For Bread Alone
Many books are easily forgotten whereas some sear the impression of their words and the stories they relate deep into the folds of your memory. That memory may be short or long after the reading of these latter books, but those books will never be forgotten.
Ferocious is the one word I would use to sum up Mohamed Choukri’s picaresque memoir For Bread Alone. The ferocity of the writing is the first thing that struck me. Then there is the hunger in it, as well as the concision. And the distillation of his rough experience, and the lack of all pretense and needless squandering of space or energy in an effort to evoke any effect at all.
In his introduction to his translation of For Bread Alone Paul Bowles says of his friend:
It has been my experience that the illiterate, not having learned to classify what goes into his memory, remembers everything. This too is a technique. Total recall is like perfect pitch: it means nothing in itself but it can be extremely useful to the writer who uses it professionally. It seems almost a stroke of luck that Choukri’s encounter with the written word should have come so late, for by then his habits of thought were already fully formed; the educative process did not modify them. As a writer, then, he is in an enviable position, even though he paid a high price for it in suffering.
The effectiveness of Choukri’s writing is a result of his distillation of thought and experience through a sieve of only partially articulated yearning, it is a result, precisely, of the selectivity of his memories combined with the hunger and ferocity of those memories. Rather than an ability to remember everything Choukri displays an ability to relate via perfect pitch those memories that tortured and remained with him. In the end it was Choukri’s will to live, and not only survive, but eventually, when circumstances finally permitted it, to evolve, that made him the artist he became.
The hunger and ferocity in For Bread Alone are always—but never merely—literal. And this hunger and the ferocity of the young Choukri’s longing are directed primarily towards two ends which are not entirely separable: food and sex (touch, warmth, love and affection really, though sex alone will often do).
The story of Choukri’s life—of his exodus from the Rif mountain village where he was born to the coastal cities of Tangier and Tetuan—begins with the unexplained death of an uncle and a hunger that made him suck his fingers so much “that the idea of doing it again made me sick to my stomach.” His mother assures the child that he won’t be crying for bread anymore, once they get to Tangier. But this doesn’t turn out to be the case, and along the way the first of his siblings to die as a consequence of the family’s poverty is buried and left beside the long road.
Page after page is thereafter dedicated to and filled with scenes and anecdotes of the young Choukri’s efforts to nourish himself in every way. One day he finds a dead hen and brings it home, thinking his mother will be pleased but instead she scolds him, telling him that humans don’t eat carrion. And yet, many years later, he will be so desperately hungry that he will try to eat some of the dead fish that he finds on the wharf and envy the scrawny harbor cats that can not only chew on these carcasses but—unlike him—swallow the rancid meat and avoid vomiting.
To say that Choukri’s father was abusive is to deprive the notion of abuse of any real meaning. Instead Choukri relates in graphic detail the way his father beats him and his mother and yet cowers and cries for help the one time that a couple of Choukri’s street urchin friends come to his rescue when Choukri is attacked by his father in Tangier. In one of many similar incidents his father hits him with a stick for no reason at all:
I stumbled and fell. He pounded me with the stick, and I yelled. As I continued to walk ahead, he prodded me in the back. The stones under my feet were pointed, and I was walking through nettles. He hits me and curses me aloud, and I do the same to him secretly. Without my imagination I should have exploded.
Choukri’s reliance upon his imagination for survival is not only key but indicative of the writer he will become. As a boy he was capable—when starving—of watching a man eat a sandwich and imagining that he himself was chewing the bread and meat. Choukri slept more often on the street than at home, though he was sometimes employed. In every circumstance he did what he could to get by and keep going.
Soon after arriving in Tangier he discovered the hashish derivatives kif and majoun as well as wine. And not long after that the pleasures and comforts of prostitutes.
I found Choukri’s description of his sexual coming of age to be very accurate, poetic and moving. He is hiding in the fig tree of his employer (stealing the figs for himself) when the daughter comes to bathe:
The sun has already appeared. The circle of red on the shining white mist of the sky was like an egg that had been broken onto a blue plate. The animals and birds and insects have begun their morning praise of Allah. When a donkey brays, its sound drowns out the songbirds, doves and roosters. She is undressing. Asiya, she is taking everything off. Her pyjamas slide down like a curtain falling. She’s all undressed. Asiya, she’s naked. Asiya’s naked. How bright she is! Full breasts, their points protruding. Below, black hairs outline a triangle. My trousers are too tight. They hurt in front. She takes two slow steps towards the tank. My discomfort in front grows worse and worse. Her long hair covers her from behind. She stoops over, and I am afraid she may break in two. Now her hair falls forward over her shoulders and no longer hides her back. Below the point where her white flesh divides there is a slight darkness. My mouth tastes as though I had been eating honey, and every part of me itches. My nipples ache and my trousers hurt. A sweet seizure, a feeling of release, and then delicious relaxation. I’m going to fall out of the tree. I almost fell. She still hesitates, then she steps into the water. The stone steps are slippery. I am afraid she may fall. I worry. She looks at the water and all around at the orchard. She scoops up water to her armpits and lets it run down. She lets it run over her breasts, and splashes a little between her thighs. Then she pours it over her head and jumps in.
This voyeuristic experience is followed by several pages describing the development of Choukri’s sexual instincts. And this excerpt is indicative of so much in the quality of his writing. The sensuality, the slippery stone steps; the imagery, the broken egg on the blue plate; the forthrightness, the discomfort of his erection; the visual eagerness and insinuation, that slight darkness between her white legs; and his tender concern for the object of his desire coupled with his blatantly physical wanting of not only her but all women, for Asiya was to become for the young Choukri the standard by which he long measured other women he encountered or even ‘had,’ once he started paying for sexual favors.
At the age of twenty-one Choukri went to school for the first time in order to learn to read and write. Eventually he became not only a teacher but a writer in a language—Classical Arabic—that was not the language of the experiences he suffered and relates in For Bread Alone.
In order to translate For Bread Alone out of the Classical Arabic it was written in—a language Paul Bowles did not know—and into English, the book had to be ‘reduced’ by Choukri into the ‘Moroccan Arabic’ that Bowles did know. After that the two writers used French and Spanish to ascertain shades of meaning. “Although exact,” says Bowles in his introduction, “the translation is far from literal.”
Far from literal perhaps, but distilled to the point of essence. A piece of essential writing you will not forget.
Photo By Unknown – World Digital Library, CC BY-SA 3.0, https://commons.wikimedia.org/w/index.php?curid=26919000