Book Review: A painful but resilient story of one boy’s life in Morocco

The poverty, the abuse and the destitution depicted in the book are fiercely real and crushing.
Updated 20 February 2018
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Book Review: A painful but resilient story of one boy’s life in Morocco

“For Bread Alone” is a window into the poverty-stricken life of author Mohamed Choukri and into the heart of Morocco’s multifaceted political and cultural evolution. Translated into over thirty languages, and even censored in Morocco for nearly 20 years, Choukri’s autobiography, which was translated into English in 1973, is a tragic story of poverty, uncertainty and instability. Choukri, who died in 2003, was one of the Arab world’s most widely acclaimed authors after learning how to read and write at the age of 20. This story is a painful but resilient account of life in Morocco.
It is an autobiographical account of Choukri’s early life as a child from a small village in the Rif Mountains who had only known poverty and abuse. The reader first meets him during the “great exodus of the Rif,” when “there had been no rain, and as a result there was nothing to eat.” Young Mohamed is traveling with is mother, father and baby brother Abdelqader to Tangier on foot. Tired and hungry, the boys cry for bread, bread that is abundant in Tangier, his mother reassures him. But once he arrives in Tangier, he does not see as much bread as his mother promised him. “There was hunger even in Eden, but at least it was not a hunger that killed.”
To avoid the abuse of his father, a soldier in the Spanish army who deserted, Mohamed stays out of the house and his hunger keeps him on a constant search for food. In Tangier, the garbage dump offers more options than elsewhere. But ultimately, as a powerless child, Mohamed must go back home every night to a father who does not work and one who abuses his children and wife relentlessly. One day, Mohamed’s father’s anger billows and he kills his son, Abdelqader who had been crying because of hunger. After that day, Mohamed has to be convinced to come back home. He fears his father and his hatred for him grows. His life entails unimaginable poverty and cruelty. It describes a desperate and destitute life that claims more victims than can escape.
After his brother dies, Mohamed’s mother begins to look for work while his father is imprisoned when the Spanish army finds him. He is gone for two years, much to Mohamed’s delight. His mother, however, comes back home disappointed every night when she cannot find work. Mohamed feels for his mother and asks her “why doesn’t Allah give us our good luck the way he gives it to other people?” His mother replies, “he knows much better than we do, and when he wants us to know, he’ll tell us.”
Even from childhood, Mohamed is conscious of himself and the world around him. He hears the neighborhood boys talking about his family, the Riffian family who they say are criminals. He has been aware of his poverty since childhood and he realizes that in this position there will always be people who have power over him. He does not understand why his family’s circumstances are the way they are while others seem to be doing better.
Mohamed’s family then moves to Tetuan, his mother gives birth to a baby girl and begins to sell vegetables in the street, and his father returns from prison but refuses to work, sitting in the garden talking with wounded veterans of the Spanish Civil War. Mohamed begins to work at a café but his father takes his wages every month. “He was using me, and I hated him for it, as I hated everyone who used others in this way.” At only 12-years-old, Mohamed begins to drink wine and smoke hashish with the patrons at the café. He then loses his job due to the drinking and drug use.
Mohamed moves through a series of other jobs but leaves each one. His father tells him if he does not work he cannot stay in the house, and so Mohamed begins to sleep anywhere he can. Life on the street is tough for him. He sees thieves and people being abused and he is fearful, but there is fear at home as well.
Even after his father tries to settle him in Oran, Algeria, with his aunts and uncles, Mohamed becomes restless. Continuing to drink and smoke, his aunt asks him why he makes so much trouble. He tells her, he “lives everything that’s wrong. Those are the best things.”
He is a defiant young boy. He has seen desperation in life. He has witnessed unimaginable pain and experienced insecurity since birth. He returns to Tetuan and then Tangier and thus begins his life of thievery, drinking, drugs and visiting brothels. He sees his parents rarely, only wanting to see his mother. “My love for her is bound up with my hatred for him,” he says in the book. Of the children that are born after him, only his sister survives while the other eight succumb to illnesses.
As time moves on for Mohamed, so does it for Morocco. It is the early 1950s and independence is on the horizon. Once he ends up in jail for drunken and disorderly behavior, Mohamed’s friend teaches him to read and write classical Arabic. It is then that Mohamed decides he must change his life. He realizes the empty relationships he tries to make something out of are nothing. As a man of little money, his life is constantly on the move, for the next meal and for the next job, and he needs to settle.
The sentences of the book are short and choppy, as if they are relaying the memories of a child. The poverty, the abuse and the destitution depicted in the book are fiercely real and crushing. Choukri’s story, his life and his resilience is moving as he recalls a childhood and upbringing that is devastatingly difficult. Everything and everyone is treated like an object in the book, because they are only as good as they are useful, or they are discarded and disregarded.
A survivor and one who goes on to become a teacher, Choukri’s life is a little like the colonial history of Morocco. When your own history is not in your hands, when the present nor the future is of your will, one must do what one has to do. The past can be vicious, but the future does not have to be once you gain control and do what must be done.


Book review: ‘Where the Bird Disappeared’ is a tale as old as time

Updated 22 September 2018
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Book review: ‘Where the Bird Disappeared’ is a tale as old as time

CHICAGO: Taking a leaf from the real-life stories of Prophet Zakariyya and his son Yahya, Palestinian poet and writer Ghassan Zaqtan’s “Where the Bird Disappeared” is a beautiful yet haunting novel set in the village of Zakariyya, in modern-day Palestine.
Inspired by Qur’anic stories and political history, the novel talks about the relationship between Zakariyya and his best friend Yahya who not only share their names with the two prophets but bear a distant resemblance to their personalities and fates as well.
Zaqtan’s narrative is lyrical, heartbreaking and profound. Rooted in Palestine — a land that stood the test of time and would go on to become the hub of early and modern civilizations — the story is captivating enough to transport us to the hideaway monastery in Nuba Karam or the vineyards of Beit Jalla, the new homes for several villagers forced into exile.
Recalling the devastation and violence faced by those migrating from their homes and country, Zaqtan’s ability to take his readers through the same mountain paths and into the soul of his characters is a cause for applause. As Zaqtan writes of his central character, Zakariyya, “he felt he was walking inside a book, stumbling inside stories that had circulated in these hills since his birth. Journeys and names repeating themselves in succession without end.” And while the novel succeeds in digging deep into the annals of history, it also makes the reader realize how much impact the land of Palestine has had on the two characters and the various stories generating from the region.
Zaqtan’s tale is gentle enough to etch out images of each village, street or ancient structure that make the story and yet devastating enough that these get lost in the bigger picture. His brilliance lies in how conscious he is about the words used, while never losing sight of the historical context of his narrative or the love of the central characters for their beloved land.
Ghassan Zaqtan is an award-winning Palestinian poet, novelist, and playwright. He first published “Where the Bird Disappeared” in Arabic in 2015. It was then translated into English by Samuel Wilder and published by Seagull Books in 2018.