My first foray into Moroccan literature, incidentally quite by accident, and I’m treated to a wonderful book containing two stories by Mohammed Mrabet. What fascinated me most was that the stories were not written by Mrabet but told by him; in other words the good old tradition of oral narration. Paul Bowles, an acclaimed writer in his own right, translated the taped recordings of Mrabet from Moghrebi (an Arabic dialect) into English.
How much of the exquisite literature is Mrabet’s and how much is Bowles’ is unknown to me. What I do know is that theirs is a dance of eloquence merging story-telling and prose that puts the stories in this book The Beach Café & The Voice on a shelf amongst my high ranking literary delights.
Mrabet’s The Beach Café is about the relationship between Driss and Fuad. Where Driss is nothing but kind and helpful to the old café owner, Fuad is one of those characters common in Middle Eastern cultures who would rather talk (and spread lies) behind Driss’ back while telling him sweet nothings to his face. Theirs is an odd interaction that draws light on the subtlety in which tradition, religion and, most importantly, hypocrisy creep into human interaction. Driss’ is generous and wiser beyond his years while Fuad is greedy and lame giving the characters a juxtaposition from which to create a most interesting tale.
The Voice is a shorter, less complicated story but equally compelling. Mesud hears a ‘voice’ from birth until adulthood that compels him to commit heinous crimes every now and then. Mesud eventually tires from these commands and confides to his grandfather about the voice he hears. Mesud’s grandfather encourages him to regard the voice as evil, a djinn. Mesud then meets a girl whom the voice has sent to kill him but events take a different turn.
Paul Bowles writes these stories in a minimalist style that evoked aspects of Hemingway’s writing style and that is where the comparison ends. There’s beauty in simplicity and eloquence in directness to which Bowles endows on Mrabet’s stories. I look forward to getting my hands on the rest of Bowles’ translations of Mrabet, which will not be easy to come by (at least affordably).
The themes covered in these 86 pages are familiar to me when I think of my Middle Eastern upbringing where gossip and lies can be spread like wildfire, jealousy and greed even from those you are generous to are not uncommon, and belief in the djinn can be extreme. Perhaps this is why the book resonated with me.
I’d like to think, however, that it’s the way the prose is expressed that truly struck a chord – the way good literature always does.