from: Ordeal by Bow, by Habib Tengour (translated by Pierre Joris)

from: Ordeal by Bow

By Habib Tengour


translated by Pierre Joris



We’d wall ourselves into these beer halls — the Ya-Sin Brewery, the Peepers, Chez Abu Nuwas, the Four Arts — close by the university, or into the Eighth Wonder, a passable dive where the kemia were varied, not far from the National Library, very late after legal closing hours. Every evening the same evening…

The curtain drawn on an acrid intimacy: a sort of accord of accolades, breathless kisses and repeated slaps on the belly, hahaha, and more cuddling and embracing, and on top of that, affable arguments. A vigorous joviality was the sign that we liked each other well and that life was good all said and done… Intemperate boars. We were lazily wasting away among the sour smells of alcohol and urine, the stench of vomit, the room’s tobacco saturated atmosphere, the foggy brouhaha… Intoxicated tremolos.

It was enjoyable disgust, ongoing, in spirals…

The head foundered, full, it reeled in technicolor, it emerged with one detail blown up, bizarrely questioning, and it would then disappear, soothed, up the gurgling gut. The eyes would fill with tears, hot tears voluptuously coiling up. It was a liberation into an ephemeral flowering in the suave mist: it made rainbows capping the city like at the lion’s wedding.

Fringed silk scarfs.

… The wall paintings — still lives, imaginary flora, hunting tableaus, portraits of enticing women, polished allegories, scenes from a mauresque Paris, hodgepotch of fishermen’s stuff, tattoos, etcetera — screamed their idiotic naiveness, pretentiously claiming to brazenly manage an artistic ideal gathered from some magazine. Certainly these paintings were inspired, given that the artist was paid with free drinks; still, they remained conceptually mediocre. They did not manage to translate for the spectator that exalting thirst of the privileged moment that saw them being born. Demented daubs.

And yet they forced our gaze into a contemplation as absurd as it was rich in harsh, unpredictable emotions. The dreaming eye always disconcerted, even though dozing. These paintings were signed and dedicated to a favorite mistress: Aïcha, Georgette, to the loving and Unique mother — majestic Piéta — or to time’s rigorous treason. Ogre Cronos dreams of crocs.

Depths, long and large, ah! Time! Time! Always!


A là ayyuha dhà lla’imî…

fa’in kunta là tastî’u daf’a maniyyatí

fada’nî ubâdirhà bimà malakat yadî…



It was the pure product of a shared experience: an impromptu suite of black misery traversed by lighting bolt clearings. One had to go to the old ones, the ones growling before a table heaped with corpses, and ask them humbly, so as  to realize: typhus and the hail of frogs and the rationing cards and the Americans and bombs of every description and the indigénat: thus, untamed, blue jokes come at a price.

The teary colors, ungainly, muddled, of what were paintings covering the walls: crappy yet lacrymal, opening up in a tightly wound labyrinth, a minuscule network of outrageous inspirations, of erubescent wonderments, carnivorous alveoli, a labyrinth like any labyrinth imperiously tempting my curiosity, and on certain evenings totally captivating me… I would let myself get silted up like an old boat or a sperm whale tired of running from that harpoon launcher; I’d negotiate an ecstatic rendition, but he, sentinel at bay, octopus proud of its refinement, would keep me back each time with some mordant remark, not hesitating to crush my toes to keep me from diluting myself in the formless, as square as the public at the foire du Trône in their sunday-best — the flabbergasted circle of the Place de la Bastille — a bystander’s exigency and appreciation.He was gifted for a preventive critique against preposterous ecstasies. He had the cynical voyance of unleashed good taste’s intransigence, the manifestation of a polymorphously sacred that kept him quite taut and tight in an ivory-esque solitude he boasted about loudly, but which I suspected to be but a protective facade.  He needed that distance so as not to let himself be importuned by the failing movement of nature matriculated in the discretionary administrative services. Keeping at an absolute distance.

Starchy disguise of a patented nuisance! A small patch… me, I quite liked those pompous paintings. They had a great effect on me. As if familiar, they hooked me into a faded memory, an impression that didn’t come from any reading. They truly moved me like things already seen with tenderness or, better, as if I had already often lived through these moments of contemplation. It was like the palpitation of the migratory inspiration the eye’s pupil found again, intact. There was a touch of nostalgia.

Oh, indescribable limpidity of surreptitious effusion.

I experienced a childlike pleasure seeing those painting when I raised my eyes from my glass, would salute them cordially with a toast. I confided in them.

They were at their place.


And, laughing, I imagined no other pleasure than to drink unhurriedly amidst such hypogeal illustrations of our salient feats.

So as not to give in too quickly, (because he, the critic high above the mud, would scold me nastily! Something I didn’t much like)

there was first of all my nose,

there was also my ram-like stubbornness,

there was also the fact that I became quite taken with the game and wanted more as do all gamblers when the demon wakes up,

I would begin to finesse (I was capable of that!)

… I would haggle over my misappropriations.

Stirred up by his haughty gibes, I’d take off on a tangent and prevaricate in order to measure the gradations of the meanings. I took my time…
And he would take refuge in emphasis…

— You have to drink without hesitation, goblets and liters, as long as the liver works for the organism won’t always assimilate the alcohol, he’d say; a liver is not eternal, nor are drinks! For decency’s sake, avoid to drown too early in aesthetic phantasmagorias, it’s phony. Humans, oh the poet knew, in his agony, having had a rough time of it, braying to shield himself from the whiffs of camphor: bring drink!

Pour/and pour/ and pour again the circle tightens untightens         retightens

/already/ disperses /beat of a wing/ grab in mid-flight     my fire is thirsty / to

death / thirsty my earth             shaven     consumes itself dawn        deserts its

source   …   azure permanent       ensmokes me      quick! barman fill the glasses

to the brim, pour…       the wine the souls on the bar scatter (nothing lasts and the

eye leaves) sip after sip after mouthful I swallow drunk I want to succumb in


There was a short silence, despite all! Then…

— I drink and persist, I say ostentatiously raising the stemmed glass; but that doesn’t keep me from looking. I got the means. Nothing doing, compadre, you’re on the wrong track; keep your verses. I am lucid. I love! I truly love, and, like you, I have learned that “this century’s poetic sighs are but sophisms”!

Wind!… What do you want? I love!

He says: drop it! To love is not to be delighted. It only entails low work, acrimonies and animality in heat. To love isn’t a big deal, why be a dumb ass? I say: No! No, not at all! You don’t get it. You don’t understand or else you act stupid. Love for me is fitting and exquisitely licit. I sigh with pleasure and get all trembly without being able to say what’s happening to me. I don’t want to dry up inside my skin!

 … He was looking for a witness to take me to task and the argument would flare up again and keep going; it would amplify, drag on, calm down, start up again, get all twisted… The drinks would be refreshed continuously…

He, spreading himself about: in the palace of Culture and in the Ibn Khaldun amphitheater, conference follows conference, all of them instructive. You learn a lot.

Just think, in our golden age, we invented gunpowder! Baghdad was the metropolis of the world and Paris but a village of dumb peasants! The musicians were virtuosos, not the mediocre strummers one sees on t.v. today, they added strings to their lutes, discovered harmonies never heard before, they thumbed their noses at the canon. They were audacious, back then! Caliph Al-Ma’mûn, the light of his time, presided over the  scientific conferences with the agreement of the university corps. He would gather the writers and philosophers in his palace and amazing all-night controversies would ensue. At the table, the repasts were accompanied by a special vintage with a honey’d aroma. The doctors were dissecting live elephants and practiced organ transplants. Hospitals were free. Books were well printed, on beautiful vellum, with superb illuminations and extraordinary luxurious bindings. Arabic was learned all over the world. Arabic was the language!

The witness: ah!

I: hoho!

He: yes, and linguistics was the Arabs’ crazy hobby horse. If you look closely, you’ll see that I’m not the only one saying so, all of Chomsky is prefigured in the writings of the imam al-Jurjānī. The books are there, all that’s needed is to read them attentively…

But we didn’t last long, because of the crusades and America.

I: to the contrary, we lasted and lasted! Go study your dictionary! Your crazy pony looks to me much like a kamanjā! Old friend, you should know that the only powder the Arabs invented was the one you take!

The witness: oh, yes? I’m not following you, I’m totally lost. I know nothing about music or firearms. I always wore the dunce’s cap in my Jules-Ferry village school, always had to stand in the corner, and yet Madame Garcia, who was a good teacher, did everything to make me learn and she didn’t spare the ruler. Poor Madame Garcia, I barely can read today…

He: … We also invented the zero and the mathematical infinite. Algebra and the x as function of the unknown. The numbers, which we don’t use. And we also invented the astrolabe and the compass. So much so that Charlemagne, him of the flowery beard, organized a council instructed to deliberate on the nature of these inventions because the Franks were afraid that they were the work of the devil. Oh, what didn’t we invent! Europe knew neither public illumination nor the precise divisions of the hour…

A neighbor: stop, brother, stop, have pity on us, those were other times! Alas, today we can’t even wind up the clock of the main post office! All the watches in the country need to be fixed. Where do you think you are? You don’t live here! You’re high. The State swaps clock-jacks when it’s flea market time, tickers made in Hong-Kong and Taiwan; it steals our  time through monstrous wastage, and we love every minute of it as it provides an exculpation that fits us like a glove; the State’s a monkey on our backs constantly bugging us rather than sending us into space. And you speak of precision!… (the time to down his drink)… Are you not part of the common lot? (…eloquent pause). Cousins, please, for the sake of the drinks we shared, enough already, stop it with the grandeur of the Arabs! Enough about usurped splendors! Stop it with that one-eyed past! It’s a calvary for the ears! Does this heritage put food on our tables? What is it, anyway? A fraud, a con! Speaking for myself, my grandfather has left me a family tree that goes back all the way to Ali and Fatima Zohra, on a piece of twice folded kraft paper, full of grease stains, with nearly illegible writing, but when I go back to the tribe to see my uncle who is a marabout, he too owns a copy of our genealogical tree handwritten by the master of the zawiya, but the hunger is still there! And our rags are shiny with dirt and fleas. Of course, it’s not as it was before, but what does that change? The Arabs are a catastrophe! A dirty race! Ha! By God, we are in a bar, after all! Watch your manners! (… out of breath. A silence!)…

Please excuse me for interrupting like that, so loudly, but we are among brothers. No formalities. You’ll have a drink, my round, yes?


*  *  *

from: “Exile is My Trade” — The Habib Tengour Reader (Black Widow Press, 2011)


Habib Tengour, writer and ethnologist, born in Mostaganem (Algeria) in 1947, lives and works between Constantine and Paris (Université d’Evry val d’Essonne). Considered as “one of the Maghreb’s most forceful and visionary poetic voices of the post-colonial era” (Pierre Joris), Tengour, who authored a “Manifesto of Maghrebian Surrealism” in 1981, explores the Algerian cultural space in all its ramifications : the oral and hagiographic traditions, the popular imagination and the founding myths, collective memory, raï music and the lived experiences of exile – all this in writing formally so profoundly hybridized that the critics have forged a term to define this phenomenon, namely “soufialism” (Hédi Abdel-Jaouad). The subjects that are closest to his heart are the Algerian cultural identity and memory as they are being mestizoed and woven between Orient and Occident, especially under the impact of the experiences of exile and migration. See for example L’Epreuve de l’Arc (1990), his “maqamât-novel,” Gens de Mosta (1997), his novel composed of short stories, Ce Tatar-là (1999) his poem set in the working class suburbs, or Retraite (2004), a collection inspired by the rundown hotels of Belsunce quarter in Marseille, where the photographic image (Olivier de Sépibus) and the poetic word converge to say the difficulty of aging in exile. Here, as elsewhere, the double vision of poet and ethnologist achieves surprising symbioses, for Tengour, the cynical observer of his society, proposes through his narratives a fragmented chronical of post-colonial Algeria under the dismal light of History or of myth: emigration in Tapapakitaques (1976), the decline of socialism in Sultan Galièv ou La rupture des stocks (1981/85), the rise of fundamentalism in Le Vieux de la Montagne (1983). Le Poisson de Moïse (2001), his latest novel, tries to understand what makes young Algerians eager to join the Taliban.



Pierre Joris’ most recent publications are his translation of The Meridian: Final Version—Draſts—Materials by Paul Celan. (Stanford U.P. 2011), Canto Diurno #4: The Tang Extending from the Blade (poems) as a 2010 Ahadada eBook, Justifying the Margins: Essays 1990-2006 and Aljibar I & II (poems). He is working with Habib Tengour on Diwan Iffrikya: An Anthology of North African Writings from Prehistory to Today, to be published in 2012 by University of California Press. Later this year Chax Press will bring out the complete Mediations on the Stations of Mansur al-Hallaj (poems).

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