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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.


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 dearth of dialogue and musical accompaniment, the movie stands out for its general lack or thirst, if you will, for characters, scenery, and even movement. The one thing of which there is plenty, ironically of course, is water. The viewer hears and sees it, and can almost feel and taste it. Over the course of the movie water is spilled, drunk, rained down, boiled, and spurted through pipes and hoses. It finds its way into tanks, pitchers, buckets and cups, and onto dry, cracked ground and crackling fires, and it also comprises the rancid contents of a small, stagnant lake.

Thirst is therefore, among other things, a metaphor for the desires of each family member. Umm Shukri for one, thirsts for her children's happiness, for a better future for them as is reflected by her name, Amal, meaning "hope." She asks God to forgive her lather for not sending her to school, a mistake which she wants to right by ensuring that her son Shukri attends school, as she entreaties in her staccato request, "it is too late for the oldest. But what about the young one?" (7), (15) and later: "You spent all the money on that pipe. How sad for Shukri ... let him keep going to school" (51).

Shukri himself also yearns to return to high school and to go off on his own, leaving his family behind. His older sister Jamila seems to thirst for the past she left behind, as she snatches secret sniffs of the eleven-year-old perfume "he" gave her. She wants to be somewhere else, anywhere else, outside of the confines of her father's powerful grip. She escapes through reading (al-Shuttar) and eventually by running away.

Such fiery action is foreign to the youngest sister Halima, whose nature is reflected by her name, which means "mild-mannered" or "gentle" (halim); the root of her name (h.l.m.) also calls to mind dreams (hulum), as one who dreams is a halim. She is a catalyst for the other characters' thirsts and dreams. Their desires are reflected onto her literally, at one point, as Jamila brushes her hair in the mirror with Halima reflected in the background (21). It is through Halima that we peer into Jamila's precious wooden box of dreams; it is to her that Jamila confides, sharing her secrets and perfume. Halima is thus a sounding board for other characters' dreams, a mirror reflecting their inner suffering, perhaps softening it. She never speaks, expressing herself instead through the music which flows from her fingertips. She has the propensity to turn everything she touches into music. Even weapons turn musical at her touch, as she jingles the spent bullets left by the Israeli army (3, 40), and threads the silver pins plucked from hand grenades into a harp, such that the pins tinkle in the wind, and she strums the threads with her fingers (13, 38). She also strums the harp-like qanun (60, 1:23) and keeps the rhythm on a drum while her mother and sister dance. Although we never hear her voice, the film pulsates with the music she creates.

Tawfiq Abu Wa'il's 'Atash is thus as rich in symbolism as it is lacking in spoken words. Sounds such as water spilling, fire cackling, spent bullets jingling, and rain pouring are rendered all the more poignant, as they are frequently imbued with a musical quality. As with any masterpiece of literature, it is not the storyline (or fabula, to use the term Sabry Hafez [1994], among others, appropriates from Russian formalist literary theory) which is so captivating, but rather how the story is told (or sjuzhet) which makes this film not only successful, but deeply touching, heart-wrenchingly, eerily, and tragically beautiful.

Considering 'Atash in light of Muhammad Shukri's autobiographical novels takes the film to another level of richness and intensity. These three works share common themes, including coming into literacy; thirst and hunger; and, most notably, they feature an abusive, violent father. Moreover, the motifs of sexuality and death dominate the film as they do both of Shukri's texts. In what follows, we shall focus on the themes of hunger/thirst, the image of the abusive lather, and literacy, referring peripherally to the themes of life on the margins of society and socially unacceptable expressions of sexuality.


In all three works, hunger and thirst drive the plot forward. In both al-Khubz al-hafi and al-Shuttar, the family's movement and the protagonist's [peregrinations] are shaped by their quest for food. Likewise, in 'A tash, the pursuit of water, first and foremost, and of food, secondarily, dictates the film's trajectory. However, in stark contrast to Muhammad Shukri's works, the hunt for water involves little movement. On the contrary, Abu Shukri insists on finding a way for the water to cover the distance, while his family remains adamantly in one place. This distinction brings out one of the main differences between Shukri's works and the film. The protagonist in Shukri's works is on the move, whereas the characters in the film hardly leave the confines of their land, and when they do, their movement is cyclical, ending up at the home base from which they set out. This distinction stands out given Abu Wa'il's marked tendency to draw from Shukri's works. I believe that this difference stems from the fact that Muhammad Shukri's works stem from a Moroccan worldview, whereas the film reflects the worldview of Palestinian Arabs who live within the Green Line following the establishment of the State of Israel in 1948. This explains the film's emphasis on land, the dearth of movement in the film, which stands out particularly in the film's conclusion.

In Shukri's al-Khubz al-hafi, it has been pointed out that, "bread is both a means of survival and a source of humiliation." (16) This is reflected in many scenes in al-Khubz al-hafi, such as when the protagonist and his brother bring home a dead hen, as they are eager for a meal. "You're crazy," his mother scolds him. "People don't eat carrion." (17) This same tension between hunger and repulsion can be seen when the protagonist brings his mother large bunches of rosemary, neglecting to tell her that he collected it from the cemetery. She makes a delicious meal from it, but when she discovers the source of the rosemary she almost vomits, excoriating her son, and throwing the food away. (18) This tension is also manifested when his father spitefully forces him to eat all the food on the table until he passes out, awaking in the hospital after his stomach has been pumped. (19) After this, the protagonist runs away, and ironically, after being forced to stuff himself, he is hungry and thirsty. He scrapes a dead fish off the pavement and chews it, unable to swallow despite his hunger. (20) Then, in one of the most poignant scenes in this volume, food is associated with excrement: The protagonist plunges into the ocean hoping to salvage a sandwich which a fisherman has thrown overboard. Once in the water, he raises his hand towards the fisherman, "my hand clutching the bread. I looked at him and at the bitten piece of bread. Lumps of shit floated all around me in the water. Floating, floating. I squeezed the bread in my hand. It was spongy, and sticky with oil from the boats." (21)

Bread is similarly a means of survival and a source of humiliation in al-Shuttar. We see this for example, when the protagonist's hunger drives him to seek tree food at a refuge. He describes the experience of sitting at the table with four old people whose,
 ... senility and decrepitude filled me with disgust ... one of
 them had an eye missing; another was dribbling; another had
 no teeth; and the fourth had hands that trembled and shook. I
 felt that their deformities somehow reflected on me ... I was
 overcome with a sense of shame, I suppose because I wasn't
 actually suffering from physical disabilities myself. (22)

This scene highlights the ineluctable connection between hunger and shame in Muhammad Shukri's works.

Food similarly reflects a duality of desire and repulsiveness in the film 'A tash. For example, the festive 'id meal consists of pigeons whose necks Abu Shukri has mercilessly broken. However, this tension between survival and shame which is brought out through food imagery in Shukri's works, is evoked chiefly through water imagery in 'A tash: It embodies despair and impotence as it lays on the ground after Abu Shukri destroys the water tank (2), as well as when water spurts out of the broken pipe (32). It suggests sensuality as Jamila traces shapes on the ground with her wet finger (7), and vitality and youth as she reads outside, chewing a small stick in her mouth, water flowing from the hose next to her. At the same time, it evinces shame as her father catches her at that moment, as if she has committed a perverse sexual act, spraying her with the hose, causing her clothes to cling to her body, thereby shaming her even more (30).


The image of the father in 'A tash is overlaid with discourse from Muhammad Shukri's works. One must of course note the tendency in both the Arabic literary tradition and within the world of Palestinian cinematography to portray father figures as dictatorial and violent. While there is no doubt that Abu Wa'il situates his film within this world, and depicts the father figure within this general tradition, the abundance of references to Shukri's works, as well as specific reworkings of scenes from them, indicate that his film recalls the father from Shukri's works specifically.

Both fathers are similar in their obstinate narcissism and in that they are both abusive towards members of their family. Of the father in Muhammad Shukri's text, "One thing was certain he was interested in nobody but himself." (23) in addition, he is violent, hitting the protagonist's mother and beating up his sons regularly. His violence reaches its acme when he approaches the protagonist's four-year-old brother and "twists the small head furiously. Blood pours out of the mouth ... I thought of how my father had twisted Abdelqader's neck. I wanted to cry out: He killed him! Yes. He killed him." (24) This episode is recalled on several occasions in al-Shuttar as a traumatic turning point in the protagonist's childhood. (25)

This episode resonates in the film in the scene in which Abu Shukri takes his son to the forest to trap pigeons for their 'id dinner. In light of the other instances of conscious interplay between the film and Shukri's texts, it seems to me that Abu Wa'il transposes the scene from al-Khubz al-hafi onto this episode. After they succeed in trapping several birds in the net, Shukri looks at them sadly, stroking their feathers tenderly. He tells his father that he forgot to bring the knife with which to slaughter them. From his body language, it is obvious that he is lying, saying this out of pity for the birds whom he does not want to kill. His father answers without hesitation that this is not an obstacle; he takes the bird in his hands and twists its neck, killing it. Shukri is horrified and saddened, sitting mournfully next to the dead birds during the ride back home.

By breaking the neck of the bird with his hands, Abu Shukri evokes the father in al-Khubz al-hafi, this scene thereby drawing attention to Abu Shukri's ruthlessness. Moreover, Abu Wa'il draws from an association between humans and birds established in Shukris works. We see this first in al-Khubz al-hafi when a girl he likes bids him farewell taking his head "between her hands, the way I would have taken a small bird so as not to injure it." (26) The imagery recurs in al-Shuttar when the young protagonist finds out that his mother has died. He compares her to a bird for at that moment, he sees "a small bird crashing against the front of a car. Now it would no longer be able to pluck the berry it was dreaming of." (27) Birds represent tenderness and weakness as well as the elusiveness of happiness which is "a fleeting thing, disappearing the moment we try to catch hold of it. It's like a beautiful bird that lands on the edge of a balcony. No sooner do we approach it than it flies away." (28) In these scenes, as in the movie, birds are fragile, easily crushed, and their deaths represent suspended freedom. (29)

In the film, Abu Shukris killing of the bird therefore calls attention to his tendency to abuse and assault those weaker than him. This is manifested throughout in his treatment of each family member: He withholds tenderness from his wife, rejecting her clear solicitations for closeness when she removes her hijab and waits for his touch (14); he does nothing when his daughter Halima catches on fire (1:05); he locks up Jamila, leaving her to die of thirst in her shack of a prison; and finally, he slams a log into Shukris back when he tries to save his sister (1:30).

Regarding Abu Shukri against a background of Shukris texts serves to elucidate the patricidal fantasies at the end of the film, for they are a reworking of similar fantasies in both texts. Moreover, both 'A tash and the texts delineate the evolution of hatred as it transmogrifies into the desire to kill. Following the scene in al-Khubz al-hafi in which his father kills 'Abd al-qader the protagonist cries in order "to ease the unbearable hatred I felt for my father." (30) Subsequently, after his father is imprisoned, the protagonist writes that in his fantasies, "it was taken for granted that he would never return. It was inadmissible that he should ever have a part in the life I shared with my mother." (31) His feelings intensify from passive hatred to fantasies of killing his lather. For example, in a scene which recalls his brother's murder, the protagonist imagines breaking his father's neck, superimposing his fantasy onto the screen as he watches a film in the cinema:
 In the cinema I lit a cigarette ... I imagined my father coming
 towards me to seize my neck with his two powerful hands. He
 has become the villain in the film. As if I were breaking a
 leather between my fingers, I pulled the imaginary trigger.
 My father dies. The lead is cooling off in his heart and brain.
 And the blood runs from him as it runs from the villain on the
 screen. His legs quiver for the last time. I see my father
 trembling as my hands tremble when I sit down to eat at his
 table. The man is dead now. My father is dead. This is the
 way I've always wanted to kill him. (32)

It is hard to miss the resemblance between this fantasy and Shukri's patricidal dream in the film. It is as if the latter is a cinematographic construction of this fantasy which Muhammad Shukri's protagonist conjures, significantly, while watching a film in the cinema.

This scene takes place towards the end of the film, while Shukri is on night shift guarding the pipeline. Through his sleepy grogginess, he hears someone hacking at it. He gets up, and barely makes out his father in the darkness. Shukri strikes him, and he falls. Next we see Shukri awake from a feverish sleep, put to bed and attended to by the three women. In the final scene, we see them in their usual positions raking wood in a bonfire to transform it into coal. This scene differs from previous scenes of raking the coals in the blackening heat of the fire only because Abu Shukri is nowhere to be found. Is he dead? Has Shukri killed his father? Or is it just a nightmare, Abu Shukri having temporarily stepped out of the picture, only to be returning at the end of the day? The plays of light and darkness at the end of the film serve to blur the precise details. The viewer sees a silhouetted Abu Shukri shaving off his beard in the pre-dawn twilight. This is key to realizing that the patricide is a figment of his dream. The image of his lather is bearded, and the viewer knows that he has just shaved. Yet, upon awaking, his father really is gone, not because he has been killed, but because he has abandoned them.

Although actual patricide remains in the realm of fantasy, both protagonists eventually subvert their father's authority. After he is no longer living at home, the protagonist of al-Shuttar returns one day to find his father beating his mother almost to death. In response, "I grabbed the pestle from the mortar and threatened to smash his head with it if he started his craziness again.... [T]hat was the last time he hit my mother. From then on, he confined himself to abusing her and cursing us." (33) This scene resonates in the film when Shukri breaks the door down, as well as when he attacks his father in his dream.

In 'A tash, Shukri undermines his father's authority twice, each time by penetrating a part of the house against his lather's will. It is significant that his authority is undermined symbolically through the image of the house, because in modern Arabic autobiographical tradition, the house is typically personified as enforcer of patriarchal authority. (34) The first symbolic subversion of his father's authority is initiated by Umm Shukri who sneaks into her husband's private room while he is out. She unlocks the door, ushering her children in, their eyes wide with shock and pleasure. Shukri inserts one of his father's batteries into the radio and they dance to the music. When Abu Shukri returns home and finds them there, he destroys the radio Shukri has taken pains to fix. The second instance of subversion evokes more severe consequences. Shukri hacks down the door of the shack in which his sister is imprisoned, symbolically assaulting his father and threatening his exclusive authority. Although he does not kill his father, a symbolic death occurs, for Abu Shukri leaves them the following morning.

In Muhammad Shukri's works, the house is also associated with his father, which is why the protagonist runs away repeatedly, at first staying away for days and weeks at a time, (35) and then for good. In the second volume of his autobiography, he returns to visit his family after he has not seen them for six years. His father "welcomes" him by tearing apart his suitcase--a symbol of his movable home--and attempting to burn it. The protagonist does not respond to this provocation, but fantasizes about killing his father by burning the hut, finding a way to get his brothers and sisters out of the hut "and setting fire to it while he was asleep inside." (36) In this reference, we see that the house is associated with his father despite the fact that other members of his family live there as well.

Thus we see that like the father in both of Muhammad Shukris volumes, Abu Shukri is associated with symbols of desiccation, death and cowardice. His character is associated with fire making his livelihood by burning trees (symbols of vitality, life) which he chops down and steals, raking them through fire to turn them into charcoal. We see him time and again through the flames of a fire, whether for his work, in an attempt to keep warm at night, to cook food, or boil water. He secretly smokes, laying his cigarette directly on his wooden desk. In addition, he burns Jamila's copy of al-Shuttar, symbolizing his suppression of his children's desire to learn. Abu Shukri forbids his son from attending school, shouting, "I am more important! (Ana ahamm)! No school tomorrow. You'll replace the wood" (5). This echoes the scene in al-Shuttar in which the father puts down his son's academic accomplishments. He says of him, "He's just an ignorant bastard just like me. Don't tell me he's actually learnt anything! If you ask me, they must have made a mistake in the paperwork when they passed him." (37) Both fathers are threatened by schooling, and they attempt to send their children's academic future up in flames.

Like fire, he is the destructive force responsible for his family's thirst, literally, by forcing them to live in a remote wilderness, by destroying the water tank, by neglecting to save Halima when her clothes catch fire, and ultimately, by locking up Jamila in a shed, leaving her to thirst to death. His attempts to bring water to his family are therefore cast in an ironic, impossible light because he is responsible for the lack of water. After he smashes the water tank, he spends all his (their) money on a pipe which keeps breaking. When he brings Jamila a mug of water, she casts it onto the ground, unwilling to accept such an offering from the person responsible for her thirst. This abject refusal foreshadows her subsequent refusal to wear the dress he buys her for 'id; she is not interested in the ineffectual gestures of one who is the root of her suffering.

His relationship with Jamila brings out both his weakness and concomitant shame. When he looks at her, she leers back at him, making him uneasy, reminding him of the shame--of is it that he reminds her of it? It is written into every aspect of their lives. Rather than killing her outright, he stifles her vitality, as well as that of the entire family. The looks she casts towards her father mock his attempts to suppress her sensuality because they hint to a truly forbidden type of sexuality, of incest, as she stares coyly, sharply and unabashedly at her father, injecting hints of sexuality into the father-daughter relationship. This tension explodes when he buys her a new dress for 'id, at her mother's insistence, and she refuses to try it on, asking, "For whom should I dress up?" "For me," comes her father's answer. She cries out, "You're neither my lover nor my husband!" He shouts back, "Just put it on!" She responds to his command, "Look at yourself. You're pathetic. Just go ahead and kill me." To which he responds by slapping her, and she, by tearing off her shirt in front of him, then putting on the dress (1:03). The fact that the dress is a virginal, bridal white underscores the indecent nature of his request. She, whom he sentences to a life of spinsterhood, must wear this dress, and before her father no less. Yet he madly insists, and she, in retribution, bares herself, shaming him by standing in front of him topless, foregrounding the misguided sexual energy and his efforts to "tame," punish and subjugate her.

At that moment, the bonfire through which Abu Shukri turns trees into coals leaps out of control, and the rest of the family rushes to extinguish it. Her father, unmoving, gazes al her through the flames. What does this fire symbolize? Is this her heart, her pain, her desires which she keeps so carefully wrapped in her wooden box, which are kindled by this inappropriate gift? Or her father's boundless anger at his own cowardice, his shame which he displaces onto Jamila? He does not help his wife and children extinguish the fire, his selfishness thus brought to the fore.

Jamila, like the fire, chooses that moment to leap out of bounds. Dressed in her smudged-white finery, she runs towards the city they left behind, towards the open road, away from the life her father has dictated for her. We see her meandering along the dirt path overlooking Umm al-Fahm, back to her old life, the dress stained dirt-grey. Although the whole family searches for her, her father is the one who finds her several days later, fainted along the road. He carries her home, her purported savior, only to lock her up in a prison of a shack upon their return. Through a hole in the shack, she watches as her father carries her small box, lays it upon the ground, opens it up and peeks inside, violating her inner sanctum of dreams, not only exposing them, but also setting fire to the box and its contents, including her book, her hairbrush, and several photos.

Her mother brings her a cup of water (not food) through a small window in her makeshift prison, but Jamila no longer responds, it seems she has passed out from thirst. Shukri asks his father to release her, "Won't you let her out?" (1:20). When he does not, Shukri takes the axe which he uses to cut down the trees which they burn, and starts hacking at the door. Not only does Abu Shukri not open the door, but he attempts to deter Shukri by striking his back with a log. This is significant on several levels. First of all, he uses a tree, which symbolizes life, as a weapon (compare this with Halima who turns weapons into musical instruments). Secondly, he directs the blow at his son's back, thereby underscoring his cowardice and abuse of power. This is not a fair fight: He asserts his power over a woman who has not eaten or drunk in days, and against his son, taking him by surprise. He fells Shukri as he fells the trees he steals, but Shukri nevertheless hacks the door down, releasing his sister. In so doing, he symbolically mauls his father and subverts his authority, which foreshadows the film's violent ending.

In this scene, Jamila in her prison calls to mind the fragility of a bird, and Shukri's attempts to rescue her mirror his attempts to rescue the pigeon his father kills. Shukri's bravery and tenacity as he frees his sister not only undermines his father, but also hints to an understanding of the end of the film. When, in the final scene, Shukri replaces his father and assumes his father's place raking coals with the rest of the family, the viewer is left wondering if the son will figuratively fill his father's place, acting with the same despotic, ironfisted control over his family. However, this scene reveals Shukri's bravery, as compared to his father's cowardice, indicating that when Shukri eventually fills his father's shoes, a transformation has occurred in the leadership ranks of the family. In this, I take issue with the critics George Khleifi and Nurith Gertz who argue that, "The son adopts the father's clothes, appearance, manners, and values, turning himself into the family's new conqueror." (38) I think that the final scene shows that although the son takes over his father's position as head of the family, as indicated by his dress and mannerisms, what we see of him over the course of the film proves him to be of a different nature from his father, thereby indicating that, given the chance with his father's cowardly disappearance, he can stop the cycle of violence, abuse and oppression in the family. Thus, this film indicates the ultimate failure of the despotic patriarch, whose disappearance opens the possibility for a new type of leadership.


Not only do these works share common themes and motifs, but the film purposely draws from al-Khubz al- hafi and al-Shuttar, as is indicated by specific references to the latter, as well as by allusions to both works. Jamila reads al-Shuttar throughout the film (that is, until her father burns the book): The book is on the table next to her in the scene in which her father brings her a mug of water (15); we view the book again as we glance into Jamila's box when she brushes her wet hair (21); she reads al-Shuttar outside next to the mulukhiyya garden when her father "catches her in the act" of chewing on a stick and hoses her down, chasing her away and ending her peaceful reading session (30); Shukri sees her reading the book, asks her what she is reading, and in response she quotes from the book (40); and finally, when Abu Shukri burns the contents of the small wooden box containing the items most dear to her, the book is shown to be among those possessions (1:10).

What is the significance of Jamila reading this book over the course of the film, and of the fact that she is associated with the book time and again? First of all, Jamila's reading al-Shuttar is one way of undermining her father's authority. Thus, just as the protagonist in al-Shuttar discovers reading as a way to break out of his father's world, reading similarly represents Jamila's rebellion. Al-Shuttar symbolizes her rebellion both by its anti-patriarchal content and by the very fact that it is a book, thereby representing a literate world which Abu Shukri tries to prevent his children from entering.

Second of all, by interweaving al-Shuttar into his film, Abu Wa'il builds the character of Jamila in reference to Shukri's works. The text therefore provides us with a view into Jamila's inner life, augmenting the actions, looks and sparse words from which we are to piece together her character. By associating Jamila with this text, the director indicates that she identifies with it; like its protagonist, she feels abandoned, abused, like a prostitute, even psychotic, crazy. Both autobiographical novels are populated by people who, like her, live on the margins of society. They are destitute, violent, criminals, and prostitutes. They live in far-out, hidden shacks, whorehouses, jails, cemeteries, parks, psych wards, and empty granaries. The world it reflects is ugly, upside-down: The father figure, who one would expect to support his family takes his children's money while they go hungry. Moreover, he is violently abusive, even murderous. This behavior resonates in Jamila's father's treatment of his family.

Thirdly, al-Shuttar represents Jamila and Shukri's conscious choice to come into literacy by the very fact of reading. This is a central theme in both of Muhammad Shukri's works. Jamila chooses literacy, as we see by the fact that she reads (al-Shuttar, no less) and that she teaches her mother to write her name, symbolically empowering her. Shukri also indicates this choice by reading his schoolbook by the light of the fire, despite the fact that his father has forbidden him from attending school. In addition, Shukri shares the experience of al-Shuttar with his sister when she reads him a passage from the book. She cites:
 When men are on their own, they can be saints (wa-l-insan
 wa hidan qadis), but put them with women, and they become
 the very devil (wa-ma'a imra'a al-shay tan). Some people
 count the passing of days and others count the beats of their
 hearts; some grieve over their former days of beauty which is
 like driving one's car looking backwards. The most beautiful
 things in this world finish up wrecked and crushed. This is the
 truth which I heard from a dumb man. (39)

As the only instance of direct citation from Shukri's texts, this quote is a verbal bridge connecting the film to the text. As such, it is a prime example of "intertextuality" in the sense put forward by Julia Kristeva. This excerpt from Shukri's text takes on fresh meaning in its new context.

In both al-Shuttar and 'Atash, this passage is cited as a quotation. As such, it generates what Mikhail Bakhtin calls double-voiced discourse, which, he opines, enriches the text by refracting authorial intention within the novel. (40) Double-voiced discourse is internally dialogized such that it represents more than one voice or plane of language operating simultaneously, that of the speaker and the refracted the refracted voice of the author. Double-voicedness therefore draws its energy, its dialogized ambiguity from this multilanguagedness. In Muhammad Shukri's text, this passage seems to constitute a meditation on the protagonist's lost childhood, albeit through the words of another.

In the autobiographical novel, this passage is uttered by Yusuf, one of the inmates the protagonist encounters during a brief stay in the psych ward of a hospital. Of this fleeting character, we learn that people say that "he'd been driven crazy by too much reading." (41) This is ironic both in the context of al-Shuttar as well as in the context of the film, for both the protagonist of the autobiographical novel as well as his namesake, Shukri, thirst for schooling. One can say that they have been "driven crazy" by their reality, and they seek to escape through reading. For the protagonist in Muhammad Shukri's text, this dream becomes reality: Through literacy, he lifts himself out of the life dictated for him by his father.

How does this excerpt refract Jamila's voice? The fact that this quote is uttered by a madman in a psych ward is perhaps meant to resonate in its cinematographic reincarnation. Does Jamila feel she is going mad? In any case, she is confined and monitored as if imprisoned, whether in a jail or a psych ward. For Jamila, these words also seem to be a meditation on her lost youth, the eleven years from age seventeen which she spends in this no-man's land, under her father's repressive guard, rather than marrying and starting a family of her own. This passage embodies her sadness, and it frames her suffering in light of that of the protagonist of al-Shuttar.

As she reaches the end of the quote, her brother Shukri suddenly gets burnt by the fire of the lamp by which Jamila reads. This, I believe, symbolically draws him into the quote; he has been burnt as Jamila has been. This indicates that Abu Wa'il is in effect pouring the single protagonist of Muhammad Shukri's works into two characters in the film. In so doing, he creates a masculine and a feminine side to the original Shukrian protagonist, exploring how the gender difference affects the protagonist. One of the main differences is the degree of freedom and authority given to the male protagonist Shukri despite the fact that his sister is much older than he is. Yet, even his freedom is curtailed, as is reflected when Jamila tells Shukri: "You think you'll finish school? He wants to build pipes and tie us down. Including you." Shukri replies defiantly, "I'm a man. I can leave." Jamila snaps back, "A man for whom (Zalameh li-min)?" (7). In other words, dividing the protagonist into a male and female highlights the difference in their father's treatment of them, but also that they are ultimately both regarded as children, guided by their father's authoritative decisions, albeit to varying degrees.


By constructing his film intertextually with Muhammad Shukri's works, Abu Wa'il provides a view into Jamila's inner life, as we have seen above. In addition, this transposition of the texts onto the film elucidates the ending of the film. In the final scene, Shukri puts on his father's hat and sweater as he rakes the coals with his mother and sisters. He symbolically takes his father's place as the man of the family. All of the family members resume their usual places, starting the day in their usual way. The viewer is left asking: What has changed? And what, now, will change, now that Shukri has taken his father's place? He has seamlessly stepped into his father's clothes; will he also wield authority like his father now that he holds the reins of the family?

The answer lies in the connection between the film and Muhammad Shukri's autobiographical novels: When Shukri takes his father's place over the fire, he changes the very notion of head of the family. The conclusion of al-Shuttar is our guide; like the protagonist in the autobiographical novel, Shukri forges a path of his own making. We see this by the fact that the text does not end with his mother's death and the concomitant "death of his family," but rather, it concludes one chapter later, the protagonist advancing despite the burden of the past, the "love of things that could not be." (42)

It is also instructive to note how the conclusion of al-Shuttar contrasts with the ending of 'Atash. Whereas the protagonist in both of Muhammad Shukri's volumes expresses his subversion of patriarchal authority by running away (lugging his past with him), the young Shukri in 'Atash rebels by staying put, forcing his way deeper into the family home. This contrast is expressed twice, first when Shukri penetrates the room which is off-limits to all but his father, and again, towards the end, when he breaks down the door, another form of forced entry, rather than running away. This difference in endings can be explained if we view these works as national allegories. In his discussion of al-Khubz al-hafi, Tetz Rooke argues that, "In the narrative, the life of the hero and the life of the nation merge." (43) He argues that through his personal story, Muhammad Shukri argues for a total break with the past, which constitutes familial violence on the individual level and colonial exploitation on the national (Moroccan) level.

If we view Shukri's work as a national allegory, it can be argued that director Abu Wa'il has re-formed this aspect of Shukri's texts in his film to reflect Palestinian national feeling. This explains the difference in endings between the texts and the film. In the case of Muhammad Shukri, his youth coincides with the end of colonialism, a bleak past which he equates with his abusive father. This is a past which he wants to abandon, although, as we see from his repeated encounters with his father, it haunts him throughout his life. 'Atash, however, reflects a reality of a conflict which endures to this day. The contrasting endings exemplify this distinction.

If we see the film as an allegory for Palestinians living within the Israeli Green Line, we are struck by the stark expression of alienation articulated by this film, as Abu Shukri's family is estranged both from other Arabs and from the feared Israeli authorities who ignore their presence on confiscated land. Furthermore, Abu Shukri's repressive but ineffectual authority points to an impotent Palestinian leadership, indicating that the enemy of the Palestinian cause is also from within, represented by the father who tears apart his brood, stultifying their future and preventing their progress. In light of this, the young Shukri's decision to stay in the home his father has devised bears twofold significance. It indicates an attachment to the land, and at the same time, a dawn of new leadership in which traditional values are replaced by modern ones, and in which power stems from being in touch with the needs of others rather than violently advocating only for oneself.


'Abd al-Dayim, Yahya Ibrahim, al- Tarjama al-dhatiyya fi al-adab al-'arabi alhadith (Autobiography in Modern Arabic Literature). Beirut: Dar al-Nahda al-'Arabiyya, 1974.

Abu Wa'il, Tawfiq, 'A tash (Thirst). Israel: Globus United, Ltd., 2005.

Bakhtin, Mikhail, "Discourse in the Novel" in The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Michael Holquist, ed. Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981.

Choukri, Mohamed, For Bread Alone. Paul Bowles, trans. London: Saqi Books, 1993.

--, Streetwise. London: Saqi Books, 1996.

Gertz, Nurith and Khleifi, George, Nof ba-'Arafel: Ha-merhav ve-ha-zikaron ha-historiba-kolnoa ha-falestini (Landscape in Mist: Space and Memory in Palestinian Cinema). Tel Aviv: Am Oved, 2006.

Kristeva, Julia, "Word, Dialogue and Novel" in The Kristeva Reader. Toril Moi, ed. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, Ltd. 1986. Pp. 34-61.

--, "Revolution in Poetic Language" in The Kristeva Reader. Toril Mol, ed. Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, Ltd. 1986. Pp. 89-136.

Misbah, 'Ali, "'An al-sira al-dhatiyya fi al-kitaba al-'arabiyya (On Autobiography in Arabic Writing)" in Al-Karmel Magazine. Issue 61, Fall 1999.

Rooke, Tetz, "Moroccan Autobiography as National Allegory" in Orient Moderno. Vol. 17, no. 2-3. Rome: Instituto Per L'Oriente, 1997.

Shukri, Muhammad, al-Khubz al-hafi: sira dhatiyya riwa'iyya 1935-1956 (For Bread Alone: A Novelistic Autobiography 1935-1956). Beirut: Dar al-Saqi, 1993.

--, al-Shuttar (The Shrewd Ones). Beirut: Dar al-Saqi, 1992.

Tuqan, Fadwa, Rihla Sa'ba, rihla jabaliyya (Difficult Journey, Mountain Journey). Nablus: Al-Maktaba al-Jama'iyya, 1985.

Wild, Stefan, "A Tale of Two Redemptions: A Comparative Analysis of Taha Husayn's The Days and Muhammad Shukri's For Bread Alone" in Myths, History Archetypes and Symbolic Figures in Arabic Literature: Towards a New Hermeneutic Approach. Angelika Neuwirth, Birgit Embalo, Sebastian Gunther and Maber Jarrar, eds. Beirut, 1999.


(1.) Al-Khubz al-.hafi was first published in English translation in 1973, although the Arabic version was only published for the first time in 1982.

(2.) Linguist, theorist, and feminist, Julia Kristeva (b. 1941) presented and developed Mikhail Bakhtin's ideas of dialogism, which sees novelistic texts as in a dialogic relationship with the reader. Bakhtin (1895-1975) was influenced by the school of Neo-Kantianism, whose emphasis on mixing the latest scientific achievements with philosophical thought shaped the development of his theory of heteroglossia, which was particularly influenced by Einstein's theory of relativity. His theories of dialogism and heteroglossia are based on the view that texts are polyvalent, and hence their meanings are shaped by extra- and intra-textual factors.

(3.) Although I claim no expertisc in Arabic cinematography, I take the liberty of examining this film because it interacts textually with two Arabic autobiographical novels. It must be noted that a film is not in itself a text, as a text refers only to the written word, whether actual words, or a book of such words, and this article will refer to the movie itself, what is seen and heard, and not only to the implied script.

(4.) Julia Kristeva, "Word, Dialogue and Novel" in The Kristeva Reader. Toril Moi, ed. (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, Ltd. 1986), 37.

(5.) Julia Kristeva, "Revolution in Poetic Language" in The Kristeva Reader. Toril Moi, ed. (Oxford: Blackwell Publishers, Ltd. 1986), 111.

(6.) Shukri was an autodidact who taught himself to read and write at the age of twenty. He went on to write novels, short stories, a play, and eventually became a profcssor at Ibn Battuta University in Tangiers, where he taught for many years.

(7.) Translations of al-Khubz al-hafi are taken from Mohamed Choukri, For Bread Alone. Paul Bowles, trans. (London: Saqi Books, 1993), 21. Henceforth: For Bread Alone.

(8.) As we see in al-Shuttar, when he curses the protagonist's mother, "for the pigs that she had borne him." Translations of Al-Shuttar are taken from Mohamed Choukri, Streetwise (London: Saqi Books, 1996), 82. Henceforth: Streetwise.

(9.) In so doing, he is reminiscent of the third volume of Ma-kha il Nu'ayma's autobiography, in which the protagonist returns to his family following several decades abroad. Nevertheless, it is fairly unusual for a second volume of an Arabic autobiography which focuses on post-youth and-adolescent years to discuss the protagonist's relationship to his family at such length. Whereas Arabic "autobiographies of childhood," (the sub-genre Tetz Rooke argues is a genre unto itself in Arabic literature) naturally tend to focus on the protagonist's relationship with his family, post-childhood autobiographies usually feature other spheres in the limelight. This is true, among others for the second (and third) volumes of the autobiographies of Fadwa Tuqan, Hisham Sharabi and Taha Husayn.

(10.) Streetwise, 104.

(11.) It is important to note, however, that the autobiographical tradition in Arabic has pre-modern roots, which stretch back as far as the ninth century, as Dwight Reynolds argues in Interpreting the Self (2001). See also Franz Rosenthal's article on medieval Arabic autobiographical works, in which he discusses twenty-three pre-modern texts (1937).

(12.) The critic 'Abd al-Dayim fine-tunes the circumscription of "novelistic," specifying that it refers to content, whereas a novelized autobiography refers to form and style of the work. See 'Abd al-Dayim, al-Tarjama al-dhatiyya (1974), 433.

(13.) 'Ali Misbah, "'An al-sira al-dhatiyya fi al-kitaba al- 'arabiyya" in Al-Karmel Magazine,

Issue 61 (Fall 1999), 112 (my translation).

(14.) Stefan Wild, "A Tale of Two Redemptions: A Comparative Analysis of Taha Husayn's The Days and Muhammad Shukri's For Bread Alone" in Myths, Historical Archetypes and Symbolic Figures in Arabic Literature: Towards a New Hermeneutic Approach. Angelika Neuwirth, Birgit Embalo, Sebastian Gunther and Maher Jarrar, eds. (Beirut, 1999), 359.

(15.) Numbers in parenthesis refer to the minutes of the film.

(16.) Tetz Rooke, "Moroccan Autobiography as National Allegory" in Oriente Moderno. Vol. 17, no. 2-3. (Rome: Instituto Per L'Oriente, 1997), 293. Henceforth: Tetz Rooke.

(17.) For Bread Alone, 11.

(18.) Ibid. 15-16.

(19.) Ibid. 65-66.

(20.) Ibid. 73.

(21.) Ibid. 74.

(22.) Streetwise, 31.

(23.) Ibid. 82.

(24.) For Bread Alone, 11-12.

(25.) See Streetwise, 95.

(26.) For Bread Alone, 23.

(27.) Streetwise, 155.

(28.) Ibid. 93.

(29.) It is interesting to note the tendency to compare the weaker member's of one's family to birds elsewhere in the Arabic autobiographical tradition. For example, Fadwa Tuqan compares her house to "a large coop filled with domesticated birds (al-tuyur al-dajina)." Note that here the house also serves as a vehicle for patriarchal authority. See Fadwa, Tuqan, Rihla Sa'ba, rihla jabaliyya. (Nablus: Al-Maktaba al-Jama'iyya, 1985), 133. (English edition, 110).

(30.) For Bread Alone, 13.

(31.) Ibid. 16.

(32.) Ibid. 70.

(33.) Streetwise, 95.

(34.) In Arabic autobiographies and autobiographical novels, there is a tendency to manipulate the motif/image of the house to evince the protagonist's relationship to his family. This motif, which appears in such autobiographical works as Fadwa Tuqan's Rihla jabaliyya, rihla sa'ba, (Difficult Journey, Mountainous Journey, 1985) Leila Abouzeid's al-Ruju ila al-tufula (Return to Childhood, 1993), Hisham Sharabi's .Suwar al-madi: sira dhatiyya (Images of the Past: An Autobiography, 1994) and Jabra Ibrahim Jabra's al-Bi'r al-ula (The First Well, 1987), just to name a few, personifies the family, and by extension, the self, as, like the family-self binary, it is a distinct unit which comprises many smaller units.

(35.) For Bread Alone, 27.

(36.) Streetwise, 68.

(37.) Streetwise, 79.

(38.) Nurith Gertz and George Khleifi, Nof ba-'Arafel: Ha-merhav veha-zikaron ha-histori ba-kolnoa ha-falestini (Landscape in Mist: Space and Memory in Palestinian Cinema) Tel Aviv: Aro Oved, 2006, 175.

(39.) Ibid. 116; the translation is that of the English edition, except where indicated in italics.

(40.) Mikhail Bakhtin, "Discourse in the Novel" in The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays. Michael Holquist, ed. (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981), 324.

(41.) Streetwise, 114.

(42.) Ibid. 154.

(43.) Tetz Rooke, 295.

Ariel Moriah Sheetrit is a PhD Candidate at the Department of Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations, Modern Arabic Literature at Harvard University.
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Author:Sheetrit, Ariel Moriah
Publication:Arab Studies Quarterly (ASQ)
Date:Mar 22, 2007
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