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Art, Politics, and Critical Citizenry in Morocco: An Interview with Driss Ksikes

[Reporter Driss Ksikes outside the courthouse, 15 January 2007 in Casablanca. The court handed down three-year suspended sentences to Driss Ksikes, editor of Nichane, and to journalist Sanaa al-Aji, for insulting the Islamic religion, court officials said. Both were barred from any journalistic activity for two months and the independent Arabic-language magazine was suspended for two months. They were fined 80,000 dirhams (US $ 9,280) each. Image by Jalil Bounhar/AP Photo.] [Reporter Driss Ksikes outside the courthouse, 15 January 2007 in Casablanca. The court handed down three-year suspended sentences to Driss Ksikes, editor of Nichane, and to journalist Sanaa al-Aji, for insulting the Islamic religion, court officials said. Both were barred from any journalistic activity for two months and the independent Arabic-language magazine was suspended for two months. They were fined 80,000 dirhams (US $ 9,280) each. Image by Jalil Bounhar/AP Photo.]

Driss Ksikes’ presence in Morocco is not one that is easily captured by static titles. He is at once an artist, an academic, a journalist, and an activist. However, it is his ability to transcend the rigidity of any one of these roles that has allowed him to evade stereotypes. Both his artistic and political activities have also played a hand in inspiring him as director of the Centre d’Etudes Sociales, Economiques et Managériales (CESEM). Perhaps his best descriptor is the one he has used to describe himself: a “critical citizen.” 

Ksikes began his career as a playwright, publishing his first play in 1998, Pas de memoire...memoire de pas. He then published Le saint des incertains in 2000, IL in 2008, and The Match in 2010. His novel, Ma boite noire, was published by Tarik Editions (Casablanca) and Le grand souffle (Paris) in 2006. Beginning in 2002, he also acted as editor-in-chief of popular Moroccan French language magazine TelQuel, as well as editor-in-chief of its sister magazine from the same media group, the Arabic and Darija language Nichane. He subsequently left this post in 2006 after a highly publicized criminal prosecution for “defaming Islam and damaging morality” as a result of published jokes parodying the late King Hassan II and Islam.

Currently, Ksikes contributes as a freelance journalist to numerous international publications and is formally involved as director of CESEM, the research body for HEM (first business school in Morocco), and publisher of the analytical website Economia. Ksikes continues to be an influential force in Moroccan theater as a partner in DABAteatr, daba being the Moroccan word for “now.” DABAteatr’s ensemble of actors, artists, and activists create theater to engage citizen-audiences in the present, the political, and the social landscape of their own lives--a project that highlights Ksikes’ own imperative of critical citizenry.

Allison McManus (AM): You have been politically active in Morocco for years and in many different roles – as a journalist, novelist, professor, playwright, activist, intellectual, and others. How has your sense of place in Moroccan society and politics changed with respect to these different roles, if it has at all?

Driss Ksikes (DK): Allow me to borrow Gramsci's well-known expression and talk about my modest ambition to be an "organic connector." I am not conveying ideology but energy, on stage and through writing as a form of action. This energy is the result of my hankering for citizenship, the feeling that you should dig even deeper in the place where you fell from the womb, to make sure you are exploring all the potential it offers--as a place for life, debate, creation, and controversy. I am mainly a free writer concerned with his time. This takes various forms but it boils down to the same result: finding poetics to write on the world and ethics to act from the spot where you are.

AM: In 2007, while editor of the magazine Nichane, you received a suspended jail sentence and fine after the magazine published a series of jokes with religious and political content. How did this incident affect your resolve as a journalist and activist? With regard to freedom of expression, how has the situation changed in the last five years?

DK: This episode helped me realize many things. The first is that one should not only offer freedom as discourse and as a media practice, but also make sure there are enough people ready to grasp the need for freedom and fight for it. This episode helped me make a major decision, which was to go back to fieldwork, theatre, public debates, and interaction with people that my full time media involvement did not allow me to do. This episode helped me realize how attached I am to independence and how reluctant I am to accept self-censorship. Since then, that is unfortunately what I observe: many editors have been so involved in business and political bargaining that they accept constant self-censorship as a press management rule.

AM: Can you describe your motivations in joining the 20 February marches? Do you feel that the demonstrations changed popular conceptions of politics – why or why not?

DK: Without the 20 February marches, there would have been neither a new (and yet to be developed and implemented) constitution, nor a general feeling that voicing political requests and asking for more accountability is the only way to pave the way for change and reform. Morocco is a complex country where game rules involve a multi-faceted clientelist elite. There should still be more structured and targeted pressure from self-authorized citizens to bring about further changes. But I am not sure there is enough awareness that 20 February is the beginning of a-way-to-go process, not a dead end.

AM: You have mentioned in the past, with regards to Dabateatr, that “art is political.” In what ways does the theater contribute to social politics? Do you feel that this role is different in a country where freedom of expression has a history of contestation? Does this history alienate the art scene from a political discourse, make it more pertinent, or otherwise?

DK: I am afraid this quote "art is politics" is very often misunderstood. I do not mean that art should by definition tackle neither political issues nor, worse, be persuasive in the sense of giving lessons to the public on what they should think, do, or believe. This is an alienating and poor conception of theatre. I am rather saying that being on stage or in the public space, playing a role, making people think, feel, and interact with what has to do with life, love, politics, beauty, is political as such. People never take such a pause and realize how important is a feeling, a look, a desire, a frustration but in theatre. This has nothing to do with contestation. It has to do with individual interpretation, post-play interaction with the public, and by and large, going out from home to confront questions that concern the city.

AM: Do you feel that there is democracy in Morocco, and if so, does it differ from other countries? How does the most recent version of the constitution (approved by referendum 1 July 2011) support or deviate from a democratic vision?

DK: I do not think that only legal texts create a democracy. That helps a lot but not as much as it should in societies like ours where interpersonal, informal interaction, and illegal but authorized exchange has much more weight. I will not deny that we have moved some steps forward, but not enough to be a democracy. Powers are still weakly separated, economic rent is still prevalent, and the ministry of interior is still monopolistic. And besides security and administrative decisions, cities' political, economic, and social management, Morocco is still hesitating politically. I think that the will for democracy should not only come from above, where the balance of powers is by large in favor of a ruling monarchy, but from political parties who did not even dare to go as far as the monarchy did in response to the 20 February movement requests for political reform. Leadership and deliberative culture are needed to implement these reforms in various layers of our society. And in this regard, we are far behind.

AM: The idea of “Moroccan exceptionalism” seems to be beloved both by pundits and those who challenge them. In your opinion, what is Moroccan exceptionalism?

DK: That is a bad patriotic song. There is no such a thing as a nation "so different in nature" in relation to others. The Moroccan state has an old, ever-adapting political know-how that consists of managing short term crises to extend the life of the regime. It works because the state is weakly institutionalized and society is weakly empowered. It works because people are heavily indebted, individualistic, and pragmatic. These are some of the characteristics that could be compared to and nuanced in other contexts, but they are by no means exceptional.

AM: You were recently quoted in TelQuel as saying that the sense of collectiveness did not exist in Morocco, as though individuals “functioned in silos” (my translation from French). From where might a future sense of solidarity arise in the country?

DK:
Solidarity cannot be a moral stance. Only a strong, large, and prosperous middle class that creates wealth and feels concerned about collective wellbeing to share can trigger solidarity. We need economic democracy to attain social cohesion. And since we are neither heavily investing in qualitative public education and research nor creating creative platforms for grass root economic actors, it is very hard for people to have a sense of collective belonging. 

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