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): In my book which was published in Arabic “The notebooks of a writer in Paris” I spoke about the Eiffel Tower. Could you, as a Parisian woman tell me about this great symbol of Paris?
Julie Guégan (JG): Adept of gastronomy, I start with the restaurant on the second floor of the Eiffel Tower, the view over Paris is incredible. It’s named after one of my favorite writers, Jules Verne. I don’t remember if it’s still possible to go up there at night. But if so, please do so. The Iron Lady is so much more beautiful in the depth of the night, the yellow and orange colours of the lights are deposited on the wrought iron structures, to transform into a layer of copper. You should probably know that this monument built for the Universal Exhibition of 1889 had to be destroyed. Critics flocked to this edifice, which many compared to a poor iron skeleton. Basically, it did not share the elegance of the Parisian monuments of the time. Eiffel’s feat was more technical than aesthetic. However, this beloved tower quickly became a symbol, and the city of Paris fortunately decided to keep it.
At the top, there are still radio antennas. Located 324 meters high, they are still the highest point in Ile-de-France. Getting to the Effel Tower, whatever the goal, remains an event for Parisians. It was for me the place of gala evenings and other events in the advertising world, surrounded by my colleagues with whom I liked to live a wild life. And for everyone, it is the guarantee of beautiful photos and deep emotions. There is a vital need to find “her” again and each time, with that same childish gaze.
(NM): Each city has its exceptional charm, according to you what is the charm of the city of Strasbourg that you have already visited?
(JG): Strasbourg is the city where my ex-in-laws reside. For almost 10 years, we went there at least once every two months. It is one of the few magnificent Venice of the North, along with Colmar, Ghent or Bruges. When walking there, it’s impossible to escape the pretty River Ill, whose banks are populated by nutria and other ducks seeking shade. The Rhine is only a few kilometers away on the border with Germany. If the city is very old, more than 2,000 years, it is not the oldest in France, which is none other than Béziers, built in the Iron Age, five hundred years earlier. The great peculiarity of Strasbourg is to have had two nationalities, French and German.
Between 1870 and 1945 alone, it changed four times. The culture there is therefore quite special. Very European of course, the European Parliament has found a place of choice there, which also allows its Members to take a good break from a far more crowded Brussels, thus making important decisions away from continuous pressure. Thanks to Catherine Trautmann, mayor of Strasbourg twice, its center has become entirely pedestrianised, so life is very pleasant and peaceful. And, you can get around on foot, by tram or on two wheels, in order to enjoy the view on the pretty bourgeois mansions.
Obviously, one of the great attractions of Strasbourg, besides its majestic cathedral, is its Christmas market. During the end of the year celebrations, the city sparkles with its decorations, garlands and candles, not to mention the majestic Christmas tree in Place Kléber. Christmas is also exceptional in Alsatian cottages. The party often lasts three days there between the 24th and the 26th (public holiday in Alsace), and as usual, everyone enjoys the gargantuan meals prepared by the hosts. And when I say gargantuan, I’m not mistaken!
First, the inevitably grandiose aperitif, followed by seafood, foie gras, snails, meat, fish, cheese and desserts! Yes, just that. In Alsace, when it comes to eating, you don’t do things halfway. Moreover, if after such a meal, you still feel a little hungry, your hosts will not fail to offer you their delicious bredele (Alsatian Advent shortbread) – obviously homemade and which are the subject of a competition, very difficult between families! I could tell you much more of course and share the other treasures from this magnificent department of Bas-Rhin, whose capital is Strasbourg.
But today, I take advantage of your question to share an anecdote that will allow you another nice encounter with Alsatian culture. It comes from the time when my parents settled in the Haut-Rhin (which is not in the north, but in the south of Alsace!) And that I was working for the reknowned wine cooperative, Wolfberger. It was Summer 1999, and I had set myself a goal of raising enough money for my summer vacation and back to school. My first task was to weigh the trucks every morning before dawn and measure the sugar in the grapes brought in by the winegrowers, before they returned to their fields for the harvest.
This is the first day, I find my colleague who will also be responsible for this task with me, and he is a huge man with black skin colour. Me, I am not very different from today and I would say that I do not look like the traditional Alsatian, which is rather smaller, blond and a little plump. Immediately, the understanding is wonderful and jokes erupt between us. After the traditional training, we see the trucks start to line up before passing over the huge scale, from the half-open door of our cabin. And there, my colleague comes out to welcome the winegrowers. Let me remind you the setting, it’s very dark outside, before dawn, 6 am or so, right before the harvest when the air is still cool in this hot place that is Alsace (continental climate, rather hot in Summer and cold in Winter).
And, my buddy, who looks exactly like Ving Rhames, enters the darkness, slowly but with a very heavy step, towards the winegrowers equipped with his grape utensils. What a shock! They almost fled in fear! It was so funny to be a witness of this scenery, with these people who have undoubtedly never been further than Colmar, located half an hour away and hardly seen anyone so different to them. Even me, I looked exotic so imagine! In the first days, there was very little discussion between them. But progressively, I would see the enthusiasm with which these somewhat gruff men arrived each morning, showing that there was happiness in this diversity. Much happiness.
(NM): You have already visited the city of Marrakech, could you tell us about this beautiful Moroccan city?
(JG) Marrakech was for me the occasion of a week with my sisters, my mother and my nephew Arthur, when he was only a few months old, during the winter of 2008. It was the second time that I went in a Maghreb country, after Tunisia, a few years earlier (from which the grandmother of my children is also from). I love the taste of life in Africa, I also dream of taking long trips there later. In Marrakech, we were determined to take advantage of the city’s treasures, its pleasant climate and its hammams. My three must-sees are the Majorelle Museum, the view of the Atlas and Jamaâ El Fna Square. I also like to stroll in the souks and get lost in the medina, in order to discover splendid riads.
Obviously, as a good Frenchwoman, I like to stop in cafes to get in touch better with the locals when I travel. One day, when I was with my little sister, it seemed natural to me to tackle this nice task, which often allows for conversations that we would not have anywhere else. The discussions that we had that day, I will never forget them. They anchored in me this belief about the benevolence, openness and humour of Moroccans.
(NM): Today, each individual in general and each intellectual in particular, or almost not to generalise, tries to create his/her own channel on Youtube to talk about a particular vision of the world, the cultural projects in the broad sense of the word, and even of his professional projects. Could you tell us about your channel on Youtube?
(JG): Vast subject than that of my exhibition. I have the soul of an artist, so what I love is creating, testing, learning, asking myself questions and when it comes to my image, I never feel serious enough. This YouTube channel is more a space for experimentation today. I do not see it yet like a professional project, which requires all of my concentration and diligence. Today you will find on my YouTube channel some examples of my latest professional achievements and readings of your poems in English and French from you, Noureddine. It is a kind of a showcase of my personality, I can be very serious, lighter and maybe even a little spiritual.
My ultimate goal is to develop a community with which I would have the time to converse, to carry out projects all over the world around collaboration, leadership and, why not, co-create a world in which we all have more of our place. I admit that I still find myself a long way from the top of this mountain. So whenever I can, I try to do some clarification and simplification work. These conversations with you will undoubtedly help me find myself better. In the meantime, I hope that many of your readers will wish to join this community. At first, out of curiosity. Afterwards, we’ll see what winds this YouTube channel will take us to! But for sure, one day, it will look much more professional and my aim easier to read.
(NM): Looking at your beautiful photos on Instagram, I thought about your artistic way of being photographed this way or another. I would love to hear your thoughts on these photos, or other photos of you.
(JG): Very early on, I realised that curing ailments can only work by doing more good. As I worked in advertising at a young age, I am not naive about the dream that we are being sold with consumer goods. Thus, I learnt early on the “fair” legal vocabulary to extol the benefits of such cream or chewing paste. If “that helps,” know that it does little or nothing, for example.
For 20 years, I have tried to use my critical thinking skills in everything. After lots of experimentation all over the place, I settled on a few routines that work. So, photography is one of the strategies I use to feel good in my body and in my head. There are others. For example, with my children, we never take medication, we limit sugar and we only use skin-neutral products, especially from organic farming. We have a lifestyle that keeps us from getting sick, or at least it seems so rare to me that I can’t remember. And when we are, we eat plenty of fruits and vegetables, in addition to natural probiotics and pre-biotics and overdoses of vitamin D. I also believe in the benefits of the great outdoors, and so whatever the weather, we go doing outdoor activities.
For me, really, the best medicine is to look for beauty in everything, even on a bad day, because we all have it. Not mentioning that we all have the tendency to amplify the negative (I think from science, we know that anything negative will take three times more space in our mind that something positive, provided we do not do anything about it of course). So, make-up, dress up, play Marilyn are all fun tactics that are good for me. Much better than all the things people want to impose on me! It’s clear that this bad chocolate bar won’t make me happy.
In my journey, I have met artists who have taken an interest in my uniqueness, so as usual, I took to the game in the hopes of showing the results with pride to my grandchildren later. You have to know that I do a lot of things for my future grandchildren. I was lucky to have very inspiring ancestors, and my dream is to do the same later. I already see myself surrounded by all my family, on my farm, with my animals, sharing my life stories, my encounters and helping to spiritually uplift all those I love, wherever they come from. At 12, I was already said to be wise, I take a curious look at the world around me and it can be felt a bit in my photographs, too, some of which you can see on my Instagram account.
(NM): So, let’s talk about music, me every day, either in the car or at home, I listen to symphonies, by Beethoven, Chopin, Mozart … for you, could you tell me about your relationship with music and the symphonies?
(JG): I am very sensitive to music. I don’t care about the style, as long as it’s deep. I’m not a huge fan of variety, though. So the classical, the symphonies of Tchaikovsky, Bizet, Verdi, Puccini, Faust, know how to move me to the highest point. I like to spend evenings around a good glass of wine with friends more specialised in the subject than me, hear them explain the classics and listen to them all night long. I also love world music and jazz, especially from New Orleans, which I learnt to discover while living near Lyon.
One moment in particular, related to music, will always remain engraved in me, and if it suits you, I would like to share it with you in memory of my great-grandfather, François, who died at the age of 100 years. This man, who received the Legion of Honour for being one of the fighters of the First World War when he was only 17, was so funny and so kind. One day, when my parents were having dinner, and he came to visit us, I was lucky enough to spend the whole evening alone with him. As he usually lived in a retirement home, this had never happened to me before and yet I was already 11 years old. For a few hours, almost out of time, in the twilight of the night, that evening I invited him to join my life with the music of Tchaikovsky in the background. Just thinking about it brings tears to my eyes. I am really a great believer in intergenerational collaboration, and to be honest it’s a pity that we lost sight of the value the eldest bring to the youngest, especially to avoid falling in the usual traps of wanting to reinvent everything at each new generation.
(NM): When I was at the age of 18, I learned the lyrics of French songs by heart, so I sang love with Jacques Brel, begging the beloved not to leave me. … What do you think you could tell us about the influence of romantic songs on our feelings?
(JG): That must exacerbate them a little. However, I do not deprive myself of it. Love is a feeling that I do not avoid, quite the contrary. I am a great lover. So I like to listen to songs that make me think of love, that make me romantic and warm my heart. I sing the songs of Jacques Brel at the top of my lungs, for example. And this is a nightmare, I admit it to you for my children. I never took singing lessons, but as a good girl that I am, I try hard to progress and improve my ear or my voice. I listen to complicated tunes a thousand times at least. I try to understand where I’m blocking, I also record my performance to confront the harsh reality of my flaws.
Recently I fell in love with a ghost because I don’t need a reality that doesn’t suit me. I don’t hesitate to imagine the love that makes me feel good, motivates me to access my dreams and teaches me to love better. Well my ghost has received some of my artwork and I hope his ears are as unreal as he is.
In the meantime, I have no particular desire to become a professional singer, and neither do you!
The original article was published in French in a shorter version and with a different title on Al Bayane