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MENA Cities in Literature and Film

Panel XII-5, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Sunday, November 5 at 11:00 am

Panel Description
Middle East and North African literature and film form our vision of the city. MENA city writers and filmmakers recreate urban environments, both imaginary and real. These artists conceive of places of life, illustrate spaces of interactions, and reify the evolving and sometimes tumultuous modern cityscapes. Like settings in literary works and film sets, the city becomes the product of a collective imagination. In exploring the cityscapes of Fez, Tangiers, Casablanca, Cairo, and Aleppo as artistic platforms for collective referential frameworks, this panel examines how such cities inform the writers' and filmmakers' œuvre, and how MENA literature and film inspire the future of cities in the region. Hence, interdisciplinary in nature, the panel examines the sociocultural, linguistic, intellectual, ethnographic, economic, and political forces that have shaped (and are shaped by) urban spaces. The papers will draw on theoretical fields, including literary criticism and film studies, (post)colonial theory, cultural memory, and gender studies.
Media Arts
  • Dr. Mbarek Sryfi -- Presenter
  • Dr. Hanan Elsayed -- Presenter
  • Dr. Nizar F. Hermes -- Chair
  • Dr. Nisrine Slitine El Mghari -- Organizer, Presenter
  • Mr. Mohammed Hirchi -- Presenter
  • Dr. Nisrine Slitine El Mghari
    My paper focuses on the experience of the medina stroll by the Maghrebi flâneur, or the “medinant” (according to Réda Bensmaïa’s usage of the term), as represented in Ahmed al-Madini’s Fās . . . Law ʿādat ilayh (2003) (If Fez Returned to Him). In this novel, wandering through the alleys of the historic district of Fez is organized through syntactic composition. I propose that in this fictional journey, the author invites readers to explore a system of physical effects that makes the experience of the historical and memorial Medina almost real, as in a documentary film. This exploration of the historic district relies on a sensory system that allows the Maghrebi stroller to apprehend his/her environment. The author uses language, including expressions in local vernacular, to create the illusion that readers are living the experience of the stroller, of inserting themselves into this space, of perceiving smells and discovering tastes, of hearing sounds, of seeing images and colors, of glimpsing the interplay of light and shadow, and of feeling the physical contact with passers-by. Drawing on Michel de Certeau’s notion of everyday practices in texts, I argue that the spatial syntax of the narrative and the sensory experience allow readers to explore the Medina through a panoramic image. As in a real shot, the author creates the illusion of the protagonist moving in real time to allow readers to follow the stroller in movement and connect with the geography of these historical places to reproduce an authentic atmosphere of the Medina that reflects the traditional practices and ancestral culture of this imperial city.
  • Mr. Mohammed Hirchi
    The Representation of Tangiers in Literature and Film The city of Tangiers in Northern Morocco occupies a particular space in the country’s cultural and historical memory. As an undeniable crossroads between Africa and Europe, the city has emerged as an enticing muse that inspires creators to dwell in the realm of imagination to capture its complex historical, social and cultural fabric. As a historic site, Tangiers has been a central trope in the elaboration of various narratives celebrating the contribution of Muslims to world civilization; the world traveler Ibn Batouta’s narrative started from his native city of Tangiers in the 14th century. Tariq Ibn Ziad’s crossing to the Iberian Peninsula also inscribed the name of Tangiers in historical manuals. Tangiers is infused with the collective memory of resistance to Spanish and French colonialism. With the flow of financial capital aimed at industrializing the Northern ‘jewel’ of Morocco, social fragmentation threatens the central government’s attempts to silence political dissent. Tangiers’ proximity to Europe has attracted migrants from Sub-Saharan Africa and their movement has generated tensions between Morocco and neighboring European nations, especially Spain. In the 1970s, authors such as Mohamed Choukri and Paul Bowles saw in Tangiers a metropolitan center, a cultural hub, and a zone of conflicting interests. In the twenty-first century, filmmakers have strived to remap the complex spatial organization of a city subject to the nation-state’s national integration policies. Through a critical reading of the autobiographical novel of the acclaimed Moroccan writer and Nobel nominee Mohamed Choukri For Bread Alone (Arabic: Al-khubz al-hafi, 1972) and Rachid Benhadj’s film of the same name (2005), I posit that in both works Tangiers is framed as entrapped in the political economy of globalization. Frederic Jameson’s concept of “cognitive mapping”/”class consciousness” helps elucidate the social dynamics that characterize evolving metropolitan centers. The narrative constructions of urban outcasts lacking the power to negotiate the city’s seductions and dangers lay the foundation for a new cinema reflecting Baudrillard’s claim that today “the real and the imaginary are confused in the same operational totality.” As a crossroads of multiple cultures throughout the centuries, Tangiers engenders the complexity of a metropolis that is in a continuous process of reinventing itself. I will show that the city’s identity is never fixed, but permeated by tensions, ambiguities, and ambivalences.
  • Dr. Hanan Elsayed
    The considerable interest in Alifa Rifaat’s translated short story collection Distant View of a Minaret (1983) tends to privilege specific stories that address the sexual frustrations and repression experienced by some female characters. As a result, other topics and a large number of stories have not received the critical attention they deserve. The call to prayer (adhān), which punctuates the lives of characters in many of Rifaat’s stories, highlights the presence and importance of the mosque. The title story of the collection, for example, reveals an eclipsing of the minaret, a serious deterioration of the fourteenth-century Sultan Hasan mosque, as well as a general debasement of old Cairo. In many stories, Cairene residents confront a declining city landscape marked by deteriorating standards of living due to pollution and noise, notably incessant horn honking, combined with a mounting population density that requires more housing. I argue that the deterioration of monumental Islamic sites and the contracting view of the minaret over time reflect a distanciation from Islam and its values, as illustrated in some harmful customs and practices. In contrast to the religious revivalism of the time, Rifaat’s vision of Islam appears to embrace Sufism, which promotes iḥsān that stems from a deeper connection with the divine.
  • Dr. Mbarek Sryfi
    This paper reads Moroccan author Muḥammad Zafzāf’s novel al-Mar’ah wa al-Wardah in order to explore the of the city of Casablanca as seen from outside by a self-exile. This novel provides the prism through which Zafzāf would denounce the flaws of Moroccan society by bringing two urban experiences and reminiscences. I argue that this work seeks to highlight the theme of the city as memory and reflection on the disenchantment of post-independence Morocco, a textual space dominated by criticism, feelings of anger, and indifference. I conclude that Zafzāf does not directly criticize urban discrimination or geographical displacement, but rather offers us a close exegesis of Casablanca and what it stands for in a country that was/is still in the making of new possibilities for a better future of Morocco.