Rachida Madani’s New York Reading

Here’s a short video by Antonia Massa of Rachida Madani’s 16 April reading at Silvana in Harlem. (I hope to have a longer version of the reading up next week). Below the compte-rendu of the reading by Anonia Massa that just appeared in Voices of New York.

The legend of One Thousand and One Nights has captured the imaginations of poets and authors for centuries, inspiring countless revisions, retellings and additions to the original story.

Rachida Madani, a Moroccan poet, is one of the most recent writers to use the legend as a jumping off point. Her poetry collection “Tales of a Severed Head” (Yale University Press, 2012), translated from French by Marilyn Hacker, brims with raw, sometimes wrenching words and imagery that offer both feminist and political critiques of modern Morocco.

On April 16 , Madani kicked off her “Tales of a Severed Head” book tour in New York with a reading at Silvana, a Middle Eastern restaurant and bar in Harlem. Madani’s reading included an English translation from Pierre Joris and music from traditional Moroccan band Gnawa Boussou. Her audience included both French and English speakers, who drank tea and beer and tucked in to plates of falafel while they listened.

In “Tales of a Severed Head,” Madani breaks apart the single voice of Scheherazade, the heroine in One Thousand and One Nights who saves herself by telling a never-ending story. Madani’s Scheherazade speaks with many different voices and stories to tell.

“My poetry revolts against the female condition,” said Madani. “Women are often forced into the role of second-class citizens. When we use words, we take charge of our own destiny.”

Likewise, in Madani’s collection women speak to change their destiny. Words uplift and empower them, as they do in this verse, translated by Marilyn Hacker:

What a woman, what a departure!

She has named her fear

she has measured its feet

then she measured her own mouth

then rose up in one movement.

She goes through the glass city

goes from door to door

she speaks

and now nothing can stop her.

Madani was born in Tangiers, Morocco, where she lives now. She was educated in French and Arabic, and taught French for 30 years. She has written several volumes of poetry, and frequently denounces gender relationships in modern Morocco in her work. Poetry, Madani said, is a powerful tool for political protest.

“Moroccan women struggle for equality. They struggle for their voices to be heard, and to affirm and reclaim their rights,” said Madani. “I use poetry to demand justice, advocate for women and take a political position.”

Moroccan band Gnawa Boussou accompanied Madani's reading. (Photo by Antonia Massa)

“Tales of a Severed Head” has resonated with men and women far beyond the borders of Morocco. The collection has received critical acclaim both in Europe and the U.S., and was nominated for a 2013 Poetry in Translation Award by the PEN American Center.

Madani said that she feels grateful to Hacker, her translator, and the press she has received for her warm reception abroad. She said she also sees how her poetry highlights the struggles for equality that women face all over the world.

“The problems I raise aren’t exclusively for Moroccan women. They aren’t unique,” said Madani. “Rape and violence against women happen in Brazil, in Spain – everywhere, really. And in order to change that, there’s a mentality that needs to change.”

Madani’s book tour, her first in the U.S., will next take her to Boston, Cambridge, Pittsburgh and Washington.

To read additional excerpts from “Tales of a Severed Head,” visit Asymptote andJadaliyya.

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