Selected texts

(Copyright © 2004)

 

 

 

SHACKLED SUNS

 

for Nelson Mandela
and Abraham Serfaty
(1990)

A man is in prison
He is black
his eyes are filled with coals and a future
He is tall
with his back to the sly volcano of history
The rainbow rains on his tongue
to leave there the slurry of words
that a people will sing while dancing
on the threshold of death-houses
He’s too big for his cell
when he lies down
his feet stick from the peephole
and go frolic on the walls
His bird hands without wings
reach for the stars
to gather there the native honey

A man is in prison
He is white
but truly white
with his white beard of a god in exile
his nose of a nomadic eagle’s
his white heart
his white hands
where pain has scored
gigantic grooves of desire
roads through the heart of the jungle
maddening letters
in Kufi script
an enigmatic cross
an eye without lashes
a plow and corn sheaves
a small checkerboard black and white
and a clutch of hatchings for as many births

A man is in prison
He’s the colour the painter dreams of
without ever getting it right
He’s from a country
that even poets could not imagine
The mythical frontiers of blood
rebound on the down of his chest
and fall
He comes from the Graal and the planet’s forgotten Third
from the holds of slave ships
and the auctioned reserves of the First Peoples
He is Arab and Jew
Palestinian and Chilean
He is all men
all women
the mutant of languages and sexes
the gentle warrior of peace
He is the compass of a smile in darkness

A man is in prison
He is in love
of a love that would blanch Qaïs and Laïla
Abélard and Héloise
Dante and Béatrice
Everything in him is love
He does not look at beings
he cherishes them with his pupils
he does not lift
does not displace
does not put things down
he strews at their feet the petals of dew
and passion fruit
Hard bedding is his mistress
the tree his twin brother
water the binder of his blood
He is the swallows’ promised one
the breeze’s
the clouds’
night’s frozen lover
of the pared daybreak
of the rebel swell
Everything in him is love

A man is in prison
he has nothing to add
for he has said the essential
« That which every corpse should know »
and the living only hear with a distracted ear
oh so absent-mindedly
like this :
to live, what stroke of luck
but it must still serve some purpose
or this : « If you want to trace a straight furrow
you’d better hitch your plow to the stars »
or this perhaps :
no need to look far for the tyrants
they’re right here under your skin
and don’t forget this :
men are born slaves and unequal
the crux is that they should not remain so
You see
this man has nothing to add

The prison where our man lives
is round and square
near and far
It is of yesterday and tomorrow
underground and lost in the clouds
flesh-eating and vegetarian
It’s a shack near a mosque in a shanty town
a palace in bad taste
propped on crutches
a glass building with breathtaking view
on a death camp
It’s a floating island
a hypermarket
an up-ended pyramid
a train without driver
a sieve hiding the sun
prison bars planted in the desert
a door closed
in the sea’s face
an unused aircraft
a worn stinking mind
a maze in the fortune-teller’s crystal ball
a river turning tail
a fly tearing off its legs
to free itself from the glue
and most of all it’s in me and you
in us

A man is in prison
He’s not the best of his kind
nor the worst
You may say he knows well the executioner
that he’s met God
and then lost sight of him
He played hide and seek with death
climbed the highest peak in the world
discovered paradise in hell
and vice versa
He found the best answer
to the philosophical question of suicide
He reads dreams like a Talmudist
and eats at the table of delirium
He is the most sensual of saints
He laughs, oh man does he laugh
as if it were not allowed by law

A man is in prison
Suddenly he discovers
the true face of freedom
this cat which devours its own litter
this scorpion stinging itself with its dart
when it realizes that it is trapped
The superb ogress
the lover who kills to make live again
take it or leave it
And he was a willing taker
of astringent liberties
humus of a world lost in what’s to be
incomparable emerald at the gazelle’s ankle
mistress of esperanto and wanderings
unblemished page where only children
born from the androgyne wave
will be recorded
Freedom of blessed risks and dangers
of the severed hand celebrating the devastating blood
of storm over the desert blighted with hunger
of human seismic shocks
human only too human
avenging all the iniquitous deaths

A man is in prison
He talks to the wall
to the mirror of all mirrors
and tells it his story :
I was born between springtime and autumn, the year of the Tiger, in a town which since
has been renamed seven times
It hurts when some-one mentions the name of my country
but good god what a sun
how it brings fruit to man’s mouth when it smiles
what madness in the morning
when it administers the sacrament of jasmin and of cloves
This land has gifted me so much
that I wanted to give back in kind
But it was not the done thing to do
« Passion is not permitted. Move on, move along, the loudspeakers blared. Clear out your heart. Close your eyes, your nose, shut your trap, Keep moving, there are no swines here, keep your pearls to yourself. And watch it, watch out for stubborn lovers ! »
How could I resist, oh mirror of all mirrors ?
And here I am now certified mad
chained to the deaf walls of your reflections
and nearly happy to be so
for I did not let my passion down

A man is in prison
He does not wait
He doesn’t have the time
He will be painter and poet and musician
He invites the butterfly of words
to that fright that grows roots
He refutes the nickname of colours
so that the canvass white
may free his lurking demons
He makes the cry of silence live again
to orchestrate the symphony of giving
Unshackled from the body
he walks
taking the secret path
that leads from wound to soul
from soul to seed
from seed to twig
from twig to blossom
from blossom to the tenuous orchid
of hope
from hope to clearsightedness
from clearsightedness to tears
from tears to fury
from fury to love
from love to this strange madness
of believing in mankind after all

And, oh by the way
remember
a man is in prison

 

(Translated by Breyten Breytenbach)

 

THE COMMUNITY OF ARABS LOST — AND FOUND


I

This is the Voice of Free Arabs. The voice of all those men and women who have resolved to break the code of silence, expose lies, give a voice to the voiceless, make the screams of the tortured heard, cast off the shackles of submission, denounce acts of cowardice great and small, show up the mechanics of corruption and plunder, unmask material and moral poverty – in short, to rise up against fate and unleash the tide of hope.
We are broadcasting from somewhere. From a place inconceivable to the stunted imagination of tyrants. From that primordial desert where the spirit of rebellion was conceived, where the tree of memory plunged its roots into a land thirsting for justice and spread its leaves to capture the utterances of truth-seekers with lips split by enigmas.
This is the Voice of Free Arabs. Men and women who reject monkey suits, standing to attention, hymns to revenge, the sound of marching feet, the barbed wire of the fatherland, the idiocy of consensus, the plague of pride, the prison of one language only, one religion only, and the crippling folklore of emblems, of headwear, scarves, beards, medallions, rosaries - all the tinkling tinpot regalia that has served from time immemorial to hoodwink innocent peoples. So many shrouds cast over us from the cradle onward that it behooves us to rip up and hurl back into the hideous faces of the Molochs who would like nothing better than to bury us alive.
For alive we are, and our love for life is well-nigh unbearable.
We are the ones who long, who languish; scorched from within, mad for love, we track love by its spoor, its scent, even its sound. We beg at its doorway without losing our dignity. Oh! what a feast we make of the crumbs that it deigns to throw us!

This is the Voice of Free Arabs. Siamese twins, brothers and sisters of all free human beings. And, like them, candidates for uprooting and exile.
First, the inner reality: when you refuse to howl with the pack, to applaud with the mass, to kowtow like a lackey. When identity goes no further than a place of birth, a name, a belief. When difference excludes and stigmatizes. When the farthest margins become the sole livable place and set you on the blind merry-go-round of misfortune.
Next, the externals. What a minefield exile is! And, at the arrival point of an emigration, how the promised land slips immediately away beneath your feet! The split becomes permanent. You can never be truly here, nor ever truly back there. Yet little by little you adapt. A hard relearning process. You dwell in the floating abode of the provisional. Above all you find out that you are not alone. Henceforward you are part of a mutant people, a brotherhood exempted from blood allegiance, contemptuous of frontiers, obsessed by questions, haunted by infinity – not the geographical infinity of horizons, but the infinity of the human, molded from body and mind and discernible only to the inner eye.

This is the Voice of Free Arabs. We are speaking to you from somewhere, and our time is limited. For, let it be said, we belong to a species threatened with extinction. So pervasive is the pollution that the atmosphere around us is ever more tainted, the worst in our view being the pollution of language. How many oil-soaked birds struggle to spread their wings in our throats? How many roses besieged by filth have given up striving to release their perfume? How many fine and truthful words are dragged in the mud, prostituted and commodified on billboards?
We revolt against this programmed aphasia whose purpose, as plain as day, is the softening up of consciousness preparatory to its destruction.
Our message, if we must have one, may be summed up in one word: resistance! For indeed perils are on the increase, even in the "house of the soul."
We call upon the human in humanity to surge forth. We stand for the retrieval, in the shadowy heart of human identity, of that radiant component that many forerunners have fought so hard to show us, that our most inspired forebears have put to such good use, building rare Andalusias which now, alas, attract only trigger-happy monsters and frantic consumers of the ephemeral and the nugatory.

This is the Voice of Free Arabs. For ethical reasons we broadcast by night rather than by day. We must be true to our pledge to serve as the night-watchmen of the human condition. To that end we have to keep all our senses on high alert, cultivate insomnia, nourish the sacred flame, the green pastures of our dreams, and the gift of the visionary, while ceaselessly honing the weapons of speech so that, when the time comes, they may set waves of inspiration in motion, bang the drum of renewed defiance, and raise hairs on the back of the neck with their violins and flutes as their lutes keep time with the obscure rhythms of cocoons about to burst with the life force.
Every night we will transmit until dawn. By contrast with the amplified thwack of billy-clubs, we interrupt our programs with stretches of silence. The only true words are words impregnated by a consensual silence. The space and time of turning inwards, of self-examination, of doubt, of small insights and great illumination, of the evanescent breath of grace.
So here we are. The hand of dawn will soon erase the inspired engraving-plate of the night. Now is the moment for the descendents of Scheherazade to tiptoe away. And tomorrow we must needs start over. For the sword will once again hang above our heads. For how long?

II

For ten long years we preached in the wilderness. We knew that our words were inaudible to those who had accused us, judged us, condemned us collectively and exiled us from humanity. But we preached mainly for ourselves, simply to hear the sound of our own voices and satisfy ourselves that we were still living, even if death had become our daily bread.
History had dismissed us and indicated that henceforward it would be made without us. For a long time we stood stupefied before its closed door. And once our spirits had revived and we looked at ourselves we found that all that was left of our faces were hollow eye-sockets. The vipers of doubt had wrapped themselves about our torsos, sunk their fangs into us, and filled our veins with their poison. We were bracing ourselves for atrocious suffering when we realized that the venom had had a quite unexpected effect upon us, namely amnesia. In a way this was a relief. We recognized that the burden of our past had fallen from our shoulders and now lay at our feet. We were quit of that yoke which had served us in the darkest hours as a lifebelt. Gone was the gold of an age when we took ourselves for the center of the world! And thereupon we began to despise ourselves. And to treat as khara, as mierda, as camel shit all those marvels we had been force-fed so that we could spit them out into the faces of hereditary enemies, transient oppressors, or simply anyone imprudent or impudent enough to risk expressing reservations or indulging in criticism.
In order to wreak yet more pain upon ourselves, we took to revisiting highly dramatic episodes in the History from which we had been evicted, episodes in which sinful cities or peoples prey to overweening pride perished ineluctably, stricken from the map by a decree of Nature or of the Gods. From discovering how numerous such instances were we drew a perverse kind of consolation: we felt that we belonged with such extinct, long-gone civilizations, and that perhaps in some far distant future people would be interested in us much as, today, they were fascinated by dinosaurs, or, not so long ago, by the mythical lost continent of Atlantis.

Meanwhile, as the saying goes, the poor got poorer and the rich richer. Our potentates made doubly sure of that. A world on new foundations was hardly on their agenda. So far from making a clean slate of the past they embraced the famous principle according to which "To save the healthy third of the Umma, we must not hesitate to exterminate the other, unhealthy two thirds." For them we were nothing but herds devoid of soul or brain. Beasts of burden, draft animals, sacrificial lambs, we were obliged to slave away all our lives long, never raising our heads even to swallow our meager rations, until at last we were led away to the slaughterhouse. A reign of terror, assuredly, but worse: a machine for grinding consciousness down to nothing, to strip human beings of their humanity. The writ governing ordinary mortals was to understood, moreover, as the will of Providence. To rebel was to be condemned to the cruelest hell of all – hell on earth

Hell! Unlike all the talented poets who have merely imagined it, we have known it first-hand. We have traveled not nine but dozens of its circles. It was not fire that tortured bodies there and reduced them to ashes, but rather an even more blistering cold, a cold unimaginable in the countries where we now dwell. Five times a day, at the muezzin's call, the executioners came to apply the ritual punishments. Our hell was vast, so vast that we no longer knew whether somewhere beyond, outside, another world existed.
That outside world existed all the same. It was variously impotent, indifferent, or complicitous – that just depended. But it was oddly ill-informed. And vindictive. At times it assumed that what was happening to us was in the order of things, considering our fatalism, our obscurantism, our atavistic tendencies, or our intolerance - a hideous deformity that for our part we perceived only in others. Our tyrants, meanwhile, were obviously more congenial interlocutors, more deserving, especially when juicy business deals were in the offing, of a red-carpet treatment accompanied by congratulations on their effectiveness in controlling chaos, combating extremism, and using the stick on the herd for its own good and wellbeing.
Out of this sea of repression and mendacity grew hatred. A hatred for ourselves in the first place, bit one so humiliating that in the end it morphed into hatred for the other. Self-mutilation served as a kind of training for the boundless cruelty that had then to be inflicted upon the abject outsiders who had expelled us from History and conspired with the tyrants who had condemned us to hell on earth.

The predictions of the just and noble among us was coming true. The world's foundations were indeed about to shift! But not in accordance with the beautiful hopes that had been fostered in us. The earth was shaking in response to an uncontrollable onslaught on its most rotten underpinnings, dating back to the time of the primal horde, of rape and plunder, before the coming of talon law. This was a passage through darkness, the crossing of a blood-soaked desert. A declared internecine war whence honor was banished, where human life was worth no more than an onion peeling and where instead of lambs women and children and poets were indiscriminately sacrificed. Where birds were found guilty and executed for singing, roses beheaded for the crime of beauty, and standing stones blown up for the crime of mystery.
An eternity in the darkness.
And yet!

III

This is the Voice of Free Arabs.
How have we survived? We know next to nothing about it. Are we the fulfillment of the old prophecy according to which the dead rise from their tombs, from their common graves, or from the depths of the ocean, reassuming human form and presenting themselves on the day of judgment? Are we sleepers in caves dragged from centuries of slumber by an unexpected cessation of the clamor of arms? Or perhaps revenants curious to know whether our demise has affected the course of the world, whether the vineyard of life has been able to flourish without us, whether the planet has not perchance changed from blue to red, or whether the air is still breathable or the sun still makes its appearance every morning?
During our wanderings we had lost the sense of time, of space, of any kind of horizon. We were, in the fine phrase of one of our poets, "neither living nor dead". We even reached the point of asking ourselves the terrifying question "Is there a life before death?" But we did not know that the power of despair could equal all other resources, all other sources of energy put together. How did we finally become aware of this? In the same way as we discovered that the unexpected had always been our companion, issuing ever more of the signals that, from the depths of our abyss, we found it so hard to receive.
And then one day, not a fine day, or a dull day, one of our young people, not the cleverest nor the finest, set himself on fire. This human torch illuminated our night. The extinct volcano within us sprang into life. Children "asleep" in their mothers' bellies began to move. Our worn-down faces regained their irregularities, their features. Eyes grew back in their empty sockets, and reopened on the same old poverty and injustice. The memory of the ignominies and glories of an earlier day returned. Self-contempt and self-loathing vanished as if by magic. Our lips, so long sealed by powerlessness and fear, rediscovered the taste of the future. We found ourselves once again before the door of History. A good kick would suffice to open it!
The spring had come.

(Unpublished
Translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith)

 


SHOULDERS AND THE BURDEN

(extracts)

 

Today's Africa
is truly beautiful!
It was only yesterday
— which already seems unreal —
that we celebrated the wedding
of its regained freedom
and married it
even more desirable than we dreamed
"dressed in the colour of life"
insolently young
flaunting flower and breasts of fervour
leading the trance
that gives soul back to body
light to eyes
inspired words to mouth
Its negritude finally upright
united in the recognition of blood
the only agreed colour of man
Yesterday
the orphan day
of an aborted origin

 

Africa!
your pariah peoples
stunted branches of the original root
conceived in your silt
Your wandering peoples
in the frozen furnace of a pen
the scale of the Continent
Your blinded peoples
harnessed
ploughing under the yoke
turning the millstone
that crushes
the fruit of their womb
Those envious people
that insidiously praised your youth
condemned you to die young
The heralded extinction of the species
will start with you

 

Knowledge does not forgive
It eats away at you
What would you be guilty of?
Of some oversight or other
or overstatement
To feel yourself burning with the words
you gave the unspeakable
but remain glued to your chair
while sipping a coffee?
Dare to say it:
even if innocent of evil
you are hostage to it
Can one give peace to torturers' hearts,
change humanity?
Nobody has the answer
redemption, Redemption
you murmur
this unsolvable equation

 

It is not a matter of shoulders
or biceps
only the world's burden
Those who are able to bear it
are often the frailest
They too are prone to fear
doubt
despondency
and sometimes driven to curse
the splendid Idea or Dream
that exposed them
to the fire of Gehenna
But while they may bend
they do not break
and when by frequent misfortune
they are slashed and mutilated
these human reeds
know that their bodies hacked
by treachery
will become as many flutes
that shepherds at daybreak
raise to their lips
to capture
and convey to the stars
the symphony of resistance

(Extracts of Tribulations d'un rêveur attitré
Translated by Patrick Williamson, in The Parley Tree)

 

 


LITTLE THINGS


The pen
ceased to obey
or dictate
It decided to be frivolous

It knows
about backlash
about disorder
and faint weariness of soul

It said to itself:
Why resist
the thing that betrays language
in order to make it more truthful?

The little things
will perhaps be
the big things of tomorrow
or yesterday

Example:
What deadly question
will be put to me by the Sphinx
who is
my travelling companion?

Example:
The station clock
Does it tell today's time,
or that of a day
a thousand years ago?

Example:
That man
is he searching for a resting place
or for his passion in life?

The train moves off
Does it know the way?
Or if it will ever stop again?

( Little Things
Translated by Alan Baker)

 


THE RULE OF BARBARISM

(extracts)

at close range and profane the Inviolate    Sing Umm Kulthum in full cybernetic flower    Sing the Nile    The spectacular dams    Your pyramids and ours    The hearts of the centuries of posterity    Crazy love    Dangling quaternaries    Do not be afraid to accumulate clichés    My gazelle of the perfume niagaras   Oblivion beading its rosary of love songs    Traces of the camp-site and horses    The eye rises    Bursts into glances of glassy tarantulas   Abysses traversed by flows of honey    Through canals of sacramental milk    Sing a little if not for the actual funeral then for the procession    Sing so that I may write the Book of the Dead    The oral testament of the enslaved races    So I may lift the curse that beat us to the summit of the graft    So I may impose on Creation an exemplary defeat    So I may disgrace the dense misery of internal jungles    Sing your voice tears us apart and makes us laugh at the pinnacle of pleasure
 
 
« the people have come to a stop to witness how in my singularity I laid the foundations of glory »
 
 
Sing the arid Crescent    Sing the wall of wailings while I hug the wall of shame    Sing the star of the Orient risen from the earth fallen into disrepair   Sing a little so that I may give you my eyes    Your fetish for the fleet-footed for an Africa raped in cyclical ceremonies   Sing the impossibility of the arm grasping the tool    The impossibility of the hand grasping the body    The impossible pride of your defeated race
 
 
Cry of the nightingale of imbecile poets    Cry of the flashing rage of pockmarked meteors    Cry of the entrails on thresholds of abattoirs    Cry of the secular shambles that hints at a Dead end
cry of the bulimic concentrations of money
cry of the miraculous treasures dangling from sorcerers
cry of the learned charlatanism in the shadow of power
cry that greets the haunches of genocide
cry medieval light of dark times
cry as I skate on the rails of chaos
cry the wind will dwindle and gesticulating locusts will rise
cry packed with the dregs of memory-cum-living organ
cry of the Continent as the gong covers us with voices
cry throat that holds nothing but the most laughable of my outbursts
cry I am more than a man something someone in a tragic expansion
cry incandescent flow of mine
cry I will drown this planet with an asphyxiating poem
rock-drill natural gases I reserve
cry I know how to speak but not to the powerful
cry    d i s s e n t e  r
cry the betrayal of a friend     of a spokesperson that lies
cry of the sickening rounds of torpor
cry the regurgitated bile of the heightened quadrangles
cry the prostitution of the wind-up monkey of a musician
cry the critical-philosophical morgue
burying us in our living names
cry that sons of bitches like us should be damn well left alone
cry Enough
 
 
shameless diva    Old courtesan    Scalping us in feverish blood   Bamboozling us    Leaving us a wisp of straw at the brotherhood of sensory delirium    Of a lyricism that we fail to employ to transform all faculties   Slapping our common thighs and backs    Purring the idiotic refrain of the brotherhood of exclusion    Sing Umm Kulthum your voice tears us apart and makes us laugh at the pinnacle of pleasure
 
 
 
carnivore fossil    Sister of overwhelmed mammoth   But incalculable
s t  r e
 n g t h

 

( Extracts of Race
Translated by André Naffis-Sahely)



THE WORLD'S EMBRACE

 

My mother’s language

I haven’t seen my mother for twenty years
She let herself starve to death
They say she removed her scarf each morning
and struck the earth seven times
cursing the sky and the Tyrant
I was in the cave
where the convict reads in the shadows
and paints on the walls the bestiary of the future
I haven’t seen my mother for twenty years
She left me a Chinese coffee set
one by one the cups break and
I don’t miss them, they are so ugly
But I love the coffee in them all the more
Today, when I am alone
I borrow my mother’s voice
or rather she speaks in my mouth
with her curses, her profanities and invectives
the rare rosary of her pet names
all the endangered species of her word
I have not seen my mother for twenty years
but I am the last man
who still speaks her language

 

 

Two hours on the train

In two hours on the train
I replay the film of my life
Two minutes per year, on average
A half hour for childhood
another for prison
Love, books, wandering
take up the rest
The hand of my companion
slowly melts into my own
and her head on my shoulder
is light as a dove
When we arrive
I’ll be fifty
and I’ll hav
about an hour to live

 

 

I pull the curtains

I pull the curtains
to smoke as I please
I pull the curtains
to have a drink
to the health of Abou Nouwas
I pull the curtains
to read the latest Rushdie book
Soon, who knows
I may have to go down to the cellar
and double-lock myself in
to be able
to think
as I pleas
e

( The world's embrace
Translated by Edris Makward and Victor Reinking)

 

 

http://www.laabi.net