El Pan a Secas by Mohamed Chukri
My rating: 4 of 5 stars
I read this in the Spanish edition by the excellent small press Cabaret Voltaire, which has translated many Moroccan authors. Since all my Goodreads friends and blog readers speak English as a first or second language, I'll review it in English and point them to the English language edition that's titled For Bread Alone.
This is the first of a projected autobiographical trilogy, of which only two were written. In this book, Chukri talks about his childhood suffering poverty and near starvation in the Rif of Morocco. In desperation, his family moves to Tangier during its glory days as an international port. Fleeing a violent father, Chukri takes to the streets, where he hustles, steals, and gets involved with organized crime.
The scenes of Tangier's seamy side are riveting. We meet thieves, drug addicts, smugglers, and prostitutes of both sexes. Chukri's candid description of sex, homosexuality, drugs, and violence are rare in an Arab author and got him banned in Morocco for many years. I found it similar to Genet's Diary of A Thief, although plain-spoken where Genet's style is flowery. The two became friends later when Chukri lifted himself out of his misery and illiteracy to become one of Morocco's most celebrated authors.
If you have a weak stomach, you might find some of this hard reading, but it gives a picture of a different Tangier than the one painted by notable expats such as William S. Burroughs and Paul Bowles. I could have used some more detail about the culture and daily life in Tangier. I suppose, though, that Chukri intended this for a Moroccan audience that wouldn't need such information.
Highly recommended for anyone interested in Tangier, Morocco, and the Arab World.
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