While Morocco’s mainstream literature in the post-independence era was largely characterized by the dominance of themes related to colonial resistance and the framing of a national identity, novels by authors like Mohamed Choukri (1935-2003) and Mohamed Zafzaf (1945-2001) were ahistorical, unconstrained, and unfettered.
Literature, and the novel genre in particular, is a mirror of society, reflecting its evolution, aspirations, preoccupations, challenges, and ills. When Morocco was under French colonial rule, the nationalist elite undertook anti-colonial resistance not only by the sword but also by the word. Many fervent nationalist writers waged an epistemic war on the colonizer through their fiction and non-fiction writings, believing that decolonization entails, first and foremost, the shattering of colonial narratives and the subversion of racist ideologies.
Decolonization entails, first and foremost, the shattering of colonial narratives and the subversion of racist ideologies.
Alongside armed resistance, these writers contributed greatly to the awakening of nationalist sentiments, thus lobbying more support for the resistance movement which ultimately led to independence. The theme of colonial resistance was so prevalent in the post-independence Moroccan novel that one critic declared: “they write one novel, they just change the titles.”
At a time when mainstream literature was in complete alignment with the nationalist ideology, which sought to establish a uniform Arab and Islamic Moroccan identity, Mohamed Zafzaf and Mohamed Choukri emerged as troublesome voices whose literature was profoundly disturbing to Morocco’s nationalist intelligentsia. These taboo-breaking authors departed from the main code of practice hitherto known in Moroccan literary circles and subjected the Arabic language to extreme violence through their explicit depiction of sexuality and queer experiences.
When Mohamed Choukri wrote his acclaimed novel al-Khobz al-Hafi (For Bread Alone) in 1972, it was banned in Morocco, and it remained proscribed until 2000. The literary memoir, whose English translation by the American expatriate author Paul Bowles appeared in 1973, is an autobiographical picaresque novel recounting the journey of Mohamed, the protagonist and the author’s persona, who grapples with his harsh reality of destitution. His eight siblings die of hunger-related causes and his younger brother is brutally murdered by his ruthless father for his constant crying for bread.
The family decides to leave the Rif region for Tangier in search of a better life, but the city falls short of their expectations, and Mohamed’s ordeal worsens. His father’s cruelty prompts him to live on the streets of Tangier where he undergoes all sorts of delinquency such as homosexuality, pilfering, drug abuse, begging, and smuggling. At the age of twenty, he discovers the magical world of letters and starts his journey towards literacy by learning to read and write, marking a major turning point both in the plot of the novel and the life of Mohamed.
What made this work controversial upon its publication was its adoption of social realism and its uncompromisingly forthright depiction of taboo topics. In it, Choukri graphically discusses sexuality to a largely conservative readership who was unfamiliar with the roguish and bold prose of the novel.
When Mohamed first comes into contact with Fatima, his boss’ daughter, he becomes infatuated with her beauty, and keeps wistfully fantasizing about her in her presence and absence. He says: “Using the fire of my imagination, I found that I was able to undress her whenever I liked.” Later in the narrative, this lustful longing grows into physical intimacy that Mohamed explicitly describes. He states:
“One cold night I found my body warming itself beside hers, and she said nothing. We warmed one another and slid on top of each other, face over face, face under face. I slap her cheek to hear the sound it makes. I bite her so her blood will run out. I pretend to stab her, in order to hear the groan I had heard my mother make. And for the first time I understood that girls had something wonderful and delicious, and that, whatever it was, I needed it.”
This painstaking erotic experience, along with many others in the novel, stirred harsh criticism by Moroccan conservative voices, indicting Choukri of sexualizing and trivializing literature, which is, according to them, a pedagogical and educational realm par excellence. However, Choukri’s book is autobiographical, and the experiences he recounts are far from being fictional, as he repeatedly affirmed. “I am a person who lived homelessness. I have eaten from garbage bins and slept on the streets. What do you expect from me? Do you want me to write about butterflies?” He once stated.
Choukri’s book is autobiographical, and the experiences he recounts are far from being fictional.
What distinguishes Choukri’s autobiography from other classical and conservative memoirs such as Taha Houssein’s al-Ayyam [The Days], Ahmed Amine’s Hayati [My Life Story], and Abd al-Majid Ben Jelloun’s Fi al-Tofola [In Childhood] is its striking honesty as well as its rhetorical and lexical intrepidity in total disregard of Morocco’s cultural and religious institutions. It is a historical manuscript attesting to the predicaments of drought, hunger, death, family violence, prostitution, drug addiction, and other social ills in the period between 1935 and 1956 that mainstream Moroccan literature and official discourses chose to cover up for ideological and cultural reasons. For Bread Alone received international fame after its translation into more than 27 languages.
Choukri’s friend Mohamed Zafzaf is another example of an “undesirable author.” The nonconformity of his literature, especially in his Arabic novel Al-Maraa wal-Warda (The Woman and the Rose), which was published in 1972, was equally shocking to the Moroccan reader for both its subject matter and its lexical vulgarity. Zafzaf, who also comes from Morocco’s fringe social elements, rose as a prominent author in the 1970s to undertake the mission of speaking on behalf of the silent masses. According to him, a true writer is one who “remains attached to people’s lives – I mean the wide silent majority – to write about their aspirations and ambitions. In this way, he will get rid of his egotism.”
Zafzaf’s short stories and novels generally feature free and unrestricted characters who act and say whatever they want without conforming to society, a reflection of the writer’s own personality and life philosophy. His The Woman and the Rose, which remains to date untranslated into English despite its aesthetic and thematic value, recounts the story of Mohamed, the main protagonist, and his relentless quest for carnal pleasure, sex, wine, and drugs. Mohamed’s unquenched hedonistic desires and his agonizing sexual repression in Morocco pushed him to escape to Europe which he repeatedly describes as Eden in the novel.
The juxtaposition of Morocco and Europe with the former being “an encircled prison” and a “grave for the dead,” while the latter is paradise, brought Zafzaf harsh condemnation by many Moroccan critics who accused him of fascination with the West and denigration of his own country.
The binary divisive classifications of Self versus Other, and East versus West hitherto known in nationalist literature were shattered in Zafzaf’s novel. “The human race is one. Obstacles and border patrols mean nothing to me,” he says. Thus, when the protagonist initially sets foot in Spain, he expresses his ecstasy in palpable words:
“Oh my God! Long live Spain where I drink champagne, stay in luxurious hotels, and frequent the most expensive pubs. Oh God! Long live Spain where I manage, at this old age, to court a young girl who is beautiful, but poor. Long live Spain, long live Spain, long live Spain.”
In Spain, Mohamed meets Suz, a Danish woman, and embarks with her on unrestricted erotic adventures. He sees her as his savior from his prolonged sensual and psychological distress and speaks to her in his dreams as did “Moses to God.” By this allusion, Mohamed places Suz as the Goddess who came to his salvation. She tells him: “I am Suz, a woman from Denmark. We have old palaces full of rats, magic, and talismans, and I came to save you.”
Choukri’s and Zafzaf’s departure from the conventional themes made them not only pioneers but also paragons of the literary daring genre.
Unlike nationalist fiction, Choukri’s and Zafzaf’s novels feature singular and absurd characters who contemplate ontological aspects of their realities. For that reason, Ismail El Outmani describes their literature as “non-chronological, disorderly, and individualistic.”
The highly subjective themes of Mohamed Choukri’s and Mohamed Zafzaf’s literary works, and their unreserved and blunt depiction of sexuality made them targets for many traditionalist voices. This led to either the banning of their works in Morocco and the Arab world, or defamation and scathing criticism.
To both authors, literature is an arena for free thought and unlimited possibilities. The overdominance of ideology in the classical nationalist novel, they believe, was at the expense of the evolution of this nascent genre in the immediate post-independence Morocco. Therefore, Choukri’s and Zafzaf’s departure from the conventional themes, styles, and techniques opened the horizons for literary experimentation in Morocco and made them not only pioneers but also paragons of the literary daring genre.
 Quoted in: Ḥamdī Sakkūt, The Arabic Novel: Bibliography and Critical Introduction 1865- 1995(Cairo: The American University in Cairo Press, 2000), p. 117.
 Mohamed Choukri, For Bread Alone, trans., Paul Bowles (London: Telegram Books, 2006), p. 37.
 IBid., pp. 37-38.
 Mohamed Zafzaf, “Liqa’a Ma’a al-Katib al-Maghrebi Mohamed Zafzaf” [A Meeting with Moroccan Author Mohamed Zafzaf], in Al-Aqlam, N. 1. 1976. p., 133.
 Mohamed Zefzaf, al-Mar’a wal-Warda [Woman and the Rose] (al-Dar al-Bayda’e: al-Markaz al-Thaquafi al-Arabi, 2007), p. 76.
 Ibid., p. 93.
 Ibid., p. 74.
 Ismail El-Outmani, “Prolegomena to the Study of the ‘Other’ Moroccan Literature,” in Research in African Literature, Vol. 28, No. 3 (Autumn 1997), p. 110.