‘New Poetry from North Africa’ illuminates London evening

The poems were first read in Arabic and Tamazight and the English translations followed.
Saturday 05/10/2019
Fadhila Bechar (L) and Victoria Adukwei  Bulley (R) at the translation workshop in Tunisia. (Courtesy of The British Council)
Forthright poetry. Fadhila Bechar (L) and Victoria Adukwei Bulley (R) at the translation workshop in Tunisia. (Courtesy of The British Council)

LONDON - Poets from Morocco, Tunisia and Algeria shared their poetry with an English-speaking audience through readings, translations and discussions of their works at London bookshop Waterstones.

“The Illuminated Paths: New Poetry from North Africa,” which took place in September, featured readings from Fatma Krouma and Ashref Kerkeni (Tunisia), Adil Latefi and Nassima Raoui (Morocco), Fadhila Bechar and Mohamed Rafik Taibi (Algeria), and the UK poet-translators Victoria Adukwei Bulley, Vidyan Ravinthiran, Stewart Sanderson, Adham Smart and Martha Sprackland.

The poems were first read in Arabic and Tamazight and the English translations followed. The works of four poets from Libya and Mauritania who were not able to travel to London were read by their colleagues.

The poets participating in the British Council’s Majaaz project were brought together in Tunisia with some of the United Kingdom’s best poets to make the collaborative translations.

“To translate poetry is not just about the poem itself. It is freighted with a lot of cultural resonances and illusions and with a history and a literary heritage. The British Council’s aim is to foster friendly understanding between the UK and the rest of the world and poetry is such a fantastic vehicle for doing that,” said Jim Hinks, literature programme manager of the British Council

“The Illuminated Paths” was the focus of the summer issue of MPT (Modern Poetry in Translation). The literary magazine, founded in 1965 by Ted Hughes and Daniel Weissbort, had two main aims: to get poetry out from behind the Iron Curtain into a wider circulation in English and to benefit writers and the reading public in Britain and the United States by presenting them with good work from abroad.

In her introduction to “The Illuminated Paths,” Editor Clare Pollard recalled workshops in Tunisia “where each word’s poetic nuance was fiercely debated and also times when the poets would pair off to translate each other’s work on cushions under the tree, in cool side rooms or on the hammock.

“The focus of this issue (“The Illuminated Paths”) is the result and it is a pleasure to present such a varied and exhilarating selection of poems, which stand testimony to the friendships that developed and the power of words.”

Pollard said the poems brim with the belief that poetry matters enough to wound, transform, memorialise, seduce and even heal, such as in Zouleikha Elhamed’s lines, translated by Sprackland: “I melted like snow inside its song and the glory of it rose up in my life with its honey-scent.”

“The Illuminated Paths” begins with a black-and-white portrait of each author, followed by a comment from the translator. The English translation of several poems appears next.

The first reading was by Bechar, a strong feminist voice in Algerian literature who writes in her mother tongue Tamazight. The translations were read by Bulley, director of an intergenerational poetry, film and translation project.

“One reason I loved working with her [Bechar] was for the chance to spend time listening to poetry in her mother tongue, Tamazight,” Bulley said. “Often known as Berber, Tamazight is a widely spoken indigenous language that predates the arrival of Arabic in North Africa.

“After Algerian independence in 1962, efforts to replace the colonial French language with Arabic meant that Tamazight was marginalised. It would be another 40 years before the language was constitutionally recognised and struggles for its future continue today.”

Because of the context within which Bechar’s poetry resides, her choice to write and perform in Tamazight is a brave, political one, Bulley said.

“Her work speaks to and for a culture that is rich in orality, with ancient traditions that lie quietly at the heart of contemporary North African life. Bechar’s spoken voice is gentle but her poetry is forthright with cries of longing and survival: the unforgiving realities of social hardship and personal heartbreak,” Bulley said.

“Hers is a poetry of loyalty and resilience that is as personal as it is national, as humble as it is fierce.”

22