15 July 1935, Bni Chiker, Nador Province, Oriental, Morocco
15 November 2003, Rabat, Rabat (Prefecture), Rabat-Salé-Kénitra, Morocco
Mohamed Chukri (Berber: Muḥemmed Cikri, Arabic: محمد شكري), born on July 15, 1935 and died on November 15, 2003, was a Moroccan author and novelist who is best known for his internationally acclaimed autobiography For Bread Alone (al-Khubz al-Hafi), which was described by the American playwright Tennessee Williams as “A true document of human desperation, shattering in its impact”.
Choukri was born in 1935, in Ayt Chiker (Ayt Chiker, hence his adopted family name: Choukri / Chikri), a small village in the Rif mountains, in the Nador province, Morocco. He was raised in a very poor family. He ran away from his tyrannical father and became a homeless child living in the poor neighborhoods of Tangier, surrounded by misery, prostitution, violence and drug abuse. At the age of 20, he decided to learn how to read and write and became later a schoolteacher. His family name “Choukri” is connected to the name Ayt Chiker which is the Berber tribe cluster he belonged to before fleeing hunger to Tangier. It is most likely that he adopted this name later in Tangier, because in the rural Rif family names were rarely registered.
In the 1960s, in the cosmopolitan Tangier, he met Paul Bowles, Jean Genet and Tennessee Williams. Choukri’s first writing was published in Al-adab (monthly review of Beirut) in 1966, a story entitled “Al-Unf ala al-shati” (“Violence on the Beach”). International success came with the English translation of Al-khoubz Al-Hafi (For Bread Alone, Telegram Books) by Paul Bowles in 1973. The book was translated to French by Tahar Ben Jelloun in 1980 (Éditions Maspero), published in Arabic in 1982 and censored in Morocco from 1983 to 2000. The book would later be translated into 30 other languages.
His main works are his autobiographic trilogy, beginning with For Bread Alone, followed by Zaman Al-Akhtaâ aw Al-Shouttar (Time of Mistakes or Streetwise, Telegram Books) and finally Faces. He also wrote collections of short stories in the 1960s/1970s (Majnoun Al-Ward, The Flower Freak, 1980; Al-Khaima, The Tent, 1985). Likewise, he is known for his accounts of his encounters with the writers Paul Bowles, Jean Genet and Tennessee Williams (Jean Genet and Tennessee Williams in Tangier, 1992, Jean Genet in Tangier, 1993, Jean Genet, Suite and End, 1996, Paul Bowles: Le Reclus de Tanger, 1997). See also In Tangier, Telegram Books, 2008, for all three in one volume.
Mohamed Choukri died on November 15, 2003, from cancer at the military hospital of Rabat and was buried at the Marshan cemetery in Tangier on November 17, with the audience of the Minister of Culture, numerous government officials, personalities and the spokesman of the King of Morocco. Before he died, Choukri created a foundation, Mohamed Choukri (president, Mohamed Achaâri), owning his copyrights, his manuscripts and personal writings. Prior to his death he provided for his servant of almost 22 years.
Mohamed Choukri was born in the Rif more precisely Had, Bni Chiker during a famine, in a poor family with many children and a violent father. His mother tongue was the Riffian (a Berber dialect). Because of poverty, his family migrated to Tétouan and then to Tangier. As a child Choukri survived thanks to a variety of jobs, serving in a French family in the Algerian Rif, or guiding sailors who arrived in Tangier, where he learned Spanish. His life was surrounded by prostitutes, thieves, smugglers and especially a tyrannic and violent father. Choukri accused him of murdering his young brother, Kader, as well as his wife. After a family dispute, he left his family at the age of 11 to live in Tangier. There, he was a homeless child, a petty burglar, an occasional smuggler and a prostitute. At the age of 20, he met someone who changed his life.
Learning how to read and write
He met someone who helped him learn how to read and write Classical Arabic, a strange language for him, and different from Moroccan Arabic and Berber which he spoke. He decided to leave Tangier in 1956 (year of the independence of Morocco) and went to Larache, entering a primary school at the age of 21. He entered the Ecole Normale and became a schoolteacher. Back in Tangier in the 1960s, he continued to go to bars and brothels and began to write his personal story in Arabic with explicitness and detail. His explicitness about some of his sexually tinted experiences was largely condemned by religious and conservative forces in Morocco and abroad.
Choukri grew to literary fame through his daring writings and his association with American writer and composer Paul Bowles, who lived in Tangier for decades. Bowles and Choukri worked together on the translation of For Bread Alone in 1973, and Bowles arranged for the novel to be published in England by Peter Owen.
Censorship of For Bread Alone
For Bread Alone became an international success when published in English, but the book also caused a furor in the Arab world. When the Arabic edition emerged, it was prohibited in Morocco, on the authority of the Interior Minister, Driss Basri, following the advice of the religious authorities. It was said to have offended by its references to teenage sexual experiences and drug abuse. This censorship ended in 2000, and For Bread Alone was finally published in Morocco. In 1999, For Bread Alone was removed from the syllabus of a modern Arabic Literature course at the American University in Cairo taught by Dr. Samia Mehrez due to some sexually explicit passages, prompting some observers to criticize the “ban” and blame government censorship. The incident was preceded by the removal by order of the President of Egypt, Hosni Mubarak of Maxime Rodinson’s book Muhammad, the banning of that book and the instructor of that course was not rehired. While some blamed “intimidation from Islamist militants, which the government does little to prevent,” in fact, the Egyptian government engaged in book banning in that period on a wide scale. Dr. Mehrez was threatened with sexual harassment proceedings and expulsion, the book “For Bread Alone” was examined by parliament, and the academic and literary community largely supported her use of the novel through a letter-writing campaign.
Mohamed Choukri believed he had secured that which was most important to him: a posthumous home for his literary work.
His last will and testament, in which he left his entire estate to a foundation that was to be run jointly by five presidents: “After Choukri’s death, this document disappeared without a trace,” says Roberto de Hollanda, who was the author’s literary agent for many years.
Securing his literary legacy was of the utmost importance to Choukri, but the promises that were made to him were not kept: “The decision was whether to give it to a European or an American university or whether to entrust it to a Moroccan institution,” the literary agent explains.
Mohamed Choukri chose the Moroccan option. For one thing, he was afraid that the government might stop funding his expensive cancer treatment if he gave away the rights to his work to a foreign entity. On the other hand, it would also have been particularly shameful to have given them to one of the countries that had formerly colonized and oppressed Morocco.
Ali Zaoua: Princes of the streets, a film by Nabil Ayouch, telling the story of a homeless child, is an adaptation of For Bread Alone, despite a less shocking atmosphere.
For Bread Alone was adapted to cinema by Rachid Benhadj, in an Italian-French-Algerian production in 2004. It starred Said Taghmaoui among others. The film premiered at the first edition of the Festival of Casablanca in 2005.
When I arrived, there were two Tangier : the colonialist and international Tangier and the Arabic Tangier, made of misery and ignorance. At these times, to eat, I compered the garbage. The European ones preferably, because they were richer.
I cannot write about the milk of birds, the gentle stranglehold of the angelic beauty, grasps of dew, the cascade of lions, the heavy breast of females. I cannot write with a crystal’s paintbrush. For me, writing is a protest, not a parade.
I saw that writing could also be a way to expose, to protest against those who have stolen my childhood, my teenage hood and a piece of my youthfulness. At that moment, my writing became committed.
There’s, in the Moroccan society, a more conservative faction. Those people judge my works as depraved. In my books, there’s nothing against the regime. I don’t talk about politics or religion. But, what annoy the conservatives, is to notice I criticize my father. The father is sacred in the Arabic-Muslim society.
- For Bread Alone, 1973.
- The Tent, short stories, 1985.
- Time of Errors, also called “Streetwise” 1992.
- Jean Genet and Tennessee Williams in Tanger, 1992.
- Jean Genet in Tanger, 1993.
- Madman of the Roses, Short stories 1993.
- Jean Genet, Suite and End, 1996.
- Paul Bowles, le Reclus de Tanger, 1997.
- Zoco Chico, 1996.
- Faces, 1996.