Interviews / Studies
Abdellatif Laâbi is among the most well-known Moroccan writers living today. Born in Fez in 1942, he co-founded the poetry review Souffles in 1966. Six years later, Souffles was banned and Laâbi was imprisoned. He was released in 1980, and five years later he moved to France where he has resided ever since.
Despite his self-imposed exile, he has continued to be politically engaged in Moroccan public life, spending significant time there each year. In the past two years, he has written two books about politics and culture in Morocco: Un autre Maroc ("Another Morocco") and Maroc, quel projet démocratique ? ("Morocco, What Democratic Project?"). A novelist, poet, and playwright, he has also translated several Arabic poets into French, most notably Mahmoud Darwish. In 2009, he received the Prix Goncourt de la Poésie and in 2011 the Académie française’s Grand prix de la Francophonie.
Thanks to recent translations of two of his key works, Laâbi is finally achieving a degree of recognition in the English-speaking world. André Naffis-Sahely has translated both his debut collection of poetry The Rule of Barbarism for Island Position and his 2004 memoir The Bottom of the Jar for Archipelago Press.
Last month I sat down with Laâbi at his home in Creteil, on the outskirts of Paris, to discuss, among other topics, his literary career, his profound love for his decidedly unliterary parents, Morocco’s complicated linguistic and political situation, and Moroccan rap.
Christopher Schaefer: The Bottom of the Jar, which has just been published in English translation, describes your childhood, and in various other books and articles you have written about your imprisonment in Morocco and then exile in France. Can you speak a little about what occurred between those two events, the beginning of your literary career, your introduction to fellow poet Mohamed Khaïr-Eddine, and the decision to launch the literary journal Souffles?
Abdellatif Laâbi: Yes, that was in 1965. I had started writing and publishing in several literary magazines, here in France, and also in Moroccan reviews. And then I discovered that there was a group of young poets in Casablanca publishing some small reviews called Poésie toute and Eaux vives. And they also published in the automobile magazine of Casablanca. That gives you an idea of the limited options at the time when it came to literary reviews. So we met—or rather—I was curious enough to seek them out, and at the same time we met a group of painters in Casablanca: Mohamed Melehi, Mohamed Chebaa, and Farid Belkahia. Farid was the Director of the Ecoles de Beaux Arts in Casablanca, and the two others taught there. So that was the group we started with. Mostafa Nissaboury (the other poet), Mohamed Khair-Eddine, and then the painters from Casablanca. I think it’s very important to note that Souffles began with a group of poets and artists/painters, which is something that gave it a completely original character, perhaps unique in the history of Moroccan literary reviews up to that time. There weren’t just new texts compared with the literature of the time, but also a plastic and graphic conception that was unprecedented. The painters had studied in countries such as Czechoslovakia, the United States, Italy, and Spain. So they all arrived with a diverse set of perspectives and skill sets, and, furthermore, they were on that same quest for modernity that we poets were on. So that’s the context in which Souffles was founded. I didn’t see Mohamed Khaïr-Eddine but three or four times perhaps, because he left very quickly for France, where he began to publish his books. It was Mostafa Nissaboury more than anyone else who accompanied the review the longest—almost to its very end.
Mohamed Khaïr-Eddine was in Agadir just after the 1960 earthquake, if I’m not mistaken.
Yes. After working in Agadir in the aftermath of the earthquake he left for Casablanca, where he wrote Agadir, his first novel.
The Bottom of the Jar begins and ends with a small anecdote about your father’s response to televised reports of the fall of the Berlin Wall. At the very end, your father humorously compares Berlin to Fez, saying “Pahh, is that the only news they could find to tell us! A falling wall . . . it can’t have been built very solidly. The walls of Fez are still standing after all.” In your writings about your parents, they possess a certain kind of, we might say, uneducated wisdom. Do you agree that type of wisdom is being lost? And, if so, what does it consist of?
In The Bottom of the Jar, I recount several years of my childhood, from the age of 7 or 8 until the struggle for Moroccan independence in 1952 and 1953. At the same time, it’s an homage to my father and my mother. My father and my mother didn’t know how to read or write. But that didn’t mean that they didn’t have a culture or that the popular language that they spoke was a language reduced to the level of its expressive capabilities. I have from time to time reflected on how I ended up writing. What pushed me to write? What was the trigger? More and more, the image of my mother imposes itself on me, because she was a woman who had a rich language, full of images, and a great sense of humor. She was often angry at her condition, and it was by listening to her speak that perhaps—and I say perhaps—the desire to write was born in me. So, there is this homage, of course, to that woman who had 11 children—three of whom died—so eight children: three brothers and four sisters who survived. The ten of us lived in a small house of two rooms. My father was a simple craftsman who worked his entire life. My mother worked for us her entire life. It seemed they were almost slaves in our service, so that we could eat, so that we could be clothed, and so that we could go to school. All of that touches me very deeply—to see a man and a woman at that moment in time, in their condition, illiterate—who spent their entire life for us. And that’s why they appear not just in The Bottom of the Jar, but also in other books of mine.
Something that struck me while reading your autobiography was that your first encounter with the French language was via an Algerian teacher of French, Mr. Benaïssa. Do you know what happened to him afterward? Did he return to Algeria? Did he fight in the Algerian war of independence? Did he emigrate to France?
No, not at all. In fact, during the colonial period, there were a great many Algerians who came to Morocco because they were translators for the French colonial administration or they taught. Already in Algeria there was a Frenchified elite because the colonization there dated from 1830, whereas in Morocco it was much more recent.
Do you read English a little?
I spoke English well until my high school graduation. Afterwards, unfortunately, I didn’t use it regularly.
Have you read André Naffis-Sahely’s translation?
Yes, I looked at it a little.
Did you work together at all?
No. He worked freely. Occasionally he asked me for small clarifications, but the translation was his own work, which, according to many of my Anglophone friends, is excellent.
Which Moroccan writers deserve a wider readership in the English-speaking world? That is, which Moroccan writers who have not yet been translated into English deserve translation?
Unfortunately, I find that notably in the United States, but also in Great Britain, there is not a great deal of interest in Arabic literature, Moroccan literature included, whether in Arabic or French, with only few exceptions, Tahar Ben Jelloun for example or Driss Chraïbi.
Paul Bowles translated Mohammed Choukri . . .
Yes, Mohammed Choukri. But . . . I find that in other countries, for example, in Spain or even in Germany, there is a much greater interest. In the United States translation of national literatures remains rather limited in comparison to what is translated in France or in other countries like the Netherlands or even in Turkey. And it’s true that in the English-speaking world, translation is a lot less important than in the old Europe [laughter]. There are many Moroccan writers who deserve translation. We have some great poets for example. Unfortunately, when it comes to poetry, it’s even more complicated, even rarer to see books of poetry translated in the United States. There would be a couple dozen authors . . .
A couple dozen . . . could you give some examples?
[laughter] There is Driss Chraïbi, who hasn’t been translated very much, at least not enough. There are also French-language writers like Mahi Binebine, Fouad Laroui, Mohammed Leftah etc. Poets like Mostafa Nissaboury. Writers in Arabic like Mohamed Zefzaf, Driss Khoury, Mohamed Berrada, Mohamed Achaari, Mohamed Bennis, and Abdelkrim Tabbal, one of our great poets, and that’s all without speaking of Amazigh (Berber) writers or those who write in our dialect of Arabic. I compiled an anthology of Moroccan poetry about ten years ago that comprised texts by 50 Moroccan poets.
Since independence, right?
Yes, since independence. Poets who write either in French or in Classical Arabic or in Arabic dialect or in Amazigh. That book could give an idea, at least when it comes to poetry.
Another question that is often posed to you is that of your decision to write in French. Your typical response is that it is a complicated issue. You mention Salman Rushdie, whose mother tongue is Urdu but who writes in English . . .
Samuel Beckett, the Irish man who also wrote in French . . .
Personally I believe the question has become a little absurd. Today there is a globalization of literature. And furthermore, we can pose the same question to any good reader of literature. In his or her reading, 80 percent of the books are probably translations. You haven’t read Tolstoy or Dostoevsky in Russian, at least so far as I know [laughter], or Kawabata or Murakami in Japanese. It’s like that. It’s a question that doesn’t really mean very much in my opinion. The language in which a writer writes is one which he chooses voluntarily. Either it’s his mother tongue or it’s the language that was imposed on him at some point because history wanted it. In North Africa, because of the French colonial presence, there were three generations of Algerian, Tunisian, and Moroccan writers who wrote in French. What is important is not the language in which they write but what they do with that language, how they work with the French language. Does their mother tongue disappear the moment they write? It’s a good question and it must be raised. What must be done with these writers is to see how the different linguistic registers are molded into their writing. That’s perhaps what makes the particular soul, the breath, and the musicality of those writings. It’s because they are molded by two or three languages at the same time, even if they are enunciated at the end of the day in French.
I completely agree with you. For me though, my mother tongue is the same language used in media and in education. There isn’t a great deal of variation between the dialect and the elevated educated form. And that’s why it’s often difficult for Americans or others from similar situations to understand the diversity and complexity of the linguistic situation in Morocco.
One of the concerns of The Bottom of the Jar is a linguistic concern. In that book I tried to perfectly map the French language onto the Arabic language, without it becoming a bastard tongue.
I began my studies as a medievalist, and one of the key moments in medieval literature is an essay by Dante entitled De vulgari eloquentia ("On the Eloquence of the Common Tongue") in which he advocates the use of Italian in place of Latin, which was used at that time for religion, education, etc. And something I wondered when I was in Morocco was whether there will be a moment like that for Darija (the Moroccan dialect of Arabic). Will the time come when someone says, “we must write poetry in Moroccan Arabic because it can be just as eloquent”? I know that there are poets and writers that have already begun this work, but do you find that Moroccan Arabic has already undergone the pivotal moment that Italian experienced with Dante or are we still waiting for it?
I believe we are still a long way off. I’ve thought a great deal about the linguistic situation in Morocco and I have tried to kindle a debate around this question. What is the issue? It’s to know in what languages we’re going to be writing in 20 or 30 years. In what languages—and I say “languages” in the plural—are we going to teach? That is the fundamental concern. And yet there is an ideological discourse surrounding the languages: the attachment of the Arabizers to Arabic is an ideological attachment, and it’s the same thing for the Amazighs and those who defend Darija. I say simply: instead of beating each other up over this or that language, we must begin to bring all these national languages up to speed. We must prepare them so that they truly become languages of creation, of teaching, of scientific research, and of communication at the same time. And yet this work has not been done since Moroccan independence. We don’t cease to change directions, either Arabizing or Frenchifying, and we have lost a great deal of time. Instead of telling ourselves, okay, we have to prepare these languages, first the three national languages I already mentioned (Darija, Classical Arabic and Amazigh). We must prepare them so that they can become languages where we express ourselves, we have the same means as someone who uses Spanish, Italian, and English. That right there is the real issue. I personally believe that we have to prepare the ground. There isn’t for example a true dictionary for Darija. There is a grammar that was done during the colonial era by the French, but it isn’t used any more. And yet a part of the language is in the process of disappearing, because there is a new Darija. You know, because you lived in Morocco. You see how we absurdly mix French and Arabic. Same thing for Amazigh, which is inscribed in the constitution as a national language, but which suffers from the same problems as Darija. Same thing for Classical Arabic, which does not even have an etymological dictionary for example. It’s a huge lacuna. How can we work with words whose origin and evolution we don’t know? It’s a real handicap.
I think this is a good moment to speak a little about your recent book Un autre Maroc ("Another Morocco") and your political engagement. When I was in Morocco, an article of yours was published in the magazine TelQuel where you put forth certain theses for Morocco. Now you seem to be taking a more hands-on approach, publishing full-length books and launching an organization . . .
No, I’m not a politician. I’m a writer and an intellectual, but an intellectual who defends his right to have his own analysis of the political situation of his country or of the world and also to have ideas, propositions, and a vision for the future. We have often marginalized intellectuals as if they weren’t full citizens. I personally assert the right of intellectuals to have opinions about politics and to defend them, without being inserted in a political party or in some sort of organization. The political class in Morocco, as in many other countries, even in advanced democracies, has lost a great deal of credibility. And yet the intellectual has an opportunity to keep his freedom of speech, to say truthfully what he thinks. Even if it’s against the consensus. The intellectual is not required to be in the consensus. That’s something extremely valuable in my opinion, that every kind of country contains men and women with that freedom of thought.
I understand that well. But you have also just stated that Darija and Amazigh need to be developed. And for that it requires an educational system in place. And if changes are needed in the educational system, you don’t need a political project necessarily, but political measures.
Yes, a political project is required, of course. I’m saying that I can venture ideas, and in my last book Un autre Maroc, I do just that: I make propositions. Because I consider that we have spoken too long of democracy—the vocabulary and the lexicon. You, who have lived in Morocco for a long time, have no doubt remarked that the political class, the mixture of tendencies—right and left—has mastered the lexicon of democracy, of transparency, of good governance, of human rights, etc., but there is a true gap between discourse and reality. Personally, I think that in Morocco we are not yet in democracy. There is the idea of a democratic project, but, for me, the cornerstone of that democratic project is a genuine revolution in our educational system. In Morocco we live in a kind of apartheid when it comes to education and teaching. Public education is for the people and private education is reserved for those who have the means to pay and then later send their kids abroad for college. We suffer from a genuine apartheid there. Public education concerns 80% of young Moroccans. It’s a third-rate education that has been emptied completely of its content. It doesn’t form free citizens, youths capable of thinking for themselves. It doesn’t prepare them to think critically, and surely not to hold a job someday. It prepares the majority of children who go to school for unemployment. So in my opinion we cannot speak of democracy until the moment when we have put an end to this system of apartheid. At that moment, yes, we will have genuine citizens. School is where we form citizens, where we form democrats, individuals attached to democracy, to human rights, to humanist values that guard them against intolerance and extremism. That’s what I propose. But for me today, the political class as it exists is no longer capable of leading the fight for genuine democracy. In Un autre Maroc I call for the formation of a new citizen force capable of leading this fight. We have a 100-year old political class. We need the youth of today to take on that responsibility. We need women to take on political responsibilities. We need civil society to be engaged in that combat. We need intellectuals, thinkers, and researchers who can also be engaged in this fight.
Have you been in contact with the leaders of the February 20th Movement? [the protest movement in Morocco during the Arab Spring]
Yes, of course.
Have they sought you out?
Yes, we have met. I participated in several marches of the February 20th Movement. But the problem of the February 20th Movement itself is that it became content being a movement of protests and not a movement of propositions. It’s a movement that didn’t succeed in opening itself up toward other forces that could mobilize, notably women, democrats who are not in traditional political parties, and the traditional left. There is the root of the problems they are experiencing today. The February 20th Movement played a very positive role in the beginning, and then it weakened. It stopped at being a movement of protests, instead of working on the democratic project itself by proposing solutions.
I have the impression from your writing that you still remain optimistic about the future. Is that true, and if it is true, how do you manage to stay optimistic?
I have personally been against what we call “merchants of despair.” Despair is a merchandise here in Morocco. There are political movements that feed off of the despair of the people to recruit, to mobilize, to capture a part of public opinion. There is a golden rule that has long nourished my thought, my reflection and my action, that of the Italian Antonio Gramsci.
He spoke of the pessimism of reason and the optimism of the will. Despair serves no purpose for me. Even if I sometimes become disheartened, I cannot lower my arms because my word carries a certain weight in Morocco. Consequently, I want to keep a little window open for hope. What exactly is that open window for hope? It is the optimism of the will that allows movement and change even when conditions are difficult.
I personally encountered Morocco for the first time through the writings of Westerners like the American Paul Bowles and the Spaniard Juan Goytisolo. There has been a long tradition of Westerners visiting Morocco and writing it. I would like to know if you, as a Moroccan, have found interesting insights in these texts. Do they inform your own writing in any way? Or instead, do you perhaps find a warped picture of Morocco?
I have read these writers from intellectual curiosity, of course. But let’s say, it’s not the literature that moves me deeply. There are some very intelligent things in Paul Bowles, more so in Juan Goytisolo. But of course that cannot replace the view from the inside. We read these texts with interest as Italians, French, and Americans would read works dealing with their society or placing a story in their country. Can that replace their own literature? I don’t believe so.
Will you write about France? You have lived here for thirty years now.
Listen, frankly, even if I have lived in exile for a very long time, the matrix of my writing has remained unchanged, and that’s my link to Morocco. Because I believe that every country needs to create its own narrative that will be inscribed in the collective memory. That right there is one of the major concerns of literature, whether Moroccan, American, or Chinese. The other concern is to make sure that the message, the humanist values of the little humanity to which we all belong with which we share sufferings and hopes, may be transmitted to the great humanity. How do we make sure that Morocco gains access to the universal? How do Moroccan men or women function from the inside: What is it that animates them and outrages them? What are their dreams? What are their obsessions? What are their hopes? How do they see others? Morocco is a very young country when it comes to literature. We do not have a great literary tradition, in contrast to Syria, Iraq, or Egypt, for example. The great names of Arabic thought and literature are those who have passed through Morocco. They lived there a little, but we ourselves do not have a great literary tradition. It’s an extraordinary opportunity to begin when there isn’t a great deal behind us, to broach an unknown territory. It’s a little like the Far West. It’s a true challenge to be met.
When you return from Morocco, what do you miss the most?
What I miss perhaps is the anarchy. Moroccan reality is an anarchic reality in every day life, but it is an anarchy where the human is also present. Moroccans are neither better nor worse than any other people. But the people are very spirited, very spontaneous. There is something very uninhibited in their behavior. They speak to others very easily. They communicate amongst themselves very easily. You just have to come up to someone smiling for everything to go well. Here in France human relations are a little more distant . . . people protect themselves. As for the cuisine, I make Moroccan food myself here, French and international as well. So there’s that. I’m a particular kind of Moroccan; I am a universal Moroccan. I am all that human culture has made of me, with its diversity and its pluralism. In my writing, I lay claim to the several elements of Moroccan identity: Arabo-Muslim, Amazigh, that is Berber, African, Mediterranean, Jewish, Saharan, but also Western. Morocco in Arabic means “The Setting Sun”, that is the extreme West . . . and then there is Andalusia with which I have a particular relationship . . .
Do you know the history of your family? Were they Arabs from Andalusia?
There is a history within my family, from my mother’s side. She spoke of the fact that they were exiled. So I suppose that their ancestors belonged to what we call the Moriscos, who were chased out of Spain at the end of the 16th century and beginning of the 17th. In my family there is that legend, but not that legendary per se . . . I think there is some reality in it because my mother could not assert too much being illiterate. She didn’t know history. It was the memory of that move that was transmitted to her. And physically she was someone with white skin, blue eyes, etc.
A few more questions to finish up: You have remarked on several occasions that poetry is a way to resist the commodification of culture. But for a great many people, poetry remains difficult—even perhaps too difficult.
Poetry is difficult to read or difficult to write?
I’m referring just to reading and appreciating poetry, to be interested in something that is not a prose narrative or a movie. A word that some of my friends use to describe my own interest is ‘pretentious’. So suppose you were talking with someone, say a young Moroccan, who finds that poetry is difficult, even pretentious, what would you say to that person?
I would say first of all that we didn’t give that person an opportunity during his studies to discover poetry, that great art which in the history of literature has been fundamental. Critics and historians of literature know very well that poetry has always played a primary role in the renewing of language and of writing. Poetry for me is a laboratory of literature. Language moves there, it transforms itself, and so as a result it has an impact on other literary genres. If today young people find difficulties with poetry, it’s because we simply haven’t prepared them. We haven’t cultivated from the beginning an appetite for poetry. Thus we can’t reproach them for that.
And that returns us to the question of education.
Absolutely. It’s a question of education. And culture dominates in that question. We have arrived at a moment where literature is reduced to the novel, because the novel is the only literary product where there is a commercial concern. If authors today only wrote poetry, they would be ruined authors, unable to live from their pen. If you really want to live from your work as a writer, you must publish a novel every two years. If you are a poet, you will need to have another job. That said, I can’t complain too much about the situation. That marginality of poetry allows me more freedom. There isn’t any pressure. The commercial concerns aren’t there, and so poetry is a very valuable art for literature. Then there are things that can be expressed in poetry that cannot be expressed in novels, except if perhaps the novel-writer is also a poet.
What is your opinion of Moroccan rappers? Are you familiar with Fnaire, H-Kayne, Don Bigg?
Yes a little.
There is creativity there, an acceptance of the language, and a capacity of self-expression, but at the same time, it isn’t exactly the poetry that you have just described.
It is one of the forms of poetry today. Of course, there will be traditionalists, poetry fundamentalists, who are going to find that it’s not up to snuff. But there are different registers and different ways of writing poetry. What bothers me a little is that in this new expressive form there is a return to tradition. There was a moment in the nineteenth-century when we liberated ourselves from fixed forms and from versification. Poetry since has evolved considerably thanks to this freedom. And yet, paradoxically, these youths are returning to tradition. But of course, their poetry does not have the same objective or the same function, and it doesn’t address the same public. It is a poetry that is political in the end, a poetry of combat. And that reminds me personally of other moments in time where feminist poetry, for example, emerged to defend the female identity and to fight against the oppression of women. It reminds me also of the writings of prisoners who denounced the universe of incarceration and political oppression. But I think that in the panorama of current poetry, rap has its place. What I regret personally is that there isn’t more dialogue between classical poets, let’s say, of modernity and those poets. I think there is a real interest in dialogue. Personally I have sought it out. I collaborated with a Belgian rapper of Moroccan origin named Rival. We worked together to see how what we both wrote could communicate, and we did a show together. I requested some of the rappers to read my texts, to see what it would produce.
One last question. In your poetry there is a mixing and melding of the descriptive and prophetic aspects. We might say, a denunciation of the world today that is mixed into declarations of a world that is to come. Can you elucidate a little the relationship between the two?
Yes, of course. There’s something archaic in the function of the poet that we should never abandon. It’s an archaic art. In poetry, we find the first expression of human emotions: anger, fear, doubt, etc. Human memory has been conveyed by poetry. And it’s also true that in its original, almost archaic, function, there was something prophetic about it. At the time of the founding of Islam for instance, poets were very poorly seen by those considered as adversaries of the Prophet. It’s true that the function of poetry is at the center of what I write. That’s why my poetry is also oral: a poetry of orality. For me it’s important to go meet the public, either here or in Morocco or elsewhere in the world. I am a speaker of poetry and I consider that oral dimension as fundamental. Poetry is not just written; it is also the spoken word.
The Quarterly Conversation, n° 32, June 2013
The French have long recognized the literary merit of Abdellatif Laâbi’s work. His writing, often compared to that of Pablo Neruda and Nazim Hikmet, was awarded the Prix Goncourt in 2009 and the Grand Prix de la Francophonie of the French Academy in 2011. Thanks to a gifted young translator, André Naffis-Sahely, Laâbi’s work is now becoming available to an English-speaking audience.
According to Naffis-Sahely, no mean poet and literary critic himself, “Modern French literature has stagnated and it is the likes of Laâbi, Amin Maalouf and other authors on the Francophone periphery who are shaping the French literary heritage today.” Laâbi was born in Fez in 1942 and began writing seriously in his twenties, publishing his first serious novel in 1962. But it was the establishment of an avant-garde magazine, Souffles, which sought to challenge literary conventions and political dogmas, that brought him to the attention of the Moroccan authorities. Consequently, in 1966 he was incarcerated and tortured by the regime, spending nearly a decade in prison. He moved to France following his release, where he worked as a novelist, poet and translator. He has been instrumental in introducing the works of Palestinian poet Mahmud Darwish, Moroccan poet Abdallah Zrika, Iraqi poet Abdelwahab Al-Bayati, and Syrian novelist Hanna Minna to French readers. He is also an essayist and political thinker who recently wrote on the democratic project in Morocco. Despite his renown in France, it is quite by chance that he has become accessible to English readers. André Naffis-Sahely discovered his works while in a Morocco: “I simply fell in love with his work and I decided to make him known.”
I met Laâbi in the Mosaic Rooms in London for a reading of his latest autobiographical novel, The Bottom of the Jar. The author seemed to be on a mission to break down mental prisons that prevent one from thinking freely. When asked whether he had expected to be incarcerated when he launched his magazine in the 1970s, he replied,“To earn a ten year prison sentence and torture was something I had never imagined.” It is a wonder how he found the strength to survive those years. “That is a secret of man; where one finds the strength not to bend to absolutism is truly remarkable and part of man’s particularity. I was convinced that morally I was right, and despite the lashes I could not give in.”
Incarceration has produced genius before: think Dostoyevsky and Solzhenitsyn. Laâbi is no exception; it is as if his prison experience freed him to absorb a plethora of literary and political forms. The ideas of Voltaire, Gramsci, Fanon and Moroccan mystics are framed within an unyielding will not to be caged again. As he says, “I don’t look at myself as an Arab, North African—or French, for that matter. I am a citizen of the world; a bridge, if you like. Take North Africa as an example: it consists of many different influences, African, Arab, Islamic, Berber, Jewish and Roman, and so on, and I will draw inspiration from all the cultures of the world, including France.” There again was that defiance of refusing to be contained by just one current of thought.
But surely France had a role in his imprisonment? Many journalists have documented France’s complicity in the horrors of the Years of Lead under King Hassan II. Were those who rejected French culture as an expression of defiance right? Laâbi answers this stoicly: “The colonialism of the France of yesteryear is something we reject, but we also have to accept that the France of today is different and there’s nothing to say that we shouldn’t learn from her. I refuse to accept the mentality of victimhood and conspiracy found amongst some Arabs. Why should one blame the French for its role in Mali and not also look at the internal politics of Mali itself? We cannot always blame outside conspiracies without looking at the internal conspiracies in our own countries. I refuse to accept the accusations of France being racist when it is like many countries suffering from similar problems. There are good Frenchmen and there are bad ones. In my twenty-five years of living in France, I have always been well received. And I believe that immigration is a gift to both, those who emigrate and those who host them, for both can learn from each other’s cultures.”
I expected Laâbi to be less generous towards the current Moroccan king, but instead he contextualized the situation. “The king,” he said, “is more open-minded, and there has been a lot of reform in Morocco, but we have a long way to go. However, make no mistake these reforms are not necessarily due to the authorities but due to those who spoke out and campaigned for it for the past thirty years.” One would have expected him to be highly critical of the Islamist dominance of the Arab Spring because of his socialist roots, but again the man refused to follow the current trend coursing through North Africa. “The Islamists didn’t have a role in the revolution that happened in Tunisia and other countries; they [the Islamists] are experiencing a resurgence, but we are in a period of transition and we have to wait and see.”
Before leaving, I asked whether he saw his role as a writer to be like Richard Wright, who viewed the artistic endeavor as having a social or political purpose. “I am political, but I am not a politician. A politician seeks to impose and get people to accept his views, whereas the artist merely suggests an idea and lets the reader make up his own mind. That is the great difference between the two. The politician thinks of the political effect now and the artist waits for the seed to bear fruit. The work of Voltaire, Diderot and others took effect slowly, but culminated in the French revolution long after their passing.” Yet again, his answers seemed to refuse compartmentalization.
The Majalla Magazine, London, March 2013
Kristin Prevallet : I'm currently doing research for an anthology that will work to contextualize the cultural and aesthetic diversity of contemporary French-language poetry. As a young poet, I don't think I was alone in thinking that the most interesting poetry coming out of France was all coming out of a particular European avant-garde, Mallarmian tradition. I grew into an appreciation of French poetry through this work, so certainly it means a lot to me. I admire your work because it seems as if you have traversed many different kinds of poetic practices, movements, and political struggles. Yet, your work and that of other so-called "Francophone" poets hasn't been very well represented in U.S. literary magazines-although that seems to be changing now.
Abdellatif Laâbi: I too am disturbed by this. But ultimately this is an Americano-American problem. That said, Francophone literature departments in American universities are very active, much more so than they are in France. Translation basically depends on the publisher and their interest in a Francophone poetry that is distinct from what is being written by the "born and bred" French poets. Thankfully though, this does not reflect the genuine interest that American Universities have taken in Maghrebian, African, and Caribbean literature. 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 term Francophone is therefore a political term. What about other terms that get used to further reduce and define Francophone poets as either being "inspired" or "politically engaged"?
That's not really the question, which has to do with much more than this issue of the term "Francophone." 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.
There are writers who seem to think that this literature, because its form is not innovative, is ultimately still traditional because it is not moving the language in formally interesting ways.
This criticism is shocking to me. It simply proves an ignorance of the kind of writing I am talking about; it also proves a sort of French, hexagonal, pretension which considers any literature that comes from the edges of the earth to be minor. This attitude is simply a left-over from the colonial mind-frame. But I thought that this mentality was finally on the verge of being considered passé.
So language cannot be claimed and there is no "pure" language…
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.
Do you think that the more theoretical tendency of so-called avant-garde poetry has to do with a lack of political urgency? One of the African poets I interviewed was saying what a luxury it would be to be able to write from a purely theoretical position-not to be weighed down by social and political problems.
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. And I don't understand how one could think that the intellectual should be absent from all that-- do your work and leave the world behind the door. If this satisfies certain intellectuals, that's their prerogative. But for me, poetry is too closely connected to life and what it stands for. What is life if not dignity, liberty, the ability to express oneself freely?
How did you come into your own as a writer?
I was born into an illiterate environment. My parents were never able to express themselves. One of the reasons I started to write was for the men and women who are not able to express themselves, but who are not stupid nonetheless…to allow them to speak, to have something to say. I am in the process of writing a novel where the central character is my mother. She is already a character straight out of a novel. She is someone who has a sensitivity, a vision; someone who was always extraordinarily frustrated about her condition. I owe her a lot, that's for certain.
And this frustration was understood by the men of the family, her husband, her sons…or did you only come to realise this later?
Much later. When you think back, you realise many things. Childhood is the patrimony of the poet. I always say that the poet writes with his childhood. He should not need to grow up. The eye of the child on the world is the first moment of seeing. And for me the poem is always this first look. This is what makes the poem magical. Because something is seen and said for the first time.
What do you think about the concept and role of the writer as a "public intellectual?"
I have a rather particular personal history. I am someone who fought, politically and intellectually, against dictatorship in Morocco. I do not separate the work of the intellectual--the production of ideas and symbolic value--from the work of being a citizen. However, when I write it is not because someone told me to. I do not belong to a party, and am not a part of a union. I obey no ideology. I am free. But to the extent that I am an intellectual, I cannot be silent when there is oppression, injustice, human rights abuses. I have to fight. I have something to say. I participate in politics. I defend the function of the intellectual as citizen. We used to say, "engaged" but this is a word which has been dragged out for too long.
Like the term "francophone" perhaps? Every time I see a reference to this in books, it seems pejorative.
It has become pejorative, yes. There were ambiguities 30 or 40 years ago when they began talking about "littérature engagée."--two roles were confused. An intellectual was supposed to be engaged with a revolutionary party, participating in an ideology that was supposed to change the world. There often were repercussions of this political engagement, of this ideology that would effect the literary work. There was Gramsci, the Italian philosopher, who spoke about "organic intellectuals" where the intellectual is the voice of the proletariat. There is in fact an inherent problem with this. Today I think this notion is no longer applicable. I prefer the term, "intellectual-citizen." Someone who writes, who paints, who makes music, but who at the same time is involved, paying attention to current struggles.
If a writer is an intellectual-citizen, does that mean that the writer has a responsibility to speak about political situations in his or her poems? Or is the poem itself, the act of writing, a socially engaged act?
Is a love poem a poem that is engaged? I have written many love poems. I am in the process of writing erotic poems. They contain no politics. I am in love with a woman, there you have it, that's it. But to answer your question, it is not a matter of responsibility. There are certain events that command my attention. 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.) That said, the poem as I wrote it is a poem in and of itself. It's not as if I'm simply saying, "Down with the National Front!"
Couldn't this be a new definition of a "poème engagé" ?
I couldn't care less about the label. No. 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. Of course, it all depends on the particular ways in which one writes. What I'm saying applies to me, but I would not preach this to other people. I fight for my liberty as a poet to write what I want to write, what inspires me. To say, "this here is poetry, and that there is not" is intellectual fascism. Creation is the domain of freedom, its most precise and concrete definition.
Would you mind talking about the publication of Souffles?
We were 23 years old when we started it. There was Mohammed Khair-Eddine, a major poet and novelist who died a few years ago in total poverty. There was Mostafa Nissaboury who lives in Casablanca, who continues to write and publish. And then there are all those who came later. Many writers, from Morocco, Algeria…It was not just Arabs who participated in the project, there were Africans, several French writers, a German writer. The magazine lasted for six years, and was banned in 1972. The fact remains that this was a magazine that allowed an avant-garde movement to be born, to express itself, and therefore to help the literature that was coming out of Arab countries move forward.
And how do you define the avant-garde?
For me, the avant-garde refers particularly to a rebellion against established standards. It is one moment of rupture in an evolution. Generally speaking, I believe that ruptures are what allows history to either advance or retreat. In literature, this is sometimes brought on by either an individual (Arthur Rimbaud, for example, created a poetic revolution), or a generation (a group of writers who create this rupture and thereby allow the design, the vision of literature to pass from a stage to another.) Generally, this occurs when the movement is extreme. Things have to be created on a clean slate, as if nothing existed before it. It's like flying ahead, going somewhere else. Of course, you eventually have to return and see that there were many significant things which came before you. But an avant-garde movement can only take shape through a certain symbolic violence. It's necessary, because otherwise one is always the pupil of somebody else. An avant-garde movement says, I have no god and no Master; I am the Master of myself.
Did the violent symbolic system you are referring to come from a European avant-garde tradition, from your studies of French literature?
Perhaps. But we were also rebelling against French literature: growing up during the colonial time, even if you were a good writer, you were at best considered to be a good pupil. So for us it was a question of affirming that we were not pupils. We wanted to be finished with colonial history. We wanted not only the economy, the government to be decolonized, but people's minds as well.
What were you reading during this time… Frantz Fanon…
Yes, among others. Aimé Césaire was very important to me. As was the Moroccan writer Driss Chraïbi. But I was also reading other writers who you might consider different. Dostoïevski, who I read when I was 15, nourished me. And many others, of course. Certainly, reading played a big role, but what was most important was being aware of exactly what was happening in the Maghreb during that time. As Fanon said, we had to break free of the West. We needed to be finished with the colonial period. We were ready to become subjects of history and no longer objects. It works like this: in history, and in the history of literature, there are moments when individuals express what is happening in society; to some extent, they are the instruments that allow for what needs to be articulated.
Do you think there is an avant-garde today?
Like the concept of engagement, I am wary about the concept of the avant-garde. There is what I call a process of "merchandisation" of culture. In other words, people know which books "sell" today, and inevitably this has an impact on literary production, on the creation of literary works. Books of poetry remain marginal. There are rarely more than one thousand copies printed of a book of poetry; it is often necessary to attempt to find them in specialised bookshops. It seems to me that poetry is the one art form which resists this system of commodifying culture. It is an intellectual resistance as well. It is one of the rare fields where a person can truly practice the freedom of being man, woman, human being, creator. This is why I fight for poetry.
I agree that poetry as an art form fundamentally resists being "merchandised," but I think that the poet is also doing the work of research into the language of the culture-in other words, that poetry does not exist only by itself. It exists, as Glissant said, in relation to the world. It seems to me that for the poem to articulate justice and humanity, it is important for the poem to make a connection with all of the various elements that contributed to its production-including the language of commodity culture, current events…
Yes of course, the poet is a craftsman researching language--but this is not an erudite search. The writer is not a scientist or a linguist. It is a problem of the economy of the language. A text has no consistency unless there is not one word that is out of place. Poetry is the ability to find this particular economy. That said, I am wary of poetry theorists who want to apply their theories to the writing. Applying ideas, wanting everything to be controlled by the intellect, inevitably makes the emotion, the lived experience, disappear. Ultimately, I think that poetry is primarily instinctual.
However, I agree with you that poetry is connected to the things of the world. The poet writes with life, writes with his life. I contend that each one of us is a unique individual. You can share many things with friends, with the person you love, with other writers--but what is inside of you is unique. If we both look out onto the street right now, we would not see the same thing. You would see one detail, and I would see another. What is wonderful is that via this particular art form, we are able to articulate what is inside of us that is unique. If I write, it is because I am trying to understand who I am; this enigma which is myself.
Kristin Prevallet, Paris, May 2001
Double Change, edited and transcribed by Omar Berrada