Our man in Tangier
For years, Western literati flocked to the Moroccan coast for easy adventure. The lucky ones fell in with Mohamed Choukri. Kaelen Wilson-Goldie reads the late novelist's reflections on his city and its visitors.
In Tangier Mohamed Choukri Telegram Books Dh224
On a sultry afternoon in the summer of 1973, the American playwright Tennessee Williams stepped into a post office in Tangier to retrieve a package. Like countless other artists and writers - from Mark Twain and Eugène Delacroix in the 19th century to Paul Bowles, Truman Capote, William S Burroughs, Allen Ginsburg, Jack Kerouac, Jean Genet and Henri Matisse in the 20th - Williams travelled often to the coastal Moroccan city. With its wild beauty, its jumbled history, its tangle of influences and its peculiar former status as an international zone, Tangier held out to expatriates the promise of adventure and reflection. For some, it was a sleepy, sea-swept city suffused in orange light, a quiet place to live and work. For others, it was dangerous, foreign and exotic, full of spies, tramps and mercenaries.
Williams had been frequenting Tangier since at least the early 1950s, when he penned Camino Real there, but this particular trip was his first since 1964. He found the city much changed. When he entered the post office and handed his delivery notice to the clerk, he had to explain why the name on his passport (Thomas) differed from the name of his package (Tennessee). Then he had to fight the confiscation of his copy of a certain men's magazine, which contained a piece that he himself had written (those were the days when literary heavyweights still contributed to Playboy). And then he had to sit back and watch as the clerk opened and read every single letter in his formidable stack of forwarded mail.
"The new law insists," said the clerk in Arabic, not to Williams but rather to the man accompanying him, the Moroccan writer Mohamed Choukri, for whom Tangier was home. The days of the international zone, which had divided Morocco into French and Spanish enclaves and had made Tangier an elusive and eccentric protectorate playground, were over. Morocco had declared independence and reclaimed Tangier from joint French, Spanish, British and Italian rule in the 1950s, reinstalled the monarchy in the 1960s, annexed the Western Sahara in the 1970s and crushed widespread political unrest with authoritarian tools throughout those decades. Tangier's anything-goes atmosphere was gone. Choukri translated the clerk's diktats. Then, he recalls: "Tennessee clapped his hands together. Oh, no! he cried. This is impossible! I am going to get out of this country as fast as I can." Eleven days later he left. It seems he never returned. Choukri refused to translate the clerk's final question - "Has he got the disease?" - about the playwright's sexual orientation.
This is one of the more illuminating anecdotes in Choukri's In Tangier, a new omnibus edition of the writer's reflections on his relations with Tennessee Williams, Jean Genet and Paul Bowles. It exemplifies Choukri's writing at its best, condensing the grand narratives of a city, a country and an entire cultural milieu undergoing dramatic change into a charming account of a literary encounter.
Mohamed Choukri, who died of throat cancer five years ago, was born in the mountains of the Moroccan Rif in 1935. He and his family fled from famine and travelled to Tangier on foot. Along the way, Choukri's explosively violent father snapped his little brother's neck and tossed the lifeless body into an open grave; he was the first of eight siblings to die on the journey to Tangier and then to Tétouan.
By the age of 11, Choukri had been sold into servitude. He worked for a French family in Oran, Algeria, and eventually made his way back to Tangier alone. There he lived a life of petty crime, prostitution, drugs and destitution. During an uprising against colonial rule, Choukri found himself in the middle of a bloody brawl. He got hauled off to prison in a roundup of would-be and could-be revolutionaries. On the walls of his cell, a fellow inmate scrawled a few lines of verse by the Tunisian poet Abu al Qasim al Shabbi: "If some day the people decide to live, fate must bend to that desire / There will be no more night when the chains have broken."
Those lines, which also inspired the Front de Libération Nationale in Algeria, compelled Choukri, who was 20 and illiterate at the time, to learn how to read and write. Within five years, he was using classical Arabic to compose poetry and fiction. Within 10, he was publishing his work in the influential literary journal Al Adab in Beirut. His autobiographical novel, Al Khubz al Hafi (For Bread Alone), has been regarded as a cult classic for decades. It has been translated into 40 different languages, and it has been banned, unbanned, censored, restored, removed from the shelves of book stores, reinstated at the stands of book fairs and celebrated by fellow writers, literary critics and a few Arab heads of states alike.
The American novelist Paul Bowles arrived in Tangier four years before Choukri was born. After dropping out of the University of Virginia, he turned up in Paris with the composer Aaron Copland and planned to travel on to the south of France. But Gertrude Stein told him that anyone could go to the south of France. Bowles, she said, must go to Morocco instead. He did, and in 1947, he settled in Tangier for good.
Much has been made of Bowles' decision to stay. In a 1981 interview for The Paris Review, Jeffrey Bailey asked him a dozen times why he remained in Morocco; the biographer Christopher Sawyer-Lauçanno (whom Bowles despised) argued that he stayed to reject father, family, religion and the bourgeoisie; Ned Rostem, one of Bowles' friends, suggested it was the fame he achieved as a writer in exile that kept him content in Tangier; Virgil Thompson, the composer and critic who never forgave Bowles for giving up his early career in music, said it was a matter of money.
By the time Choukri met and befriended Bowles, in 1972, the former was already a writer and the latter had already had his best fiction - including the novels Let It Come Down and The Sheltering Sky - behind him. His wife Jane's mental and physical health was already in steep decline. Aside from travel writing, autobiographies and collected letters, poems and short stories, Bowles wrote little of literary merit after his wife's death in 1973. Instead, he turned his attention to collecting folk music, recording indigenous storytellers and translating the works of Moroccan writers such as Choukri. It was Bowles who translated For Bread Alone into English (he only spoke the Moroccan dialect at the time, so Choukri transposed his work from classical Arabic into vernacular speech, and the two writers together used Spanish and French to fine-tune the meaning). It was Bowles who secured a contract and an advance for Choukri from the publisher Peter Owen. And it was Bowles who retained the rights and collected the royalties of Choukri's text. As such, Paul Bowles in Tangier is both a record of a friendship and a volatile document of a long-simmering dispute.
Choukri spent just three weeks in the company of Tennessee Williams in 1973. He wrote about only two of Jean Genet's visits, in 1968 and 1969. With Bowles, however, he has decades' worth of material at his disposal, from the 1960s through the 1990s; thus Paul Bowles in Tangier is much longer than its companion pieces. Strange, then, that Bowles emerges such a distant subject. Perhaps it is the result of their falling out. Or perhaps it is just that Bowles was a difficult person to befriend and understand (his various biographies and autobiographies provide ample evidence of this). Choukri's text runs hot and cold, alternating between admiration and disdain. It reads at times like detached literary criticism, with Choukri exploring the importance of place, the strange treatment of sexuality and the lurking themes of sadism that characterise Bowles's fiction, replete with footnotes and references to a slew of secondary sources. (Curiously, Choukri never mentions the language in which he read Bowles's work). Elsewhere it feels like a passionate polemic against the mythologising of Tangier that Bowles engendered, albeit unintentionally.
"Most of the texts written about Tangier today are more like postcards than books," writes Choukri. The majority of writers who travelled to the city after reading Bowles's books treated Tangier like "little more than a bordello, an endless beach or a huge sanatorium." Of these "rest-stop writers," Choukri writes disparagingly: "Such people are to be pitied. They are as risible as the tourist who has himself photographed on a camel that has been plucked from the desert and deposited on a Tangier beach."
Choukri treads carefully here. He does not condemn Bowles (or Williams, or Genet) to the realm of rest-stop writers. In fact, he constructs a delicate argument about how Bowles's nostalgic rendering of Tangiers was justified: first, because he wrote about a past that he himself had experienced; second, because he bemoaned everything, everywhere, about the present. Choukri does, however, go a bit haywire on occasion. He takes a few cheap shots at Bowles' less-than-sturdy command of Arabic. He sniffs about an American reader, a tourist no less, who mistook the (unnamed) setting of The Sheltering Sky for Morocco, when it was for the most part Algeria. And he slams his former publisher Peter Owen for having the gall to say, "Paul Bowles knows Morocco better than the Moroccans." Fair enough. Then he accuses Owen of theft. Then he calls him a vampire.
Paul Bowles in Tangier was the last literary encounter that Choukri committed to print. Jean Genet in Tangier was the first, and arguably the most successful. Just 58 pages, translated by Bowles and accompanied with an introduction from Burroughs, it captures the times Choukri spent with Genet in 1968 and 1969. The two men remained close up until Genet's death in 1986, and they visited one another often, whether in Paris or Tangier or the Moroccan port of Larache, where Genet lived for a time with his lover Mohamed al Katrani, and where his grave stands today. Williams charmed but bewildered Choukri, who could not square the always-laughing playwright before him with the author of a work as dark as Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Bowles essentially made Choukri's career but wronged him in the process. Only in Genet did Choukri find a kindred spirit. Each understood the other's struggle for survival and profound distrust of anyone in a position of power. They shared the same memories of poverty and incarceration. They were both outsiders, even in the loose literary society of Tangier.
Jean Genet in Tangier conveys the richness of two writers engaged in a serious discussion about the art, craft and consequence of writing. Bowles contributed much to getting Moroccan writers and musicians more widely known, but somehow Genet comes off as the most generously engaged with Arab literature and culture of the three. He confesses to know only the work of his friend Katib Yacine, the Algerian novelist and playwright, and admits ignorance of the Egyptian greats Taha Hussein and Tawfiq Hakim. But he promises Choukri that he will read them both, just as he demands that his friend read Stendhal's The Charterhouse of Parma before they meet again. He picks up the Moroccan dialect and uses it with everyone he meets. He asks probing questions about the Quran. Unlike Bowles and Williams, he never plays the part of a famous foreign writer, and doesn't wait for Tangier to come to him. He seeks it out and listens to it.
A handful of critics have described Choukri's writing as politically indifferent. And indeed, it is odd to come across the passage in Tennessee Williams in Tangier in which the American playwright asks after Genet's whereabouts and Choukri responds by saying he has no idea - when he must have known that Genet was then among the Palestinian fedayeen in the refugee camps of Jordan, researching his last masterpiece, Prisoner of Love. While Choukri never does tackle political upheavals head on, perhaps he uses his literary subjects to sound out his ideas for him. Against the backdrop of a changing city, Bowles retreats into himself. Williams departs with the disappointment that Tangier, embarking on a scary experiment in self-rule, has become just another threadbare outpost of the Third World. It is Genet who cuts through the gauze of nostalgia and articulates Choukri's underlying thesis, the injustice he is trying to redress: "The situation here is very unstable," he says. "Everything reeks of poverty and misery. The foreigners are the only ones here who live like human beings."
Kaelen Wilson-Goldie reports from Beirut for The Review.
Updated: January 16, 2009 04:00 AM