Fulbright Fellow Explores the Future of Moroccan Storytelling

April 26, 2022

By Bonnie Eissner

Ryan Milov-Córdoba, a 2022 Fulbright Fellow, will travel to Morocco to talk to artists about the possibilities of a threatened tradition.

Ryan Milov Cordoba, Photo credit: Alex Irklievski
2022 Fulbright Fellow Ryan Milov-Córdoba (photo credit: Alex Irklievski)

Graduate Center Ph.D. candidate Ryan Milov-Córdoba (Comparative Literature) was awarded a 2022 Fulbright Fellowship to travel to Morocco to study and document how young people are preserving and changing a centuries-old oral storytelling tradition.

For about 1,000 years, Moroccan storytellers, or Hakawatiin, have recounted legends and folk tales at busy Moroccan markets. The storytellers are losing their audience, though, as more people turn to mass media. The COVID-19 pandemic, which initially deterred large gatherings, was another gut punch.

But, as Milov-Córdoba points out, Morocco is experiencing a folk-art revival. “The younger generation, although they don’t want to keep telling the stories in the squares and live the life of a subsistence Hakawati,” Milov-Córdoba says, “they do care about the stories a lot, and they’re very proud of them. They don’t want them to die out.”

Some younger Moroccans are turning to YouTube to broadcast the stories to larger audiences. One artist, Mustafa Swinga, has amassed millions of streams for his videos that recount stories in Moroccan Arabic, or Darija.

For his Fulbright, Milov-Córdoba plans to find young storytellers like Swinga and the remaining marketplace storytellers and invite them to talk with each other about the future of Moroccan storytelling. While in Morocco, he also plans to collaborate with Moroccan artists on a musical video project. The two pursuits revolve around interests and skills that Milov-Córdoba developed while at the Graduate Center.

First, like most Moroccans, Milov-Córdoba speaks Darija. That gives him an advantage over past scholars from the West who have primarily communicated in French.

He learned Darija while at the Graduate Center through private lessons primarily with Hassan Eddahabi, who was at Hunter College and is now at Leiden University. “All the ideas that I have about Morocco, I talked about with him,” Milov-Córdoba says.

He honed his scholarly interest in Arabic storytelling while writing his dissertation on The Thousand and One Nights. After delving into the medieval world, though, he says, “I was kind of hungry to do a contemporary project.”

Milov-Córdoba’s taste for contemporary Moroccan culture grew with a recent endeavor to record and release an album of original and arranged songs in English and Moroccan Arabic. He received a grant from the PublicsLab at the Graduate Center for the recording project, which he is calling Ajnabi, or foreigner.

Like many Ph.D. students who succeed in securing prestigious fellowships, Milov-Córdoba developed a community of mentors and teachers who guided and inspired him as he envisioned and then applied for a Fulbright. Among them are his Arabic teachers Dr. Eddahabi and a Moroccan Fulbright fellow who came to New York; the administrators at Saint Ann’s School in Brooklyn, where Milov-Córdoba taught full time while pursuing his Ph.D., who provided funding for his Arabic lessons; and the Graduate Center committee that interviewed him and offered constructive feedback on his application.

“These human links and this deeply personal chain of connection across cultures, that is the Fulbright story, or at least it’s my Fulbright story,” Milov-Córdoba says.

He plans to defend his dissertation in August before he departs for Morocco. Looking back at his Graduate Center experience, he says he was well advised to work full time while getting his Ph.D. He remained on the faculty at Saint Ann’s School in Brooklyn and even taught classes at Hunter College.

“I didn't feel isolated by the graduate school process because I had multiple communities I was involved in and meaningful work in more than one place,” he says. “I think that’s the ideal. I think that lets you get to your best thinking.”

It helped, too, that his adviser, Professor Anna Akasoy (Middle Eastern Studies, History, Comparative Literature, Liberal Studies) had a broad view of the purpose of graduate education and supported his many pursuits.

He also heeded the advice of a professor at Amherst, his undergraduate alma mater, who, Milov-Cordoba says, told him, “You want to find a place where they'll give you the space to do your best work, and don't underestimate the value of that space.”

“I found that to be true for sure,” Milov-Cordoba says of his Ph.D. experience. “Yeah, I’ve loved my time at the Graduate Center.”