This is book 2 in my Ramadan 2013 Reading Challenge. I read this book in French but it has been translated in over 30 other languages. In English, it is titled For Bread Alone. To say that I was in a state of utter shock is an understatement. I did not expect so much hatred,violence, drug, sex and prostitution in this 160 pages novel. Let’s not forget that this book was supposed to be an arab novel. I know it’s “cliché”, but honestly, when I think of an arab novel, I still see the Arabian nights. That being said I must commend the literary prowess of the author. And I understand why this book was banned from Morocco for more than 8 years. Way too much details on the sex side.
About the author
Mohamed Choukri died on November 15, 2003. He was a Moroccan author and novelist who is best known for his internationally acclaimed autobiography For Bread Alone (al-Khubz al-Hafi). His main works are his autobiographic trilogy, beginning with For Bread Alone, followed by Zaman Al-Akhtaâ aw Al-Shouttar (Time of Mistakes or Streetwise, Telegram Books) and finally Faces. He also wrote collections of short stories in the 1960s/1970s (Majnoun Al-Ward, Madman of the roses, 1980; Al-Khaima, The Tent, 1985).
About the book
Driven by famine from their home in the Rif, Mohamed’s family walks to Tangiers in search of a better life. But his father is unable to find work and grows violent. Mohamed learns how to charm and steal. During a short spell in a filthy Moroccan jail, a fellow inmate kindles his life-altering love of poetry.
For Bread Alone “Pain Nu” became an international success when published in English, but the book also caused a furor in the Arab world. When the Arabic edition emerged, it was prohibited in Morocco, on the authority of the Interior Minister, Driss Basri, following the advice of the religious authorities. It was said to have offended by its references to teenage sexual experiences and drug abuse. This censorship ended in 2000, and For Bread Alone was finally published in Morocco.
I have mixed feelings about this book. I knew nothing of it when I picked it, I trust the fact that they said it was an arab novel classic. I was not disappointed, I was mostly surprised let’s say.
Random observations on Pain Nu:
- Arab Men & Violence: The constant element of this novel is the violence of the father. For some reasons best known to him, he hates everyone – his family and strangers. I will hazard a guess and say he resents being poor. But the thing is the father is not your regular wife-beater, he is beyond that. I think “evil” is the right word. He beat the mother every other day and he even killed the little brother in a fit of rage. Not to mention the violent beating, he administered to Mohamed for no reason.
- Arab Women: I don’t really like the way women were portrayed in this novel, even though most of them were prostitutes. Most of the time, they were depicted as some sort of “sex toy”. Also, they came across as selfish and ungrateful. I understand this is a true story, but still it is shocking. His mother is in a special category though. Thank God!
- Inter-Tribe racism: Mohamed is from The Riff. It is a mainly mountainous region of northern Morocco. The Rif has been inhabited by Berbers since prehistoric times. There was a Spanish-Moroccan conflicts that continued well in the 20th century, under the leadership of Muhammad Ibn ‘Abd al-Karim al-Khattabi, a Berber guerrilla leader ( who is briefly mention in the book). The Riffian Berbers struggled against Spanish rule. So when Mohamed went to Tetouan then to Tanger, people were always making sneaky comments about how The Rif people were. Rif people are lazy, they can’t speak arab properly…
- Homosexuality : The story is happening in the 1950s during spanish occupation of the Rif. I didn’t realize that homosexuality was such a big thing back then. Apparently, It was everywhere and practice by everyone!
- Mohamed’s Mother: She was the character that traumatized me the most. How much pain and torture one can take? Her husband had deserted the spanish army and stop working altogether. Feeding the family was basically left to her. The same husband violently beats the whole family everyday, he even killed one of the children. He would sometimes disappeared for days or weeks. But I think the mother loved him or at least it was my perception. Also, she is the only women that is referred to with respect in this novel. She obviously is a very strong women despite all the hardship and having lost many children to hunger or illness.
- The Quasi-absence of the religion: The religion is rarely mentioned in this novel. There is the occasional “Inchallah: God willing”. However, it was very much present, when people were abusing each other. They were basically insulting each other’s religion which makes no sense to me, since they shared the same religion. In another instance, a prostitute mentioned God. I can’t recall the exact sentences, but it was something like “God’s willing I will give you pleasure“.*Grasp*. But seriously, this book is sometimes very outrageous. So if you are sensible, abstain!
- Police Brutality: *Sigh* according to the author, the policy have to be this way in order to amplify and magnify the punishment. When you are arrested they beat you to death, when they threw in jail they stripped you naked and shoved you violently inside. They want to make sure that you know you are being punished. I ,personally, think that they are just abusing their power.
- Educated Vs non Educated Moroccan: At the end of the novel, Mohamed had several nasty encounters with some “educated” Moroccan. Having not attend school, he was shunned and ridiculed for not knowing anything or understanding politics. He will eventually learn to read and write just to spite them.
I recommend you this book, if you like to try different genre. However, if you are sensible and don’t like violence, maybe this is not the book for you.
Have you read this book? What did you think?