Not such a long time ago, in not such a faraway place, and yet a world so completely different, a girl was born. This girl is the heroine of Dreams of Maryam Tair: Blue Boots and Orange Blossoms, a new novel by Mhani Alaoui (published by Interlink Books).
Dreamy and otherworldy, the novel takes its reader on a journey through Casablanca, Morocco, Earth, and to a world that lies in between reality and stories. Dreams of Maryam Tair boasts a number of storytelling twists, changing perspectives, interlaced stories, and also offers up something different from your traditional fantasy novels: a queer, disabled, non-white, female hero.
The titular Maryam is a powerful character in a way that contradicts fantasy hero archetypes; she is not strong of body, but strong of heart, and her words (and the words of the book) seem to hold much more power than anything else in the universe. The novel plays on classic mythos of tales from the Quran, the Bible, One Thousand and One Nights, and other stories, creating a narrative that is as much about storytelling as it is about telling the story of its characters. In a way, Dreams of Maryam Tair represents a new generation of fantasy novels that, in “deviating” from the norm, are creating a “new normal” one page at a time.
I was lucky enough to have a chance to talk with Mhani Alaoui about Dreams of Maryam Tair: Blue Boots and Orange Blossoms, storytelling, and creating feminist interpretations of ancient texts.
Acts of Geek: I’d like to start off by touching on the framing device you use with Sheherazade. The majority of her scenes seem to exist in a place outside time, and these chapters emphasizes how stories function in the rest of the book. Why did you choose to use this story-within-a-story style frame? What inspired your application of Sheherazade as both a major character and architect of the story?
Mhani Alaoui: Sheherazade, in Arabo-Muslim tradition (and this should be seen as encompassing North Africa all the way to the Far East), herself probably Persian or Indian, represents the Story Teller. She tells stories to stop a mad king from beheading her. I like that metaphor. Stories are a tool against uncontrolled, irrational power. And the storyteller, a woman, becomes herself the symbol of the resistance of words, imagination, creativity against brute, unthinking force and suffering. It’s nice, especially in a time like ours where violence threatens people everywhere.
One of the most beautiful stories I have ever read is the Mahabharata, one of the two main Indian religious texts. The Mahabharata uses the story within a story structure and I liked the immediacy, the ‘humility’ of this structure. It was also an enjoyable way for me to mingle the real and the magical, the past, present and future and allows the heroine ‘Maryam’ to acquire a knowledge no-one otherwise would have given her. Finally, it was a way, for me, to give a ‘cosmic’ dimension to the story of a ‘poor, little Arab girl’ whom everything in life predisposed to an inconsequential life but who acquires, through the story of a story, agency, power and meaning.
AoG: Another prominent story within the book is the biblical story of Adam, Lilith, and Eve, which plays out both in a more literal sense (with the given names of Adam and Shawg) and also in an interpretive sense (like Leila’s attempted divorce from Adam and the betrayal between the twins Shams and Hilal–who are parallel to Cain and Abel). However, you subvert the biblical story by presenting Lilith, in a sense, as the more heroic figure. What was your intention with having Maryam as the daughter of a traditionally “evil” (or at least witchy) character? Was this choice an intentional feminist interpretation/cooption of the Bible story?
MA: It was intentional. In fact, when the idea of this story first came to me, this was the initial part. It seemed to me that, whether we are atheist, agnostic or believers, those of us raised in Judeo-Christian cultures (and that, of course, would include Islam: people to forget the proximity between these cultures and religions), all know the story of Adam and Eve. And Eve, the woman, is, despite all progressive rereadings, the ‘temptress’ and inferior to a ‘purer’, corruptible man. In the US and in Europe, very broadly, the feminist revolution, the gay revolution and gender awareness all have contributed to advance women and minority rights. However, in my part of the world (the Arab/Muslim World), these revolutions have not yet happened, even though their premises are there. In fact, quite the opposite. For religious narratives continue to dominate and render inferior all other narratives and stories. As such, it is very hard for the ‘couple’ and the ‘individual’ to emerge as the core of society.
Lilith, in Jewish mythology, is both a she-demon and the first wife of Adam. She was his equal until she refused to submit. Her rebellion, in these myths, is what makes her a demon. It made sense to me, then, to trace the ‘new, first family’ from an equal, even though broken, couple. I wanted Maryam to have a mother she could be proud of, even if she was absent from her life.
AoG: Your book is an absolute sensory delight. There were moments when I was reading out where I craved the food described or felt the sensations written in the pages, like bread with olive oil and honey or riding a rickety bike. The sensation with the greatest emphases seemed to be smell. Why does smell seem to play such a major roll (like the scent off Maryam as opposed to Shams and Hilal)? And what made you choose orange blossom as the emphasized, titular scent?
MA: I had a dear friend, who passed away recently, who once asked me what was the most important sense for me. I answered ‘vision’. He said it was ‘scent’, it had to be ‘scent’. Without it, we could not be sensual or sensuous. There would be no pleasure or taste. We would not know nostalgia and would forget our past. And when I thought about it, I agreed. Very often, scent triggers sensations or memories we think we had forgotten. Scents allow us to day dream, in all senses of the word. A story, like this one, that is a kind of dream, would have been incomplete without the predominance of scent. Scent becomes the condition of being of the dream and of the story-as-dream.
I chose the orange blossom scent because it is usually associated with marriage, purity and innocence. Perfumes and scents are also associated with saints. Saint Theresa of Avila was said to have a
natural perfume that signified her presence to others, in special circumstances.
In a way, for me, Maryam both transgresses all these symbols and epitomizes them. Her quest is a ‘saintly’ one but her physical presence is disturbing, unchaste, may be considered by some as not
beautiful and not innocent. She is a superheroine. For me, a superheroine is the modern expression of the ‘saint’. He or she who fights for causes, despite all odds, and is there to protect the weak.
The powers of saints and superheroes ( and of Maryam) are in hiding, camouflaged. They only appear at times of great stress or need.
Maryam is a modern saint/superheroine.
The scent of Shams and Hilal (who are Cain and Abel) is the scent of the earth, of wet clay. They are of the earth, but an earth of violence and roughness. They are, also, the sculpted clay before it is
fully moulded. As such, they are imperfect. I chose their scent to contrast with the lighter, more delicate scent of their sister, Maryam.
AoG: That’s really beautiful, thank you.
I wanted to touch on the magical realism in Dreams of Maryam Tair. So much of the story is grounded in real-world happenings, like the 1981 Bread Riots in Casablanca, but supernatural demons play a major role in how the societal unrest is handled and punished. What made you choose Casablanca as the major setting, and why do demons play a co-antagonistic role alongside figures of male power?
MA: Casablanca is my city. I grew up here and spent the first 18 years of my life here. After twelve years abroad, I came back and rediscovered the city, its many paradoxes, beauties and terrors, anew.
In Morocco, whether in the countryside or in the major cities like Casablanca, there is an entrenched belief in witchcraft. People of all classes and education levels believe in witchcraft and sorcery. At various degrees, of course: from light superstitions (do not throw salt down the drain, you may scorch and anger a djinni living there, to the profound belief that adultery is the cause of a witch and financial problems the work of a jealous enemy). Anthropologists study witchcraft as though it were ‘real’. By real, I mean that because people and a society believe in it, they build a reality around it, and in that sense, witchcraft becomes real, a fact of society. This belief in witchcraft encompasses such diverse practices as talismans, the power of djinnis, witches, she-demons, omens and love potions. In a way, then, they become ‘real’ in so far as they are a part of people’s imaginaries, choices and actions.
AoG: How does the power of humans like Zohra, a sort of mystical midwife, figure into the magical landscape? What about the human/divine romance between the inhabitants of the Tair household and Hamza?
MA: In this novel, it seemed to me that magic realism worked well with what I was trying to portray. There is always a part of the ‘magical’ in the way people go through their days. But it’s also more than that, there is a political component to this choice. Demons are not just demons. They are the emanation of a repressive system. Whether the repression occurs through the police, the failing judicial system or society itself with its very traditional, bigoted, closed judgement of the world. The Tair household comes to represent a microcosm of Casablanca, of Morocco itself. It is a universe with its own cosmic laws and myths. In Morocco, we have a real problem with ‘child maids’, as they are called here. These are very young girls (they can be as young as 8 years old) who are sent to work as housemaids by their families, desperate for money and stuck in the poverty cycle. Zainab is one of these children whose childhood was taken away from her. By imagining a romance between her and the most powerful of beings, Hamza, I try to rectify the unfathomable injustice done to all the children robbed of their childhood. It may be silly, part of a fantasy, but it was my way of bringing in this aspect of our society without making Zeinab into simply a victim. Women like Zohra have always existed in Morocco collective imaginary. I think she may be one of the forgotten remnants of an African, matriarchal past. Morocco is as much an African country as it is a Muslim and Arab one, which people tend to forget.
AoG: And finally, there are moments when the book shifts tenses, most notably giving readers the first person perspective of Maryam or her mother Leila. It’s an effective tool to put the reader in the protagonist’s shoes, but you keep it from feeling jarring by having the transition feel like a natural journey into that moment. Why did you use first person on occasion, and was it meant to intentionally emphasize something about the passages where it is used?
MA: The shifting of tenses is linked to [the forgotten matriarchies of the past]. I believe that history is always among us, that we play and enact it daily, without even knowing it. We are both in the past and in the present.
Finally, I am not sure why the first person narrative popped up in the novel. It just seemed appropriate. Sometimes the characters want to have a life of their own, slip away from the control and authorship of the person writing the story… Maybe it’s like a play, where the story sometimes pauses to allow a character to put his/her own imprint on the stage.