A Boy’s Life in Fez Morocco

Fez Morocco doorway
Fez doorway, Photo from Flickr.

Destination: Fez, Morocco

Book: The Bottom of the Jar by Abdellatif Laâbi (In French 2002, Archipelago Books English Edition, 2013) Translated by Andre Naffis-Sahely

Do you want to read about exotic differences between a Western, Christian culture, and a north-African Muslim culture?  You will find some of that in the description of Fez, Morocco in The Bottom of the Jar. But you will also learn how similar people are across continents, religions and even decades.

Poet Abdellatif Laâbi lulls you into the world of colonial Morocco with this novel based on his youth in the 1950’s. The little boy he once was (“my ancestor and my child” he calls this past self) pokes around the streets of Fez, Morocco from the age of about eight. We follow him for several years as Namouss (mosquito) looks for answers to the puzzling questions little boys confront.

Like all of us, he assumes the world he knows is the right one. For instance, he (and most Fezzis) marvel at the ways of the Nazarenes, their term for Christians. Gradually his world expands beyond his neighborhood, beyond the medina. Eventually he even grows beyond Fez–but in his home city, his adventures never stray into the everyday lives of the French who rule the country. He reveres his French teacher because he reveres learning, but he can’t understand the strange ways of the French.

Morocco children
Children playing in Marrakesh

On one level, Namouss’s life is simply “boys will be boys.” He plays with gangs, explores the narrow streets or the medina, tussling, getting in trouble, playing tricks on people, worrying about his misdeeds. The fundamental dynamics of being a little boy would not change if you moved the scamps to another country or to the 21st century.

Laâbi introduces unforgettable characters, particularly the boy’s mother, Ghita. While everyone tends to speak in colorful aphorisms, Ghita’s lengthy monologues outdo everyone for self-absorbed drama. She never tires of complaining about her lot in life. And her commentary on the first movie she sees will have you rolling in the theater aisles. When women begin to act liberated, she says, “It’s the end of the world. Give a dog enough rope and he will lick your lips and stand on your head.” I will not soon forget Ghita.

As for the aphorisms, the boy’s uncle warms up for a proposal of bribery to get a family member out of jail by reeling off the following:

Lust is an epidemic. Wax a piece of thread and it will pass better. If you hate, pretend to love. You must kiss the hand that you cannot cut off.

Odd characters abound both within the family and on the streets–seeming to be performing just to relieve the boredom of a young boy.

But despite the carefree antics of the boys and the loving eccentricities of the family, a threat hovers over Fez. The Moroccans are fed up with being under the thumb of a foreign power and as resistance begins to surface, the French crack down. One day a man is shot in front of the boy’s house. Soon their lives are changed entirely.

The Bottom of the Jar thus features family life, coming of age, and revolution. It also is about language, the boy’s passion and fascination.

My word hoard was a meager, meager affair. The inability to pin down the objects in my mind and say “you are called this, and you that” infuriated me. And since I have recognized you and named you with my own mouth, come now, stop being so mysterious, follow me. Jump into my pocket and let’s go!

Fez Morocco tiles
Carving & tilework on the interior of the oldest “university” in the world (University of Al-Karaouine/Al-Qarawiyyin) in Fez, Morocco

The rhythm of the book is like poetry and the imagery so sharp that for a few hours, I felt that I was in Fez in the 50’s. But the prose is not, for the most part flowery. An exception is the loving description of Fez, even though he starts by saying, “We can dwell a little on this without sliding into lyricisms to describe its splendor.”

The sky opens its dance card, flips through its pages of fluid blue, its openness a purveyor of dew that invites the light to a dance where only the fingertips touch.

And he goes on in this vein describing spring in the city, in a way that would make you want to book your ticket to Fez, Morocco immediately.

Fez Morocco medina
Streets of Fez Morocco

But after all, high-flown language would not work throughout this book because the narrator is a young boy just learning the names of things. So the language for the most part is colloquial and casual. Laâbi wrote the book in French and included some Arabic words. It took exquisite translation to present this book in English that sounds completely natural to the American ear.

I have to add a word about the publisher–Archipeligo Books. If you love reading about other cultures in the words of authors from those cultures, you’ll definitely want to make the acquaintance of Archipelago. Their editions are beautifully crafted and carefully selected to bring you books that English-speakers might miss.

Note: The publisher provided a review copy of the book and while I appreciate that, it does not influence my opinion.  Links here to Amazon make your online shopping easier, if you do not have an independent bookstore nearby. You need to know I have an affiliate relationship with Amazon, so I make a few pennies on sales through the links.  Photos here are from Flickr, used with Creative Commons license.

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About Vera Marie Badertscher

A freelance writer who loves to travel. When she is not traveling she is reading about travel. When she is not reading or traveling, she is sharing with the readers of A Traveler's Library, or recreating her family's past at Ancestors In Aprons . She has written for Reel Life With Jane, Life is a Trip and other websites. Also co-author of a biography, Quincy Tahoma, The Life and Legacy of a Navajo Artist. Contact Vera Marie by e-mail.

6 thoughts on “A Boy’s Life in Fez Morocco

  1. What a superb review, Vera. This book sounds incredible. I can’t get to all the books I want to read, though — not even to a fraction of them. So frustrating.

    1. Thanks for your comment, and I understand the frustration, Ruth. I feel privileged to have so many fantastic new books thrust upon me. But, still,although I chose this “job”, sometimes I feel like I need time to read something just for the heck of it.

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