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“The Bottom of the Jar” by Abdellatif Laâbi

The Bottom of the Jar by Abdellatif Laâbi
translated from the French by André Naffis-Sahely
220 pgs. | pb |9781935744603 | $17.00 

Archipelago Books
Reviewed by Brendan Riley

 

For English language readers, like this reviewer, whose literary sense of North Africa is delimited by periodic forays into the stories and essays of Paul Bowles, the horror vacui of a sun-blanched Oran in Camus’s The Stranger and The Plague, Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo, the bygone world of The Travels of Ali Bey, or William S. Burroughs’s cutup interzone skew, then Abdellatif Laâbi’s autobiographical The Bottom of the Jar is an exquisite must-read.

Superbly translated from the French by André Naffis-Sahely, this novel mainly focuses on the seriocomic musings and peregrinations of the author’s alter-ego, Namouss, a young boy of Fez, seven or eight years old, as he starts to become aware of the complexities of life in his family and the surrounding city during Morocco’s struggle for independence from France in the mid-1950s.

If Europeans are obsessed with background music, 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.

This, the novel’s second paragraph, indicates one of the operating principles that make The Bottom of the Jar so memorable as it leads readers through the clamor and din and confusion of a Morocco trying to establish a modern, national identity.

The narrative seamlessly blends three areas and levels of concern: the background of 1950s Morocco on the cusp of independence from France; the family’s basic interest and concern in these events––their desire for liberation from the French coupled with disputes and worries about the potential dangers involved in supporting various factions vying for the leadership of a new Morocco; and how these fears are manifest in the misadventures of the eldest son, Namouss’s brother Si Mohammed, a rising star in the family, and a supporter of Moroccan independence.

Employed as a postal clerk––thanks to serious study and good performance on government exams, and thus a step up from his father’s artisanal status but also, because of its governmental and colonial character, a position that brings both admiration and controversy to his family and neighborhood––Si Mohammed ends an altercation with a French lieutenant by punching the man in the face. As a consequence he is imprisoned and Laâbi, setting forth with the color, humor, and arch meditative quality that characterizes the novel, describes the sacrifice of money, time, labor, and reputation which Namouss’s father, Driss, and extended family must endure to save the brother from prison and restore the family’s good name.

Driss is a saddlemaker in Fez’s Sekkatine souk and, as Namouss says, “[my father] was a saint. It took me some time to understand this.” Saintly for tolerating his shrill harridan of a wife, Ghita, for providing a humble but stable life for his family, for his good faith, and for his unwillingness to condemn anyone.

The fear and humiliation caused by the oldest son’s brief imprisonment are also echoed later in the novel during an episode in which the family must frantically hide and destroy possessions that might compromise their safety during house-to-house searches amid the country’s turbulent clashes for independence.

Namouss’s reveries include memories of his loving but quarrelsome family, the focal point and highlight being his mother, the salty, thorny, colorful Ghita––the novel’s dramatic anchor and the central presence in Namouss’ his young life––and her endless stream of unsolicited, acid-tongued imprecations as she elbows her way through daily life in a changing Morocco. In stark contrast to the even-tempered Driss, Ghita is a vicious scold, an old-fashioned Moroccan wife; hardworking, demanding, petty, caring, profane, and righteously selfish when the situation warrants it.

The novel’s early chapters also present Si Mohammed’s arranged marriage, Ghita’s pitiless machinations to procure for him the ideal bride (and thus bolster the family’s reputation), and, amusingly, the gathered family’s hushed expectation as the newlyweds retire to their room together for the first time and everyone eavesdrops to hear their cries of consummation.

Atop the richly developed background of social and political turmoil, Laâbi constructs a wonderful human comedy of family life and growing up in and around Fez, and the great, memorable charm of The Bottom of the Jar comes from the minutiae of his richly textured sketches and portraits of daily life in and around the Spring of Horses neighborhood and the Sekkatine souk, presented as Namouss’s memories and what he and his family hear through “Radio Medina” his nickname for the local grapevine of gossip and intrigue.

One of the many memorable sequences follows Namouss’s introduction to a modern, secular French colonial school where he is, much to his astonishment, introduced to the French language and the mysteries of books and handwriting, things he had not been exposed to at his previous Qur’an school; his pride in learning a foreign tongue is a sweet contrast to the political menace overhanging parts of the novel due to the strains of independence and, in some cases outbreaks of violence; thus when Namouss returns home and tries out his new words on his mother:

“Bonjour madame.”

Ghita, who as soon as she steeped on a raisin could promptly feel its sweetness rise up into her mouth, or so she claimed, had understood.

“Is that Freensh or is it Freentasia, as they say?”

And she erupted into a roar of laughter

 

Other episodes include family outings: a colorful, daylong picnic in a beautiful orchard on the edge of Fez, or a short vacation at the Sidi Harazem oasis out in the desert where Namouss learns to swim; Namouss’s first forays to the cinema (learning how to nab the best seats and, no less important, helping the unsophisticated Ghita to not confuse the cinematic illusion with reality) and soccer matches (too poor to get tickets, watching the game through the fence), a visit to the blacksmith in the El Haddadine souk, and getting caught up in a dangerous political demonstration, nearly trampled, and fainting from the crush of the crowd.

Chief among the novel’s many virtues is its wonderful, unflagging good humor. Like the best books rooted in cities, the atmospheric detail, the evocative power of setting is strong, flavorful, sensual. The novel provides many vibrant, interesting vignettes, which variously fade like dreams or linger like the scent or taste of a pungent spice. As he begins to know and understand, and be baffled by his city beyond the familiar confines of the family home, Namouss finds amusement, delight, and amazement scouring the bustling streets, and the narrative moves from the boy’s innocent errands in the marketplace to increasingly far-ranging and even dangerous excursions: “‘tramping and traipsing the streets,’ for which Ghita used to reproach him, or playing with the neighborhood kids right up to nightfall, mixing with the crowds in the Medina and taking in the flow of its sights,” and coming close to getting crushed by a heavily-laden donkey in the nearly deserted souk on one of the sleepy days of fasting during Ramadan. But Namouss’s innocence is also reflected in the pleasure he takes in simply seeing the city laid out before his eyes as he gazes at its panorama:

He loved looking out over the city whenever he climbed up to the rooftop terrace. From his promontory, he could see the minarets of all the important mosques . . . Wholly absorbed, he watched the clouds of steam dancing slowly above the grid of houses, and lent his ears to the noises made by workshops and street-sellers. Crowning this scene, the sky offered him another perspective on visual digressions, a canvas that an inspired hand was painting ceaselessly using colors that Fez held the secret to and had given the original names to: zebti (flesh color), quoqi (artichoke-mauve), fanidi (bubble gum), hammoussi (chickpea), zaâfrani (saffron), fakhiti ( azure), zrireq (violet).

 

Moving in closer, down to the ground, Laâbi’s mid-novel tour of the Sekkatine souk is a descriptive marvel that encapsulates the spirit and virtue of this book: “Namouss’s olfactory memory stored a variety of smells: goatskin, calfskin, hemp yarn, wax, natural or colored wool, bits and stirrup irons, wood, some flour-based adhesive, and of course snuff, which Driss, like the majority of the people in the Sekkatine, consumed vast quantities of.” And this fine description serves to set up deeper, more complex and impressive memories of the heart of social life in Fez, challenged by the changing times:

After the woolen carpets, the secondhand saddles, stirrups, and moukhala guns made the rounds. It got to the point that items completely unrelated to saddlery were peddled: samovars, copperware, engraved daggers . . . But eventually business slowed down and the souk would recover a little tranquility. The shopkeepers did their paperwork ad the craftsmen went back to work, albeit less energetically than before. The local café was flooded with orders, people asking Mrimou, the owner, for coffees or mint teas, which were served in chebri glasses. Out came the nuts or the snuffboxes and everyone gave themselves over to pleasure. This was also the time when passing visitors were welcomed and gossip was exchanged: weddings, divorces, deaths, houses that had gone on the market, inflation, new products, and—naturally—the arm wrestling between nationalists and the colonial authorities.

One of the most vivid recollections the reader might take away from The Bottom of the Jar is Laâbi’s cavalcade of portraits of the colorful local characters and relatives who inhabit their own moral and psychological realities, in moments that feel Dickensian, or perhaps, more appropriately, Mahfouzian, authentic pillars of a portrait of Fez in its turbulent fifties. This excellent series of sketches is anchored by Namouss’ eccentric Uncle Abdelkader who arrives from out of town and brings in the modern world with manufactured and imported goods and, after the right amount of kif, regales his relatives and neighbors with tales from the north; through him Laâbi presents Tangiers with its exotic international palette as an almost non-Moroccan sort of city, as opposed to Fez––by contrast a cradle of tensions. There is also Mikou, an itinerant poet who lives off neighborhood charity: “the scion of a large family, which he had left behind in favor of a free, wandering lifestyle that had in turn led to his family disowning him.” Then there’s Chiki Laqraâ, “the bald spook,” a Muslim woman who goes about unveiled, begging and haranguing the locals with her invective: “Who does that son of a bitch take me for? I am a woman, and the daughter of an honorable woman. My head is bare and I have nothing to hide. Let him come near me and I’ll show him which hole the fish piss out of.” We also meet Bou Tsabihate, the “rosary man,” who preaches harsh sermons but not for alms: “Faith and prayer are the only remedy. But what is it that I see? The mosques empty when it’s time to fill your stomachs. You are still snoring when the muezzin calls you to your duty. And what about the orphans, what do you do for them?” But the mosque can also be a perilous place for the boys because it’s there where they are likely to encounter Bou Souita, “Father Whip,” charged with preventing Namouss and the other boys from messing around. His namesake whip is:

A quince handle with a long leather lash attached to one end, which allowed him to strike the fugitives even in the farthest reaches of the square, dealing out blows in a most democratic fashion. Once the delinquents had been beaten and had dispersed, Bou Souita was free to attend to his other tasks, at which point the rabble-rousers would regroup, this time in a slightly more organized way.

 

Father Whip is offset by the kind Si Abdeltif, “one of the few adults in the neighborhood who didn’t look down on children and was always willing to exchange a few words with them.”

Other equally colorful residents include Bidous, the one legged beggar, Aâssala, the vagabond cat lady, a virtual mute, and Harrba the captivating storyteller who works hard for his money:

Harrba would jump and twirl and about. He would mimic the sound of waves, the wind, thunder, rain, animal calls, evoking sounds as varied as explosive farts to the silent ones weasels make, and would stop – all of a sudden and without warning – to allow the audience to give credit where credit was due.

“Would you like me to carry on?”

“Yes!” they would yell in unison.

“Very well then,” he would say, the show isn’t free. Dig deep into your pockets and let me hear those coins.”

 

But of all these characters it is, once again, Ghita who is the narrative touchstone, poison punchline, and earthy, unexpected guide to local custom and occult rituals, best displayed when she allows Namouss to tag along to a meeting of a religious sect to which she’s devoted, a cult dedicated to Lalla Mira, which translator Naffis-Sahely’s helpful endnotes define thus: “The ‘yellow spirit,’ a jinni that loves perfume, music, and dance and leaves laughter and happiness in her wake. When she takes possession of an individual, she sharpens their wit.” Indeed, Ghita seems to be a sort of coarse embodiment of this spirit. And when Namouss confuses his mother’s patron spirit with a demon he’s quickly corrected:

“Who is Lalla Mira? Some sort of ghoul like Aïcha Kandisha?”

“May your lips go numb! I never want to hear you mention that scrap of carrion again, otherwise she will come and eat you and pick her teeth clean with your bones. Lalla Mira is a real Muslim. She is the spirit that dwells within us and who watches over us. Oh Lalla Mira, taslim, I surrender to you. Here I am, just as you like, wearing your color on my head. Keep evil away from me and my children, and may the evil eye go blind before it manages to reach us.”

 

The curious boy insists on accompanying his mother but gets more than he bargained for, and Laâbi’s description of the rite, with its clouds of cloying incense, frenzied music and dancing, which overwhelm Namouss and cause him to faint, provides one of the most vivid and intense set pieces in a novel that is rich with them:

[Namouss’s] gaze is then drawn to a group of women dancing in the middle of the room. Dancing is not quite the word for it. Their agitation has nothing to do with swaying arms and hips or quivering bellies and shoulders, movements Namouss associated with dance as he knew it, the sort that women threw themselves into with a coquettish air at fêtes and festivities. Instead, the only movement these women are making is snapping their heads back and forth in an increasingly staccato rhythm the rest of their bodies remain immobile, except for when one of them sinks to her knees and begins shaking her torso back and forth with extraordinary strength. Freed from her head scarf, her hair would fall free and toss back and forth, then it began to fly around like a giant eagle experiencing turbulence in flight. Inspired by this ecstasy, the Gnaoua musicians play faster and faster, shouting hoarse sounds to egg the women on. The women reply by ululating in unison. At its climax, the ceremony takes an unexpected turn: A young female spectator leaps into the middle of the ring, and as if she’s been bitten by a scorpion, collapses on to the ground. Gripped by convulsions, she starts rolling and wriggling every which way on the floor. At this sight, a few dancers who haven’t yet lost all sense of reason run over to her, but instead of calming her down, they merely restrict her freedom of movement by surrounding her in a tighter circle. In doing so, these women look not only delighted but even envious of this ‘poor epileptic.’

 

Finally, beyond its alluring, kaleidoscopic mise en scène, this novel is also about the author’s birth as a writer, evidenced explicitly––by passages about his fascination for and growing love of books which bring foreign lands to his awareness:

Not only could he understand what he was reading but he was even beginning to forge a connection between the written words and the images associated with them: images shrouded in mystery and which seemed to come from another world – houses unlike any he’d ever seen, with plenty of space between them, topped by chimneys where smoke rose like a snake into the air, and surrounded by gardens where blond, chubby-cheeked children played on a seesaw.

 

––and implicitly by the resultant masterly compositions which paint glorious pictures of life in Fez, The Bottom of the Jar itself, replete with comedy and well-timed, properly proportioned injections of pathos, constructed on vivid, detailed, imagistic descriptions festooned with lively similes and finely wrought extended metaphors. It’s a novel that patiently elaborates a fascinating coming of age story, masterfully buffering its more sharp-edged historical concerns with Namouss’s naïveté and Laâbi’s deep love of life.

A classic novel of modern Moroccan literature, The Bottom of the Jar is an endless wellspring, a bottomless jar of riches, humane, hilarious, spicy and ribald, deeply captivating, always charming, never offensive––a serious, meticulously crafted memoir of revelatory erudition that superbly blends and balances the political, philosophical, and picturesque.



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