— BA in Middle Eastern Studies, Emory Univ. MA in Near Eastern Studies, NYU. PhD in Arabic Studies, UT Austin.
Ph.D Candidate, ABD
- E-mail: email@example.com
Melanie Clouser is a PhD Candidate in Arabic Studies at The University of Texas at Austin. Specializing in the western Mediterranean region, she combines comparative methods to study Arabic literature from all historical periods. Her research projects include Moroccan malḥūn poetry and the role of folk art in contemporary society, Arabic culture in historic Sicily and literary encounters across cultures generally, and the myriad ways that societies recycle older literature for ever-changing purposes. Her work is interdisciplinary, drawing on bodies of knowledge across literary studies, performance studies, Arabic studies, linguistics, anthropology, and folklore.
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My early passion for the Mediterranean Sea grew out of seeing the Moroccan coastline from the Strait of Gibraltar when I was a teenager. I stood on the southern tip of Europe’s land mass, and wondered about its relationship to the far shore, thus launching an intellectual journey into literature, language and culture. I studied Spanish and French in high school and my first year of college, and then studied abroad in Morocco. Finally reaching the southern side of the Mediterranean, I dove into studies of Moroccan language and culture, and conducted research on Berber folktales. I completed my B.A. at Emory University in 2004, writing an honors thesis about Moroccan storytelling that won a research grant and highest honors. After a year of intensive Arabic study in Cairo, I did my M.A. at New York University. My M.A. thesis discussed an Arabic epic that recounts the adventures of a group led by a woman warrior, combining approaches from literary criticism, folklore, and gender studies. Pursuing a PhD in Arabic Studies, I chose Moroccan malḥūn poetry for my dissertation topic because the genre links Moroccans together through the bonds of identity that run through popular culture.
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In 2001, I heard poetry sung in a Berber village in the High Atlas Mountains of Morocco. The cozy gathering took place on a cold night. We were about twenty people packed into a room, sitting on cushions and mats, many wrapped in wool blankets. The refrain addressed an imaginary bird emissary, asking it to deliver a message from the speaker of the poem to his lover on the other side of the mountain. In other songs of this messenger, the singer sends greetings and goodwill to friends and family in distant locations. I was struck by the image of a great bird who flew so high that it could see the activities of virtually all people. The appeal to such a creature for news seemed natural and integral from the context of a mountain village generally accessible only by foot and by donkey. Everyone joined in for the chorus, even me. Urban and rural Moroccan storytellers tell tales of several bird characters flying through the heavens. These aviary symbols evoke imagined voyages that defy distances. They express the pain of separation and exile, themes central to lyric poetic traditions that came to be associated with the European Renaissance. Both the content and the form of Moroccan oral arts provide ample material for comparative study of Mediterranean literatures, which is the basis for my doctoral work.
I argue that malḥūn is performed today to answer questions of identity in post-Protectorate Moroccan society through the use of features of malḥūn in a variety of contexts. Folk traditions, associated with common people and the past, present a variety of linguistic and literary tools for re-imagining the past and for performances of ideals, communal narratives, and other representations of communal identity that contribute to social structures. Malḥūn may be compared to any folk movement since the eighteenth century. Old Norse sagas became popular in the nineteenth century, as Norway achieved independence from Denmark and Sweden. So-called German folk tales became popular as the Grimm brothers contributed to nineteenth century Germany’s movement that presented Bildung (cultural formation or education) as the fundamental role of arts. Gaelic verbal art performances in the Abbey Theater helped define Ireland’s literary scene. Like these earlier examples of nation-building with folk heritage, Moroccans remember and invent a pre-colonial past through poetic language. Folk literature can play a major role in the formation of societies through poetic language and literary structures, and their associations (social, historical, political, etc.). I argue that malḥūn poetry today expresses a post-colonial national identity, through multiple voices, a number of historical moments, critical questioning, and careful artistic refinement of a centuries-old literary tradition.
This study aspires to make malḥūn poetry accessible, and to show what it means to many different kinds of Moroccans--from aesthetic notions of beauty to cultural notions of the good life and what it means to be Moroccan--as well as how this genre of poetry affects contemporary society.
I write about the artistry of folk poetry in Morocco, much of which contains references to historical links with the Iberian Peninsula and with other societies surrounding the Mediterranean. In order to explore poetic traditions in the multilingual context of the western Mediterranean region, my research bridges academic gaps between literary studies and folklore, and between Arabic, Hebrew, and Spanish studies. My work points to connections between seemingly disparate artistic developments in order to better understand the literary and cultural history of the Mediterranean region (and of the many regions linked to one another through the Mediterranean). I hope the result will provide a dynamic and inspiring contribution to scholarship, and will inform my future research and teaching of Arabic language and literature.
"Fatima Haddad” entry in The Dictionary of African Biography, Oxford U. Press, 2011
"Haifa Prior to al-nakba: The City and Society" by Mahmoud Yazbak, solicited translation from Arabic to English for French journal Méditerranées, June 2009
Book review of Who Sings the Nation State? Language, Politics, Belonging by Judith
Butler and G.C. Spivak (2007) in “E3W Review of Books,” University of Texas at Austin, Spring 2009. Available online: http://www.cwrl.utexas.edu/orgs/e3w/ButlerSpivak