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Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this poem to

This poem is taken from PN Review 230, Volume 42 Number 6, July - August 2016.

Letter to My Friends Overseas

translated from the French by André Naffis-Sahely
Abdellatif Laâbi
‘Letter to My Friends Overseas’ was first published in La Nouvelle Critique in August 1978. It was written during Laâbi’s decade-long imprisonment in Morocco for politically radical literary activities. Mailed piecemeal to friends on the outside, the poem was later assembled according to the poet’s instructions. A truncated and transliterated English version appeared in Index on Censorship in 1980 in order to bring attention to Laâbi’s worsening medical condition, by which time he had served seven years of his sentence. The poem appears in Beyond the Barbed Wire: Selected Poems, translated by André Naffis-Sahely (Carcanet, 2016).

you’ve become
one of those beacons of light
who help to defend me
from the forceps of the night
You find your way to me
through the mercy of the poem
and I’ll see you again
beyond the barbed wire of exile
in a stillborn continent
that never surges out of the sea or the sky
nor is fashioned out of clay
but by the hands and the fervour
of voices that plead and jump out of the window
to plunge into the swell of possibilities
A human continent
that nurses the preamble
of all the sleeping or reawakening gifts
inside us all
which despite the hurdles of baseness
work their way through our flesh
and our consciences
A continent
where suspicion, contempt and indifference to the other
one day will look
like poorly-written plays
and be entombed in the mass grave
of obsolete currencies
A continent
where the Inquisition
will vanish from our brains
after this kingdom of barbarism crumbles
where intelligence
will fuse with feeling
where conversations without masks
will be welcomed and peppered with peaceful

Kind friends
usually when I write
I barely have the time
to feel your warmth
and sit amongst you
(a cigarette in my lips, the same tune in my head)
and must leave you
before I’ve reached the end of the page
You see, here they ration out
even the stationery
The request forms I fill
only allow correspondence
between the prisoner
and his family
They’ll never understand
that family to me
doesn’t mean ancestry
or heredity
or villages or ID cards
I’ve never been able to estimate
the size of my family
It stretches out
as far the sunrise in our eyes
as far as our newly-born continent
tears down the walls erected inside us

I’ve got so much to tell you:
it’s just that usually
I keep my mouth shut not wanting to risk
the censors putting a stop
to these acts of presence
in fact I censor myself
fearing the briefness of my answers
might twist my thoughts
out of shape for you
or warp what this humble letter
this gradual rediscovery of ourselves
these simultaneously peaceful upsetting accounts
of the other through dialogue
have to say

I grow more convinced
that the poem
can only ever be
a dialogue
made of live flesh and sound
that stares you straight in the eyes
even if the poem has to cross
the cold wastes of distance
to finally reach you
in the creases created by absence
This is why
you no longer hear me speaking alone
in the trances of exorcism
in my tragic haemorrhages
as I extricate myself from this quagmire
and call out to the earthquake survivors
to heap my distress calls and curses on them
A long time ago
I wrote those poems
about the infernos of solitude
about my desperate climb back to my fellow ↵
                                                         human beings
and I’m not quite ready to disown them
those bitter fruits
of the murderous twilight
where I struggled
as I sought the roots
of a voice I knew was my own
of a human face that reflected
the exact image of my truth
Those violent poems were healthy
and without them
maybe my voice
today would be hollow
devoid of what gave it

its vital intensity
But the problem is
I can’t write like that any more
my life’s taken a different path
and so has my style
I’m not alone any more
My ordeal has placed me
on the road of encounters
My body has learned
to be pushed to the limits and curl up
as from a scalding-hot steel plate
to endure the lacerations
and to resist
to translate humiliation and pain
into their literal opposites
and inside this lead-sealed arena
where they condemned me to shuffle
for ten whole years
I have started to dig
entire tunnels
and underground passages
even into my veins
even into my mind’s vital parts
and I heard other people were digging
in all the directions towards which
I was piercing through my aphasia
until the day when the first hand broke through
and I felt the willowy vines of embraces

you’ve often asked yourselves
how I got to this point
how a poet
can descend from his clouds
to walk on the earth
and turn into a warrior
Well here it is
you know my love
for my country and countrymen
and you can grasp
how in our stormy part of the world
these words are saturated with meaning
so that they can resonate
                                                       and perish
for what they stand for
Your compassion for me
is glaring proof of that
if I’m here
it’s because my passion was all-devouring
It destroyed my vague cravings for comfort
all the perks that being an intellectual
might have conferred upon me
all the illusions of cool-headed analysis
of the academic laboratories
There was no middle ground
It was either the gilded cage
of intellectuals-for-hire
an ostensibly servile
face-saving exercise,
or the brio of talent
that never accounts
for all the defeats and abuses
So I severed the moorings
and made for the wide-open sea
of the only struggle that matters
which my people are waging
and I can sing
out of love for this haunting land
this hijacked country
that electrocutes my memory
which serrates my distress
and hits me like a meteorite
magnetising the bend of its rainbows
unwinding its arabesques
revealing itself
as the gleaming giant of youth
who reaps the solar apotheosis
with a sphinx’s dreamers’ eyes
as it paws the ground inquisitively
a poppy pressed
to every artery torn from the body of life
so that blood abolishes
the winter of man

I can sing
out of love for this haunted land
which has turned into a poker chip
in the stock market of lawlessness
free it from the lies of slave-driver travelling salesmen
the clicking prayer-beads of billboards
in the stations of the West
where its sun
is a whorehouse for the pimps of bride abductions
where its veils and tattoos
are the opium of mystery
behind which the ghosts gasp for air and salivate
where the dignified faces of its men
are assaulted by old Kodak cameras and savage ↵
O to what extent we stunt
and debase

I can sing
out of love for this haunted land
as it bleeds standing up
so its name resonates
like these warning-bell words
that reverberate in the heavens
of courage and brotherhood
so that they swell
out of these cutting-edge wounds
sing of the blood
of those who perished at the dawn of great hopes
so their names grow in stature
and each of their syllables
becomes as familiar
to the uprising of consciences
as Vietnam and Palestine

You who live in the sterilised labyrinths
of the fortress of Wealth
You who see the caravans of taxed swag
amassed by your Knights-Templar Merchants
from the pillaged realms of the world
as they pass under your windows
You the conscientious objectors
in the twilight between the wolves and dogs
where they scheme, interfere and exterminate
on every horizon
all for the sake of your supposed security
of your interests
of your existential outlook on life
You the gentle gardeners
of the tree of fraternity
before whose eyes
they still whisper
o so discreetly
while putting a gun, a knife and a grenade
into the filthy hands
of gallows-birds and nigger-wogs
while camouflaged under cover of fog
You who go hungry
because the sight of your roads
saturated with the rubbish of waste
makes you heave
You the entombed
banned from the old-boy networks
where they pre-package popular culture
and put it into little golden sachets
of mimicry and of ruins
You the motionless
the killjoys
in the prison-factories
the penny-jars
the temples of shopping
the plantation-colonies of the supercities
that enrich the inner sanctums of multinationals
decorated with the emblem of the golden calf
You the troglodytes
of black-magic spell-books where they whisper ↵
                                                                   the universal
sound investments of the old missionary West
the belly-button of the world

All this and more
dear friends
you the harbingers
who’ve thrown open the windows
of your hearts and your hands
You who’ve dug up the beach
and the red, vivid sea of multitude
from under the cobblestones
You the new bards
of the street who
sing Communard songs
and flock back to the vigilant barricades
You thanks to whom
the West will one day disappear
from our legitimate nightmares
like the spectre of dispossession
like the jungle machetes
suspended right over our heads
You the artisans
who will repopulate Europe
and restore
its cities of marvels
and plant the seeds
for the springtime of humanity

O friends
be brave
for your sake and ours
be brave
wherever the tunnel of the night
seems like a dead end
be brave
We’ll deflect the sun
to shine on our imperative journey
We’ll disembark
in that new continent
that’ll arise all over the world
whose seas
won’t be private pleasure-lakes for bankers
or criss-crossed by aircraft carriers of carnage anymore
but instead become oceans
streaked with bridges
traversed only
by sailing boats of discovery
and convoys bearing gifts

I’ll stop here for now,
I don’t know
if what I’ve written you
is a poem
and whether people
recognise it as such
doesn’t bother me much
because poetry
to me
isn’t an attitude one adopts towards language
or friezes of hieroglyphs
that we should decipher
aided by scholarly
parameters of criticism
Poetry spills out of the page
evades these insignificant labels
employed to confine it
                                  pigeon-hole it
                                                       make it niche
Poetry to me
is simply a way
to hold out my hand
to push myself further
to rear my head again
                                  and provoke
to herald all the brotherly suns

Kind friends
I’m so happy we’ve talked
Rest assured
my cell is far brighter
I feel like singing and laughing
and want to raise my glass
to our loves and hopes
What I’ve told you
doesn’t add up to much
but our dialogue
has barely begun
and we’ve got a whole world to change

This poem is taken from PN Review 230, Volume 42 Number 6, July - August 2016.

Readers are asked to send a note of any misprints or mistakes that they spot in this poem to
Further Reading: - Abdellatif Laâbi Reviews of... (2)
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