Beyond the Barbed Wire by Abdellatif Laâbi, translated by André Naffis-Sahely

Reviewed by Abraham T. Zere*

André Naffis-Sahely’s translation of the Moroccan poet Abdellatif Laâbi’s selected poems, Beyond the Barbed Wire, is a welcome addition to world literature. Recipient of many literary awards, including the prestigious Goncourt Prize for poetry (2009), Laâbi has written seventeen books of poetry, two dramas, two children’s books, and twelve non-fiction books. Laâbi is also credited for his French translations of leading Arabic poets such as Mahmoud Darwish, Abdul Wahab al-Bayati, Mohammed Al-Maghout. Thus far, nine of Laâbi’s books have been translated from French into English: André Naffis-Sahely deserves highest credit for translating four of them, and re-igniting interest among English readers.

Naffis-Sahely’s present translation consists of thirty-three poems from five books that span from 1976 to 2013. The collection also contains two essays: one on writing, and a second on the death of Moroccan King Hassan II, long time tormentor and “muse” of Laâbi, who turned the poet’s life into “a bottomless hell”.

The collection provides poems that reflect Laâbi’s life and poetic style. Several poems speak about the poet’s experience as prisoner of conscience and his life as an exile. ‘Urgent Life’ evokes Laâbi’s direct and lucid style of diction:

I remind chaos
of the rallying cry
––––––––––––d i s o b e d i e n c e
there will be wars
and sieges bloodier than the crusades
I want virtuous blood
–––––––––––––––rightful vengeance
Nobody consulted us before murdering us

The collection portrays the “orgasm of crime”, following themes of shattered dreams; the bond between a father behind barbed wire and his waiting family; the atrophied and docile body; and mechanisms of torture and fear. The poet, “translator of pain and humiliation”, graphically portrays physical torture and psychological torment in which victims are “skinned alive” to confess to crimes they never committed. The long, mostly unpunctuated poems are loud cries of abuses and read as hallucinatory notes. Ultimately, the form becomes the message: these poems embody bold defiance against injustice.

The poems written in prison or immediately after Laâbi’s release do not fall into conventional sound rhymes or meters: he expresses collective maltreatment through free verse, capturing the suffering that he describes as “inferno of solitude”. The poem ‘Letter to My Friends Overseas’ explains why he might deflect traditional poetic forms:

I don’t know
if what I’ve written you
is a poem
and whether people
recognise it as such
doesn’t bother me much
because poetry
to me
isn’t an attitude one adopts towards language
or friezes of hieroglyphs
that we should decipher
aided by scholarly
parameters of criticism
Poetry spills out of the page
evades these insignificant labels
employed to confine it
––––––––––––––––pigeon-hole it
––––––––––––––––––––––––––make it niche
Poetry to me
is simply a way
to hold out my hand
to push myself further
to rear my head again

‘One Hand Isn’t Enough to Write’ expresses the poet’s engagement with the public and his concern for the sufferings of the wretched of the earth. It also discloses Laâbi’s deep connections with global literature:

One hand isn’t enough to write
These days
it takes two
and the second quickly needs to grasp
the craft of the unspeakable:
Two hands aren’t enough to write
These days
with its grinding miseries
it would take three or four
for life to bother visiting
this white wretched wasteland

Through continuous pain, the poet magnificently describes the extent to which the human body can endure torture. The only means of defiance becomes the cry the poet describes in his essay, ‘Chronicles from the Citadel of Exile’:

The cries when the cry becomes the Esperanto of resistance, the slow epic of hope and human drama. Oh, my dear comrades, my flesh is hallucinating, and my heart is so full of love that it can’t stand it anymore, your eyes, which are so unforgettably full of promises, our irrepressible tenderness.(63)

The atrophied body is another weapon the prisoner can use to disconcert his torturers. In ‘Hunger Strike’:

Sure it’s a passive act
but when you’ve got nothing but your naked chest
against Fascist arsenals
the only weapon we’ve left
is this irrepressible
breath still inside us
which we push to the furthest of limits
risking its death
to safeguard our dignity
during these days of abstinence
it makes me proud
that going hungry
means I get to unsettle
the perverse complacency
of those who starve my people

This long suffering is sustained through functionaries who are themselves victims of the system, rewarded with unaccountable power to abuse, which Laâbi rigorously portrays in its nakedness. In ‘The Policeman’s Speech’, he describes the hollow, banal mimicry of a police officer:

He stared me down
His gaze seemed to scan for some object
somewhere behind my back
to my right
amidst the heap of dirty rags
lying at my feet
somewhere under my soles
He talked and he talked and he talked
for his sake
for the sake of the walls
for the sake of a public
of dull, bleating sheep

Though punctuated by poetic outrage, these poems are not vengeful: Laâbi understands that injustice brutalizes both victim and perpetuator. The translator renders the poet’s nuances and complexity aptly and beautifully: the book has received English PEN Award for Translation, and the poet Jim Moore, in his introduction to the selection, praises the importance of the translation thus:

This new selection of Abdellatif Laâbi’s work, […] takes the reader through the many twists and turns of Laâbi’s life, at times a life full of drama and despair, at other times a life seemingly lived at one remove. If Laâbi is a political poet – and he certainly is – he is also a poet of great solitude and loneliness. All of this, thanks to this generous and well-chosen selection of his work, is available to us now in English. (xx)

*Exiled writer/journalist Abraham T. Zere is executive director and chief-editor of PEN Eritrea.