This article was written on 27 Jan 2019, and is filled under Books, Literature.

Muhammad Zafzaf’s The Elusive Fox


Muhammad Zafzaf’s The Elusive Fox

Moroccan literature written in Arabic has never made a name for itself outside of the Arab world. A rare exception would be Mohamed Choukri who owes his success to his translators; his bestseller, For Bread Alone (1973), was translated into English by Paul Bowles, selling more than 150 000 copies and drawing worldwide attention, which led to its translation into 40 languages. The novel was banned in Morocco until 2000 and was removed in 1999 from a syllabus of an Arabic course on modern Arabic poetry at The American University in Cairo.  No other Moroccan writer has had a comparable success to Choukri’s, except those writing in French Like Tahar Ben Jelloun, Abdelkébir Khatibi, and Driss Chraïbi. Although a clique of writers around the world was familiar with his work, Muhammad Zafzaf, another Moroccan writer in the Arabic language, remained until his premature death in 2001 unknown to the rest of the world. In 2014, Syracuse University press published a collection of his short stories and in 2016 issued a translation of one of his novels, The Elusive Fox.

Leading a simple existence as a high school instructor and a librarian, Zafzaf preferred seclusion to the hustle and bustle of the “poor” neighborhood where he lived in the Maarif quarters in Casablanca, a microcosm of Morocco. He claimed in one of the rare interviews to a Moroccan TV channel that he would go outside only to work or to run errands. With a Bohemian lifestyle and a beard à la Che Guevara, Zafzaf’s looks took after a Communist revolutionary, although he never openly espoused a political ideology. Like Choukri, Zafzaf suffered the stinging darts of extreme hardship and poverty as a boy growing up deprived of the protection of a father in a country under colonial rule.

The cruel world in which he was thrust in his tender years played a significant role in his lifestyle and the conception of his fiction. These choices are palpable in The Elusive Fox. This novella could be read as a semi-autobiography because of the commonalities between the protagonist Ali and the author. Both profess teaching and share in the Bohemian lifestyle; both indulge in drugs, alcohol, and promiscuous sex and lead a double existence. In the afterword to the novel, translator Mbarek Sryfi quotes two Moroccan critics who affirm Zafzaf’s predisposition to literature as a reflection of the self: “The Moroccan critic Ahmad Bouzfour describes Muhammad Zafzaf’s experience as ‘a cocktail of misery, sarcasm, and doubt…, of mendicancy, temptation and drunkenness,’ while Driss Khoury, another Moroccan critic, substantiates that opinion, adding that Zafzaf ‘never renounced the role of literature as being a self-reflexive process” (111).

In The Elusive Fox, Ali switches between two personalities, one of solitude and loneliness, the other of a gregarious and friendly being; one of a fox, the other of a kind young man. The fox personality, which erupts occasionally throughout the story, represents the good side in human nature. Ironically, it needs to be repressed and kept in check: “I felt scared that my situation might be discovered—he might figure out that I’m a cunning fox, so I gave in to him. If he did find out, he might well be a lion himself” (37). The cunning fox here refers to Ali’s other self, the one whose choices we usually keep to ourselves, the one that reminds us of our lies, of our wrongdoing, or what we would have done and said in difficult situations instead of forcing kindness and lies. The narrator refers here to the bar owner who advises Ali to apply ice cubes to the affected area to soothe his homorroidal condition; Ali agrees but throws the ice cubes in the toilet instead, basically pleasing the bar owner by hiding the truth from him, hiding the fox.  Inasmuch as the fox represents the good in the human, the undesirable reminder of human duplicity, it is a good that humanity perverts and changes into evil. According to this logic, the evil could exactly be what humans refer to as the good, but its recognition depends on self-awareness, recognizing the evil in decision-making, human relations, and the actions of the self; Zafzaf places the good beyond an experience with evil.

The duplicity is not only individual but also collective and popular. Maxim, a French character in the novel, does not understand how a country could forbid selling alcohol to Muslims but allows them to drink in bars: “’What a weird country!’” Maxim replied. ‘I don’t understand a thing. I’ve seen Muslims drinking in bars. What’s the difference between a bar and a grocery store’” (19). If the fox prevails, the world could be different than the grim reality of the one the narrator describes: “That night I imagined the world as a graveyard in motion. Passersby on the narrow street looked like worms crawling their way over a gigantic, putrid corpse—the earth. They were all talking, frowning, and laughing, and, needless to say, hatching schemes against each other… . It’s a game that is repeated throughout the ages, now adopting a serious guise” (17).  The narrator elaborates when he considers the game to be “ancient” and “part of the great farce, the comedy, the big circus” (32). He admits to want to play the role of “the bear, the lion or the tiger,” but does not know how or, at least, the role of the donkey or the mule if they were not undermined. On the opposite side of the spectrum, the rest of humanity is just a flock of sheep, as in John 10:27 that the narrator quotes: “My sheep listen to my voice. I know them, but they don’t follow me. Instead they sometimes turn into ravenous wolves. That is why Christ must be killed within me and turned into a sheep, wolf, or fox” (62).

Zafzaf’s fictional world reflects a humanity in loss and depravity, oblivious of “… something called death, which is true wisdom, the eternal lesson that is still trying to teach every single ewe but in vain” (33).  Odd scenes like these abound in this novella that tells in first-person narrative Ali’s sojourn in hippy-packed Essaouira in the 1960s. In between Essaouira and Diabet, a village about two miles away, Ali’s peregrinations between parties, hotel rooms, and homes give an interesting, if not a valuable account about hippy culture as an alternative universe of absolute freedom, genuine cultural and ethnic hybridity, a world inimical to the West’s march toward material progress. In Zafzaf’s alternative universe, almost everything is permissible and the fox personality reigns supreme.

Ali never regains his sobriety from the first day when he lands in the city to the last when Brahim, another character in the novel, advises him they should leave the city immediately after three female hippies were murdered in the woods. He leaves against his will. It is as if Ali found what he had been looking for in the care-free hippy culture where he met  Salma, a Swedish young beautiful woman, who reminded him of Salma Lagerlöf, the first female Swedish Nobel Prize winner. He never wanted to become sober nor abandon Essaouira or Diabat for Casablanca where all that is waiting for him are “a dirty room, toilet, and shower; a sponge mattress to sleep on, a rug, and books piled all over the floor” and “three or four female teachers who love me a lot at the beginning of the month. They help me squander my miserable paycheck for the first few days” on drinking (49).

Zafzaf’s fiction is situated somewhere between an existentialist’s view of the world, in Camus’ reading of the Sisyphus myth, and Nietszhe’s belief in the anti-platonic alternative, the Dionysian course that humanity abandoned when Plato offered his poetry to the fire.

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