Prominent Moroccan journalist Mohamed Boukhzar talks about his relationship with the great Moroccan author Mohamed Choukri (1935-2003), author of Streetwise, Jean Genet and Tennessee Williams in Tanger, and, most famously, For Bread Alone:

By Jonas Elbousty

Jonas Elbousty:  How did you get to know Mohamed Choukri? What year was it? How was the first meeting?

Mohamed Boukhzar: I got to know Mohamed Choukri in the spring of 1966. In this year I was studying literature at the University of Mohamed V in Rabat, Morocco. My friend Mohamed Anqar – the late novelist and critic – and I agreed to travel to Tangier to meet and congratulate Choukri on the publication of his story, “Violence by the Shore”; This story was published in al-Adab magazine in Beirut.

We appreciated three things about this story: first, its audacity in a very conservative society, second, its condensed style with a tinge of poetry, and third, the storytelling technique the author used which was so unusual and intriguing that it convinced the editor of that old and well-established magazine in Lebanon to take the plunge and publish it even though its author was not well-known at the time and its themes contained shocking and “immoral” narratives for a conservative readership.

Anqar and I visited “al-Raqasah” coffeeshop[1], located in the old market in Tangier, to look for the writer. We were certain that he would be in the coffeeshop, for it was a place we knew that he often frequented. It was also the location where he received all his mail. The time was between one and two o’clock in the afternoon, and we were met with unbounded generosity. He ordered for us two cups of tea with mint. After a light conversation, he excused himself to leave for a few moments. When he left, someone, probably the waiter, came to inform us that Choukri went to sell a book in order to pay off the cost of the cups of tea we had drank; A small price which we were able to pay. The insistence on sincere generosity remained with Choukri throughout his life, but he would select those on whom he would bestow this care and generosity. The thing he hated most was the hypocrisy of the flatterers—Those people had no place in his gatherings or companionship because he could sense that they were hypocrites whose only aim was to exploit him and his generosity.

JE: How was your relationship with the author?

MB: My relationship with the author was characterized by affection and sincerity, and also admiration for his sense of humor, kindness, and self-education which allowed him to overcome many challenges, especially in the field of writing through which he succeeded to prove himself. Our relationship remained in this way until he passed away. Whenever he visited Rabat, he came to my house, usually accompanied by the critic Mohamed Berrada. Then, some of our closest friends would join us if we stayed up in my house or Mohamed Berrada’s house. Likewise, the poet Muḥammad al-Ashʿarī[2] and the two journalists for the al-ʿlam newspaper, Muḥammad al-ʿArabī al-Massārī and Abd al-Jabbār al-Suḥaymī, would also invite Mohamed Choukri. 

The decade of the eighties was filled with enjoyable encounters and sleepless nights in the company of Choukri. He used to visit us in Rabat, bringing cassettes of his favorite and beloved music. I vividly remember him singing his favorite tunes in a passionate and impeccable way (Laila Murad and Muḥammad Abd al-Wahāb).[3]

During my visits to Tangier, I would look forward to spending time with him. I was the one who arranged his first meeting with Mohamed Berrada at cafe La Porte in the mid-seventies. Berrada admired Choukri’s personality and was fascinated by the extent of his talent, rebellious life, and his hatred for social hypocrisy. These attributes led to a very strong friendship between the two.  Berrada was armed by his status as the president of the Union of Moroccan Writers and a well-known Arab critic, and it was him who contributed, albeit indirectly, to Mohamed Choukri ’s fame. He introduced him to Tahar Ben Jelloun who was also instrumental in the publication of some works outside of Morocco.

JE: If I asked you to talk about the author Mohamed Choukri, what could you say?

MB:  It is very difficult to reduce Choukri’s life to a few words. He was a multi-faceted person: romantic, short tempered, and self-loving with a high self-esteem. When surrounded by friends he liked, he would laugh hysterically. In him there was a mixture of spontaneity, adventure, and shrewdness. He was not malicious, and he believed in what he wrote.

JE: Do you believe that the hard life that Mohamed Choukri lived enriched his literary experience? Or was it attributed to other things?

MB:  Many have lived more miserable and difficult lives than Choukri without producing any literary works. Other aspects of his life are believed to have contributed to Choukri’s literary career. First, there is his natural intelligence and talent. Second, the miserable childhood conditions (his difficult relationship with his father) he experienced. These were the conditions that determined his unwavering energy and motivation.

Another reason that could be attributed for his literary career is his realization of the importance of education as the only way out of misery and homelessness in the streets of Tangier.

Some circumstances in life are beyond rational explanation. It is true that life experiences play an essential role in the writers’ literary narratives. Literature, nonetheless, is a realm of creativity, imagination, and conceptualization of different worlds and structures. Choukri combined these elements in a unique language and style that were the result of his insatiable readings.

JE: Mohamed Choukri’s work has been associated with Paul Bowles, what is your opinion about the nature of this relationship?

MB:  I do not have any specific facts about Choukri’s relationship with Paul Bowles, except for what I heard from him and others. In my opinion, it was a friendship that went through many phases. In the first phase, they were companions in their consumption of alcohol, drugs, and nightly parties. Second phase was marked by Bowles ’discovery of Choukri’s literary talent and his ability to create and narrate strangely appealing stories. It was a relationship based on their love for literature and personal benefits. However, they grew apart for several reasons.

First, their friendship became worse merely for personal reasons. Choukri became famous in Morocco, the Arab World, and beyond. He believed that he was Bowles’s peer, and he stopped giving him his share of royalties for For Bread Alone. The Tangier author gained popularity due to his writings and financial gains attributed to the publication for For Bread Alone and its translation to many languages. In short, if Choukri rejected the authority of his dad, how would he accept living under the guardianship of Bowles?

Second, Choukri’s fame became prominent as he was distancing himself from Bowles and leading a more meaningful life. When Choukri severed his personal ties with Bowles, he realized that he had been exploited by Bowles. It was a natural change. Though, it was the American author who awakened and incited Choukri’s literary talent.

JE: What was the status of Choukri’s works in Morocco and the Arab World?

MB: In terms of the value of Choukri’s works, the critics would be the ones to answer. Choukri’s writings range from autobiographies, short stories, memoirs, plays, in addition to his interviews and literary readings on the radio. All these literary productions have to be considered when his literary career is evaluated. 

JE: What has made Choukri’s work gain an international popularity?

MB: Choukri’s fame reached its zenith. While he achieved a worldly fame beyond the country of his origin, his life received the undivided attention of people and readers who have admired his self-education, his overcoming of miserable circumstances, and his patience with his terminal disease. His legendary reputation was prominent both in his life and after he passed away.

I believe that his difficult upbringing, abject poverty, homelessness, self-education…are things that contributed to his fame. His talent facilitated his success and eased his obstacles.

One might make a special mention that the translation of For Bread Alone into French and its subsequent wide circulation immensely contributed to the success of the writer. If it were not for this translation, Choukri’s work would have remained unknown, similar to his fellow countryman, Mohamed Zafzaf, who is a talented author, but only known within his country [Morocco]. Choukri benefited immensely from this publication and the attention it received from the media.[4] This early success encouraged him to continue writing and not be subsumed in the realm of fame. 

Jonas Elbousty is a writer and a literary translator. Email: j.m.elbousty@gmail.com; Twitter: @JElbousty.

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[1] An old coffeeshop in Tangier where Choukri used to spend the majority of his time in the 1960s.

[2] He was a former minister of culture in Morocco, and he is one of the recipients of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF).

[3] They were two prominent Egyptian singers.

[4] In 1980 and after the publication of the French translation of For Bread Alone, Mohamed Choukri was invited to one of the most well-known French TV show, “Apostrophe,” which was televised in Paris. In this show, works of literature were discussed by inviting authors and literary critics. This TV appearance assisted in Choukri’s popularity outside of Morocco.

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