No European writer knows the Islamic shores of the Mediterranean as intimately as Juan Goytisolo, who has lived and worked amongst Muslims for 30 years. In this series of essays Goytisolo celebrates a world where ritual matters and traditions are alive – where saints live, storytellers weave their enchantments nightly and where honour and dignity preserve the importance of the individual.
Like a window into a parallel universe, Cinema Eden is a fascinating journey in itself, and a thought-provoking reflection on our own society.
‘Goytisolo’s extraordinary gifts are simultaneously forceful and beguiling.’ - Observer
‘His works ... are like pages torn out of the book of experience.’ - New York Times
Cinema Eden: Essays from the Muslim Mediterranean
Translated by: Peter Bush
Format: 144pp demi pb
Juan Goytisolo is widely regarded as Spain’s greatest living novelist and, simultaneously, her most trenchant critic. He has lived in voluntary exile since 1956.
Goytisolo was born in Barcelona in 1931. His father remained a supporter of Franco, despite the death of his wife in a Francoist air raid in 1938. Conflict with his father and the policies of the victorious Franco (whom he has described as his "real, tyrannical father") furthered Goytisolo’s radical tendencies and, after studying law at the universities of Barcelona and Madrid, he published his first novel in 1954. Juegos de Manos (The Young Assassins) received much acclaim, but Goytisolo rejected the censorious, oppressive climate of Francoist Spain and moved to Paris. There he worked for the publishing house Gallimard, bringing manuscripts to the company from Latin American authors such as Carlos Fuentes and Guillermo Cabrera Infante.
It was at Gallimard that Goytisolo met Monique Lange – the only person he says he has ever loved. Despite his growing awareness of his homosexuality, revealed to Lange in a letter of 1965, they continued living in Paris, married in 1978, and stayed together until her death in 1996.
Goytisolo’s sexual and artistic "rebirth" is described in his autobiography, Forbidden Territory (1985) and Realms of Strife (1986).
Brought up in Catalonia and descended from Basque and Menorcan forbears, Goytisolo developed a literary Spanish to dynamite a language colonised by Fascism. His sympathy with minority peoples is evident throughout his work, and he has been declared an honorary gypsy for his activities on behalf of that perpetually embattled race, while his support of the Cuban Revolution was tempered by disgust at Castro’s persecution of African religions and homosexuals. Most apparent, especially in this collection, are his links with Islam, whose massive influence on medieval Spain and Spanish culture he constantly champions and celebrates.
Now over seventy, Goytisolo remains active as a novelist and a journalist, a political, cultural and sexual radical, a Socratic horsefly, continually out to sting the West for its complacency and narrow-mindedness.
Extract from Chapter One
As Bakhtin shows in his remarkable study of the world and writing of Rabelais, there was a time when the real and the imaginary mingled, names supplanted the things they designated and
newly invented words were wholeheartedly put to use: they grew, broadened out, shacked up, gave birth like creatures of flesh and blood. Markets, squares, public spaces constituted the ideal place for their festive germination. Discourses entangled, legends lived, the sacred was the target of wiseacres but remained sacred, the bitterest parodies rubbed shoulders with liturgy, a well-knit story kept its audience in suspense, laughter preceded the prayers to reward the bard or showman as the plate was handed round.
The universe of cheapjacks and charlatans, beggars and water- sellers, tinkers and artisans, cutpurses at their nimble-fingered knavery, street urchins, lunatics, women of scant virtue, rustics as keen as mustard, striplings not tarrying to prosper, pícaros, cartomancers, quacks, preachers, doctors of homespun science, that entire motley world of free-and-easy commerce, once the succulent marrow of Christian and Islamic society – much less differentiated than people think in the days of the Archpriest of Hita – was swept away gradually or at one foul swoop by a nascent bourgeoisie whose State gridironed cities and lives, and lingered on as a hazy memory in their technically advanced and morally empty nations. The empire of cybernetics and the audiovisual flattens minds and communities, disneyises children, atrophies their powers of imagination. Today only one city upholds the privilege of sheltering the extinct oral patrimony of hu- manity, labelled contemptuously as ‘Third World’ by many. I refer to Marrakesh and the square of the Djemaa el Fna, next to which, on and off for some twenty years, I have joyously written, meandered and lived.
Its bards, performers, acrobats, comedians, storytellers are, more or less, equal in number and quality as on the day when I arrived, or at the time of Canetti’s fertile visit or as in the Tharaud brothers’ travel account written sixty years earlier. If we compare its present appear- ance with photographs taken at the beginning of the Protectorate, the differences are few: buildings are more solid, still modest; an increase in wheeled transport; a vertiginous proliferation of bicycles; identical workshy horses and traps. The groups around horse-traders still mix with the halca framed by the steam wafting hospitality from the cooking-pots. The immutable minaret of the Koutubia surveys the glories of the dead and the helter-skelter of the living.
In the brief lapse of a few decades the wooden huts with bazaars, cold drinks and second-hand book stalls appeared and disappeared: finished off by a fire, they were moved to the burgeoning New Market (only the booksellers suffered cruel exile to Bab Dukala where they withered and died). The coach companies located on the vertex of Riad Zitun – a ceaseless bustle of travellers, traders and hawkers of tickets, cigarettes and sandwiches – also departed elsewhere with their musical incentives: to the orderly, spick and span bus station. In honour of GATT, the Djemaa el Fna was tarmacked, swept, spruced up: the stalls that punctually invaded its space and vanished in a trice after a glimpse of the watch migrated to more favourable climes. The square lost a little of its hassle and hullabaloo, but retained its authenticity.
Death in the meantime brought natural losses to the ranks of its most distinguished offspring. First went Bakshish, the clown with the tasselled bonnet, whose daily performances drew to the insular orb of his halca a tightly-packed ring of onlookers, adults and children. Then, Mamadh, the bike artiste, springing from handlebars to seat, spinning swiftly round in his magical balancing-act. Two years ago it knocked on the door of Saruh (the Rocket), majestic seer and wily goliard, reciter of tasty stories of his own creation about the innocent and cunning Xuhá: deployer of a broad, unblushing language, his allusive and elusive tropes quivered like arrows round their unnamable sexual bull’s eye. His imposing figure, shaven skull, pontifical paunch, were inscribed in an ancient tradition of that place, incarnated years ago by Berghut (the Flea) and their origins go back to rougher, harsher times, when rebels and betrayers of the sultan’s august authority hung exemplarily from bloody hooks or swayed before a silent, cowered people on the sinister ‘swing of the brave’.
In a more recent past, I was belatedly informed of the accidental death of Tabib al Hacharat (the Insect Doctor), to whom Mohamed al Yamani devoted the finest of essays in the magazine Horizons Maghrebins. We habitués of the Djemaa el Fna were well-acquainted with that little man and his unruly wisps of hair who, in ever rarer public appearances, tottered around the edges of the square snorting like an asthmatic locomotive beneath the arcades with their cheap cafés and friendly aromas. His life-story, a mixture of truth and legend, rivalled Saruh’s: he had likewise chosen the way of vagabond poverty, passed nights in cemeteries and police-stations, spent brief periods in prison – which he nicknamed ‘Holland’ – for being drunk and disorderly and, when he grew tired of Morocco, so he said, he wrapped a scarf round his possessions and left for ‘America’ – that is, the waste land next to the Holiday Inn. His verbal humour, tales of fantasy, wordplay, palin- dromes, were unconsciously linked to Al Hariri’s Makamat – lamentably ignored by the ever dozy and dilatory official Hispanic Arabists – and shared a literary territory that, as Shirley Guthrie was quick to see, connects his outlandishness with the ‘aesthetic of risk’ of Raymond Roussel, the surrealists and OULIPO. His parodies of the television news, his recipe for the biggest hotpot in the world, spiced by ritual questions to his audience, are models of inventive wit. I can’t resist a mention of his lines about the therapeutic qualities of products he recommended to his audience: no ‘love juices’, no ‘carrot cream’ like the official healers, but grated glass or amber extract from the devil’s backside . . .
‘What about coal?’ ‘Just the job for eyes, for the agate tap in the iris, for the gyrating
beam in the ocular lighthouse. Put coal on your ailing eye, let it get to work till it bursts, get a seven inch nail, drive it in the socket and when it’s steady in your hand you’ll see thirty-seven light years away.
If you’ve got fleas in your belly, rats in the liver, a turtle in your brain, cockroaches on the knee, a sandal, a piece of zinc, a twist of gunpowder, I found a sock in the house of one of Daudiyat’s wives. Guess where I found it!’
‘Where?’ ‘In a teacher’s brain!’
(Translation by Mohamed al Yamani)
But the most serious loss, during Ramadan last year, was the surprise closing down of Café Matich: though a lot of water has flowed since – heavy rains, flash floods and real – the Djemaa el Fna has yet to come to terms with the blow. How do you define the undefinable, the protean nature and all-embracing warmth rejecting any reductive label? Its strategic position, on the busiest corner in the square, made it the hub of hubs, its real heart. An eagle eye from there encompassed the whole realm and treasured its secrets: quarrels, encounters, greetings, con-tricks, furtive groping or gleeful poking, tale-telling, insults, itinerant hum of the blind, gestures of charity. Jostling of crowds, immediacy of bodies, space in perpetual movement comprising the boundless plot of a film without end. The seedbed of stories, hive of anecdotes, pageant of morality tales crowned by a clothes-peg were the daily diet of the addicted. Gathered there were gnaua musicians, schoolmasters, college teachers, stallholders, raunchy roughs, small traders, big-hearted rogues, sellers of loose cigarettes, journalists, photographers, atypical foreigners, the local down-and-outs. All levelled by the straightforward manners of the place. In Matich everything was talked about and nobody was shocked. The ruler of this roost possessed a weighty literary culture and the intermittent attentions he paid his customers only surprised new- comers, enraptured as he was by an Arabic translation of Rimbaud.
It was where I lived the crystallised tension and devastating bitterness of the Gulf War, a harsh, unforgettable forty days and forty nights. The tourists had disappeared from the horizon and even veteran residents, with the exception of a handful of eccentrics, no longer ventured there. An old gnaui master listened to news of the disaster, his ear up against his portable radio. The panoramic terraces of the Glacier and Café de France were desperately deserted. A red sun, heralding the massacre, bled at twilight, prophetically staining the square.
It was also there I spent the most poetic, light-hearted of New Year’s Eves. I sat outside the Matich with a group of friends, awaiting, warmly clad, the advent of the new year. Suddenly, as in a dream, an unloaded cart swung round the corner, on its riding seat a young lad hard put to keep himself upright. His glazed eyes dallied on a blonde girl relaxing by one of the tables. Entranced, he slackened his grip on the reins and the cart slowly ground to a standstill. As if in a slow- motion scene from a silent film, our humble charioteer saluted his belle, invited her to climb into his boneshaker. Finally he got off, walked hesitantly over and, with a laboured madam, madam, repeated his seigneurial flourish, the majestic invitation to his Rolls or royal carriage, his lordly landau. The solicitous clientèle warmed to his endeavour, his old clothes transmuted to finery, the vehicle bearing his ephemeral glory. But someone intervened to end the idyll and escorted him to his place. The youth couldn’t break the spell, looked over his shoulder, threw kisses and, seeking consolation from this fiasco, patted the thighs of his mare with a touching tenderness (to a chorus of laughter and encores). Then he tried to clamber onto the driver’s seat, managed it with some effort and immediately fell backwards on the empty boards, curled up in a ball (to a fresh round of applause). Various volunteers hoisted him up and holding the reins, he blew a goodbye kiss to the Scandinavian deity before disappearing at a brisk trot over the dirty, oblivious tarmac, in a melancholy mood of paradise denied. I had not enjoyed such a scene since the happy days of Chaplin’s films: such delicacy, oneiric, alive with humour, deliciously romantic.
Once the café closed down, we habitués scattered like a diaspora of insects deprived of their nest. The gnaua gather at night on the inhos- pitable asphalt or meet up in the backroom of an old fonduk on Derb Dabachi. The rest of us come to terms as best we can with the demise of that international centre of cultures, reliving episodes and moments from its mythical past splendours, like nostalgic emigrés in the make- shift shelters of exile. But the Djemaa el Fna resists the combined onslaught of time and an obtuse, grubby modernity. The halcas don’t fade, new talents emerge and an audience hungry for stories crowds gleefully round its bards and performers. The space’s incredible vitality and digestive capacity glues together what is scattered, temporarily suspends differences of class and hierarchy. The tourist-laden coaches which, like whales, flounder there are immediately wrapped in its fine web, neutralized by its gastric juices. This year the nights of Ramadan assembled tens of thousands in its centre and roadways, around the portable cookers, and raucous bargaining over shoes, clothes, toys and bric-a-brac. In the glow from the oil lamps, I thought I noticed the presence of the author of Gargantua, of Juan Ruiz, Chaucer, Ibn Zayid, Al Hariri, as well as countless goliards and dervishes. The tawdry image of the fool slavering over his mobile phone neither tarnishes nor cheapens the exemplary brilliance of the domain. The dazzling incandescence of the word prolongs its miraculous reign. But some- times I am worried by the vulnerability of it all and my lips tremble fearfully with a single question: ‘For how long?’