Tales of Tangier: The vivid vignettes of Mohamed Choukri

Tales of Tangier: The vivid vignettes of Mohamed Choukri
Book Club: Mohamed Choukri is one of North Africa's most esteemed, widely read and controversial authors. Now translated into English, Choukri's complete works uncover society's underbelly, revealing an entrancing, dark, and hedonistic imagination.
6 min read
30 August, 2023
Mohamed Choukri’s vivid stories invite the reader to wander the streets of Tangier, the ancient coastal crossroads between Europe and Africa, and to meet its denizens at markets, beaches, cafés, and brothels [Yale University Press]

Tangier is a city coloured by its unremitting history of colonisation, resilience, and dynamic culture. It has provided the backdrop for literary works for decades, revealing a hub of creativity and revolution amid abject poverty and plundering.

Found on the coasts of the Mediterranean and Atlantic Ocean at the north-western tip of Africa, Mohamed Choukri, a native of the city, has rendered a candid portrait of the streets and people of Tangier in his collection of short stories, Tales of Tangier. However, as defined by Western literature, short stories predominantly follow a structured narrative.

But Choukri’s artistry represents a remarkably distinct form of storytelling. We are introduced to an array of idiosyncratic and eccentric individuals. Snapshots of their conversations and subtle yet salient depictions of place, time, and mood are composed in these vignettes of local life.

"Choukri... is one of Morocco’s most revered figures, and though his writing may be perplexing according to Western belief, to have his words translated is to have the privilege to view the inner world of his intellect and the obscured landscapes of Tangier"

Most of the stories are no more than a few pages that leave the reader with profound revelations on humanity or lack thereof. The brevity of these narratives creates a sentiment as if one is intruding on the most confidential of moments and exchanges. But these are not stories of hope or mysticism.

Choukri exposes the underworld of a fictional Tangier in its brothels, souks, and streets in which thievery, sex workers, and beggars flourish. The lecherous innuendos and explicit crudeness are juxtaposed with lyrical prose, disorienting the reader into a dreamlike and reflective state.

Tales of Tangier is a compilation of 31 stories as it is a combined edition of two of Choukri’s collections, Flower Crazy and The Tent. However, before attempting to dissect and understand these chimerical tales, it is critical to know who Choukri, one of Morocco’s most notorious authors, was and how his background informed his writing. 

As a young child, he lived in the Rif Mountains in destitution and under the abusive control of his father. He escapes to Tangier as a teenager and becomes entangled in sex work, drugs, and smuggling.

In prison, he learns how to read, and his narrative creativity is born. While his first autobiographical work, For Bread Alone, expounds further on his wandering and vagrant beginnings, the scenes and characters of Tales of Tangier palpably humanize those on the margins of society. Choukri focused on the city's poorest inhabitants, their lives, and spiralling inner thoughts.

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Just as the tales follow no narrative structure, in some of the stories,  the point of view constantly shifts within a few pages and paragraphs, solidifying the whimsical air of the collection.

The first story, Violence on The Shore, is set in a popular cafe and a beach. Maimoun, a local indigent, loiters near the restaurant. The owner recoiled at his presence due to his unkempt state and erratic behaviour. But a customer, Sami, reassures him that Maimoun will not cause any trouble and tenderly converses with him.

Eventually, he is driven out, and the locals argue over how he reached this pitiful state of affairs: unemployment or lunacy. Here Choukri abruptly and skilfully transfers the perspective to Maimoun’s mind, and the reader witnesses the faltering of his sanity on the beaches of Tangier.

The Net is three pages of depictions of the undulating sea and its ivory sand. It provides a glimpse into the life of an impoverished child who spends his time digging for the lost and forgotten treasures of wealthy tourists on the beach to sell. This young and unfortunate child poignantly reflects on the value of material things, wealth, and life.

There are more disturbing tales in Choukri’s world of prostitutes selling babies, in which precocious children march and protest, and the adults lose their minds.

In People Laughing, People Sobbing, a nameless character feels everyone around her is laughing when they should be crying and crying when they should be laughing. The four-page story offers a brief glimpse into the psyche of the destitute attempting to cope and survive.

In The Coffin, the main character practices what he refers to as his “psychological repose” by getting into a coffin fully dressed in the middle of his apartment to contemplate the “living dead and not dying alive.”

A few of the stories deftly comment on Morocco's heavily censored environment and the impacts of foreign interference. Talking About Flies is Banned and The Poets are two indelible narratives that use kafka-esque and allegorical tones. A convicted journalist who wrote about homelessness and poverty in Tangier is asked why he reported on the prohibited topic of flies. A band of poets is publicly executed because they refuse to toss their books in the trash can.

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The final collection, The Tent, is far more hedonistic in language and portrayal. The obscenity and venereal references are quite jarring. Regardless, it is emphatically impactful in conveying the realities of the pauperized and the extent to which people will exploit themselves for survival.

An orphan declares, "No one is born as he wants to be born. They give birth to him as they want. And when he finds himself able to think about his existence, they have condemned him to a life that he must accept or reject by his own means. A man is a man, and it does not matter whose son he is.”

While the profane language and unconventional structures can make it onerous to regard Choukri’s thoughtful commentaries, it does not make it a futile reading.

Choukri, as aforementioned, is one of Morocco’s most revered figures, and though his writing may be perplexing according to Western belief, to have his words translated is to have the privilege to view the inner world of his intellect and the obscured landscapes of Tangier.

There is much to lament about the conditions of this city and the sufferings endured by its inhabitants. Yet, in the same breath that he offers acute insights into the ugliness of humanity, he animates the city’s streets, markets, cafes, beaches, fishermen, and people with the eloquence and candour of someone intimately familiar with every heartache and romance in its history.

Noshin Bokth has over six years of experience as a freelance writer. She has covered a wide range of topics and issues including the implications of the Trump administration on Muslims, the Black Lives Matter movement, travel reviews, book reviews, and op-eds. She is the former Editor in Chief of Ramadan Legacy and the former North American Regional Editor of the Muslim Vibe

Follow her on Twitter: @BokthNoshin