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The Melancholia of a Generation

[Cover of Mohammed Achaari, [Cover of Mohammed Achaari, "al-Qaws wa-al-farashah."]

Mohammed Achaari, al-Qaws wa-al-farashah. al-Dar al-Bayda’: al-Markaz al-Thaqafi al-ʻArabi, 2010.

Mohammed Achaari is not new to Morocco’s literary scene; though The Arch and the Butterfly (al-Qaws wa-al-farashah) is only his second novel, he is the author of nine collections of poetry, a collection of short stories, and has served as both Minister of Culture and president of the Moroccan Writer’s Union. The brief synopses that accompanied the announcement of his selection as one of two recipients of the 2011 International Prize for Arabic Fiction (popularly known as the Arabic Booker) for his most recent work inevitably focused on the novel’s connection to terrorism. The text’s opening line shows the narrator reading a compressed letter, presumably sent by an al-Qaida affiliate in Morocco, informing him in a single sentence that the son he had believed was studying engineering in Paris has been killed as a martyr in Afghanistan. The astuteness of Edward Said’s point that “the designation of a beginning generally involves also the designation of a consequent intention” remains, but the interpretation that the intention of The Arch and the Butterfly is of the same nature as that of novels like Yasmina Khadra’s Wolf Dreams and John Updike’s The Terrorist rests on a significant misreading.[1] There is little doubt that Achaari’s beginning is purposefully engaged in the production of meaning, but it is not precisely the meaning that has been widely asserted.

Divided between eight chapters, the novel is narrated primarily through the voice of Youssef al-Firsioui. In his fifties, he lives in the modern capital of Rabat, a member of the first generation to grow up in post-independence Morocco. Like much of the country’s intelligentsia, he is a former communist who spent three years in the infamous Derb Moulay Cherif prison for having once belonged to a Marxist group on the far left; his name had been given to the authorities by a fellow party member. Three of the book’s chapters, however, are told from the perspective of Youssef’s father, Mohammed al-Firsioui, a blind guide at the ruins of Volubilis near the holy city of Moulay Idriss Zerhoun. This gives the novel a historical scope that spans several generations, and in some respects hundreds of years.

It is the lines that immediately follow Youssef’s discovery of his son’s death that establish the text’s primary concern:

I was cast outside of myself so that I no longer knew how to break through the confusion that had struck me, to return to myself. When, after tremendous effort, I finally returned, I did not find anything. I had become another person, treading for the first time on empty ground.[2]

The trauma experienced by the narrator extends beyond that of mourning into a perpetual melancholia. The entertainments he enjoyed in his previous life cease to interest him and his once highly acute sense of smell vanishes altogether. He is pervaded by a general apathy so great that the ability to feel anything at all escapes him; simultaneously, he is afflicted by severe bouts of depression that occasionally result in the loss of consciousness. In frequent hallucinations, the specter of his son Yassin, in the physical form of an infant with the voice and cognitive abilities of an adult, appears at his side to either engage him in debate or offer chilling prophesies.

The moment of shock for which the letter is a catalyst serves as a trigger for something with deeper roots: the disappointed hopes of a generation of left-wing intellectuals. As Cathy Caruth has noted, often “individual trauma contains within it the core of the trauma of a larger history.”[3] Youssef al-Firsioui finds himself in a country he no longer understands as he watches society disintegrate around him, painfully aware of his own incapacity to do anything about it. When his estranged wife insists that they take action to prevent the government from appropriating her family’s land, he rejects her idea conclusively:

Don’t you see that even Palestine doesn’t rouse a single slogan anymore? Not Palestine, not the fall of Baghdad, not Hezbollah. Not a usurped land, not a crushed people...all of this and then some, it fails to stir anything in a person now, to make him take to the street and raise his voice...

In a conversation with his son’s apparition in which Yassin inquires about the friendships his father forged in the political circles of his youth, the narrator asks himself: “What has happened to us?” His friend Ibrahim, a lawyer in Casablanca, has gradually been destroyed by the societal rejection of his homosexuality, submitting, after the death of his mother, to the general surrender that ultimately “afflicted their entire generation.” On leave from her job in Madrid, Youseff’s colleague Fatima declares, after an encounter with a brazen example of corruption in Marrakech, “I will never return to this happy land. I can’t live in a place that I don’t understand.” Conversely, Mohammed Majd, Youssef’s friend from prison whose time in Derb Moulay Cherif exceeded his own, has become a real estate mogul, a chief participant in the real estate mafias that are pillaging the country. It is Majd’s apical achievement, the building called al-farashah (the butterfly), which gives the novel the second half of its title. Built in the heart of Marrakech and comprised of apartments of extreme luxury sold exclusively to foreigners, Majd has ignored the city’s construction codes, building to a height that blocks the view of the Atlas mountains: “The city is a city and the mountain is a mountain...why do some geniuses want to drink their coffee in the city and tour the High Atlas with their drowsy eyes?”

The choices for Youssef’s generation, then, are defeat, exile, or collaboration. As critic Mohammed Aslim has observed, the novel is thematically driven by a number of endings: “the end of utopianisms, the end of certainty, the end of the intellectual, the end of politics.” The concise observations the novel offers on some of the contemporary phenomena that threaten to overwhelm Morocco—uncontrollable capitalism, illegitimate speculations, destructive urban development with little regard for either aesthetic principles or any benefit to the great majority of the population—coalesce as an impotency internalized by the narrator. But there is a sense in which the trauma the novel depicts is also broader than this; collective and transgenerational, its roots can be found in the story of Mohammed al-Firsioui, Youssef’s father.

While with a group of tourists in the ruins of Volubilis, Mohammed al-Firsioui tells them, “We’ll start our real tour now, with the graves. Everything begins and ends with the grave. You can only understand a city well through its cemeteries.” This remark encapsulates his worldview; trauma for Mohammed al-Firsioui is referential, his own experiences repetitions of those that are historically latent, long forgotten by most. Originally from the Amazigh Rif in the North, his family moved to the area of Moulay Idriss years ago. The town itself is sacred, the first Muslim city in Morocco, settled by Moulay Idriss I toward the end of the eighth century. Al-Firsioui, as he is called in the novel, acquires his education in Frankfurt in the seventies, only to return to Moulay Idriss triumphant, wealthy and with a German wife. He immediately and systematically wreaks havoc on the town, as an act of vengeance on the ruling Shurafa’ whose ancestors had wrested power away from the Amazigh chiefs centuries before; Amazigh culture was, if not effaced, relegated to a clear position of subordination.

Just as Youssef al-Firsioui traverses the modern urban spaces that form the locus of what many consider to be the country’s schizophrenic development (in the novel, Rabat, Casablanca, and Marrakech), his father moves between the sanctified space of Moulay Idriss and the ancient ruins five kilometers outside the city’s borders. Built by an Amazigh Mauritanian king, Volubilis stands as a metaphor for Mohammed al-Firsioui’s dream of the reinstitution of a pure Amazigh lineage. He attempts to single-handedly rewrite history, creating a revisionist replica of the Roman mosaics for which Volubilis is famous in the hotel he built outside the ruins. In the style of the originals, his mosaic depicts his grandfather among mythological water nymphs; it also shows Muhammad Ibn Abd al-Karim al-Khattabi, the early twentieth-century Amazigh resistance leader, surrendering to a French officer, and al-Firsioui himself strangling two snakes in place of Hercules. He is a fantastically unreliable narrator whose frequent lies his son struggles to untangle; the contradictions of his ideological positions and insistence on unadulterated bloodlines are evident in his own choices.

Abdelhay Moudden has rightly noted that the novel does not provide an answer for the reasons hidden behind a terrorist act; it does not offer access to Yassin’s thoughts before he sacrifices himself in Afghanistan. The novel’s focus is elsewhere. By situating Mohammed al-Firsioui’s obsession with the excavation of the traces of a repressed or forgotten history next to his son Youssef’s immediate personal tragedy, the novel raises the question of the repetitive reappearance of collective trauma; it questions the origins of the crisis. Youssef states, “I came to realize easily that loss is not that which we have lost, but the feelings of impotency that remain within us to do something that we have not done.” While the reader understands the immediate causes of Youssef’s disillusionment, one of the novel’s greatest achievements is its engagement with the suppression of Amazigh culture, which prompts us to question the historical scope of the loss it describes. In the context of the modern Moroccan novel, it is Achaari’s attention to the country’s Amazigh roots, to a history that has been left out of the official record and only recently granted recognition by the new constitution, which deserves the notice of critics.

Notes

[1] Edward W. Said, Beginnings (New York: Columbia University Press, 1975), 5.
[2] All translations here are my own. An English translation is forthcoming: The Arch and the Butterfly, translated by Kareem James Abu-Zeid (Doha: Bloomsbury Qatar Foundation Publishing, forthcoming October 2012).
[3] Cathy Caruth, Unclaimed Experience: Trauma, Narrative, and History (Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1996), 71.

1 comment for "The Melancholia of a Generation"

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Wonderful article about a remarkable novel! Just a quick note to say that I'm not actually translating that novel (for various reasons, I had to back out of the project shortly after beginning it), and that none of the translations above are my own. I'm not sure who ended up taking on that project, but I don't want to take credit for someone else's work.

Kareem James Abu-Zeid wrote on July 31, 2012 at 07:07 PM

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