I Came for Couscous is an independent magazine that highlights and contrasts voices and creative minds from the Arab world. Founding Publisher, Editor-in-Chief and Creative Director Mouna Anajjar shares some insights.
Where did the idea for I Came for Couscous come from? What are you hoping to achieve with its publication?
The idea of I Came For Couscous is that of a magazine that resonates the voices and creative minds of worlds and heritages designated until now as Arab. It is through the prism of plural individual stories and values of multi- culturalism and otherness that we look at these worlds.
As the title testifies, there is the affirmation of the “I”. Our spaces governed by the “We”, by a community that sucks up subjectivities, or does not let them hatch. It is important today to summon plural individual singularities in the construction of a broader, contrasting narrative, in which the identity of the group would cease to usurp that of the individual.
In this name, we find action moving – the desire and curiosity – towards the Other: “I came to…to share Couscous”. A dish that brings together several allegories of “being together”, of this conviviality and fraternity that are dear to me: the bond that unites us, diversity (there are as many couscous as there are terroirs) and sharing (this same dish while together). The tradition in Morocco is that we always keep a share of couscous for whoever comes by unexpectedly. I find the values underlying this tradition very beautiful, they deserve to be highlighted, because we need them more than ever.
And finally, behind this narrative title, I Came For Couscous, displays an offbeat and casual tone. It voluntarily summons humor to thwart prejudices and other preconceived ideas about so-called Arab cultures. Humor is the essential complement to depth, the necessary step aside (“pas de côté”), which allows you to play down the drama, to change the paradigm.
Do you feel the West has preconceived and misguided perceptions of Arabic culture and a general lack of awareness of its rich diversity?
The dominant discourse that has prevailed so far is an incomplete part of a much more vast and complex puzzle. There is not ONE Arab culture but MANY Arab cultures, each country having a thousand specificities which make its Arab part – which is only one part among others of its components – sound or play differently.
I also note that the prejudices, exploited by politicians who use our fears to divide us and deprive us of our collective memories, are tough and sad. Replacing these with a fairer, less hysterical gaze will take a generation or two. As Frantz Fanon says, “each generation must reinvent itself.”
Can you explain your ‘In the Taxi, Vox Populi’ concept for the current issue, how it was realised and what it unearthed?
Taxis are a fascinating source of inspiration. You sit down, order a ride, then strike up a conversation with this driver, whom you’ll never see again. This notion of movement ends up comforting you in this feeling of being in transit, the landscapes of the city parade, tongues start to loosen.
I often scribbled notes in a notebook, trying to transcribe snippets of conversations I might have had or overheard. It gave rise to very vivid slices of life, I loved that energy. In fact, it had become an obsession. So it was natural to find a place for them in the magazine and see how to realize this idea. The challenge was to bring together stories from several Arab cities, in North Africa and the Middle East. So we activated our networks, then we spoke to taxi drivers in Casablanca, Beirut, Dubai, Algiers, Cairo. We collected several stories, to select the ones that aroused the most interest.
How has your own personal Arabic identity changed and evolved over time?
My first encounter with Arabic was a shock. The Arabic language was “imposed” on me for the first time in college, it was during the period of Arabization in Morocco, during what were called the years of “lead” (Morocco before the 2000s, under the reign of the late His Majesty Hassan II). The teaching that was transmitted within the public system aroused no ounce of enthusiasm, did not cultivate interest and refrained from arousing the slightest passion. We were asked to learn by heart what the teacher had dictated, in order to reproduce it as it was. We were therefore never stimulated by a reflection, nor invited to undertake it. This horrified me so much that I learned everything, well and by heart, to leave as soon as possible for Paris to do my higher education. So quickly that I had my baccalaureate at 16.5 years old.
But it was in Paris that this notion of Arab identity appeared to me for the first time and I noticed that the North Africans of France were called Arabs. In Morocco, the question did not arise, we did not need to define ourselves, we were Moroccans, that’s all. The Arabs for us were those from the Middle East. Those who really spoke the Arabic language, our Moroccan dialect (Darija) is often incomprehensible for an Egyptian or Lebanese.
I had the chance to grow up in a family open to several influences and this gave me predispositions to hybridity, to consenting impermeability. I didn’t need to subtract or compartmentalize, I had the possibility of juxtaposing, of interposing, of recomposing…the many parts of my personal puzzle, which were each expressed differently according to the contexts and periods of life. But obviously it wasn’t easy and didn’t happen all at once. We had to take the steep paths, to find the main road, and take the small paths again, and so on. This famous quest for “know thyself”.
Although I hate definitions and the immobile boxes in which they confine us, if today I had to do it, I would say that I am Moroccan by birth, Gadirie by roots (originally from Agadir where I lived until to my baccalaureate), Franco-Moroccan in language and education, Amazigh by blood, Parisian by residence and sensitivity, Marrakesh by heart, universal in culture…But I consider myself above all a human being, a body and a spirit constantly changing, curious and fascinated by human nature and interested by the world we share.
In a conversation in the magazine singer Hindi Zahra says, “my culture pushes me into the arms of other cultures.” What do you read into this statement?
I would say that Morocco connects her to other cultures. Perhaps it is linked to this plurality which makes up the many strata of Moroccan identity. Morocco is a plural land, rich in the influences of multiple peoples: African land, an important crossroads connected to Europe, Africa and America, it has known a Berber, Phoenician, Carthaginian, Roman, Vandal, Byzantine settlement and Arabic. Hindi Zahra is a plural woman, a sensitive artist, and I think her experience in Morocco must have stimulated this plurality in her.
Another line which struck us from this conversation is when Hindi says, “all countries’ cultures should be put on the same pedestal. Even if their political systems are not equal, their cultures are equal.” Is this something Arabic culture has been afflicted by? How should it be rectified?
Modern history has shown us that conquering countries considered the civilizations and territories they conquered as inferior. Ella Shohat, a professor at NYU who specializes in Arab Jewish identities says, “I think where there’s a very centralized government, people are being asked to align themselves according to huge hegemonies. In this case a certain idea of the West as superior.” I think that this type of reasoning, the fruit of a concept that has been skilfully educated, is a decoy, an illusion. A fantasy that has produced a separation of an important part of world cultures, yet rich in knowledge, which today should be part of our common heritage. To make a shadow disappear, you just have to turn on the light, that in my opinion is the remedy, and it requires the work of many wonderful, committed people to make this precious knowledge visible again.
Your article ‘Being an Arab Woman’ which features a collection of brief insights by Amina Shalash is fascinating. One entry by Lamia, a 31-year-old pharmacist in Egypt states, “Finding the balance between your convictions and beliefs while also challenging Western stereotypes – these are great challenges. I am a veiled Arab woman; I only live my femininity in communities of women. At other times, I have to appear rigid, like a man, so that no one approaches me or bothers me in the street.” What would your own personal entry to this currently be?
Answer above ☺
Your fantastic cover features Bilmawens, “a carnival of masked men outfitted in the skins of goats and sheep, enacting an age-old ritual that is rich with spirituality and rife with symbols.” It draws wonderful parallels with our own Strawboys. How crucial is understanding our commonality in such traditions as well as the contemporary culture explorations in developing a greater understanding and appreciation of Arabic culture?
I think that rituals such as the Moroccan Bilmawens and the Irish Strawboys could be instructive in the sense that they highlight the constant adjustments they have had to make to cross periods and civilizations, and continue to endure our modern age. The second observation that I can establish is at the level of their common symbolism: men who hide behind a mask, men whose true identity no one knows, and who seem to have an essential spiritual link with Nature, like a pact immemorial. Culture being at the heart of the rapprochement of civilizations, I would say that the exploration of these common traditions could enlighten us at this pivotal period of our evolution.