Sunday, April 21, 2013

Fate Must Bend to Desire

Mohamed Choukri--For Bread Alone

Years ago, in college, when someone put a copy of Naked Lunch into my hands and (reluctantly) I read it, I thought that Burroughs had lived the most depressing life I could imagine.  I'd read Sartre on Genet and all of Rimbaud's works in French, and made my way through a couple of Kerouac's drug-addled books (I found them tedious, but no one else did, so I wondered at my tastes), but no life I had read until Burroughs' ever seemed unimaginably painful and pointless--the willful acts of self-degradation depicted in his hallucinatory and often arresting prose never appealed to me; my rebellions were tame and mostly wholesome compared to those of the poètes maudits who were so popular in certain American intellectual circles in the 1960's.  Though I did have a picture of Rimbaud above my desk in my college dorm, it was Henry Miller's Rimbaud I admired--Time of the Assassins was a favorite book--Rimbaud as outlaw poet rather than criminal and drug addict and hustler.

Though I am seldom drawn to wholesome books--cheery stories of family life and triumphs over adversity don't constitute my regular fare--I haven't read anything in years that compares for sheer horror to Mohamed Choukri's For Bread Alone, first published in 1972 as Al Khubz al-Hafi.

This autobiographical novel kept me awake for a couple of nights, not the reading of it, but mulling over the miracle of Choukri's life, the fact that he endured miseries almost unimaginable--endured them and overcame them, insofar as one can ever truly overcome suffering. Told in dispassionate, flat, non-judgmental, and stoical style, For Bread Alone can hardly be thought of as a story of "overcoming adversity"--the ending is neutral, even pessimistic ("What shall I become? A devil most likely.")  I'd call the book a novel of "provisional survival" at best, or a story of the dogged desire to live as told by one of North Africa's most esteemed writers.

Choukri was born into almost unimaginable poverty in Morocco.  Eight of his brothers and sisters died of malnutrition.  In a harrowing scene that I haven't been able to forget, Choukri's father strangles one of Mohamed's brothers to death--"He twists the small head furiously." Dysfunctional hardly fits the case here--Mohamed's father is a sadist and a madman, someone Mohamed must avoid at all costs.

Mohamed does what he must to survive soul-crushing poverty--"I can steal from anyone who uses me"--he becomes a thief, a street prostitute, a kif smoker, a drunk, a criminal, an "outlaw," though the term makes no sense in a world in which there are no laws except the struggle for life.  Mohamed works when he can, but there is seldom work; he drifts from one desperate situation to another--it is as if his life is lived entirely in terms of "bread alone" and without any of the volition we ordinarily associate with human existence.  Here is a taste of Mohamed's world--he is sixteen or seventeen years old at this moment in the story:

  "My mother now gave birth to another girl, whom she named Zoha, after the one who had just died. A rat bit her on the hand one  night and she died too.
   My father had a habit of stealing up behind me in the street and seizing my shirt collar. Then with one hand he would twist my arm behind my back, while with the other he would beat me until the blood ran.....One morning I sat in a café smoking kif with two pickpockets. We decided to work together that day in order to spend a night of debauchery at the brothel. We went to the Plaza Nueva where the crowd was densest. It was not long before I felt the furious grip of my father's hand on the back of my neck...."

One would not think of For Bread Alone as a "political" book, but it is that.  Mohamed comes to politics in the way that poor people most often do, through direct experience of injustice.  Imprisoned during the independence riots of 1952, Mohamed is introduced to classic literature in Arabic, and to a vocabulary that will eventually allow him to begin to take control of his life:

   "Zailachi [a fellow inmate] took out a small pencil and set to work writing on the wall.
   'What are you writing?' I asked him.
   'I'm writing two lines of a poem by Abou el Qacem Chabbi. He was from Tunis.'
   'And what did he say?'
   'Here's what he says:
   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.
   'Do you understand?'
   'No, but it's magnificent. What does it mean?'
   'It means that if a man or a country is enslaved and decides to tray and get free, Allah will help. He says: the dawn will respond and the chains will break because men will make it happen.'"

Zailachi opens Mohamed's eyes to the plight of colonized North Africa; but more importantly, he shows Mohamed the way to free himself from his past. 

Mohamed Choukri (1935-2003) was born in the Rif mountains near Nador in Morocco.  His life until age twenty is described in For Bread Alone, (1972) a book Choukri wrote with the encouragement of Paul Bowles, who became a supporter and translator of Choukri's work.  Choukri wrote in classic Arabic rather than in darija, the dialect of Tangier.  He became friends with Jean Genet, Tennessee Williams, William Burroughs and other western writers resident in Morocco.  He wrote another volume of his life's story, translated as Streetwise, as well as stories and plays.

For Bread Alone is published by Telegram Books, trans. by Paul Bowles, with the brief introduction by the translator.

George Ovitt (4/21/13)

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