April 12, 2010

Poet translates Emory culture into Arabic

Allal El Hajjam

“My friend King,
It is beautiful, this fragrant city;
Elegant, joyful in its mantle of blue,
Its happiness tickled
By the warmth of its green wings.
And yet I ask your pure, generous soul:
Has the Southern sun arisen this morning?"
—From “King” by Allal El Hajjam

Allal El Hajjam observed two faces of America as a disenchanted undergraduate in Fez, Morocco during the 1970s.

One was America the imperialist, a nation bent on conquering the world — or, at the very least, Vietnam. The second was America the pop icon, spun from Hollywood glamour, blue jeans and a creative counterculture.

Today, the Poet Laureate of Morocco and Mellon visiting associate professor in Emory’s Department of Middle Eastern and South Asian Studies (MESAS) sees America as his inspiration.

 “This is the culmination of my 10-year conversation with America,” he says, referring to his latest collection of poems, “Sabaah Emory” (“Emory Morning”).

El Hajjam penned the anthology while spending the past academic year teaching Arabic language to Emory undergraduate and graduate students through a faculty exchange program with Al-Akhawayn University in Ifrane, Morocco, where he teaches. Al-Akhawayn also hosts a summer Arabic Language and North African Studies program through Emory’s Center for International Programs Abroad, along with semester and year-long study abroad opportunities.

Previously, El Hajjam was a visiting professor at Middlebury College and The George Washington University, but his time at Emory is what compelled him to write a 20-poem collection.

“Emory affected me deeply,” he explains, citing the tight-knit campus community, Southern hospitality and students’ enthusiasm for learning.

His collection, most of which has already been published in newspapers throughout the Arab world, covers such luminaries as Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr., along with MARTA and the Emory Village Starbucks. Starbucks was particularly intriguing, he says, since it lacked smoke and incessant chatter — two prerequisites for the Moroccan coffeehouse.

MESAS will host an event on April 21 at 5 p.m in White Hall Room 107 honoring his poetry and teaching, featuring El Hajjam reading selections from “Emory Morning” in Arabic.  Students will follow with their English translations of his work.

Carol Ross, a sophomore MESAS major and one of El Hajjam’s students, appreciated the chance to learn from a working poet.

“When you’re learning Arabic, a lot of it is about Arabic culture,” she says. “We had someone who is not only comfortable with the language but has a passion for it.”

El Hajjam hopes his collection will not only introduce Emory to a wider Arabic audience, but will heal some of the tensions between the U.S. and the Arab world.

“Poetry always tries to render the present more honorable,” he says. “What’s missing in the Arab-American relationship is this kind of conversation.”

“This is what I did when I took America as my muse.”

>> Allal El Hajjam reads “I Will Command Them if They Listen” in Arabic.

>> Now hear the poem’s English translation.

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  • Arabic Summer Program fosters understanding
    In its third year, Emory’s Arabic Language and North African Studies summer study abroad program at Al-Akhawayn University encourages students to hone their Arabic language skills or study North African culture in English while immersing themselves in the politics, economics and literature of a diverse country straddling ancient and modern civilizations.

    “What fascinates them the most is the juxtaposition of urban and rural life,” says Program Director Rkia Cornell, a senior lecturer in MESAS. “They fall in love with the culture.”

    Sixteen students will travel this summer to the mountain resort town of Ifrane, Morocco, the majestic backdrop for Al-Akhawayn, an American-style university created by King Hassan II of Morocco and King Fahd ibn Abdel Aziz of Saudi Arabia.

    Students form lasting friendships through the experience. One former student who participated in a weekend home stay reunited with the family later while studying abroad for a semester in Rabat, Cornell says.