In 1973, Paul Bowles, shortly before the death of his wife Jane, translated an autobiographical novel by the Moroccan writer Mohammad Shukri, whom he had met in the mid-1960s. In English, the book was called For Bread Alone, although in the original it was called “Al-Khubz al-Khafi” – “Bare bread”. Published in Great Britain, the book became a sensation – descriptions of Moroccan poverty, deprivation and street violence, already familiar to English-speaking readers from the works of Bowles himself, this time were transmitted with the strange innocence of a direct participant in the events, an inhabitant of the very bottom of life, which Shukri was. A few years later, the book was translated into French (returning the title close to the original – Le Pain Nu) by Tahar Benjelloun, one of the most famous French-speaking writers in Morocco, after which it gained worldwide fame: at the moment, “Naked Bread” has been translated into more than forty languages. Russian is no exception. At the end of 2019, literary critic and orientalist Olga Vlasova published her translation of Naked Bread in the Ridero electronic publishing system, which, of course, no one paid attention to. Nobody except us.
As Bowles, who knew the Maghreb countries well, notes in his introduction to For Bread Alone, Shukri’s poverty was exceptional even by the standards of colonial Morocco. He was born on July 15, 1935 in the small Berber village of Ay-Shiker in the Rif Mountains in the north of the country. When Muhammad was still a child, his family, fleeing hunger and poverty, went first to Tangier, where their situation remained almost unchanged, and then to Tetouan. Due to his father’s cruelty, Shukri runs away from his family and returns to Tangier, where he leads the life of a street child, facing daily poverty, violence, prostitution and drugs. At this time, he sleeps on city streets, squares and cemeteries, works as a shoe shiner, waiter, peddler of fried fish, begs and steals food from small street vendors. All this will later serve as material for “Naked Bread” and other works of the writer:
“I no longer cared about the disposition of people, neither women nor men. In the winter I spent the night near the bakery. I curled up and pressed myself against the warm wall opposite which was the stove. When I woke up in the middle of the night to change my position or go to urinate, I saw a whole flock of cats around me. I liked the rhythm of their breathing: slow and measured, like the distant noise of some factory. I liked to hear someone’s sad voice coming from afar. The sounds of melodies from the cafe reached me: sad and beautiful – Ismakhan, Umm Kulthum, Abdelwahab, Farid al-Atrash …
They were my favorite Arab singers. “
In cruel and limited conditions, the boy early discovers his own sexuality, which logically leads him to numerous city brothels. Then Muhammad is given to an old European man for money and the threat of being involved in prostitution hangs over himself, which was not uncommon for Tangier at that time (not to mention the terrible situation of women, who, as a rule, had no choice at all).
Having matured a little, Shukri begins to engage in smuggling – one of the most profitable and dangerous crafts of the Moroccan beggars. At the age of twenty, for some unknown reason, he ends up in prison after the anti-colonial protests of 1956 (in which he does not take direct part, but witnesses the harshness of the French authorities towards the protesters), from where he is soon released, after which he makes the most fateful decision in his life – the decision to learn to read and write (which, in fact, ends with “Naked Bread”).
Indeed, it is surprising that one of the reputedly key Moroccan writers of the second half of the 20th century was illiterate until he was twenty. Nevertheless, this is indeed the case. For five years, Shukri not only learned to read and write in Arabic and Spanish (while literary Arabic was not Shukri’s native language, Morocco speaks his Maghreb dialect), but also began to write poetry and stories. In 1966 he made his debut in print: Shukri’s story “Rape on the Beach” was published in the prestigious Lebanese magazine “Al-Adab” (“Literature”). The talented work attracts the attention of the editor-in-chief of the publication, the famous Arab writer Suheil Idris. He contacts Shukri and helps the aspiring author develop his literary skills. He, in turn, writes more and more: the stories “The Network”, “Motherhood”, “Vomiting”, the anti-militarist story “Bald Trees” and others are published; later they will be included in the collection “Obsessed with Roses”, named after the story of the same name, also included in it. At the same time, Muhammad meets with famous Western writers living in Tangier, which after the Second World War became a real literary Mecca.
So, since the mid-1960s, Muhammad Shukri has personally met Paul Bowles, William Burroughs, Brion Gysin, Samuel Beckett, Tennessee Williams, Jean Genet and others. Future classics of the Western radical Now we can talk about the literary fate of the book, which turned out to be no less difficult than the fate of its author. So, the above-mentioned simplicity of the narrator so confused the French publishers that they did not dare to consider “Naked Bread” literature, and Shukri – a writer (for all the rapid development of the “new novel” in France at that time). Apparently, it was much easier for French intellectuals to get rid of formal restrictions in literature than to get rid of colonial prejudices. The Moroccan writer and critic Ahmed al-Madini wrote about this: “What made you turn to this ‘phenomenon’? After all, an interview specially organized for television and articles in the French press about this autobiography are not connected with the work of the writer. The point here is the discovery of a “strange creature” who came from the “third world”, this “apostle” of the urban poor of ancient Tangier. The Maspero publishing house published the book not in a literary series, and Tahar Benjelloun did not say a single word about Muhammad Shukri as a writer, he spoke of him only as a man who rebelled against injustice … A legitimate question arises: who is the deceiver and who deceived? Which laws are stronger: the laws of the capitalist market, requiring “sensations”, or the laws of literature? “
But the French, unlike the compatriots of the writer, at least had the opportunity to read the book. After success in Europe, Shukri publishes Naked Bread in Morocco in 1982 with his own funds. A year later, at the insistence of the country’s religious elite, the book is personally banned by the Minister of the Interior Driss Basri (the ban on its publication will last until 2000): from their point of view, disrespectful attitude towards father and God, as well as descriptions of violence, teenage sex and drug use were unacceptable in fiction. That is, from childhood, the writer found himself, as it were, between two fires: on the one hand, European colonialism, which created a monstrous social stratification between the motley international zone (created by the French authorities in 1912) – the haven of fugitive White Guards, Nazi criminals and adventurers of all stripes, where trade flourished drugs, smuggling and prostitution – and in rural areas of the country, where hunger and poverty reigned; on the other hand, the religious fundamentalism of the local corrupt authorities interested in preserving the existing status quo.
Even after Morocco gained independence in 1956 (which was largely an initiative from the “top”), society was not ready to change the situation of the countless army of beggars, or to liberate women, or to create the institutions necessary to fight the colonial legacy. Muhammad Shukri understood perfectly well where he lived, and the authorities refused to see the main thing in his book – the unwillingness of the street child to put up with his humiliation and poverty, his desire for self-awareness and dignity, which for Morocco of its time was much more transgressive than plain descriptions of teenage sex and drug use, which it was hardly possible to surprise any of the citizens of the unhappy country. “Naked Bread” was a protest, not an outrageous one. Moreover, the very existence of the book in Arabic proved that the seemingly hopeless situation could change if at least one learned to read and write. The authorities, while reading the book, saw only their own reflection, the consequences of a vicious and corrupt policy.
Mohammed Shukri died of cancer on November 15, 2003 in a military hospital in Rabat. At the end of his life, he was most worried about the fate of his literary heritage. The writer hesitated whether to bequeath it to Western institutions or Moroccan, but was forced to choose the Moroccan option out of fear that the government might stop funding his treatment in a military hospital. On November 17, Shukri was buried in the Marchand Cemetery in Tangier, attended by the Minister of Culture, government officials, Moroccan celebrities and a spokesman for the King of Morocco.