The mirage & the water

Posted on April 11, 2008


By Susan Tomaselli

“It’s like they say: people cry because they’ve never seen Tangier – but once you’ve seen it, then you’ll cry too.” [1]

Back in the day, Tangier was a writers paradise (in fact, Mark Twain wrote to friends on his arrival that he had “discovered paradise” [2]). Samuel Beckett, Tennessee Willliams, Jean Genet and Gore Vidal packed out the Cafe Halfa; those permissive Beats shone centre stage amongst its drug addicts and eccentrics. And then there was Paul Bowles. For Bowles Tangier was “counterfeit, a waiting room between connections, a transition from one way of being to another, which for the moment was neither way, no way.” [3] Unlike the other writers who passed through (tourists, if you like), Bowles made the “hell of brimstone and fire and Egypt’s plagues” [4] his home, enjoying the most productive period in his literary career that lasted until the death of his wife in 1973, when he turned solely to translation.

Tangier’s legacy is in its literature, not only in the writings of the Western novelists – William BurroughsNaked Lunch, Bowles’ Let It Come Down – but also in that of its home-grown talent, Driss Charhadi‘s A Life Full of Holes and Mohamed Choukri‘s For Bread Alone, both of which Bowles enthusiastically transcribed and promoted. Choukri writes: “I did not see as much bread in Tangier as my mother had promised me I should. There was hunger even in Eden, but at least it was not hunger that killed.” Published in 1981, and banned in Morocco by King Hassan II until 2001, For Bread Alone chronicles teenage prostitution, sexual promiscuity, alcoholism and poverty, a harsh and cutting reality at the heart of Tangier; the city as a muse, albeit loose and unforgiving: “I looked at the door that was reinforced with metal plates, and reflected that this door was stronger than any of the doors that had shut me in before. The doors are getting tighter. Here I am, finally, in a real prison.” [5]

In Streetwise, the second auto-biographical novel in the trilogy, Choukri goes to state school at the age of twenty to learn how to read and write. With one foot in the institute, the other in Tangier, when not studying he hangs out in cafes drinking and smoking kif, dossing down with lowlifes and taking solace with “a clan of pimps, thieves, smugglers and prostitutes.” “I thought about the nightlife in Tangier, and the way the city lures you to the very edge of death.” Even though poverty is written onto his face, “in Tangier even if you find yourself completely penniless and depressed, something interesting or enjoyable always seems to come along. Solitude there is free and wild, and tastes of wild berries.” Yet, it’s not all fun and games: set against a turbulent back-drop, a city in political turmoil, there are chilling scenes in Streetwise:

“An angry mob appeared from the direction of Bab El-Kubaybat. They had an old man in their clutches and were dragging him roughly along the grounf, stabbing at him with knives. The old man had lost most of his clothes by this time. His eyes were starting out of his head. This mass of moving flesh had entirely lost its humanity. Somebody brought some rope and they tied him to a tree by his arms and legs in front Bab El-Kubaybat, effectively crucifying him. They tipped petrol over him and put a match to it. Again, there were shrieks and screams of joy, and people leaping in the air. The smell of burning flesh began to spread across Plaza de Espana. The old man’s eyes bulged out of his head and began rolling around in their sockets.”

“True life is always to be found in books,” he writes, and though the “demon of literature” has a firm grip on the young man, Choukri struggles to reconcile the idea of himself being a writer – “I always imagined that writers were either very private people or they were dead.” Yet there is an elegant literary imagination at work there: “I’d been looking for life’s games and symbols, not its reality; looking for the obscure and the riddle, not the clear and the simple; the unknown and not the known, the mirage and not the water.”

Reading Choukri is similar to reading Jean Genet (unsurprisingly, Choukri wrote a non-fiction book of Genet [6]). Like Genet, Choukri learnt the language and poetry of the streets, and, as Streetwise so seductively illustrates, he spoke it beautifully. “That’s the purpose of art,” he says, “to make life beautiful even when it’s ugly.”

Buy this book>>

Streetwise by Mohamed Choukri
Telegram Books
164 Pages

[1] For Bread Alone, Mohamed Choukri [Telegram Books, 2006]
[2] From Twain’s a letter to a friend, 1867; though the next day he recanted, saying he thought of “nothing but leaving this hell.” See also, The Innocents Abroad [1869]
[3] Let It Come Down, Paul Bowles [Penguin Books, 2000]
[4] Samuel Pepys’ Tangiers Diary, published as The Second Diary of Samuel Pepys
[5] FBA, Choukri
[6] Jean Genet in Tangier, Mohamed Choukri [Ecco Press 1990]


Susan Tomaselli is the editor of Dogmatika and a contributing editor to 3:AM Magazine. She lives in Dublin.

Posted in: Reading