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Research in African Literatures 34.2 (2003) 127-144

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Rewriting Political Commitment for an International Canon:
Paul Bowles's For Bread Alone as Translation of Mohamed Choukri's Al-Khubz Al-Hafi

Nirvana Tanoukhi
Stanford University

When Fredric Jameson called for decentering the Western canon through the inclusion of "national allegories" from the non-Western world (Jameson 66), Aijaz Ahmad insisted that literature from the "third world" is by no means marginalized in the West. A proper critique of the academy, Ahmad argued, must examine the conditions by which numerous non-Western texts have been "selectively admitted" to form this Western canon of "third world literature" ("Jameson's Rhetoric of Otherness" 17). This process of selective admission, as Ahmad suggests, is governed by the interpretative paradigms that have dominated Anglo-American metropolitan academia in the aftermath of the late 1960s—namely, the interrelated cultural theories of postmodernism, poststructuralism, and postcolonialism—and by which non-Western literary works have been interpreted, evaluated, and, sometimes, granted the status of representative "third world" texts in Western academic curricula (In Theory 43-71).

This study examines a concrete instance of what Ahmad describes as the appropriation of non-Western literary texts by theoretical paradigms operating as mechanisms of "selective admission." Paul Bowles's English translation, For Bread Alone (1973), of Mohamed Choukri's Afro-Arab testimonial Al-Khubz Al-Hafi (1982) provides a unique case study in the interpretation of a non-Western text for a horizon of "third world literature." The title, Al-Khubz Al-Hafi, translated literally from Arabic as "barefooted bread," alludes to the Arabic idiom "khubz haf," and means "bare bread" eaten by itself as a meal. A comparison of the Arabic and English versions shows that Bowles's translation suppresses Choukri's investment in a literate, rational, and modern nation, by presenting Al-Khubz Al-Hafi as a celebration of the oral, irrational, and primitive. The ideological trajectories of author and translator clash as the translation struggles to accommodate the original's passage into the realm of what is expected by English readers from a "third world" work of literature. Moments of ambiguity in the translation point to particular sites of contestation, namely, its treatment of literacy and sexuality. As translation theorist André Lefevre has suggested, it is all the processes of "rewriting" original texts—including translations, criticism, anthologies, book reviews, film adaptations, and even jacket quotes—that "establish and maintain literature as a system" (1). Bowles's translation, as Lefevre's theory suggests, operates as an interpretative apparatus that attempts to rewrite Choukri's original into a "third world" African text for a foreign, academic horizon of expectation.

Choukri wrote his testimonial work, Al-Khubz Al-Hafi, or "Bare Bread," in 1973 when, on behalf of a London publisher, the American expatriate [End Page 127] Bowles suggested that he write an autobiography. At the time, Choukri had already intended to undertake the project but did not feel sufficiently established as a writer. His published work had been limited to a few stories in Arabic literary journals, some of which had been translated by Bowles into English for magazines such as Harper's and Antaeus in the United States, and TransatlanticReview in Great Britain. That year, Bowles, who had been living in Morocco since 1947 and had turned away from his own writing after his wife's stroke in 1957, undertook a number of projects involving the transcription and translation into English of oral narratives by Moroccan storytellers (Conversations 223). Seizing the publication offer, Choukri wrote Al-Khubz al-Hafi in Arabic and simultaneously collaborated with Bowles on an English translation, which appeared the same year under the title For Bread Alone (1973). Al-Khubz Al-Hafi was rejected by several publishers in the Arab world and was not printed until 1982 through a Casablanca press at the author's expense. Even after it was finally published, the Arabic version was initially censored for what was perceived as pornographic content and dismissed by many...


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