Book review: Youssef Fadel's Moroccan prison drama

The Moroccan soldiers who took part in the 1971 coup against King Hassan II did not realize they were participating in an armed revolt. They thought they were “participating in military exercises with live ammunition,” writes translator Jonathan Smolin in his introduction to Youssef Fadel’s novel, A Rare Blue Bird Flies With Me. When the […]

The Moroccan soldiers who took part in the 1971 coup against King Hassan II did not realize they were participating in an armed revolt. They thought they were “participating in military exercises with live ammunition,” writes translator Jonathan Smolin in his introduction to Youssef Fadel’s novel, A Rare Blue Bird Flies With Me.

When the coup failed, many of the soldiers were given a year’s prison sentence, others were put on planes and taken to off-the-map desert prisons where they would spend the rest of their lives.

Author and playwright Fadel spent a year in the Derb Moulay Chérif prison in the 1970s and has written three Arabic-language novels set during the Years of Lead, a difficult period of Moroccan history from the 1970s to 80s.

A Rare Blue Bird Flies With Me is the first of those novels to be translated into English – its Arabic version was a contender for the 2014 International Prize for Arabic Fiction – and one of the first titles published by the American University in Cairo’s new fiction imprint Hoopoe.

A Rare Blue Bird is a strange novel. Pilot Aziz vanishes soon after his wedding to Zina, a 16-year-old runaway whom he rescues from a life as a prostitute. Zina immediately falls in love with Aziz, but does not understand why her new husband must report to the military base when it’s a holiday. He tells her to just watch for him in the sky. It’s the last time she sees him.

The next two decades of Aziz’s life are spent in a dark cell, passing through “a long line of nights of varying blackness”. Zina devotes her life to an all-consuming hunt for Aziz, riding by bus from town to town looking for clues to his whereabouts, but it’s as if Aziz never existed.

Even as A Rare Blue Bird‘s plot follows a somewhat predictable route at times, events progress rapidly and with the acute tension of a detective novel. Over the course of a single night and morning, we hear from the roving internal voices of Aziz, Zina, prison guards and even a dog.

Aziz’s claustrophobic world is set “near the cracks in the door”. He prays not to find God but to pass the time. He follows the movements of rats and roaches and listens to the calls of birds, with which he has a particular affinity. “I have a special relationship with the flying animals,” Aziz muses. “I understand their language completely.”

Aziz is no longer connected to the world outside the prison, just the surreal space shaped by his cell and his maze of thoughts.

It’s tempting to say that the realness of Aziz’s voice is due to Fadel’s own experiences in prison, and this would not be too far off. “You do not know where you are or how long you are going to stay, until one day you do not remember when you entered prison,” Fadel told Arabic Literature (in English).

Translator Smolin, author of Moroccan Noir: Police, Crime, and Politics in Popular Culture, also notes that Fadel relied on countless Moroccan prison memoirs to weave “together details from dozens of accounts into a single novel”.

In Fadel’s fictionalised take on the Years of Lead, the prisoners’ real-life pain morphs into a ghost story, wherein everyone is haunted, especially those most complicit in the system.

In the courtyard of the prison where Aziz lays dying, two guards play checkers atop the graves of prisoners, debating whether or not their last prisoner has died.

The guards, like the prisoners, are trapped in their own limbo. To Baba Ali, the prisoners are sub-human, not of the realm of the living. But if the prisoners are not of this world, does that make him the guardian of an unearthly realm?

There is never a sense that the novel is moving toward any resolution of the guards’ or Aziz’s suffering, only an escape from it through fantasy and hauntings.

“This bird fills the place with questions that don’t exist. With a new air,” observes Aziz.

Leah Caldwell writes for Alef Magazine, the Los Angeles Review of Books and the Texas Observer.

Source: art & life

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