The dialogue with Noureddine Mhakkak, Morrocan writer and poet, is a cultural journey into the worlds of Letters and the Arts. That is to say in the world of poetry, prose, cinema, painting, and photography on the one hand and in the world of current affairs too.
Noureddine Mhakkak (NM): Do you want to tell us about your relationship with words, and especially with poetry?
JG: I can sometimes call my personality contemplative. In a crowd, I can watch other people’s behaviours for hours in order to better decipher them. It fascinates me to watch the ballet of expressions, gestures, or sounds. It seems that I’m not the only one who likes it. My former comedy teacher, Jack Waltzer, told me that Marlon Brando also used to sit for hours on a bench watching passers-by. What amused him the most was imagining what they had been through just before and mentally reproducing it. His goal was to improve his ability to be in total harmony with his characters and to fully live their journeys. By going for the bottom of the human iceberg, beyond appearances and surface behaviours, he could play with that sincerity, so overwhelming, because he had identified the triggers. This is also the story of the “Silence of the Lambs”, Clarice is the only one able to save Catherine because she is the only one looking below the waterline. My approach is just as intentional, but my goal is different. For me, it’s about improving collaboration and enabling everyone to play a leading role in shaping our future. So, if I also observe a lot, my goal is to look for the triggers for a leadership that is expressed in each of us.
When I write poems, I encounter the same taste for contemplation and the same desire to create a form of harmony. Only here, the main tool is made up of words that I’m trying to put side by side. I like pretty much everything, but when I write I tend more towards the Alexandrines, I’m classic and that has to rhyme too. I would say that my mathematical mind as well as my sensitivity to music like to express itself in poetry. I mostly wrote when I was little, I had a little notebook that I carried everywhere. As soon as I felt the need to isolate myself, I headed to another room to write. And, one day, I had the opportunity to share this passion. I must have been 8 years old and the city decided to hold a poetry competition for Mother’s Day, inviting all schools to compete. To my surprise, I won the second prize. My poem had been read and appreciated! Today, of course, I still write poems, but this activity has become rarer and therefore more valuable. I only spend the time I need to get the important messages across. For example, for special occasions, or to convey an important thought in a metaphorical way.
So, about ten years ago when I was busy introducing a conversation tool in a large organisation, it seemed appropriate to write a poem to facilitate user buy-in. It involved a new way of thinking about information exchange in the organisation and I saw an enormous potential to facilitate staff empowerment as well as a wider distribution of power. Rather than standard presentations, I chose to write a poem that would emphasize its singular philosophy and intention. This exercise made it possible to mark the cultural difference but also to set up the conditions for freer and less formal conversations. The impact in changing the culture has been very real.
Overall, I think poetry is a way to think outside the box to convey great ideas. I was very struck by Amanda Gorman’s poem when President Biden was inaugurated. Her very profound poem showed that it was possible to convey many truths and that this it was a powerful tool for democracy, especially when polarization and fears are as present as they are today. I don’t know about you, but I feel that humanity is about to break down. We will end up better or worse after these crises and I see poetry as one of the ways to make us better. In my experience, poetry allows us to say almost everything, to confront us with our values and ethical principles, and above all to anchor ourselves in a search for creation, aesthetics, and improvement of well-being. The world has never needed culture, artists, and poems so much! I take this opportunity to tell you that I am upset by what I saw at Euro 2021. For a year, we gagged our artists, prevented culture everywhere, but for football … we forgot everything and put aside the value of health for the benefit of money. There are great lessons for me to learn from this period.
NM: Through your reading on your YouTube channel, you have created a relationship with words and pictures. What do you think of this cultural relationship?
JG: I don’t think I felt so special until a few friends pointed it out to me. I am simply a person who listens to her feelings and emotions because I understood that it was essential to let them flourish, rather than being imprisoned by them. This achievement took place quite recently. It was two years ago when I was having a blast in one of my favorite activities, looking for unique treasures in the second-hand shops on rue Haute in Brussels. I was returning from an obviously exciting day, when I came face to face with a photograph by the incredible Dutch visual artist Joris Graaf. Thunderbolt! I absolutely had to purchase it. As I was ready to buy it, I suddenly had a hesitation. I had to dig into the reason for this shock before I indulge in compulsive buying.
When I got home, I started my little Instagram investigation. I discovered more of the artist and his works and then I came back to the painting that I liked so much. The revelation came! Until then I had not paid attention to the title of the work, but in full, now under the photograph, I could read: “The fear of feeling”. This painting, which I ultimately did not buy, was the source of awareness of my disconnection. After a few hard knocks, I had gotten so used to protecting myself that I was afraid to listen to my feelings. As a good warrior that I was, I did everything I could not to feel sadness. To me, before then, the vulnerability was a form of weakness and most of all I was scared the consequences of reconnecting. From that day forward, I gradually removed the pieces of my armour. I, who was more of a rock, today, can go from laughter to tears in two seconds! Deep down, I understood the importance of letting go and cleaning out the conduits that block the light one by one.
Another element that can explain my application to give body to poems, is undoubtedly linked to the fact that I evolve in an unprecedented intercultural environment, the European Commission (27 nationalities working together) in Brussels (the second most cosmopolitan of the world, 62% of its inhabitants were born in another country or have a background related to immigration, according to the World Migration Report 2015) which led me very quickly to realize the impact of the non-verbal in Communication. For example, I really enjoy watching the reading of poems in languages that I don’t understand! So when I post a poem in French on my YouTube channel, which is potentially followed by people who don’t understand me, I want to talk to them too, through my expressions, my body movements, or my intonation. I want to get them to appreciate the poem in another way.
NM: How much pleasure do you get from the poems and interviews that we have been doing together for over a month now?
JG: Lots of fun and that of being able to do things on my own first! My new business may seem strange to many people. But for me the joy is immense and as I continue this journey I know that I am doing something good for myself and for those I love. This story says a lot about the power to do what we love to do, no matter how accepted or appreciated it is. I don’t think I’ve been as happy as since I listened to my heart.
NM: Tell us about your relationship with the Internet world? How do you see this world?
JG: I don’t know if you are familiar with PALIO, which I believe comes from neuro-linguistic programming and which makes it possible to remember the different needs of people. This is a very good tip for communicators because it covers all needs to ensure that we will interest as many people as possible with our words. The French mnemonic, P-A-L-I-O (and not the traditional Sienese game) therefore encompasses our different preferences that stand in English for people, actions, places, information, and objects. Everyone uses the internet to delve into these PALIO-related interests.
For me, it is the life stories and the quest for knowledge that largely mobilize my attention and that led me very early on to see the potential of collaborative, interactive, and social media technologies. I wrote a book in French on this topic in 2016 (find the references on this blog). It was commissioned from me by a Belgian publisher, in order to share the lessons of my experience as a community manager within the European institutions. Rather, I had created this role for myself.
Initially, I was recruited to do internal communications, I wrote articles or made videos. And then, quite quickly, I was offered to test an internal social tool, Yammer, and I saw it as a challenge. I had always wanted to help improve the European project. From my arrival in Brussels back in 2005, I had developed a passion for the European institutions, and in particular for its staff. I had this chance to work alongside 28 nationalities and, this richness that lies in diversity, I am looking in every way possible to share it with those around me.
The European spirit and all its benefits should not be reserved for the privileged few of which I am one. Europe needs to be much more ambitious in order to be present in the hearts, minds, and hands of all Europeans. There is too much joy in living together. So, this responsibility that I had taken on to support new tools, allowed me above all to put in place the necessary steps to support access to the European project. I faced the reality of communication, which goes both ways, the joy of listening, helping, and connecting. But above all, I discovered the power of collective intelligence and organic collaboration. We do not learn anything if we do not confront others and our ideas are only reinforced when they are enriched by those who do not think like us. I am not afraid of the internet, which connects and opens the voice to real debate, on an equal footing. For me, our digital future can only be democratic and shaped by all. I refuse to have its direction set only by a few geeks in Silicon Valley and I try to make this need better known through my current work.
The internet makes it possible to break down borders, to think globally and act locally, and to empower our humanity, breaking down the isolation that weakens us. I dream of technologies that would simply make us better and strengthen the vital sense of belonging everywhere. However, the internet also asks us to avoid certain pitfalls, in particular, that of our lack of attention because we must be vigilant and put, as a society, the necessary safeguards. I think we need to put a framework in order to set limits for our well-being. The effects can be too harmful, as we see now. If I do not question the intentions (which I do not know), I think that the internet is too much a showcase for excesses of all kinds and I aspire that as a society, we protect ourselves from it any further.
NM: You speak, at least three languages. Could you tell us how you entered the world of languages and how will we be able to talk about the translation game as a means of meeting with the other?
JG: One thing that life has taught me is that play is the key to everything. Whenever I want to improve myself in an area, I have to inject it with challenge and fun because otherwise, nothing is easy. So I will always remember when I arrived in Brussels and had to attend meetings entirely in English. You can’t imagine how many headaches I had at night when I got home, and how much I wanted to give up. And then I started watching all the American series at night until it got easier. Today I read most books in English, speak German, and have started Italian. But this is not impressive when compared to some of my colleagues, who are fluent in seven languages. Learning languages can be like gymnastics. Little by little, you train yourself to get out of your comfort zone in order to gain agility. Once you embark on this path, it becomes easier and easier to learn new languages and enjoy the joy of traveling in words and thoughts.
The original article was published in French and in a shorter version on Al Bayane