Book Review: “The Bottom of the Jar” — An Indelible Glimpse of Moroccan Life

Moroccan poet Abdellatif Laâbi narrative draws deeply on his own childhood in Fez during the late 1940s and especially the 1950s. The writer has a fine eye for the telltale details of daily life, for the personality traits of colorful characters, for the labyrinthine urban layout of the town and for the mores—informed both by Islam and traditional North African folkways—of the period.

The Bottom of the Jar by Abdellatif Laâbi. Translated by André Naffis-Sahely. Archipelago, 226 pages, $17.

By John Taylor

When I settled in Paris in 1977, the Moroccan Francophone poet Abdellatif Laâbi (b. 1942) was a cause célèbre. I heard or read about him often. He had founded (in 1966) an influential literary and political review, Souffles, which had been banned in 1972; and he himself had been imprisoned ever since that year because of the magazine—associated with the left-wing positions on social, cultural, and economic issues—and because of his own political activities. These had begun with his initial involvement with the P.L.S. (Party for Liberation and Socialism), which was the former Moroccan Communist Party, and then as the founder of the clandestine, extreme left-wing party, Ila Al Amame.

In the 1970s, while he was imprisoned in Kénitra (which is located 25 miles north of Rabat, the town in which Laâbi had worked as a French teacher), his poems circulated rather widely in France, at least among literati and political sympathizers. A well-known small poetry press, P.-J. Oswald, had brought out L’Arbre de fer fleurit (The Iron Tree is Blossoming) in 1974, and then another press, Barbare, had followed suit by issuing Le Règne de barbarie (The Rule of Barbarism) in 1976. Letters and various texts written in prison were published by Barbare in 1978 as Chroniques de la citadelle d’exil (Chronicles from the Citadel of Exile). In 1980, the year when he was finally released from prison after an international campaign on his behalf, Histoire des sept crucifiés de l’espoir (Story of the Seven Men Crucified for Hope) appeared at still another press, La Table Rase, accompanied by the re-issue of Le Règne de barbarie at a major French publisher, Le Seuil.

Laâbi subsequently recounted his prison experiences in the novel Le Chemin des ordalies (1982), which was translated into English as Rue de Retour by the London-based Readers International in 1989. “Ordalies,” by the way, means “ordeals.” Reviewing this novel in the San Francisco Chronicle on October 8, 1989, I wrote that it was a “moving, sometimes bitter, ever lucid chronicle of those cruel years. Laâbi [. . .] willingly adopts Scheharazade’s role, accepts her ‘tragic privilege,'” that of writing while living ‘permanently under the an oriental Sword of Damocles.’ ‘All silence is death by default,’ he tells himself in encouragement. ‘Every day that passes without being voiced is a branch broken off your tree of life.’

I mentioned that Laâbi sometimes waxed lyrical in his prose—to a fault. “Yet the narrative structure of Rue de Retour is impressively intricate,” I continued. “The author renders the complexity of the political prisoner’s thoughts and emotions by skillfully blending childhood memoirs, love letters to his beloved, graphic descriptions of prison life (especially of torture), dreams, visions, even bits of political propaganda. More than a testimony and a plea, this intense prose poem often attains a hallucinatory fervor. As the South African writer Breyten Breytenbach observes in his foreword, ‘Fire. Germination. Birth. Blood. All of these themes are burnished and boned image by image.’”

Author Abdellatif Laâbi — he has written one of the most evocative portraits of Fez that has ever been written.

Since the beginning of this century, other books by Laâbi—who has lived in France since 1985—have been rendered in English: The World’s Embrace: Selected Poems (City Lights, 2003), Fragments of a Forgotten Genesis (Leafe Press, 2009), The Jackal’s Baptism (Mayday Magazine, 2010), and The Rule of Barbarism (Island Position, 2012). As the publication dates reveal, North American interest in his work is growing rapidly.

These recent translations of representative books in Laâbi’s extensive oeuvre—which includes not only poetry and prose, but also plays and children’s books—can now be complemented by The Bottom of the Jar. This coming-of-age novel was originally published in French in 2002. Full of vivid detail, Laâbi’s narrative draws deeply on his own childhood in Fez during the late 1940s and especially the 1950s. The writer has a fine eye for the telltale details of daily life, for the personality traits of colorful characters, for the labyrinthine urban layout of the town and for the mores—informed both by Islam and traditional North African folkways—of the period. I cannot verify what has been written about Fez in Arabic, but surely The Bottom of the Jar is, if not the Fez novel (though it may well be), at least one of the most evocative portraits of the town that has ever been written. Laâbi has declared that this is the novel that he has penned “with the greatest joy.” The reader finds himself immersed in a fascinating town in which, for instance, there is “never a dull moment when the Sekkatine [souk is] in full swing.” That the events go back some 60 years diminishes none of their vivacity and pertinence.

The Bottom of the Jar actually begins much later, in 1989, as the Berlin Wall is falling and the family of the narrator—who has returned to Fez for a visit—remains oblivious to the events shown on the television screen. “If Europeans are obsessed with background music,” notes Laâbi amusingly, “Moroccans have invented the background image, and without skimping on decibels either. In our home, clamor and din seemed to be inextricably mixed with our joy at coming together as a family.” Soon other members of the family show up, including Driss, the father.

Yet the joy of the family reunion is incomplete. The narrator’s older brother, Si Mohammed, is in jail. Some of the reasons for his imprisonment are revealed. And from this perspective of absence and possible injustice (not to mention the brother’s foiled ambitions), the narrator himself then flashes back to his own childhood, when he is seven or eight years old. Glancing at the television with its color images of Berlin in celebration, he announces that, in contrast, “what follows [. . .] will be in black and white.” During a few initial “cross-fades”—as Laâbi calls them—that focus briefly, cinematographically, on different years, the narrator’s mother, Ghita, also comes onto the stage. Both Ghita and Driss are key characters in their own right.

One of the strong points of this novel is its social, religious, and folkloric content. It must be said that, as Laâbi passes from one characteristic social, religious or folkloric aspect of Morocco to the next, usually by passing from one chapter to the next, the construction of the novel can seem rather systematic; but this is ultimately unimportant. Dozens of captivating examples of customs are delineated. Evil spirits, for instance, are fended off by means of an amulet that is, somehow simultaneously, “an expensive piece of metallurgy, a viper-eating wild cat, [and] a seven-bladed sword.” The amulet must always be kept around Si Mohammed’s neck, “even in the hammam.” Ghita, who wishes to marry off her turbulent son, is herself an exacting and enterprising matchmaker who

began inspecting all potential candidates, turning her thoughts first to the young girls of our clan. Those whom nature hadn’t endowed with her gifts, and whose appearance, according to her, “frightened the sparrows,” were rejected out of hand. My mother’s taste was quite clear when it concerned a woman’s beauty, and she voiced it in a truly macho way. My uncle’s eldest daughter was promptly rejected because her breasts were no bigger than apricots. The same uncle’s youngest daughter was likewise bluntly dismissed as flawed because she was slightly cross-eyed and—shame of shames—her hands were shaped like paddles.

While Ghita is maneuvering for a suitable daughter-in-law, the boy-narrator is still “able to take part in strictly female gatherings” with her, whereas his sister is already having trouble getting him past the lady in charge of the hammam. “He still has his mother’s milk stuck between his teeth,” his sister argues. “And just to prove her point,” adds the boy, “she didn’t hesitate to lower my trousers and exhibit my willy, and with an offended air exclaimed: ‘Have a look for yourself, there isn’t the slightest trace of hair on his little cockatoo!’” The account of Si Mohammed’s wedding night—in which he must prove that his newly wed wife was a virgin—is an anthology piece. All along, literally rendered Arabic expressions liven Laâbi’s French style and thereby André Naffis-Sahely’s translation, which is itself lively and even, often, joyful. I have the impression that Naffis-Sahely took delight in translating this book.

In the fifth chapter, Laâbi shifts to the third person and now recounts the life of a boy nicknamed Namouss (which means “Mosquito”). But Namouss—who is six years old in this chapter—is the same person as the first-person narrator of the preceding chapters:

Ghita had designated him as her emissary, charging him with relaying communications between her and Driss. Whenever the slightest problem arose—and something went wrong each God-given day—Ghita would bid him: “Namouss, go and tell your father to come daba daba” (immediately). At the speed of lightning, Namouss would run straight through the Sekkatine souk, and once Driss had received the message, he would forget customers and merchandise, adjust his tarboosh, slip on his balghas, and head home pronto.

This third-person narrative viewpoint enables Laâbi to stand back a little, to discreetly and implicitly develop the dichotomy, or the ambivalence, between proximity and distance, between subjectivity and objectivity, and between the individual and society. This standpoint is typical of writers looking back at their childhood and perhaps even more acutely so of authors who have long lived abroad in either forced or voluntary exile. In any event, there is a sense of the narrator having fully participated in significant events—the rich descriptions are convincing—and, at the same time, of now observing himself at a remove. This dichotomy is underscored and justified when Namouss, who in the meantime has had his first contacts with the French language at school, realizes that he is different from many of those in his midst:

Namouss knew he was his own man. He began chafing under the stifling constraints that regulated life at home, in the streets, and even at school. The path he’d begun to walk was none other than the road to freedom, where his only true responsibility was to throw himself headfirst into adventures.

Adventures abound in the teeming city. They range from peeking at female bathers “through a mysterious—or crafted?—crack in the wall” near a fountain reserved for women to being an eyewitness to street battles between the children living in two rival neighborhoods. Although some of the scenes depicted by Laâbi are obviously informed by specific religious and societal traditions, much of this Moroccan subject matter—mutandis mutatis—is universal. Describing the almost “foreign country” that was the rival neighborhood of the Andalusians, Laâbi outlines characteristics that can—or at least could—be found in such neighborhoods the world over:

Hostile children lived in those parts, with whom they never crossed paths aside from the occasional scuffle. When those took place, the battles were regulated by strict rules of engagement. An emissary was dispatched to the enemy camp to deliver the declaration of war, to put forward a date for the commencement of hostilities, as well as to agree on the weapons that were to be used—usually belts and/or stones—not to mention techniques of impromptu hand-to-hand combat, where direct blows to the head were deemed dangerous and only permitted under certain circumstances. [. . .] Barely a flyweight, Namouss was not among the children called up for duty. Even though he was entrusted with some small tasks, when the hostilities began he’d had to content himself with watching from the sidelines.

Once again, this “watching from the sidelines” defines, at least in part, the future writer’s vantage point—though it must be remembered that Laâbi’s political commitments put him right in the middle of the battle.

As Namouss grows up, he will undergo traditional circumcision with a barber, come across a demonstration against French colonialism, hang out with a gang of friends and get into some trouble, as well as start discovering his own body:

His rooted sense of propriety was being sapped by an intense curiosity in his own body. And he made a few pleasant discoveries. First came his hands, which he deemed gracious, then his feet, which he thought rather pretty. Then he felt his cheeks, lips, and gradually progressed to his chest and belly. Having reached the middle, he hesitated, even though that’s where the tingling he felt was strongest, and where there was an enticing stiffness. . .

At school, he experiences a decisive encounter with a Frenchman, Mr. Cousin, who teaches science and leads “the class into a whirlwind of knowledge and [makes] everybody’s head spin with vertigo.” Knowledge thereafter becomes “an object of desire,” as Namouss puts it, and, potentially, one path of liberation.

Yet by these years, time is passing by so quickly that, by Namouss’s own admission, he no longer quite perceives it. Laâbi traces the moral and societal changes that are overcoming Fez, most of them influenced by American and European lifestyles. And then, in the eighteenth chapter, he abruptly announces: “That’s all for Namouss.” The novelist re-establishes a first-person narrative vantage point in order to deal with a crucial event, his sister-in-law’s pregnancy (which has repercussions on the family and especially Ghita), and with the increasing political upheaval in the country. Si Mohammed also returns to the forefront for a while. These final pages fill out the background for what will become Laâbi’s first literary and political acts. But however avidly admirers of his oeuvre will flock to The Bottom of the Jar, this engaging narrative certainly transcends its specific autobiographical circumscription. It deserves a wide and attentive readership. As the Arabic saying goes, “Fez is a mirror.”

John Taylor has translated many French poets, most recently Jacques Dupin (Of Flies and Monkeys), Philippe Jaccottet (And, Nonetheless), and Pierre-Albert Jourdan (The Straw Sandals). He is the author of the three-volume essay collection, Paths to Contemporary French Literature, as well as Into the Heart of European Poetry. He has written eight books of poetry and short prose, including The Apocalypse Tapestries, Now the Summer Came to Pass, and If Night is Falling. He lives in France.

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