Tuesday, February 12, 2013

First Dibs On That Book: A Poetic Meditation On The Landscape of Memory

by Alastair Johnston

Mohammed Dib, Tlemcen or Places of Writing, translated from the French by Guy Bennett, Los Angeles: Otis Books/Seismicity Editions, 2012, 115 pp., paperback, perfectbound, $12.95

The kindness of strangers is legendary, but when you are used to getting books, manuscripts and CDs in the mail you are not always grateful, or aware of their significance. Last April I got a copy of The Poems of Luxorius translated by my friend Art Beck, sent to me from Otis Books, which are published by the Graduate Writing Program of Otis College of Art and Design in Los Angeles. They decided to add a bonus to the package, the book discovered here.

(To make a long story even longer: Last week I had a dentist appointment and had to take public transport there and back, a journey of an hour each way, an experience always improved by a good book. My Hazlitt volume was too big to fit in a pocket so I grabbed the small slim volume of Dib off the shelf where it had been sitting patiently waiting to be sorted into sell, give away or read later).

The cover is black, a matte black that is eventually going to be covered in scuffs and fingerprints, and the book contains some murky square photos, also very black. A good book needs no photos to sell it, I thought, especially badly reproduced ones. But then I got it: these are Dib's photos, amateurish mementos of his past. He took them in his hometown of Tlemcin, Algeria, in 1946. In 1957 he was exiled and spent the rest of his life away from his homeland, writing about it. Like James Joyce, like H. C. Earwicker -- like everybody! So this work is a poetic meditation on the landscape of memory and the unknowable trajectory of life. 

"Why worry about order and coherence if we don't have to? Memory knows no such concerns and we are strolling through a memory."
By the time I got home from the dentist I had finished the book and decided to read it again. I was ignorant of Mohammed Dib (1920–2003) until I read this slim poetic work. The web tells us, "Dib, who was at various times a teacher, accountant, rug maker, journalist, and drama critic, wrote of the poor Algerian worker and peasant in his early realistic novels." Coming across those old photos had started him thinking about where he had come from. Some of the people in his photos look pretty downtrodden, and I thought Algeria was a hot country. They look bundled up against the cold. His own family look a bit more comfortable, or maybe these shots were taken on special occasions, weddings and birthdays. And the black and white murky photos come to life as he paints them in for us:
"A few colors. Less for brightening up the photograph than to get us dreaming. The floor is a mosaic of olive-green tiles (so typically Arabo-Andalusian) on the one hand, and tiles the white of Chinese porcelain on the other…. The checkerboard they form is contained in a wide, dark red frame. The walls are paneled with azulejos in the grand tradition: blue motif on white background, repeated from tile to tile. You feel it has the moist transparency of a child's eye.
   "And green is the grape vine whose trunk stretches ever upward, plunging the patio into green shade."

He asks what the role of the writer is. It must be more than just a function to produce text. He has a set of references which he hopes coincides with those of the reader. Coming to the text, both writer and reader are looking for a space of freedom, he says. It's up to both to discover common ground, because once the work of writing is finished it disowns the author and leads a life of its own. Whimsically he suggests that critics and "people with master's degrees" need to open up these spaces of freedom once more, by which I think he means interpret the codes of a writer's work so they speak to all readers. Everyman as Augustine or Jerome?

From children's games (which are universal) to taking bread to be baked at the communal oven, Dib paints a portrait of a bygone time and a bygone lad he no longer recognizes: the 8-year-old whippersnapper in a bowtie and kalpak (one of those wooly cylindrical hats). "Such is the oddball that faces or rather confronts me. I can't get over it, the bow tie in particular delights me. And scandalizes me."

Other kids roamed the streets; some were already working. He went to school, which was run by the French colonial government. "And today French is a language that Algerians are not averse to speaking. I myself began as a school teacher in this language, which far from making me French made me more Algerian."

He takes us back to the market, "La Médresse," destroyed by the French because it might harbor terrorists. Nothing could be more unlikely: it was just a collection of gaily painted stands selling fruits and vegetables brought from the countryside, "paintings the Fauves would have been proud of." He recounts the trips with his grandmother to this market, the intoxicating odors, how she would haggle so much over an apricot it would drive the stall-holders to distraction. "That's it, old woman, shop's closed! I'm going straight home to bed!" Another destroyed neighborhood, Bab Sidi Boumédiène, was home to story-tellers. Though illiterate, these men told tales from memory that the author later discovered were from the Thousand and One Nights. "Story-telling is still forbidden: these people of the word may once have delivered subversive messages, and could still be doing so today."
"Just opposite there was a flourishing flea market where you would also happen upon the greatest concentration of fortune tellers. But it seemed they were only there for the infantrymen of the Gourmalah barracks, who could be identified by the pronounced fondness they had for the girls -- they monopolized every one. When you saw the proud soldiers hold them close, you had to wonder if they were having their palms read or whispering sweet nothings into their ears. Allah alone knows and, as for me, I was too young to approach these big women, girls from the South they said, in order to find out. Incredibly, they wore no veils and their faces were amazingly covered with tattoos, their burning eyes ringed with kohl."

But the whole neighborhood was torched by the French, along with Le Médresse: 

"Not only did this result in the physical disappearance of a place, but also of trades and professional practices, whose bell tolled at the same time. Neither would survive. As the cluster of shacks went up in smoke, the local customs were also immolated, and the traditions and spirit that gave rise to them vanished, too."

Dib's writing makes me want to go there, tempt the fates again that found me lost in the Nubian desert. (I pause to put on Musique Tagnawite by Mahmoud Guinia.) There are no bugs in the desert, no insects, nothing lives there. You can lay down in the sand and look at the stars until you fall asleep. But it's better to travel at night and look for shade during the day. Then I remember that as the world is more and more divided into haves and have-nots, it is increasingly impossible for us first worlders to wander unremarked into the Sahara, the world's largest desert. It's not only on Algeria's doorstep "but also within us, in the dark refuge."

 "The three revealed religions were born in the desert. Three religions that conceal others, many others, that were also revealed there. Let us keep that in mind so as not to forget that the desert is the blank page on which anything can be written, or anything erased.
   "Only it happens that not one religion was born in the Sahara. Our desert is a true blank page. Is it meant to remain a blank page? Based on what we know, we can say that this page is spreading further and further in all directions.
   "The blank page is not only something we can write on. It is also something your destiny can appear to you on, write itself on.
   "All Algerians know geomancy, the art of divination. The geomancer draws signs in the sand and you wait for the omen."

Because of my love for North African music I am drawn to his description of a festival: "Then come the Gnawa (the Blacks). In a thunder of enormous drums, their iron krakebs clack like the beaks of a thousand robotic storks." I can hear it! And now I can see it too. Blurry family snaps, girls in their finery (recalling Lehnert & Landrock's Rêves d'Orient), arty architectural shots, suddenly it all starts to come into focus. We cannot go there, except on the flying carpet of Dib's words. But he falters:
"You haven't said everything you thought you did, and what you did you didn't say well.
   "… Again to try your luck. From that time on you cannot escape the call of the work to be rewritten. Which will be perfect this time."


  1. Thanks a lot for the nice and cool post. Keep posting.
    Study Online

  2. Well, better late than never, right? Upon reading this review in February, I was intrigued and found a copy, either on ebay or Amazon, I can't now remember. I poked at it a few time since then and last week picked it up and really dug into it. I spend two to three hours on public transit every day so it served me well during that time as it did you. My life has been affected by it and I am very grateful to you for sharing it with me. I would never have heard of it otherwise. I finished it this morning and tomorrow morning will pass it on, along with this post to a friend I think will enjoy it too. Thank you.


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