The word “streetwise” seems quaint these days. Co-opted over the years by the marketing industry, its linguistic links with popular culture do little justice to the story Mohamed Choukri has to tell. Born in 1935 into abject poverty, he was raised in Beni Chiker, a small village in the mountainous Rif region of north Morocco. Eight of his siblings died of malnutrition, while another brother was killed by his tyrannical father. Aged 11, Choukri fled to Tangier. He lived on the streets, surviving only through theft, smuggling and prostitution.
Streetwise, the second instalment in a trilogy of memoirs, finds Choukri aged 20 and desperate to gain an education in order to escape his hellish existence. He sits in with the children at a local school, and despite sleeping rough, taking drugs and visiting an unfathomable number of prostitutes in his spare time, he eventually qualifies as a teacher.
Refreshingly, Choukri does not succumb to the romantic musings or sense of self-satisfaction that characterise most stories of triumph over adversity. His tale is made compelling by the characters he meets along the way. Still, at times the narrative voice is so blunt and distant that one can’t help but wonder if a little something hasn’t been lost in translation.