Addie Leak translating Mostafa Nissabouri

It is a city

It is a city that wards off the eye, which the eye at its most powerful is powerless against.

A city soon to devour us as little by little we reduce to a series of fragmenting bones dwindling to disperse in air. Am I a city rebuilt bone after bone or am I a lifeless city? Or made of resurrected fortresses absent from scholarly books (kasbahs, palms, from cave-dwelling to low little houses with strangely placed windows) meant to reawaken the instincts of the love-struck ogress and unleash this series of stashes, shelters, cold spells and heat waves to assure the eye’s clarity in reappearances, perfectly obvious traps serving to capture the bloods and shifts of lands, the djinns.

Caves opened for the crawling of my ribs
as if I were as if the city and cave in me
were separated into computers each using its own system
pathfinding all its own a criss-crossing destruction
and dream
and machines outstripping time
time in our heads layered under old cancers
of paradise since
we can’t escape our destiny since
it’s a question of the eye something living some
thing tragic in our eye since
Sesame the Sesame cave the city my town crumbled
under the blow of electric reverberations and my prayer to the fowl
the great master buried in Baghdad
the dissension of my lymph fume flasks holding the power of ubiquity

                                that vampires
not geography
                      nor geometry could give a reason for the disaster
                     threw me into kif
no more these legends between the ruins saying that
                                                                         only I’ll be left
and I
        will be devoured by a monster
                                                          and who will fill the moons? who          
                                                                               will close the book?

It doesn’t matter, I say, if they force me almost every day to swallow plates of couscous with death arranged to make it vegetable and if the streets are panic. I telescope. I adjust dreams from which they say my brain was hurled in vast bands barely perceptible waves and my liver, I say.


It means nothing if I can seize only symptomatic tremors from the abyss and if up close my delirium is seen in the form of fleeting stains – pools of blood. It means nothing if my anachronism is the opposite of the electron, the electron and my anachronism constituting this scandal of settling each trying to outdo the other from which I say the transistors capture the voices of sirens, black and white sirens, to capture night, the night along with all the characteristics of the moon. And your teeth have a little gap that opens in my imagination lips of Tanit torpor. And in this clairvoyance an old killer who is time and in my dream suddenly motifs which start again, stuck in sand, lustful, a crowd full of territories in which I measure myself the city the street and me without managing to strike the decisive blow that should end all quivering Tanit throwing this dream that the city sends back to me it having never hurled so many heads so many fingers so many doors and so many utility poles so many numbers and caravan legacies nor either been so twisting nor so impossible to reach given the necklace of houses which line it low along the gorge and also given the street lamps which give it a desert air which reminds me nostalgia is a crescent moon virtue nostalgia crumbles, I was crumbled in remembering, crumbled the companions who stop to better sing departures from the nearby debris of houses affirming that it is Tanit all about a love lost a devouring passion Sesame like the night which calms which comes without my moving without waking a deep moon difficult to recognize in what it has created to let loose the appearance of immobile time. I had a moon become a sopping mass half purulent half roving gluing half-destroyed douars that I could save nothing from but a book of calamitous descent. I had a moon that tetanized me could not chase it away even pressing thumbs from the temple to the middle of the forehead in a way that made a red dot between the eyes the same as sun, which makes the body the body capsize in each joint in the least cell its stench. Moon that strikes. That it is necessary to chase toward the trees, toward the dunes, and which is the bearer of an old grievance.

I have stayed to sound out this enlargement
                                                        my   voice
sticking to death’s soles
                                         my brain
                                                        with the dimensions of a battlefield where Sayf ibn Dhi Yazan could have dug up golden scorpions. Anemic I and the rest in the books that the galactic western will come find to assure me of my Middle Age, of my resurrection, of the beauty of my religion, of my youth my primitivism my virility my pitiful sex, that it’s a question of time, that the free man must be proclaimed, that Berber, that he barbarian, that I Jewish Hindu fatalist fanatic and Arab, that he Phaëton, that after all we are not so different except that he is correct. His dog, his wife, his disciple who couldn’t get a passport. Caria, novel à deux, kif, tea I a m d e l i r i o u s I w r i t e t r e m b l i n g u n d e r t h e d e l i r i u m and Brahim whose life he knows better than anyone better than me Sicily Essaouira in front of the little photogenic rats dumbfounded by young madness listen to me I am a Roman prophet ready for the revolution the action first the action for the galaxy and the moon in me then the moon in which I am my supplications
he more Muslim than I
the prophet in Rome

with electronic calculators in full future desert
with a city with only two doors
pyramids totems
people in love with the same cow as me
in this city I know my ID number
I too
lived in future deserts
I too conquered most satrapies
how I can swallow days of chergui I the Minotaur
how I can be benevolence
how I have as fantasies in the blood
cadavers without graves facing the city
                                                             to destroy
and of which another city will remain that we will call


                                                                         the cave

five men and the sixth a dog and I the Minotaur
and still I the Minotaur the cave six men and the seventh a
dog and I the Minotaur and still the cave six dogs six men
and still the cave a dog without men and the dog appears
with the effigy of its absence
above all to fill the cave with surreal visions in which to hunt down in the
laugh of other cow heads loads of open streets pressed against the
walls of the sleeper’s ancient den with the cow the town of bronze
without passport ropes machines oueds no more caravans
                                                                                          in the laugh
                                                                  I the Minotaur
and still Tanit the animal riding on my high
irregular with booklike insomnia
and still Tanit her embyolomies her gust of air thighs
and my night catch the moon if only
to mimic in pictures if only
to recognize my mind made only of foam
my night my anachronism the size of my double belt of kif
On archways and street lamps, my gape and gaze

Translator's Note

This poem, originally published in the 1960s Moroccan journal Souffles, appeared in Mostafa Nissabouri's 1975 collection La Mille et deuxième nuit. Nissabouri was a key player in the creation of a postcolonial Moroccan literary identity, and poems like this one provide an often-surreal, and occasionally overwhelming, vision of the tension in Morocco after its independence from France in 1956. In a poetry anthology that he edited (La poésie marocaine de l’Indépendence à nos jours [2005]), Nissabouri’s contemporary Abdellatif Laâbi writes that the Souffles poets had a “zeal for twisting the neck of the unsayable, blowing up language to better breathe the missing word, rebellious and free, into the body of their culture” (translation mine). Nissabouri’s poems fall very much into this vein. They explode across the page, opening up the traditional French forms to question genre. They also question colonial rule by shredding the French language, opting for long, syntactically complicated sentences that sometimes include erasures mid-phrase, making the reader work to pull sense from them. These are the things that I love in Nissabouri’s work. In translating “It is a city,” I did my best to maintain this exploded form, occasionally adjusting it to best suit the poem’s rhythm in English. In some areas, I also chose to play up the right margin of the work, allowing the lines to develop right to left, as they would in Arabic, one of Morocco’s native tongues. Sound is key in this poem, and, having worked to maintain the plosives that add vitality and bright harshness to the original, I am overjoyed to be able to read my translation for Drunken Boat.

Addie Leak

Addie Leak is a freelance editor and translator based in Iowa City, IA, where she is also a Provost’s Postgraduate Visiting Writer in the creative writing track of the English department. She translates primarily from French and Spanish, and her work has been published in the Huffington Post, The Postcolonialist, and the Buenos Aires Review, and is forthcoming in 91st Meridian.

Mostafa Nissabouri

Mostafa Nissabouri, born in Casablanca in 1943, is a poet, the former director of the Ecole de Beaux-Arts in Casablanca, and one of the founders of the pivotal Moroccan literary journals Souffles (1966) and Intégral (1971). His highly intertextual work deals with the daily effects of sociocultural violence and is marked by a fascination with memory and otherness. Nissabouri’s poetry collections include Plus haute mémoire, La Mille et Deuxième Nuit, Aube, and Approche du désertique, translated as Approach to the Desert Space in 2001 by Guy Bennett.