by Tam Hussein
Multiculturalism has lately taken a bit of a thrashing from the political and intellectual elite in the West. It used to be the answer for everything, the epitome of respect, inclusiveness and fostering tolerance. Somewhere along the line it suddenly became inadequate, something that created segregation, prevented national unity and common purpose, among other things. A recent Chatham House brief, The Roots of Extremism, suggests that there are a growing number of people in Europe who believe that inter communal conflict is inevitable. Yet perhaps the relationship between the award-winning poet Rachida Madani her translator, American poet Marilyn Hacker, is a great example of how to reverse this worrying trend.
On the face of it, one would not expect these artists to get along; they seem like oil and water. Both were in London to promote Madani’s Tales of a Severed Head, which was translated by Hacker. The collection of poems addresses the issues of colonialism, corruption, human rights abuses, poverty and misogyny. In a way, as she says to The Majalla, her book is “effervescence of consciousness amongst Moroccan women which had been there long before the Arab Spring.”
According to Hacker, her latest collection is not about women in society, but “about women in revolution and what it means to be part of that process.”
The difficult job of translating a cacophony of different emotions has fallen on Hacker, who, it seems, is up for the task. After all, she is an award-winning poet in her own right, having received the American PEN Translation Prize and the PEN/Voelcker Award for her Poetry. She is fluent in French and is an avid student of Arabic, and brings her literary criticism and her editorial skills to the translation process.
Rachida Madani is a Moroccan Berber from Tangiers, a former teacher, and a devout Muslim who is outspoken about her faith. She has been deeply involved in the political and cultural destiny of Morocco since the period of repression of Hassan II. She immersed herself in the artistic movement of the 1970s, preferring to write in French instead of classical Arabic, the language of her faith. Her reason is that French does not belong to the French, but to everyone; there is even a hint of defiance in her use of French as if it were spoils of war to be expropriated and used as she saw fit. In any case, for a Berber woman Modern Standard Arabic is just as foreign; she speaks Darija, or colloquial Moroccan Arabic.
In contrast, Marilyn Hacker grew up in the Bronx in a working-class Jewish family. She was one of the few Americans who crossed the racial divide ripping America apart during the Civil Rights era. Her marriage to the African-American science fiction writer Samuel R. Delany led to her being ostracized the same way Richard Wright was for being in an interracial marriage. However, by the 1970s, Hacker was describing herself as lesbian committed to bringing voices from the periphery to the fore. Her post as editor of the influential Kenyon Review tried to do just that, and it seems that she is still doing that by introducing Francophone North African artists to a wider audience.
Initially, it was hard to see how the two women could transcend their differences. Their worlds met four years ago: Hacker was asked if she wanted to compile an anthology of Moroccan poetry, and subsequently they got in contact. Madani recalls that this was nothing strange, since her country’s geographical position dictates that Moroccans are an outward-facing people. Hacker began to translate Madani’s work, because “something in the work spoke to me as a poet and as a reader and seemed to challenge me as a translator … especially because they [Francophone Moroccan authors] have layers of different cultures embedded in the work.”
This interaction lead to a healthy regard for each other’s talents, and the realization that there were many things they had in common. Both shared a love for literature, whether French or Arabic. Hacker is an admirer of the late Mahmoud Darwish; Madani admires the work of Abdellatif Laâbi. It is wonderful to see how the two communicate with each other, having almost created a language of their own, where French is smattered with Arabic and an English phrase is thrown in here and there so the outsider is aware of what the topic of conversation is about. Cultural awareness and a love of language resulted in further contact; Hacker met Madani in Casablanca and these meetings blossomed into a friendship.
This friendship is underpinned by humility and deep regard for one other. It is surprising that they have not clashed, due to their different personalities and viewpoints. While Madani appears shy, she is actually very outspoken and forthright about her opinions. She rejects French colonialism and the double standards that the West imposes on the Arab world, expecting them to respond peacefully when the West destroys Iraqi homes. On feminism, she says that it “cannot be the same in our Muslim society as that of the West. The definition of feminism imposed from the West on Moroccan women was impossible to accept and had to grow out organically, with religion playing a role.”
Hacker might be expected to disagree with Madani—she has previously been outspoken about asserting women’s right to equality in arts and politics whilst disagreeing on women’s right to sexual freedom—but she does not. Both agreed that all women need to have the basic necessities, like access to health and education. There was recognition on the part of both women that there is no one-size-fits-all solution for the feminist movement. In their opinion, the solution for women in North Africa cannot but a Western one.
The relationship between Hacker and Madani is a testament to the fact that, despite the polarization that is occurring in Europe, bridging the divide in a meaningful way is still possible. Central to this understanding can be a love of literature and language, which broadens horizons and counteracts insular attitudes. Yet it does not mean that that one had compromise on one’s convictions.
However, on a more fundamental level the relationship of immense respect coupled with humility is anchored in profound trust. Works like playwright Brian Friel’s Translations illustrates that the act of naming or translating can also be an act of colonialism. A great translation can turn a work into a great piece of literature of the highest order; Edward FitzGerald’s translation of The Rubaiyat by Omar Khayyam or the King James Bible are shining examples of this. Poor translations, on the other hand, can be an act of betrayal. The translated needs to give herself over to her translator, who has the lofty responsibility to interpret the thrust and idea of the work. It calls for an act of trust possibly even an act of faith, and that is evident in the relationship between Hacker and Madani. It is as if they would not betray each other’s confidences. They epitomize the idea that if trust, language and literature were cultivated on both sides of the divide, inter communal strife could be avoided.