Scholars from around the world gathered at Morocco’s national library in Rabat earlier this month to discuss the impact of a historic cultural magazine. Considered so subversive in its time that its founders were imprisoned for conspiring to overthrow the state, the iconic magazine Souffles (”Breaths”) continues to fascinate Moroccan intellectuals and artists and is increasingly the focus of international research.
The avant-garde magazine, published in French and Arabic, was founded by a group of young friends who were also some of the country’s most talented poets, writers and visual artists. They included the poets Abdellatif Laabi and Moustapha Nissabouri, the writers Driss Chraibi and Taher Ben Jalloun, the painters Mohamed Melehi and Farid Belkahia, and many more. The magazine also developed contacts and contributors elsewhere in the region, such as the Syrian poet Adonis.
The magazine was published from 1966 to 1971, a very turbulent time in Morocco’s modern history, when King Hassan II faced public protests, leftist opposition and coup attempts, and reacted by unleashing a fierce repression—including arrests, assassinations and torture—that came to be known as “the years of lead.”
In 1965, during the bloody crackdown on protests by high-school students and workers, Hassan II said in a speech: “There is no greater danger to the state than so-called intellectuals. It would be better for you to be illiterate.”
The creators of Souffles dreamed of a new national culture that would draw on indigenous popular art forms without being traditional or backward-looking. They were equally critical of Western capitalism and of local authoritarianism. Inspired by Che Guevara, Jean Paul Sartre, and the student protest movement in France in 1968, they felt the “intoxication of contestation” and believed in the “liberation of speech” said Jamal Bellakhdar, one of several former contributors who reminisced about his experience. The magazine took a combative tone that was groundbreaking then and that stills seems daring today.
As the years went on, Souffles become more overtly engaged in politics, as several of its leaders formed a new Marxist-Leninist movement. But it never abandoned its focus on culture. In fact, Kenza Sefrioui, who has written a book about the magazine and the “hopes of a cultural revolution” it sparked, notes that the artists around Souffles believed “there should be no separation of culture and politics,” and that culture could be both “a tool of decolonization” and “way to unite citizens.”
In 1972, Souffles was banned and several of its editors were arrested and tortured. Laabi served eight years in prison for crimes of opinion and then went into exile in France.
The magazine influenced generations of Moroccan intellectuals, but for decades it was hard to find. Then in the late 1990s, after a meeting with Laabi, two American academics—Thomas Spear of the City University in New York and Anne George of Whatcom Community College, in Washington state—took on the task of digitizing all the issues. Meanwhile, after Mohamed VI succeeded his father Hassan II, there was greater acknowledgment of the human-rights abuses of the past, and promises of gradual democratic reforms.
Today issues of the iconic magazine in French and in Arabic are available online through the web site of Morocco’s national library. In November of 2015, Stanford University Press published the first English-language anthology of the magazine. And now the Moroccan publishing house La Croisée des Chemins has published reproductions of all the original volumes.
Why does this aborted avant-garde project continue to exercise such fascination? The magazine offers scholars a window onto a turbulent time in the history of North Africa, one that raised questions that were repressed or skirted but never fully addressed. It is of interest to scholars of the Middle East, of Arabic literature and culture, and of post-colonialism.
Many of the participants at the conference held on April 8 and 9 in Rabat spoke of what discovering the magazine had meant to them personally. They seemed thrilled to meet its aged and famous writers in person, or to connect with other scholars who shared their interest. Many also insisted on the fifty-year-old magazine’s relevance today. Its concern with social justice, individual freedom and national identity—and its vision of culture as a form of meaningful and necessary political action—continued to resonate, on both sides of the Mediterranean, said Spanish poet, activist and academic Laura Casielles, particularly in this time of “disenchantment with democratic transitions” that never seem to end.