A very American story

The long and wondrous life of Hassan Ouakrim, the "Cultural Ambassador" of the Maghreb to the United States.

Night Before Thinking production at La Mama 1989. Image credit La Mama archive.

The past few months have seen much cultural ferment in the North African (in particular, Berber) communities of the United States. There were the Yennayer New Year celebrations across American cities in mid-January—2019 corresponds to the year 2969 on the Amazigh calander. There was the all-day Tafsut celebration in Union City, New Jersey on April 27. This was a pan-Berber gathering that drew Amazigh-Americans of Algerian, Moroccan and Malian descent—to commemorate the Berber Spring (Tafsut), the period of protest and civil activism that erupted in Kabylie, Algeria in March 1980. The recent activity—including the weekly Sunday afternoon rallies at Union Square in Manhattan, New York—is prompted by ongoing events in Algeria and Morocco, but is also evidence of the cultural work done by the growing Amazigh-American community. At the center of it all is Hassan Ouakrim, the Moroccan director, choreographer, art collector, and elder statesman of the Berber community in the US, who has just published the first volume of his autobiography. Memoir of A Berber, Part I. It chronicles Ouakrim’s childhood in colonial Morocco, his attempts to create a nationalist theater movement after independence, his three decades as artistic director at La Mama Theater in New York, and fifty years as “master teacher” who introduced myriad Berber and Saharan dances (like ahwach) to the United States.

On Sunday April 29th, a patterned caidale Moorish tent was set up on the sidewalk in the East Village, just outside the Algerian restaurant Nomad. Online the event was billed as the great “Maghreb Night Celebration,” though in truth it was a book launch for and celebration of the seventy-nine year-old Ouakrim. As various musicians took to the makeshift stage, and dancers and drummers swirled around, Ouakrim sat cross-legged inside the patterned tent, receiving guests, many of them former students. Turbaned, bejeweled, with lanterns hanging overhead, and a burning brazier in front of him, he looked (intentionally, no doubt) like a North African sorcerer.

Inossis Berber Ballet Theatre 1968. Image credit the Oukarims archive.

“My story is quite different,” he explained in between book signings, “but it’s a very American story.” Next to him stood an old-time friend, Mrabet, who was wearing a “star-spangled djellaba.” The “red, white, and blue” robe, visitors were told, was designed for Mick Jagger for his visit to Morocco in 1989.

Ouakarim’s memoir begins in 1947, in the “earthen village” of Aday, deep in French-colonized central Morocco, near Tafraout, a town in the anti-Atlas mountains. The opening scene has seven-year Hassan standing on the side of road with his mother, waiting for a bus that will take him a thousand miles north to be with his father, a charcoal vendor in the kasbah of Tangier. “My mother, dressed in black, standing next to me, prayed and cried silently. She handed me a small bundle of a loaf of bread, a few boiled eggs, and a small jar of argan oil,” he writes. “I kissed her hand and ran to the bus.” Thus, begins a charming account—told through a seven-year old’s eyes—of a journey through the mountain ranges of French Morocco to Spanish Morocco to the International Zone of Tangier. Ouakrim encounters the sea for the first time in Agadir and then Mogador (Essaouira), changes buses in Casablanca, before crossing the border to the Spanish-controlled north. In colonial Tangier, the seven-year-old sleeps on a straw-mat on a rooftop in the medina with distant cousins. Every morning he would walk from the impoverished native quarter to the European area to attend the Ecole Poncey where his father enrolled him.

He quickly learned basic French and Spanish, earning his Certificat d’Etudes Primaires in 1953. His father couldn’t afford to pay for high school, so he was sent to stay with an uncle back south in Marrakech. The 12-year-old moved from one guardian to another and to different colonial schools; he would be mocked for his accent, spurned for being “a low-class Berber indigène.” He survived deprivation and mistreatment, in part by taking flight with his imagination and escaping into the world of the jinn (spirits).

Though departing my birthplace of Aday left me numb and my heart broken, my Berber spirit did not leave me. In dreams at night, a flying horseman would sweep down from above on a glowing white horse, raising a sword. In my burnous and turban, I would join him. We would fly over the Atlas Mountains, free, exploring the contours of the land.

Ouakrim giving a gnawa master class.

In Marrakech, shunned and bullied by classmates and teachers, he would find refuge in Jamaa El Fna, the city’s famous plaza. He would disappear into the throng of troubadours, musicians, healers and fake doctors—awed by “the magic of showmanship.” As he writes, “I connected with the fantasy of Jemaa El’fna in the fifties mainly to distract myself from my negative thoughts in times of despair and emptiness.” The boy was enchanted by the street performers as well as by the “invisible ghosts and spirits” that inhabited in the medina’s alleyways. One day while he stood watching a Sufi master who could make milk flow from an empty jug, the healer grabbed him by the wrist and yanked him forward: “You don’t belong here. Go back north where you came from;” he then added, “later in your life, you will leave this land… You will fly over the ocean… by the power of baraka, the blessing of Sidi Moulay Brahim”—referring to the saint whose spirit soars over the Atlas Mountains. “When you cross the ocean, where you find large bridges, that’s where you must spend your life, in Blad al-Marikan, America.” The first volume of Ouakrim’s memoir ends with him landing at JFK airport one icy afternoon in January 1972, and while crossing the Williamsburg Bridge to lower Manhattan, he recalls the healer’s prophesy.

La Jilsa 1974. Image credit La Mama.

Ouakrim paints a rich portrait of life in colonial Marrakech, where the French are ruling through the Berber strongman Thami El Glaoui—“lord of the Atlas”—while cracking down on the fledgling nationalist movement. “Kill the terrorists, wherever they hide,” was the colonial state’s motto. The young Ouakrim begins to develop a nationalist consciousness, mainly through his uncle, Ahmed Ouakrim, a leader in the Moroccan Liberation Army, and future head of the Moroccan Veterans’ Association. In August 1953, the Moroccan sultan Mohammed V was sent into exile by the French and replaced by his cousin Ben Arafa, who is widely viewed by the Moroccan population as a puppet king. One day in early 1954, Hassan, a precocious student at his collège, was summoned to the principal’s office, and told that he had been selected to present a bouquet of flowers to Ben Arafa who was to visit the school soon. The principal’s assistant even took measurements for the white djellaba that the boy would wear. Upon conferring with his friends, the 12 year-old decided that he would not make a “public offering to a fake king.” When he returned to the principal’s office and informed them that he couldn’t get permission from his father, the principal kicked him and threw him against the metal cabinets. “My only sensory awareness was the sound of my head crashing against metal.”

The fourteen-year old did well in refusing to honor the puppet sultan. Some days after visiting the collège, Ben Arafa went to pray at the ancient Berrima mosque in the medina of Marrakech. On the other side of the medina’s wall, Ouakarim and his cousin Dabelk were strolling through the alleyways shopping for lamb chops. They could hear the drums and trumpets from the other side, the pomp and circumstance surrounding Ben Arafa’s visit. Suddenly, they heard an explosion: a grenade had been tossed at the sultan as he was leaving the mosque. In the smoke, panic and mayhem, the boys saw Ben Arafa being escorted into a car, his robe stained with blood. Hundreds of soldiers sealed off the medina’s gate, trapping everyone inside. Hassan and his cousin were thrown up against a wall, as military officials with dogs searched every individual. One of the dogs suddenly growled and jumped at Hassan’s cousin, yanking him down to the ground. The police rushed and found that Dabelk was, per tradition, carrying a kilo of lamb chops in the hood of his djellaba; that’s what drew the dog’s attention.

Hassan Ouakrim and his friend Khalil Mrabet at the book launch of Memoir of Berber.

Ouakrim would return to Tangier soon thereafter, where he would finish high school. He began attending theater workshops, classes in vocal training and mime techniques. In 1958, he was selected to dance at the Royal Theatre in Gibraltar, where he was given an award by the British governor and his wife; this was his first time traveling overseas and representing Morocco. When Tangier became part of Morocco in 1960, he and the actor Bachir Skiredj worked to create a nationalist theater movement in the city. Ouakrim would go on to work as a school inspector and university administrator—shuttling between Rabat and Tangier. In 1968, he founded Inossis, the still existing Berber theater group, that mixes ballet with Amazigh folklore. Ouakrim came up with the name by using his friend William Burroughs’ “cut-up technique”: he cut up a few words into single letters, shuffled the letters randomly, and accepted the result—“Inossis.”

Memoir of A Berber contains hilarious vignettes, lots of gossip, and descriptions of the most popular bars, bordellos and nightclubs of 1960s Morocco. But the memoir also captures the exhilaration that many Moroccan artists felt at independence, and just as poignantly the heartbreak as the monarchy, worried by leftist protest, clamped down on artists and intellectuals. “The late sixties saw a flourishing in all kinds of arts,” writes Ouakrim, but “most [artists] came up against bureaucratic walls impossible to break… Since Morocco’s independence, artists have been interested in giving back to their country… However, the government has had other interests… red tape ties up the efforts of artists in Morocco, diminishing our cultural identity day by day.”

In early 1972, Ellen Stewart, the legendary director and founder of La Mama Experimental Theater, invited Ouakrim to help her stage the play “A Night Before Thinking,” an adaptation of a story recounted by the Moroccan painter Ahmed Yacoubi to novelist Paul Bowles. (The introduction to Memoir of A Berber is actually written by Stewart: she refers to Ouakrim as her “son”—and “the cultural ambassador of Moroccan culture in the United States.”) Ouakrim would rise to become artistic director at La Mama. Almost 50 years later, Ouakrim still lives in the East Village, a few blocks from the theater. His fourth-floor apartment is museum-like, with artifacts from around the world: tableaux by the late Moroccan painters Ahmed Yaqubi and Mohammed Hamri as well as 18th century Syrian wooden room divider, rare fabrics and tapestries, antique teapots and silver rosewater bottles from across North Africa, and baskets and baskets of North African jewelry. When talking to guests or journalists, Wakrim, will sit atop a mosaic wooden chair, in a blue Tuareg robe and turban, adjusting his gem-studded bracelets and rings, as he discusses ancestor-veneration in Berber societies, his friendship with Jean Genet, and his love of “Kabbalistic knowledge.”

1976 Moroccan evening celebrating Americas Bicentennial and Morocco being first country to recognize American independence.

Memoir of A Berber is eighty pages of text and thirty pages of fascinating photographs: we see Ouakrim with his father in their ancestral village; shots of early performances by Inossis; photographs of the author with a number of celebrity musicians and writers he has collaborated with (novelist Mohammed Choukri, Jean Genet, Allen Ginsberg, Randy Weston). There is also one intriguing photo of Ouakrim dressed up as a French-colonial soldier, posing with Donald and Ivanka Trump, at a dress-up party in the Hamptons in 1992.

The final chapters recount Ouakrim’s escapades with the late painter Mohammed Hamri, and the Master Musicians of Jajouka, the Sufi group that Burroughs termed the “4000-year old rock and roll band.” Jajouka have recorded with the jazz musicians Ornette Coleman, and Weston, as well as Brian Jones, founder of the Rolling Stones. The latter recorded “Brian Jones Presents the Pipes of Jajouka” after visiting Morocco in 1968—and hoped to incorporate the group’s rhythms into the music of the Rolling Stones. But on July 2, 1969, Jones was found motionless at the bottom of the pool at his farmhouse.  Rolling Stone fans have long wondered about the circumstances surrounding his mysterious death. (The coroner’s report stated “death by misadventure,” noting that Jones’ liver was enlarged by drug and alcohol use.)

1989 production at La Mama.

In the last pages of Memoir of A Berber, Ouakrim—who was initiated into the Jajouka group—offers an alternative theory for the English musician’s death: Jones was cursed by the Jajouka after a payment dispute—and was subsequently struck by lightning while in his pool at Catchford Farm. “I was part of that somber ceremony when the Master Musicians gathered outside to clean up business with Brian Jones,” writes Ouakrim, “They formed their circle, calling upon the spirit of Jajouka. Instead of praying to the sky, for all, they turned their palms down, and did the prayer in reverse… Brian Jones was struck by lightning in his pool while the musicians were delivering their curse. The powerful energy from the cosmos came down and struck him, piercing his heart.” The Jajouka would later make a recording—in Ouakrim’s possession—where they forgive Jones and ask the spirits to bless him. The Rolling Stones would, in 1989, visit Tangier and record the track “Continental Drift” with Jejouka, as a tribute to Jones.

Ouakrim suspects it was Mick Jagger—who envied Jones—who prevented the latter from paying the Moroccan musicians: “Personally, I never liked Mick Jagger.”

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