It was thirteen years ago this month that Moroccan author Mohamed Zafzaf — the “godfather” of Moroccan literature — died in Casablanca. Although the French translation of his The Cockerel Egg received the Grand Atlas Prize in 1998, and the Spanish translation of his acclaimed The Woman and the Rose occasioned a letter from Spain’s king, he has been nearly absent from English translation:
Translator and scholar Mohammed Albakry writes that he published an English-language collection of Zafzaf’s short stories — A Night in Casablanca — in 1999. But this was brought out by the Moroccan Ministry of Cultural Affairs, which means it’s unlikely more than a few copies made their way to readers outside Morocco.
Now, Albakry’s translation of the Zafzaf story “A Night in Casablanca” is available online at The Missing Slate. This joins a chapter from Zafzaf’s novel The Cockerel’s Egg, which is available online at Banipal, trans. Fiona Collins, as the sole works from Zafzaf’s ouvre easily available in English. There are a few others pieces that have been translated into English, including one short story in Modern Arabic Short Stories, a Bilingual Reader.
Since the Moroccan author is thirteen years gone, it’s unlikely his work will appear in wider translation now — although this, too, is possible. After all, Zafzaf has received significant posthumous attention. In 2002, a pan-Arab literature award, the Mohamed Zafzaf Prize for Arabic Literature, was created in his honor. Grantees have included Palestinian novelist Sahar Khalifeh and Syrian writer Hanna Mina.
Born in Kantira, Zafzaf started writing in 1962. Working as a journalist, he experimented with poetry and published his first short story, Thalathat Asabie’ (Three Weeks) in the Atlas literary magazine in 1963. His first book, a short story collection entitled Al-Maraa wal Warda (The Woman and the Rose), appeared in 1970.
He continued to publish novels and short stories, translating or cotranslating Arabic books into French and vice versa. His work stood out for its range of subject matter as well as its literary prowess. In his short story collections, intimate evocations of Moroccan rural life are often juxtaposed with existential narratives of the search for personal and moral freedom in a taboo-laden society.
“I am not a professional writer,” Zafzaf said in 1999. “I have no reading and writing rituals as such… I chose to read and write without selling myself to any cause or marketing my writing… I will die with a clear conscience and that is very comforting.”
Breaking the Canon: Zafzaf, Laroui and the Moroccan novel, by Gonzalo Fernandez Parrilla.