Abellatif Laâbi’s native language is Arabic, but he was educated in French, the language of the colonial power in Morroco. Laâbi only learned to read and write Arabic in his thirties, when he was being held as a prisoner of conscience by the Morrocan regime; his powerful and moving prison correspondence, mainly addressed to his wife and children, is written in French (and published as “Chroniques de la citadelle d’exil”). In a recent interview,when asked why he continued to write in French, Laâbi answered “... the language in which a writer writes is either his mother tongue or the language that was imposed on him at some point because history wanted it.” In the same interview, referring to his autobiographical novel, “Au fond de la jarre” (The Bottom of the Jar) he says “One of the concerns of ‘The Bottom of the Jar’ is a linguistic concern. In that book I tried to perfectly map the French language onto the Arabic language.” So we have a writer who is acutely aware of different linguistic registers, and consequently capable of using a wide variety of tones. Laâbi’s style ranges from the grand sweep of his surrealist-inspired narrative poems, which sometimes parody scriptural language, to the witty and epigrammatic tone of “Little Things”. This latter style has been under-represented in English, and this is why I chose to translate this sequence, which is published here in English for the first time. “Little Things” (Les Petites Choses) was the fourth section of Laâbi’s collection “Le Soleil se Meurt” published in 1992. The rest of that collection was included, in English translation, in “The World’s Embrace”, published by City Lights Books, which was the first extensive selection of Laâbi’s work in English. “Little Things” employs an epigrammatic and gnomic tone, and its references to Sufism imply that it is both a homage to and a parody of that aspect of Islamic thought, with its elements of mysticism, tolerance and compassion (in a similar manner, Laâbi’s long poem “Fragments of a Forgotten Genesis” references the tone of the Koran and the Christian Old Testament). But there is also a modernist and existential aspect to “Little Things”, and the tension between this and the Islamic elements is one of the strengths of the sequence.
1. Interview with Abdellatif Laâbi by Christopher Schaefer — Published June 11, 2013 in “The Quarterly Conversation”.