Souffles-Anfas: A Critical Anthology

Anyone with any interest at all in contemporary Moroccan writing must start with Souffles. A cultural and political journal, Souffles (the French word for “breaths”) was founded in 1966 by Abdellatif Laâbi and Mostafa Nissabouri. Run by a group of artists and intellectuals, Souffles was a written fight for democratic ideals and a new Maghrebi literature following independence in Morocco. For those of us who can’t read French or Arabic, or who don’t have the attention span to sift through all of the archives, we now have the excellent Souffles-Anfas: A Critical Anthology, edited by Olivia C. Harrison and Teresa Villa-Ignacio, with just the right amount of historical background and contextual commentary. There is also a delightfully substantial discussion of the different translation methods used by their array of skillful translators, including (to name only a few) Andrew Zawacki, Anna Moschovakis, Robyn Creswell, and Guy Bennett.

Souffles came about just as it was becoming obvious that even after Moroccan independence had been won, the battle for a liberated Morocco had only just begun. In the government installed in 1956, King Hassan II began persecuting democratic and progressive thinking, implementing torture and imprisonment. Islam was used as a tool to impose order. The generation that had seen its national culture wiped out entirely by the French protectorate then saw it denied or confined to the realm of folklore by the post-independence government, all to keep the Moroccan people weak, alienated, unable to come together through anything resembling tradition or national pride.

Enter: Souffles. The journal sought “cultural decolonization” in order to reconstruct Moroccan identity. In the words of Harrison and Villa-Ignacio, this meant they had to “forge new languages, forms, and genres that were not tributary to European cultural norms.” Valorizing Moroccan traditions and culture would give the Moroccan people a foundation to stand upon, a stronger sense of community and identity. These writers wanted to rediscover their national heritage and critically reinvent it, bringing it into contemporary creation and using it as a launching off point for modernity, something at once anchored in the ancient and infused with the new. The members of Souffles took it upon themselves to research and document Moroccan traditions (see Ahmed Bouanani’s richly detailed essay “An Introduction to Popular Moroccan Poetry”), using Souffles as a kind of archive.

Souffles was a response to the disconnect between democratic aspirations and the reality of a monarchy persecuting independent and progressive thinking and denying all forms of liberty during a period that would later come to be known as les années de plomb: the lead years. In solidarity with the entire Arab world, Souffles featured works by writers from Lebanon, Syria, Iraq, and Palestine, but was also inspired by and aligned with revolutionary thought in the Antilles, Latin America (especially Cuba), Marxist-Leninist ideology, and by the words of Frantz Fanon, Jean-Paul Sartre, and even the Black Panthers in the U.S.

The anthology is particularly interesting for its demonstration of the internal struggle among the members of Souffles regarding language use: Is it really possible to fight against the colonizer’s culture using the imposed, French language? In the introduction to the inaugural issue, Abdellatif Laâbi calls this question a “false issue” (20). In Souffles 18 in the spring of 1970, francophone Maghrebi literature is praised as a “terrorist literature, i.e. a literature that on all levels (syntactic, phonetic, morphological, graphical, symbolic, etc.) shatters the original logic of the French language.” But in the foreword to Souffles 22 in the winter of 1971, Laâbi’s decides, “Our ideals were flagrantly compromised by the fact that we expressed them in a foreign language… Taking possession of our culture . . . is definitively possible only through the suppression of the most basic alienation, that is to say, linguistic alienation.” This gave rise to the Arabic-language counterpart to the journal, Anfas, which would become the new focal point.

The anthology also does a good job of tracing the evolution of Souffles, which started as an arts journal filled with poetry, paintings, and art criticism, to a more overtly political journal. By 1971, a new team of young arabophone militants striving for a socialist utopia had taken over the journal, and would continue their leadership until both Souffles and Anfas were forced to shut down within the year after a seven-year run, with many of its principal members arrested and tortured and others fleeing the country.

Before its political turn, Souffles was remarkable for its success in creating a new literary aesthetic for a new generation of writers who wanted to break from the old, entrenched way of writing. The journal was the starting point for many of Morocco’s most celebrated writers, such as Mohamed Khaïr-Eddine, Tahar Ben Jelloun, Mohammed Berrada, and Mohamed Zafzaf. This anthology allows us the chance to dip into pieces from these writers, among others, and my only complaint is that I wanted even more. Reading these works leaves you wondering why Moroccan poetry is so hard to come by in English translation.

Many of the core members of the journal wanted to create Souffles because they were frustrated with the lack of opportunities for getting their work published in Morocco. Not only were there little to no structures in place to publish literary works, but the writing they wanted to produce didn’t fit with the writing of the time, with the maintained literature of the regime, which consisted primarily in looking backwards to folklore, or looking westward, imitating Western forms. New, revolutionary writing was seen (in the beginning) as integral to the fight for a more democratic way of life. They engaged in combat by way of their poetry because, in Laâbi’s words, “Poetry is all that is left to man to reclaim his dignity, to avoid sinking into the multitude, so that his outcry forever carries the imprint and attestation of his inspiration.”

When you get to the end of the anthology’s extensive selection of literature, interviews, cultural critiques, book reviews, and political essays, and find yourself wanting more, you can access the Souffles archives online “here”: http://bnm.bnrm.ma:86/ListeVol.aspx?IDC=3, and the Anfas archives “here”: http://bnm.bnrm.ma:86/ListeVol.aspx?IDC=4. For the French speakers, I also highly recommend Kenza Sefrioui’s La revue Souffles: Espoirs de révolution culturelle au Maroc (1966-1973). Harrison and Villa-Ignacio’s anthology is the perfect introduction not only to the journal(s) but also to this time period in Morocco, to the kind of writing coming out of the Maghreb and the Arab world in the 1960s and ’70s that set the course for the writing coming out of that part of the world today, including resonant lines like these, from the poem “Witness Statements” (1971) by Sudanese poet Muhammad Al-Fayturi, translated from the Arabic by Ghenwa Hayek:

I stood by, moving neither a lip nor a hand
and in the glare of the afternoon, I witnessed the slaughter.

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