The first time I met Mohamed Choukri was when we ran into each other late in the summer of 1972 on the rue Pasteur in Tangier… He was holding a large dog by the leash and walking with spontaneity through a crowd. I had just read a text by him in the magazine Literatures and heard news filled with exaggerations about his personal life. We promised each other to meet in the evening; what drew my attention in the course of our conversations, which lasted late into that night, was that Choukri was the farthest thing from the image that his admirers gave of him; he was self-possessed and dignified in his dialogue, rational in his arguments, bold in his criticism of what he read. He wasn’t closed off about the “legend” of his past, rather he was open-eyed to his present and was living as close as possible to the complex and fleeting reality in its fluctuations and I liked that he didn’t cancel out his identity by talking and hiding behind literary expression to which many of the intellectuals resorted.
During that meeting, the bonds of friendship began to be woven between us and I was convinced that Choukri’s life experience and writing merited to be known and read and that they were different from the writing and experiences of our other colleagues. For this reason, I initiated, in 1977, the printing of a part of Naked Bread [translated by Paul Bowles as For Bread Alone] in the magazine Horizons, of which I was chief publisher and invited him to a conference on the Arabic novel in Fez (1979) and brought the manuscript of Naked Bread to Dar al-Adab, Beirut, which later issued an apology for publishing it because of its audacity.
The most important thing in all this is that the dialogue between myself and Choukri continued during other meetings and then through letters, because I found in him an interlocutor close in spirit, characterized by spontaneity and sincerity. And it seems to me that probably I was wrong that Choukri needed someone to remind him of the necessity to continue writing for the futile resistance to the environment in which he lived. Though, while I reread the letters now I find that the urgings are also a kind of reminder for myself that writing is more important than the political or cultural activities with which I was fettered with before.
I believe that letter-writing responds to very intimate moments in which we feel the desire of revealing, disclosing and reflection with an elevated voice, though unfortunately our tradition of correspondence between fellow creators and friends is small, if not non-existent. Thus, I prepared, and with me, my friend Choukri, to publish this correspondence, which spans the years between 1975 and 1994 and might illuminate some of the details of this time and the throes of our labor, and perhaps they draw out different features not expanded upon by the creative text. We hope that the reader will find in these correspondences of rose and ash that which elevates a kindred spirit, for these letters and postcards are wrapped in the center of a whirlpool of excitements and surges and spontaneity; and perhaps the rose alone is not beautiful and charming, for ash also involves a process of extinction that cannot be avoided, and a kind of veracity and the fascination of death.
– Mohamed Berrada
My dear Choukri,
Since we parted I have been thinking of writing to you, but writing letters to friends isn’t easy work, for it is also writing, meaning “the absolute,” and that which requires expectancy, conception, and delivery. And it is precisely this last point where problems await me. I write so many things in my imagination, or just before sleep, in one go, without words, or with extremely intense words that express everything at once, as a “bulk” of emotions or meandering thoughts… Day after day writing projects develop but something delays them, hides them in the memory, or hangs them from the tips of my fingers… And I don’t think there is anything more harsh than this state: The feral desire to write followed by a shrinking away from impediments real or imagined. For we become who we are not or who we want to be through practice and writing. The schism between our learned selves and our expression (which is like a complementary part of consciousness and understanding) adds this feeling of farce, futility and rupture to our life. This means nothing since life, as such, is protected from nihilism, however, as for those who write or paint…in the absence of the regular practice of expression there is but a surrogate cipher that deems and attributes values, rendering life even more impossible… and even if the artist or writer always falls back on drinking and the intoxication of forgetting, nonetheless this feeling of anxiety haunts us.
The solution is simple (theoretically): What is left to us except to write regularly…except that the charge is more difficult than we imagine: the environment in which we live and the lack of order in our lives and the lives of those around us make us hostages of this chaotic mist. What we need is to declare a “state of emergency” so we can sequester ourselves and write until we have squeezed out all that is inside of us, then we can return to practice and observation!
Oh the artist cannot be separated from the fundamental truth of his essence, or misery and discord will reign, for the states are linked, as Nietzsche said: “Deviens qui tu es” [“Become who you are”].
Probably you understand perfectly from these words that I write little, and this is a miserable state, for I am up to my eyes in meetings and lesson planning, while adventures are transient and impossible, and when I remember my literary projects, then despondency seizes me… because a slew of terms and conditions keep me far from realizing my dream… moreover, I become bored every night, just before sleep, after I turn out the light, such that I flashback and write in my imagination, which grants me warmth in the chilly, hollow world.
My dear Choukri,
I think of Tangier constantly and I think of you and I hope time will allow me to travel to you, for your city grants us a vision of breaking free and liberation from shackles. I hope that you are writing regularly as you promised and that you are keeping to your slogans for this year: writing against triviality, against madness, violence, and parasitic, vile falsification… for writing, in the end, gives us a special kind victory over all of the aspects of our society and our world that we reject.
Please pass my greetings to your friend the Spanish poet Junio? and to the beautiful night-world of Tangier.
A small note: Why don’t you send us four copies of your resumé so that we can include it in the final product that we have now seen through and that we are planning to publish. The branch in Fez is not legally allowed to print periodicals…They just notified us…
Until I see you or hear you, or read you, greetings and longing.
Dear Brother Bey Choukri
I read the chapter that you gave me from your perfumed biography (from Naked Bread) and I found it interesting and full of human images. I think in principle–before arriving at the bottom of the vessel–that nothing will prohibit the book from being published in Morocco. Secondly, the director of the agency “Orient Paris” (an Egyptian settled in Lebanon) visited me and proclaimed his readiness to published Moroccan works, but unfortunately I don’t have your complete biography.
If you can send me the rest of the chapters then I will work–and put forth my best effort–to publish it here or in the East.
I suggest eliminating the words written in Rifi Berber; it suffices just to say, he said in Rifi, meaning…
In hopes of seeing you or reading you, I send my greetings to Tangier and her lovers, and I send my greetings to al-Majdi, of whom I keep fond memories from our last meeting.
Ibn Batouta High School
About an hour ago, Ms. Samira paid me a visit. She gave me your marvelous letter, and your overcoat, which is cut to my size. Thank you, rather, pardon me, you are above gratitude!
Samira found me hacking a violent cough to such an extent that I was forced to absent myself from her multiple times in the kitchen to take spoonfuls of pure honey and sedatives.
The year is still young, however, it is sinister if you ask me. For disturbing things have happened to me such that I contemplated suicide several times last week. I am writing you my letter while I eat carrots dipped in honey and steamed over water vapor. On the gramophone, I have Beethoven’s 5th Symphony and cigarettes (Mini Casa) and I’m drinking “Les vieux papes.”
You see, it is a mixture that mitigates tension’s intensity. The important thing is that you have flowers (orange blossoms) in your mind when and even if you do not know their name. This is the meaning of what you have said in your letter: “There are many things that I write in my imagination.”
In my novel Zoko Chico I have a sentence where I say : “In my mind there are flowers without names and names without flowers…”! I am very aware of that to which you have encouraged me in your letter, only there is a difference between your being aware and applying that of which you are aware. Complacency: It is a word more horrible than my cough!
During the first week of last month, I went to Tetuán to visit my family. My mother was sick, spitting blood, and my father suffers from asthma, but he is fighting his illness. My brother Abel-Aziz (25 y.o.) has millions that he made from his business, however he is miserly when it comes to the family despite his good comportment. He spends all his money on customs agents and the police as it was recounted to me. I earn 880 dirhams. I give a hundred or a hundred fifty. I almost spit in my father’s face when I heard him say about me: “He wears a sissy coat” (meaning a mini-overcoat), and he has satan’s beard, and nappy hair. You will say that these are simply things of no particular importance that a father says of his son, but it is ignoble.
Sometimes I think that creativity becomes an honest game and the life of its friends loyal lying….
I just put on the gramophone now music from Zaire called Bella Bella Zamba. A forest or field as one young Senegalese man who studies in the institute of tourism in Tangier told me. It is music that makes you feel merry in your body: an explosion of Dionysian happiness. I read a few medical books about food and spirits recently. I will now descend upon you from the sky of Rabat, only I hope that I will not be like Icarus, who did not heed the advice of Daedalus.
(Mallorca) (New Pavillion)
This is my twelfth day in the hospital. I am now writing you from Nipon Café. Doctor al-Ja’idī lets me leave and enter when I want. I don’t know any of the people sitting in this monumental café. In the past I worked here as a dishwasher when I was not more than 11 or 12 years old.
Inside the hospital, I walk aimlessly and alone or sit with one of the patients and he tells me the tragedy of his life. Rarely will you hear beautiful memories here. And even if you hear one, it is always mixed with morbidity. But where are the pure, beautiful memories?
The thought of writing has started to invade me in this hospital. When I get out of here I will try to change my life for the better. In Tetuán I don’t find anything that tempts me and I stay in the hospital or I sit in this café drinking coffee. Oh for our supple arabic tongue! I write what I want of errors and Arabic grammar finds justifications for them.
I come here around 10AM. I enjoy the clarity of my strange mind. I haven’t had any alcohol since my admittance into the hospital. My brother Abdelaziz visited me. He is married and has three ankle-biters! He lent me 50 dirhams. The hospital bread isn’t enough for me. My isolation is too much when the blackbird whistles its song or when the owl hunts its meal. I will remain here until 77-12-21. Then I will go back to Tangier to resume my work provisionally until I can take advantage of my vacation without a leave of absence. On the next day I will return again to the hospital for the remainder of my vacation.
Oh but we age badly in this land. They are a calm people, sleeping with their eyes open, mute before speech and ineffective before silence.
My health has improved under the care of Doctor al-Ja’idī. Please write him a thank you letter on my behalf if you are able. You see, I write you the particularities of this period of my life. I write you almost completely drugged with Tranxene.
Truly, I also suffer from the asthma from which Layla suffers, though my asthma is neurotic and not organic.
Did you receive the manuscript of my autobiography from Sahīl Idrīss?
Mallorca (New Pavilion)
Good morning. Take everything from me and don’t leave anything. I woke up in the hospital around 5 in the morning. I strolled in the corridor of the pavilion smoking cigarette after cigarette.
Yesterday I received Mohamed al-Mimūnī in Café Nipon. We wandered in the street. My roots have wings this morning. It doesn’t matter if and when they are the wings of Icarus. I get lost in Daedalus’ mazes if and when I find my way out with Ariadne’s thread. I don’t even dread the fiery look of Medusa. Examples of “zub” for weaknesses. The Perfumed Garden for Onan (s). 11:15. I’m going to the hospital. My regards to both you and Layla.
Mallorca (New Pavilion)
I woke up this morning around 5. The patients were sleeping. I stayed in my bed. The door of my room stayed open. The faint light entered from outside. I ate an orange then smoked a cigarette then another and started to read the novel Tiempo de silencio by psychiatrist and literateur Luis Martín-Santos. I read thirty pages before the patient with whom I share a room woke and turned on the radio to listen to different stations. He likes classical music. This suits me well. He smokes like me. I am not in possession of a clock. He has one. This is my fourteenth day in the hospital. I don’t feel any boredom in staying here. I will go to Tangier tomorrow to return after tomorrow as I told you before. I hope that Layla is improving her respiration.
The days of my mental breakdown in ’64 I tried to swallow 20 capsules of the barbiturate Libirium. I wasn’t able to swallow more than five or six capsules when the owner of the Spanish hotel entered my room and saved me. I don’t remember how I was succored. The time is now 10 o’clock and 10 minutes… I am reading a poem by the Spanish poet Il defonso Manuel Gil
The spring of all:
The people were thirsty
And there was no more than one spring there
The spring has no owner
The waters were for all
For all of the people
But the flowing water copied the clouds:
a child was contemplating it.
Give my greetings to Layla. And you, take everything from me, and don’t leave anything. I won’t go back to drinking my glass and pour the rest on my head while walking and dancing in a circle, catching the drops falling freely from it onto my tongue with the scent of my hair.
The Unfortunate Mohamed Choukri
Mallorca (New Pavilion)
The time is now five minutes to 10. I woke up in the hospital at five in the morning. I ate two oranges and smoked my first cigarette then relaxed reading The Time of Silence. I also have Love Story Rabik Seghal. I spend most of the time strolling in the hospital scrutinizing the faces of the patients and paying attention to their words and their delirium. I drink a lot of black coffee inside and outside of the hospital. I no longer feel the pressure of my desire for alcohol. The care of Doctor Mohammed al-Ja’idī is still agreeable to me.
I hope that Layla’s health has already improved. I know the “Asthmatics.” They are very nervous. Keep flowers, perfumes, high elevations like mountains and other places far from her. Chamomile solution will benefit her every night or verbena or onion juice mixed with honey for it contains seventy minerals and one of them is good for asthma. Take away anything in the bed made of wool. And let her breast be raised when she is waking if she is laying down or sleeping.
How I wish to be far away in a land where no one knows me so that I can make my first friend again, first enemy, have my first job I have never practiced before, such that there is no end of firsts.
4 Tolstoy Street
Apt. 18. Tangier
I’m writing to you from my bed. I came back to my apartment at 5 PM. It is now 9. I dined on carrot, onion, artichoke, olives, and Arab cheese. I drink what remains of the wine and chase it with cognac. I’m listening to Brahms.
Moments ago I finished revising my story “The Impossible”, which I wrote in ’67 and rewrote in ’70.
Now I’m listening to Leo Ferré : (“Cette blessure” and “Avec le temps”)
The mouse here of which I spoke earlier wanted to be friends with Mohamed Zifzāf. I was living in the basement on Rableh [Rabelais] Street. Zifzāf loved sleeping in the big kitchen. The mouse loved playing hide-and-seek on the face of the sleeping Zifzāf. Zifzāf got fed up with this hide-and-seek. He rose many times screaming, begging me to kill it. I grabbed a baton and hid from him in a corner of the kitchen and sleep overcame me. Zifzāf was sleeping with a towel on his face. The mouse appeared sensing danger but unafraid. I wasn’t able to kill it. A skinny thing! It was beautiful and poor. I don’t know what happened after that! The mouse stopped coming. Probably he perceived something through his mouse wisdom.
I’m making progress in copying the stories that aren’t yet typed by typewriter. I chose 18 stories. I tore up the other ones. Two of them are published: “The Dog Seller” in the magazine al-Adab in ’69 and “The Fetus that Didn’t Stir” in the magazine 2000, which Abdel-Jabīr al-Sahīmī published. I also tore up the novel The Night and the Sea, which I wrote in ’66. I saved a chapter of it. I will change it into short stories with the same title. Does a person disguise himself even from himself? Yes, and until he dies.
I cleanse myself. Books sleep with me. A habit that I acquired many years ago. Reading and writing in bed. I am rereading The Thief’s Journal by Jean Genet in French and Spanish. I am reading Nadja by Breton, The History of Science by George Saturn, Poets of the Modern School by M.L. Rosenthal, the magazine The World of Thought (the special issue on Time), and Love Poems at the Gates of the Seventh World by Al-Bayātī. I am drowning in reading, but the feeling for writing doesn’t invade me for the moment. I am returning to café Roxy or Eskima.
2:30PM after our phone call
During my last trip to the Soviet Union I read a book of criticism titled “Tolstoy or Dostoevsky” by the British critic G. Steiner, it left me with fertile suggestions and awakened me to those two giants, one of whom I was interested in before (Dostoevsky) and the second about whom I had constituted only a superficial judgement… and now I am returning to read some of their works and to some critical writings about them (what Lenin wrote, and Gorky), and I found that the Russian Novel in the 19th century merits a greater interest because it takes us out of the cocoon of the European “realist” novel and its limited ordinances that seek to understand a dynamic of “constitutional” capitalist society through rationalist perceptions.
Here in Tolstoy, we find a return to the novel–epic, extended, vast, interested in sensuality and the body, seeking to understand what is greater… and in Dostoevsky, we find a renaissance for the Greek Tragedians without need of theater. Is it true that they were preoccupied by the question of “god” only? Or did the matter go beyond to the quintessence of life. Including the hunt for “the living” in the never-ending contradictions, and in the “dialectic of spirit” as far as the expression that Nashivsky indicates (the writer of the novel: What is the work?)…
I find myself thinking about our Moroccan literature. It makes me think that there is something big we are missing on this point, a missing foundational pillar that makes all of the writings hang in the air… it’s necessary for us to search out our native soil (un sol natal), which makes all our works reach into the past and into the future through a “bet” on a native soil that is not interpreted by reason alone, nor by numbers and statistics, nor ideological analyses.
The kind of thing that allows Anna Karenina or Crime and Punishment or The Wretched to command a loftiness more resistant than all the “foundations” before the revolution and after it, that revolution that was a historical necessity.
I wanted to involve you in these thoughts that ring in my brain through the resplendent noonday light, on a sunny day in the middle of autumn, in a society that seems incapable of any real initiative.
P.O. Box 179
I strengthened your name with a u and an n this time, and in contrast, I bought a pen with sharp teeth to refine my words. I’m writing to you from Grion Bar. I am its only patron now (ten minutes past nine in the morning). The avenue seems devoid of passersby but there are many cars. The seats acquire an existence in front of me since they fill my imagination. I will try to conquer my desire to drink each day. My hands shake every morning and sometimes I can’t even hold the bottle sometimes. “She bore a man and it wasn’t me/I wasn’t he.” That’s what the poet of al-Hambra said. I don’t want to be like him. I struggle so that existence can be more supple within non-existence until it becomes the absolute of the binary which doesn’t congest where it almost makes contact and doesn’t meet. I am drinking a small glass of wine and this bar doesn’t provide food except at the table. I bought two apples. I like what the lover of the blade and the wound said:
Au fond de l’inconnu pour
trouver du nouveau. [To the bottom of the unknown to/find something new.]
My novel Zoko Chico–which I am rewriting–will be the best of the play Happiness. What I wrote will grow slowly. The nest of the raven is the bulk that grows fast. In this bar I have my own corner like the turtle. A gentle breeze sways the branches of the tree in front of me. The eternity of longing knows nothing of waiting except what it has learned from those of the descendants of Ulysses and Penelope: the waves and the unknown isles, the surprise of the Cyclopes, the heroic death, swine enchantments, the heavenly nudity, the pubis of Astarte and a stock of the beauty of eyes. I don’t remember clearly now who merited this treasure, because the key is lost. It’s probably to be found in Aragon’s pocket, for Elsa began to tell her story to the dead stars. Loving of death is he who glorifies life. The waiter is now yelling and I am searching for silence in words. Maximum meaning in the fewest words. I don’t believe that “the cup saves me and the expression doesn’t.” Talent is laziness. After Buddha retreated from life and grew a stomach, he said: We are what we think.” Words are mine, they are not their own. My pledge to myself has made me what I am. An echo will remain of me. To each his own orbit. The blackest blackbird.