[”A Profile from the Archives“ is a series published by Jadaliyya in both Arabic and English in cooperation with the Lebanese newspaper, Assafir. These profiles will feature iconic figures who left indelible marks in the politics and culture of the Middle East and North Africa. This profile was originally published in Arabic and was translated by Mazen Hakeem.]
Name: Mohamed Choukri
Known As: The White Blackbird
Date of Birth: 1935
Place of Birth: Village of Ayt Chiker, Nador province, northern Morrocco
- Born in 1935 in the village of Ayt Chiker in the Beni Chiker countryside, norther Morrocco. It is in the province of Nador near Tétouan. In 1942, when he was seven years old, Mohamed Choukri migrated from the countryside to Tangier along with his family in pursuit of work.
- His father had been a soldier in the Spanish army but deserted it. He was reported and jailed in Tangier for two years. After his release, he remained unemployed and addicted to gambling.
- His mother was forced to sell vegetables and fruits in the markets of Tangier to support her child.
- In his childhood and adolescence, he was illiterate and homeless in old Tangier. He lived in Souk Dakhel, Al-Kasbah, and Souk Al-Hawari and often accompanied alcohol and drug addicts. He sold newspapers in cafés and restaurants.
- In 1952, he witnessed the start of the resistance in Tangier which called for the evacuation of the French and the Spaniards. After the end of the mandate on 30 March 1952, he participated in the movement while still seventeen years old.
- In 1956, after independence, he got the opportunity to study in Larache, a city in the north of Morrocco, for four years and a few months. He returned to Tangier to continue his studies.
- While he studied Arabic and Spanish at school, he spoke French fluently despite not studying it.
- After his return to Tangier from Larache, he worked as a teacher in a public school. Then he moved to new Tangier.
- Starting in 1966, he started publishing his literary work in a number of Arabic, American and British literary magazines, including the Lebanese magazine Al-Adab.
- His first novel was the biographic classic For Bread Alone.
- This novel was the reason behind Mohamed Choukri’s fame on a global level and also on the Arab level. His name remained associated with it despite the fact the he continued to published many works after that.
- Although For Bread Alone was originally written in Arabic in 1972, its first publication was not in Arabic. It was first translated by the American writer Paul Bowles who lived in Tangier at the time and had a good relationship with Choukri. Hence, it was first published in English in 1973. After that, the novel was translated into French and thirty-eight other languages.
- In 1980, Choukri was invited to France to talk about his novel on French television in a program called "Apostroph." This was the first time he left Morrocco. During the interview, Mohamed Choukri was keen to show the irony between the life of poor Moroccan children in Morocco and Western children in colonizing countries.
- In 1982, For Bread Alone was published in Arabic. When published, this novel caused an uproar in Morocco and the Arab world because of the audacity of the confessions it contained, as it included explicit sexual content. Choukri also presented a clear description of his relationship with his father and his feelings towards him. The novel was prohibited in Morocco and many Arab countries, including Egypt where it was removed from the syllabus of the American University in Cairo in 1998 by the university board after it had been previously included.
- In the late eighties, Choukri published the second part of For Bread Alone, which was a novel entitled Al-shouttar (published under two titles Streetwise and Time of Errors). This novel did not receive the same rejection and prohibition as For Bread Alone.
- In the early eighties, Choukri earned a partial retirement and devoted himself to writing.
- Excelled in the radio domain through the programs he prepared for the local radio station in Tangier, which were called “Choukri Speaks.” Starting in 1994, they were broadcast every Saturday morning on Medi (Radio méditerranée internationale).
- In addition to his literary ingenuity, Choukri was also famous for his singing talent. He had a distinct warm and attractive voice. According to the critic Hasan Al-A’shab, Choukri had memorized Mohamed Abd Al-Wahhab’s songs and would sing them often.
- When he fell ill in 2002, King Mohamed VI sponsored his treatment expenses at the Military Hospital in Rabat.
- Died of cancer on 16 November 2003.
- After his death in 2004, his novel For Bread Alone was turned into a film by the Algerian-Italian director Mohamed Rachid Bin Al-Haj. It starred the French actor of Moroccan descent Saïd Taghmaoui who played Choukri’s role.
Critique of Mohamed Choukri and His Works
Mohamed Choukri’s critics ranged from those who criticized his writing style to those who appreciated his innate talent that stemmed from a childhood of misery and homelessness and those who defended his disgraceful style.
The Moroccan writer Hasan Al-A’shab, who published “Mohamed Choukri as I Knew Him,” attributes the explicit audacity in For Bread Alone not only to Choukri`s style and bitter experience but also to the impact of the novel’s American translator Paul Bowles. According to Al-A’shab, the novel bears the imprint of an American writer who rephrased it as an artificial artistic work in order to portray a scandalous style “so that the book gains the admiration for the audacity of the ‘illiterate’ writer`.” Al-A’shab resembled Choukri to a vagrant.
A number of writers and critics studied his writing from an anthropological approach. They analyzed the relationship between the characters that Choukri focused on and the city of Tangier and put that relationship in a colonial context. Yihya Bin Al-Waleed did in his book Destroying the Colonial System, Mohamed Choukri and Foreign Writers. In this book, he studied Choukri’s writing and brought to light his relationship with colonial powers, in all forms, in order to destroy the colonial infrastructure.
Some writers, including Ahmed Al-Hilli, saw that Choukri’s books write the history of the life and suffering of a neglected class. It is also a verbal account of the daily life of the lower classes in Tangier. The Iraqi writer Ahmed Al-Hilli, conducted a study in 2012 surrounding his book Streetwise, which is often considered a sequel to For Bread Alone.
Articles about Mohamed Choukri and His works
Death Claims the Life of the Moroccan Novelist Mohamed Choukri
Mohamed Choukri and His Relationship with Tangier’s Foreign Writers
Choukri the Bukowski of Morocco. Was He Out of Tune?
The Curse of For Bread Alone Follows Mohamed Choukri to His Grave
The Alcoholic Guardian … "Life Full of “Sins”
Tangier’s Legend, Mohamed Choukri, is Still Alive on the Tenth Anniversary of His Departure