Pierre Joris & Habib Tengour: From the 'Diwan Ifrikiya' (forthcoming), a preview & selection

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.)





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 fora gathering, a collection or anthologyof poems, diwan, with one of the earliest names of (at least part of) the region covered, Ifrikiya, which is an Arabization of the Latin wordAfrica” — & 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 wordifriis 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 Moroccoas well as the desert space of the Sahara & Mauritania, to the great deserts 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, subtitledA Book of Inbetween,starts with an early anonymous Muwashshahathat 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:




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 processescf. first poem aboveor 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 Yahiawhich 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!