Alumni Q&A: Mhani Alaoui (MAAS ’01)

Center for Contemporary Arab Studies Logo

CCAS Editor Vicki Valosik talks with Mhani Alaoui (MAAS ’01) about her new novel.

Mhani Alaoui (MAAS ’01) was born and raised in Casablanca, Morocco. Since earning her degree at the Center for Contemporary Arab Studies, she has conducted research in Paris, earned a PhD in Anthropology from Princeton, worked as a consultant for the United Nations in New York, and served as Research Director for a foundation affiliated with one of Morocco’s largest public corporations. At 35 years of age, she plucked up the courage to quit her day job and focus on her writing. Her first novel, Dreams of Maryam Tair, published by Interlink Book, was released in May. CCAS caught up with Alaoui for a few minutes to ask about this most recent project.

How would you describe your book Dreams of Maryam Tair?

Dreams of Maryam Tair is a novel that goes back and forth between the real and the magical. Based in present-day Casablanca, it is inspired by South American and Indian brands of magical realism. I did not use magic and enchantment to create an exotic landscape but instead to show the absurdities, the complexities, the lack of freedom but also the wonders and hopefulness. It is not a love story but neither is it an action story. Dreams of Maryam Tair can be read as a coming of age story in a region that few are trying to truly understand any longer. Finally, it is a resistance to the now crystallized stereotypes (ideology, religion, polygamy, veils, etc.) that are objectifying us to unprecedented degrees.

After you graduated from the MAAS program, you earned a PhD in Anthropology from Princeton and went on to work at a research organization in Morocco. What led to your decision to make the transition into full-time literary writing?

I‰’ve always wanted to be a writer. In a sense, I chose anthropology because it was the perfect mix, for me, between the social sciences and art. It took me a while to find the courage (and the means) to quit for a couple of years and try fiction writing. I don‰’t see any contradiction between writing novels and being an academic. I returned to Morocco because I got married. I thought it would be quite simple for me to find a job as a professor at the university here in Casablanca. But it took a long time to have my diplomas validated by the administration. And as I waited, I had to find a job (research director at a foundation). After a couple of years, I quit and decided that it was time for me to try and write a book.

What was the research focus of your PhD dissertation? Do you feel that your academic research has influenced your literary work, and if so, how?

My PhD dissertation was on illegal (or irregular) migration from Morocco to Europe. It was an ethnography of the way migrants spend their days as they are waiting to leave, leave once more, or (when it came to West and East African migrants) of their lives in camps, forests and cities, and their survival and adaptation tactics/strategies/failures/and occasional successes. My dissertation didn‰’t directly influence my literary work. However, when writing about different places in the country in the book (mountains, desert, cedar forests, and crumbling cities), I was inspired by the time I had spent in these different places while conducting fieldwork.

Are you working on any new projects?

Yes. I‰’m finishing a second novel that actually explores the relationship between immigration, memory, creativity, and madness. I‰’m also preparing to teach courses next year in anthropology at two local universities.