The "White Nightingale" of Tangier

The Moroccan writer Mohamed Choukri may have died over a decade ago, but the debate surrounding his controversial work continues in conservative Morocco to this day. Aziz Dariouchi on the discourse surrounding Choukri's literary legacy

By Aziz Dariouchi

A decade after the death of Mohamed Choukri, the writer and his novel "For Bread Alone" are a talking point once again in Morocco. The work sent shockwaves through the nation's literary circles following its publication in Arabic in 1982.

"The book was banned in Morocco and many other Arab nations immediately after its publication in Arabic. But the autobiographical novel became even more sought after as a result," says Choukri's friend at the time, the journalist Abdellatif Bin Yahya. "In the novel, Choukri talks about his impoverished childhood, when he roamed the streets of Tangier, homeless, a refugee from the countryside," Bin Yahya continues. "This means his book also documents social conditions in Morocco in the 1940s."

"For Bread Alone" made Mohamed Choukri a famous writer. He wrote it in Arabic in 1972. His friend Paul Bowles, the US writer who was also living in Tangier at the time, translated it into English in 1973, and it was rendered in French in 1981 by Choukri's fellow Moroccan Taher Ben Jelloun. It did not appear in Arabic until 1982.

Writing to break taboos

Paul Bowles (photo: Wikipedia)
Mohamed Choukri's friend and fellow-writer, Paul Bowles (pictured here), who also lived in Tangier, translated "For Bread Alone" into English in 1973

The novel has been translated into a total of 38 languages, including German. The fact that Choukri's biography and books are a renewed topic of conversation also presents his friends and cultural circles in Morocco with the opportunity to honour him – but doing this also always rekindles the debate surrounding his work and the nature of his writing, which is for the most part viewed by people in Morocco as transgressing boundaries.

Abdellatif Bin Yahya, who is also chairman of the Mohamed Choukri Foundation, recently announced the winner of the "Mohamed Choukri Prize for Marginalised Literature". The foundation in Morocco has just organised several commemorative events in honour of the author of "For Bread Alone", who lived from 1935 to 2003.

Sixty-seven-year-old Abdallah Wahhabi is animated as he recalls the young Mohamed Choukri. "I knew him in 1967 when he was still traversing the Socco in downtown Tangier," he reports. "His only possessions were the tatty clothes on his back. He didn't even have money to buy any bread; he was homeless. His poverty was clear to see."

His friends, among them Abdallah, called him the "White Nightingale". "Choukri had only been in Tangiers for a few days when I met him for the first time," he recalls. "He had come with his family from the Rif Mountains. I got to know him before he had made a name for himself as a writer."

Abdallah al-Wahhabi also remembers the final days of the writer's life. "On a cool evening a little more than 10 years ago, Mohamed Choukri entered the Café 'Raqqasa', greeted the guests and took a seat at the back. With a cigarette between his lips, he ordered hot tea and started to leaf through the literary magazines he had brought along with him. He was quieter than usual. When I enquired after his health, he simply replied 'good'. He was obviously not worried about reaching the end of his life, and was not aware that in just a few days, he would depart this world."

The Writer of Tangier

Cover of the book "For Bread Alone"
When the Arabic version of "For Bread Alone" was published in 1982, it was immediately banned in Morocco and several other Arab nations. The ban was finally lifted in the year 2000, just three years before the author's death

Away from the din of the Grand Socco, in another neighbourhood, I meet Choukri's sister Malika Chaiker, who claims to speak for the writer's entire family: "We reject 'For Bread Alone'", she says emphatically, "because of the offensive sex scenes, but also because of the way our father is portrayed as the violent tyrant of the family." She goes on to say that although she hasn't read the book herself, she has heard a great deal about it. Her sister Rahimu knows it, she continues, and flatly rejected it while Mohamed Choukri was alive.

Al-Wahhabi also knows Choukri's "For Bread Alone" and has this to say: "All his friends in Socco disapproved of this autobiography. We, the friends of Mohamed Choukri, never told him to his face that we were all actually angry about 'For Bread Alone'. But it didn't affect our friendship with the White Nightingale." Al-Wahhabi carefully prepares a pot of tea and says, smiling: "Choukri lives on in many places and people in Socco. He will always remain the writer of Tangier."

"I once met with Mohamed Choukri, and he showed me several Arabic chapters of his autobiographical novel," reports Abdellatif BinYahya. "They related how he experienced his first day at school as one of the most difficult moments of his life." Then he explains how censoring the novel ultimately became a major advertisement for "For Bread Alone".

Red Lines

Because the French translation sent shockwaves through Morocco's creative arts community, Mohamed Choukri decided to publish the book in Arabic too. It was banned immediately. "The ban was taken up by other Arab nations," says Bin Yahya. "In Egypt, the novel was censored the moment after it had been included on a university reading list."

The Moroccan critic Bouchouaib Saouiri believes that it was Choukri's desire to break taboos that guided him when writing "For Bread Alone". This then also led to the censorship of the novel, which only served to heighten the book's success. Banned because of its perceived threat to society, the book ironically found a broad Arab readership, he says.

On the other hand, says Bouchouaib, in "For Bread Alone", readers encounter a literary and human experience in cultural and social context that no longer exists in contemporary Morocco. And even if the cultural boundaries in Morocco are relatively broad, there are still red lines, especially when it comes to questions of morality and religion. This is also evident in the response in Morocco to some films in recent years, says the critic.

Aziz Dariouchi

Translated from the German by Nina Coon

© 2014

Editor: Aingeal Flanagan/