The Book of North African Literature

Pierre Joris and Habib Tengou edit a book about the multiple beginnings, traditions and genealogies in the literatures of the many languages of the region, and the region's diasporas.

A satellite map of North Africa.

A 743-page anthology of North African literature was published by the University of California last year. Ranging from documents made in sixth century Carthage to experimental prose published months after the 2011 uprisings, the Book of North African Literature is the fourth installment in the Poems for the Millenium, a series initiated in 1995 by Pierre Joris and Jerome Rothenberg with their huge Volume One: from Fin-de-Siècle to Negritude. This latest volume was edited by Joris and Habib Tengour, both poets, scholars and translators; it includes their translations from French and Arabic (alongside many other translators) and commentaries situating each text within the shifting centuries and centers of its experimental format. The Book reflects these poets’ life-work, writing and translating poetry which asks critical questions of identity and cartography; the attempt, here, to grasp the extent of this literature’s influence in Europe, the Middle East and Africa, undermines the cultural borders of this region. We spoke to Joris about the anthology, translating (or not-translating) North African literature before and after 2011.

A note on the text: the Book is emphatically not a linear or genealogical account of the literature of the region; it offers, instead, an account of the multiple beginnings, traditions and genealogies which emerge and reemerge in the literatures of the many languages of the region, and the region’s diasporas. In the first section, ‘A Book of Multiple Beginnings’ in which the first work presented is a prehistoric rock painting from the Tassili region of the southern Sahara (see the above photo, by Patrick Gruban).

The Book proceeds with a series of five sections called diwan (“a gathering, a collection or anthology”) which organise texts chronologically, and divide them between historical moments (‘A Book of Inbetweens: Al-Andalus, Sicily, the Maghreb’; ‘Al Adab: The Invention of Prose’; ‘The Long Sleep and the Slow Awakening’; ‘Resistance and Road to Independence; ‘”Make it New”: The Invention of Independence’). Interspersed between these are sections organised according to various other logics (‘The Oral Tradition’; ‘A Book of Mystics’; ‘A Book of Writing’; ‘A Book of Exiles’).

The last entry is Omar Berrada’s Subtle Bonds of the Encounter, a bilingual poetic essay which samples texts by Alfred Jarry, bpNichol and Ibn Arabi, it is a fitting conclusion to the Book. Written in September 2011, it concludes “Fusion without confusion is only show of science.” The Book of North African Literature makes its most compelling arguments in its refusal to accept totalising representations or impose pseudo-scientific categories on its texts; instead, it witnesses poetry’s tendency to move across borders, creating speculative relations between diverse literatures.

The Book includes a series of origin myths, and presents a multiple relations between poet and language and land. Could you tell us about your friendship and collaboration with Habib, where and when you conceived the idea of the anthology?

Joris: Habib and I met in 1976 at the University of Constantine where I was teaching in the English Department and he in the Department of Sociology. We became friends when we discovered that we were both poets and had very similar interests. We stayed in touch over the years and would meet from time to time in Paris, where Habib moved in the 80s, when I’d come through that town.

I’d thought up the idea of the anthology even earlier — an ur-sense of the need for such a book came to me in 1966 when I met the Moroccan poet Mohamed Khaïr-Eddine in Paris and he introduced me to Maghrebi literature, insisting that it was in the Maghreb that the most interesting and revolutionary literature was happening. That’s when I began to read widely in that literature (as well as in Caribbean francophone literature, as both of these felt richer and wilder and more alive than French “metropolitan” poetry).

Then, in the 80s when Jerome Rothenberg and I imagined and developed the concept of the Poems for the Millennium anthologies, I immediately thought that this concept could be expanded and that I could finally put together this volume on the Maghreb. It seemed useful, in fact, necessary to bring in another person to collaborate on the project, and Habib was a natural, as one of the most accomplished and experimental poets of the Maghreb and as an excellent scholar in the various areas of Maghrebi cultures (as a trained anthropologist, he is, for example a specialist of oral literatures). A year and a half later we handed in the manuscript.

Anthology, from the Greek, refers to a collection of flowers; flowers which are, presumably, cut, dead. I wonder if placing poems in an anthology must involve cutting them off from their roots, preserving them in a lifeless state. Translation redoubles this danger, removing the text from its source-language. So it seems that an anthology in translation poses a number of dangers to the life of a poem. Do the anthology form and the translation form preserve or alter the life of the poems in different ways? Is there a kind of death involved in this process?

The cut flower etymology is a bit of a dead metaphor. Any poem in any magazine or book could be considered a cut flower — i.e. where is the natural, organic garden habitat of the poem? The handwritten notebook, the hard disk on which it is preserved, the live reading? A poem is not a product of nature, it is an artifact. And that applies not only to written and printed, i.e. Gutenbergian artifacts, but also to the oral tradition—Technicians of the Sacred is what Jerome Rothenberg has called the poets in that tradition and they too create artifacts, word-constructs shaped with artificial techniques. Both of us think of the anthologies we have created — alone, together or with others — as “grand collages” to use Robert Duncan’s lovely phrase. They are, like any poem, a multi-layered construct. This does not mean that a poem does not change when its environment changes. A given poem in an anthology will be ever so slightly changed, inflected by the poems by other poets that surround it, than it is in its other “unnatural habitats” — but it is exactly this event, the fact that a new environment enriches a given poem, possibly reveals layers or shadings that had gone unperceived, that to me is proof of the continuing and expanding “life” (if we have to use that organic metaphor) of the poem. And it is exactly at that level that our anthologies want to be different from the traditional, dead, pressed, preserved flower-anthology which are meant as morgues.

Readers of your anthology might be disappointed — surprised, more likely — that so much of its contents exceeds the borders of modern-day North Africa, towards Provence, Andalusia, Sicily, Iraq and Syria. If the anthology is a kind of nomadic institution, why devote it to a region rather than a specific language or dialect?

Like all live and lively cultures, maybe even more so, the culture of North Africa shows a diastole / systole, contraction / expansion rhythm over time. And so yes, there was a moment when the cultural area of the Maghreb included Spain, or at least Andalusia. That culture, usually referred to as al-Andalus, had its origins in the Middle East, but then formed and found its center in Spain, with its cultural goods, especially poetry becoming influential beyond the strict geographical borders of al-Andalus, and, so I argue, constituting the base from which troubadour poetry in Provence and beyond developed. Twice the North African Berbers were called to the rescue by their co-religionary brethren in Spain, and when al-Andalus finally was destroyed by the Spanish, many of its Muslim and Jewish citizens found refuge in the Maghreb. In Sicily it was the European court that thought so highly of the Al-Andalus /Arab culture that it invited people from there into its government and adopted its cultural mores. A great Murcia-born poet and Sufi teacher like Ibn Arabi would spend time in Fez (I was recently shown the little mosque, still standing, very lop-sided, propped up by wooden boulders, waiting for UNESCO money for overdue repairs where he worshipped in the Medina), go to Tunis, move on to Mecca (remember that the hadj is one of the duties of all good Muslims) and wind up living and dying in Damascus. What interests me a lot is the nomadic openness of this culture — just compare the travels and travel diaries of Ibn Battuta to those of his European equivalents, say Marco Polo, and you’ll see the difference in openness.

What interests me too is the diastole/systole of the region over time, complexified by the languages that nomadically come and go, au gré du conquérant over those two millennia and more. Had we had 300 more pages we would have investigated the southern borders of the regions in more detail, i.e. Tschad, Niger, Mali — Timbuktu alone could be a fat chapter or rather diwan — to look at the border complexities where the saharan cultures meet the African ones. We got a little sample of that into the Mauritania and Western Sahara sections. So it is not the definition of a region by drawing borders, limits, but rather the expansiveness, or at least porousness of a border that interest me — what crosses over and mixes is more interesting than what tries to stay stubbornly “pure” or exclusive. As I’ve said elsewhere and keep repeating, miscegenation is the only way to advance, to make it new.

In the section, ‘The Invention of Prose’ you quote a description of Africa by Al-Hasan’ Ibn Muhammad al Wazzan al-Fasi (a.k.a Leo Africanus): “In the Arabian tongue, Africa is called Ifrikiya, from the word Faraka, which in the language of that country means to divide.” The anthology is split up into five sections named diwan and seven chapters, some of them divided by country or region, some by individual author. Is the work of the anthology to make both division and connection between cultures?

Yes indeed, that is part of an anthology’s work. To make the distinctions that will allow the connections to stand out the more clearly. I’ve always considered anthologies as networks that, while highlighting differences, create connections — be they between genres, authors, geographical or cultural realms — that will create a textum, i.e. a weave — in this case, permit me to orientalize a bit, a carpet, a flying one hopefully… I am not interested in the anthology as the alphabetically (or otherwise) arranged list of the cultural hit-parade, like “ the hundred best poems in the X-language.” Such anthologies always rely on an accredited (by/with what powers?) editor who promises “only the best.” This approach itself has become a vitiated one given that a core move of 20th century art and writings into the present has been the move away from the single, self-contained work that claims “masterpiece” status. “Master” — just think on that word and all it entails ideologically…

The volume is dedicated ‘To those poets of the Maghreb and the Arab worlds who stood up against the prohibitions.’ In your view, how has the so-called Arab Spring changed the demands for the translation of literature from North Africa?

This is a tough and complicated question or issue and one I’m not necessarily equipped to answer. But let me try to talk to this. The so-called Arab Spring was sparked by the first protests that occurred in Tunisia on 18 December 2010 in Sidi Bouzid following Mohamed Bouazizi’s self-immolation. I read somewhere that to give the event a wider historical context one of the first TV reports quoted the Tunisian poet Abu Al-Qasim Ash-Shabi’s “The Will of Life” — a work from the late 20s/early 30s, which we print in Christopher Middleton and Sargon Boulos’ translation in the anthology.

This poem, as well as another one by Ash-Shabi, “To the Tyrants of the World,” was quoted, chanted, sung, recited during the protests & marches in Tunisia, Egypt and beyond. We use, on purpose, not any of the available more literary or “poetic” translations of “To the Tyrants…” and which are in the main rather weak, but a decent prose rendering by Adel Iskandar, which NPR used while covering events on Tahrir Square.

We know the importance of modern media in the spread and the very tactics of the revolts, and I’ve often wondered in the first months of the uprising if Gil Scott Heron (who passed away in May 2011) — and who’s also the guy who said “The first time I heard there was trouble in the Middle East, I thought they were talking about Pittsburgh” — was able to watch some of the events and reflect on his famous “The Revolution Will Not Be Televised.” In that early seventies piece he meant that people had to get off their couches and take to the streets, and that is indeed what happened, but at the same time, the fact that Tunis and Tahir Square were televised 24/7 and that the new social media, handheld, was able to both set up tactical communications between the participants and feed the frenzied image need of that junky TV set in your living room, was how these events “made it new.”

Difficult to say if poetry “made it new” in relation to the Arab Spring, though obviously from Ash- Shabi to the current generation of poets, much of the thinking that needed to be done has been done there. The Maghreb as a multilayered cultural space with both strong oral & written media has worked toward a possible liberation, first from the colonizers & then from the illegitimate totalitarian regimes that followed and were abetted by the ex-colonizers, all through the 20th century. From the lyrics of a singer like Cheikha Rimitti to the acidly critical poems of someone like Amin Khan, we can trace this work, these demands for change, these criticisms of a static petrified cultural & political situation. So the dedication of our book “To those poets of the Maghreb and the Arab worlds who stood up against the prohibitions” refers not only back to those who did this and were suppressed by their culture and governments — some, like Mouloud Feraoun or Tahar Djaout were killed, assassinated because they spoke out — but also to the present poets and artists who are doing this.

But your question had to do with how the so-called Arab Spring has affected the demand for translations from that part of the world. Not much if at all — at least in the field of poetry. Oh yes, there is a demand for non-fiction books on Arab and Muslim matters, there is even a slight up in demand for fiction ( a good way to follow this is to check in on Marcy Lynx Qualey’s Arab Literature (in Translation)). Though the fact that demand for translations from those parts of the world is up, because of, first 9/11, then the Afghanistan and Iraq war, and now the so-called Arab Spring, should let us think carefully about this matter. I was talking about this in my 11/8 Brussels conference keynote, where I criticise the ‘official’ writing that has emerged from those circumstances and quote poet and translator Ammiel Alcalay, who said:

How are those of us involved in transference and translation to respond to such circumstances? What is our role in the politics of imagination and transmission? Have we reached a point where NOT translating, providing access to, handing down works from the Arab world might be more legitimate? When we decide to participate, how do we insulate and protect such works and ourselves, not merely from assimilation, but from collaboration […] Writers and translators often wind up playing someone else’s game, and become complicit, perpetuating the same rules with new players. [emphasis mine – PJ]

Which leads Alcalay to conclude that no act of transmission is innocent and therefore demands utmost vigilance, a kind of vigilance, he goes on, “that recognizes, as the American poet Jack Spicer once put it, that ‘there are bosses in poetry as well as in the industrial empire.” We have to be aware that, for example, translating a major novel by an Arab (or other third) world author wrenches that work out of its natural habitat, plops it into an environment where it can only be read according to the latter’s rules (say, Kateb Yacine’s Nedjma, in relation to William Faulkner’s narrative universe, etc.) Or, more viciously as in the case of my translation of Abdelwahab Meddeb’s essay ‘The Malday of Islam’ which was nearly hijacked by DC rightwing think tank people when Daniel Pipes asked the NY publisher for first serialization rights and the right to “subedit” the extracts — I managed to fight this off after a quick investigation.

So, more and more I think that given that the right solution, which would be to tell people to learn the language so they can read the books in the original, is impracticable & bound to fail, we need to keep translating — but that maybe we should change our habits, and realize that it is also the translator’s duty to provide contextual materials, so as Ammiel puts it, “to protect against assimilation and collaboration,” something that “requires more than fitting newly introduced and revived texts into existing frameworks. Defining what information is for us, where it comes from, and where to find it becomes an essential survival kit.” An excellent example of this is the recent work of Madeleine Campbell who, besides translating a full book of poems by Dib, and writing some excellent essays on that process, also added writing which she calls “Jetties” and that bring such needed contextual information on the author and his culture to the Euro-American reader via performance, readings, assemblages of quotes and other materials by the author and beyond, that create a matrix of relevant information allowing for a reading of the translated author’s work on his or her own terms more than on the terms of the target culture. So yes, there is massive literary material that needs to be translated, and there is even more massive quantities of cultural materials that need to be made available.

  • More information on the anthology can be found on Joris’s blog.

Further Reading

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Heeding the call

At the 31st New York African Film Festival, young filmmakers set the stage with adventurous and varied experiments in African cinema.