Many students and scholars of Arabic literature would recall the debates on the books of Mohammad Shukri (1935-2003) late last century and a part of the early 21st century. The debates centered primarily on Shukri’s picaresque approach, which included harsh depictions of repression, marginalization, deprivation, morality, breaching taboos and censorship, and of course, the banning of his books in most Arab countries. We can categorize many of his books as autobiographical, and the opposition was not to this type of literature but to the language and details he used. His spontaneity violated all technical and artistic norms in both Moroccan and Arab literature, especially in “The Bare Bread,” “Age of Mistakes,” and “Faces,” his autobiographical trilogy.
No analysis or criticism of Shukri is complete without considering his life story, which lies at the heart of his work. He lived a hard life, and circumstances imposed on him a perversion in the ontological, not ethical concept. He grew up with a selfish, lazy, and materialistic father who shirked raising his children and did not appreciate his wife; he remained concerned only with dirhams, tea sessions, and his private whims, to the point where he struck the neck of Shukri’s younger brother whose crying kept him from napping, leaving a lifeless corpse. This incident rattled Shukri intellectually and psychologically. He wrote part of his autobiography “The Bare Bread” in front of the grave of his little brother and his diligent, patient mother.
Growing up in Morocco under French authority, his family had the opportunity to send Shukri to school, but his father forced him to work during his boyhood years so he could earn money. After a family dispute, Shukri left the family at 11 years old and struggled to survive on the streets of Tangier.
The “bomb” that Shukri detonated in his autobiography violated all prohibitions and taboos, disclosing his ventures into the world of prostitutes and his experiences during this period of his life, a tradition unparalleled whose profanity slaps the reader. The semantic and lexical field of the night world, with its marginalized inhabitants, cellars, cafes, and bars, is full of words that almost destroy the spirit of readers unaccustomed to this type of disclosure, wrote Ibrahim Musharat in Al Quds al Arabi.
Regardless of the controversies accompanying his books, Shukri benefited from Al-Taher Benjelloun, who translated “The Bare Bread” into French, opening French markets to him and receiving the great attention the book deserved. But this had little impact on Shukri as far as overcoming the Arab censors. We can say the same about his friend Paul Bowles who translated the book into English (other translations translate the title as “For Bread Alone.”)
“For Bread Alone” was at the center of controversy with Egyptian newspapers and the faculty of the American University in Cairo in the late 90s after the university pulled the title from its shelves following complaints of “indecency” by parents. The daily opposition newspaper Wafd launched a hostile media campaign against the book and a modern Arab literature professor, Samia Mehrez, who was using the book in her course. Detractors lambasted the book for encouraging “homosexual behavior” because of segments describing Shukri’s rape as a child, on top of other sexual scenes involving prostitutes, men, cats, and dogs. However, champions of the book praised it as a “very moving and candid tale.” Professor Magda al-Nowaihi of Columbia University stated, “It is disgraceful that I can read with my American students here in New York works of literature which my colleagues in Egypt dare not read with their students…The book is about hunger; for food, for love, for physical closeness, for respect, and for freedom.”
Close followers of Shukri's works distinguish "The Bare Bread" from the second part of his trilogy, the “Time of Mistakes" in which he continues his revelations. In "The Time of Mistakes" his narrative remains spontaneous and evades all technical constraints, detailing his experience in a mental hospital. The narration of "The Time of Mistakes" is considered "tender" and "purgatory" as opposed to the "hellish" narration in "The Bare Bread.” Meanwhile, “Faces,” the third part of his trilogy, described Tangier’s old nightlife and beautiful women.
Shukri’s other work, “The White Sparrow,” delves into his journey starting out as a writer in the 1960s, expanding on details he brought up in “The Bare Bread'' and “Time of Mistakes.” Though Shukri’s name reached all corners of the Arab world, and his books were translated in many languages, surpassing his own expectations, he did not allow himself to be held back by complacency. He actively criticized and evaluated fellow intellectuals’ works, believing not even big names like Naguib Mahfouz and Adonis were exempt from criticism. As cited by Muhy Din Lazikani, “He wishes neither to be loved nor feared, but to express his intellectual convictions without having them expropriated or controlled.”
Despite the Arab Spring and various uprisings in the Mashreq and the Maghreb, demands for reform fell short of reaching social issues, including sex, and even the opposite has happened, with the rise of new fundamentalists who reinforce conservative forces even in countries that did not experience the Arab Spring.
Al Jadid previously published articles on Mohammad Shukri. For further reading, please click on the links below:
Copyright © 2021 by Al Jadid
Copyright © 2021 by Al Jadid