Marie Kawthar Daouda is an author and a lecturer in French language and literature at the University of Oxford. Our conversation took place at Oriel College on the morning of 15th February 2023.
I grew up in a multilingual family. I don’t know if you’re familiar with the cultural situation in Morocco, but after the protectorate, many people kept French as a sort of frequent communication language. So, my parents would speak either Moroccan Arabic or French between themselves. Learning languages was a process that started early because my brother and I started learnt French first. As infants we spoke French and then Moroccan Arabic. I’d say by the time we were five or six, we were perfectly fluent in both languages. It was just a matter of code shifting. We spoke Moroccan Arabic with our grandparents and French with our uncles, aunts, and parents, although, my grandparents on my father’s side also spoke French.
And then I guess I learned English was because I was curious about languages. My parents signed me up for language courses when I was eleven or twelve. Then I took up Spanish later in secondary school. When I was a teenager I ended up teaching myself Latin using my brother’s textbook. By the time I was at university, I had taken up Latin properly. And then I wanted to read the Bible in the oldest possible language. I wanted to read the New Testament in Greek and to at least be able to decipher Hebrew. And I guess I picked up Italian on the way because it’s so close to Spanish.
I listened to a lot of British bands when I was a teenager. The Cure was a massive influence. I was into sci-fi, goth and rock simultaneously. I had just discovered Keats through Hyperion, a sci-fi novel written by Dan Simmons. And I loved it but I had read it in French, so it led me to actually reading Keats in English. I’m not sure I understood half of it, but I still powered my way through Keats’s poems. I had a one-page-a-day diary and I would print and paste lyrics of Cure songs and John Keats’ poems and Shakespeare’s sonnets. To me, everything was at the same level: things with which I felt a deep emotional connection. I was about fourteen or fifteen then. That was me as a teenager starting to create my own cultural personality by copying and cutting and pasting things I liked.
I’d say in a way that high-brow and pop culture for me have always been intertwined. When you listen to The Cure for instance, there are so many crossed influences. In a lecture I gave recently, I quoted the fact that one of their songs, « How beautiful you are » is an adaptation of a prose poem by Baudelaire, « Les Yeux des pauvres » – this shows that people use what they like, whatever moves them, to make art, and for a while we would consider this popular culture, something that’s not supposed to be high culture but it would still be a way of transmitting and sharing things that speak to a deeper humanity.
I play the bass guitar. I was part of the first female metal band in Africa. That was super cool. We played covers of Nirvana, Metallica, The Cure. That was our repertoire. We played lots of gigs. I was fifteen when I picked up the bass. I also did backing vocals in the band. I do love singing. I was also in a band when I was in France but I had to stop because I was finishing my master’s degree and starting my doctoral thesis, so I had to drop out a few things. My bass is still in Paris at the moment. I need to recover it at some point.
I was raised in a Muslim family. I was aesthetically interested in Catholicism quite early on. There were so many hints to that in the novels I was reading and in the music I was listening to. I knew there was something going on there that I wanted to know more about – but it took me years before I actually converted. It was a rather long process
There are many benefits of being raised by caring parents who have a sense of religiosity. There has never been a time in my life where I would have doubted that God existed.
There have been many times of rebellion. If there is a good God, then why is there so much pain in this world? For me, Christianity, in general, Catholicism, in particular, was the only possible explanation of how we have a kind and loving omnipotent God and such a flawed world. The only possible explanation for that is that the world has been created good and that God is willing to do anything, even to die on the cross to make it possible for us to be at one with him again.
There’s one moment I particularly remember. I was probably sixteen. I think it was in April. And what I’m curious about now is whether or not it happened around Easter. I was on the little balcony in my room. I was living at my parents’ house and the room had a view out onto the ocean. I looked out and it was as though the ocean and the sky looked like very deep blue layers of lead. And in between, there was a radiating, vibrant orange setting sun. I think it is literally called ‘a glory’ when you have all these rays that become almost tangible because you have this perfect balance of luminosity and humidity in the air to make it shine – all on that backdrop of very deep blue. (Note: A glory is an optical phenomenon, resembling an iconic saint’s halo around the shadow of the observer’s head, caused by sunlight or (more rarely) moonlight interacting with the tiny water droplets that comprise mist or clouds.) I think at that moment, I prayed with a more direct intensity – with unquestionable trust and gratitude. It felt something like: “OK, well, the world’s messed up, but wow”. As I went out, it started raining – there was a thunderstorm and I could see the lightning over the deep, steel blue clouds.
I had the absolute perfect certainty that God is in charge. That whoever made this, this perfect moment of beauty and harmony, whatever you want to call it, is in charge of everything else. So, no matter how messed up it can look, it will be alright in the end. We have all these apocalyptic images of the end of the world, and a lot of that discourse is filled with fear and anxiety, and even religious people can find themselves trapped in this narrative of: “Oh, it’s horrible. The world’s going to end.” But you can look at all the horrible things that happen with the certainty that even if everything was even worse, it would still be alright in the end because there is someone in charge. I think that’s something that many young people have a hard time accepting because we live in an era that nurtures anxiety and many people now find their identity in their anxiety. They have so many different names for that. It leads to dreadful feelings of isolation. It leads to substance abuse and all these things, because your self becomes defined by the fact that you feel unwell. But you know, at some point if you choose to accept that there is someone in charge, it makes everything different. It doesn’t mean that everything will be easy. But it makes things different.
Not being the centre of the universe anymore is a very good thing. There’s a sort of post-romantic narrative that the world is about you, the world is about your feelings, your perceptions, and all that. It sounds good on paper, but in practice it’s dreadful because you’d keep anything going just to have this sense that it is about you. It skews relationships, it biases the way we interact with each other. I think one of the first texts I encountered in a French school, was a text by Pascal and what struck me was to see how the text worked rhetorically. It made sense because it was beautifully written. The opening sentence is:
«Tous les hommes recherchent d’être heureux, jusqu’à ceux qui vont se pendre»
“Everyone wants to be happy, even people who are about to hang themselves”. So, a very basic, clear statement – and then it goes on a bit, and then you have that enumeration of all the places in which we could seek this feeling of complete unleashed happiness. So, it goes from power to cabbages. And that’s what struck me with that text that we, we are willing to seek the infinite anywhere. And the text has this sort of dropping moment that says: “We would keep on going for that everywhere until we meet death, which is the supreme evil.” That is to say that we go on looking for the supreme good until we meet the supreme evil. Because we cannot find our beatitude anywhere else then in God. And I thought it was so powerful. I would not have branded myself as a Christian then, but I was impressed by the way in which a seventeenth century writer could describe something we can still see so clearly nowadays, that people do have this urge, this desire to reach something endless. But they would look for greatness anywhere and they don’t know that what they’re looking for is God, because the word God has very bad press at the moment. When you think God, very few people, I’d say in the Western world, would think of a caring, loving, creative power. This passage by Pascal is deeply Christian and I find it surprising, in the hindsight, that we would have studied it in a very « laïque » French school in Morocco. I taught in a French Catholic school in the early 2010s, and had I given this text to my pupils, colleagues would have told me: “this is way too Catholic. You can’t go there.”
Halal and Haram
One thing that is very clear is that although there are so many different shades of Islam, most Muslims do not play around with the distinction between what is and what is not illicit. The division between the Halal and the Haram is subject to scholarly interpretation, but in practice, it has to be very clear. So, you would have people in Islam doing something that they know is haram – but they won’t explain their way out of it. They would say: “I’m a sinner. I messed up. I’m going to ask for God’s forgiveness”. Which is supposed to be the core message of Christianity (laughs). In Islam, when you do something that is wrong, you don’t try to bend the faith to make it match what you are doing.
One thing that I find fascinating is how manly Islam looks in comparison with Christianity. So, Christianity, when you look at it, it looks like a religion for old ladies. While if you look at traditional Catholic parishes, the picture is different. When I lived in France, I was in a modern parish, then switched to a traditional parish when the curate changed and the new one was celebrating very modern masses that looked like TV shows. That is when I started going to to the traditional mass. I was finishing off my thesis and I reached that point of: “Well, okay, you just need to let go now because you can’t explain your way out of the sacraments if you think you are Christian, you have to sign up and do the whole thing.”
There is the “zeal of the convert” – wanting things to be clear-cut. It’s yes or no. Can I do this? Can I do that? If not, why is it that I cannot do that? And what should I do? And in the traditional parish, I found first a very welcoming community, but also a young and vibrant community of young people of every possible background. It wasn’t the cliche of just Catholics born and raised Catholics who have lots of Catholic babies. Some of them were recent converts, some had had a very difficult past. Some were elderly and isolated. They came in so many different shapes – but what brought that community together was that they did not want to mess around with the liturgy and the beliefs it represents. So, in Muslim prayer, no matter where you are in the world, there’s one language and there’s one specific way of doing it. While you look at one Catholic parish here, one Catholic parish fifty meters further up the road, the mass can look completely different. It’s not just a matter of wrapping, it’s about what doctrine you teach, and the way you pray has to match what you believe in.
I am here as a custodian. Whatever I do, I do it in relation to a higher authority.
Discipline Equals Freedom
So many mental health coaches say that you need a routine, you need structure in your day. The ironic thing is that there used to be, there still is in the monasteries, seven prayers a day in the Christian tradition and a very solid daily, weekly, and yearly routine. One of the inconveniences of the “you do you, you can pray within your heart” is that all the density brought by a solid structure is diluted. So, I try to stick with the Canonical Hours of the Roman Breviary: Matins, Lauds, Prime, Terce, Sext, None, Vespers and Compline. (Note: Of these, Matins, Lauds and Vespers are called major Hours; Prime, Terce, Sext, None and Compline are called minor Hours or little Hours. For the most part, however, Compline is considered separately by the rubrics.)
When I do this, I know that I hold my day and I offer it up. So, it’s a sort of constant reminder that I am here as a custodian. Whatever I do, I do it in relation to a higher authority. And I think there’s a lot of that in Islam. There’s a very clear sense of the majesty of God. You don’t mess around with God in Islam. If there’s something that is said, you have to do it. And I think in Christianity, one of the beauties and also scandals of God’s Incarnation is how close and human God can be, how easy it is to disregard him. It makes it in a way, much harder to obey a God who willingly puts himself in a position of weakness. But when you see the path from the majesty to the cross, it’s infinite. A God would only be high and powerful and distant, but would not come down to reach you, you know, it’s a tiny little dot far, far away. So, many people who leave Islam do it because although there is this structure and discipline and very clear-cut lines, they end up craving a sort of more personal face-to-face relationship with God.
I’d say it’s easier to water down a personal relationship but it’s like any relationship between beings. I can choose not to call you back. I can choose to ignore you. If you are all powerful and almighty, I will call you back. So, the way we represent God in Christianity is that we have turned mercy into leniency. Mercy can only happen if there is justice. I can be merciful on you if you’ve done something wrong and I will forgive you. It doesn’t mean that you’ve done is not wrong, it means that I am choosing actively to forgive something that is wrong. If it’s leniency, it’s like: “oh, it’s alright.” This is the triumph of “you do you”.
The Triumph of “You Do You”
The worst thing you can tell a child or a teenager is «You do you». Do what you want to do. What this manifests is that the person granting permission is, in fact, the one in power. That’s the person giving approval, giving validation. Everyone seeks validation. We look for it anywhere we can. The easiest way to feel that you are a good person is to give validation because under the guise of being clement and understanding etc, you are the one in charge. You hold a lot of authority. So, I would usually say that saying “you do you” to a teenager is the worst possible gift – because at some point there has to be limits. There has to be a very clear explanation of the reality and consequences of doing something that is wrong. If you do this – then this will happen. It doesn’t mean I will punish you by inflicting this. This is just going to be the logical consequence. If you do that, if you start using drugs recreationally, all of a sudden it might not be recreational anymore. So, you’d hear a lot of that discourse with obesity, which is oftentimes linked to either underlying health conditions that have to be treated, have to be taken seriously, or to very bad health habits regarding exercise and food. While if you say, well, “fat is healthy”, if you have all this body positive thing that seems to mainly be targeting women, what do you say? You tell people that you can just go on doing whatever you are doing and “I don’t care what consequences you’re going to pay because you do you, while I’m living my healthy lifestyle.”
I think there’s a huge problem in our day and age, which is that when you pinpoint something as not being ideal, not being how things are meant to be, you’re accused of being judgmental. But there is nothing judgmental about telling someone that something that is obviously unhealthy is a problem. The trouble is that we have nurtured the idea that saying yes to everything is the right way. So, if you say no, you are imposing judgment, you are being mean.
We hear a lot about toxic masculinity but there was a positive aspect in masculinity, which is to take ownership of whatever happened in your life. But now the sexual revolution has destroyed the idea of women taking ownership. And now we have turned this feminine pride of ‘no, I’m not just giving myself to anyone’ into ‘the more people you sleep with the better you are’ – but sleeping around is not a safe option. And symmetrically men are educated in the idea that if you tell anything to a woman as a father or as a brother, or as a husband, you are infringing on her personal liberty – but also you have an easy way out because women are supposed to take care of themselves. You don’t need to be held accountable and provide safety to the potential mother of your child because she is supposed to be independent. We have denied that the female body comes with specific needs that are best met within a stable union. So, the feminist discourse has been extremely damaging for young women. It was interesting to see when Roe V Wade was overturned in the US, how man y young women came up with the revolutionary idea of only sleeping with men who are willing to commit and take care of a possible baby.
Authority and Modesty
Islam, as we said before, has a very clear sense of authority. In an ideal Muslim couple, the husband has authority over the woman, the woman has authority over the rest of the household. Many young Christian couples are returning to this. I’ve been very interested recently watching all these hijabis and niqabis making these TikTok videos, talking about their faith and saying how much of a personal choice it is, but that it also gives them a sense of control, both in and out of the house. It is a hard choice but they derive a sense of strength from this because they don’t have to subscribe to the modern feminist narrative. They are able to withdraw their body from the whole circle of “being desirable is what makes you worthy as a woman”. So, many modern Christian women would tend to dress modestly and there’s a lot of strength in that. It says « my body is not open access ». You have to take control of your body and it’s not being regressive to say that you are accountable in that matter. There’s that whole trend of extremely revealing clothes and it’s countered by the idea that men must control their urges. But no one looks at the complimentary narrative that what makes a woman valuable is not the fact that she’s desirable. Where are the middle-aged women in fashion, in ads, in everything? There is an age in which women are just not shown anymore. And that’s dreadful, because it is the age when they have both wisdom and experience. And the way these things work differently in Islam is that people are generally willing to abide by rules. There’s a set of things that you have to do. Some Muslims would think that it’s perfectly fine to wear tight jeans. Some Muslims would think it’s only acceptable to cover the entire body. But at the core of it, there is still an idea that there is something both social and sacred about sexuality, which means that it’s not supposed to be as disclosed, open and loud as we see it nowadays. It would be great if Christians applied more firmly what the creation of Adam and Eve in the Bible tells us of the sacred union between man and woman. I try to imagine all these teenage boys and girls who have been so bombarded with this oversexualized mentality that nowadays they don’t have any sexual drive anymore. They put their addictions and lust elsewhere. And then you have all these narratives about if you don’t feel any sexual attraction: ‘Have you wondered, maybe you might be trans?’ So, you know, it’s all these entangled narratives that we could make clearer by telling people explicitly, well, things work better when you have one dad, one mum and their children. There is nothing wrong with that, it’s tried and tested, it’s a safe method, and it is very enjoyable!
I moved to Oxford five years ago. I visited as a tourist on a language learning trip when I was thirteen or something. I have an old-fashioned selfie of myself on Christchurch Meadow which I took with a little Kodak. That was very cute. As a child, I thought that maybe I should come back here one day. I do like it here. I also know that it’s a sort of fantasy world – both in the way that education is provided and in the way the city works. It is extremely privileged. Oxford is a university, the centre of the city – but if you compare that to what happens around other parts of Oxfordshire then there’s a staggering contrast between the intellectual wealth of the centre and how poorly the kids are doing in primary and secondary schools, generally speaking, in Oxfordshire.
I most enjoy walking around and I still gush at the buildings. I really like Christchurch Meadow. I think Oxford has the best sunsets. Getting to see a sunset on Christchurch Meadow is just wonderful. You can have amazing sunsets from the top of the Westgate because then you look at the spires behind and everything is gold and then deep red, and it’s just glorious. Oxford does have the best sunsets. I do like the tiny narrow streets when you get a bit further down the centre. Even the places that look relatively modern have that sort of vernacular architecture and you see a striking difference – the colleges, all the new and the very new buildings that are built in this post-brutalist architecture. Just glass, concrete and nothing more.
I would like to have more time to write fiction. That would be my main castle in the sky. There’s an author I am very fond of, called Marie Corelli. She’s completely forgotten now but she was an absolute best seller in the Victorian era and she wrote these crazy sci-fi romances, big 19th century sci-fi being: “We’ve discovered magnetism! What can we do with magnetism?” So, in this novel, for instance, one of the characters is hypnotized and travels in space and meets God. Yes, just as humble as that! Her novels are crazy and wild and completely unleashed. I like this idea of unbridled creativity because that’s when there are simultaneously so many echoes of whatever you’ve read and enjoyed before, but also a broader opening to whatever people could enjoy reading. I’m currently translating Corelli’s The Sorrows of Satan from English into French.
Marie Corelli is a pseudonym. Her real name was Minnie Mackay and her life as an author started when she showed up at her publisher and introduced herself as a seventeen-year-old Italian expatriate living with the Mackay family. That’s how she submitted A Romance of Two Worlds for publication. Everyone in the editing committee hated it. So, the publisher thought there must be something to it and there was. It was a major hit. Everyone wanted to read it, but at the time she was not seventeen, she was actually about thirty-five, she had a very youthful, tiny figure. If you go to Stratford, she is notorious for having preserved the Shakespearean heritage. All the Shakespearean cottages were about to be demolished and she stirred a campaign among many other famous writers and artists to oppose the destruction of these buildings. She was quite a wonderful lady.
I first read the Narnia series two summers ago. So, I have the immense privilege of having read both Narnia and The Lord of the Rings as an adult. At the risk of angering all the Tolkien fans, I’d probably say that the Narnia books are more enjoyable. I got the whole series as a set at the beginning of the first lockdown. I thought, well, it’s a nice time for reading Narnia and The Lord of the Rings. So, I picked up The Magician’s Nephew and read it during the winter lockdown. I really loved it, but then life happened and I had lots of things to do and I didn’t carry on. But then I read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe and it made me cry – the part when Aslan is killed. I think what gripped me the most was when Aslan’s mane is cut. In terms of representing the humiliation of Christ, transposing that to a lion with a cut mane is quite a striking image. Then I read the whole series. So of course, Lewis had many literary and biblical allusions in mind but it is still written in such a way that children could understand what’s going on. It is very intense, yet very simple. I think it should still be read and transmitted. And I was surprised at how dark The Last Battle is – but by the end I was just brawling my eyes out, an uncontrollable flow of tears. I think I was weeping. I bawled at my husband (then my fiancé) that I just wanted to go to heaven.