Could Medea be Moroccan?


Two female actresses have asked the playwright and director, Patrizia Filia, to interpret Medea so that they can act the role of its epic heroïne: Mabel Gonzales from Uruguay and Saïda Baàddi from Morocco. That gesture, however, does not merely stand for solicitation and compliance. It is pregnant with so much shared but non-spoken out communication among the three women, this time, across the national divide and around a female mythical figure representing the epitome of violence and conflict, Medea. Such an encounter gives new significance both to the Medea of Patrizia Filia and its heritage, which amounts to hundreds of rewritten versions in the twentieth century. More than ever, women today need to address and recognize each other through the symbolic, not just by reading hooks and reacting to them, but through personal contacts and the presence of bodies; in other words, both the female writing and acting of Medea represent the quest for a bond among women beyond national identities. It is a quest for the share of the female in the Universal. But the Universal as also female is signed this time by one of Greek mythology's most masculine figures, one who thinks, speaks and acts as a man! An important aspect of the above artists' collaboration lies in the espousal of such a paradox. Women like men have been divided in history by patriarchal borders and geographical and ideological di stance, which brought about alienations, prejudices and conflicts. Above all, conjuring up a devastating female figure could be a means for the contemporary woman artist to come to terms with the global situation of violence. From Medea's sheer energy and power over life and death could be derived means of proportionate and human empowerment for women in a creative and non-idealistic way. Women artists could thus come to terms with the challenges for womanhood of a post-industrial violent world where the female language of peace has no impact at all on major contemporary events determining the destinies of individuals and nations. In other words, Medea is a powerful figure for female thought and creativity in spite of its being a tragedy created by men for men. It gives women the possibility to use the male fantasy of an all too powerful woman/goddess/ monster for arealistic and also creative renegociation of the place of women in the pervading violence of today. The encounter between Patrizia Filia, Mabel Gonzales and Saïda Baàddi could, therefore, be regarded as partaking of a preliminary historical phase of discovering the female other on the other side of the globe. Nevertheless, a gender-inflected interpretation of Medea, whether it is by the playwright, the actor, or the critic, is not without its pitfalls. One can surmise that the stakes for the three artists is to produce new meanings for our world and for women through the extraordinary double associations that the figure of Medea invokes: On the one hand, a cultural human bemg, a Dionysian woman who gets independent of patriarchy by using its means, a woman who is rebellious against the role of 'producer of legitimate offspring' and an immigrant seeking refuge on another land; on the other hand, she is a supernatural being associated to animalor natural forces in Euripides (a witch, a goddess, a lioness, a lightning, and a wave of the sea.). I would argue that any interpretation of Medea in general, and of Patrizia Filia's version in particular, would have to keep in mind the complexity through which the pole of myth, archetype as weIl as natural or supernatural energy interplays with the cultural pole. It is from such a cautious perspective that I can raise now the question of whether Medea can be Moroccan.

Any play called Medea is necessarily a battleground for the etemal war of the sexes, which has nourished popular imagination from antiquity until today. In the area of the Mediterranean, that rivalry and the passions around it have kept on being vivid, drawing their primitive force from ancient history. It is interesting how Medea - as a woman, a wife, a daughter, a sister and a mother - is the locus of sexual battIes where the human, the monstrous and the supernatural intermingle. She is a highly complex being, who transgresses the taboos as weIl as the legal, economic, and social rules of her own Eastern society and those of the Western one she goes to, the woman who kills her children out of revenge against her husband, Jason, betrays her father Aietes, kills her brother Absyrtus, manipulates both Creon, king of Corinth, and Aegeus, King of Athens. From the vantage point of any society - not only the Moroccan society - her crime against her children is the decisive blow to what could still otherwise have been acknowledged to be her humanity. But by the same token, it is important not to forget that her infanticide is a revengeful patriarchal effigy. In the Moroccan society, there is a more subtle female kind of patriarchal revenge by socially and culturally subdued but not 'tamed' Medeas. I will limit myself to three figures: the mother tumed into phallic mother-in-law, the witch, and the female diaspora.

The first one, like Medea, is a good case of perverted female sexual politics. She belongs particularly to the traditional extensive family structure. Her relationship to the patriarch of the family is double. She starts out as the obedient wife and daughter-in-Iaw, but as soon as her son thinks of marrying, she adopts the role of the woman who tyrannised for many years in the past: the mother-in-law. It is not a spontaneous change but a calculated one. But it could be argued that it is not calculated by the individual woman. The revenge plan is inscribed in the Medea effect that counters patriarchal discipline and hierarchy. It breeds a counter-power with which women not only survive within the social structures that chain them, but also manage to rule in their own way over the family. A mother-in-law can gear the destiny of her son(s) the way she wants. The son has no will of his own; if his mother can be repudiated by the Islamic law, she in turn has the power to make him repudiate his wife. Mostly, when women of that age have one married son or more, they have overcome the law of repudiation too because by then husbands belong to them, whereas before the latter have been under the power oftheir mothers. Although it exists sometimes, this dialectics does not prevail in the cities. Urban life and modemisation have undermined the power of the mother-in-law because of the reduction of the extensive family into a nuclear one. The Medea dimension of Moroccan women is, therefore, much stronger in the countryside. It is not expected of modemity to rehabilitate Medea, but urban life has not managed to replace the Medea kind of traditional counter-power with equal rights and benefits with a husband or a brother. That frustration makes modern women reluctant to completely renounce the Medea legacy.

The witch is another Medea figure. It can hardly exist without the tyrannical mother-in-law, who can be regarded as a witch as weIl. At the same time, the trope of the witch is autonomous, linked basically to the male fear of castration, and to threats to male identity. In many ways, the mother-in-law and the witch figures are universal, but they tend to loge their impact on modem social organisation. As far as the question of witchcraft is concemed, there is hardly any difference between modern Morocco and traditional Morocco. Discourse on witchcraft derives its legitimacy from popular belief and from the Coran as weIl, but the difference of the Coran is that the language is not sexist. An outsider might be astonished by the strong hold of witchcraft-related discourse and practices on theatre performances, especially the official strand! The sexism of fantasies over women witches in the Moroccan society is shared by men and women. There was no inquisition in the history of Morocco, but women today are the objects and the 'subjects' of witchraft-based accusations. Some women are supposed to share dangerous secrets and to conspire against some men or some other women. Many unhappy marriages for instance postulate witchcraft as either a cause to or a solution to the problem. It is not a coincidence if the discourse on or the practice of witchcraft targets the relationship between the sexes and between a family and its in-laws. These are the spaces where Medea moves. In the Moroccan society, the witch is not just a trope; she is a mysterious and threatening reality which keeps whole families busy and can lead sometimes to diseases or fatal 'accldents' of health. Above all, wltchcraft is linked to a matriarchal memory, a period when there was no need for a Medea and women goddesses like Tanit were worshipped by both men and women. Today, Tanit is condensed in certain rituals of the Maghrib, such as marriage and henne rituals, in traditional arts and signs - such as what is called the hand of Fatima - as well as in symbols on carpets, women's clothes and jewels and finally tattoos - which are disappearing today (1).

I would like to conclude with the figure of the female Moroccan immigrant - and indeed any female immigrant of Muslim background - who also represents a Medea dimension. I have in mind mostly women of the diaspora, who made the choice to leave their country for other reasons than joining a husband or a family, or temporary studies. Mostly, they are accused of transgressing national borders, where Islam and tradition protect them from going astray. The secular minded in the country of origin will accuse them of being ungrateful to the State that has paid for their education, the country that needs them and the family that has brought them up. There is in general a very superficial social view about voluntary female exile. It hides a certain anger against women who escape from the laws of hard-core patriarchy and ‘run after the wolf.’ In spite of all the problems, the difficulties and contradictions in the country of origin, detractors of women's mobility to the North consider that their female expatriates - who took themselves the initiative to live in Europe - have once inhabited a space of order, spirituality and righteousness and that they have stopped being innocent by travelling to the immoral materialist space of disorder. The irony is that those value-judgements on diasporic Medeas cannot be passed on without destructive passions behind them. As for the diaspora's inner experience, it is much more complex than the Southern eye can see... lts tale needs more women interacting on the playground of the theatre symbolics and halqa squares for it to be fully told (2). In a nutshell, Medea, the epic heroïne, continues to speak to us, precisely because she sheds the blood of her own kids without a Zeus or any other almighty deity preventing her from doing so. That fascination for horror will ironically continue to be the source of our creativity. But beyond evil, if there is one lesson that contemporary women artists can learn from Medea, it is that of turning historical forms of scapegoating into powerful creative experiences.

Nezha Haffou

  • Resident in Brussels since 1997.
  • Lecturer at the university of Mohamed V university, Faculty of Letters, Rabat. (1984-1997)
  • Doctoral research in the Catholic university of Leuven on women's writing (1990-1994)
  • Prize for best essay 2002 by the Phenix Foundation in Rotterdam, Holland.
  • Published many articles on feminism, Islam, postcolonial studies, the situation of art in Brussels and Flanders as weIl as issues related to immigration.

    (1) Henna/henne is a plant which is ground and mixed with hot water and applied to the hands, to give them an orange colour. Mostly farms and symbols are drawn on the hand which resembIe signs on carpets and embroidery. Henna is used in happy rituals and feasts.

    (2) Halqa is a circular space around which are spectators watching narrators and various other farms of spontaneous art such as acrobats, tricksters, magicians, comedians, musicians, serpent charmers etc. . ..

back to productions