Translated from French by El Habib Louai. Cover artwork by Zoè Gruni.
I don’t know how I could have said that. I was invited to talk about “how to save the space of this plenitude”. As usual, I jotted down some notes on a piece of paper and headed for a room full of different people. They were eager to hear my opinion on the subject, and as I made my way to the podium, I shivered as I held the small piece of paper between my fingers. Someone introduced me and then left me to endure my solitude in front of these people that I didn’t know. I glanced at the first point I wanted to start with, but when I tried to speak, my mouth froze and I began to stammer out words I didn’t know. I don’t know how I managed to express myself like that. Even my voice sounded strange. It sounded like someone else’s voice. I tried in vain to stop it. I’d been talking about a kind of “process” I’d called “rotting”, and I’d said that the verb “to become” meant nothing other than “to rot”, and that anything that undergoes “becoming” rots and becomes garbage in the end. I had spoken of the rotting of the apple, which lasts a certain time, and of bread, which goes mouldy. And I had also said that truth rots if it remains as truth for a certain time, and that we are obliged to change it, and that there are also dustbins for truths that have been used for too long. Even time rots to make way for another time. That time is just this accumulation of successive rottenness. Even me, who sits here now; my words will in turn rot in my throat and in the ears of those who listen to me. There is no hope of escaping this terrible spiral except in the end, the end of ends. The beginning is always more pleasant because the rottenness has not yet started. It takes a while for rottenness to occur. The world will become a very big trash can in the end, if that end exists. Hope could be a fire that consumes everything. This is why I doubt that there is a heaven or a happy ending for this world. Hell will be better because its fire could “purify” this universe, that is, this gigantic trash can. Moreover, we must refuse to be trash. How could we accept this after the effort that man has made since the dawn of time? How could we accept that not even a small trace of our sense of dignity remains? How did we allow ourselves to be caught in such a trap? Then, I don’t know how, I took my little piece of paper and rushed towards the door. I didn’t want to hear the hubbub that erupted behind me in the room, nor even know how to get out.
Before, I couldn’t wait a single minute without feeling the space around me shrink; things became quite empty and lonely. It was the cold that I felt the most in those moments, but I have gotten into the habit of waiting and I no longer pay attention to the fact that I am waiting. I only feel an incredible and terrible emptiness inside me. A void that no one can fill. What surrounds me is extraordinarily full and this fullness provokes me and generates in me this emptiness to its extent. This is why I decided to only write when I am no longer expecting anyone. Nothing. That is to say when I am full, very full, while the things around me are empty. A total void.
But then, strangely, I started to feel this emptiness even in the middle of sleep. I woke up from time to time. This is how I noticed that sleep is also just a state of waiting, with disturbance and ambiguity. As this feeling continued, the problem began to develop and take on other “dimensions”. When I’m eating, I chew very slowly. I feel that I am not really filling my stomach but only this emptiness which is growing. I eat until my stomach hurts. Even in the toilet, I stay longer than usual even if I don’t need to. I’m very scared. Even in the presence of people, I feel completely absent, I feel that I am empty, and that others are very full. Then my condition got worse. I began to feel that even the trees, planted where they are, are just waiting. The utility poles. The houses in their corners. The words on paper. The books on their shelves. Everything. I decided to find a solution to an unbearable condition. Yet, I found myself waiting, waiting for this “solution” and made no effort to find it. I sit where I am, transfigured. I do nothing but wait and wait.
My Sister’s cry in Black and White
I always think of photography as a room where the dead are washed. It all started the day my brother died at seventeen, just when I was five years old. They were washing his body in a bedroom when my sister burst out accusing a man of stealing my brother’s photo that was hanging on a wall next to a wardrobe. I still remember his shoes lying next to a ladder. Since then, every time I pass one of these photographers’ “boutiques”, I stop for a moment as if I were looking for my brother’s photo that was stolen on the day he died. Long years have passed. One day, I wanted to take photos of people, but I couldn’t. It was as if their faces had weighed so heavily on my chest that I couldn’t breathe. By now, the features of my brother’s face have almost faded from my memory, but a few images still stick to my retina: that of his black shoes placed near a ladder, rivulets of water flowing beneath the door of the small room where he was washed, a tiny sewing machine in one of the corners. I always imagine these things in black and white, maybe because of the photo of my brother that was in black and white, perhaps because the color of death that faded from my memory. Then one day I found myself in the shoes of a collector, avidly cutting up everything he could get his hands on to the extent that my bedroom was flooded with magazine and newspaper clippings. One day, a friend noticed my “mania” and gave me a camera. I’ve never handled it, but I sometimes touch or open it. One day, I finally decided to use it. I didn’t take anyone’s portrait, but I did take photos of towns that had appeared in magazines, trying to place them in compositions of my own next to various objects I found around the house. To this day, I’m unable to take anyone’s picture as if I were afraid of provoking the death of my “model”. All the photos I use belong to people who are not related to me. I like to take photos of inanimate things and in particular of things with which I feel a sense of intimacy. For example, the shadows cast by peas near a jar, or the glow of a candle devouring the darkness on a wall, or a bare foot on a staircase step shaded in black. I’ve found myself attached to everything that belongs to the world of darkness and shadows because they embrace the earth. I distrust faces because they remind me of death and that they will be stolen the day they’re washed. I can still hear my sister’s scream, but whoever stole the photo of my dead brother didn’t think of stealing the ladder, the shoes or the sewing machine. He stole the photo of a dead man being washed in an almost dark room. Above all, he robbed me of the dearest thing to me: he stripped me of the portrait of every living person, condemning me to never being able to photograph anyone. But this has opened up another world to me, one that no one would dream of robbing me of: the world of things in total solitude, things that do not seek to expose themselves to our gaze. For this reason, I like to see myself as a worn ladder hanging on a wall, or as shoes that smell of indifference, or as a sewing machine that occupies a corner with softness and calm. For this reason, I refuse to be a portrait.
The Door to My Inner Self
The door that I open and close easily in my head is the big cemetery gate. I hate small doors that are only the size of man. The door that opens the sky into me is a great door through which a dozen people can enter at once. I imagine them fleeing their narrow gates to a door that leads not to houses but to an empty lot. I’ve never see a gate like the one in the cemetery with its earthen color. Before, I had never thought that it led to a field of tombs because I believed in my early childhood that I was far from death, which was reserved only for adults and especially for the “villains”. The “sweetness” of this door was one of those distributed by visitors to beggars and children who have not sinned. Everyone rushes to that door with the taste of dried figs in their mouths. I don’t know anything more delicious than these figs. I did not yet know these fruits which later filled the paradise of my imagination. That extreme happiness when I saw my grandmother swallowing these figs like those pieces of meat she loves more than anything. I couldn’t tell the difference between that fig, my grandmother’s mouth, and the cemetery gate. As she entered the cemetery, my grandmother was full of light-heartedness, more boisterous than children, belching her “terrible” tongue using the words no one else dares to utter. The others giggled. Women fled in embarrassment. Then this rose water, this myrtle, this bread that the visitors brought. But later when I attended the small Koranic school, the verses which speak of paradise were mixed in my head with this cemetery. The door that I imagined as that of paradise was the same as the door of the cemetery. At the school I attended, I dreamed that there was also this same door. I couldn’t stand a door without rose water, myrtle, dried figs and my grandmother’s laughter. And the sky that welcomes you before you see a tomb. Before I saw the first shroud, I had never been able to imagine that inside these tombs, sprinkled with rose water and covered with myrtle, lie down the dead. Even the Koran gets mixed up in my head with these things. But when I saw people crying around a dead person, the image changed and only the cemetery gate remained. My mother would go into the cemetery and let me play outside. I played in front of this door as I really play in front of the door of our house. I really liked that there were doors like this that lead to nothing, only to a big void like the one inside me.
Little Prosaic Pieces by Abdallah Zrika
Translated by El Habib Louai
The following texts are translated from Zrika’s Petites Proses published by L’Escampette in 1998. The author himself has translated some of his texts from Arabic into French. The translations from French into English are by El Habib Louai.
Born in Casablanca in 1953, Abdallah Zrika grew up in the slums of Ben Msik. He composed his first poems at age twelve & self-published his first book (Dance of the Head and the Rose) in 1977. In these so-called “years of lead” of political repression & student unrest, the book was an immediate popular success with the younger Moroccan generation—as were the many poetry readings he gave to audiences that often numbered in the thousands. In 1978 he was arrested and condemned to two years in jail for disturbing the public order and for supposed crimes against “the sacred values” of his country. Since his release in 1980 he has continued his career as a writer, becoming one of Morocco’s major voices. Abdellatif Laâbi called the early work “brutal, disheveled, wild, blasphemous, one could be tempted to say that it is voluntarily ugly—the same way people found Picasso’s paintings ugly,” while he sees the more recent work as having “restructured itself to make room for the visionary” by becoming a “crucible in which human and historical matters are transmuted. . . . After having called for the destruction of the old world, he has now put his shoulder to the task of reinventing life.” Of Zrika’s ten or so books, three have been translated into French.
El Habib Louai is a Moroccan poet, translator, musician and assistant professor of English at Ibn Zohr University, Agadir, Morocco. His research focuses on the cultural encounters, colonial discourse and postcolonial theory and he worked the Beats’ archives at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill as a Fulbright grantee. 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 writers appeared in various literary magazines, journals and reviews such as Al Quds Al Arabi, Al Moutaqaf, Jadaliyya, Arabli Quarterly, Al Jadeed Magazine, Al Arabi Al Jadid, Al Faisal, Al Doha, Middle East Online, Ragged Lion Journal, Big Bridge Magazine, Berfrois, Al Markaz Review, The Fifth Estate, Lumina, The Poet’s Haven, The MUD Proposal and Sagarana. Louai’s Arabic translations include America, America: An Anthology of Beat Poetry in Arabic, Michael Rothenberg’s collection of poems entitled Indefinite Detention: A Dog Story both published by Arwiqa for Translation and Studies, Bob Kaufman’s The Ancient Rain published by Dar Al Rafidain, Giorgio Agamben’s What is an Apparatus and Other Essays and Diane di Prima’s Revolutionary Letters, both published by Dar Al Libiraliya. He also contributed with Arabic translations to Seven Countries: An Anthology Against Trump’s Ban published by Arroyo Seco Press. Louai published two collections of poems: Mrs. Jones Will Now Know: Poems of a Desperate Rebel and Rotten Wounds Embalmed with Tar which was a finalist for the 2020 Sillerman First Book Prize for African Poetry.