|'For Bread Alone' sandwiches a lot of life between 2 deaths
|Late Mohamed Choukri's signature work is back - and just as timely as ever
Mohamed Choukri's "For Bread Alone" has been a cult classic for years.
An autobiographical tale about a tramp in Tangier, it begins in Choukri's childhood as he and his family flee from famine in the mountains of the Moroccan Rif. After a long, hard journey on foot, his ill-tempered father beats his younger brother, who is already starved beyond tears, quite literally to death - snaps his neck, tosses the small crumpled body into a hole in the ground.
Finding neither bread nor work in Tangier, the family sets off again for Tetuan, this time without the head of the household, who's been hauled of to jail for deserting his duties to the Spanish Army.
The rest of the narrative lurches through Choukri's episodic struggles to survive - whether by begging, thieving, whoring or smuggling. A slew of subsequent brothers and sisters are born, only to die in their infancy of malnutrition or neglect.
By this point Choukri has built around himself a hard shell of indifference. He has also discovered his sex drive, which lands him in all manner of trouble - once he graduates from the "woman" he carves out of a tree, lubricates and adorns with suckable oranges for breasts and endeavors to tackle the live flesh.
"For Bread Alone" ends as Choukri's story sidles up alongside Morocco's historic, mid-20th-century political upheavals. After an uprising against colonial rule degenerates into a shootout on the streets of Tangier, he and a motley crew of mildly criminal young men are rounded up and briefly jailed.
While he's in the clink, Choukri watches another inmate scrawl two lines of poetry onto the prison wall: "If some day the people decide to live, fate must bend to that desire / There will be no more night when the chains have broken," by the Tunisian poet Abou al-Qacem Chabbi. On his release, Choukri, who is illiterate at the age of 20, decides he will learn to read and write.
With its reissue in English translation this summer, Mohamed Choukri's "For Bread Alone" has come fortuitously full circle. Written in classical Arabic in 1972, it was translated by American novelist Paul Bowles and published in English a year later - a smash hit. It sold 150,000 copies and translations into nearly 40 other languages followed suit, including the French version, titled "Le Pain Nu," by Moroccan novelist Tahar Ben Jelloun.
But it took 10 years for an Arabic version of "For Bread Alone" to appear, and then "Al-Khubz al-Hafi" was immediately banned in Morocco, the offense being that the author dared to break just about every religious, artistic and social taboo there was to be broken. For one thing, Choukri used classical Arabic - the language of the Koran and refined literary tradition - to chronicle poverty, destitution, street life, adolescent sex and crime in one of the Arab world's cosmopolitan cities, and this just would not do. The Moroccan authorities didn't allow the book to be read or sold in the country until 2000.
Still, ban or no ban, "For Bread Alone" has become a very important book, placed in a lineage of autobiographical fiction that includes James Joyce's "Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man" and likened to Picasso's "Guernica" in its depiction of a people subjugated by the policies of the more powerful.
Choukri's text has become a staple on the syllabi of modern Arabic, comparative literature, and post-colonial studies programs. It has also become the buried backbone of his larger reputation - Choukri, who went on to become a teacher and chair of the literature department at Ibn Battutta College, later galavanted around Tangier with the likes of Jean Genet, Tennessee Williams and Brion Gysin, and became a cult hero. Bringing "For Bread Alone" back into circulation three years after the author's untimely death from throat cancer offers a wider than academic or underground readership the opportunity to revisit his genesis story or discover it anew.
The English-language reprint comes courtesy of Telegram, an offshoot of the London- and Beirut-based Saqi Books. It is the Bowles translation, replete with the curt yet moving introduction he wrote for it in 1973.
"It has been my experience that the illiterate, not having learned to classify what goes into his memory, remembers everything," writes Bowles. "It seems a stroke of good luck that Choukri's encounter with the written word should have come so late, for by then his habits of thought were already fully formed; the educative process did not modify them.
"'For Bread Alone' records his struggle for survival, up to the time the young man made the resolve to become literate. To have taken and implemented such a decision at the age of 20 is unusual. To have passed in the space of five years from learning the letters of the alphabet to writing poems and stories is even more unexpected." (Beirut's indefatigable literary journal Al-Adab published Choukri's first short story.)
Ferial Ghazoul, a professor of comparative literature at the American University in Cairo, has written an insightful essay for Al-Ahram Weekly on the "artistic matrix" in the original Arabic version of "For Bread Alone." Choukri's "literary play on the multiple and ambivalent shades of meaning latent in a triliteral Arabic root verb" teases out associations and derivations, suggests Ghazoul, from harama (to deprive/to prohibit) to haram (forbidden) to hurman (dispossession), and these repetitions and mutations are key to understanding Choukri's aesthetic.
Obviously, all this is lost on those reading Choukri in translation and one whose Arabic skills aren't up to scratch must take Ghazoul's word for it. But the process by which Bowles translated Chourki's narrative is fascinating in and of itself.
As Bowles writes in his introduction, at the point when he translated "For Bread Alone," he knew only the spoken Maghrebi form of colloquial Arabic, not the classical. For previous translations of other books, he'd worked from cassette tapes to which the authors had dictated their texts. Here, he had to ask Choukri to reduce his own work from classical to spoken Arabic, and then they hashed out the differences by using Spanish and French to ascertain "shades of meaning."
What is remarkable is that given such latitudes, the Bowles translation doesn't at all read like a Bowles book. It has none of the dry wit, stranger in a strange land, gentlemanly awkwardness that marks the more famous novels that Bowles wrote, such as "The Sheltering Sky" or "Let It Come Down."
Moreover, even in translation one can grasp the subtleties of Choukri's literary structuring. His narrative here does not simply set down a linear chronology of his life from childhood to young adulthood. Rather it builds a kind of architecture of desire, erected however paradoxically with sorrow for scaffolding.
"For Bread Alone" begins at one gravesite - that of Choukri's uncle - and ends at another - that of his brother. Along the way, he hits several others, including the cemetery where he seeks refuge with another boy who saves him and then disappears, ghostlike.
Woven into his often shattering and cruel misadventures is a twisting, probing argument for awareness, for acquiring the tools and skills not only to survive day to day but to discover and shape meaning and through doing so, to choose life - this life - over death, numbness and nothingness. "For Bread Alone" is an elaborate, pulsing record of one man's sensitization to the vast yet elusive and complex capacities of the written word to express the urgency of that choice.
Mohamed Choukri's "For Bread Alone," translated from Arabic to English by Paul Bowles, has been reissued by Telegram Books
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