Restoring Morocco’s Past

The Shutters

by Ahmed Bouanani, translated from the French by Emma Ramadan
New Directions, 127 pp., $16.95 (paper)
Touda Bouanani
Ahmed Bouanani, Paris, 1962

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…

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