Mohammed Berrada’s The Game of Forgetting (L’ubat al-Nisyan 1987) tells the stories of various members of a Moroccan family during from the French Protectorate and since Independence, focusing on how the psychological games of memory and forgetting impact experience. Berrada has also written a novel with the title Woman of Forgetting (Imraʼat al-nisyān, 2001), and both novels published in one book in 2010 by Dar el-Sharq. (I have not yet read Imraʼat al-nisyān, nor the English translation of The Game of Forgetting).
The Game of Forgetting begins with a section entitled ”In the Beginning was the Mother,” which begins with an ending, the mother’s death, and with several false starts before the start, so we are given the first project of a beginning, rhe second project of a beginning, and ”then the beginning became thus.” This stumbling start is narrated by the central character Hadi, who is suffering from a midlife crisis, disillusioned on the communal level by the deteriorating political situation in Morocco, and on the personal level devastated by the death of his mother, Lala Lghalya.
Lala Lghalya is a mother not only to Hadi but to all those who live in the old house, which represents a communal mode of existence, holding together an extended family, with all the women of the household thinking of Lala Lghalya as ”the mother.” The mother, both as concept and character, is the center of the story, literally the beginning and the end: while the first section is “In the Beginning was the Mother” the final one asks “Who Remembers My Mother?”
She is referred to repeatedly as “indispensable, like salt in food” and depicted in terms which depict her as a repository of national memory, ”the roots of a tree extending far beyond this old house, which is firmly implanted in our of the alleys deep in the heart of Fez” (20).
Even in tense moments between us, I used to find in her that self-necessitating existence which challenges my anger, my rebellions, my artificial illusions. She has always been like a root striking deep in the depths of the earth, unshaken by storms, unscathed by hurricanes. Her existence precedes and extends: it infiltrates into my pores to remind me, whenever I forget, that its burning flame does not get dim. It is like a yearning for one’s homeland, like longing for the soil of one’s birthplace, like songs of poetry latent in one’s psyche. (135)
The death of the mother is anticipated by several losses of the mother-figure in the narrative. Early on, Lala Lghalya allows her brother Tayib to raise Hadi since Tayib and his wife are childless. The wife later dies and one of Hadi’s most vivid memories of childhood is seeing her corpse, a memory mixed in with memories of the war. The description of Tayib allies him with Lala Lghalya, an older generation rooted in the land in a way Hadi and his brother are not able to acheive:
“The war reaches its third year and the wife, the angel disappears, a turn to sorrow and bleakness. But Sayid Tayib, whose roots are deep in the soil of this old city, didn’t break, didn’t allow the winds to uproot him from the world around him.”
Later Tayib remarries and falls on hard economic times and Hadi is handed back to his mother. After the marriage of her daughter Najjiya, Lala Lghalya moves from Fez to the capital, where Najjiya’s husband Si-Brahim works as a waiter in a French bar in Rabat, and her absence affects everyone in the house:
Without Lala-Lghalyya, this house will loose its flavour. The women who encircled her know this fact well, two months before her departure. They remember all the scenes in which Lala-Lghalya has been the shining star: the festive occasions, the periods of distilling orange blossoms, the times when one of them was sick, the spells when they had quarrels with their husbands… Lala-Lghalya invariably takes the initiative, offers a helping hand, gives gifts, laughs and tells jokes, invites women reciters to chant the Qur’an and eulogies of the Prophet, makes observations about some of her relatives who have become rich and now live in the new city or on the road to Imouzzer… (20)
The loss of the mother symbolizes the loss of history, which is at the heart of the narrative. As Magda Al Nowaihi notes in her essay on the novel:
“The central conflict is between what is seen as a basic need for unity and continuity which is often at odds with the urgent imperative for change, both on the personal and the communal level. As these conflicting needs pull the characters in one direction or the other, they alternatively play the games of remembering and forgetting.”
Al-Nowaihi argues that memory in the narrative is an operation “characterized by tension, conflict and contradictions which are explored and debated but that seem ultimately irreconcilable” complicated by the contradictions and gaps which mark contemporary Moroccan history.
In the third chapter, entitled Our Prehistory, the narrative looks at the “very early events of childhood over which the individual has absolutely no control and may not even remember consciously but which have been retained in the psyche and continue to predetermine much of one’s inclinations and desires.” Hadi ponders the idea ”that childhood was present in us like blood in our veins and that all people most probably would like him as he thought close their eyes at death on moments or scenes from childhood imprinted in their cells.”
Hadi tries to convince himself that patriotism is no more than the debris left behind by the nationalist poems of his schooling but still feels the power of the exile of the king to Corsica in 1953 by the colonial regime. It is at this time that the tempo of life changes for Hadi and his brother, the period which transfers them from childhood to adulthood and its worries.
The leaders of the nationalist movement were in prisons and tension was in the air: the zero hour, the time of confrontation that everyone waited for with patience and not without trepidation. It began with the youth who responded to a call for a demonstration…The city of Rabat at the time was a beehive, connected to centers of mobilization…the demonstrations became a tradition…news of demonstrations go through the cities before the bullets of the first fedayeen are heard in the alleys and streets…bullets and bombs and demonstrations.
One event encapsulates the power and mythology of nationalism, when anti-colonial leaders spread a rumor that the face of the king can be seen in the full moon:
The hot summer was long. News, rumors, conjectures multiplied. From house to house, news was communicated with lightning speed. Roof tops were crowded with women, men, and children at night: they all looked at the moon, searching for the features of Muhammad the Fifth’s face. The talk of the town had it that his face chose to reside in the moon so that, despite exile, he would abide with his people. In the quiet of night, loud shouts could be heard and winners were those whose imagination helped them to compose an image of the king and announce that he was actually seen smiling or laughing or frowning…A nice game, naïve perhaps, but useful in keeping up national ardour and enthusiasm. (48)
There is an ambivalent feeling towards history, a contradiction between those who attempt to bury the past and those who are immersed in it, the division generally following a generational rift: the colonial generation and the post-independence generation. On one side there is Hadi and his brother Tayyi’ and on the other there the mother, Lala Lghalya, the sister, Najjiya, and the brother-in-law, Si-Brahim. As Al-Nowaihi notes:
“The older generation to which the mother and uncle belong…saw the enemy as the other: France, and believed that the struggle against this outsider…held the hope for change and improvement for the nation. The postcolonial generation however can no longer see the enemy as the intruding other, whose disappearance would almost automatically lead to positive transformation. The world has become more complex…enemy now lies within. Moroccans themselves must now be held at least partly responsible for the lack of real change, and the two brothers are most bitter about the internal powers of corruption, deceit, tyranny and lack of vision.”
The narrator of narrators comments on this rift:
Signs inform us that the world has become much larger than we are used to. This feeling begins when we are unable to contain all that happened and summarize it in words and distances. And we are lost in the crowds of the world, deluding ourselves that things have not changed. But the proof that this is not so comes in the form of an explosion which upends all measurements and principles…This is what happened to Hadi and Tayi…while Si Ibrahim and Lala Najiah could absorb the world like two sponges… (82).
Hadi’s generation is emblematic of post-colonial intellectuals torn between their utopia of a better society and the deformed actual reality. Hadi wants to avoid “an overwhelming feeling of disintegration that transformed him into atoms” (40) but the crucial question for him is whether the unity and coherence he longs for is best achieved by attempting to erase or hold onto the past. Consequently, he is constantly shifting between both positions as Al- Nouihi notes “the tension between the need to retain history on the one hand, and to liberate oneself from the past on the other, is played out on almost every level of the narrative”.
The conflict is represented as a form of schizophrenia, encapsulated in descriptions of characters such as the wife of a famous businessman who skis and dresses in the latest fashions from Paris as well as dancing to Andalusian music, dressed in layers of traditional clothes to appease a deep sense of nostalgia, which appears to have become almost a cultural disease.
Ultimately however, Hadi believes it is important to begin with individual change to rebuild the nation and returning to the past for him is rooted in his own memories and his personal history, in a connection to the mother. In contrast Tayi’ believes that the public is more important than the private, attempting to disconnect from the past, to free himself and his society from the deadening influence of memory, which he sees as an obstacle to change.
Tayi’ feels his relationship with Hadi deteriorating because of the different emphases they place on the public as opposed to the private, the good of society and the good of the individual. While Hadi feels frustration that Tayi’ is spending his whole life in serving “the general good,” Tayi’ feels that Hadi’s focus on individual freedom is selfish:
“I can’t think aloud perhaps because I have become a prisoner of my habit of suppressing my feelings and hiding them…I find it hard to define my feelings toward him, my love for him has been unlimited since childhood…but we differ in thinking and way of life. He became my opposite…you have to analyse everything, he says. And principles, despite their importance, aren’t enough to solve problems in his mind…I describe him as selfish so he says, “we can’t live without selfishness.” I urge him to marry so he says marriage is not an end in itself…he always gives me the impression that my life is claustrophobic…while his life appears to have its windows flung open wide to all the world contains.”
Eventually Tayi’ compares himself to Sisyphus or worse “since he has been denied even the illusion of ascent, for he has been pushing his rock on a flat land without any hills or elevations.” Having failed to direct his energies towards change, he turns to an apolitical quest for salvation in religion.
After more than thirty years caught in a vicious circle powered by national myths, Tayi’ starts loosing faith in his national ideals and retreats from practicing politics to seeking salvation in religion at an individual scale, his political enthusiasm revealed to him as an illusion. This turn to spirituality parallels Si Brahim’s disillusionment in an earlier section, where he speaks of his childhood and life in colloquial dialect and then of his worldview:
This is the 14th century …the 14th century that the prophet wept for. Soon we will enter the 15th and there are those who tell you that God will bring the light of Islam in this century, the youth who are gathering their forces can defend it. One of them might be the solution. We have to hope for the best. There will be one who will heal us, as long as we are on the path. But we have left the path. The situation we live now was seen by Ali, god grace his face, in a dream he had…Now the great disaster is the Americans and those who support them. See the Romans what they were doing in the world, and then they fell on each other and scattered and their end came…Tomorrow we don’t know what will happen. What God wants will happen.
For both Hadi and Tayi’ there is growing conviction that change is not possible, the individual cannot actually ”make history.” The novel however is not simply split between the colonial and post-independence generation but there is also the younger generation. As Al-Nowaihi notes: “The brothers are disheartened to observe the younger generation’s general apathy and almost total lack of belief in anything other than self-preservation.” For Hadi, this self-interest masks despair, and he feels sorrow for those ”not touched by the fire of that reality-illusion” feeling that “there is nothing more painful than depriving a generation of the enthusiasm and defiance created by the illusions of a period and its realities.”
The questions Al Hadi struggles with have to do with the kaleidoscope of personal and cultural memory in a fragmented and untenable present. As Jan Assmann points out “cultural memory exists in two modes: first in the mode of potentiality of the archive whose accumulated texts, images, and rules of conduct act as a total horizon, and a second in the mode of actuality, whereby each contemporary context puts the objectivised meaning into its own perspective, giving it its own relevance” (qtd in Olick 213). However, in The Game of Forgetting, neither mode is fully available: “You still live in a society that has not yet written its ancient history, let alone the fact that its modern history is surrounded with secrecy and its documents are hidden in sealed vaults” (128).
In a context where history is not written and the archives are unavailable, the need to search for an effective model of dealing with the present without turning ones back to the past brings up the question of language. As Al- Nouihi argues, “the desire to recreate the self and the nation often is expressed in terns of a desire to find a new language, and with it new dreams and alternatives”.
Although pinpointing the first anything is problematic, The Game of Forgetting has been called the first postmodern novel in Arabic and the postmodern aspects of this novel are very evident on the level of the narration. Of course, this postmodernism is self-conscious. Berrada is a noted critic who has translated theoretical works by Bakhtin and Barthes and is concerned with the interplay between Western literary theory and Arabic literary criticism, writing about Riwaya arabiyya jadida (A New Arabic Novel) in al-Riwaya al arabiya wai wa afaq (The Arabic Novel, its Reality and Horizons) and discussing the importance of using polyphony in lughat al-tufula wa l-hulm (The Language of Childhood and Dreams). Edwar al Kharrat has commented on the heteroglossia and fragmented nature of language in The Game of Forgetting, asserting that one of the main characteristics of modernity in Arabic literature is the fact that the text rather than offering resolutions, poses questions (Zawahir fil-Riwaya al-Maghribiyya 1990).
As is suggested by the title of The Game of Forgetting, to forget or remember involves a psychological game, which is reflected at the formal level. As Al- Nouihi notes: “The conflict is…reflected in the formless, sometimes seemingly incoherent structure…the text is divided into sections that are composed of smaller sections, most of which do not fit in the customary framework of chapter.”
Technically the novel has seven chapters, but there is no linear plot and the novel is constructed out of monologues which “form a dialogue with one another, though some of them are a dizzying pastiche of multiple voices and languages.” Although the narrators are identified in some of the monologues, in the sections entitled “Illumination” (ida’a) and “Obscuration” (ta’tim) no one voice is identified in the heading, which forces the reader to work out how to determine the speaker. The Illuminations sections usually speak in the collective voice, narrated by family members and neighbors, with confidence and simplicity. For example, this illumination is narrated by the women describing Tayib:
We loved him first for his strong voice…He always speaks in a loud voice. We hear him in our rooms, his jokes and funny comments reach us. As time passed…we began to consider him an older brother, who would sit with us sometimes and tease us, but always with respect…when the television first appeared, he hurried to buy one and would invite us to watch films at night. We were happy because we would sit around Sayid Tayib…And life would seem bearable despite its burdensome weight. And he, the strong-rooted one, even now that he was past seventy. Now you remind us that he has gone? We can’t speak of his death. We still hear his strong voice: “You upstairs, come down, the evening is beginning.”
Contrast this with the obscurations, which are in Hadi’s voice, a doubtful, uncertain voice with emphasis on the psychological, often a form of psychology focused on a Lacanian sort of lack.
Now I say: the mother, like death, and unlike the father, cannot be thought of except through lack…we lose nothing if we don’t know the father. We can be born in his absence, and we can invent a father we are content with. But the mother cannot be invented.
At a third level of narration, there is the narrator’s narrator. This is a particular postmodern technique, the frequent intrusion of “the narrator’s narrator” (rawi al ruwah) and “the author”, which does not allow the reader to forget that the persons behind the voices of the game of forgetting are fictitious. The narrator’s narrator comments on previous sections:
The ones who have told you about Sayid Tayib knew him for a period, long or short. And they are attempting to gather their memories and the features of words they shared with him. They do this in an attempt to understand his personality…perhaps the word “understand” is not meant for us, in the end, we do not understand the people we live with, and we especially do not understand those we love…
In Chapter 4, entitled “The World Grows In Our Eyes” the narrator of narrators at several points he addresses the writer: “Don’t jump to interrupt me…bear my rudeness, writer, if I use your dough to bake my own bread, for I want to convince the reader of my intelligence, to reveal the rightness of their choice of me as someone to direct the narrative.”
As the narrator’s narrator assumes we the readers have chosen him, he assumes he is a better narrator than the author’s omniscient narrator, and does direct the narrative, introducing several stories by folding their narration into his own, essentially hijacking the author’s words:
Here I will narrate – is that not my right as the narrator of narrators? – what the author recorded in his notebook about Sayid Tayib in Hadi’s words:
“Once in Rabat I walked with him through the modern neighborhoods and we sat in a café…the wide outside world in Rabat confused and tangled his stories and words. Here outside his city, he seemed lost to me, so I began to talk about my shared memories with him in my childhood so that he could pick up the thread of his words and speak as he always did.”
As Al- Nouihi notes, Hadi as a leftist journalist exhibits the typical anxieties of the postmodern writer surrounding language. Towards the end of the novel, these anxieties reflect a new divide between Hadi’s generation and the younger people, as:
“Language becomes a central symptom and symbol of the emptiness that engulf the younger generation and prevents it from connecting with the collective being. The impossibility of dialogue makes the young people feel that they are a present without a past and their elders a past without a present.”
At a wedding described by one of the nephews, the wide array of dialects and languages of different regions, classes, and ethnicities becomes an outward sign of the inability to find a common language to address critical issues. Hadi is brought into the circle of the younger men, as his nephew tells him that this is “an opportunity for you, uncle, to know the opinions of the youth because what you publish in your leftist newspaper is the talk of the adults about their youth not about those who are now the youth of the nation and its future.”
Hadi laughs: “…let me tell you and your friends that our newspaper publishes all your latest news: from strikes and arrests and riots, to hashish and drug trafficking and breaking and entering gangs…there is no difference between the rich and poor among you: the children of the elite and ministers die from overdoses and the children of the slums die like insects guzzling moonshine…is that not right?” Amidst laughter, there were protests about Hadi’s words, and some questioned whether all the youth were like this, and if the responsibility lay with them or those who were meant to guide society, etc…
One objection is voiced in this way:
“The heart of the matter is the absence of bridges between us and you. You are a generation filled up to the brim until you’re choking on your historical message, despite the fact that history, as some of you say, has betrayed you, and despite this you continue walking hoping to come closer to your highest ideal…and we opened our eyes already at the abyss… How can dialogue happen between us and you, whatever our relationshop is, while you are secure in a position, materially and spiritually, that makes you human, while we are expected to live without horizon, without hope, without work?” (118)
Fateh, the nephew, says: “True, the shared language between us and those who went before us on the path of dreaming of change is missing, which casts us onto a present without a past, and casts them onto a past without a future.” Hadi tries to talk but a girl interrupts him laughing: “You used to sing in your songs “let us all die and let the country live” but…who guarantees that our death for the sake of the country will change things for the better?”
Following this intense dialogue about the possibility of change and the new generational rift, the narrator’s narrator says:
This chapter was not easy. The relationship between me and the author has worsened to an extent which breaks down cooperation and organization, and if it had not been for some kind mediators, the one who would be talking to you immediately now would be the author, facing the difficulties of narrative and order and dividing up dialogue. The reality is I did not accept taking up my task until his agreement that I would recount to the reader some of our problems.
Towards the end of the narrative there is a long dialogue between them, where ”the author” feels a need to write a more realistic fashion, referring to what he calls history, while the narrator objects:
“History has more than one level or stream and seldom does it really coincide with what happens on the surface and is represented by resounding events. You still live in a society that has not yet written its ancient history let alone the fact that its modern history is surrounded with secrecy and its documents are hidden in secret vaults so that the people of this kingdom will remain preoccupied with their future. And historians as you know keep changing their ink from time to time.”
The author replied: I agree with what you say but what I mean is not history but rather certain elements which determine the atmosphere of the time we live in although we do not claim to understand it…
I said impatiently: and what are these features that you want to present as prominent qualities of this other time?
He said: what everyone knows, what is widespread and repeated by everyone and often by newspapers, radio and television. For example the group of billionaires that has come upon us a few years ago and that we’ve begun to know from news leaked out about parties thrown by everyone whose wealth reached the threshold of a billion. One individual may give such parties dozens of times. Isn’t that a sign of dynamism and a vital initiative to which the period of independence has given opportunity?
I interrupted him, objecting: speaking about this phenomenon will be considered as a kind of calumny against the reputation of certain high state officials and this may cause you difficulties which you are not ready to face…why do you want to open a door from which nothing but pain and a headache will come to you, although you want only to write about the game of forgetting and about the methods of avoiding what is painful? (128-129)
Discussing history and whether it should have a place in the narrative brings up the subject of censorship and the writers’ responsibility. The author’s desire for a historical frame of reference leads the narrator’s narrator to question his motives and his attempt to force reality into a false coherence. To support his theory, the narrator’s narrator offers three examples of language used in three press releases which he says the writer gave him.
The first is a hyperbolic piece praising the homeland and the wisdom of its rulers, advising its readers to ignore other versions of reality even if their own lives are contradicted by the piece.The second is a description of a beauty pageant in the Rabat Hilton which describes itself as an event ”history will record in golden letters.” The third is a short report in plain prose on the process of diverting water from the local population of a small village to the gardens of the bureaucrats in the water bureau, dated 1978. The narrator’s narrator proceeds to ask, what version of history should be written? The official versions with their hyperbolic language or the everyday one with its banalities which involve the threat of the censors?
This is returned to in the last chapter “Who Remembers My Mother?” which begins with an obscuration: “Two years have passed since the death of my mother…a silent dialogue has begun between me and my departed mother…what does it meant to have a mother?” (127).
Hadi relates an event with his political party where the schedule had the following eternal question: “what to do?” This was following a chain of arrests and suppression operations and Hadi’s disillusionment had deepened to an extent that makes political activity seem irrelevant:
I stood quietly and cleared my throat before saying: “Excuse me brothers, I have a question that has been bothering me for a while which is: do you know my mother? Does anyone here remember her?”
The chairman banged on the table with his hand. “You’re all surrealists this evening then.”
Another shouted: “why not ask about your father too?”…
I responded with the same calm that I had asked the question: “I don’t care about my father much, he died before I had reached two years old, and when I grew up and saw his picture and they told me he left in his will that I should go to the Qaraween university and his will was not fulfilled and I did not miss him at all, therefore I do not ask you about him.”
After more objections, he continues:
“I am serious in what I say, and I don’t think I’ve strayed from the schedule of our meeting much. I think instead of twisting our words and recycling analysis, we could get to know each other better, to speak of our childhood and our mothers…as for your talk…it adds to our feelings of isolation and fear and despair…we know now that what we need is to insist on our existence despite those who want to choke us, to narrow the circle of our influence. Where we will get this strength if not from…
Words on words. They said, we said, they said, we said.
Towards the end, Hadi wonders, “is memory victorious over the game of forgetting? We water a dying tree, unsure if it will live, and despite that we can do nothing but water it in hope that its branches will unfurl with green.”
Through the symbol of the tree, the novel returns as it began with the mother, ending in an impassioned address to her: “We want you to stay with us. You won’t escape this time, we won’t lose you. We will draw from you patience and determination to remain.”
- Summary of the novel in Arabic at Ahewar
- Edwar al-Kharrat, “Zawahir f-Rriwaya al Maghribiyya,” An-Naqid 39 (1990): 18-23;
- Al-Habib Dayem Rappi, “Al-Kitaba-Atanass wa ‘Oufoq al-Intidar fi Mra’at Anissyan,” Al-Adab 5/6 (2003): 93-95;
- Magda Al-Nowaihi, “Commited Postmodernity: Mohammed Berrada’s The Game of Forgetting,” Critique 15 (1999): 1-24;
- Issa J. Boullatta, “Translator’s Introduction,” The Game of Forgetting by Mohammed Berrada, Quartet Books: London, 1997.
- An MA thesis which looks at “the Myths of Nationalism and the Production Cultural Memory,” in The Game of Forgetting.