Award-winning 'Bin Baraka Alley' Emerges from Decades of Censorship

Dunya Mikhail

The second edition of Mahmoud Saeed’s “Bin Baraka Alley” was recently published by Dar Al-Adaab in Beirut. The first edition, published in Jordan by Dar al-Karmal in 1993, won first place in the novel category in Iraq that year. Despite such high recognition from Iraqi critics, the novel was banned in Iraq, Morocco, Jordan, and Kuwait.

It had taken more than 20 years for the author to find a publisher. “In 1970, the manuscript was refused by the Iraqi censorship, in 1993 it won best novel, but was not distributed.” Saeed explained. This delay in publishing and the ban on the book reflect the woeful cultural situation of the Arab world in general. Unfortunately, many good manuscripts are destined for obscurity, thanks to the censors.I did not find this novel particularly subversive, so I asked the author  why it has been banned.   “In Kuwait, simply because I am Iraqi,” he said.  “In Jordan, because it views religion through the song of a popular singer:

Set me free

you starved me to death 

my God fornicated me

and all are witnesses. 

In Morocco, because it criticizes the king of Morocco and exposes the feudal system of the regime. In Iraq, because it dares to approach the topics of  sex and politics.”

This 308-page novel’s broaching of the prohibited triplet in the Arab world–the taboos of religion, politics, and sex–has attracted the attention of critics and journalists, who have already published 21 essays about it.

The long delay in publishing the novel did not affect its freshness, and it might have been the secret of its success, according to Iraqi critic Ali Al-Shouk.  On a specifically literary level,  I think its success is achieved through excellent and consistent characterization. The reader can see that the action really suits the character’s personality, situation and motives. 

In Afaq Arabiyya (Arab Horizons) magazine, Mohammed Khudhair, a prominent Iraqi fiction writer, noted that the novel invokes characters whose features couldn’t be hidden by the local masks, nor could their violent bodies be contained by their galabias (shirtlike garments). Trying to understand the foreign faces, the Mashreqi (from the Near East–al-Mashreq) eyes of the hero penetrate the galabia-covered bodies, as well as the minds that have been tortured by the forces of a society rife with sexual, ideological, and class problems.

The narrator interchanges his original Near Eastern hero with another temporary one that is an alienated Moroccan. The hero’s actual origin is not mentioned in the novel, but at times he is Lebanese, and at others he is Iraqi.  Known as Si al-Sharqi, the hero works as a teacher in the city Mohamadiya, and rents an apartment in a Chinese-French owned building. Here he forms relationships with his neighbors.

According to Iraqi writer Musa Kredi, the most important character in the novel is Ruqaya, an unusual character to find in conservative Arab society.  Ruqaya plays an important, active role in her relationship with Si al-Sharqi, directing events which  represent, among other things, a desire for the sexual freedom of a new sensibility.   Ruqaya might be one of the most beautiful characters of all Arab novels, in the opinion of Iskandar Habash, writing in  As Safir newspaper. “The image of Ruqaya, for whom we feel concerned, is very well drawn by Saeed and can hardly be cloned in the future,” Habash explains.

From a woman’s perspective, Ruqaya is a female character whose beauty is concentrated in her body, not her mind. Saeed, however, takes issue issue with this characterization and sees Ruqaya as distinguished because she, unlike most of Arab women, overcame the barrier of gender, and was courageous enough to clearly express her feelings, including her sexual desires. She has, according to Saeed, her own way of life, and “there are female critics who were impressed by Ruqaya’s character.”  Saeed was referring primarily to the Syrian novelist Taghreed al-Ghadban who has written (in Al Jadid magazine) about the character of Ruqaya, saying that she represents Morocco, where African magic, beauty, and warmth are cross-bred with French dalliance and fantasy. All of the three male characters try to win Ruqaya’s heart, but, she explains, she gives herself to nobody.

On one level, this realistic novel deals with jealousy; however, it also deals with more complex issues revolving around inner, social, and political conflicts.  The story begins with a bid to register a historical period (namely 1965) of Moroccan history.  Opening in a narrow alley–a zanqa in the Morrocan dialect–the story moves, as it develops, to the main cities of Morocco,  reflecting the spirit of the Moroccan society and its features.

Inspired by his experience living in Morocco in 1964 to 1967, the author wrote the novel after his return to Iraq. He was thinking of “the freedom enjoyed by the Moroccans who also suffered from many problems,” both of which the author had witnessed.  In the midst of dramatic developments, political and emotional crises emerge, leading to a tragic ending, with Si al-Habib almost dead in the hospital, Si Idris killed by an unknown person, and Si al-Sharqi in great turmoil.  Iraqi critic Fadhil Thamir wonders, in the Al-Adeeb Al-Muasir (Contemporary Writer) magazine, “Did the narrator merely open his camera into the spontaneous events, or did he plan for such a tragic climax?” Syrian critic Nawaf Younis stressed that this work brings Arab identity to the surface,  suffering from a crisis with itself. Basim Abdul Hameed Hamoudi, Iraqi critic, also noted the extent of Arab pain embodied in the novel.

Ali Jawad al-Tahir, another Iraqi critic, believes that the novel is so rich that it can be considered in several ways: socially, politically, or psychologically.  It is social in that it presents an image of a certain society. It is political in that it criticizes political practices and takes the side of sincere reformers. And it is psychological in that it delves into inner fears and  emotions.

The dialogue is natural and is another manifestation of the superb characterization in this novel, al-Tahrir notes in Al Aqlam magazine. “This outstanding spontaneous novel makes you feel that you are reading something in which lies a real artistic literary genre. It has abandoned the artificial attempts that are sometimes made in the name of innovation.”   At the same time, however, Saeed doesn’t seem to believe in non-realistic literary works, adding that, “Many modern works that use linguistic techniques at the expense of the theme don’t make sense to me.”   Yet, according to Iraqi critic Ahmad Amin, the novel is saved from falling into the traditional genre of Arabic novels by its technicality and its good balance of roles and events.

Although a quarter of a century has passed since “Bin Baraka Alley” was written, it still has vitality and harmony, and remains a joy to read, according  al-Shouk.  The novel, in the opinion of Razaq Ibrahim Hassan, “is so vivid that the reader cannot leave it aside.”

This essay appeared in Al Jadid, Vol. 5, no. 28 (Summer 1999)

Copyright (c) 1999 by Al Jadid