“instead look for me in your entrails
when fugitive verses
twist your guts”
— Abdellatif Laâbi, translated by André Naffis-Sahely
In 1972, following the ban of a literary journal he founded, Moroccan poet and high school teacher Abdellatif Laâbi was imprisoned. He would stay behind bars for eight and a half years, continuing to inspire writers as well as activists in his country. Carcanet Press recently released a selection of Laâbi’s poems, Beyond the Barbed Wire, translated by André Naffis-Sahely. Naffis-Sahely is a prolific translator and poet in his own right whose debut collection, The Promised Land, will be published next year. Via email, he shared what surprises him about translating one of Morocco’s greatest living poets, how politicians convince followers that the sky isn’t blue, and why despair is “our planet’s most universally-traded commodity.”
—Erica Wright for Guernica
Guernica: You’ve been translating Abdellatif Laâbi’s poetry for many years. Did anything surprise you about taking the long view, assembling work that spans four decades?
André Naffis-Sahely: These days, I’m mostly surprised by the fact he’s still alive; given that people have been trying to silence him for almost fifty years, he really shouldn’t be. Aged thirty, Abdellatif was kidnapped from his home in Rabat by plainclothes policemen, bundled into the back of an unmarked car, driven to a dingy gaol, and tortured for days on end. He was a poet and worked as a high school teacher; and although he hadn’t broken any laws, the Moroccan government was determined to “gag” him—I use the term specifically since one of my favorite sequences of his is entitled “The Poem Beneath The Gag.” Abdellatif was wildly popular with his students and it wasn’t difficult to see why: like them, he knew that average Moroccans were hungry, jobless and desperate. They also knew they were ruled by a paranoid king who was more comfortable with Parisian financiers than his own subjects.
Recognizing the need for a forum where the country’s problems could be openly discussed, Mr. Laâbi founded a ground-breaking journal, Souffles—or Breaths—which helped discover and launch many of the country’s literary talents, [including] Mohammed Khaïr-Eddine and Tahar Ben Jelloun. For that, as well as for distributing pamphlets containing these ideas, he was tortured, illegally detained for months, then released, only to be re-arrested and sentenced to ten years.
Guernica: And he continued to write?
André Naffis-Sahely: While in prison, Mr. Laâbi began drifting away from the complex, philosophical poems he wrote in his early twenties and he adopted a brutally naked speech, composing earnest, hopeful, melancholy letters to his wife, children, comrades—and even his enemies—appealing directly to their sense of humanity, the only beacon of light left in an era he called “the reign of barbarism.” It was simply remarkable to watch the stylistic and intellectual evolution of his work during those years. Those interested in exploring this story further would be well-advised to read Jocelyne Laâbi’s memoir of those years, Aloe Brandy, which was recently adapted to film as Half the Sky. Unfortunately, the couple still attracts unwelcome attention. Late last year, Abdellatif and Jocelyne were assaulted in their own home and their private papers stolen; luckily they escaped with only a few minor injuries. This occurred not long before Beyond the Barbed Wire went to the printers.
Fear knows no borders, and the terminology of hate has seeped into every aspect of life.
Guernica: In an interview with Christopher Schaefer in 2013, Laâbi called despair “a merchandise here in Morocco,” referring to the way some political movements capitalize on misery. Do you agree?
André Naffis-Sahely: Yes, I do—although I can’t address the Moroccan specificities of that phenomenon nearly as well as he can. That said, I don’t really need to: despair is now a merchandise everywhere—indeed, it has probably become our planet’s most universally-traded commodity. Fear knows no borders, and the terminology of hate has seeped into every aspect of life. Take Western nations on both sides of the Atlantic, where xenophobic demagogues have been allowed to turn the law-abiding workers who prop up their economies into barbaric freeloaders, all simply to further their nefarious ends. Meanwhile, the disgruntled “natives” of the West remain empty-handed and keep baying for blood, stuck on the caboose of the train, like Bob Dylan used to sing. Despair will always be a merchandize so long as we refuse to confront these lies head-on.
Cato used to advise fellow orators to first “master the facts,” at which point “the words would inevitably follow.” Instead, our elected servants—of whatever stripe—have turned that dictum on its head, so that their outrageous untruths eventually concretize into “plausible-enough-facts” which seem miraculously able to persuade a large minority—or even, sadly, a slim majority—that the sky is green and the grass is red. That the uninformed citizen is a gullible, malleable thing is nothing new, but as the Cameroonian philosopher Achille Mbembe has presciently pointed out, neoliberal corporate globalism threatens to exploit that advantage like never before, and it seems set to turn vast swathes of humanity into “the Negros of a new racism.” Mbembe is right: the West is anxious about becoming another Africa, and it has dug deep moats in the hopes of preventing that, but it’s too late: it has already become another Africa; and as Trevor Noah recently quipped, the US appears ready to crown its first African dictator: Donald Trump.
Guernica: Your poem “The Return” opens with the memorable question “What city stays still like a glass-cased clock?” What role does history play in your poetry?
André Naffis-Sahely: In a sense, I never got over Robert Lowell’s History. A flawed, infinitely brilliant project I never tire of going back to. It’s a modern Inferno, where Lowell plays both Dante and Virgil, guiding us through dozens of illuminating, bitter episodes from human history, all the while managing to hold a mirror to our confused hominid face as it squints at eternity and fails to grasp any of it. The utter futility, the heartbreaking majesty of it all.
I came to poetry at fourteen, in the middle of a booming oil-rush town in southern Arabia without a single public library: Abu Dhabi, the capital of the United Arab Emirates. All the wealth in the world and not a single intelligent idea as to how to employ it. The immorality of an Apartheid-style petrocratic state that turned its loyal nation builders into guest-slaves, deporting them every few years or so once worn out, safe in the knowledge of an endless supply—and all in the name of assembling a “modern state,” in the manner one furnishes one’s home by shopping at IKEA. That boom town proved to be the reef against which my family crashed, the story of many who seek the promised land, and my poetry is a versification of that personal history. History is all I have.
I don’t like poems that invent memories, I have enough of my own. I can’t quite see the point of poems like “Wittgenstein Goes for a Walk with A Hawk in Sherwood Forest.” I know they’re trying to be clever, but they’re not. Poetry either pulses with real life or it’s just an aborted simulacra. There’s no middle ground. Maybe that’s why Plato didn’t like it. It always boils down to influences, doesn’t it? Michael Hofmann was very important: he’s London’s punk laureate. Breyten Breytenbach too: I belong to his Middle World. All in all, it could be said I’ve tried to marry Lowell’s craft and understanding of the poet’s public responsibility with the lyrical, everyday diaries of poets like James Schuyler and Jack Gilbert. I’ve probably failed miserably there too, as with translation, but then that might actually make for a decent poem, given enough time.
All in all, it could be said I’ve tried to marry Lowell’s craft and understanding of the poet’s public responsibility with the lyrical, everyday diaries of poets like James Schuyler and Jack Gilbert.
Guernica: You’ve translated Balzac, Zola, and many other canonized writers. What are the challenges of translating living poets like Laâbi or Rashid Boudjedra?
André Naffis-Sahely: Translators who choose to work on canonized writers can usually lean on an extensive critical apparatus around either the author or the book in question, especially in the case of writers like Balzac and Zola. But one must first get a translation commissioned! As such, one also benefits from name-recognition when dealing with canonized writers. Nevertheless, dealing with politically-engaged writers of color like Abdellatif Laâbi and Rashid Boudjedra—who ran away from school aged sixteen to fight against the French in the Algerian war—first requires convincing an editor to take a chance on them, which very few like to do these days. Generally risk-averse, specialist translation imprints have also hollowed out a fairly comfortable niche for themselves: they get ninety percent of the profits for ten percent of the work, often largely funding their operations—and their salaries—through grants that they don’t even apply for. If it wasn’t for publicly-funded arts bodies and organizations such as PEN, I wouldn’t have been able to work on either Laâbi or Boudjedra. That’s a fact. Everyone wants to be open and inclusive, but nobody wants to pay for it. It’s the biggest roadblock to translating living writers, especially poets.
I’m of the opinion that poetry is always political, and cannot help but be so, regardless of the poet’s intent, given that refusing to deal in politics is in itself a political act.
Guernica: What about challenges in the process?
André Naffis-Sahely: When it comes to the challenges of the actual process, I soldier on as best I can, on my own. I’ve heard of translators collaborating closely with their authors, sometimes even living with them for a while, but that’s not me. I like mine close to heart, but out of sight. I’ve given readings with Mr. Laâbi on a few occasions, but I’ve only corresponded with Mr. Boudjedra. Some of my colleagues are surprised by how little personal interaction I’ve had with “my” authors, but I don’t translate to go fishing for friends. Part of me suspects that they wouldn’t like me, or that I wouldn’t like them, which would inevitably get in the way of the mission. None of the theory built around translation matters to me anyway: much of the process, I find, is intuitive. That said, regardless of whether the authors I’ve translated have been “dead and canonized,” or “living and established,” or even simply “emerging,” I must put myself to the same, old test: “can I do their texts justice?” I’ve translated twenty-one books, and except for three commissions, I “hand-picked” all my authors on the basis of whether my own peculiar idiosyncrasies would complement their own.
Guernica: What does it mean to be a political poet?
André Naffis-Sahely: It usually means people don’t listen to what you say. Most of us have been subjected to terrible political poetry at least once or twice in our lifetimes, and so we tend to shy away from it. It’s perfectly reasonable, in a way. The average political poem—especially the kind that wears this label all too proudly—is both dull and full of brow-beating triteness, so much so that the message—however pure—ends up polluting the atmosphere of beauty that the well-constructed poem can sustain. To be a political poet means simply to be a poet, and any poet worth their salt will be a political animal in their own peculiar way—they have no choice: politics is one of the many fragments we thread into the tapestry of the poem.
I’m of the opinion that poetry is always political, and cannot help but be so, regardless of the poet’s intent, given that refusing to deal in politics is in itself a political act. Thus, one cannot simply decide to write apolitical poetry, in the way one decides to drink lemonade instead of tea, it’s far more subliminal than that. Whenever poetry and politics are mentioned in the same breath, we tend to miss the point entirely—as I often have—and we ask ourselves whether poetry and politics even belong together, because they’re often so poorly married that we think of them as oil and water. The real question should be: what makes a good political poem? The possible answers to that question are both obvious and yet still a little too subjective for anyone to ever fully agree on. What do I most wish to see in a political poet? Sublimated rebellion.