[Yale University Press; 2023]
Tr. from the Arabic by Jonas Elbousty
A typical exchange between two characters in a Mohamed Choukri story goes something like this:
Person 1: “What’s wrong with you? What’s wrong? What’s the matter with you?”
(Backdrop: everyone is crying and screaming; a girl is carrying a dead puppy; a corpse comes back to life, etc.)
Person 2: “Nothing, everything is normal.”
This sort of juxtaposition—bedlam set alongside claims to normalcy—is a dark, sardonic art at which Choukri excels. But the most important part of an exchange in a Choukri story is what is not written: Everything, of course, is not normal. In fact, as the Moroccan writer shows, everything is very, very messed up.
Mohamed Choukri (1935–2003) was the ideal person to reveal social pretenses in post-independence Moroccan society for the farce it was. Born in the mountainous village of Ayt Chiker to an abusive father who forced him to leave his childhood home, Choukri spent his teenage years in Tangier. In that port city, Choukri was homeless and involved in drugs, risky sex, and smuggling. But after learning to read and write while doing a stint in prison, Choukri’s life changed course. He integrated himself into Tangier’s literary scene, and became friends with the American writer Paul Bowles, who translated a series of Choukri’s oral accounts of his childhood into an autobiographical narrative titled For Bread Alone in 1973, rocketing Choukri to international fame. The book (which would appear in Arabic in 1982 as Al-Khubz al-hāfi) became the first in a trilogy of narratives that Choukri wrote based on his own life. On top of this autobiographical and long-form work, Choukri also wrote short stories, published in two collections, Flower Crazy (Majnūn al-Ward, 1979) and The Tent (Al-Khayma, 1985).
In Tales of Tangier, translator Jonas Elbousty has rendered all thirty-one of Choukri’s short stories into English, the first time that Choukri’s short stories have been available to Anglophone readers as a complete set. One of the pleasures offered by reading Choukri’s short story oeuvre in one go is that patterns in the writer’s style and his preferred themes emerge as a whole, giving a sense for Choukri’s poetics and politics. Throughout Tales of Tangier, Choukri’s prose in Elbousty’s translation is concise and vivid, full of dialogue and short on description. The sentences are clipped and blunt. When Choukri employs a rare bit of figurative language, it can be lethal; watching a woman dance barefoot upon a stage, the narrator remarks that “she looked like Salome balancing John the Baptist’s head on a tray.”
Choukri favors certain figures: madmen, adventurers, sex workers, servers, and corpses appear frequently in his work. These character types help Choukri in his mission to bring social ills like unemployment, drug use, sexually transmitted diseases, and violence to the forefront of the reader’s mind, rupturing the pretense of normalcy governing polite Moroccan society of the 1970s and 1980s. Instead of hiding the poor and their tribulations away so that they don’t “spoil the city’s beauty in the eyes of the wealthy,” as is done in Ifrane, a rural Moroccan town featured in the story “Azrou,” Choukri places the down-and-out at the center of his short narratives.
In the 1970s, Morocco was in a period of political and economic precarity. The promising gleam of a liberated Morocco had faded since independence was achieved from France in 1956, as the new nation suffered a period of political instability, repression, and economic stagnation. The result was soaring rates of unemployment, increasing poverty, and exacerbated socio-economic disparities between the country’s well-heeled elite, and those who, like the protagonist of “The Prophet’s Sandals” sold the elite their shoes. Rather than providing relief from those harsh realities, Choukri forced the reader to confront those disparities in his short stories.
“Violence by the Shore” features one such confrontation between the haves and the have-nots. In the story, a disheveled madman called Maimoun finagles his way into sitting at a respectable Tangier café, convincing a patron to treat him to a cup of mint tea. The other customers and the café waiter regard Maimoun’s presence among them with dismay. Formerly a skilled tour guide, Maimoun has by now become a “frightening and despised man,” walking around barefoot and shouting threats at passersby when the mood strikes him. One customer guesses that unemployment is the “cause of this madness,” a theory that an old man nearby rejects. Maimoun, oblivious to the discussion about his sanity, begins to shout loudly, kicks a small child hard in the butt, then runs off to the sea, where he jumps into the waves, fully clothed. The end of the story sees the madman sexually assaulting a blonde woman (“a human mass,” “a living body ready for embalming”) on the beach, with onlookers commenting on the scene with detached disapproval.
Maimoun the madman is not an entirely sympathetic character, but his story invites the reader to think about the possible causes of his madness, and to reconsider the assumption that a café patron and a madman are so very different. As the café owner notes with ire: “He himself is crazy, and yet he’s not crazy.” Maimon’s “irrational behavior,” in other words, might contain a certain logic. The madman is to reappear in various guises across Choukri’s stories: in “People Laughing, People Sobbing,” “Bashir, Dead or Alive,” and “The Spiderweb,” as a character who acts as a distorted mirror through which society can see itself.
Even in the stories that project a more lighthearted air, in that they focus on drinking, sex, and mindlessly wasting the night away, there is a looming sense that something is horribly wrong, that the party is over. In “The Three Mouths,” Choukri’s narrator observes of his intoxicated group of friends that “Everyone was having a good time, time that I conceived as a huge barrel, their gaiety leaking from a hole in the bottom. The swamp of time around the barrel reeked.”
In another story, “The Strange Corpse,” people gather in the town center to “yawn, doze, have iced drinks, eat sandwiches, smoke, chew gum, smile, flirt, laugh, and push each other, jokingly or seriously, as they try to find a good spot to stand or sit,” as, all the while, a “phosphorescent” corpse decomposes in the center of the square, untouched and swarming with flies.
Choukri is at his least astute in his social critique, however, when it comes to representations of patriarchy. Several stories (“The Coffin,” “Men are Lucky,” “The Three Mouths,” “The Impossible”) take on the perspective of deeply misogynistic men. In “The Impossible,” the narrator fantasizes about killing a woman he is about to have sex with: “Maybe I’ve come to hate women, he thought. He focused his attention on a knife lying on top of a pile of books covered in dust and neglect. Maybe I will kill a beautiful woman of her type, and that’ll be that. The attitude of women like her annoys me.”
Such virulent disregard for women, and the sexualized abuse of their bodies, repeats throughout Choukri’s work. While the stories profess a certain awareness of that misogyny, the cumulative effect of so much hatred against women can tip into propagating that hatred itself in the text. To be a woman (as a character or a reader) in Choukri’s stories can be brutal.
Last year, I reviewed the Moroccan writer Malika Moustadraf’s complete short stories in Blood Feast, a collection translated by Alice Guthrie, and now find Moustadraf’s treatment of patriarchy in the context of late twentieth-century Moroccan society to be a compelling complement to Choukri. In Choukri’s story “Men are Lucky,” for example, the male protagonist “would rub his body against the bum of a girl till he ejaculated” while riding a crowded bus, untethered by consequences. Moustadraf’s story “Claustrophobia,” meanwhile, seems to speak back to that particular scene, by taking on the perspective of a woman riding a crowded bus, who feels a man rubbing up against her behind. While we get the repellant inner workings of a misogynistic man’s mind in Choukri’s piece, Moustadraf fleshes out the desires, creativity, and willpower of the woman who momentarily falls prey to such a man in her own story. Together, the two writers can be seen to offer a more multifaceted portrait of patriarchy, and how it is differently experienced and understood.
Anna Learn is a PhD student at the University of Washington, where she studies Persian, South Asian, and Hispanic literature.
This post may contain affiliate links.