The Hospi­tal: A Tale in Black and White by Ahmed Boua­nani

The New York Review of Books - - Contents - Ur­sula Lind­sey

The Hospi­tal:

A Tale in Black and White by Ahmed Boua­nani, trans­lated from the French by Lara Vergnaud, with an in­tro­duc­tion by Anna Della Su­bin. New Di­rec­tions,

143 pp., $14.95 (pa­per)

The Shut­ters by Ahmed Boua­nani, trans­lated from the French by Emma Ra­madan.

New Di­rec­tions,

127 pp., $16.95 (pa­per)

In 1967 the Moroc­can writer and film­maker Ahmed Boua­nani con­tracted tu­ber­cu­lo­sis and was con­fined for six months in the Moulay Youssef Hospi­tal in Ra­bat. In 1990 he pub­lished a novel, The Hospi­tal. In the first lines, its un­named nar­ra­tor tells us, “When I walked through the iron gate of the hospi­tal, I must have still been alive. At least that’s what I be­lieved since I could smell the scents of a city on my skin, a city that I would never see again.”

The hospi­tal of Boua­nani’s novel is part sana­to­rium, part pur­ga­tory, part prison. It an­tic­i­pates the wave of prison mem­oirs that by the late 1990s would mark the end of Mo­rocco’s in­fa­mous, re­pres­sive “years of lead.” Yet it also dif­fers from them: Boua­nani was not a po­lit­i­cal pris­oner, although he knew sev­eral; the tor­ments the hospi­tal’s res­i­dents suf­fer are largely meta­phys­i­cal, stem­ming from their own sense of dread and fu­til­ity. “It is harder and harder for me to think of the world out­side,” Boua­nani wrote in a ten­der let­ter to his wife dur­ing his stay in the hospi­tal. “I take refuge in dreams, in the night.” In his novel, he took in­spi­ra­tion from the deadly en­nui and dis­ori­en­ta­tion of his days in quar­an­tine. But he turned the hospi­tal into a larger metaphor, a sad and sur­real place whose res­i­dents don’t have the means or the will to leave. The Hospi­tal is a melan­choly, hal­lu­ci­na­tory, bit­ing med­i­ta­tion on a sick coun­try lan­guish­ing un­der the rule of King Has­san II.

Boua­nani, who died in 2011, was a pro­lific artist whose work was con­stantly cen­sored, sti­fled, side­lined, ig­nored, or dam­aged, by men and some­times by nat­u­ral catas­tro­phe. In his life­time he pub­lished only The Hospi­tal and three slim po­etry col­lec­tions, and made one fea­ture-length film—and even that was al­most en­tirely lost. His work, which was al­ways deeply con­cerned with the ques­tion of mem­ory, both per­sonal and na­tional, has been res­cued from near obliv­ion in re­cent years by the ef­forts of a small cir­cle of ad­mir­ers and the ded­i­ca­tion of a sur­viv­ing daugh­ter. Now The Hospi­tal and a col­lec­tion of his po­ems (com­bin­ing two orig­i­nal vol­umes), The Shut­ters, have been trans­lated from the French, and are avail­able in English for the first time.

Boua­nani was born in 1938 in Casablanca. The Shut­ters takes its ti­tle from the shut­ters of the ram­bling fam­ily home through which he once peered at the world. In this col­lec­tion he vividly evokes the land­scape of his war-torn child­hood, of­ten in prose po­ems:

Near the hair­dresser’s, Ab­dal­lahAl-Ari­ane se­cretly sells kif he stashes in a hid­den drawer un­der his stool, safe from the eyes of the po­lice. Bous­bir’s ten­ants chew gum and hum Egyp­tian songs. Kids col­lect trash from the stream at Derb Al Kabir and hastily draw swastikas on the side­walk. In the Houfra neigh­bor­hood, fire­fight­ers pull the ca­daver of a woman who com­mit­ted sui­cide from a well, while at Yafel­mane, near the Cinéma Royale, peo­ple sing a song of the an­cient Far West to the rhythm of a tin-can guem­bri .... When we were eight years old we reen­acted the two wars, we em­barked on cru­sades, we swore we’d de­stroy all the slums . . . . The Moroc­can sol­diers died for a fist­ful of rice, it was writ­ten on their tombs. Only the French died for France.

Boua­nani saw vi­o­lence and death at a young age. In 1953 the French Pro­tec­torate au­thor­i­ties ex­iled Mo­rocco’s sul­tan Mo­hamed V, who sup­ported na­tional in­de­pen­dence, to Mada­gas­car. The coun­try erupted into protests and vi­o­lence. Boua­nani’s fa­ther, a po­lice­man, was shot dead in the street near their house. Boua­nani was six­teen. He re­mem­bers this scene in The Shut­ters:

He fires the only bul­let, one bul­let is enough. And the sun felt dizzy. Morn­ing no longer knows which way to turn. The en­tire city, the walls, the lights, the new sky where the stars barely had time to turn on. Ev­ery­thing falls in front of my bi­cy­cle.

The mur­der was never solved. Boua­nani would of­ten evoke his child­hood, a “coun­try of mem­ory” from which he had been sud­denly ex­iled. One gets the sense that for him, adult­hood was a sort of dire af­ter­life—not be­cause his child­hood was par­tic­u­larly pleas­ant, but be­cause it had, even in its aw­ful­ness, an in­no­cence.

Some of The Hospi­tal’s strangest and most mov­ing pas­sages are those in which the nar­ra­tor, in what seems to be a fever dream, slips back into the skin of the child he was: a sickly, in­som­niac lit­tle boy with a “small selfish heart” who imag­ines him­self a spi­der and spins webs in the cor­ners of the house. Some­times these con­jur­ings are achieved with re­mark­able ease: “All I need for the past to shed its shroud, to slip on the rags of my six-year-old self, is a whiff of Brazil­ian cof­fee, a tune from a mu­sic box, or a fine driz­zle fall­ing in bright sun­light.” At other times, Boua­nani sug­gests that com­muning with the past and the dead comes at a steep price. “You can’t visit the past with im­punity,” warns his al­ter ego; “you leave your blood and sweat be­hind, you leave it all be­hind, and it’s rare to emerge whole from a mass grave.”

Boua­nani be­gan writ­ing af­ter his fa­ther’s death, but could only ex­press him­self in French, the lan­guage of the col­o­niz­ers and the Moroc­can elite. He de­cided to be­come a film­maker rather than a nov­el­ist be­cause he be­lieved that cin­ema could be “an in­ter­na­tional lan­guage.” He stud­ied cin­e­matog­ra­phy in France and re­turned to Mo­rocco in 1963. Two years ear­lier Mo­hammed V, who had be­come king af­ter Mo­rocco gained in­de­pen­dence in 1956, had died sud­denly, and his son, Has­san II, had taken the throne. In­tel­li­gent, dap­per, and ruth­less, the young king set about en­trench­ing his power. He quickly came into con­flict with the stu­dent, la­bor, and left-wing move­ments that ex­pected Mo­rocco to de­moc­ra­tize and over­come feu­dal in­equal­i­ties. Has­san aligned him­self with the Gulf monar­chies in Egypt and neigh­bor­ing Al­ge­ria; he also put his coun­try firmly within the Amer­i­can camp of the cold war.

Boua­nani took a job at the Cen­tre Ciné­matographique Maro­cain (CCM), the only na­tional in­sti­tu­tion ded­i­cated to film pro­duc­tion. He also worked for two years at the In­sti­tut des Arts Pop­u­laires, trav­el­ing across the coun­try to film dis­ap­pear­ing lo­cal arts, cus­toms, po­ems, and songs. This gave him an acute sense of the need to re­con­nect with a pop­u­lar her­itage that first colo­nial­ism and then the new post­colo­nial regime had dis­re­garded, ma­nip­u­lated, or rel­e­gated to dec­o­ra­tive folk­lore. Like many of his con­tem­po­raries, Boua­nani wres­tled with how to close the enor­mous rifts opened by colo­nial­ism, and how to with­stand the era­sures and dis­tor­tions of the new regime, which was clev­erly ar­ray­ing it­self in the man­tle

of both “tra­di­tion” and “moder­nity,” in­ter­preted to suit its in­ter­ests. Part of the an­swer for Boua­nani was to in­sist on re­mem­ber­ing. In an es­say he pub­lished in 1966 on tra­di­tional Moroc­can oral po­etry, its beauty, and its dis­ap­pear­ance, he wrote: “The role of the poet in an­cient Moroc­can so­ci­ety was con­sid­er­able. In the first place, he was the chron­i­cler, ‘the his­to­rian’ of his tribe.”

So he would bear caus­tic wit­ness, and tell of be­ing born into “a worn down uni­verse, amid a van­quished, hu­mil­i­ated hu­man­ity, re­signed to an ab­surd destiny of flow­er­ing graves that led to an un­cer­tain fu­ture in in­tol­er­a­ble par­adises”; of be­long­ing to a “cursed gen­er­a­tion born of the mar­riage of the louse and the lo­cust,” caught be­tween the depre­da­tions of colo­nial­ism and other cen­turies-old forms of ex­ploita­tion. He would re­ject the mys­ti­fi­ca­tions and threats of re­li­gion, which in Mo­rocco have of­ten been used to brow­beat the peo­ple into sub­mis­sion (in his po­ems he de­scribes “minarets planted in our flesh,” skies filled with “the clam­our of buf­foons”). What he wanted was for Moroc­cans to share new sto­ries that could con­nect them to their past but also il­lu­mi­nate their present. In a 1974 in­ter­view, he said:

My only am­bi­tion—and it’s the am­bi­tion of all Moroc­can film­mak­ers—is to get au­di­ences used to see­ing them­selves on the screen, see­ing their own prob­lems on the screen, and from that, be­ing able to judge them­selves and the so­ci­ety in which they live. The screen must cease to be the priv­i­leged mir­ror of for­eign coun­tries. Mak­ing films, he once wrote, was a chance to “par­tic­i­pate in [build­ing] a world that isn’t trau­matic.”

That hope is par­tic­u­larly un­der­stand­able and poignant, given the times Boua­nani lived in. In 1965 a stu­dent up­ris­ing turned into ur­ban ri­ots in Casablanca. The king sent in tanks and he­li­copters, and the army opened fire on the crowds. In a tele­vised ad­dress af­ter the re­volt had been blood­ily put down, Has­san II ad­mon­ished his peo­ple: “Al­low me to tell you that there is no greater dan­ger to the State than a so-called in­tel­lec­tual. It would have been bet­ter if you were all il­lit­er­ate.” It was the be­gin­ning of Mo­rocco’s “years of lead.” Dis­si­dents were sub­jected to show tri­als, forced into ex­ile, or dis­ap­peared into se­cret pris­ons. The so­cial­ist leader Me­hdi Ben Barka, in ex­ile in Paris, was snatched off the street with the con­nivance of French po­lice of­fi­cers and al­most cer­tainly tor­tured to death by Moroc­can se­cu­rity of­fi­cials in a villa out­side Paris (his body, which may have been dis­solved in acid, was never found).

Boua­nani was a con­trib­u­tor to the avant-garde mag­a­zine Souf­fles (as were the nov­el­ist Ta­har Ben Jel­loun, the poet Ab­del­latif Laâbi, the pain­ter Farid Belka­hia, and other fu­ture lu­mi­nar­ies). The artists who gath­ered around Souf­fles were strug­gling to de­fine an al­ter­na­tive, indige­nous moder­nity. They be­lieved that a cul­tural rev­o­lu­tion must nec­es­sar­ily ac­com­pany a po­lit­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion. Over the years the mag­a­zine be­came in­creas­ingly politi­cized as the re­pres­sion in­ten­si­fied and its ed­i­tors em­braced Marx­ist-Lenin­ism. Souf­fles was shut down in 1972, and the ed­i­tors were put on trial for sedi­tion. Sev­eral were tor­tured and given lengthy prison sen­tences. In one of sev­eral po­ems ad­dress­ing the events of those years, “How Many,” Boua­nani wrote:

How many fu­tures must we imag­ine, how many ceme­ter­ies, pla­toons, si­lences?

Our stolen youth ap­plauds with a sin­gle hand.

At the CCM, Boua­nani him­self was sus­pected (falsely) of be­ing a Com­mu­nist. His films were cen­sored, and in 1967 he was banned from di­rect­ing. He made the short film 6 et 12—a vis­ual and acous­tic por­trait of Casablanca from the early morn­ing un­til noon— but did not take credit as the di­rec­tor. Rel­e­gated to the base­ment of the CCM, Boua­nani pored over footage from the French colo­nial ar­chives and emerged with Mé­moire 14, a col­lage of Moroc­can his­tory. The ti­tle is shared with one of his po­ems, which is read over the open­ing se­quence of the film:

Happy is he whose mem­ory rests in peace.

Whether the earth bears or does not bear, whether the streams flow with honey or blood, whether our gaze is blinded or cut off, our mem­ory en­dures— may it re­gain the rhythm of our twen­ties.

The last line is a ref­er­ence to a re­volt that took place in north­ern Mo­rocco in the 1920s. In the moun­tain­ous re­gion of the Rif, the Ber­ber leader Abd el-Krim el-Khat­tabi led a suc­cess­ful in­sur­gency against Span­ish oc­cu­piers and es­tab­lished the in­de­pen­dent Rif Repub­lic. Af­ter four years, it was de­stroyed by co­or­di­nated Eu­ro­pean at­tacks that in­cluded the use of chem­i­cal weapons. El-Khat­tabi fled to ex­ile in Cairo. The Moroc­can monar­chy, in­tent on mo­nop­o­liz­ing the na­tion­al­ist nar­ra­tive, buried the story of a break­away re­gion that had kicked out colo­nial pow­ers three decades be­fore the rest of the coun­try did. In 1958, the Rif rose up again, de­mand­ing el-Khat­tabi’s re­turn and greater rep­re­sen­ta­tion in the post­colo­nial govern­ment—and Crown Prince Has­san II led a mil­i­tary cam­paign to the re­gion that left vil­lages and fields in flames and ten thou­sand dead.

But af­ter screen­ing Mé­moire 14 for CCM of­fi­cials, Boua­nani was forced to re­move all ref­er­ences to the Rif. By show­ing the coun­try as it was, he was ac­cused of want­ing to “spoil the im­age of Mo­rocco.” The CCM’s di­rec­tor, Omar Ghan­nam, cut the film down again and again, from 108 to 24 min­utes, and in­sisted that the dis­carded ma­te­rial be de­stroyed.

“For them ar­chives should not have ex­isted,” Boua­nani told the film­maker Ali Es­safi, who in­ter­viewed him a few years be­fore his death. “There should not be a mem­ory. They were scared all the time of mem­ory.” In the official ver­sion of his­tory, Boua­nani said, “be­fore Mo­hamed V there was noth­ing,” and men­tion­ing the Rif War or the Rif Repub­lic made you a “shit-stir­rer.” In the trun­cated ver­sion of Boua­nani’s film that has sur­vived, we see mys­te­ri­ous scenes of vi­o­lence, loss, and change: armies and crowds pass through the streets; lo­custs fly over fields; a shep­herd runs to get a gun; a French of­fi­cer shoots a camel; the sul­tan rides un­der his tra­di­tional para­sol; Moroc­cans wave at the cam­era from the top of a bus. Even these snip­pets sur­vived only by chance: Ghan­nam was among the guests at a lav­ish birth­day party thrown by the king at the Skhi­rat palace in 1971. The fes­tiv­i­ties were in­ter­rupted when sol­diers ar­rived to carry out a coup, open­ing fire on the crowd. The king mirac­u­lously sur­vived. Ghan­nam was among the ninety-two guests who were killed—had he lived, it is likely there would be no trace left of Mé­moire 14.

The story of Boua­nani’s work and life is full of such strange chances— of re­ver­sals, losses, near catas­tro­phes, and mov­ing acts of re­cov­ery. In 1974 he filmed Sidi Ahmed ou Moussa, about a re­li­gious scholar and Sufi poet who led the peas­ant re­sis­tance against the Por­tuguese in the six­teenth cen­tury. It was filmed in the south, us­ing non­pro­fes­sional ac­tors. But the rushes were de­stroyed by a lab­o­ra­tory in France af­ter the CCM re­fused to pay for their de­vel­op­ment. It was only in 1979 that Boua­nani man­aged to make his one fea­ture-length film, Le Mi­rage. Based on the life of an itin­er­ant un­cle, it tells the story of a poor man who finds a pile of dol­lars in­side a flour sack and em­barks on a jour­ney to the city, hop­ing to take ad­van­tage of his good for­tune. Fea­tur­ing hum­ble char­ac­ters and ev­ery­day set­tings, the black-and-white film moves from one mys­te­ri­ous and evoca­tive tableau to the next. The pro­tag­o­nist, in search of help, en­coun­ters a singer, a for­tune-teller, a zeal­ous preacher, and a charis­matic im­pre­sario whose ac­tiv­i­ties may also be po­lit­i­cal. What Boua­nani chose to pub­lish and man­aged to film was just a frac­tion of his life’s work. Even as his name faded from pub­lic view, he went on writ­ing, fill­ing note­books with nov­els, po­ems, jour­nals, screen­plays, and his­to­ries in his neat hand­writ­ing, ac­com­pa­nied by grace­ful il­lus­tra­tions. They piled up in the apart­ment he shared in Ra­bat with his wife, Naïma Saoudi, a cos­tume and set de­signer and life­long col­lab­o­ra­tor, and their two daugh­ters, Ba­toul and Touda. In 2006 a fire en­gulfed the apart­ment. It started on the bal­cony, where film can­is­ters and Naïma’s props and cos­tumes were stored.

Boua­nani never saw the dev­as­ta­tion that fol­lowed; he had re­tired to a mud-brick house in the vil­lage of Aït Oumghar in the At­las Moun­tains, re­fus­ing to set foot in the apart­ment af­ter Ba­toul died in an ac­ci­dent there in 2003. What the fire didn’t dam­age, the fire­men’s hoses did. But Naïma, helped by friends, gath­ered ev­ery scrap of burned and soaked pa­per and dried them slowly on the ter­race in the sun. Among the pa­pers saved from ruin were a novel Boua­nani had ded­i­cated to her and a por­trait he had drawn of the two of them, his head nes­tled in the shadow of her neck.

While Boua­nani’s work was be­ing re­sus­ci­tated one page at a time, oth­ers, in­trigued by glimpses and ru­mors of his talent, had gone in search of him. Ali Es­safi’s doc­u­men­tary Cross­ing the Sev­enth Gate is an in­valu­able por­trait. In an es­say about Boua­nani, Es­safi is

Ahmed Boua­nani, Paris, 1962

Newspapers in English

Newspapers from USA

© PressReader. All rights reserved.