This article examines the poetics and the symbolism of a childhood journey in the 1999 film Ali Zaoua, Prince of the Streets, focusing on dreams and Sufi mysticism, especially as expressed in a rich set of symbols that centre on the sea, the voyage, and burial themes. Ali Zaoua, the second feature film by Moroccan filmmaker Nabil Ayouch, depicts the lives of Moroccan street children, epitomized by the eponymous protagonist Ali, nicknamed “Prince of the Streets,” and his three closest friends, Kwita, Omar, and Boubker. The boys are young and homeless, roaming the streets and port area of Casablanca, hustling, hanging out, sniffing glue, and working: they shine shoes or sell counterfeit cigarettes and self-made shell necklaces on the street.1 In the reading of the film that follows, I argue that its magnetic pull results from the clash between the depiction of modern urban life (and in particular the ugliness of poverty, violence, and sex work, which is comparable to onscreen depictions of first-world urban landscapes) and the pervasive undercurrent of Sufi symbolism, which restores the children’s dignity and makes their quest for happiness legitimate and meaningful.
French cinema critic Michel Serceau points out that Ali Zaoua is inspired by Italian neo-realism, given that the misery and crime reflected in the dilapidated urban landscape are characteristic of a developing nation. In contrast to Vittorio De Sica’s films, however, he contends that the narrative “ne met pas en scène la destruction du rêve mais—et c’est une toute autre affaire—la persistance de l’imaginaire qui le soutient” (does not stage the destruction of a dream—and that’s [End Page 80] an entirely different matter—but the persistence of the imaginary that supports it; 95). In a 2001 interview that took place after the release of the film, Ayouch confirmed Serceau’s assessment, saying that the urban geography of the film opens up an oneiric and mythical dimension that outweighs the characteristics of social realism in the film:
The Street has a power that is both tragic and lyrical, a power that is maintained by the imagination of these children. At the drop of a hat, they can take off into real fantasy. . . . The goal was not to give [Ali] a physical embodiment, but to journey with the dream of this child, a dream which becomes that of his pals, of all children. It’s the mythical dimension of the character which interested me. As things play out, his status changes from that of a kid to that of a hero, then from a hero to a symbol. The film revolves around that.(Lowry; emphasis added)
Ayouch’s emphasis on the importance of the urban landscape that shapes his characters’ beliefs and values systems, their world views and their actions, is crucial. For an audience unfamiliar with North African films, it is indeed striking that narrative films made by Tunisian, Moroccan, and Algerian filmmakers—including Assia Djebar, Nouri Bouzid, Yamina Bachir-Chouikh, Raja Amari, and Yasmine Kassari, to name a few—privilege imagery and body language over dialogue. This characteristic is also found in North African literature in French, which stresses the importance of the gaze (le regard) and body language (le langage gestuel). As French-language cinema scholar Valérie K. Orlando points out, regardless of whether Maghrebi films are in Arabic, French, Berber, or a combination of the three languages, “language becomes secondary to the images filmmakers seek to convey to their audiences” (52; emphasis added). Viola Shafik similarly notes that Moroccan films by such filmmakers as Muhammad Asli, Daoud Aoulad Syad, Farida Ben Lyazid, and Nabil Ayouch all share a “poetic and expressive imagery” (222). I would add that the ethereal and metaphorical dimensions conveyed by the gaze, ephemeral images, dream visions, or mirages—visual elements that often characterize North African filmmaking—can and often do refer to magical rites, religious mysticism, spirituality, and powerful religious symbolism, as for instance in Nacer Khemir’s Bab’Aziz: The Prince Who Contemplated His Soul, which links the human gaze and dream visions to...