Mohammed Said Hjiouij : وت ماركافكا في طنجةك (Kafka in Tangier)
This is quite simply a Moroccan version of Kafka’s Die Verwandlung (Metamorphosis) only, of course, it is not quite so simple. Our Gregor Samsa figure is Jawad. Unlike Kafka, Said Hjiouij makes it very clear to us he is telling a story, only naming the characters (somewhat arbitrarily, for example), well into the book and making it clear, more than once, that he has modelled his story on the Kafka story. To a great extent, Jawad’s story follows Gregor Samsa’s though, as we shall see, there are significant differences. The book is somewhat longer than Kafka’s but not much.
Jawad had wanted to be a famous literary critic but had ended up as a teacher and a not very good one and a profession he did not enjoy. He had married not particularly out of love but because he got his future wife pregnant. They have a two year old daughter with Down’s Syndrome. Jawad and Sara live with his parents and his sister. His father, Mohammed, is a decidedly unpleasant man who had a very difficult childhood, which we learn about in detail. He had ended up as a barman and had been relatively successful, earning enough to buy a nice flat. However, he had suddenly decided to see the light, give up his job and pray to Allah for forgiveness for having worked with alcohol. He now spends much of his time on his prayer mat or at the mosque when he is not abusing his family.
Mohammed believes that it is his son’s job to support his parents in their old age, which he does. He also supports his sister, Hind, who is studying at university and wants to be a novelist. We see one of her stories about the horrors of war. Mohammed, of course, does not approve of girls having an education. To support all of these people, Jawad has to supplement his teacher’s pay by working in the vegetable market. Life had trapped him with its net and broken his back.
It starts at the beach where he goes for a walk. It had recently been developed but he can see that the sewer discharges into the water where the people are swimming. He stands on one side of the sewage outlet, a letter in his hand, but cannot cross over because of the speeding traffic. He sees a strange man on the other side while the letter blows out of his hand into the sewage. We will learn the significance of the letter later. Also later, he realises that the man was Franz Kafka.
Before going to sleep that night he reads some of Die Verwandlung (Metamorphosis). He has a dream that he is in the sewer, being pursued by a giant insect. He wakes up and becomes aware of three things. There is a foul stench, he is partially numb and he seems to have wet himself. He falls out of bed and sees his body which is not the one he was used to as he seems to be hairier. He sees himself in a mirror and realises that he is not a human, nor a Samsa-like insect but a monkey. He screams, which wakes his wife and she screams which wakes the rest of the family. The book now follows what happens to hm and his family which is fairly similar to what happens to Gregor Samsa If you have not read or have forgotten Die Verwandlung (Metamorphosis), fear not, as he recounts the story for us and also tells us how what happens to Jawad is similar to what happened to Gregor.
Initially, looking out of the window, he rejoices at the horrors he sees – a couple mugged, a young woman threatened by a man with a gun. He soon settles down to a routine. He is clearly a carnivorous monkey, preferring meat but he is only fed once a day but that does not bother him too much. His mother tries charms from faqihs (their costs have gone up – Inflation, ma’am. Even jinn suffer from inflation) but to no avail.
As with Gregor Samsa who, like Jawad, is the sole breadwinner, the family resent his condition and are not particularly sympathetic but also have to make alternative plans to earn money, which, of course, they resent. He sits in his corner but somewhat happy at being being relieved of the responsibility for being the sole breadwinner.
This is certainly a clever tale and, though it follows Kafka, here are enough differences to make it interesting, even if the narrator stresses the similarities with Gregor Samsa.
One interesting quirk is that all of the chapters are named after the titles of other books, starting with Joseph Campbell’s The Hero with a Thousand Faces and consisting of Arabic and world books, with the titles having some reference to the subject matter of the chapter.
First published in 2019 by Dar Tabarak, Cairo
First published in English in 2023 by Agora Publishing
Translated by Phoebe Bay Carter