Reviews — From the November 2013 issue

Winds of Revolt

The poetry of Middle Eastern uprising

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Morocco won its independence from France in 1956, in a struggle commonly known as the Revolution of the King and the People. The name suggests some of the claustrophobic intimacy of Moroccan political life, in which the palace sucks up most of the available air. The newly sovereign king, Mohammed V, was a popular ruler, but no Moroccan monarch has governed without serious and sometimes violent opposition.

Two years after independence a rebellion broke out among the Berbers of the northern Rif Mountains. Mohammed sent in the Royal Army under the command of his son, Crown Prince Hassan, and troops killed thousands of Riffians, poisoning relations between the new government and its rural subjects for decades. When Hassan became king, in 1961, he confronted a growing leftist movement of students and labor unions. His regime responded with a campaign of detentions, torture, and disappearances, the beginnings of a dirty war that Moroccans call zaman al-rasas, “the years of lead.” In 1965, police killed dozens of student protesters in Casablanca; later that year, Mehdi Ben Barka, leader of the left’s largest political party, was arrested by French security officials in Paris and never seen again. Royal involvement has not been proved, though it is widely suspected.

Cover and interior page, with illustrations by Mohammed Bennani, of the second issue of Souffles. From the Bibliothèque Nationale Royaume du Maroc

Cover and interior page, with illustrations by Mohammed Bennani, of the second issue of Souffles. From the Bibliothèque Nationale Royaume du Maroc

Rural uprisings, student protests, political assassinations — such were the provocations behind Laâbi’s decision in 1966 to launch Souffles (French for “breaths”), a magazine that in its six-year existence became legendary throughout the Middle East. Several of Morocco’s best-known modern writers, such as the novelists Tahar Ben Jelloun and Abdelkébir Khatibi, were early contributors to the magazine, which ran mostly poetry and cultural criticism. The poems Laâbi wrote during this period were later collected in Le règne de barbarie, now translated by André Naffis-Sahely as The Rule of Barbarism. Laâbi was twenty-four years old when he founded Souffles; these poems are his earliest published works.

Laâbi did not grow up around books. His father was a basket weaver in Fez’s old souk, and his mother never went to school. After primary education in local French schools, Laâbi went to university in Rabat, where he read Brecht and Arrabal and attended a lecture by the French poet Pierre Emmanuel, “Le souffle et la parole” (“The Breath and the Word”), about torture in Algeria. “One of the reasons I started to write was for the men and women who are not able to express themselves,” Laâbi told the Parisian literary journal Double Change in 2001, “to allow them to speak, to have something to say.” His first works crackle with the excitement of a voice breaking into speech for the first time. The poems are for the most part long, ranging from five to twenty-three pages, and written in a mood of feverish lyricism. Posturing (“Here I am / right here / held in velvet night / bristling with wasps”) and menacing addresses to the reader (“Who told you I wasn’t a cannibal?”) alternate with obscure and violent imagery (“Flocks of nocturnal suns / distress like a nosediving plane / the fire advances / on the dykes”).

Laâbi’s poems are inseparable from the magazine in which he published them. The mission of Souffles was what Frantz Fanon, the Martinican-born spokesman for the Algerian revolution, called “cultural decolonization.” For Laâbi and his collaborators, Morocco had won political independence from France without also winning its cultural independence. Colonial ways of thinking, with their racial categories, historical schemas, and hierarchy of literary forms, still held sway in the Morocco of the 1960s, as they did elsewhere in North Africa. What Souffles aimed at was the creation of a new culture, one that would tear itself free of the recent colonial past and plant itself in the deeper soil of Morocco’s Arab and Berber history.

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is poetry editor of The Paris Review and teaches comparative literature at Brown University. His last article for Harper’s Magazine, “Undelivered,” appeared in the February 2011 issue.

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