Fighting Mental Prisons
In conversation with Moroccan poet Abdellatif Laâbi

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.

Tam Hussein
The Majalla Magazine, London, March 2013