Poetic Justice: 70+ Contemporary Poets of Morocco

31 January, 2022
“Art Will Save Us,” 240 x 305 cm, oil on can­vas, 2017, from the “Mnemosyne” series by Moroc­can artist Zakaria Ramhani (cour­tesy of the artist).

Poet­ic Jus­tice: An Anthol­o­gy of Con­tem­po­rary Moroc­can Poetry
Edit­ed and Trans­lat­ed by Deb­o­rah Kapchan with Driss Marjane
Uni­ver­si­ty of Texas Press (2019)
ISBN  9781477318492


El Habib Louai

Poet­ry has long been my first love, and read­ing and writ­ing poet­ry has been a most favor­able pre­oc­cu­pa­tion dur­ing this pro­longed pan­dem­ic. I find it soothes one’s trou­bled spir­its and pro­vides sus­te­nance, par­tic­u­lar­ly in inse­cure times.

Poet­ic Jus­tice is the most exten­sive col­lec­tion of con­tem­po­rary Moroc­can poets in translation.

Deb­o­rah Kapchan’s anthol­o­gy of con­tem­po­rary Moroc­can poet­ry, fea­tur­ing more than 70 poets, has indeed been a sooth­ing balm for me and for my lim­it­ed cir­cle of pro­fes­sion­al teach­ers, and I assume for any com­mit­ted admir­ers of poet­ry and arts, dur­ing the sub­se­quent months of the pan­dem­ic when every­body here in Moroc­co has been con­fined at home, wait­ing for the events of a life-chang­ing calami­ty to unfold. It was near impos­si­ble to receive books in Moroc­co through the mail dur­ing the first months of the pan­dem­ic and every­thing seemed chaot­ic and unpre­dictable, but at least there was a pos­si­bil­i­ty to read online and exchange one’s trans­la­tions and lat­est writ­ings through the vir­tu­al world — tech­nol­o­gy turns out to be not such a bad thing after all and it cer­tain­ly brings us togeth­er, albeit at a dis­tance, when the habi­tus of the exter­nal world become threatening.

Poet­ic Jus­tice has tried to do jus­tice to all the var­i­ous schools and modes of Moroc­can poet­ry through a rep­re­sen­ta­tive body of work that under­scores the dif­fer­ent sen­si­bil­i­ties char­ac­ter­is­tic of the Moroc­can poet­ry scene across his­tor­i­cal peri­ods. I empha­size the fact that this anthol­o­gy “has tried” since there is always room for unheard or irre­triev­able voic­es that might have been over­looked inad­ver­tent­ly. Kapchan does acknowl­edge in the intro­duc­tion that, “with a few excep­tions, the younger gen­er­a­tion of poets is not includ­ed in this vol­ume,and notes that her inten­tion was to con­cen­trate prin­ci­pal­ly on Moroc­can poets who felt more at ease express­ing them­selves and shar­ing their views and onto­log­i­cal expe­ri­ences of the land, its peo­ple, cul­ture and his­to­ry in Tamazight, Ara­bic or French.

Undoubt­ed­ly, the most dis­tinc­tive fea­ture of Poet­ic Jus­tice lies in its appre­ci­a­tion, appraisal and cel­e­bra­tion of the oral tra­di­tion and indige­nous poet­ic sen­si­bil­i­ties of Moroc­can Amazigh poets and Moroc­can Zajal rhap­sodists. Ahmed Lem­syeh, a Zajal poet him­self, paid his dues for his valu­able assis­tance in track­ing down Amazigh poems at The Roy­al Insti­tute for Amazigh Cul­ture in Rabat and for hav­ing put Kapchan in touch with many oth­er poets who might have been over­looked or effaced from Mohammed Bennis’s canon­i­cal “short list.” This hum­ble­ness expressed by Lem­syeh illus­trates a revival in the all-embrac­ing spir­it of an authen­tic artist who believes in cul­tur­al diver­si­ty on mutu­al grounds.

Kapchan appre­ci­ates and stress­es the impor­tance of orality/aurality as dis­tinc­tive modes of expres­sion that per­me­ate our Moroc­can poet­ic spec­trum, by dwelling on some instances of Zajal (poet­ry in Moroc­can Ara­bic, or Dar­i­ja). Ahmed Lem­syeh is rep­re­sen­ta­tive of this move­ment and his poems are quite sar­cas­tic in their cri­tique of greed, banal shal­low­ness and mali­cious behav­ior, brought about by a cap­i­tal­is­tic meta­mor­pho­sis wit­nessed by a soci­ety that has recent­ly start­ed to move away from an agrar­i­an stan­dard of liv­ing. With a cer­tain kind of angst and malaise, he address­es his readers:

Give me your attention
And lis­ten care­ful­ly to my words
I want to lis­ten to my bones
I ate too much guinea fowl and now I’m sick
I want to rec­on­cile with my days
I want a cave where I can sequester myself
I’m sick of crowds
I want to be a let­ter and its envelope
A burn­ing coal that’s wrapped in darkness
There are things hid­ing in my head
Entan­gle­ments that won’t be resolved except by death
Life is a flower with a worm

Like the ill-tem­pered and sar­cas­tic per­sonas of Lem­syeh, Driss Amghar Mes­naoui points to this impov­er­ish­ment of the soul and scan­dalous absur­di­ty that enshrouds Man’s life on a plan­et that is con­stant­ly dis­mem­bered by man-made mate­ri­al­is­tic desires and needs. Almost like a des­ti­tute per­son who finds him­self in a hos­tile envi­ron­ment, the poet strug­gles to dis­en­tan­gle him­self from a deplorable real­i­ty only to fall prey to alien­ation result­ing from the indif­fer­ence of those on whose behalf he speaks. Mes­naoui articulates:

From the white hell
I gath­ered the splin­ters of life
I dis­cov­ered my time is the time of myself
Some­times it makes me remem­ber my duties
Some­times it makes me forget.
The new world is based on
“Don’t do as I do
Do as I say”
See the needy get­ting more impoverished
and the rich get­ting even richer.
Will I, after this old disaster,
seek more riches?

A num­ber of poems in the anthol­o­gy pon­der the polit­i­cal lega­cy of Moroc­can his­to­ry, espe­cial­ly those peri­ods of upheaval and con­fu­sion engraved on the col­lec­tive mem­o­ry and hearts of the peo­ple as “The Years of Lead.” Artists, polit­i­cal dis­si­dents and democ­ra­cy activists were impris­oned and sub­ject­ed to tor­ture in hid­den dun­geons, sim­ply because they held a dif­fer­ent view from what was wide­ly rec­og­nized as the sta­tus quo. Abdel­lah Rajie deplores most loud­ly the mis­ery of his time and the con­di­tion of his oppressed peo­ple in the post-inde­pen­dence era, in a metaphor­i­cal lan­guage that risks demar­cat­ing him as a delu­sion­al nihilist instead of a wit­ness to an era that yearned for eman­ci­pa­tion. Rajie’s flame burned silent­ly in his inte­ri­or­i­ty, in every line he inscribed, aspir­ing for a home­land where love reigns har­mo­nious­ly and simul­ta­ne­ous­ly with freedom:

For you oh home­land oppres­sion is drawn on the walls of the heart
Here I am leav­ing the shad­ow of my sweet­heart and the eyes of my sweetheart
to fol­low your shadow
Here I am chang­ing you into a suit­case of love oh homeland

Mostafa Houmir bemoans the death of one of his inti­mate com­rades in his ele­gy “The Wall” with­out hold­ing any grudge towards the oppressor:

I implore the Almighty
To pardon
My torturers
And all the mon­sters of the earth.

Sim­i­lar­ly, Salah El Ouadie, a polit­i­cal pris­on­er who suf­fered under the cru­el machin­ery of a despot­ic polit­i­cal sys­tem, con­tem­plates in “Taz­ma­mart” the ordeal of incar­cer­a­tion and entreats the ruler to have mer­cy on his subjects:

How many tears were shed there?
How many shud­ders did your hands know?
How many painful sighs rose to the high­est sky
falling down to the ground to overwhelm
my ears wet with moaning?
who will rule over people
an instant of affection
for your heart

Issues of gen­der and sex­u­al­i­ty are also pre­sent­ed in a man­ner that reflects the con­tro­ver­sial polemic about women’s agency, their rights as free sub­jec­tiv­i­ties as well as their roles in a new socioe­co­nom­ic con­di­tion seg­ment­ed by neolib­er­al val­ues and tech­no­log­i­cal com­mod­i­fi­ca­tion. Rita El Khay­at, for instance, dwells on the issues of forced mar­riage and sex­u­al abuse to which women are sub­ject­ed in con­ju­gal rela­tion­ships, estab­lished usu­al­ly under the patron­age of a father­ly fig­ure. In her poem “The Raped Flower,” El Khay­at describes the phys­i­cal and emo­tion­al dam­age that Ami­na under­goes because of archa­ic legal inequal­i­ty. She laments:

The judge mar­ried you
to the man who raped you
Your sex ripped apart like a crushed flower
bled yet again
The judge, Ami­na, here in these parts
is an eager and per­verse coward
bribery a manure in his stomach

In Mohamed Achaari’s poem “A Stone Tale,” the woman is por­trayed as an insur­gent indi­vid­ual that tran­scends the lim­its of the patri­ar­chal rep­re­sen­ta­tions of her as a docile angel to become a rebel­lious agent aware of dis­par­i­ties per­me­at­ing dys­func­tion­al mat­ri­mo­ni­al rela­tion­ships. Achaari’s per­sona rumi­nates on the pos­si­bil­i­ties of return to a woman’s authen­tic self as a belat­ed per­former in the nar­ra­tive of unre­quit­ed love:

She wants noth­ing the way it is
She wants to leave him
A tra­di­tion­al tale indeed …
But what­ev­er the woman does
she will not leave her husband
It is too late
the two men have aged
And love is no longer a man
but a story
Noth­ing in it is clear but a woman
If she could find it with­in herself
she would escape the tale
release her life to the wind

Sim­i­lar­ly, Meh­di Akhrif appears to val­ue in a cel­e­bra­to­ry man­ner a pro­to­type of woman who is not depict­ed as a cheer­ful con­stituent that embell­ish­es the male’s envi­rons, but rather as an intel­lec­tu­al­ly fierce agent with an indis­pens­able part to the play in the onto­log­i­cal expe­ri­ence as such. Akhrif is in quest for women who:

gath­er kin­dling from the ash­es of
And women
ignit­ing with agony
on the mir­rors of words.
I have women who safe­guard my despair.
They are the orphan’s flowers.

Mohamed Bennis’s Andalu­sian “Oth­er Self” in a Jun­gian sense, with all its unac­knowl­edged pro­cliv­i­ties and desires, owes a great deal of grat­i­tude to the women of his coun­try for their nobil­i­ty, care and intel­li­gence. He invokes a cat­e­go­ry of women dif­fer­ent from the ones who are stereo­typ­i­cal­ly por­trayed as igno­rant, idle and instinc­tive beings with a propen­si­ty for con­spir­a­cy and intrigues. Ben­nis express­es this sense of recog­ni­tion in the fol­low­ing verses:

I am the one raised on women’s laps
and between their fes­tive hands
They were the ones who taught me poet­ry, script
and the Qur’an
From their secrets I learned what others
hard­ly knew

In this per­pet­u­al quest for the gen­uine mean­ing of love and affec­tion, both the female and the male find them­selves in awk­ward sit­u­a­tions anal­o­gous to con­trived chival­ric the­atri­cal scenes in post­mod­ern times. The beloved and the lover play their assumed roles in spaces such as parks, air­ports or Café de l’Opera, where Taha Adnan’s per­sona, due to dis­crim­i­na­tion against immi­grants, looked like “a spot of oil/ On a white shirt,” a set­ting where he is scru­ti­nized by “a Flem­ish woman dis­guised as baroness in a clas­sic film” while “clutch­ing her hand­bag between her arms.”

Issues of gen­der and sex­u­al­i­ty are pro­pound­ed in rela­tion to exiles and émi­grés, as in Yassin Adnan who responds with a poem that antic­i­pates, in apoc­a­lyp­tic epi­thets, the after­math of oppressed peo­ple as they approach the 2000s. Yassin invokes more con­scious­ly the con­di­tion of immi­grants gazed at sus­pi­cious­ly in pub­lic spaces, those dri­ven out of their coun­tries due to eth­nic and reli­gious con­flicts. Yassin draws his read­ers’ atten­tion to the ordeal of these oppressed minori­ties when he affirms:

I didn’t come here by chance
I crossed seas and deserts
I saw corpses hang­ing down
from wire cables in aban­doned towns
I passed Yazi­di Kurds
with the pic­ture of the devil
on the walls of their shrine in northern
who sud­den­ly start­ed recit­ing their
sacred legend
to naked grandchildren

Indige­nous people’s cul­ture, tra­di­tions, rights and pre­rog­a­tives are also explored in poems by Amazigh writ­ers such as Ali Sed­ki Aza­yk­ou, one of the first Amazigh poets to turn to the pol­i­tics of lan­guage and cul­tur­al iden­ti­ty. In his poem “Words,” which I would rather trans­late as “Lan­guage,” Aza­yk­ou insists on iden­ti­fy­ing and glo­ri­fy­ing Tamazight as a space for self-enun­ci­a­tion to ward off lin­guis­tic dis­crim­i­na­tion and cul­tur­al amnesia:

Amazigh is my verb.
no one under­stands it
bear­er of so much meaning
who can dance on it?
alone I hold fast to it
my verb suspended
like a rope around my neck
my lan­guage still alive
con­tin­ues to speak
in the mid­dle of the deaf; it is not tired
the thirsty word must
quench our thirst

There is also Khadi­ja Arouhal who turns to nat­ur­al com­po­nents like the flower, as an emblem of the sub­lime and vir­tu­ous wor­thi­ness, to guide her through dark dun­geons and save her from the lies of a mis­er­able and cor­rupt world. She is weary of unre­al­is­tic polit­i­cal bal­ly­hoo that mere­ly tick­les naïve sim­ple­tons and she seems to find a solace in sup­pli­cat­ing Amazigh myth­i­cal fig­ures like ‘Ounamir’ and ‘Tanirt’ to redeem her from a land where jus­tice is not only blind, but also devoid of com­mon sense:

Oh horse of Ounamir
because the foot gets weary
the way is endless
the heel bruised
the gravel
has no mercy!
Lift me up!
Raise me!
Will I find Tanirt
wait­ing for me?
Will I find
peace among the stars
and a path with­out thorns?
Will I find a land where rights
I would like to for­get you oh earth.
I would like to for­get myself

Ali Chouhad, who is equal­ly an engaged Amazigh singer and a lyri­cist with a sen­si­tive dis­po­si­tion, embraces poet­ry or the spo­ken word as an ele­men­tary prac­tice that endows him with a sense of orig­i­nal­i­ty and eth­i­cal basis against wicked­ness, injus­tice and vices of the mun­dane world. Chouhad would rather resort to poet­ry as a sub­lime and lib­er­at­ing artis­tic form than sur­ren­der to the banal­i­ty and igno­rance. Poet­ry, in his view, coa­lesces both plea­sure and dif­fi­cult labor as it strug­gles to come into being. He con­fess­es, “Vers­es do no harm to gar­ner blame/ they make no one a gain­ful income.” Poet­ry does not seek to retal­i­ate or accu­mu­late boun­ties at the expense of oth­er people’s hon­or, dig­ni­ty and right to dif­fer­ence. It is a rai­son d’etre, a foun­tain that does not dry up nor die. His last out­cry dep­re­cates the herd’s per­sis­tent indul­gence in self-destruc­tion and pur­suit of igno­ble caus­es that dis­perse its efforts. Chouhad laments:

Oh poet­ry!

How much time do I need to warn
the herd that rush­es to the summit
I have no more wor­ries, I no longer expect the worst
Let them fall into the abyss with­out any rescue

Poet­ic Jus­tice cap­tures the urgency of the sit­u­a­tion by blend­ing some of the rep­re­sen­ta­tive poet­ic voic­es of the past with new sen­si­bil­i­ties embraced by con­tem­po­rary Moroc­can poets who expe­ri­enced the con­flicts of the “Arab Spring,” the War on Ter­ror and immi­gra­tion crises. It has equal­ly includ­ed oth­er voic­es that par­tic­i­pat­ed in the aes­thet­ic expe­ri­ence as such with­out nec­es­sar­i­ly belong­ing or enmesh­ing them­selves in iden­ti­ty pol­i­tics. By doing so, this anthol­o­gy under­scores the per­pet­u­al virtues that the poet­ic brings to a frag­ment­ed human real­i­ty. Implic­it­ly, it reit­er­ates that Hegelian clas­si­cal for­mu­la which pro­pounds that, “poet­ry has always been and is still the most uni­ver­sal and wide­spread teacher of the human race” (Hegel’s Aes­thet­ics, Vol. 2, 972; Hegel, Werke, Vol. 15, 239–40).


AmazighDarijaMoroccan poetryTazmamartYears of LeadZajal

El Habib Louai is a Moroccan Amazigh poet, translator and musician, currently working as an assistant professor of English at Ibn Zohr University, Agadir, Morocco. He holds a doctorate in English studies with a focus on the cultural encounter between the Beats and Tangier's writers. He took creative writing courses at Jack Kerouac School of Disembodied Poetics at Naropa University, Boulder, Colorado where he performed with Anne Waldman and Thurston Moore. His articles, poems and Arabic translations of Beat Poets such as Michael McClure, Allen Ginsberg, Jack Kerouac, Diane di Prima, Anne Waldman, William S Burroughs, Bob Kaufman, Joanne Kyger, Amiri Baraka, Neeli Cherkovski, Michael Rothenberg and many others have appeared in international literary publications including Big Bridge Magazine, Berfrois, Charles River Journal, Militant Thistles, The Fifth Estate, Al Quds Al Arabi, Arrafid, Al Doha, Al Faisal, Lumina, The Poet’s Haven, The MUD Proposal, the Dreaming Machine, Sagarana and Istanbul Literary Review.


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