I believe that “Chaouen, 1936” is a story that says far more than what appears on the surface. It describes ancient cities and their rich architectural heritage, and celebrates the strength of earlier generations, who built their houses with their own hands along mountain slopes. It also chronicles a life of panhandling, amid the poverty, starvation and despair of the generations that followed. It reveals the profitable business of war, the exploitation of people in despair, the seditious groups who switch sides, and the iniquity of those whose only purpose in life is to crush the dreams of others.
The author has chosen an erudite narrator to tell the story, who shifts topics fluidly. For instance, after recounting what is happening as the main character flees, he moves inside his head, without interrupting the narrative flow. The author doesn’t explain to us why the main character is being chased by two men, nor does he reveal any of their identities. He doesn’t need to, because he offers enough hints in the main character’s internal speech and in the storyline’s events for us to venture a safe guess about both the main character’s and his pursuers’ identities. The hero of the story is portrayed as a poor and desperate man, who relies on his wits to survive. We are left to speculate whether he is running from debt collectors or perhaps just from two grocers from whom he might have stolen the food he needed to satisfy hunger. What I find key, however, is that he is depicted as someone who is used to taking to his heels. This is clearly illustrated in the fact that he is able to string his thoughts together as if he were entirely relaxed and calm, pondering the implications of climbing into the van due to his analysis of why its current occupants had entered it. Reasoning so clearly even while beating a hasty retreat indicates that he cannot afford to wait until he is out of danger to put his thoughts in order; his default fuses what for other people are two separate mental stages into one. Hence, he is left wondering why his city presents two different colors at the same time.
In the end, his adverse circumstances wind up dictating his future, despite his street smarts, and he becomes a pawn—a dispensable toy soldier—to the big kahunas who are running the show.
These conclusions about the story’s literary value are based on the accuracy with which the story’s idea has been implemented, its solidly-constructed plot and well-chosen language, and the credibility and relatability of its main character.
Version translated from Arabic.
The autor, Khalid Al Sameti: