Who is Poet-Translator Mbarek Sryfi?

8 August, 2022
Mer­zouga, Moroc­co ( cour­tesy Louise Drouin).

 

Jordan Elgrably

 

The ques­tion seems to answer itself, but does it? Are we what we do? And if so, how did a Moroc­can who grew up near the Sahara become an Ara­bic-lan­guage pro­fes­sor at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Penn­syl­va­nia, with more than a dozen books in Eng­lish to his credit?

In his lat­est col­lec­tion of poems, Chas­ing a Mov­ing Land­scape (Laven­der Ink, 2022), Mbarek Sry­fi wax­es at length on his jour­ney, which has not been with­out pain. In “At Home” he writes:

Through the drapes
I con­tem­plate the snowflakes falling
Dance as they catch the light
Pro­vid­ing me relief

In the moment,
Lost for words,
I mar­vel at the sight
Lin­ger­ing on the mem­o­ry of all I have lost.

Mbarek Sry­fi’s Chas­ing a Mov­ing Land­scape is pub­lished by Laven­der Ink.

The poet, mar­ried with a daugh­ter and son (twins), has become an Amer­i­can, but Moroc­co is in his soul. “How qui­et my world is,” he goes on in “At Home.” “One must sub­due exile or oth­er­wise by sti­fled by it.”

But in his Amer­i­can exile, Sry­fi has been any­thing but sti­fled. He has trans­lat­ed into Eng­lish (with Eric Sell­in) one of Morocco’s great­est nov­el­ists and thinkers, Abdelfat­to Kil­i­to, in Arabs and the Art of Sto­ry­telling: A Strange Famil­iar­i­ty (Syra­cuse Uni­ver­si­ty Press, 2014). He has brought into Eng­lish from Dar­i­ja the pro­lif­ic Moroc­can poet Has­san Naj­mi, in The Blue­ness of the Evening (Uni­ver­si­ty of Arkansas Press, 2018). And he has intro­duced to Eng­lish-lan­guage read­ers the poet­ry of Aicha Bass­ry, in With Urgency, A Selec­tion of Poems (Diál­o­gos, 2021). In her epony­mous poem “With Urgency,” Bass­ry could be describ­ing the life of Mbarek Syri­fi himself:

No one has desired me
With such urgency as has death. 
I have lived many lives in my metaphors. 
That is how I extend­ed life 
And forged a small eter­ni­ty for myself.

Through­out the poems in With Urgency, Bass­ry — a fem­i­nist and a pro­lif­ic poet and nov­el­ist — pon­ders life with sor­row, mor­bid­i­ty and pes­simism, because death is her sub­ject, and yet Mbarek Sry­fi, her trans­la­tor and cham­pi­on, cel­e­brates her work, as if Bass­ry is an exem­plar not of the phi­los­o­phy that life is about dying and death, but about exis­tence as an in-between state. We exist between life and death all along, and poet­ry reminds us both of our mor­tal­i­ty and our vitality.

In “That Which Suits Death,” Bass­ry reveals:

A part of me had died.
And what remains has not yet understood
The mean­ing of life…
Did my father not realize
—When he named me Aicha—
That we do not live, 
But spend life yearning,
Seek­ing a place to die?

At a glance, Bassry’s poem seems bleak, but in between death and life is where she finds sus­te­nance, as does Mbarek Sry­fi as he glides between Ara­bic, French and Eng­lish. With­out a doubt, Sry­fi found sus­te­nance in trans­lat­ing Bassry’s “Oath of Love”:

I promise you and swear on it that:
If you were the beat, I would be the heart.
If you were the teardrop,
I would be the eyes.
If you were the pain,
I would be the body.
Even if you were a death
I would be the tomb…

I can tru­ly swear to you a now,
And not promise you a tomorrow.

 


 

City Poems from Mbarek Sry­fi was pub­lished by L’Har­mat­tan.

Again, who is Mbarek Syr­fi? In the pref­ace to City Poems (L’Harmattan, 2020), his friend and co-trans­la­tor, the late Eric Sell­in, described him as “a translin­gual poet,” raised “in a region where diglos­sia and het­eroglos­sia had already pre­vailed due to such his­tor­i­cal events as colo­nial­ism, trade-route con­tact, dias­poric flight, and cat­a­stroph­ic nat­ur­al or man-made disasters.”

Sell­in point­ed out that Mbarek Sryfi’s poems are com­posed “in a direct and unpre­ten­tious style” with “an egal­i­tar­i­an out­look and a con­cise, ful­ly com­mit­ted limn­ing of char­ac­ters, land­scapes, and var­i­ous objec­tive cor­rel­a­tives or relics of the human con­di­tion.” Yet, often the char­ac­ter Sry­fi returns to is him­self — the Moroc­can, the Saha­ran, the Amer­i­can, the Penn­syl­van­ian, the hus­band and father. In “The Stranger Under the Cold Sky” he writes:

A qui­et morning
Windless
You could hear the snowflakes falling
On the trees
Snow white
Cov­er­ing the land

In the cold
He was not the per­son he used to be
He nev­er knew how to behave at the moment of departure
He nev­er thought about exile
Let alone the con­cept of exile

He drew his strength from his suffering

Mbarek Sry­fi is lec­tur­er and coor­di­na­tor of the Ara­bic Pro­gram at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Penn­syl­va­nia, schol­ar, poet, and trans­la­tor. He holds a MA in edu­ca­tion, a BA in Eng­lish lan­guage and lit­er­a­ture, and a PhD in Ara­bic lit­er­a­ture and Islam­ic stud­ies, UPenn. Sryfi’s research focus­es on mod­ern Ara­bic lit­er­a­ture, space and mem­o­ry, and migrant lit­er­a­ture. His works have appeared in CELAAN Review, Meta­mor­phoses, World Lit­er­a­ture Today, Ban­i­pal, The Markaz Review, Trans­la­tion Review, Mid­dle East­ern Lit­er­a­tures, the Jour­nal of North African Stud­ies, and Al-‘Arabiyya, as well as The Jour­nal of the Amer­i­can Asso­ci­a­tion of Teach­ers of Ara­bic, and the antholo­gies Poet­ry Ink, Poet­ry & Resis­tance, and Philadel­phia Says: Strug­gle for Free­dom.

To return to Sellin’s pref­ace for a moment, we learn some­thing more about Sry­fi, who for years now, “has been explor­ing and map­ping the phys­i­cal and emo­tion­al high­ways and byways of glob­al migra­to­ry and dias­poric psy­cholin­guis­tics in nuanced con­fes­sion­al poems, whose can­did obser­va­tions man­age to weave togeth­er the mem­o­ries and impres­sions of Sryfi’s two main for­ma­tive cul­tures into one coher­ent exis­ten­tial tapestry.”

In sev­er­al of his poems, Mbarek Sry­fi laments the loss of some­thing, per­haps a deser­tic North African land­scape, a com­mu­ni­ty of fam­i­ly and friends who are Dar­i­ja or Tamazight speak­ers, or a past that bot­tles mem­o­ries that are vast­ly dif­fer­ent from the mem­o­ries pro­duced dur­ing his decades in North Amer­i­ca. And, at the same time, per Sell­in, Sry­fi lives “the excite­ment of hav­ing the oppor­tu­ni­ty to re-invent oneself.”

We might well won­der how Mbarek Sry­fi eased into writ­ing in Eng­lish. Did he go from clas­si­cal Ara­bic to Dar­i­ja, and then French, then Eng­lish? What was his lin­guis­tic jour­ney, and how does he now feel, as an Amer­i­can-Moroc­can and Eng­lish lan­guage writer?

I wrote to Sry­fi, and wait­ed patient­ly for a reply, which came weeks later:

“When I received your ques­tion about my rela­tion­ship with the Eng­lish lan­guage, I was in the process of prepar­ing a tes­ti­mo­ny about Jack Ker­ouac, which raised more or less the same questions.

“Grow­ing up in Moroc­co, I spent most of my time feast­ing on Ara­bic, French, and lat­er Eng­lish books. As a teenag­er, I was a book­worm look­ing for books at the school libraries and/or at neigh­bor­hood book­stores (small shops where ded­i­cat­ed peo­ple would buy used books and rent them to stu­dents for pen­nies), brows­ing over them, col­lect­ing them, and more often than not trad­ing them with friends.

“Such a lin­guis­tic jour­ney left a long-last­ing impact on my intel­lec­tu­al life. Read­ing in Ara­bic and French, and lat­er in Eng­lish, rede­fined my aware­ness of my own place in the world. In addi­tion to Alf Lay­la wa-Lay­la (A Thou­sand and One Nights), Ibn Khaldun’s al-Muqad­dimah, Taha Husayn, al-Man­fa­lu­ti, Jules Verne’s Le tour du monde en 80 jours, Tolstoy’s Guerre et Paix, Dostoevsky’s Crime et châ­ti­ment, Emile Zola’s Ger­mi­nal et L’assomoir, just to name a few, I hap­pened to encounter Jack Kerouac’s On the Road, which set my future and the Amer­i­can dream began for me.

Mbarek Sry­fi trans­lat­ed Yemeni nov­el­ist Ali Al-Muqri’s prize-win­ning nov­el The Hand­some Jew into Eng­lish in 2022.

“Borges has said in an inter­view, ‘I think of read­ing a book as no less an expe­ri­ence than trav­el­ling or falling in love.’ As a teenag­er, my per­spec­tive on life changed and I felt that I was a cit­i­zen of a greater world. The result was that it inspired con­fi­dence in me, and I embarked on an end­less jour­ney of read­ing in Eng­lish that shift­ed my ear­ly aca­d­e­m­ic inter­ests. After high school, I enrolled in the Depart­ment of Eng­lish at the Uni­ver­si­ty of Sidi Mohammed ben Abdel­lah in Fez, and that fur­ther revealed Eng­lish lit­er­a­ture to the young stu­dent I was. I nev­er expect­ed that after earn­ing a BA in Eng­lish Lan­guage and Lit­er­a­ture that I would teach Eng­lish and lat­er in 2001 move to the Unit­ed States, nor did I fore­see (aspir­ing to) becom­ing an Amer­i­can-Moroc­can and Eng­lish lan­guage author.”

Thus, as a translin­gual poet and trans­la­tor, Mbarek Sry­fi is a diplo­mat of lan­guage, a builder of lin­guis­tic and lit­er­ary bridges, a friend to Moroc­cans and Amer­i­cans*, a go-between when it comes to Arab-West­ern rela­tions — see his lat­est trans­la­tion, The Hand­some Jew, by Yemeni nov­el­ist Ali Al-Muqri (Dar Arab, 2022) — and a friend to many of his own com­pa­tri­ots, among them, of course, Aicha Bass­ry, Abdelfat­to Kil­i­to and Has­san Naj­mi, but also the essen­tial Moroc­can sto­ry­teller, Muham­mad Zafzaf and many oth­ers he has cham­pi­oned since he jour­neyed to the Unit­ed States and became a new citizen.

Exile, as the prime in-between state, has its rewards.

“On the Road” by Mbarek Sryfi

Like a tor­ment­ed soul, like a leaf in the wind,

I am restless
Like a fraught heart. I am on edge
Like the throb­bing of new words — as they
Stroke the page — as they
Breathe the air of so many places — as they
Impart a new life — as they
Become a journey
Into the blue sky, the hori­zon, the clear nights
Where the stars — like a lone­ly lighthouse —
Will you to scour the self.
I remind myself of how I longed to take a flight —
Like a warbler —
To flit about in the clouds,
To belie my unqui­et spirit
I am restless

Like a sprout seed
In the sough­ing wind
From which shall grow a penstemon

I will always be solitary,
But free.

 

* The King­dom of Moroc­co was the first coun­try in the world to rec­og­nize the new Unit­ed States, on Decem­ber 20, 1777.

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