Tangier Speaks

A Reading in the Discourses of Some Tanjawi Writers

Tangier has been the site of representation as well as the source of inspiration for several artists and creative authors. The names of many writers—both Westerners like Paul Bowles and Moroccans like Mohamed Choukri—have become associated with this historic and legendary city. But whereas the Western artists often tend to exoticize and to Orientalize Tangier in many of their productions, the Moroccans tend rather to be much more realistic and authentic in their representation of it and the daily harsh realities of its residents. Some Tanjawi writers seem even to ‘write back’ to the West in a more or less conscious attempt to interrogate its misconceptions about the Moslems in general or to assert the dignity and the cultural identity of such an Oriental(ized) city as Tangier.

This paper aims chiefly to illustrate how Tangier is strongly present in the literary texts of a number of Tanjawi writers and how it often seems to speak for and about itself through such native authors. But in addition to this, the paper seeks also to touch upon an important related topic which consists in the fact that nearly all the writers to be discussed exhibit a heightned urge to self-expression and self-assertion —a characteristic that entitles them to function, metaphorically, as a ‘tongue’ whereby Tangier is able to speak and to assert itself. These writers are respectively: Mohamed Choukri, Mohamed Mrabet, Abdellatif Akbib and Zoubeir Ben Bouchta—the last couple being representative of the young generation of Tanjawi writers.

Choukri Speaks/Choukri Defies

The phrase ‘Tangier Speaks’ in the main title of this paper is deliberately intended to evoke and to echo the title of a famous radio programme—namely, ‘Choukri Speaks’ (in Arabic pronunciation ‘Choukri Yatahaddath’)—which the late Mohamed Choukri used to broadcast from the Tangier Radio Station. This programme dealt with various literary and critical matters; and among its distinctive features, one might cite the sharp appealing voice and the notably assertive and authoritative tone of its broadcaster: M. Choukri. Indeed, the latter’s commanding stance is inscribed in the very structure of his programme’s title which suggests not only that Choukri was capable of speaking about the subjects and issues he raised but also that one ought to listen to what he chose to say, as if a monarch or a wise man was delivering his discourse.

In the aforementioned programme’s title ‘Choukri Yatahadath’ (‘Choukri Speaks’) one can also read ‘Choukri Yatahadda’ (Choukri defies or challenges). As a matter of fact, the notion of challenge was quite vital and central to his whole career and in his enterprise as a self-made Moroccan writer and intellectual. This can be well understood if one takes into consideration the fact that Choukri could not get the opportunity to go to school until the age of twenty. Owing to the ignorance of his parents as well as their abject poverty, Choukri seemed to be fated to remain uneducated and illiterate, like countless Moroccans of his age and social background. But something within his adolescent self alarmed him suddenly and urged him to engage in a ruthless and defiant struggle against his hostile and uninspiring circumstances. As his friend Mohamed Berrada has remarked:

It was possible that Choukri could have stayed among those living-dead Moroccans whom society has condemned to marginality and exclusion, deprived of any chance to make their voice heard and to find a place for their discourses that are quite at odds with the official authoritarian discourses (...). Can we call it a coincidence, that sudden turn-about that led him to school at about the age of twenty?[1]

As if Choukri had suddenly become aware that he was endowed with a great literary potential, he immediately sought to enter the world of literacy by deciding to go to school. His next step was to read voraciously so as to learn how to deploy his artistic and critical talents. He himself reported in one of his books that reading was for him an obsessive and engrossing activity: “I used to read anything written: a loaned or stollen book, a written paper picked up from the ground (...). I was speeding up my learning process in spite of all my hard circumstances.”[2] At a later stage, Choukri was even able to meet and learn from the literary experiences of such illustrious writers as Paul Bowles, Tennessee Williams and Gean Genet. All these facts are highly indicative of how Choukri was consciously struggling not only to extricate himself from the cluches of ignorance and oblivion but also to assert himself as a writer and to give expression to his latent artistic talents. As Kevin Lacey has noted: “Choukri deliberately sought to be a writer of stories. He consciously and painstakingly studied how one might write in artful and distinctive fashion with maximum effect. He read voraciously with this goal in mind and gave deep thought as to how he might establish a unique voice as a writer...”[3]

Needless to say, Choukri managed in fact to establish himself as a writer with a unique voice and international standing. His autobiographical novel For Bread Alone was translated into more than fifteen different languages, and his other books also enjoyed nearly the same international renown. What generally characterizes these books—and most notably his autobiography—is the frankness with which he expressed himself and the kind of subject-matters he daringly dwelt on. Basing essentially on his own experiences, Choukri dedicated most of his creative energies to the demolition of a lot of taboos and the exposition of the ugly and deformed face of Moroccan society. Themes like deviant sexual behaviour, the taking of drugs and the bitter experience of life in Tangier’s underworld are predominant throughout his novels and short stories. In For Bread Alone, he even went to the extent of severely attacking his father, whom he saw as the symbol of harsh authority and blind injustice. And despite the sensitivity and the unprecedented quality of such taboo questions in Moroccan literature, Choukri did not hesitate to tackle them with stunning openness and complete avoidance of tarnished style or euphemistic expressions. Indeed, as Abdellatif Akbib has commented,

Choukri does not employ eupheunism: he calls a spade, and no power in the world would convince him to call it otherwise, not even the attempts to marginalize his work (...); his aim is to shock the reader into full awareness of reality as it is, not as the reader wants to see it. He wants the reader to take the bitter pill and taste its bitterness; Choukri is not the one to provide sugar coating.[4]

What is remarkable about all Choukri’s narratives is the frequent and conspicuous presence of Tangier, not only as a setting or inert backdrop, but also as a voluble protagonist whose voice reaches the reader through the numerous miserable and suffering characters who people these stories. Being himself the “man who devoted his life to writing Tangier,”[5] Choukri was in fact able to give us the feel of this city and the full significance of leading a marginal life within it. Unlike those Western artists and visitors whose relation with Tangier was based on sheer caprice and Orientalist desire, as he himself once remarked, Choukri was an ‘original’ settler of its underworld; and this fact really entitled him to be more sensitive than anyone else to the painful—and sometimes tragic— lives and fates of its residents.

Another remarkable feature of his narratives consists in their heavily autobiographical nature. The Moroccan critic Naguib El Oufi has noted in this respect that Choukri’s narrative books—including both novels and collections of short stories—constitute a single autobiography wherein each book sheds light on a specific period of his life in Tangier.[6] This autobiographical quality of his fiction can well be sensed through his frequent use of first-person narration. But even when the speaker or narrator is not Choukri himself, the reader is often given the impression that this author is drawing directly upon his personal life and experiences or those of the people who are—like him—the residents of what Mohamed Berrada has defined as Morocco’s “secret geography.” This is what makes of Choukri the spokesman par excellence of this marginal and officially uncharted ‘dirty’ space which is populated by countless suffering Moroccans—most of whom are destitute children, homeless and unemployed adults, prostitutes and the like. In bravely exposing his own miseries and those of such forsaken and downtrodden folks, Choukri can actually be regarded as an authnetic and subversively eloquent ‘voice’ whereby the identities of these silenced and marginalized Moroccans have been charted and rescued from unjust and systematic oblivion.

Mrabet and the “Struggle for Authorial Control”

Another Tanjawi ‘writer’ who equally managed to assert his voice and to speak on behalf of those poor, forgotten and oppressed Moroccans is Mohamed Mrabet. This fabulous man is not even a writer, in the proper sense of the term; for he is almost completely illiterate. He is rather a talented story-teller, whose success in publishing more than a dozen books is partly attributable to his collaboration with the American writer Paul Bowles. But was not Bowles a mere medium whereby Mrabet gave written form to the wide repertoire of oral tales that crammed within his memory or were conjured up by his rich and fertile imagination?

Whatever the answer to this question might be, the point that should be stressed here is that Mrabet, like nearly all gifted and self-actualizing artists, was bound to publish some of his narratives even without the help of P.Bowles. In fact, as Mrabet himself confirmed in an interview with Abdelaziz Jadir, even prior to his contact with this American writer, he had attempted to publish one of his long narratives in collaboration with another Westerner. This latter, who was assisted by a friend of his, actually managed to translate and type more than four hundred pages of Mrabet’s oral account. But when Mrabet realized later that he would get no money in return, he angrily reacted by burning the whole lot.[7] This incident is suggestive of not only how Mrabet was striving for self-expression but also of his great desire (perhaps an unconscious one) to assert himself practically as a real and recognized author, despite his illiteracy.

In his introduction to Mrabet’s Love with A Few Hairs, Brian Edwards has made the observation this Moroccan illiterate writer has often a tendency to “assert (his) authorial primacy” and “authorial control” in and through his written narratives. As a matter of fact, even while collaborating with Bowles, he managed to do so by “asserting his untranstability.”[8] This cultural untranslatability can be well sensed and perceived from the very titles which Mrabet chose for some of his novels and short stories like M’hashish, Hdidan Aharam, ‘Baraka’, ‘The Ghoula’ and ‘Behloul’. It is true that some of such titles are just proper nouns that refer directly to the protagonists’ names, yet it must be noted that these are names which are loaded with a cultural significance whose real or symbolic implication can hardly be grasped or appreciated by the Western reader.
In some of Mrabet’s texts, such untranslatable words or concepts are so foregrounded that one might find more than two or three in the same page. For instance, in the second page of his story entitled ‘The Witch of Bouiba Del Hallouf’ one reads sentences like: “Qaqo put his mother to bed and made her a little harira,” “There are no affarits any more,” and “Then he bought enough kif to fill his mottoui”(italics added).[9] In these sentences, the italicized words are really alien to the English language; and though some of them have synonyms in this language, Bowles seemed to be reluctant to use translated English words lest Mrabet’s tales could lose their sense of authenticity and local colour. One can even assert that Bowles was often so overpowered by the compelling and mesmerizing effect of Mrabet’s tales that he simply transcribed such words instead of attempting to translate them. What is more, Bowles seemed to be so deeply influenced by Mrabet, and the other Tanjawi storytellers, that he frequently found himself tempted to use their proper diction and to imitate their ways of thinking while composing his own narratives. Can this influence on Bowles be regarded as an effect of Mrabet’s counter-hegemonic resistance and his struggle “to assert authorial primacy”?

At any rate, this question of resistance and self-assertion is a major motif that features in many of Mrabet’s narratives that deal, directly or indirectly, with the cultural encounters between Moroccans and Westerners, as in the case of ‘A Woman from New York’, Love with a Few Hairs, and ‘What Happened in Granada’. In the latter short story, for example, Mrabet himself functions as the protagonist who engages in a series of incidental clashes with some Westerners during a short visit to Spain. Instead of feeling embarrassed or being at least calmly polite as a guest or foreigner there in Granada, he rather adopts a self-assertive and potentially counter-hegemonic attitude vis-à-vis all the people he meets there. For example, when he is offered wine during a family reunion, he decidedly refuses it in a conscious desire to stress his identity as a Moslem: “I don’t drink, I said. I’ll take a glass of water.”[10] And when he went into a Spanish café and is “frowned at” by all customers there in addition to being contemptuously served bad coffee, his reaction is described as follows: “I held up the coffee and poured it out so that it fell near my feet (...). I stood in the doorway, looked at everybody in the café, and laughed.”[11] Later on, when an English ethnographer asks Mrabet to provide him with some information about his native Rif region, he responds accusingly by saying: “I see. You’re writing a book (...) I can’t tell you anything (...). I’m writing a book about the Rif myself. I need to know some things too before I can finish mine.”[12] The story also dramatizes several other encounters wherein Mrabet’s attitude is much more openly aggressive and subversively self-assertive. Once, he even threatens an English lady by brandishing “an Arab sword” and saying to her angrily: “I’m going to finish you off. You and your race! [...] You’re only an English whore and I’m a Riffian!”[13] In another scene, Mrabet is surrounded by a crowd of protesting Spaniards who want to blame him for his reckless and dangerous driving of a hired car. His response is the following:

I yelled at them: I shit on your ancestors and your whole race! I kept walking along, pushing through them. Barking dogs don’t bite, I told them. A very fat woman came by. She called me a moro, and I called her a Christian pig.[14] (line space) In another scene, Mrabet even resorts to the Arabic language to insult some Spanish people by saying: “Inaal din d’babakum.”[15]

From all these examples one can see clearly Mrabet’s determined attempt to assert himself in the midst of what he apparently conceives as a hostile and alien Western environment. Being aware that he might be seen as Other or inferior while there in Spain, he himself indulges in adopting the challenging attitude of a “bad kind of Riffian- the kind that always looks for trouble wherever he goes.”[16] Even though such aggressive attitude is apparently not honourable or sophisticated, it remains strategically expedient insofar as it constitutes a sort of ‘response’ to the West’s traditional ethnocentric attitude towards its cultural Others. Whether consciously or not, Mrabet has created here a type of counter-hegemonic discourse whose importance and cultural significance resides in showing how ‘the subaltern can speak’ and assert his identity.

Akbib: The Crying Generations

It is in Abdellatif Akbib’s travel book Tangier’s Eyes on America that we can find a much more mature and sophisticated resisting discourse that consciously seeks to ‘write back’ to the West. Indeed, the book’s title is itself skilfully designed to underline this subversive and counter-hegemonic post-colonial attitude of the author. For if Tangier has been for a long time the object of the colonial gaze and the hegemonic cultural representation of many Westerners—both Americans and Europeans—now this city is significantly endowed with eyesight as well as with a voice by means of which it can actively engage in a kind of counter-discourse against its former representers. As a matter of fact, Akbib’s title indicates quite unambiguously that Tangier has already assumed the role of subject rather than object and that it is now projecting its scrutinizing ‘eyes on America’ (as well as on the whole Western world, by implication).[17]

Since the book is based on the author’s real visit to America in1999, the story of this cross-cultural experience is recounted entirely in first person narration, as is the case with nearly all travel books. But what is worth stressing here, insofar as the topic of this paper is concerned, is the fact that the narrator (i.e. Akbib himself) is functioning not simply as an individual traveller but also as symbolically the ‘eyes’ and the ‘voice’ of Tangier. Being himself a native of this historic post-colonial city, Akbib has responsibly taken it upon himself to operate metonymically as its tongue and as the spokesman of its long silenced and misrepresented citizens. So the counter-hegemonic voice or discourse that informs Akbib’s travel book is not his own, so to speak; it is rather that of the whole Tangier—a resurgent and decolonizing Tangier that has strategically and adamantly decided to speak and to assert itself through one of its conscientious intellectuals.

In many of Akbib’s short stories, as well as his novel Hearts of Embers, Tangier is also conspicuously present and throbbing with voices and actions. In his three collections of stories —namely, Graffitti (1997), Between the Lines (1998) and The Lost Generation (2000)—this city, along with its neighbouring villages and peripheries, constitutes the main stage and social background on which this author’s tales are dramatized. In most of these stories Tangier is referred to either directly by name or else by some of its recognizable locations like Malabata, M’Sallah, Gran Socco and Sour Meâgazine (or even, alternatively, through such suggestive words as plaza, the ocean and the Mediterranean). But even when this is not the case, the reader is often given the impression that this city is Akbib’s basic and central frame of reference, as it can be judged from such stories as ‘We are the Ones’, ‘T’Lata W’Dama’ and ‘One of Those Days’.

These details concerning the notable presence of Tangier in Akbib’s stories are mentioned here so as to draw attention to the way this city also seems to speak through the author in all the three collections. Just as Dublin has spoken through James Joyce in his Dubliners, or Ohio through Sherwood Anderson in his Winesburg, Ohio, so it can be said that Tangier has spoken through Akbib in most of his short—as well as his long—narratives. But how can the reader hear the voice or voices of Tangier through these narratives, and how can he comprehend and construe their meanings?

Though each of Akbib’s collections, not to say each single story, deserves a special study and close analysis, I might venture here to generalize and say that all these short stories combine to present us with the variegated graffitti forms and inscriptions that artistically seek to portray a harsh Tangerian—and, by extension, a harsh Moroccan— reality. It is, in fact, a peculiar and very symbolic type of graffitti whose total text requires a careful reading between the lines so that the reader can make sense of the complex problems and crises of Morocco’s lost generations. I say ‘generations’ in the plural because the characters who people Akbib’s stories range from lost babies and small children to suffering adults and helpless elderly man and women. Take, for example, the case of the numerous helpless illegitimate infants in the story entitled ‘Barren Fertility’, or that of the miserable children in ‘One of Those Days’—small and very hungry children who fight for a mouthful of bread under the scorching sun of the city (ironically, during ‘the International Day of the Child’). Take also the example of the young Abdeslam and the group of native youth who attempt to cross illegally to Spain but find themselves practically dying in ‘the middle of nowhere’; or the example of the older Ab’slam, whose sebsi and radio set are the sole objects whereby he manages to give some meaning to his deeply bleak, lonely and insignificant existence. In ‘When Men Cry’, we are presented with yet a much older protagonist who is mercilessly drained and agonizingly impoverished by an unjust educational system. After serving devoutedly and selflessly as a school-teacher for forty years, Si Allal retires from work and soon grows helplessly moneyless because of the irresponsible delay of his pension. After several months of vain and impatient waiting for his due, and after getting tired of his exasperating loitering at the streets and cafés of Tangier, he eventually dies “of a broken heart.”[18]

Underlying all these stories, and most of the other ones in the three collections, is a deep criticism of the policies and the socio-political institutions that are responsible for such miseries, injustices and endemic losses. This criticism is often mediated discreetly via a deep and pervasive sense of humour —a black humour that is highly expressive of the author’s inditing and sarcastic attitude. For instance, in one revealing scene in ‘When Men Cry’, Si Allal becomes aware that holes have started to appear gradually all over his clothes—including his shoes and underpants—and that he has got to mend all these holes as he has no money to buy new ones. The narrator comments sardonically as follows: “After forty years as a primary school teacher, he had to mend holes in his clothes to keep himself presentable! What a life! Why not turn into a seamster, then?”[19] Shortly afterwards, Si Allal seems to be faced with a little, but fantastic, crisis: he needs to sit at a café to seek shelter from the rain, but which one should be choose as there are countless neighbouring cafés in Tangier? To put it in the narrator’s words:

Which café? There is nothing in Tangier but cafés and cafés and cafés —and cafés. Between two cafés there is a café, and between this one and the next —another café. Building entrances have been turned into cafés. Flights of stairs too. Bookstores ... schools next. There is reason to be proud of Tangier. So much the better for its inhabitants: they have a panoply of choices, so there is no risk of boredom.[20]

From such a deeply ironical and sarcastic passage, one can see how Akbib looks critically at Tangier and its suffering population. Rather than exoticizing or idealizing this ‘magic’ and ‘dream city’—to use the words of Paul Bowles, who is among the many Western writers who have romanticized it—Akbib has conversely and subversively chosen to tackle its harsh realities and to make us hear the voice of its poor and downtrodden humans. This is Akbib’s typical mode of writing Tangier —a mode that is also suggestive and illustrative of how this city is, metaphorically, able to speak through this native author.

If we now proceed to Akbib’s novel Hearts of Embers, we canot fail to find again Tangier speaking to us —but in a method that differs a little from that of the short stories. If all the stories in the three collections can be visualized as forming a single polyphonic text or graffitti portrait wherein each story functions as a constitutive unit of a large mosaic design, the novel presents us rather with a kind of monologic film that coherently projects a series of inter-connected episodes from the life story of a tormented Tanjawi protagonist, named Said. This Tangerian identity of the central character, coupled with the fact that he is the sole narrator of the whole story from beginning to end, points forcefully to how Tangier is again both present and voluble in Akbib’s text. But what has Tangier to say this time; and how is its discourse articulated?

As has been just pointed out, Akbib’s novel is monologic in structure; which means that the whole narration is cast in the form of a long monologue, or snatches of monologue, during which Saïd makes a lot of confessions about his past experiences. The author has staged these confessions in a superbly coherent and closely-knit narrative, wherein events and psychological motivation are highly convincing. His main strategy consists in confining his narrator/protagonist to his deathbed in a clinic, where some last, but desperate, attempts to cure him from a prostate cancer are made. But since Said is keenly aware that his death is quickly approaching, he cannot help “communing with the past,”[21] as he himself puts it, and uttering all these confessions.

If one needs a clue to Said’s complex psychological situation, one should have recourse to Akbib’s story ‘The Middle of Nowhere’ and right towards its ending where Abdeslam is drowning. In the midst of his tragic crisis, we are told, “Snapshots of key moments in his life flitted in rapid succession through his mind, mingled with the picture of his mother and sisters awaiting his return from a successful journey.”[22] This is exactly the same situation which the protagonist of Hearts of Embers is facing. As Said lays dying, snapshots of his past life keep forcing themselves into his very active memory. As if he wants to free his conscience and to expiate the sins and burden of his accursed past, he readily gives full vent to his secrets and memories in such impassioned monologue that constitutes the entire novel.

Looked at from another perspective, one can affirm that Said’s life and fate are not much dissimilar from those of Si Allal, the protagonist of ‘When Men Cry’. Indeed, like this poor Tanjawi teacher, Said is another one of Akbib’s ‘crying men’ who has come to realize that all his life has been ‘wasted” and that he has “practically no foreseeable future to plan for.”[23] The only thing he is left with now is his accursed past and what he calls his “heroic defeat”, about which he feels a sore and irresistible “need to talk” just before his death.[24] But in speaking about his own bitter experiences, one has to bear in mind that the experiences of many other Tanjawi people are involved, and the history of Tangier itself as well as its geography are by no means out of the scene of all that is remembered. Hence the idea that Tangier is again speaking through the ‘tattoed memory’ and the embittered consciousness of Akbib’s narrator and protagonist.

As a matter of fact, Said’s past experiences are so intertwined with those of other Tanjawi residents that his personal history can be seen as a representative ingredient of the history of Tangier. Even if he is not a microcosm of the whole city, one can still get through him revealing glimpses at the life of Tangier and the daily activities and sufferings of its people. For instance, this narrator refers to such socio-historical matters as the suffering of the Tanjawis at the hand of the Spanish colonizers, the bitter disillusionment that came with independence, and the growth of what he calls the “parvenus culture”[25] among some residents of the city. Furthermore, the narrator speaks about the lives, fates or attitudes of a number of representative Tanjawi people like the prostitute Batoul, the upstart smuggler Abdelkrim and the corrupt and corruptive traitor Caïd M’Saffar, whose name is suggestive of his moral emptiness and spiritual bankruptcy. The stories, or rather the histories, of all such natives are inextrically connected with the narrator’s “cursed past”[26] —a past which he is belatedly and desperately reviewing with an “irking question” in mind: “could I have been a different man?”[27]

This hypothetical question is not a simple or idle speculation, as it might appear at first sight. Indeed, since the life story of Said is not so much personal as symbolically communal, the author is obviously raising the more pertinent and strategic question: Couldn’t the history of Tangier and the whole Morocco be different and less dismal than it was and has always been?

Ben Bouchta: Oppressed Voices Erupting

Zoubeir Ben Bouchta is a young Tanjawi dramatist whose literary and theatrical fame is steadily increasing with the publication or staging of each new play of his. He has so far written seven plays, including his latest one: The Red Fire (which is probably not yet published). One of the major and the most recurrent themes in nearly all these plays is that of injustice or oppression and the quest of victimized subjects for justice, emancipation and self-assertion.

In dealing with this crucial and significant theme, Ben Bouchta usually deploys a notable variety of techniques and literary/theatrical devices that help his characters/actors to express themselves efficiently and to externalize their innermost repressed feelings. Being himself very sensitive to the suffering and the complex plights of oppressed subjects, Ben Bouchta characteristically and purposefully devotes his talents to open up ample spaces for these people to express themselves, not only verbally but also via other means of symbolic communication which dramatic art makes possible like the use of masks, songs and dance. In Ben Bouchta’s plays, silence itself and dumbness are at times meant to function as eloquent means whereby some deep thoughts and pregnant meanings are ingeniously articulated.

In such a play as Al Qafas (The Cage), one’s attention is from the outset drawn to the peculiar fact that even a foetus in its mother’s womb is given a role as an actor and apparently one of the most symbolic protagonists. It is this Foetus, as a matter of fact, that significantly opens the whole play by uttering a pregnant “speech that is bigger than (Foetus) itself”, as the mother Ahlam has astonishingly noticed.[28] From that opening conversation between the two, it becomes clear that Foetus has an irresistible urge to come out of Ahlam’s womb so that it could help its father in his bitter struggle against his oppressive and scheming rivals. Can Foetus be thus metaphorically seen as the embodiment of the repressed justice that is now erupting to restore order and redress the prevalent sense of tyranny and lawlessness? But how and why is this Foetus itself mysteriously metamorphosed at the end of the play into a wild and frightening mythical creature that seems to augur unspeakable evil and apocalyptic anarchy?

Aside from these loaded symbolic opening and closing scenes of the play, the entire middle part is essentially reserved to the exciting dramatization of the subtle antagonism between Foetus’ father Al-Khattat (the Planner or Designer) and the Patron. The latter is presented as the despotic victimizer who relentlessly seeks to subjugate the whole town by using money, masks and brute force against any protester. Al-Khattat, whose own father has been unjustly killed by the Patron, resorts to some clever strategies in a desperate attempt to defeat him and avoid his merciless oppression. As an antidote to the Patron’s enslaving and terroristic masks, he deploys (alphabetic) letters as weapons to expose the mean tactics and the vile aspirations of his foe. He significantly considers these letters as his ‘tongue’ and as “the letters of truth” that are capable of changing the situation for the better: “My letters, my letters, they are my tongue! The tongue which will force these masks to speak!”[29]

When the Patron himself becomes aware of the pervading adverse influence of these letters in the streets, he grows instantly alarmed and prompts his gansters to urgent action by stating: (I)The letters are his weapon, if we don’t strip him of them he will use them against us... the fiercest and deadliest of all wars is the war of the letter. The most ignoble and humiliating defeat is the defeat before the letter.[30]

The play thus metaphorically transforms the stage into a battlefield where ‘masks’ and ‘letters’ are deployed as two opposite symbolic languages whereby each of the two conflicting sides attempts to defeat the other. While the masks clearly stand for the forces of evil and oppression which the Patron is gearing to serve his power and domination, the letters symbolize the voice of truth and justice that has come to challenge this tyrannical authority. And though the play tends to end pessimistically with the defeat of Al-Khattat, who seems to find himself ultimately powerless vis-à-vis the Patron’s overwhelming evil and magic forces, he still believes in the possibility of freedom from his oppressive cage and in the power of words, or what he calls ‘the story’, to reveal truth and restore the violated rights and justice.

In another play entitled Al-Okhtobout (The Octopus), Ben Bouchta makes use of a different symbolic language to tell another ‘story’ of struggle against the powers of corruption and cruel injustice. Now the chief dictator is a man called the Octopus and his main victims are a young couple: Khalid and Khouloud, whom he atrociously separate from each other at the night of their wedding. Just because Khalid has been concerned with the welfare of his townsfolk, the Octopus orders his gang to kidnap him and throw him in a pit. Later on, he even rapes Khouloud and thwarts her attempts to find her husband. As a reaction, this girl (who seems to be dumb) decides to resist and challenge her tormentors’ oppression by means of her expressive dancing. The Narrator himself has from the outset explaind to the audience that: “our tales tonight will narrate themselves by means of body and dance. Have you ever heard of a body that speaks?”[31]

As in the earlier example of Al-Khattat’s letters, Khouloud’s symbolic dances prove to be a very effective weapon that causes much disturbance for the Octopus and his gang as it threatens to reveal their secrets and to undermine their authoritarian policies. What is more, Khalid too adopts this strategy or language of dance, and he even wishes that he and Khouloud could give birth to a child that would inherit their dances. So, as soon as he manages to escape from his prison in the pit, he secretly joins Khouloud in a symbolic ‘sexual’ dance that soon results in the birth of a peculiar immaterial offspring: a haunting and subversive voice which Octopus and his gangsters keep hearing everywhere. The Octopus himself is alarmingly prompted to recognize that it is “a terrifying voice that is bound to expose truths” that could subvert and undermine his whole policy.[32] All his strenuous attempts to silence this voice or even to detect its source prove ultimately futile, for how can he stop or defeat the voice of justice that has suddenly erupted to undermine his cruel authority?

In his subsequent plays: Ya Mouja Ghanni (Sing, Sing Wave) and Lalla J’mila Ben Bouchta dramatizes again his favourite theme of “speaking truth to power,”[33] but significant technical changes have now occurred. One of the most noticeable changes consists in that both plays are written almost entirely in Moroccan Arabic, the Darija (of Tangier’s region) instead of classical Arabic. Another related important change consists in the powerful presence of Tangier as the essential setting and backdrop of both plays. But unlike the above writers’ method of writing Tangier, Ben Bouchta chooses to speak about this city and to look at it through the lenses of its Mediterranean coast. For each of the two plays is set in a limited rocky area by the beach, and in each of them action is artistically directed to shed light on significant moments of Tangier’s history and the harsh life of its marginal(ized) residents.

In Ya Mouja Ghanni, a poor Tanjawi seaman called Al-Wannas finds a rare occasion to settle his account with Azzalt, a corrupt rich man who has previously wronged him. In addition to being the root cause of Al- Wannas’ destitution after expropriating him unjustly of his boat ‘Mouja’, this man also used to collaborate with the colonizers and has been responsible for the assassination of Al-Wannas’ friend—Hmidou, the Nationalist. So when they now, by chance, find themselves alone on a big rock by the sea, Al Wannas seizes the opportunity to take revenge on him in a slow ritualistic manner which culminates in drowning him. But before his death, Azzalt is skilfully made to reveal some of his secrets by means of Al-Wannas’ cheap alcoholic drink. These secrets, along with the facts which Al-Wannas himself reveals during their conversation, provide valuable pieces of information whereby the audience is meant to look retrospectively at the history of Tangier and the hard life of its people, especially during this city’s ‘international era’.[34]

Lalla J’mila, on the other hand, concentrates basically on the problem of women’s oppression by men and their painful quest for freedom and self-assertion. The protagonists of this real masterpiece are themselves two suffering girls/women, Lalla J’mila and Itto, who have just come to know that they are sisters and whose mutual confessions lead them to a better understanding of their wretched situation and, eventually, to a strong belief in the possibility of change and the necessity for full emancipation.

Lalla J’mila has suffered a lot at the hand of her step-father, Bahaddou, another collaborator with the Spanish colonizers and the stark incarnation of a cruel and unscupulous patriarch. This man has, in fact, been so sadistically cruel that he punishes Lalla J’mila and her mother by compelling them to thresh thorny weeds with naked and bleeding feet.[35] He is also so rudely authoritative that he obliges Lalla J’mila to get married to an old polygamous puppet Cheikh, threatening to kill her if she objects to his decision. To escape from such hostile and oppressive milieu, she masquerades as a man and deserts the whole village. This masquerade enables her to see practically how men are incomparably freer than women and to express thus her revolt against the unjust social order where the latter are mere suffering prisoners:

The woman’s precinct is the house. During all her life, a woman can go outside just twice: first, when she is carried on Al-Ammaria from her father’s home to that of her husband; and later when she is carried in a coffin from her husband’s home to the grave (...) when I was man [referring to her masquerade], I was walking on the road like a prince, holding my head high, moving with determined steps freely and without fear (...) Nobody to order you: veil your head/cover your legs/wear a Djellaba/add a lithan (...) I’m tired/I’m exhausted by these commands. Everything is forbidden for woman/everything she does is a sin...[36]

Such outburst of protest is given further momentum by Itto’s account of her own tragic plight and her final determination to break loose from all forms of man’s domination.

Like Lalla J’mila, Itto has been subject to untold suffering ever since her tyrannous arrest at a place which is ironically named the ‘Freedom Avenue’. While still in custody, she undergoes an atrocious systematic rape by a police officer, who turns out to be her brother (begotten illegitimately through Bahaddou’s fornication with the notorious Gllassa). Besides raping her, Ould L’Gllassa doubles her tragedy by his direct complicity in the torture and murder of her beloved fiancé L’Mahdi. Later on, the trauma of her bitter ordeal pushes her to cherish the illusion that she can still find this lover; that is why she passionately engages in a mad search for him everywhere. This search, however, proves to be just a metaphor of her quest for justice and freedom. At the end of the play, she is even described symbolically as being capable of flying like a bird, after discovering that she—as a woman—actually has wings. Inspired by the sight, Lalla J’mila too decides to follow suit and fly freely in the air.

From this highly symbolic ending of the play, one can see how Ben Bouchta characteristically excels at dramatizing his favourite theme of quest for freedom and the condemnation of any form of oppression and social or political injustice. Though this theme is obviously recurrent in his works, the dramatic techniques and strategies he deploys in its treatment always vary as he moves from one play to another. His messages also vary according to the identities and the social or political status of both the victims and the victimizers he intends to portray. But on the whole, Ben Bouchta is always on the side of the victims and the oppressed, as it can be judged from the way he typically opens up to them wide symbolic stages for free expression and brave resistance to their oppressors.

In a revealing footnote which Ben Bouchta includes in Lalla J’mila to refer to the significane of his use of of ‘Hammam Franco’ as part of his setting, he writes that this place is “a traditional public bath situated in the ancient district of Dar l’Baroud in Tangier. I chose it due to the symbolism of its name which refers to the period of the Spanish colonization of Tangier (1940-1945) during the rule of Spain’s dictator Francisco Franco.”[37]

This statement is very illuminating indeed because in addition to suggesting how Tangier often functions as a vital and significant background in Ben Bouchta’s plays, it illustrates how this dramatist usually relies on symbolism to invest his plots artistically with various socio-cultural, historical and political implications. It also indicates how the personal dramas or tragedies of his individual characters are interlinked with the fate and history of the whole town or nation.[38] This implies that most of Ben Bouchta’s protagonists are symbolic and representative characters through whom one can view the situations and dilemmas of many Tanjawi (or Moroccan) people. Some of his victims—both male and female—can even be said to stand for Tangier itself, given that this city has historically suffered enormously and has been “prostituted” by diverse international colonial powers.[39] Hence the idea that their protesting voices are in a sense representative of Tangier’s resisting voice.

Thus we come to the conclusion that ‘Tangier speaks’ indeed in and through most of the literary texts of all the four Tanjawi writers dealt with here. Whether these writers speak directly in their names, as in many instances of Choukri’s and Mrabet’s autobiographical narratives, or else they choose to speak through the artistic medium of a narrator or symbolic protagonist, as is the case with many of Akbib’s fictions or Ben Bouchta’s plays, they all embody Tangier’s voice and they collectively testify to how Tangier can speak and has spoken.

Mohamed Elkouche
Faculty of Oujda


“Tangier Speaks: A Reading in the Discourses of Some Tanjawi Writers,” in (abbreviated format) in Voices of Tangier, Abdelmalek Essaadi University, Tetouan, 2006.


[1] Mohamed Berrada, ‘Mohamed Choukri: the Transparent Self...,’ (My translation from the Arabic language), Afaq, Review of Moroccan Writers', Union, 148.
[2] Mohamed Choukri, The Time of Errors, (Casablanca: Annajah Aljadida, 1992) 49. (My translation from the Arabic language).
[3] R. Kevin Lacey, ‘The Writers/Storytellers of Morocco and Paul Bowles: Some Observations and Afterthoughts’, Writing Tangier —Conference Proceedings: Tangier, 26-28 November 2004— (Tangier: ALTOPRESS,2005) 98.
[4] Abdellatif Akbib, ‘Bankruptcy in Mohamed Choukri’s “The Flower Freak”’, Writing Tangier, 84.
[5] ‘Bankruptcy in Mohamed Choukri’s “The Flower Freak”,’ 83.
[6] Naguib El Oufi, Textual Phenomena —Written in Arabic— (Casablanca: Annajah Aljadida, 1992) 121.
[7] See Abdelaziz Jadir, ‘A Narrator’s Life: An Interview with Mohamed Mrabet’ (in Arabic), Afaq, Review of Moroccan Writers’ Union, 53-54 , 1993, 334.
[8] Brian Edwards, ‘Introduction’ to M. Mrabet’s Love with a Few Hairs, Trans. Paul Bowles (Casablanca: Najah Al Jadida, 2004) IX.
[9] Mohamed Mrabet, ‘The Witch of Bouiba Del Hallouf,’ The Boy Who Set the Fire and Other Stories, trans. P. Bowles (San Francisco: City Lights Books, 1989) 42.
[10] M. Mrabet, ‘What Happened in Granada’, Mohamed Mrabet: Collected Stories, trans. P. Bowles (Casablanca: Annajah Aljadida, 2004) 9.
[11] ‘What Happened in Granada’, 12.
[12] ‘What Happened in Granada’, 14.
[13] ‘What Happened in Granada’ 19.
[14] ‘What Happened in Granada’, 14.
[15] ‘What Happened in Granada’, 21.
[16] ‘What Happened in Granada’, 15.
[17] See my article ‘Eye For Eye: A Reading in the Travel Accounts of P. Bowles and A. Akbib’, Theories of Margins and Margins of Theory, Tetouan Conference Proceedings, 2002 (Tanger: ALTOPRESS, 2003) 137-157.
[18] A. Akbib, ‘When Men Cry’, The Lost Generation:Collected Short Stories (Tangier: Slaiki Brothers, 1998) 15.
[19] ‘When Men Cry’, 8.
[20] ‘When Men Cry’, 8.
[21] Akbib, Hearts of Embers, (Tangier: ALTOPRESS,2004) 11.
[22] Akbib, ‘Ihe Middle of Nowhere’, Between The Lines, (Tangier: Slaiki Brothers, 1998) 54. [23] Hearts of Embers, 11.
[24] See Hearts of Embers, 160.
[25] Hearts of Embers, 99.
[26] Hearts of Embers, 143.
[27] Hearts of Embers, 12.
[28] Z. Ben Bouchta, Al-Qafas (Tangier: Slaiki Brothers, 1996) 12. This and all subsequent quotations from Ben Bouchta’s plays are my translations from the Arabic.
[29] Al-Qafas, 40.
[30] Al-Qafas, 69-70.
[31] Z. Ben Bouchta, Al-Okhtobout, (Rabat: Almaarif Aljadida, 1992) 17.
[32] Al-Okhtobout, 102.
[33] This is Edward Said’s phrase which he used as the title of one of his articles collected in Representations of the Intellectual (New York: Vintage Books, 1994) 85.
[34] Notice, for example, the socio-political significance of Al-Wannas’ ‘story’ about his unjust imprisonment by colonial authorities and his prevention from raising a Moroccan flag on his boat (pp. 47-50).
[35] See pp. 35-38. Ben Bouchta explains in a footnote that his portrait of Bahaddou is based on the character of a real dispotic official—Ahmed Bahaddou— who reportedly subjected a whole Riffian tribe to such a punishment.
[36] Lalla J’mila, 70-71.
[37] Lalla J’mila, 31.
[38] Khalid Amine has noted, in this connection, that Lalla J’mila “shows how struggles of national liberation and private battles of self-assertion are linked in a variety of ways.” See his ‘Review of Lalla J’mila’ (in English), Lalla J’mila, 85. [39]Edmondo De Amicis has noted that Tangier was “considered by its sister cities as having been ‘prostituted to the Christians’.” See Morocco: Its People and Places, trans. C. Rollin-Tilton (London: Darf Publishers Limited, 1985, [first pub. 1882] 24.