This summer, Ismail Fayed is reading and reviewing the six novels shortlisted for the 2015 International Prize for Arabic Fiction, including Tunisian author Shoukri al-Mabkhout’s winning text, The Italian. The exercise gets off to a rocky start with Moroccan writer Ahmed al-Madini’s disappointing Mumar al-Safsaf.
Mumar al-Safsaf (The Willow Passage, 2014) reads like a late-late-postmodern attempt to problematize fiction and the role of the writer. Penned by Moroccan novelist Ahmed al-Madini (b. 1949), it’s at once at odds with how to resolve the problem of writing a novel in the first place, and at odds with the subject matter it engages — the new urban developments at the periphery of the old city of Rabat.
Madini belongs to the post-independence generation of Moroccan thinkers and artists that were educated in France, then faced with the task of creating a distinct national voice. His first novel, Time of Birth and Dreams, was released in 1976, and since then he’s produced several volumes of poetry and short stories. His oeuvre is characterized by a strong streak of semi-fictionalized autobiographical elements, specifically his experience in Paris and the notion of exile (My Love from Paris, 2014, Worries of a Duck, 2009), and his involvement in the student movement in the late 1960s (Men of Zahr al-Mahraz, 2007, and Fas, If She Returns to Him, 2003). Mumar al-Safsaf is his return to the Moroccan context with a more “experimental” take.
The novel opens with a whole chapter describing the writer’s process, and how he came to the setting and the story he’s about to write. The protagonists — including a dog, a cat and the writer’s own alter ego, a recluse retiree — are all mired in the antagonistic setting of Rabat and its parasitic, hypocritical middle class.
As they speak to each other and to themselves against the backdrop of the fictional Willow Passage, the protagonists offer an elaborate geographic exploration of the city — in keeping with a long tradition of post-independence Moroccan literature that takes the city as a point of departure (like Mohamed Choukri’s stories set in Tangiers, or Mohamed Zafzaf’s stories set in Casablanca). But the novel unravels as it gives a damning portrait of massive urban dislocation and the deleterious effects of neoliberalism. The very first chapters describe the forced removal of a bidonville (the Moroccan term for shanty town) to make way for a series of residential apartment buildings for the rising middle class. The real conflict of the novel resides in this tension between the interests of the displaced rural poor, who came to seek a better life in the city, and the aspiring new middle class.
For 300 pages, the writer lets his characters (who are all male, even the cat and the dog) pour forth on the many injustices they face as a marginalized group vis-à-vis the Makhzan — literally, the warehouse or granary, a complex term denoting the government, as exemplified in the palace and its affiliated classes and groups. There is something profoundly claustrophobic in Madini’s interior monologues, for his protagonists seem doomed to live and die in the slums around Rabat with no recourse to justice or a fair resolution.
And here lies the tragic twist in the novel — there is no happy ending for anyone. As a matter of fact, the novel ends with the stray dogs that accompanied the slum dwellers savagely killing their humans after being abandoned by them for better social housing. Madini has little sympathy for humans. It is not hard to place where the author’s sympathies lie: with Jack, the stray dog.
Jack, who competes for the role of the protagonist, is the one character in the novel who the author believes to be worthy of moral redemption. Madini dedicates pages and pages of endless religious and ethical debates for and against dogs in Islam and tradition (it’s fascinating that Madini wrote this novel in the wake of a highly mobilized animal rights movement in Egypt, which used some of the same debates he did). Jack, whose life journey resembles that of the rural migrants, came from the countryside escaping drought and hardship. In the course of the novel, he manages to become the watch dog for a new building site, then befriends another slum dweller and the author’s alter ego, only to end up being taken away by the municipality. His ultimate fate remains unknown.
Through heavy, measured prose peppered with Moroccan dialect, Madini seems to be quarreling with the state of society, its rabid consumerism, the political ineptitude of the ruling elite (that is, the Makhzan and its wide network of crony businessmen and brutal law enforcement) and hypocritical religiosity. He even quarrels with his own protagonists as to who should assume the lead (his alter ego, or Jack the dog), until he finally relegates his alter ego to the role of a roaming phantom with a pack of stray dogs.
This conflict with the problematics of authorship and representation reads as awkward or forced. It is hard to justify 30 or 40 pages devoted to the writer’s morning jog that led to the inspiration for his book. Not only does that sound like a bourgeois affectation (one that he lukewarmly criticizes), but it also rings of condescension and a false sense of demystification.
Madini wrote about realism’s grip on post-independence fiction in Morocco, and the dire need both for different approaches to narrative, and freedom from a sense of responsibility to “represent” the reality of the new independent state. But his “experiments” in narrative construction are not very substantial alternatives to a more realistic mode of writing. And his prose still remains entrenched in literary classicism — a classicism not totally bereft of beauty, but which could hardly be described as contemporary. In fact, Mumar al-Safsaf retains the style, theme and favored subject matter of its predecessors and contemporaries.
Furthermore, the novel critically examines the miserable conditions under which the marginalized, urban poor live. But the urban poor are represented as ignorant, amoral, self-serving beings who deserve their comeuppance. This elitist, misanthropic view is reinforced by the constant contrasts between the behavior of the author’s alter ego and everyone else, who seem incapable of doing anything genuinely good without being self-serving or inconsistent. Ultimately, the postmodern elements introduced in the novel thus raise profound ethical questions as to the limits of an ironic mode of composition.
In the end, this experiment needed much more experimentation.
Ahmed al-Madini, Mumar al-Safsaf. Beirut: Al-Markaz al-Thaqafi al-Arabi, 2014. ISBN: 9789953686752.