Tangier, MOROCCO – Some stories transcend space and time. From Romeo and Juliet to West Side Story, classic stories of love, loss and reconciliation make up part of the human narrative.
In Tangier, theater director and Fulbright scholar George Bajalia is adapting this narrative, Moroccan style. His original musical “F7ali F7alek” (Like me, like you) inspired by West Side Story brings the Sharks and Jets, and classics like Bernstein’s “Somewhere” from the West Side to contemporary Tangier. Here, Tony (who is “really called Kerim”) and Maria get tangled in a fight for neighborhood dominance between their families, one from Tangier and the other from the provinces.
Produced by Tony Award nominated producer Tom Casserly, the show sponsored by the American Language Center of Tangier through a grant from the US Embassy in Rabat to the American Cultural Association proved a rare cultural experience in Morocco. Though the classic dance-off and story structure are true to West Side Story, the musical offered young Moroccan actors, professional and amateur, a chance to communicate about their culture and the issues most relevant to their lives. To reach local audiences, Bajalia worked with local Tangier translator Zakaria Alilech to script the show in Moroccan dialect, a departure from the norm in a country where most theater is performed in classical Arabic or French.
“I think for people to appreciate a story, to identify with it or learn from it, they have to be comfortable,” Bajalia said with the port of Tangier at his back. “When the audience sits before the stage, they see laundry hanging. They see a café that could well be the one in their street, and they feel comfortable in a familiar space. It is only natural that they identify more with a story told in their everyday language and the language of the street.”
Casserly admits the challenges of working across cultures and language barriers, but emphasizes the learning experience had by everyone involved in the show.
“The most rewarding experience was working with the actors,” he said. “They all have something interesting to bring to the table, and were able to share their experiences and lives with us. They made the script their own.”
Rabat native actress Mouna Rmiki’s emotionally engaging interpretation of Maria left some in tears.
“I took the essence of what I thought was Maria and made it my own,” she said, “and tried to adapt it to a Moroccan context. There’s no process, really. It’s something within me.”
Sufjan Mazin plays the hopeless romantic Tony and delivers superbly. His vocal range is incredible, and his performance of “Maria” is nothing short of breathtaking.
“I find it comfortable to sing in English because we all know the songs from (watching) the film,” he said. “It was challenging to sing though, because the composer is so well known and you really can’t touch the original. The arrangement is perfect, so it’s beautiful to sing these classic songs even if the rest of the play is brand new.”
A mash-up of timeless songs from West Side Story, contemporary pop, and classical Andalousian accompaniment performed live by the local ensemble Abnae wa Binat Zaryab; the soundtrack of F7ali F7alek echoed the cultural dialogue that Bajalia and his sponsors at the embassy hoped to foster.
“There is a story here,” cultural attaché at the U.S. Embassy in Rabat Samuel Werberg said. “It’s a Moroccan story, but it’s also a global story about conflict resolution. For us, seeing how they worked the West Side Story into Moroccan Arabic, wasn’t just a language translation. It was a cultural translation into something that talked about what is going on in Moroccan society right now.”
“There are a lot of conversations that need to be had in the world right now,” Bajalia said, “and I think theater is one of the best ways to start these conversations.”
After four standing-room only nights in Tangier, F7ali F7alek will begin its tour of Morocco with tentative dates through December in Rabat, Fez, and Oujda. Returning to the United States, Bajalia will bring his talent back to Chicago to continue directing and to help Chicago students collaborate on theater pieces with students from Egypt and Morocco.
Photos by : Omar Chennafi