May 23, 2012 by markstani
Tennessee Williams, no less, described For Bread Alone, Mohamed Choukri’s autobiographical account of growing up in mid-20th century Morocco as ‘a true document of human desperation, shattering in its impact’, and who are we to argue with such a literary luminary?
Choukri’s work truly belongs to stand shoulder to shoulder with the greats of its genre. Honest and unflinching in a way that so often separates Arabic writing from its more cautious contemporaries, Choukri paints a searing portrait of his family’s travails as they left the Rif mountains in search of a better life in Tangiers.
Like I say, unflinching: eight of Choukri’s siblings have died, one of whom is murdered in front of him by his father. His family is forced to subsist on sprigs of rosemary and myrtle gathered from around his brother’s grave.
I began to be aware of certain differences between myself and the other boys of the neighbourhood, even though some of them were poorer than I. I had seen one of them pull chicken bones out of a garbage pail and suck them. The garbage here is good, he had said.
I hear them talking among themselves about me.
He’s a Riffian.
They’re starving to death. They’re all criminals.
He can’t even speak Arabic.
The Riffians are all sick this year.
The cows and sheep they brought with them are sick too.
We don’t eat them. They’re the ones who eat them. Rotten people eat rotten meat.
If one of their sheep or goats dies, they eat it instead of throwing it out. They eat everything.
In an increasingly paranoid, riotous Tangiers, which will celebrate independence within a decade, Choukri comes of age by embroiling himself in a life of petty crime, smuggling and prostitution. He smokes drugs and has sex – lots of sex – before a chance meeting in prison begins to nurture a desire for literacy which will one day lead to Choukri being feted as one of Morocco’s foremost writers. He held court with Williams, Jean Genet and American novelist Paul Bowles, who translated ‘For Bread Alone’ into English, in Tangiers, and despite the book being banned in his homeland for almost forty years until 2005 due to its graphic content, Choukri was afforded a high-profile funeral in 2003.
Choukri’s tale is devastating in its simplicity, fantastic in evoking Morocco’s heady pre-independence landscape, and admirably candid: no subject is taboo, and it is easy to see what may have upset the censors, and readers of delicate disposition.
‘For Bread Alone’ ends as Choukri revisits his brother’s grave with a writer and storyteller who will cultivate his love for literature. That part of story is left for two further parts of his autobiographical trilogy, ‘Streetwise’ and ‘Faces’. Perhaps the most remarkable aspect of ‘For Bread Alone’, therefore, is that which is unwritten. Taken in any context it is an incredible tale of human resilience. As a prologue to a life of literary largesse, it is astonishing by any standards.