On Monday, Feb. 18, author Adbellatif Laâbi and translator André Naffis-Sahely launched the dual-language chapbook Poems/Poèmes at Free WordFrench-English translator Roland Glasser was there.

By Roland Glasser

‘I am the poem tree. They have tried to manipulate me, but their efforts came to naught; I’m intractable, the master of my own mutations’[1]

Photo credit: Roland Glasser.
Photo credit: Roland Glasser.

Abdellatif Laâbi is virtually unknown in the English-speaking world, yet is considered by many to be not only Morocco’s foremost contemporary poet, but one of the most important poets writing today. Just three years ago, he was awarded the Goncourt Prize for Poetry, France’s highest literary award. When Lawrence Ferlinghetti visited Paul Bowles in Morocco in search of poetry talent for his City Lights press and bookshop, the expatriate composer, author, translator and long-time Tangier resident told him to look up Abdellatif Laâbi.

Now, English readers can get a mouth-watering taste of his poetry in a new dual-language chapbook published by the Poetry Translation Centre.

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The atmosphere is heavy in the auditorium, gloomy even despite the bright lighting. Must be the weather. It’s barely above zero outside. The audience file in, cheeks red from the cold.

Abdellatif Laâbi sits patiently, dignified, his fine silvery grey moustache gently bristling, eyes a-twinkle behind the small round wire-frame spectacles.

We begin.

André Naffis-Sahely, translator of the poems in this chapbook, leans forward to speak, his face a blend of Mediterranean and Persian origins, dark hair swept back behind one ear. He talks about the way so many poets have been jailed in the 20th century, from Osip Mandelstam in pre-war Stalinist Russia to Ivan Martin Jirous in communist Czechoslovakia 40 years later.

Abdellatif Laâbi found himself on this long dark list of glorious names for most of the 1970s.

‘I was in the cave
where convicts read in the dark
and painted the bestiary of the future on the walls’[2]

The translator reads the first poem in English, followed by the poet in French, a pas de deux they will gently dance for the rest of the evening.

Abdellatif Laâbi has a wonderful low voice, sonorous, light, delicately posed, with just an edgy hint of a Maghreb accent. It’s a real joy to hear a poet read their own work, and I muse on how lucky I am to understand both the original and translated versions perfectly. It’s almost like watching one of those split screen films where the same scene is played out simultaneously from different angles.

Photo Credit: Roland Glasser
Photo Credit: Roland Glasser

The innocuous rumble of a passing Tube train is amplified by microphone feedback into something more ominous as André Naffis-Sahely reads “The Earth Opens and Welcomes You,” a poem written on the day of the burial of Tahar Djaout, an Algerian writer killed by fanatics in Algiers in 1993:

‘Sleep well my friend
Sleep the sleep of the righteous
Rest well
even from your dreams
Let us shoulder the burden a little’[3]

Next, an interloper in the form of “The Word Gulag,” a poem that although it doesn’t appear in this chapbook, is a product of the marvellous initiative behind it. I am talking about the fortnightly Poetry Translation Workshops started by the dynamic poet Sarah Maguire ten years ago. I have participated in several of these intimate gatherings, at which a small group of more or less multilingual scribblers bash a literal translation into pretty decent English shape over tea and biscuits, before Sarah takes it home for a final buff and polish. My first foray just happened to be one focusing on Abdellatif Laâbi’s work, with literals courtesy of André Naffis-Sahely, so I was pleased to hear him recite a text that I, in some small way, had a hand in shaping:

‘The words file one by one out of a little door and stand in front of us on the other side of the wire. Pale. Trembling. Haggard. Shattered.’[4]

In the short Q&A that follows, Abdellatif Laâbi is asked why he writes in French, a colonial language.

His reply is discreetly eloquent:

“Every mother tongue is imposed, just like every colonial language, so why not write in whatever language you wish? […] It’s no bad thing to find yourself between two or three cultures. Count yourself fortunate to be an agent of dialogue between these cultures.”[5]

The poet smiles, folds his spectacles back into their little case, and leans back in his chair as we applaud.

‘I am the poem tree. I chuckle at all things ephemeral and eternal.
I am alive.’[6]


[1] “L’arbre à poèmes / The Poem Tree” by Abdellatif Laâbi, English translation André Naffis-Sahely

[2] “La langue de ma mere / My Mother’s Language” by Abdellatif Laâbi, English translation André Naffis-Sahely

[3] “La terre s’ouvre et t’accueille / The Earth Opens and Welcomes You” by Abdellatif Laâbi, English translation André Naffis-Sahely

[4] “Le goulag des mots / The Word Gulag” by Abdellatif Laâbi, English translation André Naffis-Sahely and The Poetry Translation Workshop

[5] English translation by Roland Glasser

[6] “L’arbre à poèmes / The Poem Tree” by Abdellatif Laâbi, English translation André Naffis-Sahely

8 thoughts on “‘A Child of this Century’: Launching Abdellatif Laâbi’s Dual-language Chapbook

  1. Well, Roland, your enthusiasm is commendable, and maybe in England Laâbi is “virtually unknown,” but, besides the new chapbook you mention, there are available — at least in the US — one other chapbook (The World’s Embrace (Souffles Press 2000) but more importantly 3 full-length books: “The World’s Embrace: Selected Poems” (transl. by Anne Geogre, Edris Makward, Victor Reinking & Pierre Joris; City Lights Books, 2003), “Fragments of a Forgotten genesis,” (transl. by Nancy Hadfield and Gordon Hadfield, Leaf Press 2009) & “The Rule of Barbarism” (translated by André Naffis-Sahely (Island Position 2012). He is featured prominently in my anthology: Poems for the Millennium (see yesterdays’s post on this blog).

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    1. I have not yet finished reading “The Bottom of the Jar” (also trans. Andre, 2013 Archipelago) but “The Portrait of the Father” from your antho reminds me of his warm family tone:

      The portrait of the father
      has taken its place on the wall
      behind me
      I am alone
      in my closed room
      My wife has gone to work
      Yet
      a hand comes to caress my neck
      gently
      like a bird’s feather
      The taste of childhood
      rises to my mouth

      Still, available in translation is not necessarily well-known, even if you’ve surely done your part. Would be nice to see him on a trip to the US to bring out “Bottom of the Jar.”

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  2. Ah, yes, I had forgotten “The Bottom of the Jar,” a wonderful autobiographical tale — I used the original as my guidebook to Fès a few years back. Come to think of it, Jocelyne Laâbi’s tale autobiographical book “La liqueur d’aloès” would make a wonderful companion volume to “The Jar” — I’ll probably see Abdellatif in Paris later this year & will certainly try to push him into making a visit to the US — he won’t need much of a push, I think, just a sponsor.

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    1. Love the idea of using “The Bottom” as a guidebook to Fès. I wonder if Archipelago could help cook something up for a small US tour.

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      1. Financially unlikely, though with an institutional / university sponsor backing Archipelago, who knows, may be workable. I’ll certainly talk to Jill about it when I see her next.

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