In my sleep I speak
a medley of languages
and animal calls
Abdellatif Laâbi, ‘In Vain I Migrate’, translated by Andre Naffis-Sahely
Great poetry, even when it is beholden to power, is a voice of dissent. This dissent need not be political; indeed, it is more often the dissent of beauty, insanity, individuality, or emotion. But from its place at the margins, poetry can occasionally move into the centre, where it gives voice and dress to the identity of a people. It echoes with particular possibility at times of cultural and political shifts: in 2010 and 2011, Abu al-Qasim al-Shabbi’s ‘Will to Life’ took a prominent place in the public sphere when it shaped the revolutionary hopes of many in Tunisia and beyond. Other poetic expression followed.
But poetry must also grapple, particularly at times of change, with its relationship to power. This relationship does not extend only to the poetry’s content, but also to its building blocks. After all, most poetry is made from a particular language, and each language has a relationship to power and dissent, centrality and margin. In the Maghreb, the roles of languages have shifted over time: Latin, Greek, and Phoenician each had their place. Arabic moved through North Africa and Spain as a medium of conquest, science, and art. French was a language of colonial power and visionary anti-colonial literature. Later, Modern Standard Arabic became a language of authentic ‘Arab’ expression while also being a tool to suppress freedoms for Arabic- and Tamazight-speaking peoples.