Beatriz Leal Riesco reviews Poems for the Millennium, Volume Four: The University of California Book of North African Literature

Edited by Pierre Joris and Habib Tengour (University of California Press, 2013)

To bring together for the first time for the English-speaking public a broad range of texts from North Africa, ranging from ancient myths from the oral tradition to the most cutting-edge of contemporary poetry, has been the signal achievement of Pierre Joris and Habib Tengour in the newly released fourth volume of the Poems for the Millennium series. For specialists and general readers, aesthetes and aficionados, The University of California Book of North African Literature is a consummate introduction to the prodigious literary imagination of the peoples of the Maghreb, a region that stretches from Egypt's Siwa Oasis westward to Morocco, embracing the inexhaustible Sahara. The nomadic condition of the Berber tribes has rendered the frontiers of the Maghreb protean, extending them outward as far as Mali, Niger, and Chad. Islamic expansion beyond the African continent was further responsible for the intellectual and artistic ferment that characterized Al-Andalus in southern Spain between the eighth and fifteenth centuries.

For centuries, the achievements of the Arab and Berber Muslim cultures were silenced in the West, and literary traditions and genres greatly in their debt were grafted on to surrogate Greco-Roman or Judeo-Christian genealogies. With the exception of a few novelists and one or two poets, North Africa remains a blind spot for many readers of today, irrespective of its intellectual, cultural, and artistic fecundity. The work of Joris and Tengour serves as redress for the harm this ignorance has done, not only to the authors of the Maghreb, but also to the occidental poetic imagination. The poets here on display, schooled in cultures of chant and verse, skilled employers of dialect and masters in the play of subversion of sonority and rhyme that gives Arabic poetry its specific charm, recover a space that should never have been stripped from them through this lavish paean to their creative vigor.

Rendering homage to the librarians of Alexandria and Al-Andalus, who for centuries safeguarded the wisdom of the Orient and Ancient Greece, Joris and Tengour have worked both as assemblers and interpreters of this mass of texts that took shape organically over the course of more than a quarter-century. Divided into six sections organized chronologically, each with an introduction providing historical background, and interspersed with brief but illuminating commentaries, the text brings together the traditional, the folkloric, and the experimental. The intention in each part is to remain faithful to the spirit of the era, and to dispense with the sort of scholarly hairsplitting that cordons off the creative energies common to the various currents of poetic praxis into academic subspecialties that rob them of their vitality.

As the editors explain in the introduction, for years the book's working title was Diwan Ifrikiya. In Arabic a diwan is "a gathering, a collection or anthology," and Ifrikiya is an Arabization of the Latin word Africa, which was itself borrowed from the Egyptians, who used the term Ifri to describe the inhabitants of North Africa. In an opening salvo entitled "A Book of Multiple Beginnings," the authors recruit such notables as Apuleius, Callimachus, Tertulian, and Saint Augustine, grandees of antiquity whom the occidental tradition divested of their African origins. They are introduced by a creation myth transcribed by the great Africanist Leo Frobenius, symbolically marking the recognition of a literary counter-tradition over which the Western Canon has been overlaid as both obligation and inevitability.

These early pages are followed by five diwans, of varying size and versatile structure. The first, "A Book of In-Betweens: Al-Andalus, Sicily, and the Maghreb," ranges from the tenth century to the fifteenth, from the first conquests of the Maghreb by the Muslim dynasties to unification under the Almoravids and the flowering of knowledge under the Almohads, which included the philosophers Ibn Rushd (Averroës) and Ibn Tufail. Proper attention is granted to the Caliphate of Córdoba, which rivaled the Abbasids of Baghdad in its ability to attract the most eminent artists and intellectuals of its day. This atmosphere of constant translation—in both senses of the term—making possible the coexistence of Muslims, Christians, and Jews, was a unique form of cultural hybridization. The poetry that resulted was of such originality, in terms of its metrical and thematic novelty, that it is no exaggeration to affirm that its level of experimentation was unrivaled before the advent of modernism. When the Caliphate met its end in the eleventh century, this sanctuary of poetry fell into a centuries-long decrepitude.

The second diwan, "Al-Adab: The Invention of Prose," takes its name from a genre of literature dedicated to manners and savoir vivre that originated in Baghdad and was elaborated deftly under the Caliphate of Córdoba and in the epoch of the Almohands. A special form of the al-adab known as the rihla—an amalgam of travel diary, anthropology, and faits divers directed toward the merchant elites—evolved in Al-Andalus and the Maghreb with the avowed purpose of asserting the unity of Islam, in accordance the dictates of the Koran. Ibn Battuta, the arch commentator and tireless voyager, is still considered the master of the genre. Besides a selection of his writings, we find here Maimonides and Ibn Khaldun, a philosopher born in what is now known as Tunis who is considered a father of the modern disciplines of historiography, sociology, and economics. From his extraordinary corpus, the editors have chosen his philosophical reflections on the role of prose and poetry in opposition to other forms of discourse. This interesting diwan concludes with an excerpt from the journals of Leo Africanus, the scholar and statesman sent to Africa by Pope Leo X, where he composed a work on the continent known as Cosmographia dell'Africa, which in wit, discretion, and breadth of acquaintance would remain unsurpassed for centuries.

The second diwan continues with "A Book of Mystics," which treats the ecstatic poetry of Sufism. Sufism evolved in the east and promptly swept into the Maghreb. Rooted in the meticulous study of the Koran and in the Imitatio Muhammadi, the retreat and meditation that characterized Sufism from the eighth century to the tenth culminated in a highly textured conceptual apparatus devoted to the decoding of divine revelation. Poetry, as a language permissive both of paradox and nuance—recollecting the probable origins of Sufism in the encounter between Islam and Buddhism—soon became an instrument by which Sufi masters were initiated and their insights handed down. Their teachings can be found across the face of the globe, in languages as distinct as Arabic, Persian, Russian, and Urdu. Wisely, Joris and Tengour have seen fit not only to include the writings of the Doctor Maximus Ibn Arabi of Murcia, whose teachings radiated far past the borders of Al-Andalus, but also those of his follower, Abd-El Kader, the resistance hero and founder of the modern Algerian state. Quoting from Habib Tengour's Maghrebian Surrealist Manifesto, the editors assert that the originality of that region's Sufism lies in its assertion of surrealist subversion: "Psychic automatism in its pure state, amour fou, chance encounters, etcetera," the French avatars of which are indicted here as "pale late versions."

"The Long Sleep and the Slow Awakening," as the third diwan is called, covers the fall of Granada up until the nineteenth century, a period of stagnation with respect to literary genres, but of great popular creativity. The focus here is on the melhun, a kind of refrain-based poetry in song associated with the artisan classes. Following the poetic form of the qasida, its boldness resides in its elegant and sophisticated enlargement of vulgar Arabic, which maintained the imaginative vivacity of this region during what could otherwise be described as a period of decadence. The selection of melhun is filled out by a translation of texts from Amazigh, a Berber language that predates the Arabic expansion, as a reminder of the singularity of a Maghrebi culture, so often subsumed, for the Western mind, under the rubric Arab.

If any period in North African history has received its due attention, it is the years encompassing its submission to the European colonial powers and the eventual struggle for independence. As it is impossible even to scratch the surface of this complex story of local alliances and international intrigue, the fourth diwan, "Resistance and Road to Independence," instead lays the groundwork for the final two sections of the book, both of which bear the title "Make It New: The Invention of Independence." Signal voices such as those of Frantz Fanon, Jean Sénac, and Katib Yacine appear here, accompanied by less known but equally deserving authors as well as exemplars from the oral tradition. In this fifth diwan, countries and authors seem to multiply ad infinitum. Against all odds, in a moment of historic revolt in North Africa that even in the present day has not reached its end, women and men who wish to raise their voices have had repeated recourse to poetry. They have done so from the continent and from exile, as residents, as refugees, and as adopted children: hence the inclusion of such diverse parties as Jacques Derrida, Mario Scalési, Hélène Cixous, Juan Goytisolo, and Cécile Oumhani. In keeping with the universalism in which this volume is steeped, and looking toward a future in which the corpus of modernism and postmodernism will have to be revised to take account of its non-European exponents, the fifth diwan occupies nearly half the book, and its span and richness escape facile classifications.

This monumental work of compilation and translation, which rescues numerous writings otherwise destined to near oblivion, deserves serious praise, especially now, when print media seem destined to disappear, swallowed up by the implacable voracity of data. The arrival of Gutenberg in the fifteenth century relegated the illuminated manuscript, with its readers' aids and marginalia, to the archives of museums, but their stamp persists in this beautiful work with its prologues and appendices and the rigor it evinces both in terms of analysis and selectivity. One imagines that its predecessors in Alexandria, in Córdoba, and Toledo must be smiling, cheered by the meeting of cultures and the thirst for understanding this publication represents.