Muhammad Zafzaf’s ‘The Elusive Fox’: Turning the Euro-American Story about Morocco Inside Out

From a review of Muhammad Zafzaf’s The Elusive Fox, trans. Mbarek Sryfi and Roger Allen, that can be read in full at Qantara, One rule for them.”

It opens:

Cover of Muhammad Zafzaf′s ″Elusive Fox″, translated by Mbarek Sryfi and Roger Allen (published by Syracuse University Press)The ′60s generation of US writers was shaped by a Morocco that emerged in the writings of William S. Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, Paul Bowles and many others. This Morocco was frightening, welcoming, exotic, hallucinatory and completely ″new″. It was a space not just to be read, but written.

These works inspired young travellers and coastal Morocco swelled as a popular destination for American and European counter-cultural drifters, hedonists, artists and others.

This, of course, did not go unmarked by Morocco′s artists and writers. Muhammad Zafzaf (1945-2001), the twentieth century′s ″godfather of Moroccan literature″, was, in the 1960s, a young writer, a student and later a Casablanca high-school teacher.

His 1989 novel ″The Elusive Foxmay have been based on some of his own experiences and observations, as translator Mbarek Sryfi notes in his afterword. The book is set during one 1960s summer in coastal Essaouira. It′s populated by the European hippies who floated around Morocco, but written from the point of view of Ali, a long-haired gym teacher from Casablanca who travels out to the country′s west coast because he too wants to smoke hash, drink wine, enjoy free love and swim nude in the ocean.

Rife with contradiction

The book highlights many of the divisions and contradictions of the ″global″ counter-cultural movement, as staged in small-town coastal Morocco. In the opening pages, Ali meets a tough, ″tomboyish″ Moroccan woman. He′s looking for a sleep and she tells a hotel clerk that Ali can share her room. ″I′ve an extra bed.″

Contradictions are immediate. The clerk forbids her to share her room with an unrelated man, threatening her with expulsion if she does. When she argues that the European hippies do it, he tells her ″All the boss cares about is money.″ As to why she can′t: ″You′re a Muslim woman.″

This female lead, Fatima Hajjouj, first appears strong and brave and willing to transgress almost any rule of sexual and body politics. This is how she remains around European hippies and village peasants.

Yet when she′s around a wealthy Moroccan man with status, Azeddine, she turns suddenly weak and submissive, allowing him to mock her. Ali is at first shocked. But then he surmises that Fatima is just ″hiding the viper inside her, just as I was hiding my own fox, surveying everything going on with a quiet prudence.″

Poverty is also appears to be a different experience, depending on whether you′re European or Moroccan. Ali′s poverty as a high-school teacher makes it almost impossible for him to move around the country. Meanwhile, the ″penniless″ European hippies might be broke, but still have enough money to buy alcohol and hash and always enough to keep moving.

″They′re all that way,″ one character says. ″They don′t have a penny, but they still travel. I don′t know how they do it. A month or two later, they′re sending you postcards from somewhere else in the world.″

You can read the full review at Qantara.