This article was originally published in Muftah.org and has been reprinted here with permission.
[Fatima El Zohra Lahouitar and Mouna Rmiki performing in the author’s piece F7ali, F7alek/Like Me, Like You in Tangier, Morocco. (Photo credit: Omar Chennafi)]
Morocco’s King Mohammed VI has successfully maintained a reputation for being a business-friendly, reform minded monarch, despite the wave of unrest that spread across North Africa in early 2011. The country’s February 20 Movement, also know as Feb20, which emerged at that time, called for “an end to autocracy and … corruption.” Since then, the king has taken advantage of positive international media attention to showcase Morocco’s comparative potential as a commercial hub and access point for new African markets. Quick cosmetic reforms to the constitution, followed by new parliamentary elections in November 2011, further solidified King Mohammed VI’s progressive image.
Despite a seeming decline in revolutionary sentiment in Morocco, the performing arts community has assumed new importance as an extension and continuation of the February 20 Movement’s ethos and objectives. Certain theatre groups in the country maintain Feb20’s ideological goals, and address themes of governance, reform, and secular politics in their work. But, even more important is the changing linguistic landscape of performance art in the country. Today many young performing artists in Morocco are, quite literally, altering the language for sharing and communicating their experiences. The usage of formal Modern Standard Arabic and French— traditionally the languages of high theatre in Morocco—has given way to more performances written and staged in conversational Moroccan Arabic.
This is symbolic on a number of levels. Darija is an ever-changing dialectical mix of Arabic, French, Amazight, Spanish, and English. Many Moroccans only learn Modern Standard Arabic, which bears little resemblance to the local vernacular, in school. As such, by using Moroccan Arabic in their performances, artists are signaling an overt shift in their focus. Instead of seeking out artistic conversations with cultural elites, these theatre practitioners are actively looking for audiences among the general public.
Moroccan Theatre in Context
Prior to Morocco’s independence from France and continuing into the King Hassan II era, Moroccan theatre acted as an outlet for spreading dissident messages. Low literacy rates and the prominence of storytelling traditions, such as halqa, made theatre into a tool for activating public discourse. In response, the state took an increasingly hands-on approach to theatre and established university festivals and municipal theaters. This encouraged the development of dramatic studies, while also offering government institutions the opportunity to regulate the types of performances taking place across the country. The dissident theatre of the early independence era was all but extinguished, and theatre became an emblem of high art, with performers and writers primarily using Classical Arabic or French.
Today, the linguistic landscape of Morocco’s official performing arts scene reflects this effort to control theatre discourse, especially at the many government-produced theatre festivals held in partnership with drama and performance studies departments at public universities. Although there is a great deal of progressive work happening within such festivals, audience members come mostly from among fellow theatre producers, academics, and critics, and not from the general public.
Since 2011, a new kind of theatre has taken hold in Morocco. A younger generation of artists, distinct from those who dominated the scene through the later part of King Hassan II’s rule, have started to form and lead theatre groups. Performance troupes such as DabaTeatr, Spectacle Pour Tout, Daha Wassa, and Theatre Aquarium favor a theatrical form called “devising.” Unlike standard script-based performances, “devising” is an improvised form of theatre where the text is developed in cast rehearsals, and then performed by the same group. Such performances use mixes of Moroccan Arabic, Amazight, French, and Classical Arabic, with codeswitching occurring constantly, based on cultural context and dramatic intention.
Unlike their more formal, state-sanctioned counterparts, these groups enjoy audiences that hail from across Morocco’s social and political spectrum. Because their language is less formal, these performances are accessible to all members of the public regardless of education level. That is to say, while not everyone understands everything, everyone understands something.
Besides their symbolic deployment of language, many of these new theatre pieces take up issues publicly championed by the February 20 Movement, as well as hot-button issues like sex tourism, secular politics, religious freedom, and freedom of the press. Often these are the same issues that cause controversy in the Moroccan press and have resulted in government crackdowns on independent publishers such as Ali Anouzla of Lakom.com and former Tel Quel and Nichane editor Driss Ksikes.
Theatre Group Profile: DabaTeatr
Driss Ksikes in particular has been instrumental in converting Morocco’s February 20 Movement into artistic creations. As a playwright, he has tackled subjects such as sexual repression and child abuse in Morocco. Both as a playwright and publisher of news-journal Nichane, Ksikes has strived to provide an outlet for Moroccan Arabic discourses. Since Nichane closed down in 2010 after being banned by the government, Ksikes has channeled his impulse for Moroccan Arabic-centric art and literature into the theatre company, DabaTeatr.
DabaTeatr began in 2004 under the direction of Jaouad Essaouni, an artist and mentee of Ksikes. Since 2006, Ksikes and Essaouni have maintained the monthly DabaTeatr Citoyen symposium, which features improvised scenes, circus, dance, and multimedia performance art. Today, Essaouni continues to direct DabaTeatr as a vehicle for the company’s devised texts as well as Ksikes work. For the second year in a row, the company is producing its ArtQaida festival to coincide with the anniversary of the February 20 Movement.
Many of DabaTeatr’s performances end up on the group’s YouTube page. Essaouni describes this project as an attempt to create a space for “citizen’s theatre.” Encouraging a mix of Morocco’s many spoken languages is a distinct part of that mission.
Digital media also enables theatre groups to disseminate their performances through online outlets and even email list-serves. This has two major implications for these organizations. In creating their work, playwrights generally keep their target audience in mind—the public they envision will attend their performances and consume the content. Traditionally, audience members have been limited to those who are physically present at a performance. Now, however, writers can target people beyond their physical borders. In fact, DabaTeatr has actively sought out collaborators and audience members within the Moroccan diaspora; because of its active media presence, the group has also been able to partner with a number of German and French theatre companies.
But, digital media has been a double-edged sword for Moroccan arts. It has certainly reinvigorated parts of the performing arts scene by providing access to new audiences and funding sources. At the same time, though, it has created a situation wherein artists may find it more profitable—both in terms of fundraising and gathering cultural capital in the arts community—to seek out international audiences at the expense of local consumers.
Disseminating theatre scripts through digital media has also proven to be more difficult. Often these scripts are written using Latin characters and Arabic numerals, combining romance languages, Amazigh, and Arabic into one alphabet. While this allows a diverse array of people to enjoy these texts, it does not enable easy reproduction. On the other hand, this linguistic diversity gives artists the freedom to work without fear of censorship. It is no coincidence that foreign embassies and cultural institutions play a crucial role in funding these companies’ work. By seeking out financing from foreign institutions, theatre makers can be more subversive and need not worry about obtaining approval for their work from the Ministry of Culture.
It is clear that Moroccan Arabic language theatre is on the rise in Morocco. The emergence and persistence of artists, such as Ksikes, and groups like DabaTeatr, working with and in the tradition of, Feb20, demonstrates the movement’s potential long-term effects. An increase in improvisation, devised-texts, and multi-media performance has also served to re-energize a medium many veteran actors considered lost to television and film production. Through their emergence, these theater companies are providing a very real outlet for a new kind of public discourse in Morocco.