Universal, Timeless, Tragic: Romeo & Co. in Tangier

The following guest post is by Eric Branholm, of the West Side Story team in Tangier.  Eric is a recent alumnus of Loyola University Chicago where he earned bachelor’s degrees in International Studies and Communication Studies. Since graduating from Loyola, he has been working with different youth development programs in and around Chicago.

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TALIM Romeo Juliet
The World's Most Tragic Love Story

On October 30th, our director George Bajalia and producer Tom Casserly teamed up with April Perkins (of Georgetown University's English Language Fellow – ELF – program) for a lecture at the American Legation, entitled The World’s Most Tragic Love Story. Members of the F7ALI F7ALEK cast, Tangier-based artists, and interested Tanjawis came together to participate in a discussion about common themes within Romeo and Juliet, West Side Story, and Morocco’s own Amazight legend of Isli and Tislit. As the audience and panel explored these stories’ unifying theme of the desire to connect across socially constructed divisions, we attempted to answer the question of what makes this story so timeless.

April Perkins began with an introduction to Romeo and Juliet. When asked whether anyone had either seen a production, a film, or read Shakespeare’s most famous work, almost every hand in the room shot up. While a few audience members translated for French speakers, Perkins pointed out that Shakespeare never specified the reason for the “ancient grudge” between the Capulets and Montagues, suggesting this was a conscious choice on the part of the bard. For Perkins, Shakespeare’s ambiguity underscores a certain arbitrariness of the kinds of social divisions that prohibit the connection that Romeo and Juliet so desperately reached towards.

Perkins’s presentation sparked a lively discussion between audience members and the panel alike about present day social divisions and the about tension between acknowledging differences and finding a way to live with our differences.

New York City producer Tom Casserly introduced West Side Story with a clip from the end of the 1961 Jerome Robbins film, in which Maria picks up the gun that kills her beloved Tony and delivers a passionate monologue. “You all killed him!” she screams. “Not with bullets or guns, with hate. Well now I can kill too, because now I have hate.” Pointing out the parallels between Tony and Maria’s story and that of Romeo and Juliet, Casserly argued that Tony’s tragic fate offers something transformative, that we get to see on stage. Shakespeare tells us of Romeo and Juliet “with their death, bury their parents’ strife,” but we do not see the fruits of this sacrifice on stage. In the clip Casserly showed, the Sharks come to aid the Jets in carrying away Tony’s body, a symbol of the community built upon their collective mourning.

Moving from the streets of 1950’s Upper-West Side New York to the Atlas Mountains of Morocco, Casserly introduced the Amazight legend of Isli and Tislit. The story is of two lovers from neighboring villages whose marriage was refused. Tislit and Isli, meaning bride and groom respectively in Amazight, both began to cry until their tears became lakes in which they each drowned.

The audience received a preview of an unreleased feature documentary entitled IMILCHIL: A Failed Attempt to Define Love. Former Fulbright Morocco researcher James Sweetbaum contributed camera work to this film directed by Hakim Belabbes and edited by Paula Salhany. In the clips, the filmmakers search for the two lakes that bear the legendary lovers’ names. The film also highlights the Imilchil Betrothal Festival, a festival born from the story of Isli and Tislit, in which young people from different villages search for marriage partners. Casserly considered this very festival to be an instance in which this same tragic love story had a tangible transformative impact; where young people in the region could once not travel to marry outside their village, the Betrothal Festival now provides an opportunity to marry beyond one’s village.

Fulbright researcher and Chicago-based director George Bajalia wrapped up the discussion in both English and Moroccan Arabic by explaining his vision for adapting this timeless story for modern-day Tangier with F7ALI F7ALEK. Acknowledging that a musical cannot change the world, he championed the theater and storytelling as having the power to change at least one person’s mind. In a world in which people continue to construct social divisions that are used to justify hate, Bajalia asserted his belief that this story of people attempting to connect across those divisions always has relevance.

The night ended with a performance of a scene between F7ALI F7ALEK’s own ill-fated lovers, played by Soufiane Mazin and Mouna Rmiki. F7ALI F7ALEK will run next week, November 7 – 10th at 8 PM in the Jardin de la Mendoubia. Admission is free.

Eric Branholm

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