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Wednesday, March 20, 2013

Read Local: UC Press Highlights North Africa's Cultural Achievements

Posted By on Wed, Mar 20, 2013 at 9:00 AM

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New York City might be home to the big houses, but this scrappy city just happens to be the epicenter of publishing on the Best Coast. Join Alexis Coe every Wednesday for Read Local, a series on books produced in the Bay Area.

The published title may read Poems for the Millennium, but editors Pierre Joris and Habib Tengour spent years calling it Diwan Ifrikiya, a combination of the Arabic word for "a gather, a collection or anthology" and an Arabization of the Latin word "Africa." Whatever it is called, they hoped the fourth volume in this ongoing series will, to borrow a line from Frank O'Hara, satisfy readers who want to "see what the poets of North Africa are doing these days."

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And just what are these post-independence and diasporic writers, situated in the region known as the Maghreb, doing the present day, post-colonial world? Negotiating oral history, traditional and experimental forms, new translations, geographical treatises, philosophical and esoteric traditions, and song lyrics, as it turns out -- not that you'd know it.

"North Africa is a region whose cultural achievements -- including their impact on and importance for Western culture -- have been not only passively neglected but often actively 'disappeared' or written out of the record," write the editors, before introducing a tome meant to right this wrong. Their book comes at a time when there are a slew of English titles published on the Arab world, but unlike the majority of them, this volume actually encourages cultural appreciation.

I could wax rhapsodic about these poems for months while railing against the our political mistakes in the region over the last century, but that would be a poor, and repetitive, use of everyone's time.

Instead, consider excerpts from the following two poems. The first was written on the right and left side of poet Wallada bint al-Mutakfi's robe, and translated by Abdullah al-Udhari. Wallada bint al-Mutakfi (994-1091), was the daughter of last Umayyad Cordonan caliph, Muhammid III. He was assassinated without a male heir, and his properties went to his daughter, who opened a palace and literary hall. She was considered somewhat controversial, as the fair-haired beauty was known to appear in public without her hijab. She was also known as intelligent and proud, as the prose will show. She considered the poet Ibn Zaydun the love of her life.

Six Poems

If you were faithful to our love you wouldn't have lost your head over my maid.

You dropped a branch in full bloom for a lifeless twig.

You know I am the moon yet you fell for a tiddly star.

Ibn Zaidun, though a man of quality, loves the unbent rods in men's trousers.

If he saw a joystick dangling from a palm tree he'd fly after it like a craving bird.

Is there a way we can meet and share our love once more?

In the winter I used to wait on hot coals for your visits.

Now I feel worse since you've gone and confirmed by fears.

The night rolls on, but absence stays and patience won't free me from longing's grip.

I hope Allah waters the new lands that's become our home.

The writer Mustapha Benfodil was one of the most important literary figures to emerge during the Black Decade of the civil war in Algeria. Born in 1968, he last published a play, Clandestinopolis, in Paris. Here is an excerpt translated by Nicole Peyrafitte.

I conned myself on a Levantine Day

I ground my soul

I crushed my nights and turned them into grass

I added some tobacco from the south

And I rolled a reefer

I asked the hill for a light

It gave me a tank

Pulverized by a scream

I asked a fear peddler for a light

He handed me a poster

Bearing the effigy of Armageddon

Poems for the Millennium: Book of North African Literature ($39.95) was recently published by the University of California Press.

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Alexis Coe

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