To begin ...

As the twentieth century fades out
the nineteenth begins
it is as if nothing happened
though those who lived it thought
that everything was happening
enough to name a world for & a time
to hold it in your hand
unlimited.......the last delusion
like the perfect mask of death

Sunday, May 27, 2012

Pierre Joris & Habib Tengour: from the Diwan Ifrikiya (forthcoming), a Preview & Selecion

please note. a list of postings after january 12, 2012 can be found here

NOTE.  The following offers a first look at what will be the fourth volume of Poems for the Millennium, the experimental anthology that Pierre Joris and I initiated in the mid-1990s as an attempt to lay out & map what I've more recently come to describe as a global or omnipoetics.  With volume 4, Joris & Habib Tengour move the focus to a particular demographic & cultural area, exploring it over a 2000-year span & with a sense of the often unacknowledged diversities (both formal & cultural) that such a region & history contain.  Their workings will otherwise speak for themselves.  (J.R.)

                        from INTRODUCTION

Our working title for the anthology that will be published as The University of California Book of North African Literature, namely Diwan Ifrikiya, combined the well-known Arabic word for “a gathering, a collection or anthology” of poems, diwan, with one of the earliest names of (at least part of) the region covered, Ifrikiya, which is an Arabization of the Latin word “Africa” — & which the Romans took from the Egyptians who spoke of the  land of the ifri,” referring to the original inhabitants of North Africa, the people the Romans called the Berbers, but who call themselves the Amazigh, & in whose language, Tamazight, the word “ifri” is found even today in tribal names such as  the Beni Ifren. 
         The book is thus an anthology of the various & varied written & oral literatures of North Africa, the geographic region known as the Maghreb, and traditionally described as situated between the Siwa oasis to the East (in fact, inside the borders of Egypt) & the Atlantic ocean to the West, essentially spanning the modern nation states of Libya, Tunisia, Algeria and Morocco – as well as the desert space of the Sahara & Mauritania, to the great desert’s southwest. This reflects in effect the cultural area of the various Amazigh peoples, &, interestingly enough, also maps the area in terms of their basic food, namely the breadth & limits of the use of rolled barley & wheat flour, or couscous. More essentially, in terms of the quantity & importance of literary work, we further include the extremely rich & influential Arabo-Berber & Jewish literary culture of Al-Andalus, which flourished in Spain between the 9th & 15th centuries. This culture is intimately linked to North Africa throughout its historical existence, & even after its final disappearance as a cultural entity following the Spanish Reconquista, given that a great part of the Muslim & Jewish population fled towards the south, seeking refuge in North Africa. 
         The time span for Diwan Ifrikiya reaches from the earliest inscriptions found in the region – prehistoric rock drawings from the Tassili & Hoggar regions in the southern Sahara, & early Berber pictograms – to the work of the current generation of post-independence and diasporic writers. Such a time span takes in a range of diverse cultures including Amazigh, Phoenician, Jewish, Roman, Vandal, Arab, Ottoman & French constituents. The texts brought together belong to various literary genres: although concentrating on oral & written poetry & narratives, especially those which invent new or renew preexisting literary traditions, our gathering also draws on historical & geographical treatises, philosophical & esoteric traditions & genres, song lyrics, current prose experiments in the novel & short story, etc.
         These texts are organized into five diwans in which the authors appear in chronological order, ranging from the early poetic inventions in al-Andalus in the 10th century to the first decade of our own century with work of young & emergent poets from the various Maghrebi countries. Reading through the Diwans, one can get a sense of temporal progression & thus of the changes brought by history. The first Diwan, subtitled “A Book of Inbetween,” starts with an early anonymous Muwashshaha — that lyrical poetic form invented in al-Andalus & moving Arabic poetry away from the imitation of classical qaçida models going back to pre-Islamic forms. In this invention of al-Andalus culture, by the way, lie also the roots of the European lyric poem we have historically often but wrongly situated in an autonomously created troubadour tradition.
         As a foretaste of the anthology (which will be published in November 2012 by University of California Press as volume 4 of the Poems for the Millennium series), here is an extract by one of the early al-Andalus poets, Yusuf Ibn Harun al-Ramadi, and the commentary on his work:

hugging letters & beauty spots

when you look at letters tracing a line
some are linked, others stand far apart
see how the former seem to be hugging
and the latter look like gap teeth in a mouth
— yet both are pearls extracted
by thought diving into a pulsing mind 

black ink spots on the whiteness of the page:
beauty spots on the lover’s lustrous face 


Many nights I spent with a glass of wine in my right hand
while my left kept squeezing a young budding breast
like an apple made from silver that was melted down
and then cooled in a perfectly round mould.


She put her palm on her cheek
and kept brooding though not upset
as if her fingers were hiding
a red rose with a lily
or as if her silver fingers
were encrusted with gold nails. 


A swallow praised the Lord
in a gibberish that was well understood
with piercing shrieks that quickly resumed
just when you thought they’d come to an end
like a Qur’an reader who will lengthen a pause
to clearly mark it before he goes on.


O rose veiled with a natural blush of shyness
like the cheeks of a black-eyed beauty
we’re both strangers here –
you from Pechina, and me from Cordoba
we’ve met in the home of friends
known for their generous gifts
kissing you in front of them
is not a strange thing
as a stranger would kiss another stranger
when they meet far from home

Translated by Abdelfetah Chenni & P.J.


(1) One of the early great al-Andalus poets, al-Ramadi was a native of Cordoba the city where he spent most of his life, except for a short period of exile in Saragossa. Different sources set his death date at either 1013 or at 1022. There is no complete Diwan or collected poems, and of his other major work, The Book on Birds, written in prison, there only survives a section on falcon hunting. Though trained in the mashreqi (Eastern) tradition of writing, he worked in the contemporary andalusian Muwashshaha mode, into which he introduced several innovations.

(2) Writes his translator Abdelfetah Chenni: “Zooming in on calligraphic/poetic processes — cf. first poem above — or on subtly erotic physical features, or simply on the natural Andalusian landscape around him with its flowers, trees & birds, al-Ramadi, using all the artistic & linguistic resources of the al-Andalus tradition, captures (‘in short poems very much like Japanese haikus’) those superb instantaneous moments of pure beauty. Maybe most famous for the poems concerning the young girl Khalwa he saw only once & loved for the rest of his life (love at first sight immortalized by Ibn Hazm in The Neck-Ring of the Dove), he would later also immortalize his passion for a young Mozarab boy he calls Yahia — which makes his passionate/platonic love for Khalwa quite different from the Christianized platonic love of Dante for Beatrice. The last poem in our selection remembers an occasion when Al-Ramadi was the guest of his friend Bani al-Arqam in Wadi Ash, the Guadix of today. It was winter time yet he was offered roses brought from Bejana, the Pechina of today.  But  beyond these lyrical matters, Al-Ramadi was also the poet exiled & jailed for his political stance against the Umayyad caliph, & who died in utter poverty.”
            In all of this, then,  al-Ramadi is unquestionably the Andalusian poet par excellence!

1 comment:

William A. Sigler said...

This is very important work. The role of ancient North African peoples, particularly what are now known as the Amazigh, in the development of other cultural traditions is only now beginning to be understood. For one there are vast genetic and linguistic Interrelationships between races of the Canary Islands, Berbers, Basques and Celts. 90% of the Irish people and Scots people have genetics that are identical to modern day Basques. Genetics professor Stephen Oppenheimer of Oxford states flat out that the Celts are the direct descendents of Basques, who are direct descendents of the early Amazigh. In his book “the Real Eve” he suggests Berbers made their way up the western Mediterranean and into Ireland about 7,600 B.C (the ancient name of Ireland is Ibheriu). Consider this statement collected by the Scottish genealogy Society by a Dr. MacPherson: "When I was in Morocco City in 1891 I met a Gaelic-speaking missionary doctor who had come out there and went into the interior, where Shluh is the language spoken in the Sous country, just as it is the language of the Cis-Atlas country. He told me that the words seemed familiar to him, and after listening to the natives speaking among themselves found they were speaking a Gaelic dialect, much of which he could follow. The medical missionary told me he recognized the Shluh language as Celtic. Although he had no previous knowledge of it, and had no conception of its being allied to Gaelic, he found himself able to understand much of what was being said the first time he went among the tribes, solely on account of the resemblance of their language to his own Gaelic. This confirmed my own observations regarding the names of the Berber tribes, I myself, had come across, namely, the Beni M'Tir, the Beni M'Touga and the Beni M'Ghill is simply the Arabic for 'children of' and is tacked on by the Arabs to the M' of the Berbers which means 'sons of', and is exactly the same as the Gaelic Mac or Mc. Hence the M'Tir, M'Touga and M'Ghill become in our country MacTiers, MacDougalls and MacGills." The violin, guitar and bagpipes originate in Northern Africa, and the troubadour movement may have come from the Berber-Ibero-Basque language complex that went all the way up the Atlantic seaboard from Northern Africa to Northern Scotland.
But that in itself is only the tip of the iceberg. Thanks to the great linguist Barry Fell’s pioneering work, Anmazigh-related-Iberian inscriptions have been found in New Zealand (Maori) and Polynesia, Iowa (from 900 BC, as determined from the Davenport stele), Texas, and an ancient Kufic Arabic zodiac found in Inyo County, California. Proof of Celtic and Phoenician linkages has been found in Mystery Hill, New Hampshire, and there are a score of linguistic similarities between Gaelic and Indo-American native languages. To name one of many similarities, the Algonquin Merrimack (deep fishing) has a close resemblance to Mor-romach (of great depth) in Gaelic.
Then there is the strange resemblance of terms like Atlas for Atlantis, Amazigh for Amazon, the complete lack of any Punic literature as has been abundantly found in other ancient civilizations. A lot of interesting threads, few of them followed with any specificity or respect. I call you to the work of Father Foucault, who early in the 20th century created a Tamachek dictionary and transcribed Tamachek poetry into French. That’s the kind of thing that needs to be unearthed by scholars to trace this hidden history.