01 October, 2006

Abdellatif Laâbi - "Glory to Those Who Torture Us"

from you to me
the truth
swear to em that you won’t believe me
we are waiting
for a wheel to break open inedible flesh
or for an eye to go out for having witnessed
no meat eater will come sew up the cesarean cuts
there’s torture
artifice of pogroms
fire of skeletons

glory glory
the peaceful face of the executioner
the soft hand that hacks to pieces
and the universe flows
chugging its slow train of moralities
again and again
the sweet nectar of evil
vivifying pain
skimmer of diaphragms
marble of bulbs
. . .
That is a snippet of a snippet translated by Pierre Joris of a long poem, "Glory to Those Who Torture Us," by the francophone Moroccan poet Abdellatif Laâbi who lives in exile in Paris. In 1972 Laâbi was jailed and tortured for 10 years after his avant-guard literary magazine, Souffles (Breaths) aroused the attention of the authorities. This poem comes from his untranslated first volume, The Reign of Barbarism, "written between 65 and 67, before his own prison and torture experience, but prescient, knowing what was going down in the royal jails, as it still goes down in the 'democratic' jails set up by this country." (Morocco is currently one of the US' North African 'allies in the war on terror').
we are waiting
corpses or fossils
and the macabre party mounts
an ordeal without warning
they torture
and they rack what beats
and they beat what pulses
and they section what binds
crimes on the table

Laâbi is still active today, here's his website (in French). Joris has translated a more recent "Letter to Florence Aubenas", the French journalist who along with her Iraqi guide, Hussein Hanoun al-Saadi, was abducted in Iraq last year:
. . .
We think of you Florence
While hoping that an eye will open in our heart
And reveal to us
What we no longer know how to see:
Our daily gestures of small predators
That rarely don’t know themselves
The color of the lie
Spread over the whole palette of discourse
The irremediable crack in our planet
To better separate
The elected ones from the misfits
The solid web
Of the spider of indifference
That slowly encircles our faculties
The bars against which we hit our foreheads
Watching the caravan
Of our dreams go by in the distance
. . .
American poet Kristen Prevellat talked to him about writing outside his native language in an interview conducted in Paris in 2001:

I don't really like the term "Francophone." Aside from the fact that it's politically charged, the term is reductive. It's a means of confining very diverse literary experiences, each of which are distinct, into a singular issue with language. . . . The question really has to do with all the writers who do not write in their mother-, or, as I prefer to call it, birth-language. Take Indo-Pakistani writers-for example, Salman Rushdie, Ondaatje, etc. In England, the writers who are currently moving literature forward are not necessarily native to England-they are people who come from outside. In France we have the example of Kundera, who decided to write in French. This is a huge phenomenon in the world today. Apart from literature that we'd call "national", there is a new kind of literature which is currently emerging in what I would call the peripheries of the world--India, Africa, or elsewhere. What is interesting here is that these literatures are straddling between two cultures, two imaginations, and two different languages. But these writers are not only "between"--they have mastered both sides. I am perfectly bi-lingual : my birth-language is Arabic, my writing language is French. Perhaps what makes what I write unique is that the two cultures are intertwined. Even when I am writing in French, my Arabic language is there. There is a musicality in Arabic, and these words enter into my French texts. I think that people are not seeing the originality of this phenomenon which is currently world wide.

[cf Juliana Spahr's talk at the end of "all languages are multilingual"]
. . .

I am not going to fight over who gets to say, "I am the one who gets to represent the French language, or that person is the one…"--that's not my problem. What is my problem? That I did not choose to write in French. Why? Because I was born in a country that was colonised by the French. In school we did not learn Arabic because we were taught in French. So when I began to write, the only language that I really knew was French. What happened after that is a very long story--of love, of hate, of rejection--with the French language. Now I am at peace with it. The colonial experience was what it was; it was tragic, but some things were brought in as well. I do not hold any grudges and am no longer enslaved, but I am a product of this history. I have only lived in France for 15 years; all that I have written in the past and continue to write today is in touch with the reality of Morocco and the Third World-- and I write in French. I am very comfortable with French, but I would not say that this language is superior over this one or that one. It's simply that I did not have the opportunity to grow up in an independent, free country where you were able to learn the language of your country in school.
. . .

Writing is still a risk in many countries. This was the case in Morocco when I was still living there--I was put in prison. In other countries, poets are assassinated. Of course, a Western poet is not exposed to the same dangers, to the same threats, but there are equally serious but different atrocities which occur in countries which we call democracies. There is the numbing of consciousness, an indifference which is gradually settling in-there are unacceptable things that happen every day, and pass as normal. How can I not be upset? I am implicated in this, because I am aware that the West is a part of me. It's my humanity as well. To me there is a single human condition, within which there are different situations.
. . .

A few years ago, for example, a young 21 year-old Moroccan was walking along the Seine. It was May Day, and there was a demonstration organized by the National Front (the extreme right party here). A few skinheads detached themselves from the demonstration. They beat this young man, and then threw him into the Seine. He died, by drowning. This particular racist crime really effected me, and I wrote a poem about it. Do I not have the right? Is poetry so sacred that it should never reflect on human tragedy, as a means of protest and denunciation? There are many racist murders, but gradually they are forgotten. I named the victim; I did not want him to be forgotten. The poet is also someone who fights for memory. If there is no memory, there is no literature (there is nothing.)
. . .

It is a poem of life that is against barbarity. Period. I'm not an alarmist, but I think that we are living in a phase of humanity that is in the process of self-destructing. We know very well what is happening to the equilibrium of the climate. The African continent is on the verge of dying, wasting away. There are countries in which two-thirds of the adults have contracted AIDS, and at the same time the multinational pharmaceutical companies refuse to sell drugs at prices which the poor can afford. Those who are aware of what's happening in the world cannot just continue to live their little lives-they must speak out.

Double Change, the bi-lingual journal where this interview appears, also published six poems from his book Poèmes périssables (2000) [Perishable Poems], translated by Max Winter:

I scan the heavens with my naked eye
and poised ear
O you
fleeing galaxies
beyond the black hole
answer me
One word from you
and I will become part
of the coming adventure
I will bury my fear
in the heavy shroud
of my shortcomings

City Lights issued a selected volume in translation in 2003, The World's Embrace, translated by Victor Reinking, Anne George, and Edris Makward, largely of work from the 90's. From "The Earth Opens and Welcomes You," dedicated to Tahar Djaout, an Algerian journalist, poet, & novelist murdered in Algiers in 1993:

. . .
The earth opens
and welcomes you
You are naked
She is even more naked than you
And you are both beautiful
in that silent embrace
where the hands know how to hold back
to avoid violence
where the soul's butterfly
turns away from this semblance of light
to go in search of its source
. . .
One more poem in translation:
In two hours in the train
I go over the film of my life
two minutes per year on average
half an hour for my childhood
another for prison
Love, books, wandering
share the rest
The hand of my partner
melts little by little into mine
and her head on my shoulderis as light as a dove
On arrival I will be in my fifties
and I will have left nearly an hour
to live
(unattributed translator, link)

and lastly, one in its original:

Du droit de t’insurger tu useras
quoi qu’il advienne
Du devoir de discerner
chaque visage de l’abjection
tu t’acquitteras
à visage découvert
De la graine de lumière
dispensée à ton espèce
chue dans tes entrailles
tu te feras gardien et vestale
À ces conditions préalables
tu mériteras ton vrai nom
homme de parole
ou poète si l'on veut

Inédit, janvier 2006


Blogger Arcturus said...

roughly (very):

The right to rebel you employ
the obligation to distinguish
to unveil
to shred
each look of humiliation
into a face unmasked
By the speck of light
bestowed on your kind
fallen in your gut
you are guardian, vestal
From these preliminary conditions
you earn your real name
man of speech
or poet if you prefer

5:57 PM  
Anonymous Nezua Limón Xolagrafik-Jonez said...

Wow, great post. I enjoyed that.

I'd love to see a side by side comparison of the poetry written before and after being tortured...if he wrote any then. I mean, I can only imagine the difference in writing about that subject from his point of view. I think of Marianne Faithful....her cover of the Stones' As Tears Go By. The two versions, the one when she was young and bright and 60s pop type rock sound, and the other, years and years later, after she had been beaten to hell by heroin. Boy the sound of that latter version gives me chills...where her voice is just crawling over the lyrics like she wrote them herself, and unwillingly.

10:36 PM  
Blogger Arcturus said...

Glad this spoke to you.

Here's another (the rest is hidden behind a subscription wall):

O death of mine

By Abdellatif Laabi

Thirty-three years old
and death on my mind
Not death in the abstract
but my death
which may come at any time
and in the experiencing of it
accounts still to be settled
This is no bleak reflection
but realism
when prison is the future
and day and night
the torturers
dictate my fate
O death of mine
be gentle like those happy dreams
where I overcome all obstacles
and at maze end
grasp and caress my beloved’s hand
rediscover the colour of her eyes
and see the dew drop of a tear
cloud their (...)

He was born in 42, so this was either written in '75 in jail, or is lookingback to that time. Prison the future, fate in the hands of torturers. It may well be that for him it's easier to imagine the graphic images of “Glory to Those Who Torture Us”
than to later inscribe in graphic detail his own experience. But he doesn't pull back any emotional punch.

. . .death
which may come at any time

I may well pick up the Selected next time I'm in Berkeley.

3:45 PM  
Anonymous Nezua Limón Xolagrafik-Jonez said...

Not to say graphic detail would be better. But writing from a feeling of empathy or imagination simply cannot stand next to one's own experience of something, to my thinking. Not to belittle his work at any time period, of course.

11:31 AM  

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