The absurdist frame

Moroccan author Mohamed Choukri
Unpredictable and violent: Moroccan author Mohamed Choukri (1935-2003) makes narrative trouble, both with what he writes about and how he writes it (image: epa/afp/senna/dpa/picture-alliance)

In Mohamed Choukri's varied and experimental collection "Tales of Tangier" the hyperreal meets the bizarre. The off-kilter stories put forward by the late author seem to be set spinning on their edges, so fast and wild they might just fly off the page

By Marcia Lynx Qualey

Tales of Tangier, translated into English by Jonas Elbousty and published by Yale University Press, contains the author's complete short works, and, from this collection, it is easy to see why Choukri spawned not just a passionate fandom, but also angry public protest. The author came of age in prison and didn't learn to read until the age of 20, after which he became both a passionate reader and an accomplished storyteller. But despite his literary successes, he neither lost interest in Morocco's underclass nor bowed to social or literary convention. 

These short stories take place mostly among the poor in Tangiers, Morocco's northernmost city, and the settings are relentlessly public. There is little to no privacy among the characters of Choukri's short stories; his women are often sex workers, the children beg on the streets, and men die suddenly and in view of an audience.

Strange and sudden deaths

In "A Strange Corpse", written in 1971, the action begins when a body falls out of the sky, into a public square. There, we watch the man die: "People rush in, running from everywhere. The dying body looks up at the bright sky. The light in his eyes goes out bit by bit. He is motionless". 

Although there is a mystery at the heart of this tale, it is not a detective story. Perhaps the man was killed; perhaps he jumped from a balcony. We learn neither about his life nor his death. Instead, the story is set around his corpse, where people flock to see the "something strange" about it. People take off work; some spend the night. One woman even gives birth beside the corpse. We are told nothing about people's motivations, only that they persist despite the difficulties. "The people standing and sitting take shifts at the best spots facing the corpse. Many of them are carrying blankets, pillows, cutlery, and gas stoves". 

Throughout the collection, death often gathers a crowd. In the story "The Three Mouths", a youth punches a mentally unstable man in the face. At first, the crowd approves – after all, the man had been drinking a soda during the day in Ramadan – but after the man swiftly dies, the atmosphere changes.

Cover of Mohamed Choukri's "Tales of Tangier", translated into English by Jonas Elbousty
No dystopian vision: Choukri's complete short works are simply life. "Dark and vibrant, full of sex and death and plenty of flies," writes Lynx Qualey (source: Yale University Press)

A troublemaker in form and content

Throughout the collection, Choukri makes narrative trouble, both with what he writes about and how he writes it. There is not only the visceral description of public sex, death, and madness; the stories themselves are unpredictable and violent. They shift perspectives, end abruptly, and follow no particular pattern. 

In one, titled "Shahryar and Shahrazad", all the men in the story are named Shahrayar and all the women are called Shahrazad, such that it is difficult to keep them straight. In another, "Children Are Not Always Stupid", seven children begin a march through the city carrying a blank sign and a white pigeon in a green cage. More and more children join the silent march, carrying or walking with animals, until, at the end, the children release their livestock. The audience applauds while the children shout: "Long live pigeons!" "Long live sparrows!" "Long live chickens!" "Long live rabbits!" "Long live cats!" "Long live dogs!" 

On its surface, the story is strangely joyful. Outside of the one child whose mother won't let him join the march, everyone is happy. Even the drivers stuck in traffic don't complain. And after the children release what must have been livestock necessary to their families' survival, the parents hug and kiss them. This excessive positivity creates its own unease.

Untouchable writers

Like madmen and sex workers, writers are also a dangerous element in the collection. In short story "The Poets", the government makes a show of herding nine poets out of prison to stand before an audience. The poets are ordered to dispose of their books in front of the seething, angry crowd. When the poets refuse to take part in this sideshow, they are returned to prison. 

In "Talking About Flies is Banned", the spectacle focuses on a journalist who has been released from prison, shoved out of a vehicle into a cold, unfriendly city. There, he sees a picture of himself pasted on an alley wall, with the caption: "Amarouche Telimsani. It is forbidden to have dealings with this person under any circumstances. Anyone who does not abide by this warning and has dealings with him will be punished by law". Copies of this photo are everywhere, and everyone seems to recognise and fear him. 

Here you can access external content. Click to view.

The only people willing to speak to him are those who come to strip him naked, readying him for his final punishment. When he tells them he still doesn't know what he's done wrong, a man informs him that it's because of an article he wrote about flies, "when you know that the flies died about twenty-five years ago". The man argues that – quite aside from the fact that there are obviously still flies – he didn't write about them. In this story, as in many in Tales of Tangier, a dark and ribald humor coexists with existential terror. 

People are constantly dying in Tales of Tangier. They are killed by the state, by each other, or they die for no apparent reason. As a man says in the story "Aisha", "It's so easy for us poor folk to kill each other". In the end, Choukri doesn't give us any fairy tale comfort. But neither is this a dystopian vision. It is simply life: dark and vibrant, full of sex and death and plenty of flies.

Marcia Lynx Qualey

© 2024