Tangier - polyglot city at the crossroads

May 31, 1996

Paul Bowles lives there with his Spanish translator, the Guatemalan short story writer Rodrigo Rey Rosa. The flat overlooks the minaret of a new mosque which in turn overlooks Guettas restaurant where first the Beat and then the hippy generation sat outside to share their daily rations of couscous with the cats.

Now the proprietress is having problems with the wine licence: the restaurant gardens and the literary lunches may have long antedated the call of the local muezzin, but the integristes insist that alcohol may not be sold within earshot.

In Tangier the French integriste translates as "fundamentalist": neither word exists in either classical (literary) Arab or in vernacular Moroccan (dialecto). In a polyglot city whose educated inhabitants speak at least four languages remarkably indifferently, and where the bookshops are stocked half-and-half with Arab and European titles, such discussions abound.

Tangier was the setting for a colloquium on writers and translators at the postgraduate school of translation at the King Fahd University. Co-organised with Spain's Cervantes Institute (the French one, although invited to participate, was not present) it was attended by the Spanish author Juan Goytisolo, who came from his home in Marrakech; the Moroccan Tahar Ben Jelloun, who writes in French and lives in Paris; and the Arabic author Mohammed Berrada, whose bestseller The Game of Forgetting is about to appear in English (translated by a Palestinian), alongside recent French and Spanish versions. Impressively, all the translators - including some "doubles", as with Goytisolo's two Arabic and Berrada's joint Spanish translators - also attended with the 100 students.

Cecilia Fernandez of the Cervantes Institute said: "We are at a crossroads - in fact Tangier has always been a crossroads. There's a joke that authors can't come here without writing a book about it, and certainly all the authors we have invited have at least one book set in Tangier. Some writers, like Bowles and Goytisolo, look towards Arabia but from Morocco you also can't avoid looking north and seeing Spain, only 12km across the ocean. And the colonial languages of the region still have an enormous power in our culture."

ldrissi Bouyahyaqui founded the school ten years ago and is now its director. He acquired his flawless English teaching at a secondary modern school in Hertfordshire in the 1960s and explains: "There is a growing interest in the cross-currents of translation. Since this is the only postgraduate school in the Arab world, the students are in great demand. There is an urgent need for their skills and half are always placed before they qualify. Just one example from your field of work: I don't think there is a single international press agency in the region which doesn't use them, not to mention those overseas."

Literary translation plays only a small part in the two or three-year course precisely because of its vocational emphasis. Even in a country where translated literature makes up considerably more than the 3 per cent it occupies in the British market, translators - unlike interpreters - find it as hard to gain adequate remuneration as elsewhere. The annual intake is of 40 to 45 students, either seconded following two years' study, or newly graduated. A third to a half of them are women, mainly living away from home for the first time, and a large accommodation hall is provided on campus. Talking to Souad Ragala, a research professor, religion and politics are an everyday presence in the multilingual discussions and no subject is treated as inherently taboo. However, English tutor Malcolm Williams felt that some issues were harder for overseas teachers to introduce: "I brought in a couple of articles on wife abuse for the students to discuss and translate. The feeling was that this might be a western problem but it wasn't a local one. Nevertheless, it was clearly a sensitive topic, only finally undertaken as a translation exercise."

Mr Williams is one of the six staff members from overseas. Since the school only has a dozen altogether and has fought hard to maintain its favourable ratio of only eight to 12 students to a class, the balance is clearly tilted towards favouring high-flyer graduates from universities at Fez, Rabat and Tetouan, who often go on to work for international agencies, transnational companies and government ministries.

He had difficulty in recalling any who had been unable to find employment. He is not alone in mentioning the developing links with Toledo and Durham, a look towards not only the Mediterranean rim but also a European sensibility "reminiscent in some ways of the Middle Ages and against the whole US- sponsored call to a New World Order".

Mr Williams, however, takes this further: "I believe that many of the United Nation's declarations are really based on an Enlightenment perspective that goes back to the Rights of Man.

The problem is that by the time of the Enlightenment the Arab world had really separated from the European one to a point where the latter came [under colonisation] to be more than just a threat.

If a school such as ours can do anything, then it is about furthering the sort of international understanding which removes that sense of threat and allows us to return to a more respectful - and medieval - perspective." The female students have perused some of the more complex of contemporary writers in depth and they take pride in hosting the first-ever encounter between authors, translators - and students.

Mr Williams added: "It's important for us at this school to be doing something that doesn't happen everywhere - maybe not anywhere else. Certainly not in other Arab countries yet."

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