Abdellatif Laâbi is among the most well-known Moroccan writers living today. Born in Fez in 1942, he co-founded the poetry review Souffles in 1966. Six years later, Souffles was banned and Laâbi was imprisoned. He was released in 1980, and five years later he moved to France where he has resided ever since.
Despite his self-imposed exile, he has continued to be politically engaged in Moroccan public life, spending significant time there each year. In the past two years, he has written two books about politics and culture in Morocco: Un autre Maroc (Another Morocco) and Maroc, quel projet démocratique ? (Morocco, What Democratic Project?) A novelist, poet, and playwright, he has also translated several Arabic poets into French, most notably Mahmoud Darwish. In 2009, he received the Prix Goncourt de la Poésie and in 2011 the Académie française’s Grand prix de la Francophonie.
Thanks to recent translations of two of his key works, Laâbi is finally achieving a degree of recognition in the English-speaking world. André Naffis-Sahely has translated both his debut collection of poetry The Rule of Barbarism for Island Position and his 2004 memoir The Bottom of the Jar for Archipelago Press.
Last month I sat down with Laâbi at his home in Creteil, on the outskirts of Paris, to discuss, among other topics, his literary career, his profound love for his decidedly unliterary parents, Morocco’s complicated linguistic and political situation, and Moroccan rap.
Christopher Schaefer: The Bottom of the Jar, which has just been published in English translation, describes your childhood, and in various other books and articles you have written about your imprisonment in Morocco and then exile in France. Can you speak a little about what occurred between those two events, the beginning of your literary career, your introduction to fellow poet Mohamed Khaïr-Eddine, and the decision to launch the literary journal Souffles?
Abdellatif Laâbi: Yes, that was in 1965. I had started writing and publishing in several literary magazines, here in France, and also in Moroccan reviews. And then I discovered that there was a group of young poets in Casablanca publishing some small reviews called Poésie toute and Eaux vives. And they also published in the automobile magazine of Casablanca. That gives you an idea of the limited options at the time when it came to literary reviews. So we met—or rather—I was curious enough to seek them out, and at the same time we met a group of painters in Casablanca: Mohamed Melehi, Mohamed Chebaa, and Farid Belkahia. Farid was the Director of the Ecoles de Beaux Arts in Casablanca, and the two others taught there. So that was the group we started with. Mostafa Nissaboury (the other poet), Mohamed Khair-Eddine, and then the painters from Casablanca. I think it’s very important to note that Souffles began with a group of poets and artists/painters, which is something that gave it a completely original character, perhaps unique in the history of Moroccan literary reviews up to that time. There weren’t just new texts compared with the literature of the time, but also a plastic and graphic conception that was unprecedented. The painters had studied in countries such as Czechoslovakia, the United States, Italy, and Spain. So they all arrived with a diverse set of perspectives and skill sets, and, furthermore, they were on that same quest for modernity that we poets were on. So that’s the context in which Souffles was founded. I didn’t see Mohamed Khaïr-Eddine but three or four times perhaps, because he left very quickly for France, where he began to publish his books. It was Mostafa Nissaboury more than anyone else who accompanied the review the longest—almost to its very end.
CS: Mohamed Khaïr-Eddine was in Agadir just after the 1960 earthquake, if I’m not mistaken.
AL: Yes. After working in Agadir in the aftermath of the earthquake he left for Casablanca, where he wrote Agadir, his first novel.
CS: The Bottom of the Jar begins and ends with a small anecdote about your father’s response to televised reports of the fall of the Berlin Wall. At the very end, your father humorously compares Berlin to Fez, saying “Pahh, is that the only news they could find to tell us! A falling wall . . . it can’t have been built very solidly. The walls of Fez are still standing after all.” In your writings about your parents, they possess a certain kind of, we might say, uneducated wisdom. Do you agree that type of wisdom is being lost? And, if so, what does it consist of?
AL: In The Bottom of the Jar, I recount several years of my childhood, from the age of 7 or 8 until the struggle for Moroccan independence in 1952 and 1953. At the same time, it’s an homage to my father and my mother. My father and my mother didn’t know how to read or write. But that didn’t mean that they didn’t have a culture or that the popular language that they spoke was a language reduced to the level of its expressive capabilities. I have from time to time reflected on how I ended up writing. What pushed me to write? What was the trigger? More and more, the image of my mother imposes itself on me, because she was a woman who had a rich language, full of images, and a great sense of humor. She was often angry at her condition, and it was by listening to her speak that perhaps—and I say perhaps—the desire to write was born in me. So, there is this homage, of course, to that woman who had 11 children—three of whom died—so eight children: three brothers and four sisters who survived. The ten of us lived in a small house of two rooms. My father was a simple craftsman who worked his entire life. My mother worked for us her entire life. It seemed they were almost slaves in our service, so that we could eat, so that we could be clothed, and so that we could go to school. All of that touches me very deeply—to see a man and a woman at that moment in time, in their condition, illiterate—who spent their entire life for us. And that’s why they appear not just in The Bottom of the Jar, but also in other books of mine.
CS: Something that struck me while reading your autobiography was that your first encounter with the French language was via an Algerian teacher of French, Mr. Benaïssa. Do you know what happened to him afterward? Did he return to Algeria? Did he fight in the Algerian war of independence? Did he emigrate to France?
AL: No, not at all. In fact, during the colonial period, there were a great many Algerians who came to Morocco because they were translators for the French colonial administration or they taught. Already in Algeria there was a Frenchified elite because the colonization there dated from 1830, whereas in Morocco it was much more recent.
CS: Do you read English a little?
AL: I spoke English well until my high school graduation. Afterwards, unfortunately, I didn’t use it regularly.
CS: Have you read André Naffis-Sahely’s translation?
AL: Yes, I looked at it a little.
CS: Did you work together at all?
AL: No. He worked freely. Occasionally he asked me for small clarifications, but the translation was his own work, which, according to many of my Anglophone friends, is excellent.
CS: Which Moroccan writers deserve a wider readership in the English-speaking world? That is, which Moroccan writers who have not yet been translated into English deserve translation?
AL: Unfortunately, I find that notably in the United States, but also in Great Britain, there is not a great deal of interest in Arabic literature, Moroccan literature included, whether in Arabic or French, with only few exceptions, Tahar Ben Jelloun for example or Driss Chraïbi.
CS: Paul Bowles translated Mohammed Choukri . . .
AL: Yes, Mohammed Choukri. But . . . I find that in other countries, for example, in Spain or even in Germany, there is a much greater interest. In the United States translation of national literatures remains rather limited in comparison to what is translated in France or in other countries like the Netherlands or even in Turkey. And it’s true that in the English-speaking world, translation is a lot less important than in the old Europe [laughter]. There are many Moroccan writers who deserve translation. We have some great poets for example. Unfortunately, when it comes to poetry, it’s even more complicated, even rarer to see books of poetry translated in the United States. There would be a couple dozen authors . . .
CS: A couple dozen . . . could you give some examples?
AL: [laughter] There is Driss Chraïbi, who hasn’t been translated very much, at least not enough. There are also French-language writers like Mahi Binebine, Fouad Laroui, Mohammed Leftah etc. Poets like Mostafa Nissaboury. Writers in Arabic like Mohamed Zefzaf, Driss Khoury, Mohamed Berrada, Mohamed Achaari, Mohamed Bennis, and Abdelkrim Tabbal, one of our great poets, and that’s all without speaking of Amazigh (Berber) writers or those who write in our dialect of Arabic. I compiled an anthology of Moroccan poetry about ten years ago that comprised texts by 50 Moroccan poets.
CS: Since independence, right?
AL: Yes, since independence. Poets who write either in French or in Classical Arabic or in Arabic dialect or in Amazigh. That book could give an idea, at least when it comes to poetry.
CS: Another question that is often posed to you is that of your decision to write in French. Your typical response is that it is a complicated issue. You mention Salman Rushdie, whose mother tongue is Urdu but who writes in English . . .
AL: Samuel Beckett, the Irish man who also wrote in French . . .
CS: Yes, exactly.
AL: Personally I believe the question has become a little absurd. Today there is a globalization of literature. And furthermore, we can pose the same question to any good reader of literature. In his or her reading, 80 percent of the books are probably translations. You haven’t read Tolstoy or Dostoevsky in Russian, at least so far as I know [laughter], or Kawabata or Murakami in Japanese. It’s like that. It’s a question that doesn’t really mean very much in my opinion. The language in which a writer writes is one which he chooses voluntarily. Either it’s his mother tongue or it’s the language that was imposed on him at some point because history wanted it. In North Africa, because of the French colonial presence, there were three generations of Algerian, Tunisian, and Moroccan writers who wrote in French. What is important is not the language in which they write but what they do with that language, how they work with the French language. Does their mother tongue disappear the moment they write? It’s a good question and it must be raised. What must be done with these writers is to see how the different linguistic registers are molded into their writing. That’s perhaps what makes the particular soul, the breath, and the musicality of those writings. It’s because they are molded by two or three languages at the same time, even if they are enunciated at the end of the day in French.
CS: I completely agree with you. For me though, my mother tongue is the same language used in media and in education. There isn’t a great deal of variation between the dialect and the elevated educated form. And that’s why it’s often difficult for Americans or others from similar situations to understand the diversity and complexity of the linguistic situation in Morocco.
AL: One of the concerns of The Bottom of the Jar is a linguistic concern. In that book I tried to perfectly map the French language onto the Arabic language, without it becoming a bastard tongue.
CS: I began my studies as a medievalist, and one of the key moments in medieval literature is an essay by Dante entitled Du vulgari eloquentia (On the Eloquence of the Common Tongue) in which he advocates the use of Italian in place of Latin, which was used at that time for religion, education, etc. And something I wondered when I was in Morocco was whether there will be a moment like that for Darija (the Moroccan dialect of Arabic). Will the time come when someone says, “we must write poetry in Moroccan Arabic because it can be just as eloquent”? I know that there are poets and writers that have already begun this work, but do you find that Moroccan Arabic has already undergone the pivotal moment that Italian experienced with Dante or are we still waiting for it?
AL: I believe we are still a long way off. I’ve thought a great deal about the linguistic situation in Morocco and I have tried to kindle a debate around this question. What is the issue? It’s to know in what languages we’re going to be writing in 20 or 30 years. In what languages—and I say “languages” in the plural—are we going to teach? That is the fundamental concern. And yet there is an ideological discourse surrounding the languages: the attachment of the Arabizers to Arabic is an ideological attachment, and it’s the same thing for the Amazighs and those who defend Darija. I say simply: instead of beating each other up over this or that language, we must begin to bring all these national languages up to speed. We must prepare them so that they truly become languages of creation, of teaching, of scientific research, and of communication at the same time. And yet this work has not been done since Moroccan independence. We don’t cease to change directions, either Arabizing or Frenchifying, and we have lost a great deal of time. Instead of telling ourselves, okay, we have to prepare these languages, first the three national languages I already mentioned (Darija, Classical Arabic and Amazigh). We must prepare them so that they can become languages where we express ourselves, we have the same means as someone who uses Spanish, Italian, and English. That right there is the real issue. I personally believe that we have to prepare the ground. There isn’t for example a true dictionary for Darija. There is a grammar that was done during the colonial era by the French, but it isn’t used any more. And yet a part of the language is in the process of disappearing, because there is a new Darija. You know, because you lived in Morocco. You see how we absurdly mix French and Arabic. Same thing for Amazigh, which is inscribed in the constitution as a national language, but which suffers from the same problems as Darija. Same thing for Classical Arabic, which does not even have an etymological dictionary for example. It’s a huge lacuna. How can we work with words whose origin and evolution we don’t know? It’s a real handicap.
CS: I think this is a good moment to speak a little about your recent book Un autre Maroc (Another Morocco) and your political engagement. When I was in Morocco, an article of yours was published in the magazine TelQuel where you put forth certain theses for Morocco. Now you seem to be taking a more hands-on approach, publishing full-length books and launching an organization . . .
AL: No, I’m not a politician. I’m a writer and an intellectual, but an intellectual who defends his right to have his own analysis of the political situation of his country or of the world and also to have ideas, propositions, and a vision for the future. We have often marginalized intellectuals as if they weren’t full citizens. I personally assert the right of intellectuals to have opinions about politics and to defend them, without being inserted in a political party or in some sort of organization. The political class in Morocco, as in many other countries, even in advanced democracies, has lost a great deal of credibility. And yet the intellectual has an opportunity to keep his freedom of speech, to say truthfully what he thinks. Even if it’s against the consensus. The intellectual is not required to be in the consensus. That’s something extremely valuable in my opinion, that every kind of country contains men and women with that freedom of thought.
CS: I understand that well. But you have also just stated that Darija and Amazigh need to be developed. And for that it requires an educational system in place. And if changes are needed in the educational system, you don’t need a political project necessarily, but political measures.
AL: Yes, a political project is required, of course. I’m saying that I can venture ideas, and in my last book Un autre Maroc, I do just that: I make propositions. Because I consider that we have spoken too long of democracy—the vocabulary and the lexicon. You, who have lived in Morocco for a long time, have no doubt remarked that the political class, the mixture of tendencies—right and left—has mastered the lexicon of democracy, of transparency, of good governance, of human rights, etc., but there is a true gap between discourse and reality. Personally, I think that in Morocco we are not yet in democracy. There is the idea of a democratic project, but, for me, the cornerstone of that democratic project is a genuine revolution in our educational system. In Morocco we live in a kind of apartheid when it comes to education and teaching. Public education is for the people and private education is reserved for those who have the means to pay and then later send their kids abroad for college. We suffer from a genuine apartheid there. Public education concerns 80% of young Moroccans. It’s a third-rate education that has been emptied completely of its content. It doesn’t form free citizens, youths capable of thinking for themselves. It doesn’t prepare them to think critically, and surely not to hold a job someday. It prepares the majority of children who go to school for unemployment. So in my opinion we cannot speak of democracy until the moment when we have put an end to this system of apartheid. At that moment, yes, we will have genuine citizens. School is where we form citizens, where we form democrats, individuals attached to democracy, to human rights, to humanist values that guard them against intolerance and extremism. That’s what I propose. But for me today, the political class as it exists is no longer capable of leading the fight for genuine democracy. In Un autre Maroc I call for the formation of a new citizen force capable of leading this fight. We have a 100-year old political class. We need the youth of today to take on that responsibility. We need women to take on political responsibilities. We need civil society to be engaged in that combat. We need intellectuals, thinkers, and researchers who can also be engaged in this fight.
CS: Have you been in contact with the leaders of the February 20th Movement? [the protest movement in Morocco during the Arab Spring]
AL: Yes, of course.
CS: Have they sought you out?
AL: Yes, we have met. I participated in several marches of the February 20th Movement. But the problem of the February 20th Movement itself is that it became content being a movement of protests and not a movement of propositions. It’s a movement that didn’t succeed in opening itself up toward other forces that could mobilize, notably women, democrats who are not in traditional political parties, and the traditional left. There is the root of the problems they are experiencing today. The February 20th Movement played a very positive role in the beginning, and then it weakened. It stopped at being a movement of protests, instead of working on the democratic project itself by proposing solutions.
CS: I have the impression from your writing that you still remain optimistic about the future. Is that true, and if it is true, how do you manage to stay optimistic?
AL: I have personally been against what we call “merchants of despair.” Despair is a merchandise here in Morocco. There are political movements that feed off of the despair of the people to recruit, to mobilize, to capture a part of public opinion. There is a golden rule that has long nourished my thought, my reflection and my action, that of the Italian Antonio Gramsci.
He spoke of the pessimism of reason and the optimism of the will. Despair serves no purpose for me. Even if I sometimes become disheartened, I cannot lower my arms because my word carries a certain weight in Morocco. Consequently, I want to keep a little window open for hope. What exactly is that open window for hope? It is the optimism of the will that allows movement and change even when conditions are difficult.
CS: I personally encountered Morocco for the first time through the writings of Westerners like the American Paul Bowles and the Spaniard Juan Goytisolo. There has been a long tradition of Westerners visiting Morocco and writing it. I would like to know if you, as a Moroccan, have found interesting insights in these texts. Do they inform your own writing in any way? Or instead, do you perhaps find a warped picture of Morocco?
AL: I have read these writers from intellectual curiosity, of course. But let’s say, it’s not the literature that moves me deeply. There are some very intelligent things in Paul Bowles, more so in Juan Goytisolo. But of course that cannot replace the view from the inside. We read these texts with interest as Italians, French, and Americans would read works dealing with their society or placing a story in their country. Can that replace their own literature? I don’t believe so.
CS: Will you write about France? You have lived here for thirty years now.
AL: Listen, frankly, even if I have lived in exile for a very long time, the matrix of my writing has remained unchanged, and that’s my link to Morocco. Because I believe that every country needs to create its own narrative that will be inscribed in the collective memory. That right there is one of the major concerns of literature, whether Moroccan, American, or Chinese. The other concern is to make sure that the message, the humanist values of the little humanity to which we all belong with which we share sufferings and hopes, may be transmitted to the great humanity. How do we make sure that Morocco gains access to the universal? How do Moroccan men or women function from the inside: What is it that animates them and outrages them? What are their dreams? What are their obsessions? What are their hopes? How do they see others? Morocco is a very young country when it comes to literature. We do not have a great literary tradition, in contrast to Syria, Iraq, or Egypt, for example. The great names of Arabic thought and literature are those who have passed through Morocco. They lived there a little, but we ourselves do not have a great literary tradition. It’s an extraordinary opportunity to begin when there isn’t a great deal behind us, to broach an unknown territory. It’s a little like the Far West. It’s a true challenge to be met.
CS: When you return from Morocco, what do you miss the most?
AL: What I miss perhaps is the anarchy. Moroccan reality is an anarchic reality in every day life, but it is an anarchy where the human is also present. Moroccans are neither better nor worse than any other people. But the people are very spirited, very spontaneous. There is something very uninhibited in their behavior. They speak to others very easily. They communicate amongst themselves very easily. You just have to come up to someone smiling for everything to go well. Here in France human relations are a little more distant . . . people protect themselves. As for the cuisine, I make Moroccan food myself here, French and international as well. So there’s that. I’m a particular kind of Moroccan; I am a universal Moroccan. I am all that human culture has made of me, with its diversity and its pluralism. In my writing, I lay claim to the several elements of Moroccan identity: Arabo-Muslim, Amazigh, that is Berber, African, Mediterranean, Jewish, Saharan, but also Western. Morocco in Arabic means “The Setting Sun”, that is the extreme West . . . and then there is Andalusia with which I have a particular relationship . . .
CS: Do you know the history of your family? Were they Arabs from Andalusia?
AL: There is a history within my family, from my mother’s side. She spoke of the fact that they were exiled. So I suppose that their ancestors belonged to what we call the Moriscos, who were chased out of Spain at the end of the 16th century and beginning of the 17th. In my family there is that legend, but not that legendary per se . . . I think there is some reality in it because my mother could not assert too much being illiterate. She didn’t know history. It was the memory of that move that was transmitted to her. And physically she was someone with white skin, blue eyes, etc.
CS: A few more questions to finish up: You have remarked on several occasions that poetry is a way to resist the commodification of culture. But for a great many people, poetry remains difficult—even perhaps too difficult.
AL: Poetry is difficult to read or difficult to write?
CS: I’m referring just to reading and appreciating poetry, to be interested in something that is not a prose narrative or a movie. A word that some of my friends use to describe my own interest is ‘pretentious’. So suppose you were talking with someone, say a young Moroccan, who finds that poetry is difficult, even pretentious, what would you say to that person?
AL: I would say first of all that we didn’t give that person an opportunity during his studies to discover poetry, that great art which in the history of literature has been fundamental. Critics and historians of literature know very well that poetry has always played a primary role in the renewing of language and of writing. Poetry for me is a laboratory of literature. Language moves there, it transforms itself, and so as a result it has an impact on other literary genres. If today young people find difficulties with poetry, it’s because we simply haven’t prepared them. We haven’t cultivated from the beginning an appetite for poetry. Thus we can’t reproach them for that.
CS: And that returns us to the question of education.
AL: Absolutely. It’s a question of education. And culture dominates in that question. We have arrived at a moment where literature is reduced to the novel, because the novel is the only literary product where there is a commercial concern. If authors today only wrote poetry, they would be ruined authors, unable to live from their pen. If you really want to live from your work as a writer, you must publish a novel every two years. If you are a poet, you will need to have another job. That said, I can’t complain too much about the situation. That marginality of poetry allows me more freedom. There isn’t any pressure. The commercial concerns aren’t there, and so poetry is a very valuable art for literature. Then there are things that can be expressed in poetry that cannot be expressed in novels, except if perhaps the novel-writer is also a poet.
CS: What is your opinion of Moroccan rappers? Are you familiar with Fnaire, H-Kayne, Don Bigg?
AL: Yes a little.
CS: There is creativity there, an acceptance of the language, and a capacity of self-expression, but at the same time, it isn’t exactly the poetry that you have just described.
AL: It is one of the forms of poetry today. Of course, there will be traditionalists, poetry fundamentalists, who are going to find that it’s not up to snuff. But there are different registers and different ways of writing poetry. What bothers me a little is that in this new expressive form there is a return to tradition. There was a moment in the nineteenth-century when we liberated ourselves from fixed forms and from versification. Poetry since has evolved considerably thanks to this freedom. And yet, paradoxically, these youths are returning to tradition. But of course, their poetry does not have the same objective or the same function, and it doesn’t address the same public. It is a poetry that is political in the end, a poetry of combat. And that reminds me personally of other moments in time where feminist poetry, for example, emerged to defend the female identity and to fight against the oppression of women. It reminds me also of the writings of prisoners who denounced the universe of incarceration and political oppression. But I think that in the panorama of current poetry, rap has its place. What I regret personally is that there isn’t more dialogue between classical poets, let’s say, of modernity and those poets. I think there is a real interest in dialogue. Personally I have sought it out. I collaborated with a Belgian rapper of Moroccan origin named Rival. We worked together to see how what we both wrote could communicate, and we did a show together. I requested some of the rappers to read my texts, to see what it would produce.
CS: One last question. In your poetry there is a mixing and melding of the descriptive and prophetic aspects. We might say, a denunciation of the world today that is mixed into declarations of a world that is to come. Can you elucidate a little the relationship between the two?
AL: Yes, of course. There’s something archaic in the function of the poet that we should never abandon. It’s an archaic art. In poetry, we find the first expression of human emotions: anger, fear, doubt, etc. Human memory has been conveyed by poetry. And it’s also true that in its original, almost archaic, function, there was something prophetic about it. At the time of the founding of Islam for instance, poets were very poorly seen by those considered as adversaries of the Prophet. It’s true that the function of poetry is at the center of what I write. That’s why my poetry is also oral: a poetry of orality. For me it’s important to go meet the public, either here or in Morocco or elsewhere in the world. I am a speaker of poetry and I consider that oral dimension as fundamental. Poetry is not just written; it is also the spoken word.
Abdellatif Laâbi is a Moroccan poet, writer, and translator. He is the author of The Reign of Barbarism (Island Position) and The Bottom of the Jar (Archipelago Press). Christopher Schaefer is a writer and translator living in Paris.
Interview by— Published on June 11, 2013