Last week, our class hosted a guest speaker, Leila Abouzeid, who is a Moroccan author who writes in Arabic and is also known as the first female Moroccan author whose works are translated to English. Leila has published many books including a novel called Year of the Elephant, an autobiography called Return to Childhood: The Memoir of a Modern Moroccan Woman and the The Last Chapter, a semi-autobiography about identity, gender, and male-female relations. Abouzeid has deliberately chosen to write in Arabic, and many of her works have been translated into foreign languages. She has also recently published a book called Life of the Prophet – A Biography of Prophet Mohammed. This book is the first to be written by a Muslim Woman and a creative writer. The author wrote it in English without adding personal interpretations because she wants the audience to do their own interpretations.
Leila talked to us about her famous novel “The Year of the Elephant.” She said the title comes from an important battle in early Islam when foreign tribes riding elephants marched to destroy the Kaaba in Mecca. This battle was very important in Islamic history and in her novel, Leila also focuses on a pivotal historical moment, but this time in Moroccan social memory: the transition from colonial rule to national independence. This book is meant to serve a representation of life during Morocco’s struggle for independence from French occupation. First published in Arabic in Morocco in 1983, this novel almost immediately sold out. It is one of the first Moroccan novels written in Arabic to be translated into English. Leila’s “Year of the Elephant”, discussed major themes common in Moroccan literature such as family and divorce, however, her approach is unique and different because she approached these themes through the eyes of a woman to explore the conflict in Moroccan society that happens between culture and modernity. She is a unique writer because many Arab women writers often write books that reflect Western values. However, The Year of the Elephant discusses these issues from a Moroccan perspective without any Western influence.
I found Leila’s opposition to writing in French very interesting considering that many Moroccans often take pride in speaking French. From the way Leila was speaking, it was evident that she strongly opposed the French and, as a result, she has never spoken in the language despite being fluent in it. Her rejection of French is a statement that she resists the legacy of colonialism and especially the torture her father was subjected to. I really admire the fact that she is a woman who seeks to challenge the norms and what is prevalent, and that is seen from her choice to write in Arabic, to her focus on writing about strong Arab women who are seen overcoming many obstacles.
This is important because Arab women through various events in the history tend to be ignored or overlooked throughout the Arab World. Oftentimes, women fought in the struggle as much as the men but after a victory or independence, the men stepped into the power vacuum and pushed the women to the side. The women either didn’t benefit at all or were in a worse position than they were before. The most recent example can be seen in the Arab Spring, where despite the participation of women in the uprising and in the protest, the region has never seen rates of violence against women this high. Leila’s effort to focus on women’s perspective and to illuminate their participation in the struggle is important so that the voices of these women do not disappear. Women are often lost from history books and from historical narratives and it is writings like these that prove women have played a vital role in throughout history.
Overall, I really enjoyed having Leila talk to us and I definitely look forward to reading many of her writings to understand another perspective of Moroccan culture and history. Not only does her work add a different perspective to main historical events, but it also dispels many stereotypes about Moroccan people, particularly about the Muslim woman being passive and inactive.