Meknesi Explorations

While I am definitely still getting settled into Meknes, I have had the chance to explore some with my class and on my own. Listing the places I can get to without getting lost gives a pretty good introduction to my time here.

Classes! The route from my apartment to the AALIM center and back is definitely the first one I learned. It crosses between the old, walled city, the medina, to the new city. The particular area I live in is called Hamria. There’s a large park in between I hope to explore at some point. The teachers are fabulous – they push us to learn but are friendly and encouraging while doing so. Hopefully I will be able to fully absorb all the Arabic being stuffed into my brain. Just a little ways up from the center through the winding streets of the medina is an excellent place to buy fruit. I got amazing peaches, plums, and apples there. Unfortunately it was closed for Eid, so I resorted to a giant bag of dates, which were nice and sweet.

View from the School Roof

The apartment I’m staying in is perfectly located about a two minutes’ walk from the only church in Meknes. How cool is that? The Protestant (Église Évangelique au Maroc) church meets in the Catholic church Notre Dame des Oliviers. The congregation is primarily made of immigrants from Sub-Saharan Africa, plus a couple of American students from two different Arabic programs, and the service is in French. Everyone has been so extremely welcoming there.

I am also only a few minutes’ walk from a bookstore, which makes me quite happy. I went once with my language partner and just browsed around. When I went back to pick a book to buy, it was closed for Eid, but I hope to go back soon so I can find a book to slowly stumble my way through.

Probably the most recognizable spot in Meknes is the Bab Mansour gate. Between the gate and the souq is a square, which was quite busy at night during Ramadan. There were booths set up where children would go, get dressed up in wedding attire, and get their pictures taken. Honestly that sounds much more appealing than sitting in Santa’s lap for Christmas pictures. One of the buildings off the square is the Dar Jamaii museum, a palatial home built by a vizier in the 1800s that showcases Moroccan and specifically Meknesi craftsmanship. There is a lot of carved and painted wood on the doors and ceilings, as well as tile and woven and embroidered fabrics.

Tile Detail on Bab Mansour

The Souq At Night During Ramadan

Inside Dar Jamaii

Whenever I move to or travel to a new place, I tend to start collecting places I feel comfortable in. I look forward to seeing how my experience in Morocco continues to expand.

Me at Dar Jamaii


I Am Baghdad III

Reposted from OnlineAhwa.


I am Baghdad III, 2008, acrylic, charcoal and marker pen on Arabic newspaper on canvas, 48″ x 48″- 122 cm x 122 cm

The portrait above gazes out at its audience, grabs its attention and commands it to listen. I Am Baghdad III is one of a series of paintings by Iraqi artist Ayad Alkadhi in which he narrates individual Iraqi responses to the post-occupation Iraq. He has taken a single Iraqi face, his own, and overlaid it with visual elements that recount his interviews with Iraqi citizens.

Ayad Alkadhi has purposefully left the interpretation of the portrait’s story up to the viewer (Griffith). One possible interpretation is shaped by the colors that he has chosen and color symbolism. Black and white, the primary colors used in the portrait, are significant in many cultures. In Arabic, black is associated with death, hell, and past wars (Hasan 208). White, on the other hand, has generally positive meanings, with “white-hearted” conveying innocence and the “white dove” and “white revolution” being peaceful (Al-Aladeih 8). Based on these colors and their connotations, the individual in this image mourns the death of war and desires peace and innocence in the future. This interpretation is supported by Ayad Alkadhi’s own statements that his main purpose is to communicate emotion (Shangri La).

I Am Baghdad III was painted in 2008, following years of violence in Iraq, and the events surrounding its creation play a key role. The painting is literally against a backdrop of current events, as represented by the Iraqi and Palestinian newspapers that connect the work to local and international contexts (Griffith). The international connections include the Palestinian newspapers and the football player in the corner, while the Iraqi newspapers likely report on the US invasion of Iraq as well as sectarian violence, bombings carried out against civilians and the breakdown in infrastructure such as clean water (BBC, Ditmars)

According the Alkadhi, “painted words give the notion of a story being told,” but these words are simply a collection of letters without literal meaning (Alkadhi). This gives the viewer the opportunity to interpret the story being told. The letters are large and bold yet translucent, suggesting transience or fragility. The movement and size gives them life. Combined with the covered mouth, the letters pull the viewer inside the consciousness of the portrait, highlighting the beauty and fragility of the inner life. The absence of any explicit message prevents the painting from being used as propaganda (Alkadhi).

In addition to its storytelling value, Arabic calligraphy is often used in modern art as a means of connecting with an older artistic tradition, and this is certainly true for Alkadhi (Al-Sadoun). He states that calligraphy is one of the “creative nuances” of Islamic culture, used in contemporary work as a “calling card” (Griffith).

As an Iraqi living in America, Alkadhi has often been asked about the Iraq War by Americans who want more information than the news provides (Alkadhi). Alkadhi connects this with the desire for emotional information, and painted the I Am Baghdad series to bridge this gap between his Iraqi friends and his American friends (Alkadhi). His combination of a face, symbolic colors, and current events emphasize the individual experience of war and suffering.




Al-Adaileh, Bilal A. “The Connotations of Arabic Color Terms.” Linguistica Online, Issue 13, 2012, Accessed 8 Apr. 2017.

Alkadhi, Ayad. “I Am Baghdad III.” 2008. Accessed 7 Apr. 2017.

Ditmars, Hadani. “Post Invasion Iraq – the facts.” New Internationalist Magazine, Issue 432, 2010, Accessed 8 Apr. 2017.

Griffith, Lesa. “Ayad Alkadhi on ‘I Am Baghdad XV.’” Honolulu Museum of Art, Accessed 7 Apr. 2017.

Hasan, Amna A. et al. “How Colours are Semantically Construed in the Arabic and English Culture: A Comparitive Study.” English Language Teaching, vol. 4, no. 3, 2011, Accessed 8 Apr. 2017.

“Iraq Profile – Timeline.” BBC News, 5 Dec. 2016, Accessed 7 Apr. 2017.

“Ayad Alkadhi Talks About His Experiences as an Artist & Resident at Shangri La.” Shangri La: Center for Islamic Arts and Cultures, 11 Feb. 2013, Accessed 7 Apr. 2017.

“Quest to Belong by Ayad Alkadhi.” Vimeo, uploaded by Shangri La Hawaii, 2013,


Abdellatif Laabi: “My Mother’s Language”

Also posted at OnlineAhwa 

My Mother’s Language

It’s been twenty years since I last saw my mother                 1
She starved herself to death
They say that each morning
she would pull her headscarf off
and strike the floor seven times                                             5
cursing the heavens and the Tyrant
I was in the cave
where convicts read in the dark
and painted the bestiary of the future on the walls
It’s been twenty years since I last saw my mother                 10
She left me a china coffee set
and though the cups have broken one by one
they were so ugly I didn’t regret their loss
even though coffee’s the only drink I like
These days, when I’m alone                                                   15
I start to sound like my mother
or rather, it’s as if she were using my mouth
to voice her profanities, curses and gibberish
the invisible litany of her nicknames
all the endangered species of her sayings                              20
It’s been twenty years since I last saw my mother
but I am the last man
who still speaks her language
Abdellatif Laâbi is a Moroccan poet, born in Fez and now living in France (PTC). His desire to renew post-colonial culture in Morocco led him to start a literary magazine, Souffles, in 1966, but the combination of literature, culture, and politics earned him eight years in prison under Hassan II (Babana-Hampton 131, PTC). Afterwards, he moved to France, where his writing has gained great acclaim (PTC). “La Langue de Ma Mère” or “My Mother’s Language” was written in 1993, almost 20 years after he left Morocco (Rumens). In it, Laâbi recognizes all that he shares with his mother while grieving her loss.

Language is complicated in Morocco, where Moroccan Darija, Standard Arabic, French, and the Amazigh languages are all spoken to varying degrees. Laâbi writes in French, as did many of the poets of Souffles (Alessandra 154). While Moroccan literature in Arabic is not seen as prestigious, Laâbi considers this a failing of the writers who attempted to use it and not of the language itself (154). He is more concerned with how poets express themselves than with the language they do so in (154). Along this line, Laâbi does not specify his mother’s language. Instead, he emphasizes how she uses her language:

“her profanities, curses and gibberish

the invisible litany of her nicknames

all the endangered species of her sayings” (18-20).

She has passed this wealth of words on to him, as his mother tongue. Specifically, she curses the Tyrant, presumably the same king who sent him to prison. This linguistic inheritance comes with mixed intimacy and sorrow, as there is no one else left who speaks the same language.

Two of the other striking images of the poem are the cave and the coffee cups. The cave is quite clearly a metaphor for prison. “The bestiary of the future” (9) likely refers to cave paintings that often contain images of animals and hunters (Rumens). Cave paintings were some of the earliest art forms, and Laâbi sees himself as a creator of Moroccan culture (Babana-Hampton 132). Although prehistoric painting is by definition of the past, Laâbi uses this image to point us towards the future of art and culture.

Besides language, the broken coffee cups are one of the primary connections between Laâbi and his mother in this poem. Morocco, and particularly Fez, is famous for its pottery, so the cups represent their shared national identity (Kenny). However, this identity has broken as Laâbi had to leave Morocco and live in France. Nonetheless, coffee maintains a strong presence in his life, both because of his personal taste (14) and because the French coffee and café culture is quite similar to that of Morocco. The method by which he takes coffee, that is, his national identity, has changed, but he still loves the same things as he did as a young poet in Morocco.

The combination of images in “My Mother’s Language” illustrate Laâbi’s view of poetry as highly personal yet nationalistic. His connection to his mother, which has been broken by distance and her suicide, resembles his exile from his native land. His national, personal, and linguistic identity plays out in the words that he chooses or that are spoken through him.



“Abdellatif Laâbi.” Poetry Translation Centre, Accessed 26 Apr. 2017.

Alessandra, Jacques and Richard Bjornson. “Abdellatif Laâbi: A Writing of Dissidence.” Research in African Literatures, vol. 23, no. 2, 1992, Accessed 26 Apr. 2017.

Babana-Hampton, Safoi. “Écrire marocain: Devoir d’imagination et portraits du citoyen chez Abdellatif Laâbi, Fatéma Mernissi et Ghita El Khayat.” Nouvelles Études Francophones, vol. 24, no. 1 (2009), Accessed 26 Apr. 2017.

Kenny, Adele. “Moroccan Ceramics Are Rich In History.” Antiques and Auction News, 3 Feb. 2011, Accessed 27 Apr. 2017.

“My Mother’s Language.” Poetry Translation Centre, Accessed 26 Apr. 2017.

Rumens, Carol. “Poem of the week: My Mother’s Language by Abdellatif Laâbi.” The Guardian, 22 Aug. 2016, Accessed 27 Apr. 2017.


Het Groot Dictee der Nederlandse Taal

Imagine if instead of a football game, the OU-TX rivalry centered around a spelling bee. That would be awesome, and I would totally watch it. Similarly, a rivalry between Dutch speakers in the Netherlands and Belgium is embodied in Het Groot Dictee der Nederlandse Taal, an annual dictation-slash-spelling bee hosted by two major newspapers. The participants are not children either; they are journalists, writers, politicians, rappers, athletes, and comic-strip artists. To top it all off, the Groot Dictee (pronounced khrote dic-tay) is hosted in the Dutch equivalent of the Senate, the Eerste Kamer.

I thoroughly enjoyed watching and playing along. I did quite a bit worse than the average, and far worse than the best. The participants were divided into teams and the errors of each were averaged: Dutch celebrities (25 errors), readers of the Dutch newspaper De Volkskrant (15), Flemish celebrities (21), and readers of the Belgian newspaper De Morgen (12). Overall, the Flemish outperformed the Dutch, and the newspaper readers bested the celebrities. However, the Dutch author Gustaaf Peck had the lowest individual celebrity score (12) and Volkskrant reader Roberto LaRocca had the lowest score of all (6). Depending on how you count multiple errors in a word, I had around 31 errors. But I was pleasantly surprised at how many of the words I did know. In fact, being Anglophone meant that some of the harder words for the participants were cognates I could spell.

After the general round, the person from each group with the lowest score was chosen for a final round, which more closely resembled American spelling bees. A word was read out, and the first team to misspell a word lost. The Flemish reader, Marco Sanders, won with balalaikaspeelster, which means balalaikaplayer and which I happened to get right as well. However, he said in an interview that he did not consider himself the winner, since he had one more error in the dictee.

Overall, I found this to be a very exciting display of language mastery. The text itself, written by Adrianus van der Heijden, concerned the flood of English loanwords in Dutch. His disapproval fell less on individual words, some of which he used in the dictee itself, than on the mixing of English and Dutch: Dunglish. He described this linguistic situation as a continuation of British colonialism, a sort of belated battle in the Anglo-Dutch wars that undermines the national style. You can find the full text here. I look forward to next year’s Groot Dictee.

Poetry Club: الطائر الطالب

This past Friday was the Arabic Talent Show, kicking off the beginning of the end of the semester for me. Each time I go, I realize how at home I am at OU. As usual, it was great to see what the other students have been working on, as well as the fruits of my own labor.  Since I was in Poetry Club this semester, I wrote a short poem and read it at the show. Enjoy! (The English translation is below)

ولدَ طائرٌ في شجرة

في شجرة في وسطِ الجامعة

عندما كبر بدأ الدرسةَ

مثل كل الطيورِ الصغيرة

من الشباكِ درس العربيةَ

كان هناك حروف وكلمات جديدة

والطائر كان طالبٌ فعلاً سعيد


فبدأ الطائرُ ان يكتبَ

ان يكتبَ على الارض الحروفَ

ثم جاء المطار فجرفها

جرفها بقسوة شديدة

اراد ان يتكلم مع الطلابِ الاخرين

ولكن لا احد استمعَ اليهِ

اراد ان يقرأ الفَ ليلةٍ وليلة

ولكنه شعر بثقل الكباب بكل محولة


الطائرُ الطالبً شعر بالحزن

ثم سمع شيئاً سعيداً اخيراً

في اللغةِ العربيةِ اغنيةُ جميلة

وغنى الطائرُ سعيداً في الشجرة


There once was a bird born in a tree

Born in the middle of a university

When he grew up he began his studies

Just like all the other little birdies

He studied Arabic perched in a window

Learning so many new letters and words

And the little student bird was thoroughly happy


The bird began writing the letters on the ground

But they were washed away when the rain came down

He wanted to talk with the other students in the class

But they didn’t listen; they just walked past

He wanted to read A Thousand and One Nights

But the book felt heavier each time he tried


The student bird felt very sad

But at last heard something that made him glad

In the Arabic language a beautiful song

And the bird in the tree happily sang along


Poem and translation my own, with thanks to Sophie Le, the Poetry Club, and Ustaaz Barakat