In Defense of Exchange

Sally Shafto

3-© Daoud Aoulad-Syad- Imilchil- septembre 1985

© Daoud Aoulad-Syad, Morocco, September 1985. Courtesy Galerie 127, Marrakech.

If art teaches anything (to the artist, in the first place), it is the privateness of the human condition. Being the most ancient as well as the most literal form of private enterprise, it fosters in a man, knowingly or unwittingly, a sense of his uniqueness, of individuality, of separateness – thus turning him from a social animal into an autonomous ‘I’. Lots of things can be shared: a bed, a piece of bread, convictions, a mistress, but not a poem by, say, Rainer Maria Rilke. A work of art, of literature especially, and a poem in particular, addresses a man tête-à-tête, entering with him into direct – free of any go-betweens – relations. It is for this reason that art in general, literature especially, and poetry in particular, is not exactly favoured by the champions of the common good, masters of the masses, heralds of historical necessity.
–Joseph Brodsky1

I’m just back from Marrakech where I was invited to attend the 13th edition of the Marrakech International Film Festival for the first time. In a forthcoming article, I’ll be revisiting that event, but here I would like to propose a visit with three persons with whom I spent time there. The first is the young American singer, Jennifer Grout, who made waves recently when she appeared on the Beirut-based television show, Arabs Got Talent. What, people wondered, was an all-American girl from New England doing on a reality talent show for Arabs?

I met Jennifer last summer before she became a media personality; we were both flying back to New York from Casablanca. The eight-hour flight gave me an opportunity to hear her unusual story. As an opera student at McGill University in Montreal, Grout specialised in German lieder and French art song. While at McGill, she encountered the singing of such Arab divas as the Egyptian Umm Kalthoum (1898-1975, who, incredibly, sold more albums than the Beatles and Michael Jackson) and the Lebanese Fairouz (b. 1935). Discovering those singers literally changed her life and she immediately began immersing herself in the Arabic songbook. Following graduation, she spent a couple of weeks in Marrakech, where she met a young Amazigh singer who performs every night alongside the snake charmers and other street performers on the Jmaâ El Fna. She left to continue her studies in Paris, but was unhappy there and soon returned to Marrakech where for the past year-and-a-half she has been busking from sundown on the square with her boyfriend. 

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Jmaâ El Fna during the 2013 Marrakech Film Festival. Photo: S. Shafto

Much of the press coverage on her emphasises that although she sings in Arabic, she doesn’t speak the language. (A capsule headline, for instance, in The Daily Beast reads: “Jennifer Grout, a 23-year-old singer from Boston, speaks no Arabic”2). But since first being recorded for Arabs Got Talent last spring, she has made enormous progress in darija, the Moroccan dialect that is generally incomprehensible to those speaking fusha (Modern Standard Arabic) or other Arabic variations. If she was stymied on her first appearance on “Arabs Got Talent” when one of the judges asked her name, Grout nevertheless quickly silenced at least some of her critics as she began strumming her Oud and singing Umm Kalthoum’s Far from You.

At the end of the song, one of the show’s judges, the Lebanese pop star Najwa Karam summed up the astonished reaction of many when she said: “You don’t speak a word of Arabic and yet you sing it better than some Arab singers.” Still, some viewers contend her non-Arab nationality should have disqualified her from the contest.3

While her debut on Arabs Got Talent is characterised by an au naturel look (Jenni wore her own clothes and minimal make-up), for her return appearance, the shows’ organisers outfitted her in a head-to-toe blue dress, lightened her hair several shades and positioned her on a daïs with fans blowing all around her: she appears like a figurehead on a boat as she belts out a Syrian classic by the singer Asmahan: not incongruously, Grout herself says that for her second appearance she took inspiration from a scene from Luc Besson’s The Fifth Element (1997).

In social media, critics have derided Grout for what some perceive as her transgressive cultural appropriation. But while the label of cultural appropriation seems right in talking about Katy Perry’s geisha-inspired theme for her recent appearance at the American Music Awards, it seems inaccurate to describe Grout who, after all, has become deeply engaged with Arabic culture to which she pays a singular homage. Hollywood continues to blanket the world with its version of American life, making it ever harder for local, national cinemas to compete. Here on the other hand, is a young American, drawing musical inspiration from a supposedly antithetical model, who is introducing Arabic music to new audiences. What can be wrong with that?

The finale of Arabs Got Talent aired live on December 8th. If Grout lost the contest, she nonetheless won something far more valuable: the right to follow her heart. That is what surely makes her narrative so interesting, while  young people around-the-world increasingly abandon the humanities to devote themselves to more utilitarian subjects that will supposedly lead them to well-paying jobs. Last year, Rick Scott, Governor of the state of Florida, recommended that students majoring in the liberal arts and social sciences should be subject to higher tuition fees, because they are, in his words, “nonstrategic disciplines.”4 Two recent New York Times articles—which appeared within the past month—attest to this troubling trend: “Humanities Studies under Strain around the Globe”  and “As Interest Fades in the Humanities, Colleges Worry.”5 Jennifer Grout will undoubtedly continue to march to her own drum, singing on the Jmaâ El Fna, while she figures out her next move. Her future looks bright.

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Vendors on the Jmaâ El Fna, 2013. Photo: S. Shafto

The Jmaâ El Fna, protected against real-estate development by Unesco as a world heritage site of oral and intangible heritage, is also beloved by Moroccan filmmaker-photographer Daoud Aoulad-Syad who grew up in its medina. His biography is equally unusual. As a graduate student in physics in France in the 1970s, he saw an exhibit of Henri Cartier-Bresson’s photography. Like Grout’s encounter with Arabic music, it would be a life-changing event for the young Moroccan who purchased the next day his first camera. While completing his Ph.D., he developed his talent and his eye.

4-© Daoud Aoulad-Syad, Boujaâd, Maroc, 1995

© Daoud Aoulad-Syad, Boujaâd, Morocco, 1995. Courtesy Galerie 127, Marrakech

Fast forward ten years: Aoulad-Syad is a physics professor at the University of Mohamed V in Rabat and has a one-man show at the Institut du Monde Arabe in Paris, where he meets his esteemed mentor. Aoulad-Syad at that point wanted to follow in Cartier-Bresson’s footsteps by joining the renowned photo agency, Magnum, that Cartier-Bresson had helped found. Instead, Cartier-Bresson advised him to return home to photograph his countrymen in the way he had done in his ground-breaking book The Europeans (1955) or Robert Frank in his The Americans (1958). Aoulad-Syad listened to Cartier-Bresson’s counsel and in 1989, he published his Marocains (contrejour/belvisi). His black and white street photography expresses Cartier-Bresson’s instinct for the moment décisif.

Shortly thereafter, the reputed French screenwriter, Jean-Claude Carrière, encouraged Aoulad-Syad to make films. After a briefly studying at La fémis, he began making shorts and then feature-length films.

5-© Daoud AS fez Juin 1984, body building 001

© Daoud Aoulad-Syad, Fez, June 1984, Bodybuilding. Courtesy Galerie 127, Marrakech.

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© Daoud Aoulad-Syad, Milchil, The Sacks. Courtesy Galerie 127, Marrakech.

To date, Aoulad-Syad has made five successful, internationally award-winning films dealing with diverse, serious aspects of Moroccan society, often with humour: a transvestite dancer in Bye-Bye Souirty, 1998; two men on the road in The Wind Horse, 2002; illegal emigration in Tarfaya, 2004; film extras in Ouarzazate in Waiting for Pasolini, 2007; tradition and local customs in The Mosque, 2010.  His mentor in filmmaking was the Moroccan filmmaker-editor-film theorist-poet Ahmed Bouanani (1938-2010) who closely worked with him on his first films. Occasionally, Aoulad-Syad’s films reveal his immense talents for composing a picture: I recall, in particular, a closing shot in Tarfaya with two boats, the larger one in the foreground, the smaller one slowly receding into the middle and then background. It’s a powerful image that stays with you.

Like many Moroccans, Aoulad-Syad moves between two cultures: his native one and his adopted one. In 2012, he exhibited photos on the winemaking area of Bandol on the Côte d’Azur, famous for its rosé wine. What makes Aoulad-Syad’s trajectory exceptional is that he has also moved between very different, some would say, opposed, disciplines, another kind of culture: scientific and artistic. He proves, if proof were necessary, that the two are not mutually exclusive.

These days, after a long hiatus making films, Aoulad-Syad has been turning back to photography. In 2013, he exhibited a show entitled “In the Land of Childhood” of vintage black and white photos at the Galerie 127 in Marrakech, the first photo gallery in the Maghreb. The gallery’s director, Nathalie Leocatelli, notes that it’s common knowledge that many great painters have come to Morocco to paint; it’s less well-known that Morocco is also a destination for photographers. Currently Daoud is preparing a major retrospective of his work that will include not just his work in black and white, but also his striking images in colour that will open in 2015 at the Maison européenne de la photographie in Paris: a first for a Moroccan artist.6

Earlier this fall, Aoulad-Syad exhibited in a group show of Moroccan photographers at the Palais Badia in Marrakech. One of the other photographers in the exhibit is the well-known Moroccan photographer Yto Barrada who was one of the moving forces behind the transformation of Tangier’s Cinema Rif into the Cinémathèque de Tanger in 2006.

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Cinémathèque de Tanger. Photo: S. Shafto, 2013.
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Last week, in Marrakech, I had the chance to meet her husband, the American actor (remembered for his starring role in Darren Aronofsky’s Pi, 1997) and director, Sean Gullette. His first feature, Traitors, starring an all-Moroccan cast, was included as a Moroccan-American entry in the in-competition films at this year’s Marrakech Film Festival. Like Daoud Aoulad-Syad or Jennifer Grout, Gullette moves between two cultures. In an interview during the Marrakech Film Festival, he explained the origins of his film:

It started out with a 30-minute short film I made in 2010 about this character of Malika, the leader of a punk rock band in Tangier who has a strong vision of herself and her world. It was financed thanks to an artist grant from Sharjah Art Foundation, which is getting better and better and has become a model for how art support in the Gulf can work. One of the themes proposed by the Sharjah Art Foundations was traders and traitors — that’s an important theme in the Gulf region. I thought traitors was a good name for a punk band.7

Traitors tells the story of a young woman, Malika, with attitude to spare, who lives in Tangier and plays in a punk band. She’s desperate to make a demo tape, but needs cash to do it. She does a stint as a drug mule, but when she realises the heavy consequences, she wants out. The lead actress, Chaimae Ben Acha made her acting debut earlier this year in a very different role in Malek, playing a pregnant teenager shunned by family and friends. Gullette, who splits his time between Tangier and New York, films Tanger like a native and the performances were all excellent. (My one regret was that the role of Driss Roukhe, who plays the drug caïd, wasn’t larger.) Reviewing it at the Venice Film Festival, a Variety reporter deemed Traitors predictable8, but the film is strong because we’re interested in the protagonist.  Also, it’s worth stressing that while the ending might have seemed predictable to the Variety reviewer, a lead female character with agency is anything but ordinary in the context of Moroccan cinema, where so often women’s lives quickly turn into soap operas.  In Malika, Gullette has created a female character that my Moroccan female students can identify with. So I was happy to be along for the ride and am looking forward to Gullette’s upcoming film, another thriller also to be shot in Tangier and starring Kristin Scott-Thomas, another artist who knows something about intercultural exchange.

(Post scriptum: I note that this year’s Turner Prize, the most prestigious art award in Britain, went to the Frenchwoman, Laure Prouvost.)

  1.  Brodsky quoted in: Cynthia Haven’s Blog for the Written Word, “In Defense of the Humanities: In Defense of Critical Thinking,” Stanford University, 10 December 2013: []
  2. Michael Pizzi, “Boston Irish Girl Jennifer Grout is the Unexpected Star of Arabs Got Talent,” The Daily Beast, 5 December 2013. []
  3. I am here reminded of the Swedish legend jazz singer, Monica Zetterlund (1937-2005) whose life was the subject of Per Fly’s biopic included in the Marrakech Film Festival, Waltz for Monica. When she first arrived in New York, Ella Fitzgerald told her she had no right to sing about New Orleans, since she had never been there… Zetterlund returned home and began singing jazz classics in Swedish translation! []
  4. Quoted in: Ella Delany, “Humanities Studies under Strain around the Globe,” New York Times 1 December 2013 []
  5. ibid. []
  6. More info on Daoud Aoulad-Syad’s photography @ Galerie 127 []
  7. Elsa Keslassy, “‘PI’ Star Sean Gullette Talks about Making ‘Traitors’ in Morocco and his Sophomore Project,” Variety, 10 December 2013. []
  8. Leslie Felperin, “Film Review: Traitors,” Variety, October 2, 2013. []
Sally Shafto is an independent scholar and translator at Senses of Cinema.