Knowledge is Unforgiving

Knowledge is unforgiving
It gnaws at you
What are you guilty of?
Something forgotten
or overdone?
To feel yourself burning with the words
you draped over the unnameable,
pinned to your seat
while sipping your coffee?
Dare to say it:
despite being free of evil
you are its hostage
Can we melt the executioner’s heart
change human nature?
No one has the answer
redemption, Redemption
you murmur
that insoluble equation

— Abdellatif Laâbi
(Trans. by Andre Naffis-Sahely / The Poetry Translation Workshop)

Moroccan poet Abdellatif Laâbi founded the art and literary magazine Souffles in 1966. The magazine was banned in 1972, the same year Laâbi was sentenced to ten years in prison for “crimes of opinion.” Laâbi was freed in 1980 as a result of an international campaign for his release. He was exiled from Morocco in 1985 and has been living in Paris ever since.

[Research note: Abdellatif Laâbi’s website]

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The Word Gulag

            They've opened a new gulag. The word gulag.
            I go there every week, taking with me a shopping bag containing some
fresh fruit, a bar of soap and a couple of tins of condensed milk. I call to a 
prisoner at random, then wait in the visitors' room with the gesturing crowd. The 
words file one by one out of a little door and stand in front of us on the other 
side of the wire. Pale. Trembling. Haggard. Shattered.
            Talk! barks the guard as he patrols the corridor that divides us, 
banging the grill with his keys.
            No one responds. Not the words, because their jaws are visibly broken. 
Nor the visitors, because, as they suddenly realise — they really should have got 
this earlier — the gulag has taken away their best words.
           Visit's over, the guard shouts, drawing a curtain we hadn't noticed 
before.
           Some barely audible words burst out, from which side of the grill no one 
could tell. Probably words of goodbye.

— Abdellatif Laâbi
(Trans. by Andre Naffis-Sahely / The Poetry Translation Workshop)

Moroccan poet Abdellatif Laâbi founded the art and literary magazine Souffles in 1966. The magazine was banned in 1972, the same year Laâbi was sentenced to ten years in prison for “crimes of opinion.” Laâbi was freed in 1980 as a result of an international campaign for his release. He was exiled from Morocco in 1985 and has been living in Paris ever since.

Le goulag des mots
          Un nouveau goulag s'est ouvert. C'est le goulag des mots.
          Je m'y rends chaque semaine avec mon sac à provisions où je mets
quelques fruits de saison, une savonnette et deux boîtes de lait concentré. 
J'appelle un détenu au hasard et je vais attendre au parloir avec la foule 
gesticulante des visiteurs. Les mots sortent en file indienne d'une petite porte et 
se mettent devant nous de l'autre côté des grilles. Pâles. Tremblants. Hagards. 
Brisés.
           — Parlez maintenant, ordonne le gardien qui circule dans le couloir qui 
nous sépare, en tapant sur les grilles avec de grosses clés.
           Mais personne n'obéit. Les mots, parce qu'on leur a visiblement cassé la 
mâchoire. Les visiteurs, car ils découvrent subitement — ils auraient dû s'en 
douter plus tôt — que le goulag leur a pris leurs meilleurs mots.
           — La visite est terminée, crie le gardien en tirant un rideau que nous 
n'avions pas vu auparavant.
            Quelques mots à peine audibles fusent à ce moment-là, on ne sait de 
quel côté des grilles. Probablement des formules d'adieu.

[Research note: Abdellatif Laâbi’s website]