Arabic Literacy and Much More

TALIM Storytelling
Hundreds of Tangier medina women have graduated from the literacy program which TALIM does in partnership with FTAM, the Fondation Tanger al-Madina, a Moroccan NGO.  The basis is teaching them to read and write in Arabic, but we also offer cooking, sewing, and foreign language classes, thanks to a number of volunteers from the expatriate community.

Recently we hosted two more events with the women, where their horizons were further widened.  The above photo shows Mitchell Chanelis of Stories Exchange, where, thanks to a hookup organized by Rachid El Mziryahi of the American Language Center, and interpretation provided by two student interns from the Fahd School of Translation, the women were able to converse with American playwright and storytelling coach Robbie McCauley, currently doing a residency at the Getty Research Institute in Los Angeles.

Here is a video link to the storytelling session.

“Our women” – we tend to say that in reference to the students in the literacy program – represent rich ground for the storyteller, and Robbie’s and Mitch’s encouragement elicited a number of touching tales of parental loss, early marriage, divorce… the stuff of life.

One woman, who hesitated because “she didn’t have anything interesting to say,” turned out to have a fascinating story.  There we were, sitting in a room we’ve begun to set up as a “community museum” (within our own museum), dedicated to the women’s stories of living in the medina.  And the woman who had nothing to say proceeded to show us a photo on our wall which featured her grandfather, who was an official in the employ of the pre-independence Sultan of Morocco!

The women also participated in a presentation by Mohammed Abid, director of research at the Institut Pasteur in Tangier.  Abid had given a presentation on food safety at the AIMS Public Health conference in Tunis in 2011, and this time it was tailored to the concerns of women trying to keep their families safe and healthy.

Abid – who brought along two medical colleagues to form a panel for the questions that followed – was very impressed with the level of awareness of the women.  He wants to return to take up other subjects of interest: diabetes, hypertension, gynecology.  This is really of great benefit to the women, who don’t always have the possibility of getting expert advice – for free.

Gerald Loftus

Al-Halqa: In the Storyteller’s Circle

TALIM Al-Halqa English poster
Please don't call Al-Halqa, as one audience member tried to during the Q&A with film maker Thomas Ladenburger, part of Morocco's "begging" scene.  No, as Simon-Pierre Hamelin, writer and manager of Tangier's Librairie des Colonnes bookstore responded, it is an art form that predates the written word by thousands of years, and is a respectable – if dying – occupation.  The film showing at Tangier's Cinémathèque was sponsored by the Fondation Jardin Majorelle.

TALIM Al-Halqa PosterAs depicted in this award-winning documentary, storyteller Abderahim would be highly offended to be called a beggar.  His efforts to coach his son in the art and business of Al-Halqa make clear that he applies the same care and preparation to his work as any standup comedian or one-man-show artist.  Timing, cadence, choice of "script," audience – it all goes into making this an occupation that puts food on the table for his photogenic family of six.

Working the crowd at the famous Marrakesh square of Jamaa Al-Fna, Abderahim is in competition with snake charmers, fire-eaters, Gnaoua musicians, and, in a first for this film viewer, a man who gulps down boiling water directly from a kettle.  These people, though they pass around the hat, are no more beggars than me, when I plead for donations to our museum "poor box."  You gotta pay for culture, right?

The problem with Al-Halqa artists is that the competition is not just the other shows of the public square, but all the other distractions of modern life.  Telling stories that date back centuries – as colorful as the setting might be, will a 17 year old take his eyes off his damn tablet?

And despite being anointed with UNESCO Intangible Heritage status, Morocco's Halqa street performers are not above being swept away to make room for other, noisier or more "picturesque" acts.

Thomas Ladenburger has provided us a loving portrait of these people who guard an ancient tradition, despite the challenges of modern life.  Watch Al-Halqa: In the Storyteller's Circle for a glimpse at a Morocco that few tourists can penetrate, and which may soon go the way of other lost treasures of the intangible kind.

Gerald Loftus

Telling the Legation’s Story

TALIM The Storyteller James McBey 1912

"The Storyteller," James McBey, etching, 1912: TALIM Museum

Vision – and the resources to back it up

What's our Legation "elevator pitch?" (that minute-or-less sound bite introduction everyone should have handy). How's this:

"The Tangier American Legation is America's only National Historic Landmark located outside the US, where we tell the story of America's first diplomatic property and our relations with Morocco dating back to the American Revolution."

Of course, there are many other aspects to TALIM, the Tangier American Legation Institute for Moroccan Studies.  An "elevator pitch" that hopes to raise us some funds might add:

"TALIM is a nonprofit cultural center dependent on grants and donations, which help us in our efforts to preserve America's oldest diplomatic building and to continue our program in Arabic literacy for the women of Tangier's medina."

For an even fuller picture, that elevator speech might require a trip up to the 18th floor:

"As the research center in Morocco of AIMS, the American Institute for Maghrib Studies, TALIM fosters educational exchange, hosts scholars, and organizes seminars and conferences on a wide range of subjects."

So now the pitch requires things like paragraphs, pictures, and links.  It's beginning to resemble a blog!  Which is sort of my point, and this post is in response to questions I've received about my "vision" for this institution.  With applications coming in to fill my job next year, I would like to share some ideas that have guided my work here in the last few years.

The unifying theme has been "make the most
of what we have, and tell the stories that make this place unique."  Unlike James McBey's "The
Storyteller," you can't be content with just waiting until
people sidle up to tell them a tale or two. 
This job requires reaching out, hence blog and other media platforms.  We're set to feature again in the New York Times this coming weekend.

"Women's literacy" may sound worthy, but perhaps a bit generic.  How about the story of Fatima Gharbaoui, who also showed artistic talent, and whose sale of paintings earned her enough to have electricity and running water installed in her home?  That story of changing one person's life always manages to inspire people.

And that thing about being the first US diplomatic property?  Isn't it pretty amazing that this particular American first occurred in Morocco, thanks to the sultan reaching out to the US during its Revolution, the first such head of state to do so?  America's sole National Historic Landmark outside the US is in Africa, in a Muslim country, one of the Arab world's most stable powers.  If that is not a story of topical relevance two-plus centuries on, I don't know what is.

TALIM OBO Isometric looking southThe trick to making this institution fit together is the realization that its component parts – museum, research library, etc. – aren't separate from each other, but that all can feed each other.  Take stories out of the archives and put them on the walls – and in the press.  Like a series of vignettes from the Legation's long diplomatic history, including a great Civil War story that was just in the NY Times.

Archives to museum, leading to research that in turns enriches the research library.  Look at every piece of this edifice – literally and figuratively – as linked to the rest.  A group of architects and engineers chronicles the history of the Legation in the State Department's "Historic Structure Report" (above right, an isometric image of Legation buildings from the HSR).  Display their blueprint history as a timeline of the Legation's metamorphosis across the centuries.

Preaching to the choir is necessary – many of the Legation's stakeholders are unaware of aspects of TALIM outside their particular professional field – and building new relationships is a constant effort.  The Legation should be much better known in American historic preservation circles, but so far the National Trust for Historic Preservation insists on ignoring America's only overseas National Historic Landmark.

And on the academic side, even though we continue to draw scholars of the Maghreb, we are also of increasing interest to people looking the opposite direction: scholars in the Maghreb and beyond who study America's long history in this region.  Stay tuned for the founding meeting at the Legation of the Moroccan American Studies Association.

So, to sum up a vision for this unique historic institution:

"Make the Tangier American Legation – TALIM – a centerpiece for American cultural engagement with Morocco, capitalizing on the Legation's historic presence and involvement with the community, and ensure that Americans, Moroccans, and others learn about the institution and help garner it the support and resources it deserves."

That last bit – support and resources.  Very, very important.  As one wit aptly put it, "Vison without resources is hallucination."  Everything is linked: TALIM activities, public relations, building a network of supporters, and programs and donations flowing from that network.

Gerald Loftus