Morocco’s Forgotten History: On Translating Ahmed Bouanani
Emma Ramadan is the recipient of a 2016 PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grant for her translation of Les Persiennes by French major Francophone Moroccan poet and filmmaker, Ahmed Bouanani. Read an excerpt of the translation here.
French is the language with the highest percentage of books translated into English in recent years. However, very few Francophone writers outside France, particularly in countries in Africa, the Middle East, or the Caribbean, are finding their way to English-language readers. In fact, in all of my searching, I could only find 28 Moroccan authors who had a full-length work translated into English. Ahmed Bouanani is not one of them.
I was introduced to Ahmed Bouanani’s work by Omar Berrada, the director of the library at the international arts residency Dar al-Ma’mûn, located just outside of Marrakech. Bouanani, perhaps best known for his career as a film director, was also a father, a husband, a novelist, a poet, an illustrator, and everything in between. Though Bouanani passed away in 2011, his daughter Touda Bouanani has been working with Dar al-Ma’mûn and other cultural institutions, after rescuing the majority of his works from an apartment fire, to ensure that his massive, unpublished oeuvre finds its way to the world. I spent a year in Morocco on a Fulbright grant contributing to their efforts.
When I was first welcomed into Touda’s home, which had also been her father’s home, the first thing I noticed was the amazing amount of pages covering every surface of the apartment. In his lifetime, Bouanani directed a wildly popular feature film and a handful of shorts, and published three books of poetry, one novel, and a number of essays. Among the works that never saw the light of day are several novels, a trilogy, countless screenplays, pages of poems, short stories, more essays, a few plays, translations of Arabic poetry, some incredible doodles, and three important nonfiction works: a history of Moroccan cinema and two texts detailing Moroccan popular traditions. These last texts came out of work close to Bouanani’s heart—Bouanani believed that tradition held the key to a country’s identity, but that as a devastating result of colonization, Morocco’s traditions were starting to vanish. From the disappearing ruins of former days, Bouanani sought through his writing to create, build, and rebuild.
The Shutters is a book made from memories. It insists on remembering, on telling stories of Morocco’s past so that we all remember, so that Morocco’s history isn’t pushed into obscurity, relegated there by the French protectorate in 1912, and kept there by the new government following Moroccan independence in 1956. In “The Illiterate Man,” a man loses his mind after reading the books of his ancestors. Because he sees how much of their world has been lost forever?
While in Morocco I translated a different book of Bouanani’s poetry. I had read The Shutters at the beginning of my stay and shied away from it. I was overwhelmed by its winding through prose, prose poems, and rhyming verse, through antiquity, myth, a fictional present, through cemeteries, inside tombs, on battlefields and sordid streets, to heaven and hell, the sky and the earth. It wasn’t until I got home from Morocco—after having vastly improved my understanding of Bouanani’s works and the political and cultural circumstances they were created in—that I read The Shutters again and realized just how important it was to translate it. What we know of Morocco, of any country, is determined by what books we choose to read, to translate, to publish. The Shutters will expand your idea of what Moroccan writing is, of what Morocco is, in all its facets and violence and truths.
Emma Ramadan translates from Providence, Rhode Island where she is also co-owner of Riffraff bookstore and bar. Her translations include Sphinx by Anne Garréta, Monospace by Anne Parian, 33 Flat Sonnets by Frédéric Forte, and The Curious Case of Dassoukine’s Trousers by Fouad Laroui. She is a recipient of a 2016 PEN/Heim Translation Fund grant for her translation from the French of Ahmed Bouanani’s The Shutters.
This piece is part of PEN’s 2016 PEN/Heim Translation Series, which features excerpts and essays from recipients of this year’s PEN/Heim Translation Fund Grants.