By Hannah Allen
As a translator committed to championing works by emerging writers, I was thrilled by the opportunity to review Emma Ramadan’s translation from French of Meryem Alaoui’s debut novel Straight from the Horse’s Mouth. Alaoui, the daughter of a Moroccan poet and politician, previously worked at TelQuel, a French-language Moroccan magazine that has been targeted by the government for its provocative political and religious content, and at Nichane, its Arab-language sister publication that was also prohibited by the government before its closure in 2010. Alaoui’s journalistic background and experiences at these politically charged publications shine through in her novel, which takes the form of a diary written by Jmiaa, a thirty-four year old sex worker living in downtown Casablanca. The book is a fascinating exploration of the forces that shape prostitution in Morocco and a valuable reminder that humor is one of the most effective political tools available to writers.
A 2011 Ministry of Health survey of four major Moroccan cities found that most of the women working as prostitutes at the time turned to the profession for social or economic reasons. The study also revealed that between 62 and 73% of prostitutes divorced or lost their husbands before turning 24. Financial independence remains challenging in a country whose efforts to close down sex trafficking networks overshadow the reality that most Moroccan women are not coerced into prostitution. Instead, they turn to the profession because there are few alternatives in a society that stigmatizes divorce and does not provide equal access to education.
Such statistics have contributed to the notion—perpetuated by Western media outlets—that Moroccan women are victims of an oppressive society. Alaoui’s novel provides a far more nuanced perspective, showcasing strong women like Jmiaa, the foulmouthed, irreverent and authentic protagonist who navigates a variety of challenges with tact and resilience. Rather than pity herself, Jmiaa, a divorcee with a young daughter and a conservative mother who would never approve of her profession, acknowledges her unfortunate situation and does what she needs to take care of herself and her family:
You straddle all of them. The loser, the frustrated guy, the lonely guy, the son of a whore, the one just passing through. […] But, in the end, you don’t give a shit about them, their misery and their grime. Because you know that’s just how it is. And that on this earth, everyone has their lot. And so, in the shitty grab bag of fate, I feel simply blessed when I get a quick one. (23-24)
Despite her “shitty” circumstances, Jmiaa experiences moments of joy and refuses to let others dictate her behavior. With regard to her boss, she writes: “he doesn’t get to tell me how to spend my free time” (4). Even Okraïcha, an especially intimidating neighbor, can’t stop Jmiaa and her fellow prostitutes from doing what they please: “some nights, when we’re good and tipsy, we climb onto the roof, we throw Okraïcha’s sheets to the ground, and we hose them down with you know what, laughing like lunatics” (8). These women undeniably face poverty, oppression, sexism and violence, but that does not prevent them from having a great time together. Jmiaa, recognizing that she can choose happiness, even finds ways to entertain herself when she’s alone. In a particularly entertaining passage, she starts singing and dancing to one of her favorite songs while covering herself in underwear until she breaks into a fit of laughter:
Truly, I laughed until there was nothing left in me. And when the last hiccup had passed, I dried my tears and, between us, I thanked God for that moment. It had been a long time since I’d laughed like that. […] People say it’s not good to laugh so much. […] What I think is that the people who say such things are just incredibly insecure. They do it because they’re bored with their lives and want for everyone else to be like them: miserable. (133)
Though the novel’s title might make readers think Horse Mouth refers to Jmiaa, we later find out it is Jmiaa’s nickname for an aspiring director working on a film that stars a prostitute. Horse Mouth, a young Moroccan woman whose family emigrated to the Netherlands, initially seeks Jmiaa’s help in ensuring that the plot and dialogue of her film are “‘not too far off from reality’” (114). Over the course of many months, the two meet multiple times simply to talk, but after several unsuccessful attempts to find a lead actress, Horse Mouth turns to Jmiaa, ultimately offering her the role and a life-changing opportunity.
The filming process allows Alaoui to juxtapose several languages and cultures, from the visiting Dutch crew members to the arabophone and francophone Moroccans involved in the production. No moment exemplifies this heterogeneity better than the scene filmed in the street where Jmiaa usually works. Distracted by the presence of almost everyone she knows, Jmiaa repeatedly messes up her lines. Luckily, she is saved by Mbarka, the local “old crazy woman,” who causes such a ruckus that the crew has no choice but to stop filming (117).
In an attempt to restore order, a cop begins to drag Mbarka away, taking “her to the end of the street to smack her around a little while she kicks frantically in the air” (234). Horse Mouth, appalled by this treatment, attempts to help Mbarka, while the cop tries to calm the director, speaking “to her politely [in French], the son of a bitch” (235). The disturbance continues to escalate: “The Dutch have joined [Horse Mouth’s] league for the defense of human rights. The Moroccans and the cops try to explain to them that we have to get back to filming. That nothing’s going to happen to the old woman” (236). Eventually, through bribery, the cops let Mbarka go, and Horse Mouth offers her a drink and a seat in the filming area to make up for the incident. Seeing this, Jmiaa writes: “And let that crazy woman live it up while she still can. Because those cops over there, trust me, they’ll be nice and calm until the Dutch pack up their circus, and then they’ll make her spit back up that Fanta she just drank” (237).
This collision of worlds encapsulates one of the novel’s greatest strengths: its ability to humorously tackle situations that bring two or more groups into conflict, without taking sides or reducing the problem to oversimplifications. Jmiaa mocks her fellow Moroccans for their artificial behavior towards the Dutch, including their use of proper French and their atypical politeness. Similarly, she ridicules the Dutch for acting like heroic human rights activists who impose their values on the Moroccans before leaving the country and allowing everything to go back to normal—an anticolonialist stance that reinforces the novel’s political nature.
Once the filming ends, Jmiaa goes back to working as a prostitute, until she receives a call from Horse Mouth announcing that the movie was accepted to a film festival in San Francisco. Jmiaa’s observations of America are characteristically hilarious and provocative, enabling Alaoui to criticize the country through humor. On the taxi ride from the airport to the hotel, Jmiaa remarks: “What’s certain is that it’s not like our country. It’s not possible that they’d have things to hide here. It’s not possible that they would have corrugated iron, filth, and rags to conceal” (254). Unlike Jmiaa, whose conception of America does not include wealth disparities, grime, or homelessness, Alaoui, who spent several years in New York, recognizes the prevalence of poverty in the country and pokes fun at the romanticized images that portray it as a land of wealth and opportunity.
Through Jmiaa’s remarks about the hotel breakfast, Alaoui also mocks American consumerism: “You could have twenty refills if you wanted. They do it because the people here are idiots. Even when they’re in a group, they all order drinks, rather than having one and sharing it.” While this commentary functions largely as a comedic take on cultural differences and American extravagance, Alaoui does not refrain from more explicit criticism: “To be honest, I find their population a bit stupid. We might be poor but we’re not stupid. They have everything they need and they don’t know what to do with it” (258). Never one to see things in black and white, Jmiaa recognizes that poverty taught her to be resourceful and that material possessions can be a burden. Like the book as a whole, Jmiaa’s experiences in America complicate our understanding of the binaries between rich and poor, free and oppressed, and comedy and tragedy.
In an interview with Allison Braden in Asymptote Journal, Ramadan claimed that capturing Jmiaa’s voice was the greatest challenge in translating Alaoui’s novel. With the numerous expletives, familiar turns of speech, and informal sentence constructions that fill the translation, Ramadan has recreated the unpolished, spontaneous language of the original while highlighting Jmiaa’s saucy personality. Ramadan has also avoided glossing over the multiplicity of languages already present in the original by retaining Moroccan Arabic terms and using roughly the same glossary that Alaoui included in her French edition, knowing that French readers would not understand all of her references.
Alaoui’s novel, as hilarious as it is political, is a testament to the fact that literature does not have to be depressing or solemn to deliver a powerful message. Like Ramadan, I hope more publishers will invest in translating playful books that appeal to diverse readerships while defying stereotypes and expanding perspectives.
Alaoui, Meryem. Straight from the Horse’s Mouth. Translated by Emma Ramadan. Other Press, 2020.
Hannah Allen is a senior at Oberlin College & Conservatory of Music, where she is pursuing degrees in Harp Performance and French, in addition to a concentration in Literary Translation. She is a former recipient of the Société des Professeurs Français et Francophones des États-Unis Bourse Marandon and was selected to participate in the 2021 Banff International Literary Translation Centre.