The Autobiography of Muhammad Shukrī: Modern Su'lūk

Thompson, Levi

n Arabic literature, the autobiographical works of Muḥammad Shukrī (1935-2003), al-Khubz al-Ḥāfī (For Bread Alone), Zaman al-Akhṭā (Time of Mistakes), and Wujūh (Faces), fit into a liminal, mythological space first populated by the pre-Islamic ṣulūk (rogue or vagabond) poets, such as Ta'abbaṭa Sharr, Urwah ibn al-Ward, and al-Shanfarā. By reading Shukrī's autobiographical trilogy as a modern version of al-Shanfarā's wholly liminal Lāmīyat al-ʿArab (The "L" Poem of the Arabs), the borders between traditional society and that of its ostracized validation, the ṣuʿlūk, can be elucidated. This study is further called for due to the problematic history of Shukrī's most popular work, al-Khubz al-Ḥāfī, first published in an English translation by Paul Bowles in 1974. Due to its frank descriptions of alcohol and drug use, sexual exploration, and abject poverty in pre- and independence-era Morocco, this first work of his three-volume autobiography was banned in Morocco until 2000 and remains so at the American University of Cairo ever since a 1998 row over its place on an Arabic literature syllabus there. Shukrī's autobiography provides further opportunity to explore the notion of social borders in 20th century Morocco. In al-Khubz al-Ḥāfī, the author's—the main character's—quest for literacy and deliverance from an impoverished life drives the narrative. In this pursuit, the narrator encounters numerous obstacles facing poor, homeless youths in 1950s northern Moroccan cities. His situation is further complicated by the fact that Shukrī himself learned to speak his native tongue—Rīffian Berber, Spanish, Moroccan dialectical Arabic, and even some French prior to learning the modern standard Arabic in which he ended up writing. Shukrī's two sequels offer an inversion of the narrator's initial quest for aggregation with society through acquiring literacy instead retreating into a life of seclusion, a rejection of social norms, and, at times, complete exile.

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Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African Studies
Published Here
April 26, 2010


Presented at the Interdisciplinary Graduate Conference on the Middle East, South Asia, and Africa, Columbia University, April 15-17, 2010.