Mohamed Choukri
Mohamed Choukri
Imagination renders ordinary life unreal

From Casablanca I called Choukri to arrange to meet him in Tangier. He told me to stay put, and come in two days’ time. So I had to spend the last two days of Ramadan alone in Casa-blanca. Later in Tangier, when I was drinking green tea in his favourite CafÈ Roxy, Choukri suddenly appeared and told me to drink up, he wanted to take me for “a wonderful meal in El Dorado”. It is there that Choukri spends most of his time. He explained to me:

I never leave the house, nor open my door, during Ramadan. At that time I work daily, and continuously for 12 hours at a stretch, or perhaps more.

You once mentioned to me that you completed ‘Zaman al-Akhta’a’ [‘The Time of Errors’] in a few days. You wrote it during Ramadan?

“You’ve got it. I wrote it in less than a month during Ramadan of 1992.”

Do you get inspired at that time?

“No, no. It was already completed in my mind,” said Choukri, adding: “To me the real writing is in the editing process. I write a quick draft, and go over it a second, third or fifth time. I never tire. I am a perseverer. I have never studied methodically or academically. I have therefore always relied on dictionaries a great deal. In my home you will find more than sixty dictionaries in languages I am familiar with, such as Arabic, Spanish, French, English and even Italian.”

In which language is your work most known?

“In French, I believe. Not only in France but also in French-speaking countries, particularly in Africa – and I am also well known in Germany.”

On the train to Tangier, I was reading Henry Miller and I thought of you. Have you read him?

Certainly, and I admire him a great deal. We cannot classify his work, it falls into various literary categories: novel, biography, essays, and even poetry. I admire him enormously. Henry Miller is an audacious writer. He managed to surpass the American narrative style of novel writing. All the subjects he covered were ‘autobiographical’.
In autobiographical writing, someone might come to you and say “I have lived!”, talk to you for thirty minutes, and that would be the end of his life story. There would be no concept of imagination. The use of imagination in writing is the essence of the writing process. Any life which has no room for imagination can be narrated in its entirety within thirty minutes, regardless of the events the hero of the tale might have encountered. Imag-ination enriches ordinary life and renders it unreal. Life without imagination is monoton-ous, arbitrary and meaningless. Man is what he imagines, not what he lives.
Back to Henry Miller: just to say that reading him at the start of my career inspired me to write. The same applies to reading Jean Jacques Rousseau and Saint Augustine. Even my feel for language did not derive from school, but from reading the Qur’an, the Bible and the Book of Psalms, for the beauty of the language. I believe in “art for art’s sake”. I have made no commitment to social writing. Writing for me begins with language. It is only through the art of language that social or, perhaps, political events or the issues of homosexuality, theft, lost childhood, prostitution and unemployment might be resolved. These are familiar things within society which I express through language, employing it as a form of protestation and condemnation against those who might exploit these situations.

But, Choukri, although you have written many books, it seems that ‘Al-Khubz al-Hafi’ [‘For Bread Alone’] will remain your shadow.

Yes, I am now known as a mainly autobiographical writer. Though For Bread Alone was written innocently and spontaneously, it was at the same time not without some ‘craft’. It was not as innovative as many believed it to be. Prior to writing this autobiography, I read the autobiographies of some European and American writers, such as Jean Jacques Rousseau’s Confessions, Saint Augustine’s works, Words by Jean-Paul Sartre, The Summing-up by Somerset Maugham, The Days by Taha Hussein, Fragments by Al-Mazeni, and Fi Tufula [In my Childhood] by Abdulmajid Ben Jalloun. I benefited most from the biographies written by western writers as they were written with greater honesty and extreme skill.
What I am trying to say is that the overwhelming success of For Bread Alone has crushed me, perhaps because it offered a new style of autobiographical writing in the Arabic language – popular, if one could call it that. When I wrote it, I had no literary achievements behind me except for some literary essays which had appeared in Al-Adab magazine in Beirut, and in some newspapers and Moroccan magazines published in the sixties.
In 1966, I published my first short story, Unf ala al-Shati’ [Violence on the Shore]. For Bread Alone was only written in 1972 – it was my first book.
I felt the need to write, but what to write about? I had to invent a new technique. I arrived at the conclusion that I would write a novel where events would be inspired by personal encounters. This I called a novelistic autobiography. It achieved fame, but overwhelmed me. Although I am not a historian, I consider this novel to be a social documentary since it chronicles events taking place from 1942 to 1956, the year in which Morocco won its independence. It also describes many characters of that time.
It describes a crushed section of society, living by prostitution or theft, and stricken with poverty and despair, a childhood stolen by both the foreign and the Moroccan bourgeoisie. This autobiography also condemns parental oppression weighing down on the family. My father treated us – my mother, sisters and brothers and me – in a very cruel and harsh manner. I do not think I could ever depict that cruelty, no matter how much I write.
There are also anthropological aspects to this novel, the nature of food, accommodation and clothing has been analysed and described. It is for this reason that I consider this autobiography as a social documentary.
You say that For Bread Alone is my shadow. To this I must say that I am a citizen in a country which belongs to the Third World. In the Arab world in particular we are conditioned to write novels which are often related to our personal history, we cram much of our lives into them. This I believe is because we are searching for a history we have lost or which the colonialists have stolen from us. A biography always evokes a sense of history in its readers, as it is inspired by events the country has encountered. This is exactly what happend with me. In Third World countries the issue of the search for a social identity is still alive, hence the writing process is predominantly undertaken to serve other issues. Art is not just for art’s sake. We created art for art’s sake once upon a time, but now through writing – be it a story, a novel or a play – we try to re-affirm our identity and self-worth, whether the author is Tunisian, Algerian or Egyptian. Colonialism has oppressed Arab countries for far too long.

Later you wrote ‘Al-Souq al-Dakhili’ [‘The Inner Souk’], yet you do not refer to it as a part of your autobiographical works.

Al-Souq al-Dakhili is an objective novel based on the hippies’ invasion of Tangier and other Moroccan cities. It reflects the negative aspects of this trend and movement and was completed towards the end of 1969. The hippy movement came about in the early sixties; the hippies arrived in Morocco in the early sixties and by the late seventies they returned to where they’d come from, to their jobs and some of them perhaps to finish their studies.
I would like to say that Al-Souq al-Dakhili was written in a modern and contemporary style and is one of the works I am totally satisfied with.

After ‘Al-Souq al-Dakhili’ you stopped writing for a long time. Were you contemplating taking a new direction in your writing, away from autobiography?

Yes, I stopped writing from 1973 to 1992. I existed then for 19 years without writing. Why? Because I was in a state of despair. Everything I had written and sent to Arab publishers was rejected. When I first sent the draft of For Bread Alone to Dr Suhail Idriss, the owner of Al-Adab publishing house, he said: ‘For Bread Alone is a vulgar biography, you ought to re-write it in a philosphical way.’ His reaction was the same when I sent him Al-Souq al-Dakhili – he described that also as a vulgar novel. This response reached me via Dr Mohamed Berrada.
When Suhail Idriss wanted to publish another work of mine, I refused and told him I was going to publish my work myself and with my own money. I had, at the time, begun to make some money through the sales of my book with Maspero, the publisher of For Bread Alone in French, that was published simultaneously with the English edition translated by the American author Paul Bowles. Bowles does not know the Arabic language, so I dictated it to him in Spanish, which he was better versed in than myself. I dictated to him directly from the Arabic version in front of me. It was not invented, or an oral work, as some have liked to rumour.
In 1992, I wrote Zaman al-Akhta’a which represents the second part of my autobiography. It is predominantly a contemplative work, less concerned with action than the first. It was written in a meditative mode and in a mature style.

Let’s talk about what you are writing now?

I am writing something which I feel will be good. Perhaps through it I may be able to regain my senses in literary writing. This work will represent the third part of my autobiography. I am not writing the autobiography in any chronological order. In this part there is a clear reference to my personal experience, but it is also constructed in the manner of a novel, with many genres. At times a chapter is independent of the next, or one of the characters described might not reappear. It is about Tangier, which I depict through the characters re-presenting Tangierian Moroccan society – the smuggler, trader or the gambler. There is, of course, the prostitute, new to the game or an old hand recollecting her memories of prostitution. In fact, all of these characters portray what Tangier is now, and all the social, economic and political collapse and deterioration it still endures. Most of the characters of this novel live on the myth of their city.
I believe Tangier is a living myth that must not be explained, nor analysed, for that would denude her of her magic, and she would consequently lose her spell. A myth should remain such. It feeds on itself. The native of the city must not fight this myth, but must allow it to live. The city seems far more beautiful as a myth.

Then you have begun to feel nostalgia for the past?

Not at all, I am not yearning for the myth of old Tangier, or else I would be contradicting myself! As I said, I gained my self-worth after Independence, and Tangier, the land of paradise, myths, and pleasures, then meant little to me. Independence inspired in me a sense of worth; I went to school and studied to become a teacher, a master, and thereafter a writer. If the colonialists were still ruling Morocco, I might still have been selling smuggled cigarettes or have remained a shoe-polisher, or a thief at best!

Let us talk about authors’ rights in the Arab world. Do you suffer from problems about this ?

Yes, I wish to talk about this issue. It is really crucial and we must allow space to talk about it. The first book I published was a collection of short stories called Majnoun al-Ward [The Rose Mad-man]. The selection for this collection was made by Dr Mohamed Berrada with the agreement of Suhail Idriss of Dar Al-Adab. When the collection was published, I received only $500 in advance payment, and that was all I got! But Suhail – may God forgive him – never made any attempt to advise me about sold or unsold copies. When I met him one day in Casablanca, he said to me: ‘The first edition has not sold yet.’ On contacting Sochpress, the Moroccan distribution company, they told me they had sold more than 5,000 copies of the book in Morocco alone! That meant the man was lying. It is a well-known fact that Suhail Idriss does not pay authors well. Moreover, he has insinuated that For Bread Alone was not written by me, but by someone else. Later, in 1983, at a writers’ meeting in Fez he said to me: ‘I want to publish For Bread Alone, but with a few retouches and omissions of certain obscenities.’ I said to him: ‘How can you say this when you have yourself translated Jean-Paul Sartre’s The Paths of Freedom?” He was silent and made no reply.
In recent years, I have become my own publisher. All my books have now been published at my own expense. From the royalties I received from my European publishers, I saved some money and printed my books. They are then no longer a burden to any publisher. Most of my books are translated into foreign languages first, before appearing in the mother tongue. My agent takes cares of everything, he is a Brazilian, living in Bonn.
As for the incident in Egypt, let me tell you, by God, I am astonished as to how an official institution such as the Qusur al-Thaqafa [General Committee for Culture] in Egypt – an institution which represents a country great in culture and human civilisation – can allow itself to become embroiled in pirating. They published the collection of my short stories Majnoun al-Ward without any prior written agreement and without even bothering to advise me. Dr Jaber Asfour is head of the committee, and the writer Ibrahim Aslan is editor of the series in which my collection was published. In addition to the fact that they were both personal acquaintances, one supposes that they ought to have been better informed about the rights of an author. Instead, they went ahead and published my book, not only without any financial reward, but also without permission. That is painful, and I consider it a direct insult to me. Had they informed me of their intention I might have permitted other works to be published, but this piracy is unfortunate and unacceptable. They sent me ten copies of the book through a third person without even a covering letter. Imagine! What was really catastrophic was that the book was littered with errors, as is the case with many books published in Cairo.
Vis-a-vis this tale, there is an Iraqi publisher living in Cologne called Khalid al-Maaly who runs al-Kamel publishing house. He has behaved nobly and published five books of mine so far. He will also be publishing the new novel that I am currently working on.

What about your censored collection of short stories – I mean ‘Al-Khaima’ [‘The Tent’]. Al-Maaly told that you have granted him the rights to publish your work in Arabic outside Morocco, so why aren’t you re-publishing ‘Al-Khaima’?

An oversight on my part! I have forgotten to mention to you that indeed we have agreed to re-publish Al-khaima, it will be out before the end of this year. I believe Khalid Al-Maaly is treating me well because he is essentially a poet. Each year he sends me the royalties from my books, unlike the grand institution, representing Egypt, Um al-Dunia (the mother of the world), while pirating my work. What theft!

Tell me about ‘Al-Khaima’?

It is a collection of short stories written at the end of the sixties and the beginning of the seventies. It sold 5,000 copies since it was first published. Then when it was censored, they managed to salvage only 300 copies from the shops. In fact the censorship order was issued by Tangier. Some conservative tutors went to the Mayor of Tangier and informed him that Mr Mohamed Choukri was writing an obscene text, unhealthy for the morals of the young, and that it haima was indeed censored, in spite of the fact that it contained nothing damaging to the moral code except for the fact that it chose to call things by their real names!

How would you introduce Moroc-can literature, what can you say about it? What type of literature do you feel ought to be offered to the non-Arab reader?

The Moroccan literature which ought to be offered to the foreign reader is that which was written in the mid-sixties. Prior to this there was the conventional narrative literature. Even poetry at that stage was assemblage and not poetry.
I would propose to those who don’t read Arabic that they read what has been translated of Moroccan literature from the mid-sixties, starting with some poets and short story writers and some novelists, and more works of that time should be translated. In the mid-sixties we were unable to speak of a great poet, writer or novelist. There was poetry written by poets, novels written by authors and so forth, but we were still in the formative years, and continue to be.
In my opinion, Mohammed Zefzaf, who is one of the pioneers of short story writing, has written worthy novels which really introduced readers to the Moroccan novel. He wrote a splendid novel called Qubour fi al-Ma’a [Tombs in the Water], as well as a collection of short stories Ghaja fi al-Ghaba [Gypsies in the Forest], and finally his novel Afwah Wasia’a [Wide Mouths] which has had a profound influence on novel writing in Morocco. There are other writers, too, such as Mohammed Izz al-Din Tazi, and from the early seventies Ahmed Bouzfour who excels in the art of writing short stories.
Preceding these writers is a wonderful short story writer called Abdeljabbar al-Suhaimi, who wrote a beautiful collection of short stories Al-Mumkin min Al-Mustaheel [‘The Possibility of the Impossible’]. Ahmed Al-Madini also wrote short stories in his special way, as well as Mohammed Souf. And there is Idriss el-Khouri who, though a fine short story writer, does not seem to possess the patience required to be a novelist. As for women writers, there is Khunatha Bennouna and Zeinab Fahmi (a pseudonym).
As for contemporary writers and poets I love the poetry of Hassan Najmi, Idriss Alouche, and we have Mohammed al-Sharqi, who writes novels in the form of flashing thoughts, and Rashid al-Moumni.
In the mid-sixties, with the beginning of modern writing, the names of poets, such as Ahmed al-Majjati, Mohammed Bennis, Ahmed al-Jummari, Mohamed Ben Talha, Mohammed Al-Serghini, dominated over those of prose writers. They all helped form a firm base to Moroccan poetry and establish a path for it within the literary scene. There are other poets who wrote in French, such as Mohammed Khair el-din, Mostafa Nissabouri, Abdul-kabir al-Khatibi and Abdul Latif Laibi.

Which other Arab writers do you like?

I like Naguib Mahfouz, Tawfiq al-Hakim, Gibran Kahlil Gibran. The latter I consider the real founder of modern Arab literature, for I believe he redeemed Arabic language from its rhetoric without devaluing it. Here I am not referring to the technical aspects of Gibran’s story or novel writing, because in any event he does not have the technique of a novelist in the contemporary sense.
I love Jabra Ibrahim Jabra. I also admire the works of Sonallah Ibrahim, such as August Star, The Committee, The Smell of It. He is a daring writer. I admire his vision more than his language. He is also courageous. I also read with great admiration the works of Edwar Al-Kharrat. He has a poetic and structured style and a great deal of patience. I believe he needs to be read in a special way, the reader should have some background of Sufism. I consider him a splendid writer. I also like Suleiman Fayyadh and Abdulrahman Majid Al Rubai’s wrote a nice book, Al-Washam [Tattoo], and I enjoy Tahir Wattar, and the works of Mahmoud el-Misadi. I have also read some of Elias Khoury’s stories, but I do not consider myself a fan of his work.

I noticed during my stay in Tangier that you barely travelled 50 metres beyond your home. Why is this?

The problem is that when I go to the old city, I am familiar with all its cats and all its inhabitants – I have grown old with them.
When I go and see them in their wretched state, I am unable to help all of those I love. The sight of a friend, companion or an acquaintance living in deprivation is painful. I am unable to extend a hand to everyone who asks for help. I feel that they feel I have betrayed them, though they are aware how hard I have worked and suffered. But now that I am an author with a house, and so forth, they feel I have cast them off to avoid helping them – which is untrue.
These terrible feelings of envy, aminosity and rancour cause me pain. It is for that reason I have kept away from the environment of the old city; frankly, it is just uncomfortable. Besides, I have more than exhausted the old city – just as much as it is exhausted of me. There is no longer anything new, except for up-and-coming generations of youth and teenagers, hashish traders, cigarette smugglers and beggars. And they add little new. I have accumulated more than a fair share of experience in the course of forty years or so of living there.
That does not imply that what I live today, I will write about tomorrow. Writing needs to ferment and must without doubt be selective. I do not write about the past in its entirety; I do select. When I wrote For Bread Alone I disregarded many things because my technique and style did not allow me to accommodate everything.
So I began the selection process. What I may have omitted in For Bread Alone I may have included in Zaman al-Akhta’a, and then what I couldn’t write in Zaman al-Akhta’a, I am writing in my new work, Hub wa La’anat [Love and the Damned].

This is part of a long interview recorded in Arabic, and translated by Lili al-Tai Milton
and Margaret Obank