Moroccan-American poet deals with the 'eruption' of identity after migration

Bouchaib Gadir's work is a love letter to 'Arab immigrants and to Arabs who want to live and travel in another country'

Moroccan American uses poetry to discuss immigration

Moroccan American uses poetry to discuss immigration
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Bouchaib Gadir didn't begin his career as a poet, but he says immigrating from Casablanca to New Orleans shaped him into one.

The Moroccan American is a senior professor of practice in Arabic and an Arabic undergraduate adviser at Tulane University.

He has said he wants to write about New Orleans, his adopted home, “in the same way that Paul Bowles wrote about Tangier and Juan Goytisolo about Marrakesh".

“New Orleans is a wonderful place to live in … but it has a dark side on it,” Gadir says.

“The Arab community is living far away from downtown. There are no Arab restaurants really … so this can be a dark place to be in it for immigrants. You are faced with loneliness."

Writing poetry, he says, “is a defence mechanism to protect myself against this feeling that I do not belong".

But the published poet's work transcends the immigrant experience in New Orleans, and centres on the experience of migration itself.

Gadir recently published his latest book of Arabic poetry, The Immigrant's Verses: Mouths Filled with Salt, as a global migration crisis increases to historic new highs.

As of the end of 2022, about 108.4 million people worldwide were forcibly displaced, according to the UN.

This represents an increase of 19 million people compared to the end of 2021 – the largest ever increase between years, according to UN High Commission for Refugees' statistics on forced displacement.

More than one in every 74 people on Earth has been forced to flee their home.

Sitting in a faculty room in Tulane's Department of Italian and French, Gadir paraphrases a quote from Palestinian-American scholar Edward Said: “When you travel, you are never at home.”

Gadir's work, he says, is directed solely towards the world's migrants, particularly Arab ones, and communicates a complicated reality about the immigrant experience.

“When you move from your country to another country, you will never be the same. It's almost an eruption that happens within yourself.”

His colleague Ghada Mourad, a translator and lecturer at University of California Irvine, says that these themes may hit home for an even wider demographic of readers.

“Even though these poems reflect on the suffering and alienation experienced by the immigrant, while connecting the present experience with the immigrant’s roots and the family that they leave behind, any contemporary reader can relate to these experiences, which are, in fact, a product of the modern condition,” said Ms Mourad.

“Translating his work is challenging for its linguistic complexities, but mostly for the rich and layered emotional tapestry that often underlies every line."

And Gadir is very clear that this reality is in part shaped by western governments and xenophobic sentiments, with his poetry “critiquing the immigration policy against immigrants to the United States and in Europe".

“I am Moroccan American, but American nationality is not written on my forehead. What people see is the way I speak English, and my skin colour, is the only thing they see.”

Gadir acknowledges that this reality is so potent for Arab migrants in the West that even a professor at a renowned university can harbour these feelings of distance, even despair.

“I am a professor in one of the best universities in the country," he says. "So I am a writer and author and I have this feeling.

"So how about other migrants who have never been to school or have an education?”

His writing also “tries to depict that conflict between parents and children", as different generations adapt to the shifts in identity and culture that comes with leaving home.

“Your own people look at you differently, you start doubting yourself," Gadir says. "You are in between, you are not accepted in your own country, and you are not accepted here. You are in no-man's-land."

In his poem Small Dreams, he writes:

“My grandmother whispered in my ear, 'Your secrets are here, don’t take them, To another land.' When those who resemble me cross the sea, What becomes of them? Nothing, They simply die. A wave appears, towering, thunderous: It crashes down on their small dreams, And fills their mouths with salt.”

It's a sentiment that appears to be resonating. Gadir has now published three books of his poetry, in Arabic and French.

“Hopefully, my work gets read and understood,” he says.

Gadir hopes his words, often ones of a solitude, can “try to bridge the gaps between foreigners and natives, too".

Updated: November 06, 2023, 9:51 PM