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, Abdallah-Al-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,
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 incensed at the way an artist whose legacy he might have benefited from had been buried so long from his view: “Why was I and others like me deprived from access to a major oeuvre?” It is thanks to Essafi that we have an image of Bouanani at the end of his life: gaunt and handsome, with sweet eyes and the wild hair of a prophet. Surrounded by books in his rural retreat, he appears sharp, thoughtful, gently amused by his own melancholy.
The translator and writer Omar Berrada also spent years searching for Bouanani’s out-of-print cult novel. Eventually, as director of the Dar al-Ma’mûn center in Marrakech, Berrada published a new edition of The Hospital and offered residencies to Bouanani’s translators. Above all, however, the work of Bouanani has been revived thanks to his daughter Touda, who is an artist working in video and photography. For years now she has been painstakingly reconstructing her father’s unpublished writings, including a three-hundred-page manuscript of a history of cinema in Morocco, and bringing his work to the attention of others. Touda, whom I have met in Rabat more than once, shares an artistic affinity with her father, as well as a striking resemblance to him: the same bird-like features, accentuated by her shaved head; the same slightly melancholy reserve that is suddenly dispelled by laughter. Her name, she told me once, means “she who suffices.”
By the time Bouanani wrote The Hospital, the open indignation and occasional bravado of the poems he had written in the 1960s and 1970s had been distilled into a cold, hard, nearly hopeless anger. “The hospital is a frozen body, walled in from every angle,” the narrator tells us. “Nothing survives here except bones and men pale as lice.” One of the few things we know about the narrator is that he is a man of letters; his fellow patients, on the other hand, have little education. “All my cohorts are illiterate,” he tells us:
Their collective library contains fragments from the Quran, shabby scraps from The Perfumed Garden, A Thousand and One Nights seasoned à la Marrakesh, and Juha’s trickster stories. They’re porters, stevedores, storekeepers, the unemployed, smugglers of every kind, the rejects of inexplicable wars and an aborted national resistance, farm boys without land or bread, left behind like febrile, rerouted castaways, with a cargo of off-seasons and coarse language, still smelling of cornbread and cow dung.
Yet the narrator feels affection rather than condescension for these self-deprecating, clear-eyed, foul-mouthed outcasts, and they in turn entrust him with their stories. “Maybe one day you’ll write a book about us,” says one, “about our testicles, about the beautiful shit that we’re drowning in.”
Once again Bouanani is acting as chronicler of his society. He uses all his literary gifts to convey ugliness and hopelessness, coarse voices that nonetheless maintain their dignity. One of the remarkable characteristics of The Hospital is how masterfully it weaves together high and low registers, wistfulness and violence, the lyrical and the scatological. Bouanani’s writing—which in The Hospital, and especially in the original French, uncoils in long, barbed sentences—mixes melancholy, fury, wild visions, and humor. Some of this is lost in Vergnaud’s translation, which although generally faithful and graceful breaks the long French sentences into shorter declarative ones in English, sometimes changing the order and therefore the emphasis of their parts. Bouanani’s language still has its force but it loses some of its rhythm and lands fewer of its blows.
The patients speak freely because no one cares what they say. No one—themselves included—seems to expect them to ever recover or leave. They are marooned in the hospital, the gate of which has a disturbing habit of receding or disappearing entirely. The hospital authorities, as is often the case in authoritarian states, are all-powerful yet absent, unresponsive. Nor does religion offer much guidance or consolation. Those patients who try to preach to others are often violently rebuffed and mocked: “You can help yourself to my spot in paradise and set up a grocery store while you’re at it.” At one point a patient jokes that, since angels are “the civil servants of heaven,” a bribe is needed to ensure timely entry into the afterlife.
What hangs over the hospital isn’t the fear of death or hell but of being forgotten, of disappearing amid complete indifference. The narrator feels “the threat of one day being diluted like a common solution in the murderous hospital air.” The only safeguards against oblivion are the patients’ feeble human bonds, their shared bitter jokes, and their exhausted solidarity. When the narrator’s closest friend, Le Corsaire (he gets his nickname because he hails from the ancient pirate city of Sale; Vergnaud translates it as Rover, not quite felicitously), finally leaves, he insists on giving the narrator a small basil plant. Basil, he explains, is
the plant of the Prophet and sailors, it’s an eye open to the future, the farmer’s crystal ball…. You just need to plant it in a little bit of dirt and water it, a few drops will keep it alive for a human eternity. I’m entrusting it to you, take care of it like it’s your flesh and blood. As long as it doesn’t wither, I’ll live, and if one day its green petals fade, well then…
The narrator mocks his friend but, once he is gone, takes his trust seriously. On the last page, he makes clear it’s become part of the structure of his days:
I slide under my blanket, thinking that sleep will consume itself like a burning piece of paper. When there’s nothing but ashes left, I’ll once again wake up in the light of a new day and walk behind the veranda, to the spot where I planted basil leaves at the base of the wall.
Ahmed Bouanani believed that it is only by tending what others have passed down to us, by protecting their memories, that we can find meaning and consolation in this hard world. In the end, he seemed resigned to being forgotten himself. Against the odds, he hasn’t been.