Keeping the Language Alive
Mohammed Bennis lives for literature, and for poetry in particular. Camilo Gomez-Rivas introduces this influential Moroccan literary figure and poet, with an in-depth interview and translations from two of his most important poetry collections.
The semantic shifts one encounters in a single line of poetry by Mohammed Bennis can be startling. Words one had thought to know well appear dissociated from their common senses, taking on unexpected shades of meaning. Even their shapes on the page are plastic, three dimensional. Freed from the usual points of reference, stripped of worn metaphors, the words appear to act of their own volition, with abilities outside traditional usage or grammatical functions.
Upon first meeting with this soft-spoken poet in Mohammedia – a quiet city on the Atlantic coast of Morocco where Bennis has labored steadily at his craft for the last 35 years – one could be forgiven for imagining his life work as the kind resulting solely from a desire for steady formal experimentation. Poetry written in deliberate seclusion, undisturbed by the hubbub of politics, celebrity, or revolutionary social causes. Longer acquaintance with both the man and his work, however, reveals a poet rather more engaged, and one who sees his work as, although subtle, vital to the society in which he lives.
“Poets are the preservers of meaning,” a function, Bennis says, critical for languages that wish to remain alive and relevant. In his poetry, Bennis has tried to create a language of his own that is engaged with reality in a profoundly critical way, an endeavor that poets everywhere would recognize as universal. The strictly national and personal dimensions of Bennis’s work, however, are the result of a long struggle with the particular kind of intellectual repression that characterized his country in the generations following independence from the French.
“When I was young,” Bennis recalls of life in his native Fez, “I found nothing in Morocco that would open the horizons to a cultural life.” While the old city of Fez provided him with an intimate space where he learned about the mysteries of language and death as a boy, as a young man, the city became increasingly stifling intellectually. This feeling became especially poignant after young Bennis, with a gift of a thousand dirhams from his grandmother, was able to travel through Spain and France up to Paris. The year was 1968.
But it was his later struggles with Morocco’s post-independence institutions that proved to be defining in his experience as a cultural actor in his country.
“I went in desiring to change ideas and create a new vision of cultural activity in Morocco and a free Moroccan culture in Arabic,” he says of his reasons for joining the Moroccan Writers’ Union in 1973. “But what I discovered when I joined was that I was with political, not cultural people. I didn’t understand this at first. I was an enthusiastic young man. But slowly, I began to understand that this institution which said about itself that it was a cultural one, was in fact an institution that existed to thwart culture.”
To his increasing dismay, Bennis discovered that the members of the union would publish and read each other to the exclusion of all others; that they toed the party line in all matters, without ever considering what, as writers, they could do to address any given problem. “We were always working for other institutions,” he recalls. “For example, when there was a strike, we’d be obliged to go out and picket. Now I’m not against that, but where was the work for the writers? There was no cultural work.”
Moreover, Bennis found that the fiercest opposition to any “new culture” came from the union itself, “even before it came from the state”. Bennis felt that the political party system both monopolized and thwarted cultural activity, that it pervaded the writers’ union and closed all other options.
“It was forbidden for a person to undertake any cultural activity outside the establishment. That person was considered a traitor. It was a nightmare,” he says. No anthologies of Moroccan poetry were published. Major cultural issues were left unaddressed. “And for that reason, I chose a different path, a difficult one . . . After a long struggle, I wrote a public statement and I withdrew. I wrote that this institution is one that toes the party line.”
For Bennis the union as an institution, by its very nature, would not allow for writing poetry that was critical. For union writers, he felt, “everything was either beautiful or ugly. There were no ideas.”
And so Bennis withdrew to his house in Mohammedia, and in the manner of, as he describes, every other serious cultural producer in his country (“alone and in his house”), he set out to write poetry that could reinvigorate the language, questioning its old meanings and introducing new ones.
Once alienated from the country’s official venues of culture, however, Bennis found he was able to participate productively in ventures outside of what had been the roles traditionally open to Moroccan poets. This included co-founding the publishing house Toubkal, after founding and running, for ten years, one of the country’s pioneering literary reviews, Al-Thaqafa Al-Jadida [New Culture], which was banned after the social upheaval of 1984. In 1996 he became a founding member and first president of the House of Poetry in Morocco.
International collaboration – originating from his long experience translating and working with French poets – has been fulfilling for Bennis. A project he is currently involved in, and which he finds especially meaningful, is the translation of StÈphan MallarmÈ’s famous poem, “Un coup de dÈs jamais n’abolira le hasard” (A throw of the dice will never abolish chance). Bennis has also written one of the first full-length studies (in four volumes) of modern Moroccan Arabic poetry (which he teaches at the University of Rabat). He has produced many volumes of poetry of his own which have garnered various Moroccan and European prizes. His collected work appeared in two volumes in 2002. His work has been translated into many languages.
How would you define a critical poetics?
It is not as a descriptive poetics, as in Aristotle. It is critical because, while writing it, you question what poetry is. Generally, we say poetry is a language of metaphors. In the conception of a critical poetics, the poetry, at first, is a rhythm. And following this idea, we could simply substitute prose for poetry. For we know that every writer can have poetry in his writing. This means that poetry is a rhythm in the language, but also a personal rhythm. And for this reason, there is not a general poetics, only a personal one, every writer having his own.
We have had many theories of poetry throughout history. But we can’t use all these theories or terms without reviewing the meaning of every word we use. The poet works with words. Perhaps his first job is to recreate the meanings of words and to invent new ones for new ideas.
In poetry, first there are ideas. An idea about words, on the relationship with words and on forms of poetry.
So what’s mainly critical about poetry is its individuality?
No, not just its individuality. There are many ideas about poetry, and those ideas are not always valuable to explain and to defend what poetry really is. For me, poetry is always a language that intersects body and history. By intersecting body and history, words change. They change meanings and the relationship between them changes.
The body is always personal. There are never two bodies in a single act of writing. And the body does not repeat itself.
Poetry is a whole. It includes everything we have on the page: words, form, space, rhythms, everything. There is no separation between any part. When we speak of a separation, we do so only in description or analysis of the poem. In writing, however, there is no separation.
For me, the body is the combination of the senses. The sense of hearing, the sense of sight, the sense of smell; all these are present. Our sense of touching things. So then when I say “the body”, or “a stone”, I can only do so, write about it, through my body. Or if I say “glass”: if I don’t see [this glass] or I forget it, then it doesn’t exist. This object which meets the body is transformed in the poem, we could say, into an idea. This idea is not, however, a philosophical or sociological idea, it is a poetic thought.
What is it that makes it poetic?
This is the most important thing. Now we are talking about the heart of the matter. If we were to look at a building, an architect could tell us about this building, describe its characteristics and dimensions. A historian could deliver us its history, its context in, say, the history of Moroccan, German, or World architecture.
Likewise the politician, perhaps he could give us his opinion regarding this building, regarding its position within the social system, such as HLM (Moderated rent accommodation) in France, etc.
But not the poet. He gives you an idea which he produces through the poem. It is what I call the poetic idea, and because of this, the poet does not undertake the translation of other [fields] of knowledge. He owns his own kind of knowledge, which is what I call poetic knowledge. It includes that which encompasses or is produced from this poetic knowledge. For me, poetry is not something that is added. It is not something that we add to knowledge. Although social, historical, and political discourses exist, it’s not that poetry just takes what is in these and says the same in a beautiful way. No. Poetry brings forth in its own way a vision of things. Whence [the idea] that poetry is necessary.
What is the role of aesthetics in your poetry? Is there still a role for it?
Yes,there is. And it concerns, in the first place, the preservation of the meanings of words. In a time in which meanings have become threatened, either by the culture of mass communication or by the culture of consumerism, it is not possible for us to preserve these meanings unless we possess a critical vision, which always returns to reconsidering the use of language, and preserving for that language those meanings. First the inherited meanings and then those we create anew. So that the language stays alive.
For me, one of the most important things we can attribute to the effectiveness of poetry is that it allows a language to stay alive. A language that does not possess poetry is not a living but a dead language.
The poet is the keeper of what he has received from the old poets, so that their legacy is not lost. Through his work, the poet transmits the poetry to those coming after him. We give him the language for safekeeping with him so that he preserves it, but not in the traditional meaning of the word. To preserve here means to allow it to live. And he transmits it to those coming after him. By which I don’t mean to say that a poem from the time of Abu Tammam or Badr Shakir al-Sayyab stays as it is. No. What must be preserved is the spirit of the poem, the spirit of creativity in the poem.
This always invites the question of what it is that poets have done for language historically. The great poets, I mean, whether Arab or non-Arab, because we live now in a culture that is universal. When we speak of poetry, I say: yes, I am an Arab poet, because I write in Arabic and my culture is Arabic. But this Arabic meets with poetry and languages in the world: from Japan, the Haiku, in Europe, ancient Greek poetry, or Dante, or Goethe, or Hˆlderin, or Baudelaire, or Shakespeare. All of these poets brought their languages, and left their poetry and their language alive.
What, for you, is the specific problem posed by the global?
For me there are two great problems. First, there is Globalization as it is practised. We can imagine another globalization which is not this one. While poetry is a very human encounter, what we have is a globalization of a different kind. It gives no consideration to anything other than what is materially profitable. And poetry has no material profitability. It does not fit in to the logic of the market. This is why we are seeing for the first time the extermination of a whole group of languages. A group of languages that no are no longer of any importance, because importance has become the language of profitability.
If I were to ask what is the profitable language in the world now, I would say that English is the language of globalization. But I say that these other languages are threatened because right now there are no poets in their languages. If the same happened to English it would become a series of abbreviated sentences used in political discourse, in the stock market, and in commerce. All of these phrases would be accounted for. There would no longer be a space for the imagination. There would no longer be the possibility for personal experience. You would not be important to it; when you go into the supermarket you are not important to it. On the contrary, when you go into the supermarket today we don’t even need language.
When we used to go to the souk we spoke to people: “Good morning,” “How are you,” etc. Now you go in, you take the things and pass by the cash till. You don’t speak. You pay.
Language as a whole is threatened. Threatened with becoming abbreviated to simple things for political or economic discourse . . . And really, that’s all there is. There is nothing outside of this. And it is possible for us to notice when we watch the news that all newscasts have the same language, whereas poems do not all have the same language.
So, there is the language of profit. The language of poetry, however, is in opposition to this profit, and it does not enter into the logic of the market. For this reason it preserves meaning. And it leaves human experience, through language, as a live experience.
In the language of profit and consumerism there is no mystery. This glass of wine, for example, is just like any other. When poetry produces this glass, it is not only the glass that I see, but all the history of the glasses of wine in history. At the same time it is mine. For this reason there is then an exterior meaning to the glass, and there is an interior meaning, which is a mystery. Poetry is what preserves this mystery.
There is always the unknown meaning in everything. The most dangerous thing is when there is no longer mystery or unknowns, because then we are no longer in need of the imagination. If I know everything, then life is over and it no longer has meaning.
When did you begin to write poetry and why?
I wrote my first poems in the year 1966. Before that I had been good at maths. But my contact with the poet Mohammed al-Khummar al-Kanuni, and my wide-ranging reading of poets, had a decisive influence in changing the direction of my life and my academic choices, and with these came the opening of a new life, the life of a young poet.
After entering secondary school, I became a devout reader of poetry books (diwans), especially those of al-Mutanabbi and Abu al-Qasim al-Shabi. Then later I came to know the poetry of Badr Shakir al-Sayyab. It was the year 1964. I took to reading his book Unshoudat al-Matar [Hymn of the Rain], constantly, as well as works by a group of contemporary poets related to him, such as Khalil Hawi and Salah Abd al-Sabbur.
However, I felt Badr Shakir al-Sayyab was the closest to me. In his poetic work, which he composed between life and death, I could hear a side of my life. In his poetry about his mother I found something that brought me close to my own mother who had died when I was two years old. Perhaps his poetry gave me the freedom to know the meaning of the presence of death in my life. I say “perhaps”, because the language of poetry itself used to enthrall me. I would read the poem and all at once there would be something inside me moving powerfully.
What was your childhood in Fez like, and how has it influenced your poetry?
My first poem was about death. For me, in my childhood, the loss of my mother and reading the Qur’an at the mosque became linked. This seems to represent a pervasive aspect of my childhood. I was always preoccupied with the death of my mother. The image of her dying just about never left me. And then I would go to the mosque, and read this language which I couldn’t understand. I read the Qur’an. And in it I found the presence of death. And at that time I still had no sense for the superiority of the Qur’an over other books, because it was the only book I had read.
At home, my grandfather belonged to a popular Sufi confraternity. Every year he would hold a religious celebration for the Yusufiyya Tariqa. My grandmother, on the other hand, who raised me, was fond of those who performed the samma’ and dhikr (listening to God and invocation of God). My other grandmother would hold a samma’ soirÈe once a year. And my father liked to invite the “awlad Moulay Abd al-Salam” (by which I mean the Sufi Abd al-Salam bin Mashish, the Sheikh of the Shadhilis) known for their Qur’anic recitation.
I also liked to roam the old city of Fez. I would wander about it every week. From when I learned the alleys and quarters of Fez. I got to know its crafts and markets and its mosques, its saints and its arts. Even today I wander in the alleys of Fez whenever the chance presents itself.
With time, however, and especially after independence, I began to frequent the new city, the ville nouvelle, as well, where I saw a different life, a European life. Wandering in its parks, under the shadows of its trees I felt reinvigorated. I would take these walks by myself, no one accompanying me. And I never felt there was something missing. A life of solitude came very naturally to me.
What was it like to be a young professor in Mohammedia?
My choice of the city of Mohammedia was a matter of chance. I had had a friend in university who was from Mohammedia and who pointed it out as a possibility. I was tired of the noise at the university and the trouble of university life. My friend’s suggestion that I work in Mohammedia had great resonance for me because Mohammedia was known for its calm and it was close to Rabat and Casablanca.
Yet I have always felt like a guest in Mohammedia. I have friends here among the average folk, like the greengrocer, the carpenter, the butcher, and the electrician. These are the people who are close to me. I also have an old friend from Fez who lives in Mohammedia. He is the one person to whom I am strongly attached here, compared to other people whom I meet now and then.
What was it like being an intellectual in Morocco, under a regime which has been characterized as authoritarian? Has self-censorship played a role in your work?
To be an intellectual in Morocco is indeed very difficult. Morocco was traditional in the sixties and it remains so. The problem I suffered from derived precisely from this traditional life, prevalent in Morocco.
There was the autocratic system that ruled over personal freedoms, not allowing us to live a free life of culture. Likewise there were political and national powers with traditional mentalities. Because of all this I collided with both institutions.
The difficulties I met with the national political institution were no less than those I suffered under the power of the state. Which is to say: the national party system that monopolized the press was the sole means of publishing and it monopolized the Moroccan Writers’ Union. It monopolized the university as well. From then we can see that cultural life was not in the hands of the state, but rather in the hands of the national party system.
I struggled against this institution to have my own voice, as much as what I did against the institution of the state, which would not allow a person to move freely. I think this experience is unique in the Arab world, where we don’t find this hostility toward modernization from the parts of both the national [non-state party] institutions and the state.
What is the role of the Arab poet in Morocco? Who are you writing for? What is the relationship of your work to the rest of the Arab world?
I do not think that the Arab poet has a large role in Morocco. The contemporary cultural situation is still developing. And in addition, it is split between Arab and Francophone culture. (It is now even more so, as the division is multiplied with the role of Tamazight and with the spread of writing in multiple languages in Morocco or by Moroccans abroad, which include English, Italian, and Spanish). From this we can see that the situation does not necessarily help the development of an effective cultural movement for changing society toward an open modernity.
And I do not know for whom exactly I write in Morocco. Sometimes there are readers whom I meet by chance. But it is difficult for me to claim that I know the reader I address in Morocco. Perhaps I have been writing for an oppositional reader.
Then there is my Arab culture or my poetic culture, which draws me close to every human being in the world. I write a kind of poem for any reader, more than what I write for a Moroccan reader of defined characteristics.
Here I must say that my relationship with the Arab world is no less complex. For the Arab east (the Mashreq) today does not look to Maghrebi culture or Maghrebi poetry with trust or as something of consequence. This problem has occurred in other periods between the Mashreq and the Maghreb, and especially between the Mashreq and al-Andalus, and it has found in the modern period a new form.
Yes, indeed the Maghreb, as I said, has a traditionally structured culture and society. It has not strived to modernize Arabic and Arabic culture until recently, and that, only by a particular group of writers who write in Arabic.
When I published my first poems in Mawaqif in 1969, the position of those from the rest of the Arab world toward me was similar to their general position toward Maghrebi culture . . . But with time that changed, however . . . and I see the recent dedication of an issue of the Palestinian magazine Al-Shu’ara [The Poets] to my work, which appeared last year, as an expression of the kind of relationship that is possible to establish from the trust in the poetry that I write.
When did you write Hibat al-Faragh? Where does it fit in your work? What are its principal themes? The collection is about a difficult relationship and an ephemeral vision; why?
I wrote Hibat al-Faragh [Gift of the Void] between 1984 and 1992. It is a collection of short poems that took many years to compose. I wrote the collection Warqat al-Baha’ [Leaf of Beauty], which is especially about Fez, at the same time. At the time I wrote it, I was completing my university studies in modern Arabic poetry, describing its structure and metric changes. And I think that this collection came to contemplate once again, and from an entirely different place, the questions of death and writing and the body.
The word “Void” [al-faragh] is the one that forms the axis of the book, the reconsideration which opens up for me a future horizon in writing. Void here has no relation to the concept of void in Chinese philosophy or Taosim. Rather, it tries to discover a vision of Islamic culture specifically. This lead me to pursue writing about pagan space.
I do not think, moreover, that the experiment was transitory. Indeed Hibat al-Faragh [Gift of the Void] was a new birth for my poetry. It searches for itself from within questions of poetic time and from within my personal life, in spite of being an experiment based on an escape from the poetic discourse that had at one time overwhelmed the Arab poem.
Introduction, interview and poetry translations by Camilo Gomez-Rivas
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