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In Rare Interview, Shukri Talks on His Tragic Life, Tangier, The Plain Bread,' and Arab Cultural Scene
By Yassin Adnan
Mohammed Shukri is a distinguished author in modern Arab literature. His work escapes all frameworks and is difficult to categorize. Three decades after its publication, his autobiography, “The Plain Bread” ( Al Khubz al-Hafi ), is still tainted by scandal among Arabs while it has achieved an international reputation and been translated into 19 languages. The controversy raised by the content of his autobiography unfortunately shifted attention away from his work: a richly experimental text that has a special beat, filled with lively language and written with a realism that does not accept any embellishment,ambiguity, or concessions.
Writing, for this Tangierian Moroccan author, is an act of life. His text is connected to his life story, from which he drew his energy, enthusiasm, and material. The literature of Mohammed Shukri has become associated with Tangier, the city that embraced his experience with its noise, courage and loss and fluctuates between despair and hope, pain and pleasure.
The curse of censorship has never followed another Arab novel with the same persistence as it has pursued Mohammed Shukri. Since publishing “The Plain Bread,” this trouble-making author has lived an adventurous life, perhaps a unique one in the history of modern Arab literature. There is no precedent for an Arab writer having achieved the fame and popularity of Muhammed Shukri in the world's five continents–his works have appeared in 47 translations. Shukri lives alone, without a wife and children, yet he considers himself the intimate friend of Tangier, the keeper of its secrets, the close witness who expresses its spirit, and he sees the city as wife and lover. He roams its suburbs and its secret memory, and is the historian of its mysterious nightlife. A descendant of Tarfa Ibn al-Abed who does not tire of living life and searching for pleasure, this fighter stands today directly facing his future, one of struggles against illness.
Shukri's rivals say that the white sparrow of Tangier is a lively embodiment of scandalous life in literature. He is unjustly accused of defiance, addiction, and disloyalty to his parents, but Shukri doesn't know what they are talking about! He hasn't advocated any particular causes, emphasizing that he simply wrote his autobiography and the biography of the city. He wrote it without any “embellishments”– he is just a roaming historian of the city. The other stories do not concern him, but, “those stories concern us, Mr. Mohammed,” I said to him once at the Reeds restaurant, while he was asking for a second drink. He was mixing vodka with a bit of water and had a cigarette hanging between his lips, when he asked me, “Where do we begin?” I said, “From the beginning, from ‘The Bare Bread,' of course.” Shukri laughed, complaining: “`The Plain Bread' is not only the beginning, it is my fate. Do you know that I have dreamed of killing this book and getting rid of it completely, but it refuses to die? I have written books of greater literary value than this one but everyone talks only about ‘Bare Bread.'”
Mohammed Shukri: I am not a revolutionary… I am a rebellious person who doesn't know stability....I do not consider myself a Moroccan writer. I classify myself as a Tangierian writer. I want to be remembered as the roaming history writer of this city and the chronicler of its dirty nightlife.
Adnan: What's the secret, in your opinion?
Shukri : The secret is that “The Plain Bread” was originally written against literature. Had I not written it, I would have been afflicted with madness or committed suicide. I was coming out of a very difficult life – prostitution, smuggling drugs. I was left with scars from my bad upbringing by my father, who would beat me and my brothers. “The Plain Bread” was my therapy.It helped me regain my psychological balance, but many readers didn't appreciate that because an autobiography, for them, ought to be written at the end of a rich literary life, as the crowning of literary glory. I wrote my autobiography without glory, and that appeared strange to people.
Adnan: Are you surprised by the dominance of sexuality in your autobiography?
Shukri: Of course, some were surprised by what I wrote. Sex in my writing is not for arousing sexual desires. I have no goal of curing the impotent. I was a poor trouble maker who lived on the streets. Do they expect me to paint butterflies for them? That would not be realistic. I have had my excesses and I was extravagant in seeking pleasures of all forms. But “the life of deviation,” if we were to use this term, which reflects a judgmental and moral standard, is the result of a major social problem that should be condemned. It is not enough to condemn the victims alone.
Dominance of Conservative Trends
Adnan: You seem to be living the battle of “The Bare Bread” as if it were waged only yesterday.
Shukri: Do you think the battle has ended? I would love that, believe me. In my lifetime I would hope to see this novel become a literary work among others. Since the beginning, those of rigid conservative mindsets fought against me, and they continue to fight me today. After the publication of “The Plain Bread” in 1983, some students' parent groups signed petitions of protest to the Ministers of Religious and Interior Affairs. Of course, the authorities resorted to banning the book in order to prevent conflict. But I would like to bring to your attention that this conservative tendency was not dominant at the time. A large number of readers embraced the book. The problem is the fundamentalist trend; instead of retreating over the past two decades, it has become dominant. This trend has even penetrated the American University in Cairo , causing an uproar because a distinguished professor (Samia Mehrez) assigned my autobiography to her students as a recommended text.
Adnan: Wasn't the controversy caused by the novel about more than sex?
Shukri: That's correct. The real problem with “The Bare Bread” does not lie in sex but in the courage with which I criticized the patriarchal society. I presented a portrait of the patriarchal dominance in Arab society.
Adnan: Didn't you publish the Arabic edition of “The Plain Bread” at your own expense?
Shukri: I had the book printed at my own expense because no one wanted to publish it. I suggested it to Suheil Idriss in Beirut , but he was not enthusiastic. He found the book vulgar and asked me to philosophize a little. He criticized me, saying that I had written a scandalous autobiography that included a type of exhibitionism. Today, he writes his own autobiography about patriarchal authority with a lot of courage and exhibitionism! In general, Suheil Idriss let me down at the time, and I considered it an act of cowardice and defeatism. He wasn't the only one; everyone abandoned me, and all doors closed in the face of my autobiography. Thus, I was forced to publish the original Arabic text of “The Plain Bread” at my own expense from the royalties I received from its French translation, published by French publisher Francois Maspero. Since then, I have been the publisher of my Arabic books. I'd rather burn all my books than to hand them to an Arab publisher. The publishers in the Arab world are not only cowards but also thieves and bloodsuckers. I have lived off the profits of my books since 1981, and if I had relied on Arab publishers I would have died of starvation.
Adnan: It seems strange that “The Plain Bread” first appeared in English, through the translation of American author, Paul Bowles, followed by a French translation by Taher ben Jaloun, while the Arabic version was published last!
Shukri: I met a British publisher in Tangier, seeking a victim. After he heard about me and my experiences from Paul Bowles, an American writer who lived in Tangier, he asked me, “Can you write your life story for us?” I answered immediately: “It is ready at home.” I was lying of course. I intended not to lose this opportunity. Then I borrowed 50 dirham from Bowles, because writing needs a delicious bottle, and went to the Roxy. I started to write what I had accomplished, and Bowles translated what I wrote. Later I discovered that Bowles was also a “thief.”
The Story of Tangier
Adnan: In “The Bare Bread,” “The Age of Mistakes,” and “Faces” you did not only write your autobiography, but you also wrote the story of Tangier and its legendary nightlife.
Shukri: I used to like the nightlife of Tangier very much, despite its dirt and violence. It was beautiful. But the night of Tangier today has become a night of crime and random violence.
Adnan: Do you mean that the myth of Tangier has ended?
Shukri: Did the myth of the Pharaohs end? Did the myth of the mummies end?
Adnan: You talk about the city the same way as some foreign writers!
Shukri: The difference between foreign writers and myself is that they long for the international Tangier. They are not concerned with the myth. They mourn the time of old pleasures, which used to be made available from the city's international position. Of course, I do not long for that period, because at the time I was living on the opposite bank of the river – in the lower social strata. As for the international Tangier, with its pleasures, happiness, and extravagance, it was for the rich and the foreigners. Paul Bowles, for example, used to enjoy himself in Tangier and wished to continue that old enjoyment, as he knew it in the 30s and the 40s. Tangier and I have a strong, loving relationship. We are separated, but divorce has not been considered at all. I do not consider myself a Moroccan writer. I classify myself as a Tangierian writer. I want to be remembered as the roaming historian of this city and the chronicler of its nightlife.
I'd rather burn all my books than to hand them to an Arab publisher. The publishers in the Arab world are not only cowards but also thieves and bloodsuckers. I have lived off the profits of my books since 1981, and if I had relied on Arab publishers I would have died of starvation.
Adnan: Didn't you get tired of Tangier and its nightlife, which became more violent?
Shukri: It is Tangier which grew tired of me, although it still needs me. I have an intimate relationship with the city. Generally, I do not leave Tangier, except occasionally. And even if I travel, I return after only a few days. I feel Tangier is my ocean, and I cannot swim outside it.
Adnan: In the international Tangier, you came to know Jean Genet, Tennessee Williams, Paul Bowles, and William Burroughs, and published your memoirs of them.
Shukri: Memoirs are a common Western tradition and I adopted this form of writing after I read the memoirs of Borges and Alberto Moravia. My memoirs are a source today for anyone wanting to write about Genet, Williams, or even Bowles. Of course, writing about these people in Tangier is a continuation of writing the history of Tangier, the Tangier that has died culturally and no longer has the literary life it did during the 50s and 60s. Then, Tangier was connected directly to the literary life in Paris and New York . Things have changed a lot.
Adnan: In the book, “Roses and Ashes,” you include correspondence with the author Mohammed Barada between 1975 and 1994. Is this endeavor a continuation of your autobiography?
Shukri: This could be correct. I had written these letters in an atmosphere of intimacy and truthfulness, in a spontaneous method. I did not imagine at the time that they would appear in a book. Perhaps while Barada was writing me, he was thinking of publishing them, but I didn't. He was in a stable position, a college professor, while I was in a mental hospital in Tatwan. Thus, there were significant differences between my letters and his. This correspondence fostered a profound friendship that has lasted thirty years, and I do not regret its publication
I Am Deeply Optimistic
Adnan: In one of your old letters to Barada, you admitted that you thought of suicide several times in one week. Does this idea still haunt you?
Shukri: No, of course not. Perhaps sometimes when I drink a lot and do not sleep well or lose my appetite, that desire haunts me, but only as a passing thought. When I was in the beginning of a nervous and psychological breakdown, and after being in a mental hospital for three or four months – that was in 1973 – I entertained the idea of committing suicide. I lived a real tragedy then. One of the patients killed a friend of his, right before my eyes. I went to the hospital initially because I had problems with my family, friends, and the world. When I witnessed others' tragedy, I forgot my own. In general, the real tragedy is the total loss of hope. Fortunately, I am an optimist at the core. Thus, I do not think like someone who would commit suicide.
Adnan: Suicide could be an attempt to speed up death...
Shukri: I always repeat with Epicurus, “As long as I live, there is no fear of death. If I die, I won't feel anything.” What frightens me actually is not death but illness. I would prefer to die rather than become ill. I would prefer a sudden death to a slow one. For someone to die here in a nightclub with a glass of vodka is much better for him and the others. I am a lonely person. I have no family to take care of me in old age. Thus I fear becoming ill some day. This doesn't mean that I am sad because I have found myself at this age without a family; many of my friends were driven to mental hospitals by their marriages. At least I live my life quietly.
About Hatred, Love, and Other Things
Adnan: Do you have any enemies?
Shukri: In the past, people used to search for friends, but would not find any. I used to search for enemies without finding any. When success came, enemies started to appear.
Adnan: Have you ever hated anyone?
Shukri: Perhaps I hated my father in childhood, but after that, I understood the problem. A person like him is miserable and almost crazy. He has the brain of a mouse. What do you expect from him? I understand, but I still have not forgiven.
Adnan: Have you ever missed a woman, for example?
Shukri: Neither I, nor the women I knew, were stable. None of us were ready to miss the other. I know eroticism but do not know abstract or platonic love. I do not know love.
Adnan: Despite that, you had some special, strong, and beautiful relationships?
Shukri: There were some women who wanted to have a permanent relationship with me but those relationships all ended – either because of their betrayal or because of their families' rejection. Once, I was engaged to be married to a teacher with whom I hadn't had any physical relationship. I asked her to marry me, but her father refused after he investigated me, claiming that I was poor. There was another woman I thought of marrying but she abandoned me. Fifteen years later I saw her in a train station in Rabat , where she was in very bad shape. She said to me, “Do you see what I've become? Were I to have married you back then, I would not have ended up in this situation.” I said to her, “If we had been married, we both would've been in this situation.” I gave her 20 dirham and left. There are others who had betrayed me and returned after 20 years, wanting to live with me. Finally, there was Virginie, whom I met 11 years ago. She was an 18 year old Belgian student who wanted to marry me. I refused to exploit a beautiful young woman, and I sent her home.
Adnan: And now, Si Mohammed, can you repeat with Pablo Neruda, “I witness that I have lived my life. I have lived like a revolutionary fighter, who has opened his life on more than one front and to more than one unknown?”
Shukri: I am not a revolutionary and have never been a revolutionary, neither as a man nor as a writer. I am a rebellious person who doesn't know stability. There is a huge difference between the two. The revolutionary, when he accomplishes his goals, would have reached the cold summit. As for the rebel, he lives his revolution continuously, without stop. I still live my revolution today.
The Arabic version of this article appeared in the Beirut based Zawaya magazine. The English version appears exclusively in Al Jadid, Vol. 9, No. 44.