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Mohammed Shukri: A Close Look
By Mohammed Shukri
Moroccan writer Mohammed Shukri (Choukri) died last Saturday in Tangier, Morocco, after a long struggle with cancer. He was 68. A distinguished author in modern Arab literature, he is considered one of the most prominent writers in Morocco. His controversial autobiography, "The Plain Bread," (Al Khubz al-Hafi) published three decades ago, has been translated into 19 languages, having achieved international status, although it was banned in Morocco until 2001. Born into a poor family in the northern Rif mountains, Shukri moved to Tangier in 1943, where he lived as a vagabond before finally learning to read at the age of 20, and becoming a teacher. He was a friend of Jean Genet, Paul Bowles and Tennessee Williams. It was long-time Moroccan resident Bowles who translated the book into English as "For Bread Alone." Until his last years, Shukri presided over literary discussions at an American style bar in Tangier.
In the early 1940s, the city of Tangier received a child from Beni Shayker, who left with his family to live in one of its peripheral suburbs, fleeing famine in the mountains. This seven-year-old child named Mohammed did not speak Arabic. The neighborhood children didn't welcome this small Amazigh; on the contrary, they used to taunt him – “walk, you country boy; walk, you child of starvation.” He didn't find anyone who would accept him except gypsies and Andalusians who taught him how to live by stealing and low-paying jobs, and how to use his fists to defend himself. They also taught him Spanish, which he was able to speak better than the colloquial Moroccan Arabic.
Mohammed Shukri left his gypsy life in 1955; he stopped trading in smuggled cigarettes to attend school. He had lived in illiteracy for 20 years before he received his first lessons in Arabic, which had been the language of his “oppressors” before it became his beautiful “fate.” He spent 10 years in school, and that was enough to make him a writer. His first story, “Violence on the Ocean,” pleased Lebanese publisher and editor Suheil Idriss, who published it in Al Adab magazine in 1966, announcing to the world an exceptional writer, albeit a rebellious one, angry and ready to expose everyone through harsh, naked language.
Following the collection of “The Madness of the Roses,” published by Dar Al Adab in 1979, the novel “The Plain Bread” involved him in scandal. Shukri shot his father and escaped to the world of prostitutes, but Shukri's language is basically sensual before it is violent. Paul Bowles translated this novel, and Peter Owen first published it in English under the title “For Bread Alone” in 1973, 10 years before “The Plain Bread” was published in Arabic. The book was banned in the Arab world. Following the French translation of Taher Ben Jalloun, other translations followed. Watching as it was banned in one place and praised in the languages of others, Shukri was confused by this paradox and stopped writing for 20 years.
The “white blackbird” returned to the temptations of the pen in the beginning of the 1990s, and so the chapters of his life story followed. He wrote about his experience in a mental hospital in “The Age of Mistakes,” then about the end of Tangier's old nightlife with its beautiful women in “Faces.” He described the rituals of pleasure among the hippies in “The Domestic Market,” and recorded his memories of great authors Jean Genet, Tennessee Williams, and Paul Bowles during their days in the capital of north Morocco . Then he surprised his readers with “The Temptations of the White Blackbird,” which included critical essays accusing Naguib Mahfouz of lacking experience and Shakespeare of fabrication.
Today Shukri is still the same, though Tangier has changed very much. Old friends died or left the city, but he's still there guarding the myth, exposing everyone. He has lived in the same apartment for more than 30 years, going up the stairs 120 steps to the fifth floor in the Tolstoy building. The building has no elevator, but Shukri doesn't complain. He hasn't changed his apartment at all, but has changed his night pub, moving from the Roxy to Nikrisko, to Eldorado, and finally to the Ritz, where he spends every night until 11 o'clock when he returns to his isolation. He has no family, no children, but is happy with his solitude. All that he wishes is to suddenly die one day with a glass of vodka, in a way worthy of an author of his lineage!
This was adapted from an Arabic text appeared in the Beirut-based Zawayya magazine. The right to translate, edit and publish is by permission from Zawayya.