Culture in the Capital

Wednesday, April 1, 2009 | Ar-Ribat, Morocco (map)

Cultural offerings abound in Rabat.
Fes has long been known as Morocco's "cultural capital", thanks in recent years to the popularity of the annual World Sacred Music Festival and Sufi Culture Festival, among a number of international spectacles. Unfortunately, none of those festivals took place during our time in Fes, and we took advantage of smaller events in town only too rarely.

So, since moving to Rabat, Jacqueline and I have made a point to get out of the house more and experience some contemporary Moroccan culture. On a random weekday night last month, we met for dinner off a lively square in centre ville before heading to the Royal Cinema for a showing of "Amours Voilées" ("حجاب الحبّ", or "The Veil of Love"). We sat in armchairs in the theater's balcony, flanked by teenage boys who chattered through the film and, with each sex scene, hooted wildly to mask their anxiety. Since its release several weeks earlier, tremendous controversy—all
exhaustively detailed by the Moroccan press—swirled around the racy film.

With surprising complexity, "Amours Voilées" treated the struggles of Batoul, a contemporary Casablancan woman, to juggle professional ambitions, love interests, and her family's traditions. Whereas such themes, if covered by American cinema, would have been inevitably oversimplified, to my pleasant surprise the film's producers embraced the nuances and ambiguities which define the coming-of-age process for young Moroccans today.

Not everyone who saw the film, of course, found it as engaging as Jacqueline and I did. On the occasion of its release, one conservative politician here lamented, "The film gives a very bad image of young veiled women, and could have a bad influence on their behavior." Inevitably, others went further. The secretary of Morocco's leading Islamist party decried the film's "Zionist influence" and criticized the work as "an obstacle to the spread of Islam." (both quotes from TelQuel)

As fascinating a glimpse as Amours Voilées offered into the struggles of contemporary Moroccan women, I still wonder how the film might have been different had it not been written, directed, and produced by a man. Such are the ironies of life here in Morocco.

Later in the month, Jacqueline and I decided to attend a play, "Memory" ("ذاكرة"), at the National Library theater. The production was somewhat experimental—a trilingual mélange of excerpts from the writings of William Shakespeare, the eminent Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani, and Moroccan popular novelist Youssouf Amine Elalamy.

In the absence of a readily discernible plot, the play's abrupt jumps made it seem more like a disjointed series of sketches than a true story, but the actors executed their ever-shifting roles with gusto.

Next, we're looking forward to the Mawazine Festival, scheduled to take place in several venues around Rabat in mid-May. It has attracted an eclectic, international lineup—Stevie Wonder, Khaled, Samira Said, the Neville Brothers, Sergio Mendes, Sherine, Alicia Keys, Wael Kfouri, Johnny Clegg, Amadou and Mariam, and more.

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