‘A Rare Blue Bird That Flies with Me’: Morocco’s History Through the Eyes of a Prisoner

Youssef Fadel’s A Rare Blue Bird That Flies with Me is on the six-strong shortlist for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction. Cristina Dozio reviews it, and finds time runs, in this evocative novel, in many different sorts of ways:

By Cristina Dozio

_13921348409“To the martyrs of the centres of detention and extermination in Tazmamart, Agdez, Kelaat Mgouna, Skoura, Moulay Chérif, Kourbis, The Complex, Dar Mokri — those of them who are alive and those who are dead.”

Opening the book with this dedication, Youssef Fadel cleary places his novel in the historical time frame of the so-called Years of Lead in Morocco. However, using an intimate and evocative style, the author is able to connect this piece of national history with universal themes such as love, hope, and the struggle for survival.

Fadel himself was imprisoned for eight months in Moulay Chérif prison (1974-75), in Casablanca, because of his politically engaged writings. His latest novel, A Rare Blue Bird that Flies with Me, shortlisted for the International Prize for Arabic Fiction, has recently won Le Prix du Maroc du Livre 2014. This is another important recognition for the Moroccan novelist and playwright after  his novel Hashish (2000) was awarded the Grand Atlas Prize.

In the novel, the pilot Aziz has been confined for eighteen years in a small, dark, dirty prison cell that used to be part of the kitchens in the Kasbah of the Pasha Glaoui, in Southern Morocco. Does anybody know he is there? Is anybody looking for him?

Yes, his young wife Zina, who was only sixteen when she married him and saw him disappear just the day after. From that very moment, she starts searching for her husband everywhere – at the air force base where he worked, in prisons, ministeries, and offices – sometimes with the help of her elder sister Khatima, and most of the time alone. It is a very hard task, because everything is covered by silence and hidden truths, and also a disappointing one when she is given false leads. Nonetheless, through this experience, Zina matures and becomes a strong woman.

The search is particularly intense in the first fourteen years and reaches its peak when she meets an important general and the king himself. Then it stops for four years, until a man enters the bar where Zina works and gives her new hope. This will actually be her last journey in search of Aziz, and it will bring unexpected consequences for both of them.

As we can see from the plot, time is a very important element in Fadel’s novel. Every chapter, alternatively recounted by one of the six narrators, carries a precise time stamp: the mysterious man in galabiya goes to Khatima and Zina’s bar on Monday the 21st of May 1990. Starting from that moment, the story lasts only twenty-four hours and meaningfully ends with an indefinite “Later on…”. In this very short period of time, every narrator opens windows on the past: Aziz goes back to his roots and points out how he was eager to learn; Zina’s family story, instead, is told by Khatima, who left home with her younger sister when the latter was only ten.

In A Rare Blue Bird that Flies with Me, time has a double meaning.

In A Rare Blue Bird that Flies with Me, time has a double meaning. First of all, there is the Time of History, as Aziz disappears on the 16th of August 1972, when King Hassan’s plane is attacked by the air force as part of the failed coup organised by General Oufkir. But time is also perceived subjectively: when in jail, the ex-pilot elaborates many ways to count the time passing. Whereas for his wife Zina, time essentially means waiting:

“I ran after him, I threw myself at him and kissed him. Then he said, I’ll kiss you back, tonight, when I come back.
And he did, he kissed me back, when he came back, after twenty-six years.”

The concept of time is strictly connected with the contrast between light and darkness, which the author renders in many poetic passages. Deep darkness, like the one inside a cell, stimulates the senses and enables visions. Both Aziz and Zina also express their memories and future hopes through dreams, part of which are about flying:

“And when I sleep I dream of flying. I spread my wings above the village and I fly above my uncle’s head who threatens me and orders me to descend, and I don’t.”

Aziz, Zina, Khatima, Baba Ali, Bengazi, Haneda the dog, and Aziz again… These are the story-tellers and the author is able to give each of them their own style and language. The pilot’s voice is probably the most complex and leaves much room for ambivalence. Then there are the short rhythmic sentences of the Kasbah’s “cook” Baba Ali, that are obsessively repeated when he starts questioning his job. The other guard, Bengazi, instead, shows extreme confidence and uses religious formulas that do not correspond to any true religious feeling. When reporting dialogues, the narrators include them directly in the text, without any graphic sign. However, it is easy to recognise and follow them because they are the only parts in Moroccan dialect.

Through the private stories of these characters, A Rare Blue Bird That Flies with Me depicts some aspects of Moroccan society over almost thirty years. It is a militarized society, the history of which is evoked by mentioning World War II and the conflicts in Indochina and Algeria. The French soldiers who were on the ground when Aziz was a child are replaced by a large number of Moroccan soldiers. Khatima often has to deal with them, at first when she works as a prostitute and then as the owner of The Storks Bar, that she inherites from a French lady. While the countryside suffers drought, moving to the capital Rabat seems to be the only way to improve one’s social condition.

In this context, family relations are compromised:

“I don’t have an uncle. Nor a mother. Nor a father. My sister Khadija is in the desert. Maybe she got married when she was ten or twelve. Maybe she died. Yes, she died so that I am sure I am a tree with no roots and no branches.”

This is what Aziz says, before finding a father in the friar of the mission where he receives his education and in the colonel who commands the air force base. It is this man that he follows, with the hope of giving power back to people and removing the parasites that exploit the country.

This novel can be read as the second chapter of a trilogy that includes Fadel’s previous book, A Beautiful White Cat that Walks with Me.

Animals play an extremely symbolic role in his writing and in A Rare Blue Bird that Flies with Me we can find a whole natural system acting in the story: the Kasbah’s dog is one of the narrators and shows deeper feelings and compassion than humans; the call of the owl announces a prisoner’s death; insects, rats and night animals populate the fortress; and finally, there are the storks. 

Animals play an extremely symbolic role in his writing and in A Rare Blue Bird that Flies with Me we can find a whole natural system acting in the story: the Kasbah’s dog is one of the narrators and shows deeper feelings and compassion than humans; the call of the owl announces a prisoner’s death; insects, rats and night animals populate the fortress; and finally, there are the storks.

“And he remembered The Storks Bar without remembering the address, but the storks eventually guided him. And mum said storks go back to the nests that they know.

Yes, said the man, they know their nests.”

Youssef Fadel does not show much violence directly, but he focuses on the deterioration it can cause on a human beings and the hopes that keep them alive.

When the system seems to have won the battle (as Bengazi says, prisoners “have been coming for twenty years and they will come for a hundred years more…”), there comes the liberation: Faraj, relief, which is the name of the rare blue bird of the title.

Trained as a translator, Cristina Dozio is currently doing her PhD about Egyptian satirical literature at the University of Milan. A passionate traveller, she is one of the co-founders of Samsara Viaggi for cultural tours in Morocco, Egypt and Jordan.