Tangier sensing the city

Marshana: Words were Shakespeare's guns, but his words resurrect rather than kill.
That is why his power lives on...

--Zoubeir Ben Bouchta, Shakespeare Lane

In Brief

This paper discusses the year long research collaboration of George F Roberson (Cultural Geography, University of Massachusetts – Amherst, USA) and Khalid Amine (Performance Studies, Abdelmalek Essaadi University, Tetouan, Morocco). The guiding principles of our work are - 1) to build a variety of lasting collaborations based on the principle of reciprocity. (For example, what if we all try to contribute a little more than we take...?); 2) to engage and empower a broad range of stakeholders, especially by nurturing on the margins; 3) to develop and employ a wide range of media, especially the visual and performative since their vocabularies are more universal and thus provide broader reach; and, 4) to formulate and promote alternative messages and methods – challenging current rhetoric – featuring dialogue, peace, and understanding, using constructive and research informed strategies. The paper expands on five postcolonial horizons on which we have worked, they are: 1) Collaborations; 2) In the “contact zone”; 3) Shifting power; 4) Theory and practice; and, 5) Performing Tangier. We hope our work will provide direction and inspiration for reforming future Fulbright research projects / grants.

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To download in pdf, see link below

Editor's note:
a related paper specifically about my Fulbright senior research grant accomplishments was presented in Rabat, Morocco in April 2008 - to read the paper, click here

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The titled of our paper today is “Tangier sensing the city”.[2] Broadly, our work concerns ways to better comprehend, or make sense of, the city – Tangier – a special place where we all live or to which we have been drawn. We have quite a number of things we’d like to show, so borrowing from photography we’re tempted to call them “snapshots”, but in checking around we find that does not fit. Our themes are not random, like the now so casual shutter of digital cameras; nor do we mean to connote anything like the haphazard shots of a gun – surprisingly, that’s “snapshots” original 19th century and pre-photography meaning. So instead, we’ll borrow from Tanjawi playwright Zoubier Ben Bouchta’s practice of calling the acts of his plays “lightings.” So with a series of “lightings”, we hope to perform some postcolonial horizons; they are – 1) Collaborations; 2) In the “contact zone”; 3) Shifting power; 4) Theory and practice; and, 5) Performing Tangier.

1st Lighting: Collaborations

I say “our paper” since it focuses on aspects of my yearlong, indeed nearly daily, research collaboration with Khalid Amine. Not only has the collaboration been transnational, Moroccan-U.S. American, but also multi-disciplinary since our core interests expand from Performance Studies and Cultural Geography and reach well beyond.

Our guiding principles include:

1. to build a variety of lasting collaborations based on the principle of reciprocity. (For example, what if we all try to contribute a little more than we take...?)

2. to engage and empower a broad range of stakeholders, especially by nurturing on the margins;

3. to develop and employ a wide range of media, especially the visual and performative since their vocabularies are more universal and thus provide broader reach;

4. and, to formulate and promote alternative messages and methods – challenging current rhetoric – featuring dialogue, peace, and understanding, using constructive and research informed strategies.

It’s been a fruitful and formative experience for me and I’d like to thank Khalid for all the opportunities he’s given me. And I’d also like to acknowledge all my other collaborators,[3] especially Rajae Khaloufi and Mustapha Hillal Sousi with whom I collaborated on the English language publications of Ben Boutcha’s plays Shakespeare Lane and Lalla J’mila. Thank you also to the Moroccan American Commission for Educational and Cultural Exchange (MACECE) for their support of my work this year.

2nd Lighting: In the “contact zone”

Why Tangier?

Everyone attending the conference doubtless has their own unique answer to this question. It would make fascinating reading to assemble the geoautobiographies (that’s spatial rather than temporal) of everyone here as to their encounters with the city: why they choose to live here, what drew them here in the first place, and what sustains their ongoing presence. For example, Khalid was born in Tetouan and raised here. I, on the other hand, first became aware of the city many years ago when a hometown friend’s college roommate was Tanjawi – an American School of Tangier graduate. Meeting this guy, in Boston, before I had ever even visited another country, piqued my curiosity about the city and eventually precipitated my first visit across the straits; today I consider it as my second home.

All this notwithstanding, my reasons for conducting long-term research here – are rather more pragmatic and strategic. Firstly, Tangier is a key meeting point of lands, seas and cultures, or what Pratt (1992) calls the “contact zone” in her groundbreaking study Imperial Eyes.[4] And among cities around the globe, Tangier stands apart. Owing to its location on the Strait of Gibraltar just ten miles from Europe, the city has been a world crossroads since pre-Roman times. A lot is said these days about globalization, and in a sense one could argue that in Tangier it started with the arrival of Phoenician traders more than twenty-five hundred years ago, but conquests have also left deep footprints in the city. Furthermore, the city’s colonial experience, in the first half of the 20th century, was wholly unique and so hotly contested that it wound up in international compromise. Then marginalized for decades following independence, it is now the site of rapid change and major investment: including, among many other things, construction of one of the largest container ports in the world and a Nissan-Renault factory that will employ fifty-thousand workers. It also receives about two million non-resident ship borne arrivals annually; that’s double the city’s population.

This all adds up to a complex city of keystone negotiations, challenges and opportunities. One particular impact of these histories, geographies, economies, and politics is that outsiders have long played big roles in the city, and some of my research over the past few years has highlighted the pervasiveness and power of their English language stories over and within the city.[5]

3rd Lighting: Shifting power

In order to begin to address the imbalance, (and cognizant that it involves risk), we’ll explain some of our efforts designed to draw more attention to Tanjawi voices. One opportunity is to employ an “autoethnographic sensibility” as suggested by cultural geographers Butz and Besio (2004)[6]. Autoethnography is a concept that Pratt (1992)[7] extends from ethnography or what can also be called 'writing culture'. Citing Pratt, Butz and Besio explain it this way, it is “[w]here members of colonized groups … represent themselves to their colonizers … (using the) … colonizers terms while also remaining faithful to their own self-understandings.”[8] Like Butz and Besio’s work in Pakistan, we’re applying the concept to postcolonial encounters; and, the primary media of contestation is socio-travel oriented. Furthermore, I want to respond to what Butz and Besio argue are “two central responsibilities,” for researchers in post-colonial settings, 1) “to identify and analyze the lingering effects of colonialism”, and 2) “to contribute to processes that dismantle those effects”.[9] Where some postcolonial research has a historical orientation, this concept is informed by the past while primarily re/negotiating the present and the future.

4th Lighting: Theory and practice

As humans, one of our big challenges is to put our ideas –theory– into practice. How can we create the world we want to live in – how can we contribute to making the world a better place? These are high orders, but something we can surely contribute to by devoting ourselves, coming up with new methods, and by working together. With this in mind, our work has centered on developing and growing four interrelated enterprises, they are –

1. The conferences themselves – and to emphasize, these academic conferences for we are not a music or arts festival, this is a great opportunity for the city to present itself to the world. It is also an unrivaled opportunity to bring experts here from around the world to enter into the dialogue and contribute. As Khalid has observed, the conferences and the “setting of Tangier makes a perfect home for new intercultural encounters that celebrate and honor our essential humanity. The conferences provide a glimmer of hope…” Since you’re here today, I hope you agree. Thanks for coming and please plan to return next year, and spread the word to others.

2. The International Centre for Performance Studies (ICPS) – this is a potentially powerful new mechanism for synergy, granting, and growth that avoids some educational, governmental, and for-profit constraints. But for it to succeed, it desperately needs paid members, infusions of cash, volunteers, and in-kind donations. Speak to us after to get involved.

3. ICPS website and improved database – these resources provide powerful new tools for promotion, networking and outreach. Although already up and running, reaching around the world with our message and connecting likeminded people, to keep things going we need more help and expertise. Let us know if this is your forte.

4. Publications – this is the backbone of getting our words out into the marketplace of ideas. The publication program has made many books available, particularly in the English language. We’re selling them here at the conference at very low prices, in bookstores all around Morocco, and copies have also been donated to the Legation library. If you want to help on this score, one way to help is to buy some books here and then donate them to your library at home with the stipulation that they be made available via interlibrary loan. We’re also working to develop and deploy new supporting curriculum, including repatriating documents and making source documents more available. We hope people will use these books in their courses.

5th Lighting: Performing Tangier

The site-specific performance featured on the opening day of the conference was one manifestation of the type of creative, collaborative, dialogic, postcolonial, and autoethnographic interventions we’re advocating.[10] Another is the example of Shakespeare Lane,[11] our new play publication from ICPS. It’s the result of a diligent five stage creative / collaborative process. Firstly, working in Darija, Zoubeir wrote, published and performed the play. Then Rajae carefully translated it into English. Khalid followed by doing a side-by-side review checking the two texts. Then I put it into contemporary U.S. American-English parlance. Finally, we all met together to review details as it neared completion. Throughout the process, innumerable phone calls, emails, and conversations further strengthened the web of creative collaboration.

The project posed many unique challenges but also rewarded us with many opportunities. Take for example the footnotes (over 120 in all) they reflect the collaboration: some come from the original play text while others were added during the translating and editing processes. In sum, they contribute significantly to make the story more accessible and also act as a powerful resource of context and factual data about the city.

So, we all have many exciting opportunities now under the ICPS umbrella: these conferences, our collaborative teams, the Shakespeare Lane publication, plus many more – all contributing to performing Tangier. Continuing with the play example and to conclude, let me back up and look ahead, at some of my own synergies stemming from Shakespeare Lane, the conferences and these collaborations. I first saw the play at its premier at last year’s Tangier conference. It was the second of a sort of double-bill exploring the city; first was a screening of German director Peter Goedel’s film, Tangier: Legend of City. The pairing made a wonderful study in perspectives. Whereas the first looks from the outside in ―that is, made by foreigners and primarily featuring expatriates’ experiences of the city, the second looks from the inside in and inside out ―that is, Tanjawi’s looking deeply at themselves and also out at the world. Since I had given a paper at the conference calling for more attention to be drawn to the voices of city-insiders,[12] the play and the book publication project are theory put into practice. Where English language stories about the city have often come from short-term outside perspectives, this translation begins to provide some counter balance as Ben Bouchta looks from an insider’s perspective probing deeply into the lives, histories, concerns, and challenges of contemporary Tanjawi society. Using Bard-like comedy and social commentary set in a magical garden, Shakespeare Lane persistently calls norms into question as it informs, surprises, and challenges the audience again and again. One point stands clear, the famous crossroads city is at a societal crossroads: what will the citizenry choose for their future?

George F Roberson and Khalid Amine
Tangier, May 2008

Article citation:

Roberson, G with K Amine (2009) “Tangier: Sensing the City,” in Tangier at the Crossroads. B Tharaud, J Manuel Goñi Pérez, and G Roberson, eds. Tangier, Morocco: International Centre for Performance Studies, p27-31. To download in pdf, click here


[1] Ben Bouchta, Z. 2008. Shakespeare Lane. Translated from Arabic by R. Khaloufi, edited by G. Roberson. Tangier: International Centre for Performance Studies, p29.
[2] This paper, in slightly different format, is available online at: http://interactive-worlds.blogspot.com/2008/05/tangier-conference.html
[3] A listing is available online at: http://interactive-worlds.blogspot.com/2008/01/acknowledgments.html
[4] Pratt, M. 1992. Imperial Eyes: Travel Writing and Transculturation. London and New York: Routledge, p6.
[5] “Ephemeral Encounters, Enduring Narratives: Visitor Voices of Tangier” (Roberson 2006) http://interactive-worlds.blogspot.com/2007/01/tangier-visualizing-city.html
“Re/writing Tourist Tangier: Interrupting Visitor City-Narratives by Empowering Citizen Voices” (Roberson 2007) http://interactive-worlds.blogspot.com/2007/05/project-introduction.html
“Tangier: Visualizing the City” (Roberson 2007)
Worlds of Tangier, Morocco: Experiential, Narrative, and Place-Based Perspectives (Roberson 2006) http://interactive-worlds.blogspot.com/2006/12/dissertation-abstract.html
[6] Butz, D. and K. Besio. “The Value of Autoethnography for Field Research in Transcultural Settings” in The Professional Geographer, T. Hartshorn, ed., August 2004, v. 56, n. 3, p351.
[7] Pratt, p7.
[8] Butz, D. and K. Besio, p351.
[9] Ibid, p350.
[10] A paper about this performance is linked online at: http://icpsresearch.blogspot.com/2008/04/grey-room.html
[11] Additional information about the play project, along with future updates are available at http://interactive-worlds.blogspot.com/2008/02/shakespeare-lane.html
[12] Read the article at http://interactive-worlds.blogspot.com/2007/01/tangier-visualizing-city.html