Pieprzak lectures on marginalized voices in Casablanca slums

Last Thursday, Katarzyna Pieprzak, associate professor of Francophone literature, French language and comparative literature, opened the 2013 Faculty Lecture Series in Wege with a talk entitled “Participatory Memory and Casablanca’s Forgotten Neighborhoods: Interventions in the Representation of Terrorism and the Urban Poor at the Community Museum in Ben M’Sik.” This year, the lecture series will conist of weekly lectures through March 14, with Christian Thorne, associate professor of English, giving the next address.

Pieprzak’s talk focused on “the tensions between the different types of memory projects in the city of Casablanca,” according to the College’s press release. Her areas of expertise include “contemporary literature and art from North Africa, postcolonial theory from the Francophone world and museums in Africa and the Middle East.” In the lecture, Pieprzak delved into all of these fields, giving special attention to the Community Museum of Ben M’Sik and the book Les Etoiles de Sidi Moumen by Mahi Binebine.

“The name Casablanca,” Pieprzak opened, commonly conjures the popular Hollywood movie, and the metropolis is “usually left out of lists” of major North African cities and historic sites. Even the official narratives emphasize its “future-oriented industrial and finance roles,” and to maintain its Hollywood cosmopolitan reputation, Casablanca’s “shanty towns and working class neighborhoods are kept out of sight,” Pieprzak said. For the populations of those shantytowns, most of which only relatively recently urbanized, “history is deliberately left behind” and the city is seen as “a place of becoming, not of remembering.”

“In response to this multi-level disregard for the city’s past, in the late 1990s several preservation and heritage projects emerged,” Pierpzak said. These projects were made up of artists, architects, writers and activists. They were concerned with “what should be remembered, and how.” Pieprzak focused her speech on the way in which “Casablanca’s poorest neighborhoods are explored through art and literature,” and on the “interplay between fiction and ethnographic museology.”

“We have turned to literature as the more legitimate way to collect voices that have been repressed,” Pieprzak said, and although this has value, it also “has its limits.” Production of literature in contemporary Morocco is an elite activity. Her aim was “not to explore the limits of literature,” but to explore the potential of museology.

To expand on literature’s drawbacks, she discussed Les Etoiles of Sidi Moumen, which seeks to humanize the Casablanca slum of Sidi Moumen, but does so only in its relationship to violence and terrorism. “In one episode after another, Sidi Moumen is narrated as a space of extreme violence, abuse and ultimately violence,” Pieprzak said. While the writer, Binebine, recognizes people in the slums are normal, they always return to violence.

Pieprzak then moved on to the Ben M’sik Community Museum, opened in 2005 in the Casablanca slum Ben M’sik. Widely regarded as Morocco’s largest slum, Ben M’Sik is “marginalized and ignored,” Pieprzak said. After the riots in 1981, the “neighborhood became one that the state would rather erase and forget.” The goal of the museum is to collect oral histories of the people of the slum; “to chronicle and document the richness and diversity of a neighborhood whose memory faced state erasure,” Pieprzak said.

Pierpzak explained how her book on how “tactical museology” emerged from a “national museum crisis.” Tactical museology often fits a mold of “radical institutionality,” where museums forsake the conventions of the field. Pieprzak quoted the former director of Morocco’s museums saying that the country realized in the 1970s that they “didn’t really have any museums, only depots.”

In response, “artist collectives have worked to create alternate art spaces and projects that start with the idea of shared resources and engage small collective units, such as neighborhoods, marketplaces, parks and squares,” Pieprzak said. She cited a rural community museum in Ait Iktel that won a museum award. Ben M’Sik, she said, “productively builds on the history of radical institutionality of small museums.”

The museum started as a shared endeavor of the Hassan II University in Ben M’Sik and Kennesaw State University in Georgia. Its collection focuses on oral histories of community members, with both “positive and negative shared experiences, even after terrorist attacks,” Pieprzak said. Residents responded to oral history questions by “emphasizing their commitment to the community,” and community members have been “stepping forward unsolicited” to donate objects to the museum that help tell local histories. Interviewees, offered payment for their oral accounts, overwhelmingly donated it to a neighborhood school to buy computers.

After discussing the museum, Pierpzak asked, “How might these museological processes inform our understanding of literature?” She argued for “a decentering movement,” citing bell hooks for her belief that retelling people’s stories is inherently colonializing their narratives. Pieprzak discussed one specific example, the “Nomad Novel Project,” which asked, “How can a city narrate a novel?” Sections of the unfinished novel were projected on walls, expanded by storytellers and read aloud in market places across Casablanca.

Finally, Pierpzak showed images of protests for participatory democracy across Morocco. “This drive toward participatory democracy would be well heard by the literary establishment,” Pieprzak said. Literature must “participate in the communities whose memory it claims to represent.”

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