Habib Tengour: Maghrebian Surrealism [Essay & Manifesto]

Posted by Lidya Endzo Kun iLLa On 6:39 AM
Translation from French by Pierre Joris


— Given an audience of intelligent participants
— Into a red chechia without a ponytail place nine ping-pong balls numbered from 1 to 9.
— Shake the chechia for the one minute needed to create silence.
— Draw a ball
— The number on it determines the title of the essay.
…except that, well, the balls have disappeared.
Which proves that a chechia is as good as a top hat.

The Maghrebian, “that inveterate dreamer, daily more discontent with his destiny, has trouble assessing the objects he has been led to use” (objects that are few, one has to add, because a subtle lack surrounds his gaze and turns him away from “real life”), “objects that his nonchalance has brought his way, or that he has earned through his own efforts, almost always through his own efforts, for he has agreed to work, at least he has not refused to try his luck (or what he calls his luck!).” This luck is not a Straight Way: it is uncertainty — like the piece of clothing one no longer takes the pains to mend. However, he values this luck he has awaited at the end of a cold weapon, he hopes for at a border crossing. For it, he has accepted all kinds of exile. “At this point he feels extremely modest,” but nobody should be fooled: it is a loaded silence!
Who is this Maghrebian? How to define him?

The woods are white or black” despite the gone-to-earth nuances. Today definition impassions because of its implications. A domain for going astray. Political jealousy far away from the exploded sense of the true. Indeed there does exist a divided space called the Maghreb but the Maghrebian is always elsewhere. And that is where he realizes himself.

Jugurtha lacked money to buy Rome.
Tariq gave his name to a Spanish mountain.
Ibn Khaldûn found himself obliged to hand over his steed to Tamerlaine.
Abd el Krim corresponded with the Third International.

An excessive taste for history and controversy chains him ironically to a hastily exploited hagiography. As to the Tragic, he only grasps its throbbing and banal spark. He turns his back to the sea and mistrusts the sun, knowing its terrible burns. “The mere word freedom is the only one that still excites him. (…) It doubtlessly satisfies [his] only legitimate aspiration.”

There remains madness.” Around here it is common. It circulates. Sometimes it gets locked up, by accident. For the rest of the time one prefers to tame it in order to enjoy it in the margins of the NORM. Because from very early on everyone learns how best to exploit it. Knowing that “hallucinations, illusions, etcetera, are not a source of trifling pleasure.”

I council the reasonable man to go sit by the river and he will see pass by all the madmen he ever wanted to meet; provided that he live long enough. All Maghrebians know the subversive power of madness; their artists (with rare exceptions) know it less well than they do, as shown by the sugary and luke warm use they make of it in their works trying to compel the unbearable limits of a dailyness so difficult to bear.

The madman, the mahbûl, the medjnûn, the dervish, the makhbût, the msaqqaf, the mtaktak, etcetera, belongs to folklore, alas. This reduction reveals the narrowness of the outlook.

It happens, however, that the jerky flood of fire and mud illuminates the word: Nedjma bears witness to this just as some of Khaïr-Eddine’s bursts carry its disorder.

On the screen, madness remains a moving picture. Maghrebian moviemakers – the Algerians in particular – are seduced by the image of the madman: he is thought to speak what had been silenced. In most cases we are dealing with postcard-madmen (colonial exoticism was fond of this sort of postcards), boring and pompous. Zinet’s in Tahia ya Didou does grab me, maybe because of its naïve clumsiness.

Of the dream and the marvelous, the Maghrebian knows the weight: it is a nod of the head and a long sigh.

In the morning the one who has dreamed tells someone close: I had a dream. Then shuts up. The other one has to answer: oh well, by the grace of God. Only then does he tell his dream.

I have let many dreams pass by for not having been able to say the hallowed formula in time. I have also known many Maghrebians said to be married to Djinnies or Rûhanies – floaty creatures between the human and the angelic. According to their entourage things weren’t any worse than for other couples: quarrels and reconciliations, broken dishes and careful housekeeping.

In the Maghreb the ancestors often visit the living for the sheer pleasure of appearances.
For a long time the Maghrebian has been a surrealist without knowing it. Take for example the following statement by Ibn Arabi:

“In what I have written I have never had a deliberate purpose, like other writers. Glimmers of divine inspiration illuminated me and nearly overcame me, so that I couldn’t free my mind of them except by writing down what they revealed to me. If my works show any kind of formal composition, this form is not intentional. I have written some of my works on the behest of Allah, sent to me during my sleep or through a revelation.”

But Breton has defined surrealism “once and for all”:

“SURREALISM, n. Psychic automatism in its pure state, by which one proposes to express – verbally, by means of the written word, or in any other manner – the actual functioning of thought. Dictated by thought, in the absence of any control exercised by reason, exempt from any aesthetic or moral concern.”

“ENCYCLOPEDIA. Philosophy. Surrealism is based on the belief in the superior reality of certain forms of previously neglected associations, in the omnipotence of the dream, in the disinterested play of thought. It tends to ruin once and for all other psychic mechanisms and to substitute itself for them in solving all the principal problems of life. (…)”

During the twenties, some Maghrebians in exile “performed acts of Relative SURREALISM.” It was difficult for them to do otherwise: the family was a lack they wept over in front of a post office window, the fatherland a confiscated identity and religion a recognition.

Today the twenties are long gone, drowned in the gaze. The “fish” have dissolved and fat rats are enthroned as critics. “The Magnetic Fields” lie fallow. Only the battlefields are exploited.
The “act of ABSOLUTE SURREALISM” remains to be done.
Premonitory signs announce it.


The passing Maghrebian is surrealist in Djeha.
Nafzawi is surrealist in sexual revelation.
Ibn Khaldûn is surrealist in intrigue.
Sidi Ahmed ben Yussef is surrealist in cursing.
Mejdûb is surrealist in anguish.
Feraûn is surrealist in Si Mohand.
Kateb is surrealist in the tradition.
Dib is surrealist in the drift.
Mrabet is surrealist in his joints.
Sénac is surrealist in the streets.
Khaïr-Eddine is surrealist in his alcoholic delirium.
I am surrealist when I am not there.
Tibouchi is surrealist in certain verses.
Baya is not surrealist despite Breton’s sympathy.

I would like to stress this point: they are not always Surrealists (…) because they did not want to serve simply to orchestrate the marvelous score.” This “marvelous score” we find it in the game of the boqala, in the threnody of the professional mourner, in the rhymed recitation of the meddah, in the invocations of amorous magic, in blasphemous insults, etcetera. Speech and gesture are not dissociated from the perpetual movement of the natural elements that encumber the waking dream. Superb and indifferent echo, assonances. The lines are established, bent to the severity of chance: there is nothing to prove.

The Maghrebian artists, however, are often obsessed by their image, they want to prove something: that they have “talent.”

A left bank Parisian publisher confided confidentially that he did not like to do business with Maghrebian writers because they all think they are Rimbaud. So what! It is certain that he, Rimbaud, didn’t give a damn about being a Maghrebian in the Harrar and that the publisher in question is a cad despite his undeniable qualities.

Today this obsession with “talent” keeps most Maghrebian artists from being “modest recording instruments.” Kateb is to my knowledge the only one who denies “the ‘talent’ which has been lent to [him],” but he has lost his resonance. His suicidal position enchants only the drifters closing in on him. I would have loved to hear him exclaim: “The haste some show to see me disappear and the natural taste I have for agitation alone would be enough to dissuade me from vainly shuffling off this coil”…

The Maghrebian artists have plenty of “talent” – but not enough to dare say “We have no talent, (…).” One had to be rotten through and through with culture and have a moral rigor above suspicion in order to lance the boil. “(Even) the simplest surrealist act” demands a considerable subconscious disposition. One does not go “into the street” on a whim and, in order to make art fade away one has to be a familiar of its arcana.

We will certainly manage to melt ourselves into the surreality of our space in order, finally, to be.

Right now the “recording instruments” are somewhat gummed up. “There still exists at this hour throughout the world (Isn’t the Maghreb the beginning and the end of the world? It is said that Atlas is wearying under his load. It is also said that the world is a miniature Maghreb but that everyone does their best to ignore this fact), in the high schools, in the workshops, in the streets, in the seminaries and in the barracks young, pure beings who refuse to fit in.”

One of those “young beings” went to Tunis high school. To a French Literature exam question on “qu’est-ce qu’un beau vers?” (what is a beautiful verse?) he answered: “un beau vers est un ver à soie” (a beautiful verse [vers] is a silk worm [ver]). But since then he has had the unhappy naivety to take himself for an inspired poet! … This often happens and is, when all is said and done, less problematic than the case of the “pen pimps” who set themselves up as censors of taste. That’s because many “corpse(s)” don’t give up the hope of “making dust.” I’ll leave them to their sordid haggling, necrophilia not being one of my pleasures.

It is finally into Maghrebian Sufism that surrealist subversion inserts itself: “Psychic automatism in its pure state,” “amour fou,” revolt, chance meetings, etcetera. The mistrust Sufism inspires and the multiple attempts at recuperating it incite me to be more attentive towards a phenomenon it is wrong to hastily catalogue as retrograde. A judgment based on ignorance! There always exists a non (?)-conscious smidgen of Sufism in the Maghrebian writer who is not a clever faker – just reread Kateb or Khaïr-Eddine, for example. The Maghrebian rarely errs concerning the derailment of his Sufis: in this domain, mystification is not easy. There where the exterior observer sees only heresy, sexual dissoluteness, coarse language, incoherent acts, etcetera, he asks himself:

— Yes?
— Yes!… No.
It's obvious, “Existence is elsewhere.”
Thus goes “belief in life (…)”…
When the Sufi Master is not present, the initiates don’t dance.
You will have understood, or at least I hope so, that despite my perverse attachment
to art, it is “elsewhere” that I hope to sojourn.

The Surrealist Revolution is total and “in matters of revolt none of us can have need
of ancestors

Constantine – March 7, 1981.

Born in 1947 in Mostaganem, Eastern Algeria, raised on the Arab and Berber voices of marketplace storytellers, Habib Tengour has lived between Algeria and Paris ever since, both incarnating and, in his work, speaking to the nomadic & (post)-colonial condition of his countrymen. Trained as an anthropologist and sociologist, he has taught at universities in both countries, while emerging over the years as one of the Maghreb’s most forceful and visionary francophone poetic voices of the post-colonial era. The work has the desire and intelligence to be epic, or at least to invent narrative possibilities beyond the strictures of the Western / French lyric tradition, in which his colonial childhood had schooled him. Core to it is thus the ongoing invention of a Maghrebian space for and of writing, the ongoing quest for the identification of such a space and self.

Besides a range of lyrical works ranging from Schistes de Tahmad 2 (1983) to the recent Traverser and Épreuve 2 (2002) — works that always stretch the imagination of what the lyrical can be —, Tengour’s main books are the poetic narratives Le Vieux de la Montagne, called a “Relation” (1983), Sultan Galiev (1985), L’Epreuve de l’arc (1990), Gens de Mosta (1997) and the novel Le Poisson de Moïse (2001).

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