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Poems from the Maghreb: Introduction and Selections

[Cover of [Cover of "Poems for the Millennium." Image from Author]

[To celebrate the publication of Poems for the Millennium: Vol 4, edited by Pierre Joris and Habib Tangour (University of California Press, 2013), a comprehensive anthology of the written and oral literatures of the Maghreb, Jadaliyya is publishing the editors' introduction and a selection of poems (Mehdi Akhrif, Omar Berrada, Ahmad Al-Majjaty, Djibril Zakaria Sall, and Cheikha Rimitti. For more information and to purchase the book, click here]


This book has been incubating in our minds for a quarter century now, and we have been gathering material for even longer—with the aim of assembling and contextualizing a wide range of writing from North Africa previously unavailable in the English-speaking world. The result is, we believe, a rich if obviously not full dossier of primary materials of interest not only to scholars of world literature, specialists in the fields of Arab and Berber studies, but also to a general audience and to contemporary readers and practitioners of poetry who, to deturn a Frank O’Hara line, want “to see what the poets in North Africa are doing these days.” It is a project meant as a contribution to the ongoing reassessment of both the literary and cultural studies fields in our global, postcolonial age. Its documentary and trans- genre orientation means that it not only features major authors and literary touchstones but also provides a first look at a wide range of popular cultural genres, from ancient riddles, pictographs, and magic formulas to contemporary popular tales and songs, and is also in part a work of ethnopoetics. Drawing on primary resources that remain little known and difficult of access, and informed by the latest scholarship, this gathering of texts illuminates the distinctively internationalist spirit typified by North African culture through its many permutations.

A combination of traditional and experimental literary texts and ethnopoetic material, this fourth volume in the ongoing Poems for the Millennium series of anthologies is a natural progression from its predecessors. Jerome Rothenberg and Pierre Joris edited the first two volumes, which present worldwide experimental poetries of the twentieth century. Volume 3, as a historical “prequel,” covers the new and experimental poetries of nineteenth-century Romanticism worldwide. This volume—which we have at times half-jokingly thought of as a “sidequel,” for its southerly departure from Europe and North America, the series’s main focus— is conceptually linked in its attempt to present the historical processes that led to the most innovative contemporary work. And the first two, core volumes in fact include—although in a minimal manner, of necessity—a few of the Maghrebian authors who are revolutionizing writing in their countries today. Those books also show the importance of oral literature in contemporary experimentation, a theme deepened and broadened in the volume at hand. Throughout the years of work on this book, our shorthand working title was “Diwan Ifrikiya,” which has the advantage of being brief and concise, though the disadvantage of being slightly obscure compared to the longer, less elegant, but more explicit appellation Book of North African Literature. “Diwan Ifrikiya”—as we refer to it throughout this introduction—combines the well-known Arabic word for “a gathering, a collection or anthology” of poems, diwan, with one of the earliest names of (at least part of) the region that this book covers. Ifrikiya is an Arabization of the Latin word Africa— which the Romans took from the Egyptians, who spoke of “the land of the Ifri,” referring to the original inhabitants of North Africa. The Romans called these people Berbers, but they call themselves the Amazigh, and even today tribal names—such as Beni Ifren—in their language, Tamazight, include words derived from ifri.

“Diwan Ifrikiya” is thus an anthology of the various and varied written and oral literatures of North Africa, the region known as the Maghreb, traditionally described as situated between the Siwa Oasis to the east (in fact, inside the borders of Egypt) and the Atlantic Ocean to the west, spanning the modern nation-states of Libya, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco—as well as the desert space of the Sahara. Given the nomadic habits of the Tuareg tribes, the larger Maghreb can include parts of Mali, Niger, and Chad, plus Mauritania, to the great desert’s southwest, famous for its manuscript collections. (The spread of the various Amazigh peoples is also describable in terms of their basic food, namely the breadth and limits of the use of rolled barley and wheat flour, or couscous.) We have also included the extremely rich and influential Arab-Berber and Jewish literary culture of al- Andalus, which flourished in Spain between the ninth and fifteenth centuries. This culture was intimately linked to North Africa throughout its existence and even after its final disappearance following the Reconquista, given that a great part of Spain’s Muslim and Jewish population fled toward the south then, seeking refuge in North Africa.

The time span of “Diwan Ifrikiya” reaches from the earliest inscriptions— prehistoric rock drawings in the Tassili and Hoggar regions in the southern Sahara; the first Berber pictograms—to the work of the current generation of postindependence and diasporic writers. Such a chronology takes in diverse cultures, including Amazigh,

Vandal, Arab, Ottoman, and French constituents. It also covers a range of literary genres: although concentrating on oral and written poetry and narratives, especially those which invent new or renew preexisting literary traditions, our gathering also draws on historical and geographical treatises, philosophical and esoteric traditions and genres, song lyrics, current prose experiments in the novel and short story, and so forth.

From a wider or outside perspective, the overall chronological arrangement makes perceptible the crucial importance of this region in the development of Western culture, adding hitherto little-known or unknown historical data while showing how the Maghreb’s present-day postcolonial achievements are major contributions to global world culture. In ancient times, the Maghreb was seen as the Roman Empire’s breadbasket—we hope this book shows that at the intellectual and artistic levels this has remained so ever since. To be candid: North Africa is a region whose cultural achievements—including their impact on and importance for Western culture— have been not only passively neglected but often actively “disappeared” or written out of the record. This is true for the majority of this area’s autochthonous writers and thinkers, even those few whose achievements have been recognized north of the Mediterranean—often because they became diaspora figures working in Europe. A few examples may suffice: Augustine is certainly considered a major church father, but his North African roots, if not totally obscured, are given little credit. Apuleius, the author of one of the first prose narratives that prefigure our novel, is known as a Latin or late Roman writer, not a Maghrebian. It is also interesting to note in this con- text that the last poet whose mother tongue was Latin was a Carthaginian, and that by an odd circumstance the first nonoral poet in our chronology, Callimachus—whose forebears immigrated to Cyrenaica (Libya), possibly from the Greek island of Thera, where the first ruler of the Battiad Dynasty came from—wrote in Greek.

We know that during the heyday of Arab-Islamic culture, and more specifically between 1100 and 1300 c.e., scribes and thinkers first safeguarded, then translated and transmitted to the Europeans, much of the Greek philosophy and science that we pride ourselves on as the roots of Western civilization. Many lived and worked in al-Andalus, that thriving center of culture on European shores—a place where a millennium ago Arabs, Jews, and Christians learned to live together in productive peace. Yet the core figures of this period of Arab culture, such as Ibn Khaldun, Ibn Battuta, and Al-Hasan Ibn Muhammad al-Wazzan al-Fasi—whom we know as Leo Africanus—if not unknown, are seriously marginalized in the West. Lip service may be paid to, say, Ibn Khaldun, as the father of sociology, or a French author of Lebanese origin may write a successful novel based on the figure of Leo Africanus, but the actual texts of these writers, thinkers, and mapmakers are rarely available to the Anglophone world—or are available only to specialists or, again, without much context with which to read and appreciate them.

Even if Arab culture went into a long sleep and the high-cultural productions of the Maghreb often became mere imitations of the classical Mashreqi (Near Eastern) models—and thus less creatively innovative—during the centuries between the fall of al-Andalus to the Spanish Christians and the conquest of North Africa by the colonial powers, there was much cultural activity then. This is especially true for the autochthonous Berber cultures which, despite having been Arabized (at least to the degree of accepting Islam, in many instances in a modified, maraboutic form), kept alive vital modes of popular oral literature, for example Berber tales and sto- ries, plus elaborations and updated versions of the Arab-Berber epic of the Banu Hillal confederation. European anthropologists gathered much of this ethnopoetic material in the nineteenth and early twentieth century, but it has since faded from view, we surmise both from a lack of interest shown by the old colonizers and from a justifiable and understandable unease among Maghrebians toward this material so often labeled “primitive” or “preliterary” by those who recorded it. Besides which, the current Maghrebian societies are too busy trying to invent their own contemporaneity and to modernize themselves to have much time or desire to invest their limited resources in reassessing their remote pasts. If this anthology helps to dispel some of this unease or even incites other researchers and writers to look deeper into these hidden and buried histories, it will have accomplished one of its main goals.

The longtime neglect of such a major cultural area is part of a wider, now well- documented, Eurocentrism; permit us to cite an example germane to the project at hand. In the early days of Modernism, Ezra Pound spent time and energy establishing the roots of European lyric poetry, which he located in the French/ Occitan troubadour tradition, a lineage that has become canonical over the past century. Open your American Heritage Dictionary, and you’ll see that it gives the Latin tropare as the root of troubadour—an etymology that on closer inspection, however, turns out to be reconstructed, presumed, and unattested (i.e., marked with an asterisk). In fact, the field of romance philology has done everything in its power to negate any traces of a non-European origin of—or even strong foreign influence on—European lyric poetry. And yet it has been known since at least 1928, via the work of the Spanish linguist Julián Ribera, that the obvious root of troubadour is the Arabic tarab, “to sing,” specifically to sing a musical poetry that produces an exalted state. (One could also link this ecstatic sense of tarab to Federico García Lorca’s duende.) Pound, like nearly all other European and American writers and researchers, was looking for European origins—though in his 1913 essay on the troubadours he had a vague inkling that something else was going on, as far as the tunes of the troubadours’ canzos are concerned: “They are perhaps a little Oriental in feeling, and it is likely that the spirit of Sufism is not wholly absent from their content.” It is that kind of belittling and, in the final analysis, deeply denigrating attitude that “Diwan Ifrikiya” addresses and, we hope, redresses somewhat.

This anthology is organized into five approximately chronological diwans, inside which the authors appear in chronological order. Reading through them, one can get a sense of temporal progression and thus of the changes brought by history. The First Diwan, subtitled “A Book of In-Betweens: Al-Andalus, Sicily, the Maghreb,” starts with an early, anonymous muwashshaha—that lyrical poetic form invented in al-Andalus which moved Arabic poetry away from the imitation of classical qasida models going back to pre-Islamic forms. After a wide presentation of Arab and Jewish poets who made al-Andalus so incredible and possibly unique, the diwan ends with Ibn Zamrak’s wonderful description of the Alhambra.

The next diwan, “Al Adab: The Invention of Prose,” presents a range of materials —from literary criticism through Ibn Khaldun’s writings (the ur-texts of what will become sociology) to historical, literary, and cultural documents—that will give the reader a sense of the breadth and width of this pulsating and formative civilization. The Third Diwan, “The Long Sleep and the Slow Awakening,” moves us from the end of the fifteenth century (and thus the end of al-Andalus, which can be dated to the final victory of the Spanish Reconquista, in 1492) to the end of the nineteenth, a period during which Arab culture—both in its cradle, the Middle East, and in its Western extension, the Maghreb (in fact, in Arabic Maghreb means “West,” in both a geographical and a deeper cultural, even mystical, sense)—fell prey to what is usually called decadence, at the political, social, and cultural levels. For the Maghreb, however, even these centuries held creative excitement: it was then that one of the great poetic forms of North Africa, the melhun, came into its own by revitalizing its classical roots through both formal and linguistic innovations, including the use of the Maghrebian vernacular. The innovations and final grandeur of these poems, song lyrics really, are difficult to bring across in translation; suffice it to say that the poems have stood the test of time and still represent the core repertoire of the great melhun singers.

The Fourth Diwan, “Resistance and Road to Independence,” covers about one hundred years: from the mid-nineteenth (the aftermath of the French colonization of Algeria) to the mid-twentieth century, that moment when the people of the Maghreb begin to demand—and fight for—sovereignty. The shock of colonization may at first have numbed these populations, but in the twentieth century they produced a literature of resistance while on what we have called the long road to independence. A specifically national or nationalist thought also emerged then, as a range of differences—between, before all, Tunisia, Algeria, and Morocco—rose to the surface and began to be theorized. Emblematic of this period are the diwan’s two framing figures: Emir Abd El Kader, born in Mascara in 1808, the great nomad warrior who gathered the tribes to fight the French, was a superb writer and poet, and Sufi mystic, and a follower of Ibn Arabi’s thought, who died in exile in Damascus; and Henri Kréa, the French-Algerian poet who fought for Algeria’s independence and died in Paris in 2000. An amazing span—with other amazing figures, such as Abu al-Qasim al-Shabi, Frantz Fanon, and Kateb Yacine, whose work includes some of the first great classics of modern Maghrebian literature.

A double diwan concludes the book: although it covers only the past sixty or so years, its size demanded the split into two sections. We have divided it according to geography, grouping the two northeastern Maghreb countries (Libya and Tunisia) with the two relatively small countries in the south- west of our area, namely, Mauritania and Western Sahara, while keeping Algeria and Morocco for part 2. The writers in this diwan are those who came of age at the moment of independence and the two to three generations since then. This diwan’s size and literary achievement show that the great richness that characterized early Maghrebian culture, even if buried for a time by the “decadence” of one of its foundational cultures and then by the strictures of European colonial impositions, has burst to the fore again— with a vengeance. This richness brings to mind the days of multicultural al-Andalus, even if today we would call it multinational or hybrid or cross- border. For instance, the youngest poet in the last—the Morocco— section of the book, Omar Berrada, sets his work presented here in the company of the three international figures whom he honors: the late-nineteenth-century French avant-gardist Alfred Jarry, the twentieth-century North American performance poet bpNichol, and the great Sufi poet and mystic Ibn Arabi (1165–1240), whom we will meet on several occasions throughout “Diwan Ifrikiya.”

The diwans are interrupted, leavened, given breathing room—however you experience it—by a series of smaller sections, four “Books” and three “Oral Traditions,” whose roles are multiple: filling in detail, giving context, or foregrounding specific areas. Thus “A Book of Multiple Beginnings” pre- cedes the First Diwan, taking the reader from an early Berber inscription (see p. 10) to prehistoric rock drawings in the southern Sahara’s Tassili and Hoggar regions through the first centuries of recorded literary output. The Phoenician, Greek, and Roman writings from this period include some of the world-class achievements of Maghrebian culture.


Creation myths and tales of origin logically open this section. This puts the autochthonous Berber peoples rightfully at the start of the Maghrebian adventure while also foregrounding a tradition—the oral tradition—that has consistently produced major literary achievements over several millennia. This tradition is so ample and important that we had to create three independent sections (“Oral Traditions 1–3”) dispersed throughout the anthology to try to do justice to its richness—which persists today, as the third of the sections, presenting contemporary oral work, shows. The distribution of these sections also reflects the fact that many of this anthology’s contemporary writers source and resource themselves in that oral tradition’s imaginary—one could go so far as to consider it the Maghrebian collective unconscious.

The other books concentrate on the poetry of the Sufi mystics (“A Book of Mystics”), on the very specific poetics of Arabic calligraphy (A Book of Writing) —a core sense-making, meditative, and aesthetic dimension of Arab culture—and, finally, on a few diasporic writers (A Book of Exiles), both those who have left North Africa for whatever reason but feel them- selves Maghrebian despite their exilic position and those who have come and stayed, deciding to become Maghrebian or return to lost roots. Ironically, this smallest of subsections could be the largest: the diasporic or exilic dimension is one of the main characteristics of Maghrebian literature, given that the majority of its authors live and write on two or more shores.

Although it may seem counterintuitive for A Book of Exiles to include such writers as Hélène Cixous and Jacques Derrida, who are seen as essentially French (even if some of their work points to—and their late work indeed insists more and more on —the importance of their Maghrebian roots), their contributions here deal exactly with exile from the Maghreb and the related question of choice of language (see, for example, Derrida’s essay The Monolingualism of the Other, which is a response to and an elaboration of the Moroccan poet and thinker Abdelkebir Khatibi’s writings on this prob- lem). Their work also helps to contextualize the problems of the surround- ing obviously Maghrebian contemporary writers, who faced both the neces- sity of actual exile and the difficult decision of which language to write in. Although their mother tongue was usually one of several Berber languages or a darija (dialectal) variation of Arabic, more often than not they forwent these in favor of either the old colonial language, namely, French, or classical Arabic (which some Berbers, including even the great Algerian writer Kateb Yacine, consider as much of a colonial/imperial imposition as French).

Writing in French invariably connects the author with the old colonial metropole— no matter if he or she lives in the Maghreb or in self-imposed or forced exile elsewhere—as that’s where the major publishing houses are (only recently have independent houses emerged in the Maghreb). Writing in Arabic means dealing with small local publishers and getting caught up in all the political and censorship problems this has meant for most of the time since independence, or trying to publish in Lebanon or Egypt, the major Mashreqi publishing centers. The latter is also fraught with problems, as Maghrebian and Mashreqian cultures do not necessarily coexist easily. But no matter if they publish in Paris or Beirut, these writers have little chance of being translated into and published in English. The little interest and financial support our cultural institutions and publishers have been able to garner for translations from French and Arabic have been squarely devoted to Parisian, Beiruti, and Cairene authors. Even greater are the difficulties of those Maghrebian authors who chose to write in Berber—though Morocco and Algeria have each recently declared it an official national language—or use the ancient tifinagh alphabet, as does the Tuareg poet Hawad, who now lives in southern France. It is therefore also an aim of this gathering to pro- vide a space for the mixing and mingling (at least in English) of writers who in their own countries and in other (usually country- or language-specific) anthologies have to exist in a kind of de facto cultural apartheid.

Many if not most of the texts are appearing for the first time in English translation, while others are retranslations into contemporary American English of older Englished versions. The genres and the original languages—Tamazight (Berber), Greek, Latin, Arabic, and French—are mani- fold. Obviously a work of this order cannot be the work of one or even two persons. If we are the “author-editors” and, for some part, the translators of this anthology, we are fully aware of our limits: although between us we do have English, Latin, French, and Arabic, we do not know all the ages, all the languages, all the cultures that have contributed to this gathering. Our role has been threefold: (1) as the principal gatherers and arrangers of materials worked on by many other scholars, writers, and translators, (2) as the creators of the specific shape this book has taken (although here we owe a debt to Jerome Rothenberg, the collaborator with one of us on the first two volumes in the Poems for the Millennium series), and (3) as the purveyors of a range of translations done singly or in collaboration whenever no translations could be found, as well as of most of the contextual materials, such as prologues and commentaries, given to make more tangible and understand- able the textual productions—poems, narratives, mystical visions, travel writings—of an area of the world not necessarily familiar to the general reader. To keep the volume from being overlong and to maintain focus on the texts themselves, we have not provided an individual commentary for every author although in many cases further information is included in the prologues. We do know the Maghreb well: Habib Tengour is Algerian, was born and raised in Algeria, taught at the University of Constantine for many years, and, though now based in Paris, returns to his home country and other Maghrebian countries a number of times a year. Pierre Joris also taught for three years in the 1970s at the University of Constantine (where he and Tengour met) and has since returned regularly to this book’s three core countries: Morocco, Algeria, and Tunisia.

It is our contention that “Diwan Ifrikiya” is especially important today, at a moment in history when the West’s, especially the United States’, convulsive engagement with Arab culture is in such a disastrous deadlock. Paradoxically, the United States is publishing more books on Arab countries, regimes, economics, and politics than ever before, though nearly all of them concentrate on the negative and paranoia-creating aspects of “Islamic terrorism” and do their best to claim noncivilization status for the region they cover (by suggesting, for instance, that it suffers from a combination of “primitive,” bloodthirsty religion and misuse of modern Euro-American technologies) or are written from similarly dismissive perspectives. Such works do not permit the reader to understand what deeply animates these populations, in truth so near to us yet always pushed back and occulted. A book concerned with Maghrebian cultural achievements, in fields such as literature and philosophy, allows us to share in this universe, which is part of ours, no matter how deeply repressed. Knowledge of the Maghreb is, we believe, essential in a world where a nomadic mind-set is crucial for understanding (or inventing) the new century—especially if we do not want to repeat some of the deadliest errors of the last.

It is a marvelous coincidence that although we first thought of this book a quarter century ago, we actually gathered and wrote it exactly when Tunisia and Libya saw the start of a revolution, called the Arab Spring, that is still going and may be the shape-shifter that will determine the outcome of this century. We hope that through its polyvalent view of the region’s cultural achievements, our book will help to further a deeper understanding of this strategic part of the world.

Pierre Joris Habib Tengour

New York / Paris Spring 2011




Ahmad Al-Majjaty (Casablanca, 1936–1995)




That drunkard stumbled down over his lips and fell.

He shined the mirror’s splinter of his sorrows and saw

His own funeral: lips chewing prayers

A star shouting and fading away.

Then slipped away from his hands a vine’s dream, a rosary,

And a mother hanging linen on the roof.

Filled with barking, he closed his eyes, bit his tongue, and drew away.



We came. An illusion that set the square on fire kept us on the path.

We came from behind the rampart.

We shook off shadow, dust, sound, and shrouds

And then muttered: with God’s help we start, O lamp!

Ink is your own, and you the oil, the Qur’an, and the Gospel.

An epoch elapsed and another, but we kept turning around.

Out of hunger, we killed the spiny-tailed lizard

And slept in the shade of wormwood.

The chords played only wind poems for our sake

Until we soared around.

Then passed the strewn one by our caravan

Chewing the bone of his she-camel, disappointed.

We were two people

Silence the third

And tears our fourth companion.


The Stumbling of the Wind

Snow and silence rest on the coast

The waves are motionless on the sand

And the wind—an unmanned boat.

Remnants of an oar

And a spider.

Who can ignite joy in my eyes?

Who can awaken the giant?

Who dies?

The smell of death in the garden

Mocks the seasons

And you, my girlfriend,

A choke and a tear in the virgin’s eye.

Sounds of footsteps on the debris

Search for the truth

For a dagger, for a protective arm.

Deep down in my wounds

The eagle’s feathers were

A voice and a silence

That yearn for the beats of drums

For a shower of rain

To water its palate,

And the (wrestling) ring

Is a soft cloud

That hovers around the horses’ missteps.

Go back with my remains

My blood did not anticipate its course.

Who awaits the dawn and is impatient to arrive?

Who has clung to the rock of my speculations?

Who has stretched his beak out

Towards my eyes?

Oh robber of the torch

There is clamor in silence.

Pick up the daisies of light

In tenacious obscurity.

We sought silence in caves

For impurities cannot be purged by words

Let’s dive beneath waves and rocks.

Surely there is a flicker of light at the bottom

Turn it into a spark

That rescues the wind

From the chains of silence

And teaches humanity how to die!

[Translations from from Arabic by Norddine Zouitni]


Born 1936 in Casablanca, Ahmad al-Majjaty was one of the most powerful voices in modern Moroccan poetry. After completing graduate work in Damascus & getting a PhD in Arabic literature from Mohammed V University in Rabat, he taught Arabic literature at that university. He & Mohammed Bennis are often considered the avant-guard poets who took the modernization of Moroccan poetry most seriously. Writes his translator Norddine Zouitni: “Al-Majjaty’s poetry is characterized by its emphasis on pure Arabic diction and original syntactic formation. This is due to the poet’s high respect for classical Arabic, a respect that amounts to an almost spiritual kind of veneration. This is perhaps the reason why, despite his great poetic skill and mastery of Arabic, he managed to publish only one book of poetry. In fact, the reader of his poems cannot but recognize a deep feeling of awe before language. . . . Al-Majjaty won the Ibn Zaydun Award for poetry in Madrid in 1985, and the Morocco Award in 1986. He died in 1995.”


Medhi Akhrif (b. Assilah, 1952)


from The Tomb of Helen



Walks out of Suheil’s paintings

And heads for Bab Al-Raml,

Prompting elegies with her silken rebec

Till the dusk that cleaves to the eyes of

The departing comer grows tired.

What mirror

Would disguise my mysterious face

That a pseudophrase may become transparent In her silence,

Silence protected by

The last




Is reborn

Whenever the waterwheels

Of thirsty indigo smolder

To ashes on a new line.


No, she returns


                      She strays.



Is a wine-rhyme

She is the ardor of the cupbearer

She is the one who stirs yearning for embers.

Helen is fading

And that millennial countenance

Unsheathes the hymn.



Stands at the edge of ink

Guiding errant journeys

To the gist of the ode.


Helen’s absence is present,

Hers is the North Sea,

Here are the seasons of the impossible,

Here is her protective robe

And her harbor.



Dozes part of the year

Beneath the eyelid of an enchanted kitten

That belongs to the fairies of the black Jinn


Neither stayed nor departed.


Where then

Is the poem?

Is it in the sea reefs,

Or in the obstinate dialect

Of limestone?

Or is it the storyteller who copied

                                             the tale

                                                      with his own

                                                      spurious longing?

Wandering in memories

That left nothing but foam

And in the scattered fragments of renunciation

In the depths

Among paintings

Of seaweed

As they grow in amulets left over from

The epiphany of queens during Fassi carnivals I would come near then run away

From your island

Which emerges in winter

To hide me deeply

                           in wine


O anise flower

On the Rilke cover

Do enter

The verse garden

And with the effervescence of metonymy

Daub the lips of Helen-the-poem

The poem ending (at the beginning)

The voice of Helen

   has not yet grown

   clear in my throat burnt

                                    from calling!

[Translation from Arabic by Hassan Hilmy]


Half a Line

Half a line of poetry

is enough

for a lifetime

Edgar Poe spent the whole of his mad life

translating unsuccessfully

half a line of poetry into incredible prose

The other half of the line

will come from another world

farther away than poetry

and the voyages


than the sound of a rope


As far as you’re concerned

it will be enough to prevaricate in the coming years

to be yourself

and to give yourself over to half a line of prose

that you have always skillfully missed

pretexting that we had gotten

to our appointment thirty years late

Let’s add that to be standing up thus

on one single leg

like a heron

the voice turned toward your wet nurse the sea

(we wrote about the two of you

in Low Ceiling


enjoying in the here below and the beyond

only the sense of smell

is proof that the other half

of your line of poetry

was written well in advance

inside the bubbles

of this cold glass



[Translation by P.J. from Abdellatif Laâbi’s French translation from the original Arabic]


(1) Born in Assilah in 1952, Medhi Akhrif is a poet, writer, & translator (of Fernando Pessoa & Octavio Paz, among others, into Arabic). He is also a professor of Arabic literature, a member of the Union of Arab Writers, & a member of the Moroccan Maison de la Poésie. His major poetry collections are First Love (Cairo, 1979), The Door of the Sea (Beirut, 1983), Low Ceiling (Casablanca, 1989), First Sun (Rabat, 1995), The Tomb of Helen (Rabat, 1998), Relatos (Casablanca: Maison Toubkal, 2002), & Whitenesses (Casablanca: Maison Toubkal, 2002). In 2011 he shared the Tchicaya U Tam’si Prize of African poetry with the Senegalese poet Fama Diagne Sène. His work has been translated in French, Italian, Greek, Spanish, & English (see Aufgabe 5, which included a selection of Moroccan poets edited by Guy Bennett & Jalal El Hakmaoui).

(2) As Akhrif writes: “This page / trap / if it was white / white as when created / by the prodigious ink / in the silenced poems / the sea / would make me savor its rhymes / would permit me to master / the physics of the page.”


Omar Berrada (b. Casablanca 1978)


Subtle Bonds of the Encounter

Alfred Jarry (1873-1907) / bpNichol (1944-1988) / Ibn Arabi (1165-1240)

What if metaphysics was a branch of cinéma fantastique? The playwright, like all artists, seeks the truth—of which there are many. Take a florid helvetian (St. Gria). The idea that there could be other apples from other gardens, and consequently other towns, made him burst out laughing. His quill split in two and the symbol cymbal screeched. But let’s leave aside that which causes acidity, and begin by turning the page. After all I’d almost prefer that it be fake, if it’s futile: f + utile, beyond the utile. Facetiousness makes fun of function. Remedy: ’pataphysic unction. Ubiquitous e-xcess expressed ironically in the fifth-letter-of-the-first-word-of-the-first-act.


arrh           shite

————   =   —————  : the Marchand du sel’s phynancial consideration of a letter in excress

    art            shit

’Pataphysics beats science at its own game. It goes beyond physics and even metaphysics. Jarry studied Nietzsche in high school at Rennes before Nietzsche had been translated. As for Darwin, he is a tautologist: the survivor survived. Instead of expounding the law of falling bodies towards a center, why not the void’s ascent toward a periphery? Evolution is a Sisyphean task. Not for the species but for the divinity which submits it to ever more difficult tests. And the object always triumphs. The lab rat conditions the researcher to feed him each time he carries off an experiment. “Programmed” by Penelope’s waiting, Odysseus cannot not return. The target determines the arrow’s path. The crystal ball takes its revenge on the will to know. To each her clinamen,

Doctor Faustroll was born in Circassia, in 1898 (the 20th century was [-2] years old), and at the age of 63. I know a poet born of excellent humour, in Paris, in April 1973, at the age of 33. So begins his bio-bibliography. In fact, and it’s little known, he is the age of fire since there’s a fire his age.

There’s ’pataphysics and ’’pataphysics. The first has one inventor, the second has two. Jarry’s ’pataphysics is the science of imaginary solutions. The ’’pataphysics of McCaffery and Nichol is the literature of all imaginary sciences. Doubling the elision opens a perpetual quote. ’’Pataphysics is the science of generalized inversion, the transcendental law of the ’’patadox, the non-art of the absent. For a long time in the land of maples it made prestigious institutions flourish en masse:

The Toronto Research Group, the Institute for Linguistic Ontogenetics, the ’’Pataphysical Hardware Company, the Institute for Creative Misunderstanding, the Institute for Applied Fiction, the non-College of Epistemological Myopia, Writers in Support of Alphabet Archaeology.

It’s from within one of these that bpNichol measures the attributes of discourse (weight of a thought, circumference of words, square root of a sentence) in the half-scientific, half-kabbalistic tones of his probable systems. Letters have numerical equivalents and combine with each other to form words just like digits form numbers. Our 26-letter alphabet is nothing but a calculation base. The series of letters, like that of numbers, is infinite. Every letter beyond Z can be written as a combination of letters between A and Z. In a given base, a word is nothing but the complex expression of a simple letter situated a certain distance from A. bp shows, with supporting equations, that in base V the word sun is in fact the 124,645,213th letter after A. Armed with this discovery, he announces an unprecedented project: to calculate, in a base to be defined, the letter corresponding to the whole of Proust’s Recherche. Death cut him down, alas, in front of his still-warm madeleine.

The alphabet is a narrative—a movement along the abc. Every written word is a displacement of this primary narrative, every sign the precarious site of a disarticulation. Every text deconstructs a given even as it writes out a new one.


           Plato          post

           Socrates    scriptum

For bpNichol letters are tied to an image of childhood. “In Wildwood Park in Winnipeg the streets and/or sections were named after the letters of the alphabet. So in learning the alphabet, I was also learning my way home.” In 1950 a natural catastrophe forced the Nichols to move (Saskatoon, then Calgary). “but something happened to me after that flood. when the water receded i had changed. i had become H obsessed.” In the alphabetic section of Winnipeg, bp and his family lived in section H.

Nothing distinguishes memories from other moments. It’s only later that they make themselves known, by their scars.

For bp letters are at the center of language’s activity, which is sacred activity. While young, he came across the word “stranglehold.” What he saw: st. ranglehold. From then, all words beginning ST are saints, and there are many saints. They live in Cloudville whose houses and streets change, dissolve and reform without end. bp frees words from their function. Who would dare to sit upon St. Rap-on?

bp is a consistent man. He marries Ellie, an ex-nun, and names his master work The Martyrology (9 volumes). A martyrology is a history of the lives of saints. The Martyrology is the history of an encounter with language.

Among other minor works, bp composes The Martyrology of Saint And, The Sorrows of Saint Orm, Saint Reat and the Four Winds of the World. Le Petit Robert on CD-Rom, version 1.3 [1997], lists 448 St. words in French. One day someone will have to write The Martyrs of Saint Alin, The Passion of Saint Akhanov, or Saint Ring and the Dance of the Seven Veils.

Konfessions of an Elizabethan Fan Dancer. bp confesses a curiosity in the Orient. Arabic and its calligraphic dances spark his unfulfilled desire for a comparative alphabetics. Islamic esoterism abounds in texts on the science of letters which Ibn Arabi, seal of the saints, named the science of Jesus. Semitic wisdom sees in letters a mediating principle (which joins in separating, separates in joining) between the creator and his creatures.

The production of the physical world and the production of language are one.


Rotation of the spheres

The primary Elements mingle

Heat frigidity dryness humidity

Engendering superior letters

A being of limits    –    حرف  

Negation of all form

of relation        (eternity)


Letters are the limit of the physical world.

No vocalization      =         inert body              أوْ   

                                unfigured breath   أوْ    

                                repose                     أوْ 

dead language


Not signs of sounds but soundless signs.


I go beyond duality: I take off both sandals

I invent an order to match my infirmity

Strides forth the truthful foot

Archangel Israfel blows his trumpet

  َ  a             ُ  u              ِ  i

   open           purse         retract


Makes an image

position of the lips    shadings of the exhale

Three vowels in the world

of consonants among two

planes subtle bonds

of the encounter with djinn or angel

ascending    descending


The vowels   حَرَکَات   are the body’s movement.


Within writing the solitary alif

aerial letter     vertical absolute

holds itself straight up

“Every thing attaches itself to it

and it attaches itself to nothing”

So the origin of all letters

is not one of them

“The alif supporting the hamza

is a half-letter

and the hamza the other half”

For that which joins also separates


Fusion without confusion is only show of science.

[Translated by Stephen Ross]


Omar Berrada is a writer, translator, & critic who grew up in Casablanca & lives in Paris. Between 2004 & 2007 he was a producer for French national radio and hosted La nuit la poésie & Lumières d’août on the France Culture channel. He curated the Tangier International Book Salon in 2008 & hosted talks & conferences at the Centre Pompidou in Paris between 2006 & 2009. He currently directs the library and translation center at Dar al-Ma’mûn in Marrakech. He is a member of Double Change, a French & American asso- ciation devoted to poetry and translation, & the intercultural arts foundation Tamaas. He recently cotranslated Jalal Toufic’s The Withdrawal of Tradition Past a Surpassing Disaster (Paris: Les Prairies ordinaires, 2011).


Djibril Zakaria Sall (b. Rosso, 1939)


To Nelson Mandela

   All is dark around me

My ideas are gagged

And the world works backward

God! I am alone on the balcony of Life

And the entrance of Hell flowered with screams

of crackling sparks, the smell of flesh

rhythmic dance of SATAN liberated

Satan crowned by mage Satan.

. . . BACCHUS is of the fête

Today the eau-de-vie will flow

from wells of injustice and trampled honor

to the dregs of the barrel of oblivion

then . . . the unconscious will erect its ramparts:

—Come it’s the arch in profound misery

The mother strangles her child and bathes herself in his blood

—The child decapitates his father and stones his mother and from

the other side incest unravels in sin

God! I am alone on the balcony of life

and no longer recognize myself . . .

   Here furtive looks intersect

crushed like a shadow on the potency of the dream

Mimicry willed in the glaze of extroversion

facing the pedestal of evil incarnate

The hopes shed their leaves the expectations stiffen

the truths are killed the lies cried at the auction

in the plastered and pernicious mourning of the castrated word

All have lost their tongues all have lost their eyes:

We must cross our arms listen and wait

till the curtains of calico fall on the glacial Silence

of choked bitterness and of senile pleasures;

Come! Come! it’s the banquet of the fear of the hunger

of the terror:

The gravedigger the hangman the cemetery keeper

are in the front seats—dressed in crimson

of death accidentally provoked, hazy, and made-up”

God! I am alone on the balcony of life

and no longer recognize this bloody world, useless and caustic

   My hope strung on a rotting thread

inhales a mortal perfume

and from time to time I revolt

Facing Eternity a woman of the night in ruptured flowers

scatters in the night birthing an odor of poison

and of aborted death

My future is not rose

That of others is morose.

It’s total confusion and evil is king.

Cruel fate!

I no longer dare to guard—my shadow hunts me

It is there lying in wait, merging with itself scraping the walls, ears on the lookout.

But I’ll no longer speak even to myself.

And it is there that my silence is violated:

“You once thought of suicide”

And it’s the trial, the waltz of lawyers.


   Five years of prison for having thought of suicide Inquisition!

Now I must descend into the dark jail

Good-bye, Sun!

Good-bye, moon!

Good-bye, everyone!

Five years of prison! It’s death before my time

It’s death in slow motion

Ah let me write my will

And why in fact?—As I have nothing to bequeath

But if . . . one truth—the nontruncated truth

It will triumph one day in the blood spurting from everywhere

And from my hole of exile I will laugh

and my laughter will make the earth tremble like thunder

and the gaping crevices will engulf lies

and vendors of mended promises

   I’ve done nothing—I’ve said it and yelled it high

They could only listen to the absurd voice

of vengeance.

They assassinate innocence on the negative path of blind force.

No remission of sorrow

no amnesty

no grace

Nor tears

Nor sighs

Nor prayers

Soften their heart of stone

They are made of marble and their consciousness of granite

God! I am alone on the balcony of life.

and no longer recognize this inhuman world.

When will the bell of all this toll?

I don’t know—

But on that day the truth will triumph

and all will know that red is the blood of the negro

and that red is the blood of others.

Nouakchott/Dakar/Lagos, August 1980

[Translation from French by Sylvia Gorelick & Miles Joris-Peyrafitte]


Djibril Zakaria Sall was born on April 23, 1939, in Rosso, in the region of Trarza, to a Peul family. It was in the late 1960s, as he was working as a police inspector, that he discovered his calling: “I was twenty-eight when I started to write; it was in the police station in October 1967, and all of a sudden I started to produce verse after verse—a flame had lit up inside me. I started to write in little notebooks handed out as ads by Mazda. In two years I wrote some twenty-five poems that I sent to Leopold Senghor, who exhorted me in a letter to give up rhyme and concentrate on black-African poetry, which is rhythm and image!” He published his first book of poems in 1970 & has published some eight volumes since. He also started to write in his mother tongue, Pulaar, exploring its literary possibilities: “I find more freedom there because it is my language. The vocabulary is right at hand. No need to check the Larousse dic- tionary. Everything’s available. When I come across a grammatical problem, I immediately check with an uncle or brother. . . . I write in the Latin alphabet but then bring the work to one Amadou Oumar Dia, who corrects the orthog- raphy of my Pulaar transcription. So I started [to write in Pulaar], and it is good, because it is my language . . . the language of my land, and you’ve got extraordinary things that do not exist in the French language.”


Cheikha Rimitti (Tessala, 1923–Paris, 2006)

he Crushes me

he crushes me / he makes me broil

he makes my mouth water like makrouds in honey

he turns me on / he drowns me

he tempts me / he rocks my cradle

he caresses my back & sleep turns sweet

he tickles me / he rams me

he burns me up & I forgive him

he seduces me / he tempts me

he trills me / ah! ah! ah!

let’s swim

if we die / too bad

he shakes me / he bakes me

I’m neither sick nor fine

he hugs me / he squeezes me he tweezes me

& beauty’s a winner

barely out / I find her again

he lights me up / he nibbles me down

I have my arms around him so afraid he’ll run away

I have to drink / he makes me drunk

two nights & two days / & his demons haven’t calmed down

he whips me / he blues me / he nettles me, he pounds me

he & I in bed we’re like devils

he shakes me / he makes me sick / he crushes me, ah! ah! ah!

poor me

he bakes me / he shakes me

give me the liquor of your molar

he capsizes me / he tempts me

we’re front page news, it’s too much

he rubs me, he floods me, he makes me drink

I say “I’m leaving” & I spend the night

oh no! oh no! oh no!

misfortune’s upon me / I’ve gotten bad habits

he crushes me / he irrigates me

he makes me drunk / he thrills me / he blues me


The Girls of Bel Abbès

my love, I’ve heard your call, how far away it seemed to be

we are the girls of Bel Abbès, we are not lost girls

I’ll make a pilgrimage to Sidi el Hadri & he’ll give me a child

my reason has left me, carried away by the son of Maïcha


death? we’ll all die, only god will remain

the black horse’s forelock brings luck

engraved on my love’s pistol, a star & a crescent

in the green door’s frame Zohra arches her back

her blond hair falls over her white flesh

lala la la la . . .


The Worst of All Shelters

exile, my friend, goes hand in hand with hard patience

ah! the worst of all shelters!

my hair’s turned white

the days have gone under & are forgotten

now I want a roof of my own

but the douar is deserted, only ruins remain

this beautiful assembly’s dispersed

oh! the return to the old place!

my hair’s turned white

my friends, had you suffered like me, you’d understand

many men are missing

only buildings remain

oh! the return to the old place!

white farm, green olive trees

those brave olive trees, oh my men!

the oil of the olive, the fish in the sea

there’s bravery, oh my men!

I remember those who’re absent

oh! the return to the old place!

may God take into his peace those who’ve died for the country

oh! the return to the old place! oh! my land!

falling, he yelled: mother’s family house is in ruins!

let’s intercede for the parents & the heroes

the parents, the parents

my father and my mother cursed me. oh it’s hard, it’s hard!

do not forget the parents

take care of your parents, & they’ll bless you

me, I weep on exile, o you men!

I weep on exile, homesickness squeezes the heart in France

oh my men! oh my friends!

may God give patience to those who are in France

oh my men! oh my friends!

exile’s called & dispersed the assemblies

ah! the worst of all shelters!

the worst of all shelters!

oh my friends!

[Translations by P.J. from French versions by Marie Virolle from the original Arabic]


Cheikha Rimitti was the grand old lady of ur-raï music & one of the great voices of the twentieth century. Writes Marie Virolle in La chanson raï (Karthala Editions, 1995): “Vernacular Algerian Arabic cries in Rimitti’s throat, popular culture weeps in Rimitti’s songs, the poetry of western Algeria vibrates in Rimitti’s voice. . . . Family feasts, brotherhood events, studios, galas, salons, forests, hangars, cabarets, cafés, tents, terraces, on warm earth under starry skies, no place where one sings with the people was foreign to her.” Rimitti—who got her name from the French phrase remettez-moi ça, meaning “pour me another round,” & started singing in bars & other places of ill repute—learned to sing in the rigorous school of the beduin melhun qasida. Her first major success was also her first (but not last) major thematic breakthrough, a scandalous mani- festo-song called “Charrak gattaa” (Tear It, Rip It!), which goes on: “& Rimitti will sew it up again. / Let’s do our things beneath the covers, / move after move. / I’ll do whatever my lover wants. / I fell for the wholesaler in fruit, / the one with the dove on the turban.” It’s easy enough to hear the title as referring to virginity & the song as a rebellious call for free love in a puritan Islamic society. At her last concert, at the Zénith in Paris, two days before she died, in her early eighties, she was carried off stage in triumph—otherwise she might have sung all night long.

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