Year of the Elephant (‘Am al-fil) by Leila Abouzeid

We recommend our readers consider reading Year of the Elephant (‘Am al-fil) by Leila Abouzeid — which was the first work by a Moroccan woman to be translated into English (by Barbara Parmenter in 1989, three years after it was written).  The book’s full title - Year of the Elephant: A Moroccan Woman’s Journey Toward Independence, and Other Short Stories – sets the stage for readers to discover a novella and eight short stories which serve as an eloquent representation of life in the wake of Morocco’s successful struggle for independence from French occupation. 

In the title story – an allusion to a battle described in the Quran where foreign tribes were defeated in their attempts to ovethrow the Muslims - follows the story of Zahra returning to her home town after being divorced by her husband for being too traditional and unable to keep up with his modern way of life. Having devoted herself, alongside her husband, to the creation of an independent Morocco, she had expected to share the fruits of independence with him, but instead she finds herself cast out into a strange world. As Zahra struggles to find a place of herself in this new Morocco, her efforts reflect Moroccan society’s attempt as a whole to chart a path in the conflict between traditional and modernism.

In this moving fictional treatment of a Muslim woman’s life, a personal and family crisis impells the heroine to reexamine traditional cultural attitudes toward women. Both obstacles and support systems change as she actively participates in the struggle for Moroccan independence from France.

Set against the background of the Moroccan War of Independence, “Year of the Elephant” tells of one woman’s rebirth and her sustaining faith. It is an illuminating account of Morocco’s struggle for independence through the eyes of a working class woman on her own path to personal independence.  While many novels by women of the Middle East that have been translated reflect Western views, values, and education, by contrast, Year of the Elephant is uniquely Moroccan and emerges from North African Islamic culture itself. Its subtle juxtaposition of past and present, of immediate thought and triggered memory, reflects the heroine’s interior conflict between tradition and modern demands.

The short stories that follow the titular novella are a mixture of plots and themes that depict the lives of individual Moroccans negotiating a changing society.

Year of the Elephant originally appeared in Arabic as ‘Am al-Fil in Morocco in 1984, after having been published in episodes in the Al-Mithaq al-Watani newspaper in Rabat in 1983; it was reprinted in Beirut in 1987, and is now in its sixth printing. Its short stories had originally been broadcast by the Arabic service of the BBC, and some of them had appeared in Moroccan newspapers. Now, Abouzeid’s fiction is available in English, French, German, Dutch, Italian, Spanish, Maltese, Turkish, and Urdu.

Note for English Readers: The revised English edition (Center for Middle Eastern Studies, University of Texas at Austin, 2009) includes a new introduction by Barbara Harlow that looks at the impact of the work since its publication, the original introduction by Elizabeth Warnock Fernea, and a study guide.

Note for Arabic Readers: It is easiest to find the novella on its own in Arabic. We are looking for versions with the short stories as well, however the discussion will focus on the title novella. You can find this at Neelwafurat.com

About the Author:

Leila Abouzeid is a pioneer among Moroccan women writers. She studied at Mohammed V University in Rabat and at the University of Texas at Austin. She began her career as a radio and TV journalist and also worked as a press assistant in government ministries and in the prime minister’s office. In 1992 she left journalism to dedicate herself to writing. Abouzeid writes first in Arabic, which she has stated is a political choice. This makes her a literary pioneer in North Africa, where, until recently, most authors wrote in French. Her fiction has been translated from Arabic into English, German, Dutch, Italian, Spanish, Maltese, French, Turkish, and Urdu.

Her other works include:

  • The Director and Other Stories from Morocco (self translated)
  • Return to Childhood: The Memoir of a Modern Moroccan Woman (translated by the author, with Heather Logan Taylor)

About the Translator:

Barbara Parmenter is a lecturer in the Urban and Environmental Policy and Planning Department at Tufts University in Medford, Massachusetts.

For more information:

“At a time when there is growing interest in the intersections between gender and war, Year of the Elephant provides an unselfconscious enterprise of self-affirmation.”
    —World Literature Today
“Leila Abouzeid has created a new style, a mosaic of expression with which she describes her old and yet new world of Morocco.”
    —Ahmed Abd al-Salam al-Bakkah, Moroccan author and poet
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