Groping in the shower for the plastic bottles last week I noticed that we had switched to Kazakh shampoo. Mmm, a warm spicy blend to replenish the vital oils my scalp lacks. I popped out at lunchtime to the bookshop to get some ideas for a dinner party and I was staggered at how many Kazakh cookbooks there were. ‘Chuck an ‘andful of cumin and coriander at a lump of lamb, sling a blob of yoghourt on top, whip it onto the BBQ and yer got an authentic Kazakh feast,’ somebody called Jamie wrote in his book.
I’ve met perhaps half a dozen people who’ve been to Kazakhstan, a country of almost no economic significance to Australia, to which we exported $8m of goods in 2011-2012 and imported $23m. That’s even less than our trade figures with Peru.
Hang on, did I say Kazakhstan? Actually I meant Morocco, that other trade colossus to which we exported $17m of goods and imported $51m, most of which was crude fertilizer. But at least I know a few more people who’ve actually been there than to Kazakhstan. By the way, I couldn’t find any Australian visitor numbers for Morocco, which means that they must be very low. And I think I probably know most of the Moroccans in Australia.
So why I am I picking on poor neglected Morocco? The reason is that I am astonished by the way that the word Moroccan has been appropriated by the food industry and its publishing handmaidens. Every other box of over processed dust or pulp on Sydney supermarket shelves seems to be Moroccan. Search for Moroccan in Amazon books, and the list of cookbooks goes on interminably. I came across a book by somebody with a clearly non-Moroccan name, that contained one hundred and fifty Moroccan tagine recipes! Is this Moroxploitation or what? Is the author a gastroanthropologist who spent years at the feet of peasant women in the Rif Mountains feverishly scribbling in notebooks? The statistics just don’t work: If the basic protein variants in a tagine are chicken, lamb, fish or pulses, how do you get nearly forty variants on each? The only solution I can think of is to omit ingredients one by one, e.g. hold the parsley! (that makes eighty four), halve the cumin! (eighty five), put the saffron away! (eighty six), etc. Before I stop let me tell you quite truthfully that I have just found in my fridge a container of Moroccan Minestrone soup! I’m sure I saw a can of Peruvian Goulash in the cupboard last week …
My real purpose for writing about Morocco is to mention that besides an appropriated cuisine, Morocco has some captivating literary associations with the non-Arab world. I was reminded of this when I was recently dipping into an excellent bilingual reader of Arabic short stories, translated and edited by Ronak Husni and Daniel L. Newman and published by the equally excellent Saqi Books. My tactic with this book is to plod through the Arabic text on the right hand side while I use short eyeball flicks to speed read the English translation on the other side.
The book fell open at a story by Mohamed Shoukri, the Moroccan ‘poet of the dispossessed’ who the editors tell us, was illiterate until his mid-twenties but went on to be one of the most celebrated writers in the Arab World. Shoukri had an important connection with Paul Bowles, the American composer and writer who spent much of his life in Tangier, where he was visited by literary figures like William Burroughs and Christopher Isherwood (who named Sally Bowles after him, for those who remember Cabaret). Now, somehow I’d missed Shoukri’s novel For Bread Alone, translated by Bowles and apparently much celebrated in the seventies; presumably I was too busy collecting arcane degrees to fit in celebrated novels. Coincidentally I happened to be in Tangier in 1971, but being ignorant of Bowles and Shoukri, may well have brushed past them in the Petit Socco.
At any rate, Bowles, despite his long residence in Morocco, did not read Standard Arabic, although he was proficient in the spoken dialect of Morocco, which is about as different from the standard language as German is from Dutch. The formerly illiterate Shoukri in the meantime had written his novel in Standard Arabic (as all Arab novelists do), so he orally translated the text into dialect so that Bowles could render it in English. Tangier was then a multilingual city where almost everyone spoke Arabic, French and Spanish, and Bowles tells us in the introduction to For Bread Alone that he and Shoukri would use French or Spanish to help work out shades of meaning.
It’s hard to find an analogy, but imagine that a Moroccan writer comes to live on a cattle station in outback Australia and learns to speak a variety of Pidgin English from the Aboriginal stockmen. One of the stockmen’s children comes back from Sydney after getting an Arts degree and writing a novel about his early life in the bush. He sits down with the Moroccan writer and retells his novel in Pidgin. The Moroccan writer translates it into Arabic and it becomes a hit in the Middle East. Weird or what?
Of course I swiftly downloaded an e-book copy of For Bread Alone and finished in just over one sitting. The verdict: This is the novel that the word gritty was invented for. It follows Shoukri’s squalid childhood and adolescence as he endures beatings, poverty, grinding work, and a descent into a grim stew of alcohol, hashish and sordid brothels. The colloquial style – apparently an artefact of the translation process – is elusive and fast moving. Quite a contrast from tagines and shampoo.
So this is my dinner party story gift to you, dear reader. Have a rewarding read of Mohamed Shoukri so that you can set the record straight the next time you are served Moroccan taco dipping sauce that tastes like crude fertilizer.
I originally wrote this article a part of an anthology called ‘On Becoming a Butcher in Paris’. You can download the whole collection for free under a Creative Commons Licence here.
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