Regina Keil-Sagawe on Mohammed Khair-Eddine

Mohammed Khair-Eddine was my room-mate in Shakespeare & Co in Paris for some weeks back in ’65/’66. It was he who introduced me to Maghebian literature and to a Rimbaldian/ Mediterranean intensity in matters of poetry, matters of politics and matters of poetry-politics that opened my eyes & sharpened my focus as a young would-be writer. (More details on those days in a memoir-essay I published in Banipal magazine a few years back, issue 10/11 spring/summer 2001, to be more specific.) So it is a pleasure to find Regina Keil-Sagawe’s essay on M K-E on the Qantara website, and/or check out the original verison on the ARTE site. I permit myself to reprint it here:

His Last Fight

In Morocco, Mohammed Khaïr-Eddine’s final novel about Agoun’chich, the legendary Berber figure, was not published until seven years after the author’s death. Nowadays, however, the poète maudit has risen to become an icon of the Berber renaissance, writes Regina Keil-Sagawe.

“Cacti in endless variety appear in the early morning, lining both sides of the arid, stony road hacked through the solid earth’s crust. Stunted, dusty argan trees, bottle green, but tinted yellow by the still unripe amber fruit, stretch their sun and storm-twisted silhouettes against the sky. Thorny trees, stubborn, defeated a thousand times, a thousand times to rise again. It’s a resistance that can never be completely broken …”

High Noon in the deep south. It’s a macabre Western he has bequeathed to us, Mohammed Khaïr-Eddine (1941-1995), the Moroccan Rimbaud, a tribal saga from the Anti-Atlas Mountains woven around the legendary figure of Agoun’chich.

The hero, a lonesome rider, travelling the rugged mountains of southern Morocco, a solitary avenger, a man of honour, who roams an archetypal landscape on the trail of the clan of his sister’s murderer. A landscape that from time immemorial has been riven by poverty and famine, torn by bloody vendettas, by feuding, slavery, superstition, violence and ignorance – a landscape as close to hell as to heaven …

“His ancestors had predicted that he would be accompanied by the dead wherever he went; escape was impossible.”

Agoun’chich the hunted hunter, spending his nights in caves, holy shrines and old cemeteries, is the messenger of a past that manifests itself in hallucinations and dream visions, in encounters with spirits and demons.

In parts the novel reads like a travel guide as we journey through the mythic, archaic south, around Tafraout, Tiznit and Taroudant, the area where Khaïr-Eddine grew up and which he evokes in all his work, though nowhere in such a riveting, vivid, yet touching and moving way as in Légende et vie d’Agoun’chich.

It was his seventh and last novel, though the first to be written in Morocco – between 1979 and 1983 – after decades of exile.

“How delicious the jug of whey dusted with ground thyme after the heavy wines of distant lands!”

Personal recollections and collective memory, public history and private biography blend together in a collage of the south. And already in the 1930’s – the period when the action proper begins – the south is carrying the stigmata of the exodus and migration from the land, emigration and the (painful) contact with (colonial) modernity.

Khaïr-Eddine writes extravagantly and vividly, capturing the language and traditions of the Berber, describing their daily customs, festivals, creation stories and origin myths, telling tales of the lives of saints such as Sidi Hmad ou Moussa or Lalla t’I’azza T’asemlalt, or of legendary and fabulous heroes such as Hmad ou Namir, with whom Agoun’chich identifies.

“My house was a star and I was Hmad ou Namir, a genius … I was of the stuff of the stars … my body soaked the earth with its sweat, because I worked in heavenly exile …”

The exile that awaits Agoun’chich at the end of the novel is nothing less than heavenly. What starts off as a picturesque on-the-road (or rather, off-the-road) and slightly surreal novel, increasingly becomes a record of a clash of civilisations, the brutal collision with colonial power which increasingly forces Agoun’chich, the “king of the mountains”, the soul of the south, onto the defensive the farther he travels to the north.

When at the end his beloved mule, his only companion, is run down by a truck, his last fight (alluded to in the German title), the details of which are left to the readers imagination, is just about to begin.

“On the very same day, he buried his weapons beside his mule and boarded the bus to Casablanca.”

One thing is certain: it isn’t a fight that can be won with weapons, and certainly not in the mountains – it is a clash of cultures.

The entire novel, and one cannot escape the feeling that this is Khaïr-Eddine’s artistic legacy, is really a part of this fight, and the fact that it was not published until 2002 in Casablanca, eighteen years after its first publication in Paris and seven years after the author’s death, shows that Agoun’chich and along with him the ancient, constantly-threatened Berber culture – to which around 50-60% of the population of Morocco belong – really is as possessed of the qualities of resistance and regeneration as the above-mentioned argan trees, symbols of the Moroccan south.

He postulates this in the early years and practices it himself in countless texts, beginning with Agadir, his brilliant debut novel, which won the Prix des Enfants Terribles, the prize initiated by Cocteau, in Paris in 1967. The writer of Légende et vie d’Agoun’chich seems at first sight to have nothing in common with the rebellious “linguistic guerrilla”.

However, although the novel does reflect the return to narrative which characterised the 1980’s, which indeed was so typical for his generation (Tahar Ben Jelloun being just one example), nevertheless, the theoretical passages, do contain much that is reminiscent of views expressed in Souffles (1966-1972), the avant-garde literary and cultural magazine founded by Khaïr-Eddine and others, including Abdellatif Laâbi and Mustapha Nissaboury, and which, before it fell victim to the censor, was vehement in its calls for a “decolonisation of the consciousness”.

In other words, for a reassessment of Arabo-Berber folk culture, which arguably had been even more damagingly affected by the purism of the Arabo-Islamic mainstream than it had by French colonial domination.

“My world is buried like my mule”

So says Agoun’chich before he sets off for Casablanca. Khaïr-Eddine, the eloquent déterreur who liked to see himself in the role of the ostracised, outlaw poet, was one of the first to resurrect it – and did so by swimming against the tide of his own times.

Nowadays the poète maudit has risen to become an icon of the Berber renaissance, a renaissance which, for the past five years, has even had state support in the form of the IRCAM (Institut Royal pour la Culture Amazighe), the royal institute for the promotion of Amazigh (Berber) culture.

IRCAM has set itself the task of smoothing the way to a global future for the three-thousand-year-old culture, a “culture which, like bread and water, is to be shared with one’s travelling companions.”

The writer would surely have approved.

Regina Keil-Sagawe

© Regina Keil-Sagawe/ 2007

Translated from the German by Ron Walker

The article was previously published on the website.

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