Laabi, Abdellatif (1942–)
Moroccan writer Abdellatif Laabi is a French-language poet, playwright, translator, essayist, novelist, raconteur, and activist whose works reveal his engagement with social and political issues and a strong commitment against oppression, injustice, and human rights abuses. He played a key role in the cultural renewal of Morocco in the mid-1960s, restating the complex issue of developing nations nationalism and decolonization.
Laabi was born in Fez, Morocco (presumably in 1942), to a Muslim family of craftsmen, into an illiterate environment. He has pointed out that one of the reasons he started to write was to allow people who are not able to express themselves to speak. His mother, Ghita, was in constant crisis about her condition as a woman, and in a way was a feminist without knowing, Laabi has said; he made her the central character in one of his novels, La fond de la jarre (The bottom of the jug, 2002).
Laabi attended the French-Muslim School. At school, children were taught only in French. At that time, he realized his condition of colonization, and this situation generated internal conflict: when he began to write, the only language that he really knew was French, even though his birth language was Arabic. When he was fourteen years old, Morocco declared its independence from France. He entered the University of Rabat where he earned his B.A. in French literature in 1963. After graduation he worked as a French literature teacher at the Lycée Mulay Idris, also in Rabat.
In 1963 he and a number of other writers and artists founded the Théâtre universitaire marocain, where he met his wife, Jocelyne. They staged plays by Fernando Arrabal and Bertolt Brecht, and after only one season they were censored and the theater was closed down. He also founded an important literary review, the journal Souffles (Breaths), in 1966; the Arabic version of this journal was called Anfas. He founded it with the poets Mohammed Khair-Eddine, a major poet and novelist who died in 1995 in total poverty, and Mostafa Nissaboury, who continues to write and publish. Later on, other artists and writers participated in the project, from Morocco, Algeria, other parts of Africa, France, and one from Germany. Souffles/Anfas was considered a meeting point for poets who felt the need for a poetic revival, but soon it was a focus for all Moroccan creative and intellectual actors: painters, filmmakers, theater people, researchers, and thinkers. The magazine lasted for six years and published twenty-three issues in French and eight in Arabic before it was banned in 1972. The magazine allowed an avant-garde movement to be born and express itself, and therefore encouraged the literature of all Arab countries, as well as opening Morocco to cultures of the other countries of the Maghreb and of developing nations.
This group of writers rebelled against French literature. Growing up under colonialism, they were not allowed to learn the language of their country and were forced to live culturally dependent; consequently they wanted to be finished with colonial history. They thought that not only the economy and the government had to be decolonized, but people's minds as well.
At the same time, Laabi involved himself in national politics. In 1966, he joined the Parti pour la libération et le socialism (PLS) and founded, with Abraham Serfaty, the Association de Recherche Culturelle (ARC). Both of them were imprisoned in 1972 and tortured. Laabi, editor-in-chief of Souffles/Anfas, was charged with conspiracy against the state and sentenced to ten years in prison for "crimes of opinion" (for his political beliefs and his writings against the regime of King hassan ii) and served a sentence from 1972 to 1980. While in prison, Laabi received strong support from friends and intellectuals all over the world. In 1979 an international committee for his freedom was created with the participation of many intellectuals and the support of numerous foreign journals. He continued to write poetry during this period and received numerous literary prizes (such as the Liberty Prize awarded by the French PEN Club). He describes his prison years in a series of poems and letters titled Chroniques de la citadelle d'exil (Chronicles of the citadel of banishment, 1983). In 1985 he was forced into exile in France, as was his friend and fellow contributor to Souffles/Anfas, Serfaty, in 1991 after seventeen years in jail. Laabi tried to return to his homeland several times, but since 1995 has lived definitively in Paris. In 1985 Laabi was nominated as commander of the Ordre des Arts et des Lettres by Jack Lang, French minister of culture; since 1988 he has been a member of the Académie Mallarmé.
INFLUENCES AND CONTRIBUTIONS
One of Laabi's early influences was the work of Frantz Fanon, among others; Aimé Césaire and the Moroccan writer Driss Chraibi were very important to him. He was also deeply influenced by non-French or non-Arab writers such as Fedor Dostoevski. But most important was his awareness of what was happening in the Maghreb during the1950s and 1960s. Like many of his generation, he thought with Fanon that colonized countries had to break free of the West. As a writer, he believed that there were moments in history—in the history of literature too—when individuals are the instruments for the articulation of social needs.
Laabi was particularly influenced by the 23 March 1965 massacre in Casablanca of children and parents at a peaceful demonstration in opposition to Hassan II's suspension of the constitution. This tragic event was a turning point in Laabi's professional and political life, and Laabi went on to write a poem about the massacre.
Name: Abdellatif Laabi
Birth: 1942?, Fez, Morocco
Family: Wife, Jocelyne; two sons, Yacine and Qods; one daughter, Hind
Education: B.A., French literature, University of Rabat, 1963
- 1958: French-Muslim school; teaches in French
- 1963: Founding member, Théâtre universitaire marocain
- 1964: Teaches French literature at Lycée Mulay Idris, Rabat
- 1965: Massacre of children and parents at a peaceful demonstration in Casablanca, 23 March, a turning point in professional and political life
- 1966: Founding member, director, Souffles/Anfas (Breaths); founds with Abraham Serfaty Association de Recherche Culturelle (ARC); joins Parti pour la liberation et le socialism (PLS), former Moroccan Communist Party
- 1972: Sentenced to ten years in prison
- 1980: Released from prison
- 1985: Exiled to Paris with family
- 1988: Elected to Académie Mallarmé
Laabi's other contribution has been the extensive translation into French of a large number of Arabic poets. He has translated the poems of the Moroccan Abdallah Zrika in Rires de l'arbre à palabre; (1982; Laughter of the palaver tree); an anthology of Palestinian poetry, La poésie palestinienne de combat (1970; Palestinian poetry of struggle); mahmud darwish, in Rien qu'une autre année (1983; It is only another year); the Syrian novelist Hanna Mina, in Soleil en instance (1986; Sun in process); a collection of poetry by the Iraqi abd al-wahhab al-bayati, Autobiographie du voleur de feu (1987; Autobiography of the fire thief); and a collection of poems by the Palestinian Samih al-Qasim, Je t'aime au gré de la mort (1988; I love you at the pleasure of death).
He has written an impressive amount of poetry himself, including the collections Le règne de barbarie, et d'autres poèmes (1980; The reign of barbarism and other poems), which marks the beginning of his poetic and literary writings; Le spleen de Casablanca (1997; Casablanca spleen); and the illustrated collection Petit musé portatif (2002; A small portable museum). Laabi has also written plays, including Le baptême chacaliste (1987; Jackalian baptism), Exercices de tolérance (1993; Exercises in tolerance), Rimbaud et Shéhérazade (2000; Rimbaud and Scheherazade), and Écris la vie (2005; Writing life). He has also published four novels: L'oeil de la nuit (1969; The eye of the night), Les rides du lion (1989; The wrinkles of the lion), and Le chemin des ordalies (1982; The road of ordeals, published in English as Rue de Retour, 1989), reedited in 2000 as Le fou d'espoir (Crazy with hope), in which he relates his painful years in prison. Le fond de lajarre (2002; The bottom of the jug) evokes traditional life in Fez during the colonial period. He has written three books for children as well.
THE WORLD'S PERSPECTIVE
Even though Laabi is a celebrated intellectual in Europe, there is still a marked tendency for Western and Moroccan critics alike to minimize or dismiss the political commitment of Maghrebi writers who receive literary prizes, reside outside their home countries, and choose to participate in official dialogues concerning nationalist sore points such as francophony. Moreover, his work and that of other francophone writers has not been very well represented in American literary magazines, although that may be changing.
Laabi seeks to eliminate the dividing lines between literary genres. He refuses to be constrained by blind adherence to any particular literary register or ideology. He is above all a poet with an impressive number of published collections, who has sought renewal through the elimination of antiquated and unsuitable traditions. His work as a translator has contributed to make Maghrebi and Arab writers known in Europe; but mostly he has developed a work that exhorts readers to commit and that always reminds them that the fight for freedom is endless.
WORKS BY LAABI
Rue du Retour [Le Chemin des ordalies, 1982]. Translated by Jacqueline Kaye. London: Readers Intenational, 1989.
"Interview with Kristin Prevallet." Double Change 3 (2002). Available from http://www.doublechange.com/issue3/laabi.htm.
The World's Embrace: Selected Poems. Translated by Anne George, Pierre Joris, Edris Makward, et al. San Francisco: City Lights Books, 2003.
Abdellatif Laâbi's Official Web site. Available from http://www.laabi.net.
Hitchcott, Nicki, and Laila Ibnlfassi. African Francophone Writing: A Critical Introduction. Oxford and Washington, DC: Berg, 1996.
Wolf, Mary Ellen. "Textual Politics in Contemporary Moroccan Francophone Literature." Journal of the Midwest Modern Language Association 25, no. 1 (Spring 1992): 32-40.
WHAT IS LIFE IF NOT DIGNITY?
Writing is still a risk in many countries. This was the case in Morocco when I was still living there—I was put in prison…. There are equally serious but different atrocities which occur in countries which we call democracies [in Western countries]. There is the numbing of consciousness, an indifference which is gradually settling in, there are unacceptable things that happen every day, and pass as normal. I am implicated in this, because I am aware that the West is a part of me. It's my humanity as well. To me there is a single human condition, within which there are different situations. And I don't understand how one could think that the intellectual should be absent from all that—do your work and leave the world behind the door. If this satisfies certain intellectuals, that's their prerogative. But for me, poetry is too closely connected to life and what it stands for. What is life if not dignity, liberty, the ability to express oneself freely?
INTERVIEW WITH KRISTIN PREVALLET DOUBLE CHANGE 3 (2002). AVAILABLE FROM HTTP://WWW.DOUBLECHANGE.COM/ISSUE3/LAABI.HTM.