When he started his writing journey in the early 1960s, Mohammed Shukri did not dream of more than regional fame in northern Morocco . He is not ashamed to talk about that period of his literary life in his new book, “The White Sparrow.” On the contrary, he is clearly smiling at himself when he recalls after all these years, how he then chose for himself the title, “The Moroccan Writer.”
After he wrote his first essay, he imagined himself to be like the noted Arab poet Ahmad Shawki and dreamed of moving from being a locally known writer to one that the people respectfully greeted by standing up whenever he entered a room, in the same way they greeted another Moroccan writer, Mohammed al-Sabagh, in a coffee shop in the town of Tatwan.
Shukri accomplished more than that dream, becoming known in all corners of the Arab world, with his books translated into many languages. Yet, he did not surrender to the complacency that success brings and cease his literary creativity. He was not content to rely on his past glories, like so many famed literary figures in the Arab World do. Shukri continued to follow his own course, moving from illiteracy to universalism, traits found only among great literary figures. Thus, each of his books has a special and unexpected flavor, including his new book.
“The White Sparrow” sets out from a basic proposition, ignored by others who discuss their literary experiments, which no one is beyond criticism. Shukri jumps from the East to the West, from the Arab world to the world at large, explaining his texts with the tools of the knowledgeable expert, undaunted by the sway of big names. He criticizes Naguib Mahfouz and Adonis, criticism articulated in a style that cancels artistic and intellectual dependency, yet without necessarily diminishing his respect for their accomplishments. He wishes neither to be loved nor feared, but to express his intellectual convictions without having them expropriated or controlled.
Because of his knowledge of the behind-the-scenes literary life, Shukri does not accept critical judgment as a topic beyond debate, arguing that great figures, more than marginal ones, make mistakes. André Gide once wrote a report on Marcel Proust's novel, “Remembrance of Things Past,” in which he stated that it was not fit for publication, and as a result, he felt guilty for the rest of his life. Shukri thus has approached the texts through which he explains his literary experience and understanding of the role of creativity free from prejudgments, without necessarily escaping the personal grudges that exist in literary circles.
Those who appreciate the non-touristic aspects in the novels of Al-Taher Ben Jaloun will disagree with Shukri's lack of sympathy for and evaluation of his fellow Moroccan's works, especially the trend of producing a literature that meets Western demands. “The White Sparrow” calls for a rescue from this trend's commercial and swindling nature which profits from the West by renting out local folklore.
Shukri has been called the author of the same novel republished under different titles. The source of this misrepresentation appears to stem from the similarities in the environments of “The Plain Bread” and “The Time of Mistakes,” an inaccurate judgment that overlooks Shukri's book on Paul Bolz in Tangier, his spiritual journey with Jean Genet, and his exacting artistic method of portraying the characters of the “Domestic Market.” If all these examples do not dispel this inaccurate judgment of Shukri, then his “The White Sparrow” will offer a different aspect of this diverse and prolific author.
The name of this book has a story; the author got me involved with it when, out of friendship, he unexpectedly sent the manuscript without title, entrusting me with the task of selecting a title and writing an introduction. I wasn't as concerned with the introduction as with the title of the book, for if the title does not fit like the bracelet on the wrist, and if it does not appear as comfortable as an infant stretching satisfied with milk and warmth in his mother's lap, then the glow of the book would be diminished, not to mention that it would deceive potential readers, hiding from them a book whose contents are diverse and rich.
In the midst of my confusion, scores of ideas collided with one another like cars in a city without traffic signals, and names shone and dimmed like fireworks. I remembered that Shukri's childhood friends used to call him the Black Sparrow, a name he was uncomfortable with yet aptly earned. Shukri's Black Sparrow nickname was born from a life spent with the ashes of the chimneys, the smog of the cars, and the dust of the roofs on which he slept homeless and pursued. These had painted his face black with thick layers of ashes and dust.
During this period, Shukri, the child, comprehended early the racism of language, dreaming of becoming a white sparrow flying outside the social condition within which circumstances had imprisoned him. He had many aspirations, some of which were realized, some abandoned, many others modified, replacing one goal with another to find now, at his peaceful old age alone with his dog in a Tangier apartment, that reading and writing remain the two central joys which time has not extinguished, and that the long days have not weakened their dominant magic.
Lovers were long gone, some friends had betrayed, others had passed from this world, some stabbed in the chest. Life changed, and so had its inhabitants, but the pleasure of literature remained, seizing the black sparrow as a child and settling upon his mind and heart. Although some critics made light of Shukri's experiments and belittled their importance, we find in his work a depth rarely found among contemporary Arab literary figures, and a style that can only be described by citing Virginia Woolf on the style of Joseph Conrad, considering him like the Trojan Helen, the queen of mythology, who walked and turned around and glanced at a mirror only to realize in a rare euphoric moment that she could not be ugly regardless of what she did.
And so is the style of Mohammed Shukri, which flirts with language like a lover, hunting out its eccentricities like a sparrow, in addition to possessing the love and ability to courageously mold new terms unused by any other, like the word al-Musttarwah , which he proposes as the name of the place in which the human spirit arrives after departing the body.
Through his art, Mohammed Shukri changed into a white sparrow, departing the world of violence, street thugs, prostitutes, and former inmates, into a new and clean world, which is ambitious and noble. Shukri realizes today that he cannot extend the hand of assistance to all those with whom he lived in the “domestic market” in Tangier. But through the hard and difficult experience he excelled in expressing, he shows his old friends, and all those lost in the cities of the world, the road toward salvation. He shows the possibility of triumph over the ugliness of the hard world through the means of knowledge from which he made the wings that helped him to reach a new and different world. Because the sparrow of Tangier has not fallen in the mistake of Icarus, whose wax wings melted with the first warm rays of the sun, he still maintains the elegance of flying, fluttering his wings made of the gold of knowledge on which he flew high to guide the rest of the sparrows along the road to salvation.
This essay appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 5, no. 25 (Winter 1999)
Translated from the Arabic by Elie Chalala.
Translation Copyright © 1999 by Al Jadid
This article is Muhy Din Lazikani's introduction to Mohammed Shukri's book, “The White Sparrow,” published by Dar al-Jamal (Germany). The author has granted Al Jadid the exclusive right to translate, edit and publish his introduction.