Choukri and the Wretched of the Earth

Mohamed Choukri

Born during a drastic famine in Rif in 1935, Mohamed Choukri migrated with his parents to the cosmopolitan city of Tangiers in 1942 where he lived most of his life. Eventually, he was engaged in a variety of jobs (as a shoeblack, a smuggler, a greengrocer, a male prostitute…etc.) to supplement his tyrannical father’s weak income. In 1955, at the age of twenty, Choukri managed to procure a place at a school in the town of Larache where he finally decided to take up reading and writing. Accordingly, he managed to pull himself from the vicious circle of dehumanization and end up himself a professor at a high school in Tangiers. Later on, he became one of the most well-known and widely-read writers in Morocco and overseas. His early experiences provided him with material for his first and successful project: Al_Khubz Al_Hafi (For Bread Alone) which was written in 1972 but not published in Arabic till 1982, due to some motives I am going to draw upon later in this article.

During the last year of his life, Mohamed Choukri suffered from throat cancer, which compelled him to spend several months in Rabat’s military hospital. Nevertheless, he continued to embrace the company of his colleagues (Kamal Al_Khamleeshi, Hassan Najmi, Ahmed Berish…) till the end of his life. This is apparent through his telling them tales and spreading a mood of joviality and optimism even on his death bed. On his last night Choukri suffered an onslaught of pain causing him an internal hemorrhage that took his life on the thirteenth of December,2003.The man passed away after composing a splendid collection of novels initiated by his masterpiece , Al_Khubz Al_Hafi ( For Bread Alone, 1972) ; Zaman Al_Akhtaa ( Time of Mistakes , 1992) and Al_Souq Al_Dakhili ( The Inner Market , 1985) ; two collections of short stories – Majnoun Al_Ward ( Madman of the Roses , 1979) ; Al_Khaima ( The Tent , 1985) – as well as a play ; Al_Saada ( Happiness , 1994) ; a series of his reflections on literature titled Ghiwayat Al_Shahrour Al_Abyad ( The Temptation of the White Blackbird , 1998) ; besides to his delightful accounts of his encounters with foreign writers , namely Paul Bowles , Jean Genet and Tennessee Williams.

As an eminent Rifain writer, Choukri lived to tell a tale that many people would rather not hear; in particular those who are not accustomed to the type of outrageous truth in the Moroccan literary field. Due to this, the author was imputed of being pornographic, delinquent and homosexual. Eventually, Al_Khubz Al_Hafi was banned shortly after in publication in many countries where there are restrictions on the freedom of expression. In fact, that autobiography made Choukri the Moroccan writer who is most subject to attacks and negative criticism. Still other critics refuted the accusation that the work is a succès de scandale.As a case in point , Mohamed Berrada considers “ Al_khubz Al_hafi an important achievement in the field of Moroccan literature, because it concretely shows a lot of issues which constitute common concerns for writers and critics”. Likewise, Najib Mahfoud assumes that autobiographies are given a certain value through the degree of reality they aim to impart to the reader, and any work of art should be estimated on the basis of artistic norms, not by ethical ones.

More provocatively for many disagreeing critics, Choukri tends to break deep-rooted taboos and unveil the unspoken truth without regard to masks of language, social traditions, nor habits and values of religion. Obviously, Al_Khubz Al_Hafi shows implicitly that ignorance, impoverishment, marginalization and the lack of moral principles are all factors leading humans to street life and delinquency. In particular, Choukri’s texts convey a remarkably credible range of concerns like, love, sex, death, genetalia and so on. On this account, his writings are populated by whores, thieves, wretched people and powerful men who are under the influence of neither ideology nor morality. In this sense, Choukri exhibits an engrossing pursuit of survival in a hostile and squalid atmosphere. For instance, the protagonist of the novel under focus says, when he is literally starving and has to collect food from rubbish dumps, there are three ways to survive in the dirty and filthy underworld of Tangiers: stealing, smuggling and whoring; so he partakes the three without any sense of shame of revulsion.

On the whole, Choukri’s literary works are attempts to record the history of his contemporary miserable social class. In other words, he tries to document the untold story of people doomed to silence and subject to harsh social changes and circumstances, namely the wave of draught and starvation in Rif that led to rural exodus, and the results of colonial expansionism policy on subjugated people. In a like manner, Choukri does not abandon his identity as an emergent human being capable of literate self expression and as a Rifain too. For this reason, his story serves as a mechanism that enables him to gain access to the unspeakable horrors and to a vast often unexpressed portion of humanity.

Article Written by Khalid HAJJIOUI

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