Abdellatif Laâbi’s poems are at war with barbarism.
In Le livre imprévu, his 2010 collection of autobiographical essays, the Moroccan poet Abdellatif Laâbi suggested that there were “two branches of the human tree” with which he’d been in touch over the course of his turbulent life:
I think I know well miseries and luminosities, pettinesses and grandeurs, barbarism and refinement. Provisionally, I’ve fixed myself in the space between the two, the better to estimate the fault line that separates them and the state of the roots in which they meet far under the earth.
Laâbi has returned to the word barbarism throughout his career. “I am happy,” he wrote his wife in one of the many revelatory letters he sent her during his eight-year jail sentence under King Hassan II for “infringing on the internal security of the State.” He continued: “What a paradox for the barbarians, the enemies of the sun.” Early in L’arbre de fer fleurit, the first of several long poems he published from prison, one verse’s speaker encourages an unnamed friend to hold on when it comes time to take “your first steps in the barbarous night.” And the five poems collected in Laâbi’s first book, The Reign of Barbarism, were written in Rabat years before his arrest in 1972, but first published in 1976 by the publishing imprint of his friend Ghislain Ripault’s literary magazine Barbare.
Laâbi relishes playing on the associations that the word barbare would likely call to mind for his French readers. By the seventies, it had long been a term of disparagement for anyone whose speech sounded, to the ears of Morocco’s French former colonizers, like a series of crude monosyllables. The Greeks, a familiar legend goes, called foreigners barbari because it was the sound they heard whenever the people in question opened their mouths. In his autobiographical novel, The Bottom of the Jar, published in 2001 and translated in 2013, Laâbi cast his first encounter with the French language as a kind of reenactment of that origin story. “Not only did they sound strange,” the young protagonist thinks about his French teacher’s words, “but even the way he moved his lips, hissed between his teeth—and the loud scraping noises that rose out of his throat—were gestures and gutturals that Namouss didn’t know how to interpret.”
Now seventy-three, Laâbi has so far written exclusively in French, and many of his numerous books can be understood as attempts to reduce that language to unfamiliar, challenging growls and scrapes. The poems in The Reign of Barbarism are built out of dense, unpunctuated phrases that seem to have been muttered into a wide silent space, an effect that comes out just as clearly in André Naffis-Sahely’s recent translation:
you explore my history
hung or guillotined
but shuttle body
hush the pillory
shape the word
come back to me
give me your hand
grip the navel
utter your heresies
I have no love for your tuareg moon
There is nothing barbarous about Laâbi’s exacting, propulsive early verse. If anything, in Laâbi’s writing from The Reign of Barbarism to Le livre imprévu—and nowhere more than in the writing he produced from prison—it’s a sign of decency, humility, and civility to be able to unmake one’s language, to recognize one’s own spoken or written tongue as no less of a guttural, hissed-out, scraped together thing than any other. (At intervals in the early poems, Laâbi literally opens up holes in certain words by inserting a space between each of their letters.) Barbarism, in contrast, is to insist that one’s language is too sacred to suffer unmaking—and to silence violently anyone who tries to unmake it. Laâbi would watch Morocco successfully liberate itself from the rule of one such barbarous regime, then fall under the control of another.
Laâbi was born and raised in Fez during the twilight of Morocco’s period as a French protectorate. In the time recounted in The Bottom of the Jar, he saw the country’s popular sultan Mohammed V forced into exile, replaced on the throne by his widely distrusted uncle, then permitted back into the country under the influence of the Istiqlal party and other nationalist groups with strong public support. Laâbi’s novel memorably suggests how loud the cry for Moroccan independence had become by the time of Mohammed V’s return in late 1955. In one episode, a neighborhood mosque’s khatib—a sermon-giver—is shot dead in front of Namouss’s house for having made favorable comments about the deposed monarch’s illegitimate replacement; in another, a city collectively sees the sultan’s face appear in the moon.
In early 1956, Mohammed V successfully negotiated Morocco’s independence as a conservative monarchy. Some of the furious tirades that punctuate The Reign of Barbarism are implicitly directed against the French colonists whose influence continued to linger in the newly liberated country (“you lie prone my race / you protest your public toilets / your ditches of torture / fourth-class rail car / with the livestock”). But even from the book’s title, it’s obvious that Laâbi had another addressee in mind. By the end of 1965, he had evolved into a prominent member of the opposition to Mohammed V’s successor, Hassan II, whose regime had brutally suppressed a student uprising earlier that year. “Allow me to tell you,” the king famously told the nation two days after the riot, “that there is no greater danger to the State than a so-called intellectual. It would have been better if you were all illiterate.”
It was in response to barbarous remarks like the one above that Laâbi, in collaboration with a group of Francophone Moroccan poets including Mohammed Khaïr-Eddine and Mostafa Nissaboury, founded the magazine Souffles in 1966. By the early seventies, the publication had evolved into an iconic voice on the international Left—a space where translations from the Arabic ran side by side with essays on the Black Panthers, reports on the Palestinian occupation and dossiers “on the plastic arts.” For a period starting in 1968, the paper went bilingual. By the time it generated an Arabic-language offshoot publication called Anfas, in 1971, it had emerged as an unmistakable source of—in words the monarchy would soon use to justify its editors’ arrest—“trouble to the public order.”
A bravely intransigent radical, Laâbi was also a doting husband and father. The letters he wrote to his wife and children in 1972—after being twice arrested that year, tortured, imprisoned, and eventually convicted to ten years in Kénitra, though he never served the last two—show him channeling much of his energy to the task of putting his family at ease. “Prison,” he wrote to his two slightly older children, “is like a big house with many rooms. The only thing that’s different from houses like ours is that you can’t leave.” (He was being held in a cell with two other inmates; between them, they had a single large sleeping palette and a blanket each.) On September 18, he wrote his wife, Jocelyne, to declare that
I never let myself worry; I don’t suffer anything; I’m developing “great waves of vigilance” in my heart. The passage of time, of waiting, is becoming relative in a certain sense. The “real life” here is just like they say, but that too isn’t forced on me. It’s I who decide, and I’m satisfied for now with the glow of the great fire that burns, neither too far nor too close, which burns, I know it, and that’s enough.
That letter dates roughly from the time Laâbi was composing L’arbre de fer fleurit, and some of the desperate optimism of his correspondence seeped into the poem. “Yes,” one speaker utters in the last line of one stanza as if in answer to an unasked question, “poetry will restore man.” Another insists in the final line of a second stanza that he has “a terrible passion for the future.”
Laâbi must have realized that his good spirits could be carried too far. “I wouldn’t want to give you the impression of some sort of monolithism,” he wrote Jocelyne on May 2 of the following year. (His final trial was still four months away.) “Of course it comes up on me sometimes to feel frissons of torment, suffering and pain.” He went on:
Don’t imagine me as the hero of a solo play, or like some eminent Prophet without contradictions or doubts. (I know that you wouldn’t think anything so simplistic about me.) Always imagine me living and struggling, in unity and contradiction, but always pushing ahead.
As late as February 1975, soon before he was sentenced on mystifying charges to five months of almost total solitary confinement, he could write Jocelyne that “the most important thing is for us to accept our condition lucidly, consciously agree to make sacrifices, and keep clear horizons in our eyes without fail.” His worries in subsequent letters over the time it took her replies to arrive (“I hope these delays won’t start back up”) and his cryptic references to “the problems with the kids” culminated in 1977 with an exhausting, pained string of letters in which the couple cataloged and sifted through their marital grievances.
Laâbi’s side of the correspondence, the only one published, suggests how conscientiously he worked to prevent imprisonment from dulling his sensitivities. (It also suggests a strain of patrician’s condescension in him, against which he struggled with frequent, if not constant, success.) In his early poems, words had gushed from him in colorful, Rimbaud-like torrents. (One poem in The Reign of Barbarism lingers on the speaker’s “awareness / that other fluids converse in my blood / and release / other starry earthworms.”) As he approached the end of his sentence, he was lingering more anxiously over the sense and tone of his speech, in his letters as well as in his verse. Several of his poems from this period are derived directly from his correspondence, both with his children (“my beloved son / I got your letter / you’re already talking to me like a big person”), and—in the case of one sprawling, effusive passage from his 1975–1976 collection, Le poême permanent—with Jocelyne:
I have your poem here in front of me
it isn’t a jeweler
who’s set some words
in a precious metal
lifted from a cursed treasure
it doesn’t obey
what they call
“the rules of Art”
but in it I find all intact
your regal stature
your furious grips
the firmness of your step
and that stuns me
like coming out of a long book
where I feel
as if a real man
lingered behind the lines
For many stanzas in the long poem Sous le bâillon, he exchanged his earlier poems’ chopped-up, spaced-out lines for short, condensed epigrams:
so that our words weigh
all their weight in pain
tell the essence of our acts
under the hangman’s blindfold
know how to recognize the blindfold
of our own survival
In his prison letters to Jocelyne, Laâbi seemed to want to ensure that his words took their actual weight in pain. “Our site of words,” he wrote in September 1972, “is a citadel open to all the horizons, but founded on dead languages, sterile colors, decrepit sensibilities and disgraceful acts.” Two years later, he records having “recognized at the same time the supreme complexity of what’s real and the supreme difficulty of capturing its richness and movement.” To vent these worries in language itself was a way of asserting the preeminence of careful, good faith inquiry over barbarism’s self-preserving affirmations and denials. (His interest in children’s education, a subject to which he returns repeatedly in the letters, was another way.)
In an early letter, he refers to a practice in the pre-Islamic Arabic world of holding annual poetry contests, writing the winning verses down on gazelle skins, then hanging them year-round from the most central public site in Mecca. “I’ve been thinking often about the architecture of these suspended poems,” he wrote, “and not for the comfort of ‘returning to the source’ or any of that exoticism, but because, beyond its morals, I’m comfortable in the precise rhythm of the qasida, in the abundance of liberty it gives.” Laâbi has always been interested in inviting his readers to imagine what it would look like for a society to publicly honor, rather than privately imprison, the poets responsible for unmaking its own language. The hope he put in the promise of such a society was effusive, insistent, and sometimes touched by a note of suppressed self-doubt. In his best writing, it led him to inveigh against literary barbarism with the energy of someone possessed by “a terrible passion for the future.”
Postscript: Last week, just before midnight on the night of October 18, Abdellatif and Jocelyne Laâbi were attacked at knifepoint by an unidentified assailant at their home in Rabat. “He struck at me,” Laâbi later told the press, “without asking for money or anything.” The couple were hospitalized with minor injuries after their neighbors helped them restrain the man and call the police.
Max Nelson’s writings on film and literature have appeared in The Threepenny Review, n+1, Film Comment, and The Boston Review, among other publications. He lives in New York.