Almost any discussion of Mohamed Choukri’s work slips into (one is tempted to say degenerates into) an account of his own life and background and the moral value of his own writing. To a large extent, this has been the case of Paul Bowles too. For Bowles’ life and writing have always constituted attractive material for biographers and literary historians. However, it is fair to say that Choukri’s life is a peculiar one even by the standards of an impoverished and illiterate villager family in the colonial times.
Perhaps it would make more sense to note a few biographical details here. Choukri originated from a village located between Nador and Mellila. In 1943 (the same year in which the Casablanca Conference took place), drought and destruction of meager crops by swarms of locusts drove thousands of Rif villagers to the cities of Tetouan and Tangier in search of food. Choukri’s family settled first in Tangier and then moved to Tetouan. Choukri who was oppressed by his father did not go to school and instead became l’enfant terrible mixing with other delinquents, taking to drugs and alcohol, frequenting brothels and bars. Only in 1954 aged 19 years did he decide to join a school and gain some social respect.
It seems to me that rather than the literary merits whatever that stands for, it is often the author not the text that dominates discussion of Choukri’s works. Reactions to Choukri’s novels, particularly Alkhubz Al-Hafi/For Bread Alone often fail to dissociate the literary voice from the physical author. The novel is perceived as a personal testimony of the author’s own life. Choukri himself is responsible for popularizing this critical attitude. In one of the interviews he asserts that
When I said that my autobiographical Al-Khubz Al-Hafi is more of a social document than a work of art I meant that I actually attempted a semi-documentary endeavor about a social group that included myself and my family. A work of art, be it a novel, a short story, a play, or a poem is more condensed, symbolic, inspirational.
Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics, No. 6, Poetics of Place/ (Spring,1986), pp. 67-78
Choukri of course made this statement 13 years after the book went into print. It was perhaps influenced by the ongoing debate on his writings. In this respect, it is important to remember the reaction with which the novel was received in Morocco in 1983 one year after it was first published in Arabic at the author’s own expense. It was immediately banned by the ministry of interior following alleged denunciations made by religious clerics. In Egypt in 1999, a professor of literature at the American university of Cairo, Samia Mehrez was severely criticized by the parents of her students for teaching their kids immoral and subversive literature. These frantic reactions have contributed to the controversy about Choukri’s fiction and added further layers to the so-called Choukri phenomenon.
What is at stake then is essentially a methodological question. What is one to make of Choukri’s first novel? Perhaps the first impression that comes to mind is that the novel is a simple narrative even to the degree of naivety, shocking in its descriptions, subversive in its contents, using indecent language and altogether an inappropriate text for the conservative reader.
As I was reading the novel again some days ago I was amazed by the excessive simplicity of the plot. Nothing artistically at least seems to me to warrant the persistence, chapter after chapter, in describing in detailed and graphic terms the sexual adventures of the young character. Even the claim that the scenes of violence and sexuality reflected a conscious political standpoint vis-a-vis the status quo seems to me entirely unfounded. I think we do not give Choukri’s novel much credit by attributing to it what it lacks. The novel was the work of an amateur, inexperienced in the craft of literary creation. Choukri himself confessed several times that the novel grew out of a desire or an obsession to become a writer. The circumstances of its composition were told many times, when the English publisher Peter Owen had heard of Choukri from Bowles, he recommended that the young Moroccan writer write his own autobiography. Paul Bowles had already translated a number of novels out of the recordings of such gifted story tellers as Mohamed Mrabet and Driss ben Ahmed Charhadi (alias Ahmed Yacoubi).
Choukri was writing and translating his novel piecemeal. He would finish a chapter and rush to Paul Bowles to transform it to English. Was he writing for an exclusively Western audience? Was the emphasis on the sensual element motivated by the prior awareness that the novel would not be read by Moroccans? Weren’t the intimate confessions too much to reveal to his own surviving circle of relatives and friends if the novel appeared in Arabic? Was not the shocking sexual material and bold confessions the reason why the author did not seek to publish the novel in the 1970s?
It is impossible to answer any of these questions with a degree of certitude. However, I believe it makes more sense to read For Bread Alone in connection with the second and third parts of his trilogy which reflect a more mature and skilled author at work. The second volume, Zaman-Alakhtae was published in 1992 and translated into English in 1994 by Ed Emery under the title, Streetwise. The last, Wojouh (Faces) appeared in print in 2000 and, to my knowledge, has not been translated yet. Both continue the story of the young boy through his school years and later as an aspiring writer and a school teacher. In his mature life in Tangier still marked by frequent visits to bars and brothels, he drew closer to the European expatriate community, particularly the Spanish and was able to form new relationships.
Zaman Al-Akhtae (Streetwise) and Wojouh (Faces) were written when Choukri reached international fame. They present a sharp contrast with the earlier novel. Sexuality, though still part of the life of the character is evoked in figurative and euphemistic terms . More than the sensual effect it is the overall human dimension that transpires from his reminiscences. Choukri does not seek to criticize the colonial order nor blame his characters for their plights. There is even a nostalgic overtone in his depictions of the old times in Tangier and Tetouan.
What I found most edifying about the writings of Mohamed Choukri is not so much their literary value or imaginative investment as the total effect they convey to the reader. Read together the trilogy, for instance, provides a powerful narrative of a changing colonial landscape in Tangier and Tetouan. In many ways, Choukri was the chronicler of the ‘native’ life in the North of Morocco. From a post-colonialist perspective, it may be said that Choukri’s writings form the counter narrative of a plethora of other narratives of Tangier dating back to the 17th century. Tangier, in particular, was constructed again and again in the writings and paintings of dozens of European and American writers and artists from Samuel Pepys in 1683 to Paul Bowles in the late 20th century. Choukri’s mapping of the Tangier underground world, its cafés and bars, its marginalized dwellers and social outcasts introduce a rather different world from that presented in contemporary Western narratives of the city. The translated tales of Mohamed M’rabet, Charhadi are also hybrid narratives that embody the counter narrative of the subaltern. They need to be investigated as postcolonial narratives that reveal the social and political structure of colonialism.
I would like to conclude with this comment. The festive media reception of Choukri’s work especially in his later years, and the continued emphasis on the sensational quality of his fiction, particularly For Bread Alone as his only redeeming literary virtue has done more damage than good to the author. Discussions of the literariness or otherwise of his novels are, in my opinion, beside the point. Choukri’s narrative continue to strike a chord with readers because they confer human quality on a world so often dismissed as immoral, corrupt and marginal. Choukri devoted his entire work to Tangier as a physical and cultural space. He rarely travelled anywhere else. In many ways he was a captive of its local hedonic pleasures and liberties, yet his name travelled far and wide eliciting renewed and unabated attention and curiosity.
– “Interview with Mohamed Choukri”, Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics, No. 6, Poetics of Place/ (Spring,1986), pp. 67-78
– The film based on For Bread Alone on Youtube: