Thinking of Abdelwahab Meddeb…

… the great Tunisian poet, writer, essayist & translator who would have turned 75 today. A good friend for several decades, I learned much from him about the literature & culture of the Maghreb and the wider Arab world. (See my essay on Abdelwahab & his work in my Arabia (Not So) Deserta. And wondering why his book The Malady of Islam, which I co-translated & published back in 2003 hasn’t been kept in print — though some copies seem still to be available. Happily Talismano, his first great prose work is still in print in a translation by Jane Kuntz as is the excellent Tombeau of Ibn Arabi and White Traverses, translated by Charlotte Mandell!)

This morning, to have him present, I reread a few pages I translated from his second prose book, Phantasia, which I’ll repost below, followed by a few sections of his last book of poems, Portrait of the Poet as a Sufi.



In the flux of thought, the fragment imposes itself. Between silence and the pause, the verse speaks the discontinuity that cuts me off from the world. Writing drifts from language to language. It translates my double genealogy. The subject bears witness. The hand traces. The written, making allowance for the truth perceived by the senses, accelerates the journey of my mind between languages. Though the languages be multiple, there is but one table. The part of it that I retrieve through a decision that defies the will, brings writing back to an anterior passivity. An active passivity, don’t forget that, you, a man practiced in the unification of contraries.  Whatever you’ll do, you won’t break the circle of the gift. I watch the sky uncovering itself. The sun drags bits of tulle between clouds to mend the firmament. With one hand I draw the curtain. With the other I open the book. I come across the “liminary”, engraved in memory, an incipit that excavates the arabesque of its capital letters from the azure and gold of the illumination. Confronted with the beautiful page, I am dazzled by the letters that introduce “The Cow,” the longest sura, placed at the head of the Book. The initiatic letters —  الم aleph, lâm, mîm —open five other suras. Scattered initials, reticent to make up a word. Will I submit them to the sovereignty of meaning, between effusion and plenitude, between wealth and blame? Will I sound their mystery? On the shores of pain and promise, in the negative interrogative mode, the aleph,  the laureate, stands up straight. It is the one that subsists and encompasses. It throws its straight shadow upon the signs that transcribe the language. In it, multiple, moving points. It is the principle from which the letters derive, as the numbers derive from the one. It commands the alphabet to reside in the twenty-eight lunar mansions. The lâm is the letter of proximity and autonomy, of union and of separation. Decomposed into l.â.m., it contains the aleph, the first, and mîm, the integral. In its median position, the aleph is a bridge between the beginning and completion. The book starts with three letters that span the three degrees of the voice. While the aleph is produced far back in the throat, the lam is articulated by the middle of the palate and the mîm by the lips. Orphaned, these three letters suggest from the start the trilateral rule that distributes most of the radicals in the language. They are enthroned above the words. When you pronounce them, the flesh shivers and thought lays its first stone. In each of these letters the verb is incarnated. They are haunted by Hebrew. From one letter to the other, the same thread weaves different cloths. To the aleph straight as a one, ا , corresponds the figure with three members of the oblique aleph, א. The one grows under the shadow of the other under a sky crossed by the lightning bolt that whips my blood in the heart of the desert. Behind those alphabets I look toward the foundational Orient. Between the two rivers, the fertile loam draws the nomad, as soon as he leaves the hostile climate, like it did the Akkadian ancestor. Invoking the god Shamash, patron of travelers, I recognize the Arabic word for sun, the ogre that devours my herds on the arid steppe. In my dialect the Akkadian voice illuminates each morning. As soon as I name the sun I invent writing. The clay baked in the heat of the day rests in an earthen tomb. Despite its vaunted friability, I exhume it barely chipped. The tablet on which the stylus had traced the phonographs of Sumeria fills my hand. I leave Babylonia and the Semitic domains to celebrate the announcement of language by a people gone now for several millennia. Its ascendancy, its flowering remain obscure. Claimed by no one, Sumeria is everyone’s heritage.


from: Portrait of the Poet as Sufi


o breath o voice

o flavor o fragrance

the water that the mouth gives & receives

the flower a whisper in the ear 

the garden where hands are flowers

the belly button the eye drinks


two bodies that dance

like two wings

that propel a gull

above the port of Tangiers

the bird alights on an iron marker 

before taking off

the wings beat

leaving behind

a pearl grey feather

that spirals & spins


& for hours to rub flesh in flesh

& the ideas blow on the embers of a word

caught without makeup in a language without grammar

the richness of the sounds proves the bodies right

that chase after the cry they are breathless

maybe to reach the waterhole salvation

each time he finds himself in this room

he take sit with him on his shoulders when he leaves her


volume dispossessed of its mass

reduced to its weight of air

a gull’s feather

that floats on the air

before settles on the flagstones

of a quay where the steps leave

their traces on a carpet of guano

as ashy as the pearl grey

of the birds that drop it


solar marine carried by the winds

echo of grace sounding in an ear’s hollow

greek floods the shore where Africa begins

in the name of Hercules guardian of a door

that closes one world (and opens another)

entirely given over to a listening for the smallest twig

the body with all its senses gave itself to sama’ 

a listening that captures the thread that carries the hours.

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