Farid Tali’s Prosopopoeia is a hybrid novella—a work of postmodern elegy that narrates the death of a young man from AIDS. We are told this story by the deceased man’s brother, who is at times tormented and mournful, at times disengaged from his French-Moroccan family’s forms of grieving. With “cold curiosity” he even describes the decomposition of his brother’s corpse in dense, poetic language. In the excerpt included here, the narrator reveals his conflicted feelings about religion even as the power and beauty of the Quranic verses sustain him, give him—in the midst of this death song—life.
Forty days would have passed between the first ceremony and the last: there was a time, a dead time that followed the death of the body, which was calm, having been abandoned by pain and now engulfed by two long songs which got mixed up. It was neither a period nor a duration, just a time, sensed too early and known too late. It’s to keep company with the deceased, someone said, so that he knows where he’s going, that he won’t be alone there. His room had been emptied of all furniture; it was also the room in which I slept. I was crouched in a corner: old, Arab men with receptive palms were sitting in an almost perfect circle in which each one in his place rhymed with another. And those soft, rhyming words, whose meaning I could not understand, seemed to be coming out of their palms. I knew they were from the Quran, that it was music, I recognized its rhythm. I breathed in the syllables, they cure tuberculosis. I hung on to each successive rhyme, each time it was the same. I puffed out my chest at the beginning of every verse, it was like nectar for my lungs. The words came loose as though liquid and, flowing in a single gush, came to rest on my lips as at the source of a garden as old as several years of drought. The words came but in written form only, dressed in strength and glory, borne in those sacred characters that symbolized for me the essence of the divine. They had neither body nor flesh but were men. They came from the bottom of the throat—from the base of the larynx, to be more precise. From the voices of those one seldom hears, beyond the commonness of the everyday, composed of a balance between breath and sculpted air. They possessed nothing more than the appeal of written things and they were no less beautiful for it. I thought this as I listened, and I listened. It might have been God or madness or love, but so what. Certainly I was wrong to think that to love this singing as I did meant I believed in God, that there could be no beauty in a moment such as this without it having been dictated by him. I didn’t think I could be this deluded, that I could be so unhappy as to confuse pleasure with faith. I saw truth where there was none, as is the case often.
That autumn I believed in God for three months while the metro trains screeched along, especially where there were bends. I believed because I was reading the Quran (and I was haunted by the idea that my hands were too dirty to touch it, that for every page I turned I needed water—or sand, as I’d heard it said of those primitives, Muslims of the desert, who in the absence of water were permitted, by way of ablution, to rub their bodies and hands with a stone or with sand) and because it made me fear God.
Once in a while I was tempted to pray. I’d wake up early in the morning, as my father—he who had prayed little and who no longer prayed—had taught me, and I found it all exhausting, those five prayers a day, the faces washed seven times which were always, one after the other, considered dirty faces.
I was ashamed also, of not being able to pronounce the verses correctly, verses I couldn’t read. I too wanted for myself a Gabriel to teach me how to read, to take me in his arms—he who is the force descending upon Mount Arafat where my ignorance might have gone away, the enormous in strength, the robust—to embrace me three times and three times say: Read! And I would’ve read.
I would get the order of successive verses wrong. Guided by the rhymes, I’d pray: He hath no equal, He neither begets nor is born, He is Allah, Eternal Refuge, meaning, He is One. I’d beseech Malik. On certain other days I’d say Al-Lat or Al-Uzza or Manat and not know that it was wrong. And on still other days it was the spirit of sanctity I called upon, that Jibra’il whom I praised for his strength. And always this idolatrous inclination to venerate the messengers rather than God, to find those characters appealing who seemed to me more amiable because more human, because closer to weakness, and so to clemency, because the aforementioned was not so—merciful and clement.
Other times I believed in nothing. The story of religion I found absurd, full of implausibility and contradiction.
But most often it wasn’t one or the other. Just an adherence to a phrase, a rhythm, all this without understanding a thing. For example, those phrases, two in particular, one expressing the uniqueness of God and the other that Muhammad was his prophet. Those phrases—that I’d been taught, having been guaranteed they were more than enough to get me into paradise—were cause for celebration. Happy that such little things as these keys were purveyors of delight, I’d recite the two phrases, making at the same time my profession of faith and my profession of hope. So I recognized them in Morocco, in that drone-like singing that happened five times a day. The call to prayer. I too knew how to make this voice that came from nowhere, a nasal, or rather very nasalized, voice that came not from the chest but from the throat, like a voice lacking depth and yet on fire. Already the alternation of those long and short vowels, which never were in the same place, composed a whole world awakening for me. A world of words. They drew an actual geographical map in which the accents and durations of vowels figured mountains and inextinguishable volcanoes. In those combined sounds, always tonic explosions. The consonants, depending upon whether they were more or less soft or guttural, sketched a weather map of this unknown country. Storms rose up in unison with fierce reliefs. As must have happened when the world was born, the violence of rhythms, the explosion of sounds gave life: tectonic movements between classes of phonemes, torrential rains, lava in the making…
Translated from the French by Aditi Machado
Aditi Machado’s translation of Prosopopoeia will appear from Action Books in late 2006.
Farid Tali was born in 1977. His first solo work, Prosopopée, was published by Éditions P.O.L in 2001. Salim Jay writes of him that “on reading Tali, one thinks of those words by Nietzsche in Humain trop humain: “…and life, at the very least, was not invented by morality …”
Aditi Machado is a poet and translator. Her first book of poems, Some Beheadings, is forthcoming from Nighboat Books, and her translation of Farid Tali’s Prosopopoeia will be published by Action Books. New work (poetry and prose) will appear in VOLT, Witness, The Capilano Review, FOLDER Magazine, The Chicago Review, and Almost Island. Aditi edits poetry in translation for Asymptote. She is working on her doctoral dissertation, a creative-critical exploration of the sensuous intellect in landscape, at the University of Denver.
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