It was 1994 when Deborah Kapchan began work on an anthology of contemporary Moroccan poetry. She was on a Fulbright fellowship, studying Moroccan verbal art and performance when, one night, she found herself at a zajal performance that featured the poets Ahmed Lemsyeh and Driss Mesnaoui.
“I was enrapt,” Kapchan said over an email conversation. “They both introduced me to this genre of poetry as well as the movement to write literature in Moroccan Arabic (Darija) which, at that time, was in full efflorescence.”
What followed was more than a quarter century of reading, listening to, and translating Moroccan poetry. The result is Poetic Justice, a new anthology that brings together work by more than 80 Moroccan poets. It is by far the most comprehensive collection of Moroccan poetry in English, an excellent companion to Abdellatif Laâbi’s Anthologie de la Poésie Marocaine de l’Indépendance à Nos Jours (Anthology of Moroccan Poetry from Independence to Today), which appeared in French in 2005.
Kapchan’s collection brings together a rich and varied tapestry of Morocco’s many poetry traditions, addressing themes as various as desire, political prisons, and spirituality. The introduction begins by quoting the prolific zajal poet Driss Mesnaoui: “Our business is to count the stars, star by star / to chew the wind’s haughty arrogance / and watch the clouds for when they’ll throw us a handful.”
But while Mesnaoui begins by patiently counting stars, he ends with a call to action: “and time, never will its letters fall between our hands / until we write what we are.”
The collection writes down a vision of a complex, multi-lingual Moroccan poetry. With help from Driss Marjane, and bridge translations for the poetry in local North African languages, Kapchan assembled hundreds of poems written in Darija, Modern Standard Arabic, French, and Tamazight. (See a pair of related articles, “A Battle Flares Up in Morocco’s Language Wars” and “The Berber Language: Officially Recognized, Unofficially Marginalized?”)
From Trickles to Abundance
Moroccan literature, Brahim el Guabli wrote in 2016, has had a marginal place in the recent Arabic canon. This, he said, “carries over into the translators’ selection and anthologizing decisions.” Until the last decade, relatively little Moroccan poetry had appeared in English translation.
As Kapchan notes in her introduction to Poetic Justice, only one Moroccan poet appears in Salma Jayyusi’s influential anthology Modern Arabic Poetry, and there are only a handful in Issa Boulatta’s Modern Arab Poets 1950-1975. No Moroccan poets were included in the Everyman Library collection Arabic Poems.
Slowly, this has begun to change. Pierre Joris and Habib Tengour’s Poems for the Millennium anthology includes a long section on Moroccan poetry. In the last decade, several collections by Moroccan poets have been published in English translation: by Laâbi, Rachida Madani, Ahmed Bouanani, Mohammed Khaïr-Eddine, Hassan Najmi, and Mohamed Hmoudane.