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From Collective Intimacy to the Horizon of the Self

The poet and translator Samira Negrouche writes from within Algeria as a country marked by grief, she keeps returning to this: the silence around the heritage, the lack of a cultural infrastructure. She writes poetry from within a loud silence, that dins from corruption and violence. " I say that to write the most banal things you must first write of your birth of your mother of your father of the love of bodies of women of men of rapists and assassins of incest and night sweats and of the hunger of the desert of books"... For years Negrouche was engaged in creating a platform for contemporary poetry in Algeria. With lessons learnt, the nature of her resistance has now changed form, she has more or less withdrawn from the domestic cultural scene. "To resist, it is important to get out of the repetitive vortex." The works of Negrouche bears glowing traces from the predecessor Anna Gréki, active during the Algerian war of independence:

I press you against my breast my sister
Builder of liberty and tenderness
And I say to you await tomorrow
For we know
The future is soon

Ida Börjel, poet & translator

Credits Text: Samira Negrouche Translation from French: Marilyn Hacker Introduction: Ida Börjel Photo: Dali H March 17 2021

We are living in an era of accumulated astonishments where everything around us urges us towards silence. An era that has brought us closer than ever before to a collective experience. Nothing is at all like anything else, but something has been taken away from each of us that might open a pathway, each and every one of us is now uprooted from his or her base and bedrock.

This situation makes me waver, reconsider constantly, sometimes pushing me to grasp hold of my own private reality, sometimes, to seize a succession of larger realities that surround me and reach me.

We ae living in, living through, an epoch of agitations and overflows, once more not hesitating to yield to self-sacrifice, to that ballet of infinitely repeated gestures and positions, where compromise follows in our footsteps often enough, waiting for the next blow of the sledgehammer that will inevitably drive us to more and more untenable compromises.

I live in a country that has been in mourning for much too long, a country that never really knew either how to honor its dead or set them completely free, a country that always consigns the living to some future time, life itself to some imagined future. A country that invents a hodgepodge of conflicts to avoid getting to the heart of the real struggle.

We must be silent to accept our mourning, be silent to escape the whirlwind of emotions, be silent to refuse a language of conflict. Keeping silent is sometimes the only way to break the cycle, the only real resistance.

My country has too often sacrificed its children, carrying them to the altar of supposed higher causes. My country’s children haven’t stopped sacrificing themselves in the hope that their own children or grandchildren will be born in a land that’s more just, less tragic. We mourn and deplore the tragic and yet it’s what we reproduce daily.

We are the children of the war of independence, so we resist, the children of deprivation, bereavement and wars between clans, the children who survived the dark decade, and who learned to bury, to forget their bruises, the children of institutionalized corruption, and we still resist, and know that it would take only a single lit match to summon all our sacrificial souls.

A famous Algerian saying could define us by itself: all that’s left in the wadi are its pebbles. We are children faithful to our land even when it no longer quenches our thirst. Even when we betray, we don’t really betray. Our stomachs knotted, we know that our souls are at the bottom of the drained wadi, whose course we must restore one day.

My country has assassinated its poets in many ways, it inflamed them and abandoned them, it pointed them out, it diabolized them, it buried them under a heavy layer of neglect, it replaced them with an inconsistent multitude. My country assassinated its clairvoyants, its far-seers, and, out of their faded images, it sometimes made myths.

Myths to assassinate other poets.

Those poets have helped me to live, they were the compass that saved me, that allowed me to read the complexity of my society and its history. Those poets weren’t offered to me – they were ignored, passed over. I had to search for them and gradually come to understand their choices, their works and their itineraries.

As time passes, we realize to what extent their fates were uncertain, how much they were not only the witnesses of their times but were manhandled and mistreated by them.

That genealogy of Algerian poets was my foundation. It’s their absence from doctoral theses, school programmes and public life that constructed and reinforced my desire for memory and truth.

There are powerful works by these poets that still instruct us, but there remain, too, lines of transmission and relations that are fratricidal.

I recall a letter written by the poet Jean Sénac, a fervent partisan of Algerian independence, to Jean Amrouche. A letter where he apologizes for having had bad judgement and having ceded to malicious voices that would profit, one side like the other, from soiling and separating them. Amrouche had been accused of insufficient engagement, even though he’d been ousted from French radio broadcasting because of his ties to the Algerian resistance. He continued to plead, to advocate for Algerian independence from Switzerland.

Jean Sénac was never naturalized as an Algerian citizen despite his wholehearted political engagement. He would even be fired from Algerian radio after the 1965 coup d’état, banished by organizations represented by poets like Malek Haddad – who finally stopped writing at all. Sénac, assassinated in his basement. Sénac, whose young poet friends were tortured in the course of an investigation that concluded it was the “crime of passion” of a spurned lover.

Bachir Hadj Ali lived in hiding during the war, then was tortured and put under house arrest after independence. Myriam Ben also lived in hiding, then in forced exile, more than once. Djamal Amrani suffered torture during the war, then hiding, bereaved and mourning his friends murdered one after the other during the “black decade.”

Kateb Yacine, with his schoolboy’s eyes, lived through the massacres of 1945, then the torments of war, then harassment by the authorities, and, finally, exile.

Tahar Djaout was murdered in front of his home in Ain Benian. Youcef Sebti was assassinated at the National School of Agronomy, where he taught. Friends of mine who teach there today, and who demonstrate in Algiers for the fall of the corrupt regime know nothing about their murdered colleague, and have never read Sebti, or Amrani, or Sénac, not even Mohammed Dib’s poem praising “the voices that set themselves free.”

Tahar, whom a young poet said “doesn’t convince him.”

Chest puffed out, barely pubescent, cries out in the streets of Algiers, wants to kill the father – that child – in a nation of orphans.

But who would want to kill an orphan, his temples still hot from the bullets’ impact?

How many excommunications there were of poets, yes, by bullies, but also by those who struggle, or who think themselves part of the struggle, who, by their attitudes, only reproduce oppression.

So many facile excommunications!

How to be born and construct a self from that, from all these melodramas that impel us and push us to modesty, to meditation?

It’s life we’re talking about! Of people who fought to live with dignity, fought for more justice, to create an inclusive Algeria, an Algeria that would finally honor its multiple heritage. The cycle of dramas seems to repeat itself from one generation to the next. And yet each and every one of us has, in his or her own way to break the cycle.

Torture, prison, assassination, political struggle, denial, insult, forced silence….. are not the fate of poets. The poet’s destiny is to live, to look beyond the self, to create a body of work, to transmit. It’s exactly that that he is often prevented from doing in an era of political troubles and oppression. He/ she must harness him or herself to lift the burden of that oppression, of all oppression, to make the contribution that only a poet can.

In doing that, the poet doesn’t stop being a citizen, but he must remain mindful, resist posturing. He must not become a caricature of automatic opposition. Like a photographer, he must blend in, sharpen his senses and his gaze, listen, and finally carve and hone a vision that will continue and extend the work of his genealogy.

And if, for that, he must separate himself from the collective and suffer slander and exclusion, he must resign himself to mourning his erstwhile brothers and sisters while never forgetting to carry within himself their nuances.

To do that, we must resist all the reassuring clichés, of the sacrificial hero, of the courageous prophet. To resist, we must extract ourselves from the incessant whirlwind, from the expected posture, ask ourselves what our epoch has to say to us, and what we have to reply.

To resist is to go a long way in search of the “knowledge” that those who haven’t gone through the ordeal still lack. It’s making use of a language that goes beyond emotion, that raises still-unconsidered questions, the perspective and the contrast that are lacking.

The poet doesn’t reassure, the poet is no tool. Whoever would give poets a brand name is using the wrong language, has gone halfway and still has half the road to travel.

The poet speaks when all the rest are silent, and is silent when the world finally awakes. It was during the oppression of those endless days when no action was possible that the poets spoke to me. They will speak to anyone who’ll go the rest of the way and strip off their clannish reasoning.

I live in a country where we know that, to resist, we must learn to breathe deeply, and to hold our breaths. A country where we have known our lives’ confinement, known curfew, sacrifice, and waiting, for much too long.

In the trial that we share, each poet illuminates what is necessary in the word of another, what is essential so that something in every mind frees itself and that a collective current begins finally to flow. But the poet never knows how that illumination happens, nor how her word might arrive somewhere, nor to whom it will arrive; only that this is part of a poet’s vertigo.

For anyone who knows the weight of sacrifice, resistance is to pass what’s living, irremediably, all that’s living, first of all. Never to accept again that any struggle relegates living to some vague future.

To conclude, to be a poet is to build a horizon within oneself, and invite everyone to explore their own horizon, their possibilities, beyond all dogmas and servile interests.

To resist is to accept, to welcome, that infinity of horizons, adding up, overlapping, facing each other, to push away the specter of violence, of all violence.

Algiers, 11 November 2020

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