Moroccan film tackles taboo of unmarried mothers

Maryam Touzani never forgot the day a young woman knocked on the door of her home in Tangier asking for work.
Sunday 26/05/2019
Moroccan actress Lubna Azabal (L), Moroccan film director Maryam Touzani (C) and Moroccan actress Nisrin Erradi pose during a photocall for the film “Adam” at the 72nd edition of the Cannes Film Festival, May 20.  (AFP)
A moving story. Moroccan actress Lubna Azabal (L), Moroccan film director Maryam Touzani (C) and Moroccan actress Nisrin Erradi pose during a photocall for the film “Adam” at the 72nd edition of the Cannes Film Festival, May 20. (AFP)

CANNES - Maryam Touzani never forgot the day a young woman knocked on the door of her home in Tangier asking for work.

“She was from a village and she was heavily pregnant. My mother had no work for her but was afraid to let her go… She wasn’t in a good way and had clearly nowhere to go,” the Moroccan actress and director said.

Sex outside marriage is illegal in Muslim-majority Morocco and, at the time, a single mother who tried to give birth in a hospital would be thrown in jail.

“The girl had been going door-to-door, so my mother took her in for a few days until we worked something out but there was no solution. She had been going from town to town after running away from her family, working as a cleaner and hairdresser until people noticed her predicament and then she would have to move on.

“So she stayed with us until she had the baby,” said Touzani, whose powerful new film “Adam,” at the Cannes Film Festival, was inspired by the woman’s heartbreaking dilemma over what to do with the child.

“She wanted to give up her baby straight away to give him a chance of a decent life and to restart her own and become a respectable woman again,” Touzani said.

However, when the baby arrived, things weren’t so simple.

“Because she gave birth over a bank holiday weekend, she had to keep the baby until the adoption office opened. I was with her as she tried to suppress the maternal extinct, to put distance between herself and the child. It was painful to watch and really shook me,” Touzani said.

“Little by little I saw her resistance break” and the pain grow as the bank holiday ended. “I went with her to give the baby up,” Touzani said.

The hell that woman went through came home to Touzani when she became pregnant while filming “Razzia,” a huge hit in Morocco in 2017, which she wrote and starred in.

“When I felt the baby move inside me, I began thinking of her and I understood and straight away I started to write. It poured out of me,” she said.

Already talked of as an Academy Awards foreign-language contender, “Adam” shines a light on a hidden woman’s world in the conservative North African country.

In the film a village girl who flees to Casablanca, played by Nisrin Erradi, is reluctantly taken in by a widowed baker (Lubna Azabal) hiding her own grief.

While Touzani does not go there in her touching, intimate tale, unmarried mothers are pariahs in Morocco, she said, often regarded as prostitutes. “It is the worst thing that can happen to a woman,” she said.

Until 2004 their children’s birth could not even be registered, meaning they had no legal status. “They simply didn’t exist,” Touzani said. The shame is so intense that “children are often sold or abandoned”, adding to the country’s army of street children.

“There are so many terrible stories,” Touzani said.

The writer-director has not shied from touching on raw nerves in her homeland. Her husband Nabil Ayouch’s banned feature “Much Loved” was based on a documentary of the same name she made about prostitution.

It was branded “an affront to moral values and Moroccan women” shortly after its premiere at Cannes, with actress Loubna Abidar forced to flee to France after being attacked in the street in Casablanca.

“Razzia,” in which Touzani played the lead, also touched on taboos.

But she said she is convinced many who condemned the films in public were secretly pleased they had brought issues out into the open that Morocco needs to deal with.

“There is a facade that everything is all right on the outside even if people are tormented inside. It is good to let in some air and light, and people are relieved and happy things are being spoken about,” Touzani said.

“I am not at all afraid for ‘Adam.’ In any case, nothing comes from fear.”

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