specific type of Moroccan music, the Malhoune »? Touria answers: «My encounter with Malhoune was in fact a very important. Malhoune is a complex art which involves deep culture, poetry and maturity. I used
to sing oriental music( from Egypt and the Middle East)., But I am not oriental, I am
Moroccan and when I re-discovered this typically Moroccan music I realized I had to
question my once total rejection of old traditions. Traditions have to be sorted. My encounter with Malhoune was an encounter with a beautiful part of Morocco that is disappearing and, reconciliation with my own culture. »(Casablanca – August 1995)

 

Playwright

Fatima Chebchoub (Morocco)

In Morocco, in the field of theater, there several great names who are troupe
directors/actors: the passionate Touria Jebrane, Zhor Maameri or working with university
students for theatrical international exchange Yamina Bennabou. If I chose to talk about
Fatéma Chebchoub, it is as a playwright, teaching Drama Semiology at the University of Meknes. Fatima seeks to work on the renaissance of The Halqa (popular open air story
telling); One her favorite themes is the role of women in peace. A very active woman, she
has several fields of interest: « I write poetry both in every day social Moroccan language
and in classical Arabic. I conduct research on the archeology of Moroccan popular songs. I
plan the choreography of my actors, do their make-up and design their costumes. » Fatima has produced eight plays since 1967 and was granted the fourth place in the International
Festival of Women Playwright in Adelaide Australia – July 1994. She is also working on
a film scenario on militant women past and present.

 

Movie producers

Izza Genini (Morocco)

Originating from a Judeo-Berber Moroccan family, Izza Genini has done a tremendous
audio-visual work of research in the field of the berber-judeo-arab components of the
Moroccan society. She has also written books on Moroccan handicraft as practiced by the
different communities. Among her audio-visual productions, there are a series of seven
documentary films on Moroccan music and dances where all regions are covered.

Farida Belyazid (Morocco)

A graduate of the Ecole Supérieure de Cinématographie in Paris, Farida’s first film in 1977
is about Maghrebi emigrant women in France. She wrote a scenario for Poupée
de Roseaux with girl child marriage as the main theme. She has produced her own film: The Gate of Heaven is Open, which suggested a title to Margot Badran’s and Miriam Cooks
book: Opening the gates: one century of Arab Feminism (Margot Badran and Miriam Cooke
– 1990).

Assia Djebbar (Algeria)

Though Assia Djebbar is more renowned as a novelist and one the very first maghrebi
novelists, she produced two films: La Nouba des Femmes du Mont Chennaoua, which won
the International Critics Prize (Venice -1979), and La Zerda ou les Chants de l’Oubli. In her
books as well as in her novels, Assia who has lived in three Maghrebi countries (Algeria,
Morocco and Tunisia) underlines the role of women throughout the history of Algeria and the Maghreb in general.

 

These are only some of the hands and some of the voices who weave, write, sing and, act the awareness of the emerging new identity of Maghrebi women, rooted in their cultural
traditions and at the same time, well at ease in the modern technological world. This
research is far from being completed. Only two out of five Maghrebi countries were
covered. It is however, a glimpse of a growing phenomenon in the region and a starter for
more research. What conclusions?  What recommendations?

CONCLUSION

One can wonder what this story telling and other songs have to do with today’s pace of life
and technological society. Answer is: in developed countries, every aspect of culture has
been exploited and generating income and jobs. Be it just for the cartoon industry, aren’t
the fables of Europe the source of inspiration for W. Disney’s most famous characters? And
more recently a tale from The Arabian nights, Aladdin, was so successful that a” part two”
was added? In the Maghrebi region, average figure of portion of the population under 15
of age is 50%. That is a real market for a young population eager to identify to stories of their own culture. It is therefore extremely important that women, in the Maghreb and elsewhere,
who are responding to this need for cultural meeting with one’s identity, be encouraged in
their contribution to the revival of our common cultural heritage.

The maghrebi region badly needs the female proportion of its population for new
perspectives in development.  Women’s great contribution to culture both traditional and
modern could represent an important source of female employment and income in these Mediterranean countries blessed by a beautiful landscape and climate, and most of all a
young human potential. It needs however, the support of investors and decision makers,
which is not always the case as shown in Hassiba Bensafa’s (1994) article on women
artisans in Algeria, and by the Moroccan statistics on handicraft (Le Maroc en Chiffres –
1993)

Awareness that any craft, any cultural aspect in any place of the world is our universal
heritage and could provide a source inspiration for new creations. If the industrial wave
(Toffler -1990) could afford a social class division, and a rejection of human cultural
aspects in the name of science, the new information wave cannot.

In an article entitled « Culture de masse, culture supérieure », (Mass and Superior
Culture) Roland Barthes questions « The very phenomenon of opposition itself. What can
this division that a society imposes to its own culture mean? » Barthes – Seuil – 1993).

Can we afford division today? We have created thanks to technology and other excuses a Brave New World of divisions: geographical, historical, racial, religious, etc. Whereas the economic, environmental,
political, social, and psychological problems we all more or less contributed to create, are not sparing any country. No real progress could ever take place without an encounter of the self
and, with otherness. Are we ready for that type of perception?

 

 

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TILLION, Germaine – Le harem et les cousins – Point 1966

WEBBER, Sabra – Between Two Folklores – in « Connaissance du Maghreb » CNRS – 1984


PLATE 8 – Diapositives
 

  1. KHATTIBI, A. Et SIJELMASSI, M. – L’art calligraphique arabe – Chêne – 1976
  2. BEKRI-LAMRANI, Hafsa – Personal collection
  3. GENINI, Izza et BOISBERRANGER, Jean – Richer-Hoa Qui – 1988
  4. KHATTIBI, Abdelkébir et AMAHANE, Ali – Du Signe à l’image -LAK International 1995
  5. BRODERIES MAROCAINES- Musée d’Art d’Afrique et d’Océanie
  6. RICARD, Prosper – Corpus de Tapis Marocains – IV – Tapis divers Librairie orientaliste – Paris – 1934
  7. REINISCH,H. and STANZER, W. – BER.BER, tribal carpets and weaving Hersberger Collection – 1991

 

 

 

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