On March 2nd, we discussed For Bread Alone (al-Khubz al-Hafi) by Mohamed Choukri.
One of Choukri’s best known works, this autobiographical novel was described by the American playwright Tennessee Williams as ‘A true document of human desperation, shattering in its impact.’
For Bread Alone describes a bleak childhood and youth in Morocco. Fleeing drought and starvation in the Rif, his family moves to Tangier and then Tetuan. Most of his siblings die, of neglect or starvation or abuse, but he survives the beatings of his father, the pangs of hunger, and the dangers of the street. He lives by begging, petty theft, prostitution, smuggling and occasional work, and he learns to enjoy sex, drugs and alcohol. For Bread Alone ends with Mohamed’s decision to learn how to read and write, inspired by a chance meeting in prison — and he went on to become a writer and a lecturer in Arabic literature. This narrative is grounded in direct experience and the immediate concerns of everyday existence. Other characters appear and disappear without explanation and there’s little that connects with the broader world, apart from peripheral involvement in the rioting that came with independence in 1952.
For Bread Alone is a superficially sordid story, but it is told in a matter-of-fact way, using sparse, simple language and dialogue, and the thoughts and experiences of the down-and-out Mohamed seem entirely natural. The result is compelling rather than depressing, a strikingly memorable account of life in the Moroccan underclass. It was written in classical Arabic, but translated via colloquial Moroccan with the assistance of the author.
Choukri was born in 1935, in Beni Chiker, a small village in the Rif mountains, near Nador. Raised in a poor family, he ran away from his tyrannic father and became a homeless child living in the poor neighborhoods of Tangier, surrounded by misery, prostitution, violence and drug abuse. At the age of 20, he decided to learn how to read and write and to become a schoolteacher. In the 1960s, in the cosmopolitan Tangier, he met Paul Bowles, Jean Genet and Tennessee Williams. His first writing was published in 1966 (in Al-adab, monthly review of Beirut, a novel entitled Al-Unf ala al-shati (Violence on the Beach). International success came with the English translation of Al-khoubz Al-Hafi (For Bread Alone), Published Telegram Books by Paul Bowles in 1973. The book was be translated to French by Tahar Ben Jelloun in 1980 (éditions Maspéro), published in Arabic in 1982 and censored in Morocco from 1983 to 2000. The book would later be translated into 30 other languages.
For Bread Alone is the first in an autobiographical trilogy, and was followed by Zaman Al-Akhtaâ aw Al-Shouttar (Time of Mistakes or Streetwise), Published Telegram Books and finally Faces. He also wrote collections of short stories in the 1960s/1970s including: Majnoun Al-Ward (Madman of the roses) 1980; Al-Khaima (The Tent) 1985. Likewise, he is known for his accounts of his encounters with the writers Paul Bowles, Jean Genet and Tennessee Williams (Jean Genet and Tennessee Williams in Tangier, 1992, Jean Genet in Tangier, 1993, Jean Genet, suite and end, 1996, Paul Bowles: Le Reclus de Tanger, 1997). See also In Tangier, Telegram Books 2008 for all three in one volume.
Mohamed Choukri died on November 15, 2003 from cancer at the military hospital of Rabat and was buried at the Marshan cemetery in Tangier on November 17, with the audience of the Minister of Culture, numerous government officials, personalities and the spokesman of the King of Morocco.
Quotations from the author:
“When I arrived, there were two Tanger : the colonialist and international Tanger and the Arabic Tanger, made of misery and ignorance. At these times, to eat, I combed the garbages. The European ones preferably, because there were richer.”
“I cannot write about the milk of birds, the gentle strangehold of the angelic beauty, grasps of dew, the cascade of lions, the heavy breast of females. I cannot write with a crystal’s paintbrush. For me, writing is a protest, not a parade.”
“I saw that writing could also be a way to expose, to protest against those who have stolen my childhood, my teenagehood and a piece of my youthfulness. At that moment, my writing became committed.”
“There’s, in the Moroccan society, a more conservative faction. Those people judge my works as depraved. In my books, there’s nothing against the regime. I don’t talk about politics or religion. But, what annoy the conservatives, is to notice I criticize my father. The father is sacred in the Arabic-Muslim society.”
Discussion of For Bread Alone (al-Khubz al-Hafi) by Mohamed Choukri
Questions courtesy of Perri Giovannucci, AUD
1. The work can be seen as a “loss-of-innocence” tale, a common theme in modern world literature. In several different ways, Choukri loses his “innocence” throughout the story. The loss of innocence is not only sexual but also experiential. What are some of the key episodes in the story which signal the author’s “loss of innocence?” What kind of loss is it? What is gained, as a result?
2. Choukri wrote For Bread Alone in classical Arabic, according to Paul Bowles. For the English version, Choukri transcribed the work into colloquial Moroccan Arabic from which Bowles made his translation. What is the effect, intended or unintended, of the work’s expression in classical Arabic, given the explicit nature of the story?
3. The literary critic, Gayatri Spivak, once asked the question, “Can the subaltern speak?” By this she meant to consider the possibilities which arise when the abject, the alienated, the underclass (the lumpen) speak and represent themselves and their experiences, rather than rely on bourgeois mediators to tell their stories for them.
a. To what extent is Choukri’s book an example of the “subaltern” speaking for himself? How has the literate, middle class reading public regarded his “act of speaking?”
b. Does the reception of this work vary among its different readership? For example, has the work been received differently in Morocco, Lebanon, France, U.S., U.K., etc? How have subsequent generations regarded this work?
4. Choukri’s class oppression occurs against the backdrop of the French and Spanish protectorates in Morocco. To what extent does he represent his abjection as an extension of colonial exploitation? How may Choukri’s book be seen as “post-colonial ?”
5. Trace the motif of imprisonment in the text. How many times does Choukri find himself locked inside a room? What does he mean when he says, “I would rather be shut up in a place like this [crowded prison cell] with others than be free and solitary” (142)?
6. For much of the story, Choukri (because he is young) can only react to situations over which he has little or no control. At what point does he cease being a “victim” and become an agent, an actor in his own life?
7. Do you find Choukri’s accounts of the women in the text to be sympathetic or misogynist?
8. Choukri’s account of his life is unapologetic. It is not intended to be a story of remediation or “conversion.” Although he will go on to learn to read and write, become educated, and will himself write, teach and publish, yet he does not regret or abandon his “nightlife” of libertinage. What is the significance of his testimony, then?