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Excerpts from 2005 North African Voices

Excerpts from 2005 North African Voices

An Ancient and Mosaic Land by Nabil Boudraa

We have purposely chosen the title “North African Voices” to represent, as accurately as possible, the diversity of North Africa, a region which stretches from Egypt to the Canary Islands, and from the Mediterranean shores to the desert plains of the Sahara

This volume certainly does not constitute an anthology of North African poetry, but is rather a doorway to this rich culture which, unfortunately, still remain opaque and misunderstood today. Our purpose is then to provide a better understanding of this complex region and place the multiple layers of North African colonization into a patchwork that transcends nationalism and present-day political agendas. To that end, this literary and cultural sampling seeks to eschew the regimented discourses and polemics of political factions in order to validate the ancestral and ongoing personalities of North Africa.

Since time immemorial, this Afro-Mediterranean land has been inhabited by the indigenous people known as Imazighen[1]. These Berber populations across northern Africa have known a series of invasions and occupations that date back thousands of years, including those of the Phoenicians, the Romans, the Vandals, the Byzantines, the Arabs, the Spanish, the Turks, and the French. Despite the ceaseless efforts by each colonizer to erase and eradicate this indigenous culture, the latter not only survived but also constituted the foundation on which the other cultural layers were added. In addition, North Africa has also benefited from centuries-long contact with the Andalusian culture in the north and the sub-Saharan civilizations in the south. However, seen from a cultural perspective, this led to an extremely rich society with an interesting olio of languages, traditions, customs, tastes, etc. That is why we only hope that this volume will shed some light on the understanding of this multi-ethnic and multi-faceted place.

Needless to say, poetry provides a space where coexistence and harmony become the rule rather than a discrepancy. To Topos literally means “the place” in Greek. This volume of poetry could then be "the place" where all the dominated and subaltern North African cultures (from the Copts of Egypt to the nomadic Tuaregs of the Sahara) can have a voice, thus claiming their dignity and sharing their heritage, without any complex, resentment, or ressentiment.

The reader has only to look at the number of scripts used in this issue to understand the plurality of experience in North Africa. First, there is the ancient script, Tifinagh (see poem on page 30), which is so old that even linguists are still trying to trace it back to its original source. Then, there is the neo-Tifinagh, a more modern transcription of the Berber language (with Latin characters). Other scripts include Arabic, French, and English.

It is also very important in this context to note that the indigenous populations of North Africa have long used their conquerors’ languages to write about their own culture. Among the most celebrated authors are Saint Augustine (Latin), Ibn Khaldun (Arabic), Kateb Yacine and Mohamed Dib (French). The thoughts, the images and the sensations remain, however, autochthonous and original. Most of the poems in this collection follow the same trend. Although they are written in different languages, their substance and core remain North African. For this reason, I urge the reader to look through the language layer in order to reach deeper into the soul of these poems.

One important thing about North African literature and culture remains to be clarified. It is true that North African culture is mostly oral. This “orature” is part of a lifestyle, which is not reserved solely to a certain educated elite, but includes every group in the community. It is mostly the common people who preserve the culture, who keep it alive, and who connect it to daily life. The reader must be aware that some of these poems are written by people who do not necessarily have college degrees or advanced schooling but who certainly possess an extremely rich culture and a worthy experience.

In this volume, the reader will be inspired by a variety of poems on universal themes such as love, injustice, nature, identity, exile, liberty, etc. Others however take on specific and local concerns (praise for one’s language or place, political struggle, nostalgia for a specific past, etc.).

We, the editors, have tried our best to keep the beauty of the images and metaphors of the original poems, but it is not an easy task to translate Berber poems, or any poetry for that matter. I am indebted to my friend, Cherif Khazem, for his contribution and for his help with the translation of some poems. Our conversations about poetry and about this special issue also proved to be of great help.

I hope you will enjoy the pieces in this mosaic and that this poetic journey will provide a better understanding of the cultural complexity of this terra africana.

[1] The original name of the Berber people, which means free men. Some activists prefer this name, as the word “Berber” is pejorative. It was derived from the term « barbari » that the Romans gave to the people they conquered.

Amman/Water by Khadija Al Mourabit

Aw yayid a yemma, aw yayid a yemma amman zi ighzar n rafraheth
Ijj n ussekif i ttswedar rndemmeth

N urawen i yiwthen ghar unnaggar n rebhar
I hemren thegg ijjen ighzar

Thegg ijjen umcan i uzghen
Thegg car azzeggwagh, yezwugh ss ithammen

Dien i ghemyan jjwarath s izuran kerâan
Taff nnsent nnwar rebda I belâan

Tfuct n amcan a war thiwggijj ca
Rebda qath dinn, mmbra thiri tsharak manaya

Thiri trakwar zi ixf ennes
Rebda tawkar s tiwggthi taff ennes

Bring me mother, bring me mother water from the spring of joy
one sip helps to forget the remorse

of hearts that have been at the end of the sea
that have flown into one river

in a reddish place
in red earth, coloured by blood

There trees have grown with broken roots
next to them, flowers always closed

In this place the sun isn’t very far
It’s always there, without the shade it burns everything

the shade runs from itself
always running with fear next to it

translated from the Berber by the author


Alger/Algiers by Amari Hamadene

Tout ce qui reste d’Alger n’est que le ciel –
cet indélébile indigo, comme si Leila avait ramené avec elle
le bleu de Thèbes et a construit un dôme pour la ville avec sa teinture:
Ce n'est pas Alger, étendue là en face de nous
en gros morceaux de roc brun abattu par la mer endormie.

La Lactescente et Vermeille Alger que Leila a connue
sous l'air de ce panthéon de saphir-voûté - s'en est allée;
Elle est quelque part ailleurs - un poème. De part en part,
les Français ont bonifié son sol avec du sel.
Rien n'est vraiment resté d’Alger après la France.

Mais Alger est plus que la ville que Scipio a pleurée;
Elle est la chanson bleue que Leila a peinte là-dessus.
Des notes, dont le matériau ne peut jamais être démantelé
où ces blocs bruns sont encore érigés avec des mots en une autre Alger –
une Autre que nous avons lue.

Alors, oublie les collines là-en bas; les mots ont rendu la déchue cité
si vivante que, même morte, Leila est plus vivante que je ne le suis.
Elle est si près de nous, que même suspendue sur un échafaudage en air
continue de croquer la seule Casbah dont nous avons besoin.

All that is left of Algiers is only the sky –
this indelible indigo, as if Leila had brought back with her
the blue of Thebes and built a dome for the city with her dye:
It is not Algiers spread out there in front of us
in large pieces of brown rock worn down by the sleeping sea.

The Milky and Vermilion Algiers that Leila knew
beneath the air of this vaulted saphire pantheon – has left;
The city is elsewhere – a poem. From top to bottom
the French have improved its soil with salt.
Nothing really remained of Algiers after France.

But Algiers is more than the city that Scipio lamented;
She is the blue song that Leila painted over her.
Notes made of a material which can not be dismantled
where these brown blocks are still transformed with words into another Algiers –
an Other that we have read.

So, forget the hill down there; the words have made the deposed city
so lively that, even dead, Leila is more alive than I am.
She is so close to us, that even suspended on a scaffolding in the air
continues to sketch the only Casbah that we will need.

translated from the French by the editors