Crossing

I

The one that swaddles us
the purest and the most defiled
stilled sea, no admittance
devourer of seven prompted by overweening
daring or by chance
to listen to the sirens’ song dive
into the sulfur
maternal obsession still wavering today
despite frequent transformations
often pathetic
as if the gaze caught in raw blue
the soul that placed itself once and for all
after having been given up
thoroughly weaned
to the street after school

It was a red-roofed “native” school
with clock and tower: ECOLE JEANMAIRE
not far
as if to mark a threshold
from the firing range
the squared-off watchpost
today built shoddily into a block of HLMs
of a relative who guarded the buried gold
 
The state of things and stories propped up belief.

The child never ventured alone into the neighborhood of the koubba.
He had been warned
of the mortal danger
evident in the line of chance
traced too deeply in his right palm
and he fled every striped djellaba
the garment could hide some treasure-
hunting Moroccan sorcerer

After having looked around me
the faded space caught off guard by listening
my vaguely shy desire
to give in to the fabulous fiction
illusion caressed
white noon where the perverse imp
slips in silence
then draws erect and
suddenly drops
nettle prickly with enticing words
stickiness
things which change shape become oppressive
the sky crumbles beneath your feet
I rush away
in my own universe o hollow dream

My grandfather told me of his encounter with one of those
nude Nubian chimeras
gleaming with almond oil and spices
she writhed on the pavement when
he was coming back from the baths at siesta hour.
She pursued him, performed an obscene dance inviting coitus.
She whispered: “Come, my beauty!
I am a virgin from Eden and I am all yours…”
My grandfather was afraid but he knew
how to protect himself.
He revealed to me how he escaped      
      being strangled and bled by
        reciting correctly and out loud
           the sourates “Dawn” and “The Men” which he
knew were indicated in the circumstance.
The beast
      in heat had mocked him all the way
           to make him stumble on a word.

Noon is an extravagant abyss.

 

We left together
for France on the Kairouan

Kader had taken the same liner but
it was summer camp

and how he went on about Pradel
opening and closing his multi-bladed penknife

What an odd idea to call a boat
Kairouan and the next one Tassili Hoggar

to conjure up with sand and stones
the blue-white damp of the inhabited shore

After all past time doesn’t matter much
elusive
 
I don’t remember well any more
 
the ports were locked to people strolling
potential stowaways
harlequins
the slightest shortfall incites them to
                                                      the angel’s leap
 
to cross over for the paltry pleasure of sampling
a high-end beer on the nondescript and bustling
terrace of the PMU bar-tabac
                                  the Nimrod or the Terminus
 
that hunger
for methodical window-shopping lively
beneath an umbrella         O Paradise
happiness a purseful away   adventure
at last to end up sending wife and children abroad

  

When I speak with them today they have forgotten the bad luck
interrogations at the border raids in the subway.
Truckloads of trouble!
They’ve ended up old in a squared-off suburb.
The children don’t answer their phone calls
the grandchildren are aphasic.
Memory’s kept up by an audio-tape in the mail.
They chose nothing.
They come and go
by plane now
               impotent
               nostalgic
               endlessly stepping back
               arguments abound and excuses
are always good ones
                                                               the definitive crossing.

 

Amnesiac alien
being integrated inlaid into absence
exile is a fake leather armchair
it’s unheard speech
ritual mutilation
atavistic difference
a gene
transmission of thought
a painless index card
then
        everything you never thought of in your distraction
                                    (preoccupied with having a house back home)
falls on your head
the flood
 

II
 
The sea caresses but she isn’t gentle
She’s a tease at the stroke of midnight when
the moon rolls a hoop through her soiled folds
healthy and fatal
she can turn to marble to cede the way
 
The port gates are still padlocked
someone always on duty
in turn with no idea of civic order
the water keeps lapping
but the strollers an endangered species
no longer grab the gates
to leap to the other side with wild cries
(Off course!)
sure of being turned away before saying family name, first name
 
We took a taxi to the Gare Saint-Charles.
Two farm workers from La Stidia
went with us
useful for sharing the fare.
From the train, it was like crossing the outskirts of Mostaganem.
Childhood has an agile view.
Farsight gives you courage to embark
When we woke up, we had arrived in Paris.
The compartment smelled so sweaty you could vomit.
In the corridor, the conductor shouted at the top of his lungs “Gare de Lyon!”
I asked “Paris?”
“Yes, the Gare de Lyon!”
I didn’t understand.
   
There was no castle on the Place de la Bastille!
I refused to climb the tower.
The sooty genie didn’t inspire my confidence.
 
Then
every journey was an Aztec sunset
you feared the unfolding of farewells’ fragile fabrics
without saying a word
with no visible tears
you poured water on the quais and waited
for the loved one you were watching to disappear 
 

III
 
In summer the sea is for swimming
a fair exchange for our libations
people camp out in the rough
their hooked desires linked and the kids
on that polluted beach
forgetting or pretending not to know
the ancestral warnings
Where to invent the world’s best arrangement  

The sun can’t broach its limits
stretched out in light the body breathes
a cheerful vessel
until the loudspeakers’ deafening entry
surround sound
in profound belief
and the weekend’s votive ambush
the heatwave loosens desire
 
It’s said that the Predestined One’s coming will be announced
in the West in a shard of steel
at sea in the sky on earth or beneath the waters
all is possible
he will set his feet on charred ground
because of an adulterous woman
and suddenly change our misshapen lives
surely he will clear our way to all the paths forbidden
by self-important scholiasts
who know nothing of fire or of light
or the sword-blade turned bridge so that hearts
can touch reddened with patience and goodwill
I wanted to believe to sacrifice the gray ram
  
Pharaoh tyrannized the whole world.
Insatiable potentate, he knew no limits.
Because of a bad dream,
he wanted to kill all the male children, to avoid going through
a slave rebellion.
So God saved Moses from drowning to
be the honed blade of his exemplary vengeance and
teach the Law to the children of Israel.
A spoiled child.
Don’t confuse the brother of Ishmael with Azrael, the angel who comes for the dying.
The old woman who counseled my grandmother also said that one could eat with Jews but not share a bed with them because God had cursed them for having falsified the Scriptures with dishonest intentions. They knew of the Prophet’s coming and the content of his Message but they wanted nothing to do with an Arab. They thought themselves God’s only chosen people. They plotted against the Messenger of God and sought to kill him. Hypocrites!
God knew better than they did.
They have been carrion since the time of the Imam Ali.
During the battle of Khaybar, he swore to slaughter all the tribes of Israel with his forked sword till his victims’ blood reached the flanks of his steed Sirhân. And he set to his task. Ali was not a man to go back on his word. The earth trembled as it drank the blood of all the men, and then of the male children. But the level barely rose. The Prophet was horrified. He could not release his nephew from a vow made to God. He covers his face with his cloak. He falls to his knees and prays to the Merciful One to put an end to this massacre.  The law of “An eye for an eye” should not apply to the women. Woman is neutral, a luscious part of the spoils of war. Delicate and fragile. God hears His Messenger’s prayer. He is The One Who Answers. A fierce rain falls on the massacre. Water and blood mingle on the earth. Lava rises from the abyss. A holy whirlwind. Bloody mud stains the flanks of the fierce stallion. The Prophet cries out “Stop, O Father of Clay!” Ali held back his blows. And the Prophet continues “You have kept your vow. Sirhân is covered with blood. All is in order. Do not be foolhardy; Come back to God. Blood is precious. Do not shed it insolently. God is great!….

The widows in tattered rags came begging for a miracle. Praying figures afflicted by a holocaust. Do not let Jacob’s lineage be extinguished in the womb! Israel’s wife intercedes. So dignified, the concupiscent looks cast on her turn to ashes. She is apt at finding the necessary words and the stance to pronounce them calmly. She comes forward slowly. And the Prophet, touched by the scene and by the beauty of the supplicant, answers her: “Let each one lie down naked tonight upon her husband’s corpse and make her vow, she will awaken pregnant, by the grace of God.”

 
And it was thus that the children of Israel became Jews…

 

Often our next-door neighbor Madame Ida would give me my after-school snack…
She was a seamstress who did piecework at home for one relative whose shop was in the Carreau du Temple, another one in the Passage du Caire.
The Sentier district’s inescapable family ties.
She’d show us places where the prices were low, how to recognize good-quality fabric. I observed her carefully and did not find the slightest trace of that curse.
A mother my mother.
                                  Depressed because of her children.
Albert barely left his room since he came back from military service in Algeria. He wouldn’t speak to anyone and hid when there was a knock at the door.
Charles didn’t work as hard as I did at the lycée.
The house was clean. Smelled of cinnamon.
The oral tradition–what a sham!
It captures childhood’s spontaneous colors in bald reflections.
It shamelessly accredits body-lice and head-lice.
It directs the eye insidiously towards the navel.
It ties gaudy rags to crazed dreams, neglected carob-trees.
It inculcates the cult of race, o narrowness!
 

IV

The sea. How did it become a sea like this?
Watered silk
and words that separate sold in a morning’s innocence.

 

A fast friend
if we have come to need insurance on our friendships
a poet
appeared to me in a dream
to warn me of annoying tendencies to exoticism
they appear
                  imago
                             here to the eye
                                                     amused out there
Arabs are kitsch
truth plastered with makeup it’s insufferable
I said that had never kept anyone up at night.
I was mistaken.
In fact I could no longer stand being lectured
even asleep.
It’s indecent!
But the day will come when writers will gather in broad daylight, straightforwardly
They’ll dig up mandrakes with their bayonets
(the metaphor turns petty with the state of siege, curfew, assassinations).
The freedom to describe in public what shakes one’s being
gains meaning.
Shop windows shatter.
There isn’t much to sell here.
Does that change the facts?
I had to spend a moment in the mire
stir a lot of mud in the hope of finding a little water.
Whirlpools in Heraclitus’ wake.
To behave.
Precise in your way and basta!
To put an end to a too-persistent transition.
Don’t you think that you’re drifting dangerously far from your first enthusiasms?
You wrap up merchandise in the tanks’ gun-sights!….
On awakening, windblown garbage-bags flouted premonitions.
Stains….
I didn’t want to see anything in the dream but a string of clichés.
Collective memory can hide its bunkers under the cactuses but its outdated tricks won’t stand up to an all-out attack.
Some shores are disappointing but the obsession persists beneath the mask.
Inevitably, I was had.
 
A year ends
and begins again
there, ash
hunts down vague desires
overcast snow-skies, dissimulation
deceptive dailiness
global warming is abnormal
it disturbs a naïve garden’s closed transparence.
 
The Garden of the Hesperides was turned over for immediate occupation after Hercules had tried it out; though it no longer provided juicy exportable fruit as in the time of Massinissa who, despite the sordid treacheries in history books, still owes his persistent fame to his precise application
from A                                                                                                          to Z


            of an authentic and scientifically conceived agrarian revolution.
A challenge to the laws of the market. The souk.
Berber utopia…
Genesis of a nation.
It was the age of trade and navigation
but already
they disemboweled each other to conquer the market
shifting lebensraum
preventive wars
to strip the other of bellicose ambitions
rubbish left there by chance
oily sea-foam laps at the foot of the rusty
rocks recalling the barter of olives and wheat
and the fantasies of rhapsodists
who passed on to each other in secret the myth of
Aphrodite.

  

The maritime sites began as colonies founded by industrious Mediterranean types escaping from the perfidious gossip of their places of origin. They left the Orient where any word had its price for the Occident, known to be barbaric. Barbarism was a comparative stage, a negotiable point of view. An imperial logic developed by the chance of where they found themselves. From the virtues of household gods. From matrimonial strategies.  Language loosened quickly with these new assets. Aspirations to eloquence. Treatises on style. The strongest was always right and could if need be always invoke the inalienable right of return. He was able to impose his books and his culinary art. To attest to that there remains fossilized wine in corked amphoras sometimes found in below the ruins of wharves the sea covered over.

We arrived later on the camel trails, which explains nothing.  Two submerging waves. The second was compared to a plague of locusts. We exchanged our garments for the newcomers’ beards.

But that’s no explanation.

We is another hunchback whom I don’t recognize when he prevents me from going out for a breath of fresh air or singing in the moonlight. Settled on an island, when the fever overcomes him as it does today in public, he brusquely ignores the call of the open sea and diving and women escape his short-sighted view.

Woman, his puzzle, his headache!

The phenomenon is cyclic. It’s all the rage.

Others came ashore, on the coordinates of the Greenwich meridian
(I learned that it passed close by Mostaganem, through the courtyard of the castle where Petrus Borel had sunstroke),
fond of yachts, wild rhythm and forbidden swimming.
They ate us alive. Then vomited us up.
And then they took us, body and soul.
Sidi Lakhdar warned us.
“Balderdash! The cult of the saints is a perversion of religion.”
Belwahrani had even foretold AIDS and that an Arab would discover the vaccine in secret. “Those are just verses,” they retorted.
“A madman’s visions. A dubious interpretation.”
The fourteenth century!
I was very ill. I am no longer in pain.
They saw to my execution.

 

V
 
When your skin cracks in the sun
so that fine threads of salt stripe your chest
you’ve got to hurl yourself into the water
before roasting
before industrial waste
before the floating death that pricks your footsoles
and not becoming the archaeologist of a worldly pleasure
or forgetting to die of it
 
My tribe invents tales of origin
it guards its genealogy jealously
though it is oddly careless about linguistics
transforming words and values at will
from elsewhere it gets nail files clippers scissors
rubber bands after the problems of usage
it doesn’t follow rules but it conforms
to the flaking landscape
it secretly appreciates the lewd exploits
of its poets from me it expects only
that I follow my path as it presents itself
at the moment when the heart opens unconstrained
it has no use for the cortège of self-satisfied
humanists nor for the theories of apes whether courtly
or bearded it most often falls silent
facing danger is that consent
it loves the one who can hold his ground and speak
frankly it rushes in without thinking when
the discussion heats up
I am still
surprised that a banal cloud carries off
the city the desert memory made holy
a white stone
pause
I embrace you dazzling sea at journey’s end

  
the dog
                ossifies  
                                  at the cave’s
                                                                mouth
 
the state stud-farms remain
where Moharram’s full moon can be seduced
 
VI
 
Dubious daybreak
and sweating dawn
what furred strength will steady your soul
how to speak of love
logically to love with a passion
sustained even when opportunity lacks
that’s another question waiting for the young man
at the bus stop an enigma
after she was hurled from the top of the rock
space shrunk
the stars passed by before midnight
the sea crashes into your gaze
what a blue
isn’t this dictatorship
the question is repeated: isn’t this dictatorship
you are unsure of your response
and you don’t answer
the perimeter knows
from experience its facets
are multiple and various according to the style
the coral serpent and the larval bloodsuckers and the infected sperm and the stubborn silence and the leeching and fiery preaching and the bastard mobs and the scholarly shepherds and those who found their courage when the firing ceased and the son of a bitch guides with computerized charisma and the heavenly whore to be enjoyed after the exploit and the premature ejaculations and the weft of their words and all they are secretly weaving and the diviners repeating themselves and the men with brainless hands hanging out in the projects and the dubious divines who brandish the Book and the impotent ministers rambling on and the cult of auctions and the easy pickings when the flag flaps in the wind and faces in metamorphosis and the mouse who buggers the tomcat and the lion with a balding mane and anathema and the list going around and the recruits from the Turkish baths and the work sessions behind closed doors and Friday football games and open elections and phony diplomas and under the table and the hangers-on of the faithful rewarded and the pimps become deputies and the one alone at the summit distrustful though praised by his epigones and the party base in agreement and the leader’s haughtiness and the revolutionary fits and starts and the tardy reforms and the empty market basket and the turncoats and the traitors  and the fatherly admonitions and a glimpse of the wolf’s tail and the rosary and the funereal expressions and the night of doubt and the octopus and heaven which doesn’t wait and the B-52s and the display of missiles and the homemade bomb in the garden and the barbed wire fences of internment camps and the repression and the judgments on intent and the security officers and the hood and the use of forgery and the hands in the dark and especially the soldiers all weapons together on parade.
…. however the perimeter is not enormous
it basks in a luminosity that stretches it out
and the sea
with its green bays and with tears in its midst

 

  

Inflation…
good health you must look after your health
the children are grown already
and too many others are growing
edgy
champing at the bit in crowded streets
there are those Returned from Afghanistan
those who dream of a boat to Australia
and Baghdad beneath the bombs
the sea veils itself in black
Poverty keeps watch beneath the pear tree
the parables are hollow
O fine promises of long ago
your maps could not be falser
 
Do not believe…
my tribe that cannot be worn down continues
despite successive droughts and a hurricane of fire
to pride itself on lovers’ ruses
to lavishly describe frontiers it crosses
 
 

VII
 
The sea     it
lives in a shell             remains a wild
beast in the tale
 
Translation of “Traverser.” Copyright Habib Tengour. By arrangement with the author. Translation copyright 2011 by Marilyn Hacker. All rights reserved.