This was an intellectual tool as well as a political tribune: Olivia C. Harrison and Teresa Villa-Ignacio on editing the anthology SOUFFLES-ANFAS


A decade after Morocco gained independence from France, which colonized the nation from 1912 – 1956, a group of Moroccan poets, artists, and intellectuals launched a pair of journals that became critical venues for avant-garde art and writing, leftist politics, and transnational dialogs between writers and activists from Africa, Asia, and the Americas. Souffles, launched in 1966 and published in French, and Anfas, which followed in 1971 and published in Arabic, were artful, radical, and often irreverent efforts to establish a postcolonial Moroccan cultural identity. Founder Abdellatif Laâbi adopted an uncompromising stance toward what he viewed as a stagnant, bourgeois intellectual life leftover after independence:

We leave to those who are not interested in our undertaking—either because they suffer from academic or idiosyncratic biases and refuse to look reality in the face, or because they are dried up or bloated with illusions—we leave to such people the indescribable columns of the The Little Moroccan. A cup of coffee, a crossword puzzle, the sports page, and the daily horoscope never hurt anyone. For the “intellectuals” there are always family planning issues, Karsenty cabarets, and the film club.

As revolutionary fervor increased worldwide, Souffles-Anfas hosted discussions that linked Morocco’s postcolonial struggle with those taking place at the time throughout the Global South. It expressed solidarity with Palestinian liberation and groups like the Black Panthers, and as its scope widened, the United States became implicated as a colonizing force, alongside countries like France and Israel, particularly for its dealings with Haiti, Cuba, and its war in Vietnam. Throughout, the journal remained focused on experimental art and literature as emancipatory vehicles, never succumbing to the didactic tedium that afflicts many purely political publishing projects.

Now, a new anthology makes available for the first time in English a selection of work from Souffles-Anfas, edited by Tulane University postdoctoral fellow Teresa Villa-Ignacio and Olivia C. Harrison, a professor of French and Middle East studies at the University of California. Villa-Ignacio and Harrison collaborated over the course of nearly a decade with Laâbi, the journals’ founder, and a broad array of scholars, editors, and translators in several countries to create Souffles-Anfas: A Critical Anthology from the Moroccan Journal of Culture and Politics, published by Stanford University Press. The collection of poems, essays, interviews, criticism, and visual art tackles questions of language, culture, colonialism, politics, art, and a slew of other topics that remain vital today.

Room 220 will host Villa-Ignacio and Harrison for a presentation of the new book at 7 p.m. on Thursday, February 25, at the Antenna Gallery (3718 St. Claude Ave.). The editors answered a series of questions recently via email.

Room 220: The process to create this anthology took years, and its creation spanned the Arab Spring. How did your understanding of how the book would fit into contemporary cultural and political conversations shift as you followed developments in the Arab world beginning in 2011?

Olivia C. Harrison: While the sense of awe in December 2010 and after was very real, I would say that none of it was surprising to those who have followed the postcolonial histories of the Maghreb and Middle East. In a very powerful way, Souffles-Anfas demonstrates that the Arab revolutions of the twenty-teens did not fall out of the sky, that there is a rich history of pro-democracy movements in the postcolonial Arab world. The uprisings confirmed us in our conviction that this early dissident journal was of utmost relevance to the contemporary moment and should become available to a larger public.

Rm220: You note in the introduction the gender inequality in both journals—throughout their tenures, only a couple contributors were women. Is it meaningful, then, that both of you editing this this anthology are women?

OCH: I would be hesitant to speak of gender inequality in the journal as I’m not aware that the journal sidelined women in any way, though we did want to acknowledge that the question of women’s emancipation was not on the agenda—and this despite the inclusion of several texts by women, including a feminist poet, Etel Adnan, and a long essay on writings about Moroccan women. In addition, many early contributors like Abdellatif Laâbi and Tahar Ben Jelloun subsequently placed women’s rights at the heart of their works and preoccupations, so it seems more fair to say that Souffles was not a pioneer in taking on the question of women. It was a pioneer in other respects, for example in speaking of cultural and religious diversity in Morocco, years before the so-called Berber Spring, for example.

Teresa Villa-Ignacio: The fact that two women edited this anthology, and, notably, that the two leading scholars on Souffles-Anfas are both women—Kenza Sefrioui, a Moroccan journalist and historian, and Safoi Babana-Hampton, a Moroccan-American filmmaker professor of French at Michigan State University—speaks to the reality that, globally, women have many more opportunities to pursue careers than they did 50 years ago. Even though Souffles-Anfas did not emphasize women’s liberation, the feminist movement owes a great deal to the global liberation movements of the 1960s. Without forgetting the disparities that accompanied many of these movements, I think it’s also helpful to remember the ways in which they enabled future movements, and continue to enable movements today.

Rm220: Souffles and Anfas both contained scholarly works, but they meant to address a popular audience, particularly after the transition to publishing solely in Arabic. Putting together this anthology is a scholarly project—both of you are scholars, it’s published by a scholarly press, etc. Is it a problem that there isn’t more of a popular component to your own project?

TVI: When we conceived this project, we knew that an English-speaking audience, and especially a U.S. American audience, would need critical contextualization of this material in order to be able to appreciate its aesthetic and political significance.  We originally included more scholarly context (in the form of footnotes, for example) and then reduced the volume of it after we realized that the anthology would be more accessible if accompanied by a more modest supporting apparatus. For, as much as we hope the anthology appeals to a scholarly audience, we also see it as a teaching tool, a textbook to be adopted in courses on Arabic literature and culture, Francophone literature and culture, world literature, postcolonial studies, etc. And the American undergraduate is a wonderful bridge between the scholarly and popular audiences, one who inhabits both worlds at once.

Another way in which we’re committed to bridging those worlds is by publicizing the anthology widely. In every city in which we are giving academic presentations on the anthology (this spring in Los Angeles, New Orleans, and Paris, and in the fall in New York and possibly elsewhere on the East Coast) we are also seeking out opportunities to read from the anthology at local bookstores, literary salons, and community organizations like Room 220. I think we’re fortunate to live in an era in which the boundaries between the scholarly and popular worlds are becoming more fluid: both audiences are interested in critical thinking, and will seek out the sources that speak to them.

Rm220: Large-scale emigration from North Africa to Europe in the last few decades has raised with renewed urgency questions related to language, culture, religion, and politics for Arab people intertwined with their former occupiers—questions that, 45 years ago, formed the basis for many of the discussions in Souffles-Anfas. How might looking back at these journals help us understand the situation of Arab writers/artists working in Europe today, particularly given the region’s heightened anti-immigrant sentiment?

OCH: Contemporary debates about immigration in Europe have been completely divorced from their immediate historical context. Unfortunately, the most recent refugee crisis has only aggravated this trend toward dehistoricization, with the Syrian civil war serving as the new cipher for all migrations to fortress Europe. It’s so easy to forget that, prior to 1962, “Algerian” migrants were in fact French subjects literally recruited en masse to provide cheap labor for the motherland. And of course today’s refugees are at least in part exiled as a result of U.S.-led actions in the wake of 9/11, which raises the question of the role of the United States in Europe’s refugee crisis.

If reading Souffles-Anfas today can give a bit more historical depth to a general audience’s understanding of Euro-American “involvement” in parts of the world we now consider to be foreign, all the better! But it’s important to note that Souffles-Anfas was meant to be a tool for the cultural decolonization of Morocco, to “leave Europe behind,” to paraphrase Frantz Fanon. Ironically many members of the team would end up in exile in France to escape the clutches of Hassan II, but this was very much against their will. Their aim was to decolonize Morocco, which they considered to be under external and internal forms of “colonial” control.

TVI: Souffles-Anfas’ messages of socio-political inclusion and celebrations of cultural diversity resonate with the messages that North African immigrants in France and their descendants have communicated for decades in literature, film, and the other arts. To cite just a few examples: Once settled in France, Tahar Ben Jelloun, one of the contributing members of the journal, wrote several essays on this topic, including French Hospitality and Racism Explained to My Daughter. The filmmaker Yamina Benguigui made a moving documentary on the experiences of three generations of immigrant families, Mémoires d’immigrés, and has moved on to a distinguished political career. And young hip-hop artists such as Médine are carrying the torch for this generation. Following the commemoration of the journals’ fifty year anniversary this spring, the entire run of Souffles-Anfas will be reissued in Morocco—an event that will afford many minority and immigrant artists, intellectuals, and activists on both sides of the Mediterranean an opportunity to take stock of their goals and their progress toward them.

Rm220: You had input from Laâbi in the anthology’s creation. How did his input impact the work, and who else helped in meaningful ways?

OCH: We were incredibly lucky to have Laâbi’s full support (he owns the rights, including to the artwork), and also his trust. At no point did he try to weigh in on what the project should look like, so we had free reign to produce an anthology we felt would represent the journal and speak to contemporary Anglophone audiences. He and his wife, Jocelyne, were also incredibly forthcoming in providing us with factual information about the journal and putting us in touch with other contributors.

TVI: Etel Adnan gave us much support and encouragement as well, in addition to giving us permission to reprint her self-translation of “Jebu.” Kenza Sefrioui, who is not an original contributor but the author of a comprehensive history of Souffles that includes interviews with many of the contributors, helped us verify our fact-checking, located information about the whereabouts of contributors, and generously expressed much enthusiasm and support for the project.

Rm220: It’s one thing to translate and anthologize as a scholarly project a literary journal primarily concerned with aesthetics, and quite another to do one heavily involved with revolutionary politics. How did Souffles-Anfas’ political aims influence the way you approached the project?

OCH: From the very first issue, the journal placed aesthetic innovation and cultural expression at the heart of its founding mission, which Laâbi would subsequently term “cultural decolonization.” In our selection of essays and poems for the anthology, we sought to demonstrate that the political and the aesthetic were truly inseparable in the journal, even if you’d be hard pressed to find a political “message” in some of the poems (I’m thinking of Nissaboury’s prose texts, for example, as opposed to Ben Jelloun’s and Laâbi’s more obviously political poems). Of course we also included texts that take up political positions in a more straightforward way: Serfaty’s anti-Zionist essay, the Anfas editorial condemning Arab national bourgeoisies. But I would argue that these texts, too, are part of the journal’s cultural politics—this was, after all, a journal, an intellectual tool as well as a political tribune.