‘Bacchus in a Mosque’: Two Reviews of Mohammed Achaari’s IPAF-winning ‘The Arch and the Butterfly’

Al-Mustafa Najjar and M. Lynx Qualey co-review Mohammed Achaari’s The Arch and the Butterfly, co-winner of the 2011 International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF), along with Raja Alem’s The Doves’ Necklace. While one trend among IPAF judges seems to reward “page-turner” novels, this is not among them.

By M. Lynx Qualey 

Arch-and-the-Butterfly-“Terrorism” is a trope that surfaces and resurfaces in Moroccan literature. Lalami’s Secret Son, Binebine’s Horses of God, others. When my co-reviewer Al-Mustafa Najjar read the opening to Mohammed Achaari’s The Arch and the Butterfly (trans. Aida Bamia), he reports being disappointed. I was not.

The premise engaged me, not because it had anything to do with “terrorism” — a word that should be broken apart, recycled, substitutes found — but because it has to do with parenthood. A child grows up so different from his father that this child’s life becomes a black stain on the father’s heart.

The novel opens sharply and clearly, with a letter, “its single line written in a nervous hand.” It contains a message to the secular leftist narrator, the father of Yacine. The letter says: “Rejoice, Abu Yacine. God has honoured you with your son’s martyrdom.”

This is the book’s last moment of total clarity. From this point, the book heads off in a dozen different directions, and its initial impetus is drowned out. There is the father-son relationship, which destroys the last shreds of the narrator’s marriage; there is the narrator’s relationship with his blind father; there is the blind father’s story; there are construction projects and architectural critiques; there’s corruption among Morocco’s real-estate brokers; there is a visit from Saramago (yes, that Saramago); there are the protagonist’s new relationships; a murder; more.

All these widely varied threads could surely make up the basis of a big castle of a novel. Unfortunately, they fail to come together.

Instead — to borrow the novel’s own architectural obsessions — the book feels like a half-built thing: As we walk through it, parts of scaffolding still seem to be tacked up. We trip on extra lumber or knock against sections that should’ve been cut, but weren’t. Certainly, we also stumble on beautiful stained-glass objects, turrets, lovely mosaics. But as we leave a well-crafted scene, we might trip on extra lumber.

Most of the characters are sharply done, but some are overbuilt as well: The narrator’s father, for instance, seems to contradict himself to such an extent that if feels as though he was re-invented part-way through the novel and the author failed to go back and re-invent the whole.

What is the book’s central focus? I couldn’t say.

What is the book’s central focus? I couldn’t say. The titular “arch” and “butterfly” are two different, contradictory architectural expressions, and architecture is very important to the novel. The “arch” is an idea that came from the narrator’s son before he went off to Afghanistan — a simple artistic structure to link Salé with Rabat. The second is an enormous, hideous-sounding luxury building where the interior décor consists of a “soaring butterfly,” which gets a surreal launch accompanied by, “Thousands of butterflies, guided by invisible threads, and thousands of multicolored birds,” which flutter through the Marrakesh sky. “Hundreds of guests were transported from their respective hotels to the Butterfly on the backs of white camels.” There is a philharmonic orchestra, and hundreds of men and women roam the city, offering dates and cups of milk in drinking glasses specially designed for the occasion.

But Achaari seems to feel a constant itch to tack on just one more room, just one more balcony.

Indeed, Achaari could’ve built a novel that focused on architecture: How do these structures reflect the character of Morocco’s cities? How do they relate to the corruption of brokers and contractors? What of aesthetics and history? But Achaari seems to feel a constant itch to tack on just one more room, just one more balcony. In the section where Jose Saramago pops into the novel, there is a short rant against the Sahrawi people that seems to exist as a message from the author to Saramago.

There has been some discussion that the International Prize for Arabic Fiction novels trend toward the popular, the page-turners, the “readable.” This is not among them.

Over to you, Al-Mustafa:

By Al-Mustafa Najjar

It is a rather disappointing beginning: the narrator, a middle-aged, Left-leaning Moroccan journalist, receives a one-line letter asking him to “rejoice, Abu Yacine. God has honored you with your son’s martyrdom” in Afghanistan. The frustration and shock emanating from the radicalization of one’s child is not the most unique fiction theme, nor does it necessarily promise very much in terms of form and style. But the 2011 International Prize for Arabic Fiction joint winner, The Arch and The Butterfly, quickly dissipates that initial skepticism by tackling a broad network of themes that keep building to a point where motifs of terrorism and trauma simply cannot hold on their own.

While it is tempting to portray Mohammed Achaari’s first novel as a family saga spanning three generations, narrated by Youssef — Mohamed Al-Firsiwi’s son and Yacine’s father — the book soon spirals beyond the perimeters of the genre.

While it is tempting to portray Mohammed Achaari’s first novel as a family saga spanning three generations, narrated by Youssef — Mohamed Al-Firsiwi’s son and Yacine’s father — the book soon spirals beyond the perimeters of the genre. Achaari’s novel is suffused with mundane characters and mythological figures — Bacchus, Medusa, Hercules and Orpheus — and is rife with references to cities from Rabat, Marrakesh and Casablanca to Havana and Madrid. In fact, readers will — like Youssef — find themselves “thinking about all that at once [while unable] to concentrate on one specific detail” and constantly “assailed by various details from contradictory topics.”

It is a difficult read—almost inaccessible to those not expecting a novel tackling an array of topics in a poetic, sometimes aphoristic, style.

The Arch and The Butterfly is — to the dismay of those seeking pure entertainment — a demanding book. It is a difficult read—almost inaccessible to those not expecting a novel tackling an array of topics in a poetic, sometimes aphoristic, style.

A wasteland

When he receives the tragic news of his son’s death in Afghanistan, Youssef’s perception of his physical environment changes almost immediately. He “steps for the first time into a wasteland,” so arid and “desolate” a place that he soon feels “no trace of pain or pleasure or beauty.” Youssef’s sensory impairment takes hold of him. His dilemma now lies in his failure “to make my inner self react.”

The news also takes its toll on his relationships. Youssef avoids making new acquaintances and limits himself to having only two friends. His marriage collapses. But the tragedy earns Youssef a new companion: his dead son’s ghost, “with whom I would share the details of my daily life . . . talking with him for hours” about everything from road works, demonstrations and beautiful women to “revolutions, betrayals and the death of illusions.” People in the street who see Youssef “caught up in conversation” with his new invisible friend soon spread rumors that the bereavement has driven him to the verge of madness.

In their first walk around Rabat, Yacine’s apparition complains to Youssef about the “huge cranes, bulldozers and cement mixers . . . blocking the street” and the capital’s rapidly changing landscape. Before his death in Afghanistan, Yacine “had dreamed of placing a giant steel arch across the [Bou Regreg] river,” an aesthetic architectural touch aimed at giving the impression that the river “ran through the fingers of [Salé and Rabat],” and thus connected the center of Morocco with the periphery.

Morocco’s fast-changing urban landscape dominates Achaari’s novel, and real-estate scandals in Marrakesh and Rabat are one of Youssef’s main concerns as a journalist.

Morocco’s fast-changing urban landscape dominates Achaari’s novel, and real-estate scandals in Marrakesh and Rabat are one of Youssef’s main concerns as a journalist. He feels betrayed by his friend, Ahmad Majd, a socialist turned tycoon who is involved in one of these scandals. Majd’s biggest project is a nine-floor butterfly-shaped building he believes will “free [Marrakesh] of the spirit of the distant past and bring a bit of frivolity into the city.”

But Majd’s ambitious and “provocative” architectural endeavor faces a legal snag: buildings in Marrakesh cannot be more than four stories high in order not to block the view of the High Atlas Mountains from the center. Of course, Majd manages to circumvent the law, arguing that “the city was a city and the mountain was a mountain,” unable to understand why anyone would “drink their coffee in the street as their sleepy eyes roamed over the High Atlas.”

It is the architectural audacity of the building and its contrast with the restive Marrakesh that Youssef has issue with: “People were struck by this building with its provocative shape, located in the heart of the Medina.” The Butterfly’s interior is more provocative — even “vulgar,” at least to Youssef and his friend Layla. It is an architectural pastiche of British and Asian sculptures, Byzantine mosaics, Persian miniatures, Turkish glassware and a kitsch statue of Bacchus, among others: it “felt like a museum.”

Compared to Yacine’s steel arch — an objet d’art linking Salé with Rabat — the butterfly-shaped building is not just a “vulgar” edifice erected in the middle of a city with a rich history; it blocks the view of the High Atlas, one of Marrakesh’s authentic landmarks. If similar buildings continued to sprout in the heart of the city, Marrakesh “would be like a tramp’s trousers, made up of different coloured patches from various times.”

Youssef’s attack on the transformation of Morocco’s urban identity can at times be overly direct. 

Youssef’s attack on the transformation of Morocco’s urban identity can at times be overly direct. He criticizes the “palaces’ mixed architectural styles,” concluding that “Marrakesh had, in fact, literally and figuratively lost its authenticity.”

In the novel’s last chapter — the most dramatic and most absorbing — Youssef roams the labyrinthine streets of the old city of Marrakesh, playing the role of the flaneur: “I stared at the faces of the passers-by, almost certain they could not see me, as if I had become a mere vision checking the conditions of the city.” Contrary to his expectations, in the old city Youssef “felt calm and free,” although he admits to being unable to take part in the “tenderness bursting from the sleeping city.”

In this chapter, Youssef’s integration with his surroundings increases and Yacine’s ghost vanishes. The son’s disappearance is contrasted with Youssef’s increasing interaction with passers-by and his physical surroundings. At the entrance of the old city, Youssef comes across two men having a petty argument over olives. Although “unnecessary and useless,” the conversation, Youssef says, “cheered me up . . . and the alley would have been desolate without it.”

Almost immediately a child approaches Youssef, asking him a random question to which he has no clue as to how to answer. Still, he says, he was “pleased by the child’s curiosity.”

A blind tour guide

But it is not only Youssef who has a troubled relationship with his environment: Mohammed Al-Firsiwi, Youssef’s father and Yacine’s grandfather, shares his son’s defective sensory perceptions. Redolent of the image of Tiresias of Thebes, Firsiwi is a blind tour guide and the clairvoyant prophet of the Roman city of Walili (Volubilis).

Firsiwi immerses himself in the history of the area and is often “seen constantly excavating the site for something, though no one knew what.” Firsiwi breaks off his contact with the present and instead “spends his days chasing Hercules, Antaeus, Bacchus, Orpheus, Hylas, Venus, Medusa, Ariadne, Juba and Ptolemy.”

For Firsiwi, the death of his grandson threatens to end the family line. He urges Youssef to have another child—a plea his son shrugs off. In one of his angry fits, Firsiwi castigates Youssef for being “unconcerned about what will happen in the centuries to come because he lives in the present, in restaurants, bars and airports . . . [and] works on fleeting stories and novels that wilt as soon as they are picked up.”

This blind grandfather stands apart from the rest of Achaari’s characters. He can be both mundane and otherworldly. His life remains shrouded in ambiguity. His words are inexplicable and his actions paradoxical and inconsistent.

Firsiwi is hard to work out. When asked by Youssef why he buried the statue of Bacchus in the courtyard of an obscure mosque, he simply answers: “I can just imagine the puzzlement of archaeologists in a few centuries’ time asking themselves what Bacchus, the Roman god of wine, was doing in the courtyard of the twenty-first century mosque.” This blind grandfather stands apart from the rest of Achaari’s characters. He can be both mundane and otherworldly. His life remains shrouded in ambiguity. His words are inexplicable and his actions paradoxical and inconsistent.

The Arch and The Butterfly is a reflection on place, identity, authenticity and loss. The protagonists find their habitat in the past: Youssef in the old town of Marrakesh, and Firsiwi in the Roman ruins. As for the present, they feel as out of place as a statue of Bacchus in a mosque.

Al-Mustafa Najjar’s portion of our co-review previously ran in Al-Sharq al-AwsatAl-Mustafa Najjar is a Syrian journalist/translator at Asharq Al-Awsat. He holds a master’s degree in Post-1900 Literatures, Theories and Cultures from the the University of Manchester. He is based in London and we hope that some day he will take over editing ArabLit.

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Categories: International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF), Morocco

4 replies

  1. Thank God I am not the only one who disliked this book. It is the story of another aging, Arab leftist intellectual going through a midlife crisis, and it is not very interesting. And for all the direct discussion of how the city is changing in a book that is on the long side (it definitely felt long to read), I didn’t come out of it with any real understanding of Marrakesh.

    • I kept looking at the page count, because it’s not really that long, but yes, it felt long.

  2. Wait, have you reviewed other IPAF winners? This was a really nice set of reviews.

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