Monday, January 13, 2014

They've opened a gulag for words

They've opened a new gulag. The gulag for words.

I go there every week, taking with me a shopping bag containing some fresh fruit, a bar of soap and a couple of tins of condensed milk. I call to a prisoner at random, then wait in the visitors' room with the gesturing crowd. The words file one by one out of a little door and stand in front of us on the other side of the wire. Pale. Trembling. Haggard. Shattered.

Talk! barks the guard as he patrols the corridor that divides us, banging the grill with his keys.

No one responds. Not the words, because their jaws are visibly broken. Nor the visitors because, as they suddenly realise - they really should have understood this earlier - the gulag has taken away their best words.

Visit's over, the guard shouts, drawing a curtain we hadn't noticed before.

Some barely audible words burst out, from which side of the grill no one could tell. Probably words of goodbye.
That poem titled The Gulag for Words is by Abdellatif Laâbi and the photo, which was taken by me in Morocco, first appeared in a 2010 post titled I am in an even larger prison. Born in Fez, Morocco, Abdellatif Laâbi founded the acclaimed literary and political periodical Souffles in 1966. He was imprisoned in 1972 by the repressive regime of Moroccan King Hassan II for "crimes of opinion" (yes, there is such a crime) and was tortured during his eight years in prison. Following his release Abdellatif Laâbi left Morocco and has since lived in France where he has received a number of awards. On a new CD titled L'Oeil du Coeur (Eye of the Heart) Abdellatif Laâbi recites his poetry with accompaniment from fellow Morrocans oud virtuoso Driss El Maloumi and vocalist Naziha Meftah. The CD comes from the enterprising Institut du Monde Arabe label, who really should have picked up the minor but irritating editing error at 3.16" on track 22. The poetry is in French and Arabic and there are no English translations, but don't let that deter you as Abdellatif Laâbi recites his poetry as lyrically as Driss El Maloumi plays the oud. World music is currently going through a bad patch with too many releases stuck in the ECM pioneered world music meets easy listening rut. So it is good to be able to recommend L'Oeil du Coeur as a brave excursion outside prevailing world music comfort zones.

Translation of The Word Gulag is by André Naffis-Sahely and comes via the Poetry Translation Centre where more of Abdellatif Laâbi's poems can be read. Note that I have presumptuously amended the title and made three other minor changes to the translation to, hopefully, aid comprehension; the unedited translation is available on the linked website. No freebies involved in this post. Header photo is (c) On An Overgrown Path 2014. Any other copyrighted material on these pages is included as "fair use", for the purpose of study, review or critical analysis only, and will be removed at the request of copyright owner(s). No freebies involved in this post. Also on Facebook and Twitter.

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