BEIRUT: Late last month, the Moroccan poet Abdellatif Laâbi gave a reading at the Mosaic Rooms in London with one of his most committed translators, André Naffis-Sahely. Laâbi is a national treasure and one of the most respected writers in the Arab world, but he remains perplexingly unknown to Anglophone readers.
In the past year, Naffis-Sahely has translated three of his books into English. The event in London was held to mark the publication of his latest, Laâbi’s “The Bottom of the Jar.” This tenderhearted novel tells the story of a young boy finding his way through adolescence, colonial rule and the promise of freedom in Fez’s labyrinthine madina.
In the midst of reading his poems and other passages, Laâbi asked for a break. He then veered off the script loosely set for the evening, offering to recite a rather different text, composed in Arabic, in the form of advice to young writers.
“Be loyal to your writing every day,” he began, as Naffis-Sahely pitched in to translate. “Accept its every demand. It must be central to your life, and you must organize your life around it.
“Be honest with yourself,” he continued. “Your questions must be superior to your answers. ... Have tenderness toward wounding words. ... Don’t worry about being retrograde. ... Avoid power in whatever form it comes. ...
“Read twice as much as you write. Dictionaries are only cemeteries of words. But you may plant life in them. ... Look at what you write as a modest piece of bread ready to be shared. Consider it public, not your own private property. ...
“Don’t be a prisoner of your environment. Go out. Leave. Take a distance. Don’t be afraid of getting lost. The earth is your homeland. Humanity is your people. And if ever you become an old man,” he concluded, to the palpable delight of his audience, “don’t waste the child you once were, nor the dreams of youth.”
Named for a proverb whose mischievous meaning is only revealed in the novel’s epilogue, “The Bottom of the Jar” captures the child-like wonder and youthful spirit of Namouss: nerd, brownnoser, troublemaker and son of a saddle-maker in a Fez neighborhood known as the Spring of Horses.
The story is framed, cleverly, by a historical event – the fall of the Berlin Wall. This is crowded out and overwhelmed by the more intimate fact that Namouss’ brother, Si Mohammed, has absented himself from the family, equating the wobbly end of the Cold War with an uneasy power vacuum and a strange sense of loss.
Si Mohammed’s troubles had begun some 30 years earlier, when he was arrested for opposing Morocco’s French colonial masters, albeit from his lowly position as a postal clerk who felt he had been aggrieved.
From there, Laâbi flashes back and forth through the story of how Namouss’ mother, Ghita, found Si Mohammed a seemingly suitable but ultimately catastrophic bride; how Namouss was first introduced to the French language, finding it awkward, awful and magical in turn; how his father Driss took the entire family on a vacation not far from home; how he and his sister Zhor fell in love with film, Farid al-Atrash and Samia Gamal; with radio, Umm Kulthoum and Asmahan; and how the world was then and forever divided between Egyptian divas and Lebanese-Syrian songbirds.
In the last 50 years, Laâbi, who was born in 1942, has published a dozen books of his own (poetry, novels, plays, essays, children’s stories and prison letters) and translated a dozen more by some of his most luminous peers (such as Mahmoud Darwish, Ghassan Kanafani and Abdallah Zrika).
He founded the groundbreaking literary journal “Souffles,” in 1966, which revolutionized the politics and aesthetics of Arabic literature to such an extent that it was banned in 1972. Laâbi himself was arrested, tortured and jailed for nearly a decade, charged with “crimes of opinion” and accused of conspiring against the Moroccan state.
For all that, a quick search in the mainstream western press yields little more than a 50-word report on his being pardoned by King Hassan II, on the monarch’s birthday in 1980, alongside 45 other political prisoners described as “extreme leftists.”
Laâbi was forced into exile five years later. He spent the next decade in France. As a writer and thinker, he has since been wholly rehabilitated among readers in Morocco. Now he seems poised to reach the wide audience he earned in the 1960s and deserves anew.
The explosive collection of letters detailing his time in prison and the difficulties he faced upon his release, published in English as “Rue de Retour,” has sadly fallen out of print. “The World’s Embrace,” a beautiful bilingual volume of selected works – including masterful poems from the collections “The World’s Embrace,” “The Sun Is Dying” and “The Spleen of Casablanca” – is still in circulation, thanks, no doubt, to the team effort of its four translators.
Why does Laâbi’s work seem so ready for a revival now? Perhaps he is attracting attention, in part, because the uprisings of 2011 so resonantly echo the upheavals in and around 1968. The ambiguities of the present make for meaningful reassessments of the past.
Perhaps Laâbi reads so well now because he was so decisive in chaotic times, because a project like “Souffles” was so vital and because it now seems so painfully remote.
Twelve years ago, when Laâbi was writing “The Bottom of the Jar,” he described the book as a novel about his mother. In an interview with the anthropologist Kristin Prevallet he said, “Childhood is the patrimony of the poet. ... The poet writes with his childhood. He should not need to grow up.”
Yet the great power and subtlety of the work lies in the fine balance it strikes between that Peter Pan-like sensitivity, vulnerability and imagination, and the brutality of the real world, history and politics as they are played out by the region’s more repressive regimes.
“Generally speaking,” Laâbi said in that same interview, “ruptures are what allows history to either advance or retreat. ... An avant-garde movement can only take shape through a certain symbolic violence. It’s necessary, because otherwise one is always the pupil of somebody else. An avant-garde movement says, I have no god and no master; I am the master of myself.”
Abdellatif Laâbi’s “The Bottom of the Jar,” translated by André Naffis-Sahely, is published by Archipelago Books.