Driss ben Hamed Charhadi - He was an illiterate shepherd and petty drug trafficker in Tangier. The book relates the story of Charhadi’s life in a fatalistic and unsentimental manner.

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Driss ben Hamed Charhadi, A Life full of Holes: A Novel Recorded and Translated by Paul Bowles, Harper Perennial, 2008.


One of the most unusual literary innovations ever produced, A Life Full of Holes is the result of a singular collaboration between two remarkable individuals: Driss ben Hamed Charhadi, an illiterate North African servant and street vendor, and legendary American novelist and essayist Paul Bowles. The powerful story of a shepherd and petty trafficker struggling to maintain hope as he wrestles with the grim realities of daily life, it is the first novel ever written in the Arabic dialect Moghrebi, faithfully recorded and translated into English by Bowles. Straightforward yet rich in complex emotions, it is a fascinating inside look at an unfamiliar culture—harsh and startling, yet interwoven with a poignant, poetic beauty.


The author of this book, Driss ben Hamed Charhadi, is an illiterate house servant in Tangier, Morocco. Despite his qualifications for the "Most Unlikely Novelist of Any Year Award," he has, with the aid of Paul Bowles's tape recorder "written" the first novel ever produced in Moghrebi, an Arabic dialect of North Africa. Mr. Bowles, a composer-author known for such novels as "The Sheltering Sky" and "Let It Come Down," says of his translation of Charhadi's taped book, "Nothing needed to be added, deleted or altered."
Charhadi's novel is a simply told narrative of the fight for survival by a boy named Ahmed (who might prove to be Charhadi himself if there were enough facts available about the author to make a comparison). The story begins when he is 8 years old--and his mother marries a man who does not want to support another man's child. It ends with Ahmed around the age of 20. In between he has worked at a variety of jobs--shepherd, baker's helper, watchman, housekeeper for a European pervert--and he has been in prison for theft. At the novel's close, he is not one franc farther away from starvation than when his story began. There is little hope that he will ever be. If Ahmed's life sounds unbearably depressing by our standards, it is not by the author's. "Even a life full of holes, a life of nothing but waiting, is better than no life at all." Ahmed is a fatalist. Since his life is in Allah's keeping, there is nothing he can do about his destiny: "It was all planned and written long ago. . .Whatever is written beforehand has to be gone through." Because of the story he has chosen to tell (and probably because Driss ben Hamed Charhadi has neither written nor read a single word in his entire life), the novel is little more than a series of episodes strung together by the simplest of declarative sentences. At first glance, the style calls to mind those unimaginative children's books which offer things like: "I see the cat. The cat sees me. Do you see the cat?" However, it is not long before the reader adjusts to the Charhadi salt-free fiction diet. One becomes aware of a poetical simplicity weaving through the blandness. On top of that comes the revelation of a natural story-teller at work, one who knows intuitively what to tell his audience and what to omit. Charhadi (or is it Bowles?) never digresses from the main theme of his narrative, Ahmed's daily fight to stay alive. Only in terms of this central thread will he introduce characters, places and events. Time is spanned by the simple statement, "Today and tomorrow, today and tomorrow. . . ." and the story picks up again a week or a month later--or wherever Charhadi instinctively knows it must be resumed. Two outstanding portions of this unique book deserve special mention. The first is a chapter entitled "The Wire," which tells of Ahmed's arrest and imprisonment for stealing from a warehouse. He spends 10 months in jail before sentence is passed on him. There are days when he lives with 80 men in one half of a cell while the prisoner in charge has the other half completely to himself. Guards continuously beat the inmates. Later, in solitary confinement, Ahmed is given only bread and must take his drinking water from the latrine. The continuous contrast of the brutal incidents related and the innocent style used to relate them leaves an indelible picture on the reader's mind. The final chapters devoted to Ahmed's work as houseboy to FranÁois, the French homosexual, though told with the same noun-plus-verb spareness, creates a fully detailed study of human decay. When Ahmed first goes to work for FranÁois, his employer is wealthy, living in a fine house, the owner of a successful business. Because of his fascination with a Moslem boy, whom he allows to rule him completely, he is stripped of everything. Continuous witness to his downfall is Ahmed, who never enters into this bizarre existence and never passes judgment on it. ("Everyone does what he pleases in life.") Ahmed is concerned with nothing but the 500 francs per day he receives for his work. It is a fascinating portrait of corruption seen through the world's most dispassionate eyes. In these two portions, as in the entire novel, Charhadi is concerned with fiction. However, it is as nonfiction that "A Life Full of Holes" will live longest with the American reader. Here is Morocco as seen from the bottom up by an observer too inexperienced to tell anything but the truth. It is a land where anything is tolerated, where anything is acceptable so long as a man can stay alive. Life may be cheap--but it is incredibly precious. The Charhadi-Bowles collaboration may seem like a gimmick at first glance. It is far from that. Taped, translated or what-have-you, this "novel" deserves bookshelf space far more than many conventional products of local literary laborers. Freedom
When a man goes out of jail it is the happiest day of his life. His heart is open and he is not afraid of anything. I said to myself: I'm going home and see my mother. When I got there she said: How are you? Have you really finished this time? Not just escaped? This time I've finished it. Another time you won't try to sell kif? Never again in my life! I told her.--"A Life Full of Holes."  - HASKEL FRANKEL


Have you ever considered what makes a story that is told different from a story that is written down? The most obvious one is your relationship to the person who is recounting the tale. In the case of a story that's been put down on paper, there is a sense of distance between the author and what they are recounting, while the story teller is more directly involved with his narration. Whether or not what they are telling you actually happened is irrelevant, their physical presence and the sound of their voice connects them to their story in a way that creates an intimacy that is hard to recreate with the written word.
It's been my experience that when a story that was originally told is converted into a written work it loses that sense of intimacy. However, that was before I read A Life Full Of Holes, published by Harper Collins Canada, a story told by Moroccan author Driss Ben Hamed Charhadi (the pen name of Larbi Layachi) that was recorded and translated by the great American writer Paul Bowles. Somehow or other, even though you are reading this story, it manages to capture the experience of having it told to you.
According to the introduction, this story was told to Bowles by Charhadi over the course of a couple of months. Charhadi would simply plunk himself down in front of the tape recorder and tell a section of the story without stopping or even pausing to think about what he was going to say next. Instead of adapting the story into something polished, Bowles elected to simply translate it from Charhadi's dialect as literally as possible without any editing.
A Life Full Of Holes is the of the story of Ahmed ben Said Haddari in Morocco. Told in the first person, the story follows him from early childhood through adolescence until adulthood. The picture that is painted is one of abject poverty and misery as he tells us of the various ways in which he tries to make a living, and the misadventures that befall him. From his step-father who refuses to feed him unless he goes to work when he's a child, the beatings he experiences at the hands of bullies, the racism he faces from the Europeans (referred to as Nazarenes in reference to the fact that their prophet Jesus was originally from Nazareth) who occupy and rule Morocco, to the times he spends in jail, his life is one long struggle to survive. Every time it looks like he might finally be getting his head above water something happens to pull him back under again.
What makes this story so powerful is the straightforward manner that Ahmed reports on what happens to him. Whether it's the prison guards stealing the food and cigarettes his mother has brought him in jail or him being arrested for being in possession of kif and his sentence being decided by a representative of the tobacco industry (they want people to smoke tobacco instead of kif and pressure judges into passing stiff sentences against kif users in order to discourage its use and force people to switch to their product), his various misfortunes are presented in a matter of fact manner that makes them seem like everyday occurrences that could and do befall everybody.
There is something about reading about injustices presented without emotion that makes them even more disturbing. It makes them seem like just another part of life that people have to deal with, and that nothing anybody does is going to make it any better. It doesn't seem to matter whether it's the Europeans or fellow Arabs in charge, as anybody whom Ahmed comes across who has some sort of power is corrupt in one way or another.
There is a pervasive element of fatalism that flows throughout A Life Full Of Holes that is personified by the way Ahmed and other characters accept their lot in life. "Allah wills it" – God wills it – eventually becomes his one solace against misfortune as it allows him to take whatever comes his way with a certain level of equanimity. There's no point in getting upset about being sentenced to jail for three years for something you didn't do, because there's nothing you can do about it anyway. If its God's will that you're going to spend that time in jail, you might as well just try to make the best of a bad situation instead of giving yourself aggravation by fighting the inevitable.
What really gives this book its power though is the fact that in spite of it being written out, you still have the sense that the story is being told to you. While Charhadi electing to tell it from the point of view of his lead character in the first person helps create that impression, the fact that it is told completely in the present tense gives it an immediacy that's normally lacking in a written narrative. Each stage of Ahmed's life is recounted while he is living it, so we are experiencing it at the same time he does with none of the usual division between characters and readers.
A Life Full Of Holes is not only a powerful and slightly horrifying portrayal of life for the poorest of the poor in colonial Morocco in the 1960s, it's also a brilliant example of how it's possible to recreate the magic and immediacy of oral story-telling in writing. Most times when people write out a story that's been told to them they tend to adapt it to meet the needs of the novel form. That's not been the case here, and the result is something truly unique and special. - Richard Marcus


Paul Bowles first began translating the stories of contemporary native Moroccans in 1952, transcribing by hand the tales of Ahmed Yacoubi, several of which appeared in Evergreen Review. In the early 1960's, with the aid of a tape recorder, Bowles decided to pursue the preservation of Maghrebi oral literature. This decision was prompted in part by Bowles' acquaintance with Larbi Layachi, a young Moroccan who was working as a watchman at a café at nearby Merkala Beach. Layachi, although illiterate and not a "storyteller" in the true Arabic tradition, proved to be a master of the tautly spun narrative, and his story, obviously nothing more than thinly veiled autobiography, is told with the same stark, unembellished point of view that formed the basis of the Italian neo-realist cinema, yet virtually without pathos, sentimentality or moralizing of any sort. Basically left to fend for himself at the age of eight, Layachi works a series of jobs as shepherd, baker's helper, laborer, watchman, houseboy to a "Nazarene" gay couple, and as a petty trafficker in kif in the rough-and-tumble streets of Tangier at the cusp of post-colonialism, eventually winding up in jail, sentenced to hard labor in a rock quarry. Adversity raises its Medusa-like head on every other page, in the form of betrayal, denunciation, false accusations, uninformed decisions, corruption, or just plain bad luck, of which Layachi obviously had a very generous helping.
Whereas the typical westerner might have difficulty supporting Layachi's dogged fatalism in the face of constant defeat, failure, frustration and setbacks, the majority of which do seem to be of an unjust nature (despite Layachi's at times pathological tendency to blur the parameters of right and wrong), it's Layachi's very determination to go on no matter what that gives A Life Full of Holes its extremely positive and life-confirming slant. To survive such an uncompromisingly negative chain of events without becoming a burned-out, apathetic nihilist is a true test of faith. And while the Koran is frequently cited to explain or justify particularly heavy blows of fate or irrational human behavior ("It's the will of Allah," etc.), it's also Layachi's ironic and cynical sense of humor that serves as a buffer between himself and life's harder edges and as a comic foil against the perpetrators of ill will. Compellingly told and packed with detail, Layachi's story of survival is also one of simple poetry. - Mark Terrill    





Category: An illiterate writer resigned to being unread
Charhadi (the pseudonym of Larbi Layachi) is the second writer on this list affiliated with Paul Bowles. He was an illiterate shepherd and petty drug trafficker in Tangier whose story, A Life full of Holes, was recorded, transcribed, and translated by Bowles. It was the first book produced in Maghrebi, an Arabic dialect of Northern Africa, and relates the story of Charhadi’s life in a fatalistic and unsentimental manner.

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