Of Transitions, Agendas and Bad Balls: Thoughts on Hamid Qabbal’s The Road to Mogador
- Title: The Road to Mogador
- Author: Hamid Qabbal
- Publisher: Editions Sefrioui, Essaouira, Morocco
- Number of pages: 128
- Year of publication: 2015
- Category: Fiction
Hamid Qabbal has balls. In his third novel, The Road to Mogador, he disowns allegiance to his balls and paints men as monsters and women as angels trampled by these monsters. The novel is one of transition, new beginnings and gender relations. It belongs to the broad collection of works that form the corpus of Moroccan literature.
Moroccan literature is not so popular among those used to Western (British, French, American etc) literature. Most of the Moroccan works that have attracted considerable attention in English-speaking countries have done so as translations. This includes the works of such writers as Bensalem Himmich, Mohammed Berrada and Abdelrahim Lahbibi. The exceptions are writers like Laila Lalami and Hamid Qabbal, who write in English.
On the surface, The Road to Mogador is about the family life of an illiterate, Moroccan Muslim. On the whole, it is the story of the village community of Shisht. The style of the novel is somewhat tricky. It starts at the end and slowly rewinds itself, showing incidents that lead to the beginning, which is the point just after the end.
At the centre of the plot is Warda, a strong and intelligent girl of 15. She goes through a lot in the short period that the novel spans. Her mother has just died and she tries to come to terms with this alongside her father, Mustapha, and her grandmother.
‘While the father looked forward to the new life, the daughter sought refuge in her grandmother’s stories where the desirable became possible’ (p 14). 40 days later, Warda is given out in marriage while her father takes a new wife and continues to court widows and single ladies at his provisions shop.
Warda asks her grandmother what would have happened if her father had died instead of her mother. Her grandmother simply replies: ‘We are forbidden to mourn for a dead person more than three days except in the case of a husband for whom mourning is allowed for four months and ten days’ (p 75).
Her grandmother is later shown to have a distrust of men, whom she sees as stupid and shallow. ‘For her, men could see the grass, but not the grave; the matter, but not the mind. What was virtue for women was vice for men’ (p 89). Her position seems justified given the philosophy of Mustapha, who believes that a woman is meant to bear children, stay indoors without any education, do housework, have no contact with any other man but strictly love her husband and her house.
Warda’s grandmother schools her in various aspects of tradition and Arabian folklore, which make her wiser. This is in addition to her learning at the Koranic school. Though she is not given permission to go out, she sneaks out to the lake to just sit and enjoy nature, envying the freedom of birds. At other times, she goes to the dump to ‘enjoy’ the companionable sense of shared abandonment with objects there.
Qabbal brings a romantic twist to his tale with the character of Youssef, an assistant to Mustapha, and classmate of Warda in the Koranic school. He is a different type of man from Mustapha, affectionate and steals magic moments with Warda. One day, he takes her out, drugs her then rapes her. While she cries, he tells her it is the only way he can marry her.
Warda gets tired of it all and takes a bus ride to find out more about life. At the same time, her people get tired of the corruption in their society and, in the spirit of the Arab Spring, stand against the evil that never seems to die.
A question raised at the end of the novel relates to how much change can come to any society and whether life is not just the same game that merely continues at different points with new players for the same team. This conundrum is foregrounded by portraying Youssef as the hero of the youth revolution in Shisht, even though he gets his just deserts from another man at the end of the book.
The novel is written simply, with an easy diction. The book does not take much intellectual effort to partake in. The major preoccupation of the book is the subjugation of women by men in society. There are hints of exaggeration at certain points, in the descriptions of the actions of the male characters. This makes the book read like an agenda-driven piece.
There are also the prominent themes of transition and adjustments. These are shown throughout the tale in the way the various characters try to adapt to what circumstances they find themselves. Mostly, while men take advantage of reality, women seek transitions and alternate realities (in folk tales) to find peace.
Qabbal draws on certain traditions in his narrative. He taps Arabian legends and folklore, Islamic traditions and the Koran. At a point in the novel, he brings in popular stories with themes similar to his. In the process, he also builds a contrast between Western education and local education.
Nezha, an ex-classmate of Warda who advances beyond the Koranic school, tells her of the progress she is making at school. Warda on the other hand tells Nezha the stories that her grandmother has told her, including the story of Shahrazad, daughter of a vizier, who marries Shahraiar, a king who kills all his virgin brides on the morning after his wedding. Shahrazad tells the king a lot of stories and is saved in the end.
One easily notes the influence of the One Thousand and One Nights here. We notice the intrusive voice of the author when we hear Warda explain why Sharazad tells the stories – an attempt to shatter a man-made mirror that depicts women as mere sex slaves. The story that follows that of Shahrazad is a long narration that spans about four pages. It is that of Badr Buddur and Prince Qamar Zaman that ‘showed how free women could become once this false mirror was smashed’ (p 32).
On p 96, a text of the song of the prophet’s praise is reproduced in full. The full rendition of traditional stories and religious songs helps in painting a more realistic picture of the society on which the book is centred. One also notices that these infusions also help advance the author’s agenda. The instance of the tales of Shahrazad and that of Badr Buddur related above are ready examples.
In more than a few places, the author employs rhythm in sentences and plays with rhyme. This style makes his language use delightful even if the rhymes seem off and forced in some places. One notices the rhyming in lines like, ‘For Mustapha, life was strife, and the lot of women was to work day and night, without respite’ (p 8). One gets a feel of it in this extended quotation too:
Her eyes that bore no trace of tears; her looks that showed no token of fears, her smiles that were brighter than most her peers imparted an instant feeling of relief from pain and grief. For warda [sic], she was like an ice-cream; for her father, she was like a mid-summer night dream (p 90)
A major drawback of the book is the number of editorial issues that swim across the pages. There are a lot of misplaced and absent quotation marks, missing full stops, use of small letters at the beginning of names (particularly ‘warda’) and the like.
In all, in The Road to Mogador, Hamid Qabbal succeeds in writing a tale that addresses both the subjugation of women in patriarchal societies and the Arab Spring that shook the Arab world and changed things to some extent even though some of those changes have been reversed. It is a book that will easily appeal to those who champion the rights of women in patriarchal societies.
That Qabbal lives in such a society and speaks about it is commendable. His telling of the story from the viewpoint of a woman’s pain, throwing jabs at men, is also something that some readers might pat him on the back for. The novel offers insights into aspects of communal living in a part of Morocco, though one gets the feeling that too much realism should not be read into it.
Photograph: Stroll in Medina Mogador (Essaouire) by Julie Kertesz
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