Abdellatif Laâbi is perhaps Morocco’s most well-known poet-activist-writer, and a well-respected Francophone poet as well His personal history—founder of leftist Moroccan/Maghrebi magazine Souffles (Breaths) in 1966, imprisoned for “crimes of opinion” against King Hassan II from 1972 to 1980, and exiled to France since 1985—is staggering on its own, and his writing reflects each stage of his life in haunting and affective ways. This is perhaps what makes In Praise of Defeat (824 pages; Archipelago; translated by Donald Nicholson-Smith) so incredible. The book is a veritable brick—it’s almost intimidating in its scale, refusing to let the reader forget Laabi’s illustrious and prolific career. The poems span from his early work (“Le Règne de Barbarie/ The Reign of Barbarism,” 1965) to the quite recent (“Le Saison Manquante/ The Missing Season,” 2015), and the length of the poems—most notably, Sous Le Bâillon, Le Poème/Beneath the Gag, The Poem (1972-1980) and Le Soleil Se Meurt / The Sun Is Dying (1992)—range as impressively, too. It seems a little crass to call a book of poetry a “page-turner,” but as some poems here span up to ten pages, it’s worth noting that Laâbi’s deft metaphors sustain your attention so that the physical interruption of the turn of a page is lessened. (The book also includes an essay, “Writing and the New World Disorder.”)
With Laabi’s original French on the left-hand pages, and Nicholson-Smith’s English translations on the right, In Praise of Defeat showcases a series of poems, and selections from longer poems, hand-picked by Laâbi. In some cases, this means that only a few stanzas of a poem appear in the book, and the reader is left wondering what else was said, or what Laâbi wanted the reader to seek out on their own. The excerpts, however, do work as stand-alone poems.
Laâbi’s range is admirable, as he writes eloquently on romantic, erotic, or familial love, political resistance, torture, and global politics—although who is to say that these things are not intertwined? Poems such as “À mon fils Yacine/To My Son Yacine,” “La vie reprend le dessus/Life Returns to Normal,” and “Ce monde n’est pas le mien/This World is Not Mine” show that politics and political climates are inseparable from feelings of love and inseparable from the physical spaces one occupies (willingly or otherwise).
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One of the most compelling poems is “La langue de ma mère/ My Mother’s Language.” As a grown man who has not seen his mother for twenty years, Laâbi describes the way that language transports his mother to the present:
Today, when I am alone
I assume my mother’s voice
or rather she speaks through my mouth
with her oaths, obscenities and imprecations
her inimitable rosary of pet names
the whole threatened species of her words
This poem is especially fascinating in regards to Laâbi’s decision to consistently write poetry in French (versus someone like Ngugi wa Thiong’o, who has refused to write in English). Like many petit bourgeois colonial subjects, Laâbi grew up speaking Arabic at home while learning to read and write French in colonial schools under the French Protectorate. In an interview that has been translated into English, Laâbi states that this decision is not without meaning: “My parents were never able to express themselves. One of the reasons I started to write was for the men and women who are not able to express themselves, but who are not stupid nonetheless…to allow them to speak, to have something to say. “Laâbi’s expressions of both his own experience as well as the experiences of those who cannot speak or write are felt throughout the collection, especially in poems like this one. (Other notable examples include “Loin de Bagdad/Far from Baghdad” and “Chronique de la citadelle d’exil/Chronicle of the Citadel of Exile.”) It is also through Laâbi’s decision to write solely in French that he acknowledges his in-between-ness as a (post)colonial subject—a state that is echoed by his former imprisonment and his exile from Morocco.
Perhaps the most well known work here can be found in the section excerpting from Sous Le Bâillon, Le Poème. These poems were written while Laabi was jailed in Kenitra prison, and for a period was trapped in solitary confinement. This section is especially striking, evoking visceral responses—especially in the poem “Talk or Be Killed.” In this poem, Laâbi recalls his friend, Évelyne Serfaty, who died a year after her extensive torture in prison in October 1973. The lines “Évelyne / the tiny body / emaciated and wrinkled / of a child prevented from growing up” are repeated throughout the poem. It is a sobering and heartfelt tribute to a fallen comrade, unflinchingly blending grief, solidarity, and hatred of oppressive regimes and barbaric practices.
Especially relevant to our current political climate is the poem “Le spleen de Casablanca/Casablanca Spleen” (1996). Laâbi mourns, “they have robbed me of my country,” and asks, “Where can I file a complaint / Who can bring me justice?” Laâbi entertains many different ideas of a country, ruling out various iterations:
It cannot be a country
that closes its door to guests
spouses of the star
emissaries of our ancient loves
survivors of the journey
Eventually, he concludes that such a country cannot exist yet:
It is a country yet to be born
at the slow pace of far
In the languor of hope
a thousand times betrayed
In language lost
The idea of a country that does not exist yet resonates quite strongly. There is no perfect nation, not yet. Nation-states that currently exist—be they nations living under tyrannical undemocratic rule (backed by our own CIA), or settler colonial nations seeking to expunge any and all dissidents from within their borders—are insufficient in creating and maintaining the kind of justice that Laâbi helps us to imagine. As such, reading “Le spleen de Casablanca” in a contemporary American context offers an opportunity for internationalist solidarity, something that we are sorely lacking in our resistance movements and organizing. Laâbi encourages us to dream and envision a radically different one, one not predicated on shutting out refugees or imprisoning the people who make their dissent loud and clear.
In times as dark as these, it seems apt to turn to poets who were imprisoned, lived under oppressive regimes, and lived to tell the tale. We should not reach for In Praise of Defeat to assuage our fear and anger at the current administration, but we should reach for this book, and for Laâbi’s works in general, to seek strength and courage to nourish our own resistance.