For water alone: a comparative analysis of Tawfiq Abu Wa'il's film 'Atash and Muhammad Shukri's autobiographical novels al-Khubz al-hafi and al-Shuttar.

AuthorSheetrit, Ariel Moriah
PositionCritical essay


TAWFIQ ABU WA'IL'S FILM 'Atash (Thirst, 2005) consciously draws from both of Muhammad Shukri's autobiographical works, al-Khubz al-hafi (For Bread Alone, 1993) (1) and al-Shuttar (The Shrewd Ones, 1992). Several instances cite or refer to al-Shuttar directly, and other instances indirectly recall themes and motifs from both works. It seems therefore, that it is not by accident that the protagonist is called "Shukri," reminiscent of the author Muhammad Shukri, and that his father is known only as Abu Shukri. The film recalls Muhmmad Shukri's texts time and again, both through the names of father and son and from the fact that al-Shuttar is invariably in the background. From this it is clear that 'Atash was purposely molded as an intertextual, to use Julia Kristeva's term (2) or, since 'Atash is not actually a text, we might say an "intermedial" rejoinder to both of Shukri's texts. (3)

Kristeva maintains that textual meaning is generated by an interrelationship of words in which "each word (text) is an intersection of word (texts) where at least one other word (text) can be read ... Any text is constructed as a mosaic of quotations; any text is the absorption and transformation of another." (4) She stresses that intertextuality is often misunderstood in "the banal sense of 'study of sources'" when it is actuality a dynamic interaction of such sources, which, together form new meaning(s). In light of this, she suggests instead the term transposition, which,

... specifies that the passage from one signifying system to another demands a new articulation.... If one grants that every signifying practice is a field of transpositions of various signifying systems (an intertextuality), one then understands that its "place of enunciation" and its denoted "object" are never single, complete and identical to themselves, but always plural, shattered, capable of being tabulated. (5) In other words, when one text cites or draws from another, the result is not merely a salad of quotations whose whole is equal to the sum of its parts. Rather, by invoking other texts (as all texts do to one degree or another), new meaning is generated: Both the text itself takes on new meaning in its new context and the context draws meaning from the original text; together, they take on new signification.

In light of this, in order to grasp the message and meanings of director Abu Wa'il's film, one must understand the intertextual relationship between the film and both of Shukri's texts from which it draws. This study argues that 'Atash is more than just a mosaic of Shukrian quotes or references. Abu Wa'il overlays his film "text" with central motifs, images and passages from Shukri's works which both emanate their original meaning(s) and take on new meaning(s) in their fresh context. In addition to comprising a new articulation of Shukri's works, one can also see the film as an interpretation and reworking of themes therein, which asks such questions as: What if the protagonist were female? What if the movement in Shukri's texts were merely symbolic? How would the story change if it took place fifty years later, in a Palestinian, rather than a Moroccan context?

In what follows, I analyze how Abu Wa'il transposes Shukrian themes, motifs and passages on to his film, and how this fusion generates meaning. This study also explores what the film gains by consciously invoking the modern Arabic literary tradition. First I treat both al-Khubz al-hafi and al-Shuttar, situating them within the tradition of modern Arabic autobiographical literature. Then I move on to a discussion of 'Atash as an intertextual response to Shukri's works, examining how Abu Wa'il engages them. I will flesh out specific intertextual allusions as well as themes and motifs which he adopts and adapts.


Al-Khubz al-hafi, written by the renowned Moroccan intellectual and writer, Muhammad Shukri (1935-2003), (6) is the first volume of what he terms a "novelistic autobiography" (sira dhatiyya rwaiyya). In it, he depicts the protagonist's childhood and adolescence through the age of twenty in 1940/50's Morocco. It commences on the road, the protagonist moving with his family from the famine-ridden countryside to the city of Tangiers. The trajectory of this work is his peregrinations, first with his family, and then on his own, after he runs away at age eleven following one of many family disputes, embracing a life of homelessness and petty crime, and culminating with his decision to go to school to learn to read and write.

The protagonist's lather weaves his way in out and of their lives; he is imprisoned for two years on a charge of deserting the Spanish army, catapulting in and out of their lives like a storm or "a wild animal," (7) angry, drunk and violent. The growing boy learns to hate his father as he experiences and witnesses more and more of his father's abuse and brutality, such as when his father twists his younger brother's neck, killing the toddler instantly, all because he asked for bread. His father also beats up his mother, violently penetrating her by night and becoming enraged when she gets pregnant time and again. (8) This mood carries over into the protagonist's own sexual fantasies and experiences which feature prominently in this narrative.

The second volume, al-Shuttar, continues where the first volume leaves off, with the protagonist starting school at the age of twenty. He struggles to live from the money he earns through odd jobs, while straggling the worlds of street and school. This text depicts the characters whom the protagonist meets along the way. In addition, he focuses on his renewed relationship with his family, (9) encountering his mother's dark eyes which "had an eternal sadness to them," (10) and his father's beatings and verbal abuse.

These works participate in a tradition of modern Arabic autobiographical writings which has its roots in such nineteenth- and early twentieth-century writings as Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq's magnum opus (1855 [1966]) and Jirji Zaydan's autobiography (1908). (11) Taha Husayn's al-Ayyam (1929) is generally considered the first artistically mature Arabic autobiography/novelistic (or novelized, after al-Dayim) autobiography. (12) Such works are generally characterized by two main tendencies. The first is that unlike in the western autobiographical tradition which, for the most part, focuses on the individual, in Arabic literature the family ostensibly holds center stage for, as has been argued, "arab consciousness is group consciousness first and foremost." (13) The second characteristic of modern Arabic autobiographical texts is its porous generic boundaries. The propensity for blurred generic boundaries is the mainspring for the enticing richness of this mode, which borders on the novelistic, and often incorporates other genres, such as letters, journal entries, poetry, and the short story. These two tendencies also characterize Muhammad Shukri's works. In both, the construct of the family nuances, enriches and personifies the protagonist's struggle and his ultimate journey to individuation. In addition, Shukri calls attention to the obscured generic boundaries by terming al-Khubz al-hafi a "novelistic autobiography," and by imbuing this autobiographical text with a novelistic quality.

Despite bearing characteristics typical of this tradition, both works expose topics which are not usually treated in modern Arabic autobiography, including sex, prostitution, exploitation, brutality and crime. For this reason, both works were suppressed in Morocco and other Arab countries, only published for the first time in Arabic in 1982, nine years after that of the English translation. Shukri's works are therefore seen as an anti-classic within this tradition and, along this vein have been contrasted with Taha Husayn's al-Ayyam, the acknowledged masterpiece of modern Arabic autobiographical writing. Whereas Taha Husayn's text employs polished, controlled language throughout, Muhammad Shukri's Arabic style "is an attempt to create a new Arabic language of violence: shameless, repulsive, desperate." (14) This contrast underscores the innovation which distinguishes ShukrFs works from the literary tradition of which it partakes, thereby highlighting its innovative tendencies within the established autobiographical tradition.


The film 'Atash relates the story of a family which consists of a father and mother, Abu Shukri and Umm Shukri (Amal), their twenty-nine-year old daughter Jamila, their high school-age son Shukri and their youngest daughter Halima. For ten years, they have been living on grounds which were theirs until they were conquered in 1948, and which are now abandoned army-training grounds of the Israeli Defense Force. The story is shaped by Abu Shukri's attempts to build a livable home for his family on this bit of land at all costs. The catch is that the land is desolate and far from water and food sources which makes their lives next to impossible. The reason for Abu Shukri's self-exile even in the face of his wife's pleas to move back to the city where they had apparently lived since 1948 is the disgrace caused by Jamila's relationship with a man when she was seventeen. The precise nature of that event is never revealed. We know that Abu Shukri is intent on avoiding the townspeople and to this end, he attempts to turn this piece of wilderness into a home, bankrupting his family in the process of arranging a pipeline for water.

Abu Shukri's wile and children are caught in the maelstrom of his tenacity and cowardice which, arguably, cause his family more suffering than the shame-inspiring occurrence itself. His decisions leave them all thirsting for a life from which they are cut off. This thirst is written on their faces, it is the subject of their terse sentences, and it can be heard in the overweening silence which dominates their lives. In addition to a...

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