Moroccan Writer Mohammed Zafzaf: ‘Disturbing, Intriguing, Shocking, Innovative, Challenging, Amusing,’ and More

Mbarek Syrfi, who co-translated The Monarch of the Square (2014) with Roger Allen, answers questions about Zafzaf’s importance to Moroccan literature, his style, and why he hasn’t been translated into English — but should be: 

ArabLit: How would you describe Zafzaf to someone who’d never read his work (without resorting to “godfather of Moroccan lit” or “Moroccan Tolstoy”)?

Mbarek Syrfi: How about Morocco’s elusive author? Or, “our great author,” as he is known among his peers. A disturbing, intriguing, shocking, innovative, challenging, amusing, and prominent pioneer of the Moroccan short story.

AL: Why has Zafzaf’s work not reached English? Is there a novel or novels you think particularly would be successful in English or “should” be translated?

MS: I would say this has to do with lack of interest in the region of the Maghrib in general and its literature in particular. This region was believed to be the domain of French and Spanish until recently. But there has been a shift in focus, and we have seen a lot works in translation, thanks to the tremendous efforts of Dr. Roger Allen*.

Zafzaf’s work has a social and intellectual value to it, and I believe that the following novels — al-Thaʻlab alladhī ya ṭharu wa-yakhtafī (The Elusive Fox, which is under review), Muḥāwalat ʻAysh (An Attempt to Live)، Baydat Addīk (The Rooster’s Egg), and his famous novel Al-Mar’ah wal-Wardah (The Woman and the Rose) — could be successful in English due to the poetic and aesthetic style and realism he uses in depicting Moroccan society.

AL: How did you decide on this particular short-story project?

MS: I was translating three short stories from English into Arabic, two by Steinbeck, “The Pearl” and “Breakfast,” and the third by Poe, “The Telltale Heart.” Towards the end, I stopped to think about the reason(s) why I needed to add more stories to Arabic and the benefit(s) of translating these great authors already known to the Moroccan readership either through Arabic, French, Spanish, and English.

You would think you’re listening to him in an old medina square and watching his gestures as he narrates his stories, confidently striding between words, sentences, expressions and meanings.

In one of my visits to Rabat, I had to stop by a library downtown, and there were two new collections of Zafzaf’s short stories the Ministry of Culture in Morocco had just published. (It was the first time the Ministry decided on such an initiative.) It was a treat! As I was leafing through collection two, I came across “Antonio” again — one of Zafzaf’s most striking short stories — and I decided I had to translate it.

Zafzaf’s slippery storytelling style — as-sahl al-mumtaniʿ — tempted me as I re-read him. You would think you’re listening to him in an old medina square and watching his gestures as he narrates his stories, confidently striding between words, sentences, expressions and meanings.

He teases, challenges and provokes the reader, and I decided to take him up on that challenge and get to know him as a writer.

I called him up and shared with him my intention of translating a few of his short stories in a small collection. He nicely and gently wished me good luck and offered to help in any way he could. (He was a translator himself.)

AL: How did the collaboration with Roger come about, and how did it work? What do you think are the upsides & downs to partner-translating a short-story collection?

MS: When I finished the first draft, I needed someone to look at it. I reached out to Roger from Morocco. He gently (as is his nature) told me that he was busy with other projects. However, later when I came to the US and started teaching at the University of Pennsylvania, I approached Roger again with the project, and this time he promised he would just glance at it. But the spell of Muhammad Zafzaf was so powerful that Roger never put the collection down until we finished the review, rewriting, and submission to Syracuse University Press.

Collaboration in translation is like painting a canvas. It is a three-way process – communication, negotiation and engagement with the original text.

The collaboration with Dr. Roger Allen has been the experience of a lifetime. A course. A workshop. The beginning of great friendship. We have worked on the anthology for two years, going back and forth, writing and rewriting.

There were no downsides to my collaboration with Roger. On the contrary, I had a chance to know him closely on a different level and of course learned a great deal from him. We are now working on other projects together.

Collaboration in translation is like painting a canvas. It is a three-way process – communication, negotiation and engagement with the original text.

Collaborating with another translator, author or poet requires open mindedness, flexibility and a set goal. I have had another such great experience with Eric Sellin, American poet and writer, working on different projects such as Kilito’s Arabs and the Art of Storytelling, Aicha Bassry, Hassan Najmi and other Moroccan poets.

AL:  As you selected from different eras of his work, how did you decide which stories to translate and which to leave behind? Did you try to be representative, focus on aesthetic criteria, or on how it would translate? Max Shmookler (and others) have noted that sometimes stories that are acclaimed and successful in the Arabic fall flat in translation. Did you feel that with any of Zafzaf’s stories?

MS: In this anthology, the choice of short stories was very subjective. As I was reading the short stories, I started jotting down titles of the ones I enjoyed more and thought might interest English readers. I tried them on my (American) wife first.

It’s true that not all stories have the intended impact in translation, often due to a loss of cultural context. And while that did put a few Zafzaf stories on the back burner, for others there were some pleasant surprises. Much of his work could be considered cutting edge for his time even among peers; but for Western readers, whose understanding of any Arabic culture typically involves visions of burqas everywhere, Zafzaf’s themes are shocking and eye-opening.

AL: What are the particular challenges of translating “Zafzafian style”?

MS: As you know, Zafzaf’s style is easy, and it is the underlying meanings and culture that was hard to convey into another language, as is the case with every translation. Culture can’t be translated but paralleled with a similar example. Still, it never conveys the original meaning. Zafzaf’s stories are very simple snapshots of life — banal to some, but Roger and I were more concerned with how to make them more interesting, attractive, and engaging to an English readership, as it happened to you with the short story, “The Baby Carriage.”

AL: These are often very short, snapshots of life rather than structured short stories. Do you think this shows their connection to oral tales, to hadoutas? Did he ever use this form as testing grounds for his novels, as character sketches? Or were they meant entirely to stand on their own?

MS: Indeed, they are short, yet very well structured. Of course, there’s a strong link with the Moroccan oral tradition, halqa and storytelling (called hadouta in Egypt). Zafzaf, like all Moroccans, grew up listening to the grandmother’s oral stories (Koudia’s is a good example).

AL: What sort of readership did Zafzaf have in his lifetime? Who do you imagine will read his stories in English translation?

MS: To begin with, most Moroccan writers have read Zafzaf, and a lot of them learned from him, imitated him and/or copied his style. Many Moroccan students and intellectuals of the time have read Zafzaf. One of his novels, Muhawalat ʿAysh (An Attempt to Live) has been taught a school.

I would imagine students of Arabic, scholars, interested and curious readers.

AL: Many of the stories are tremendously detailed, leaving the reader feeling that she has smelled the sour air, put her hand on the gritty table, leaned her shoulder against a cold wall, felt the ticks sucking blood from a dog’s ear. They also fearlessly move through social and economic strata. You suggest in the afterword that these stories could be of interest to a social historian. In a way do you see them as documentary work?

MS: Zafzaf charts various themes and topics that are commonly thought of as taboos, untouchable, or simply not of any interest to the Moroccan “intellectuals” at the time.

I don’t know how an historian or a sociologist or an anthropologist might use the information contained in each one of Zafzaf’s short stories, but I believe that a great deal of material is available and can be dug up with a little bit of effort.

AL: Zafzaf doesn’t really paint a postcard-PR-friendly picture of Morocco. Did this make it difficult for some to embrace his work? Isn’t that the function of literature?

MS: I believe that postcard-PR-friendly pictures of Morocco are to be left to folklorists, but a true writer with grit is the one who depicts his society’s illnesses, defects and problems and brings out the uncanny, grotesque and sinister in search of more committed literature and readership. He bears witness to the society of his time, condemns it and criticizes it. Hypocrite readers found that his work was too shocking and projects a bad image of Morocco, as was the case of Muhammad Shukri. Hasn’t such literature been refused, persecuted, and burned throughout history?

AL: As you know, one of the stories I found particularly striking was “The Baby Carriage,” which has a great dramatic tension between legless Ibrahim’s helplessness and his self-sufficiency, his humiliation and yet how he manages to hold onto dignity. There is no resolution, no epiphany. At the end, the tension remains – he takes us into Ibrahim’s world and then cuts us off. This is true in a lot of stories – “The Street Sweeper” is a wonderful portrait, but there’s no epiphany, no climax, no moral, no lesson. Is there a particular “Zafzafian ending”?

MS: Zafzaf’s choice is to let the reader take charge of ending the story she is reading. Identification with the characters is what I have found fascinating in his work. Not the ending that comes full circle but rather the open-ended one that creates discomfort in the reader and pushes her to take sides and engage in the issues. I am sure that your experience with the mentioned short stories has led you to stop and contemplate the situation in a deeper moment of reflection.

AL: Yes, definitely. He also seems to have a recurring interest in disabled characters – “Shamharush, King of the Jinn” and “The Baby Carriage.” It feels symbolic, but not quite. He, like Yusuf Idris, was greatly interested in the marginalized?

MS: Many of the characters Zafzaf has depicted in his work represent the abject. The uncanny feeling (to borrow the Freudian term) is what results from reading such works by Zafzaf. He takes the concealed misfortunes and shoves them in the readers’ faces to make us ill at ease, feeling guilty and forced to empathize.

AL: Do you remember when you first read Zafzaf? How has your relationship with his work changed? How do you see him differently now from when you first came in contact with him? Was there anything you learned about his style through this translation?

MS: I read Zafzaf and other Moroccan and Arab authors at a very young age, then left them to focus on French, English and (translated) Russian literature in high school and during my studies at the University. I majored in English language and literature, which endowed me with important theoretical and practical tools and skills, and I returned to reread and take in the Moroccan short story in general and Zafzaf’s in particular. Thus began this endeavor. The more I read Zafzaf’s work and worked on it, the more I realized how important his simple, close-to-real-life style has been in paving the way for future generations of writers, how great his contributions are and that it has been a great privilege to have met – and read, enjoyed and translated the works of – Muhammad Zafzaf.

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