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Habib Tengour

Habib Tengour was born in 1947 in Mostaganem, Algeria. Trained as an anthropologist and sociologist, he is the author of over fiften books, two of which can be found in English: Crossings (The Post-Apollo Press, 2013), translated by Marilyn Hacker, and "Exile is My Trade": The Habib Tengour Reader (Black Widow, 2012), edited and translated by Pierre Joris. The winner of the 2016 Dante European Poetry Prize, he directs the series Poems of the World, published by APIC in Algiers. He divides his time between Algiers, Algeria, and Paris, France. 

By This Poet


Celebration of the Absent One

Translated from French by Marilyn Hacker

For Eliane, Mireille, and Regina

                                  We dreamed of a phlegmatic life for you
                             of sleep and siestas
                             sweet things, an honorable luxury
                             a carpet of rich flowers at your feet
                             to put your fears to sleep 
                                           —Malek Alloula, The Exercise of the 
                                  Death’s dust has disrobed you even of your 
                                           —Pierre Jean Jouve, Matière céleste 


      whose whiteness flowed into lead
A black decade / years of blood
Rupture              Algeria, la Maison Blanche 
Austere welcome of the patriarch in his tight-fitting borrowed
who knew the rites of passage
       the institution’s stringent checks
Arrivals and departures both distressing


Songbirds, the innocent larks at the border of Saint-Cloud
So many memories Eliane told me
Simple choices         solid ties
Impatience to know the city’s every corner
Thirsty beneath the blinking neon 
But you always did your homework


Slip from the frame to shape the film
A new world opening in the red 
Salutary progression where you speak and
Give voice to peasant women joyously
Telling their stories
A thirst to speak
You burst through the screen 


Impatient red desire      the dazzling meeting
                               Passage Camels
Impatient to live

All that black: no sooner liberated
Medina’s women excluded from the procession
Denial of the Messenger’s daughter 

Rue Eugène Vartan How vast the prison 

The world is not a film set 


Disillusion, pain, on the horizon’s eighty degrees
Disappearance of the French language 
Debacle, that will not let you rest until you
Drift where the word carries you 


Joyous days standing to sing the country
Algeria the Fortunate setting itself free 
Erasure of all trace
Of ancient Caesarea the smell of the sea without armor
And mute absinthe 


Emerald at the foot of the lions’ mountain
Oran scoffs at the chiaroscuro of a gaze
To each his own shamelessness 
Another Rimitti makes amends
The minotaur basks in the sun on the Cintra’s terrace 


Brawling and fantasia keep a memory alive
You transcribe its austere narrative
From rags of the massacre
Weave the story’s brightness 


Abdelkader roars on the Place d’Armes 
The theater is open 
White with all those dead calling us to order
The kingdom of shadows has no taste 


Rest     you too
Return in peace, O soul 
The father’s house is a living language
Open to guests passing through 

The Tartar from the Kremlin

Translated from French by Marilyn Hacker

This particular Tartar doesn’t have four dromedaries for traveling
That’s what he usually says                              Not without a touch of irony
—it’s annoying to repeat yourself
Justify your immobility
Give all sorts of explanations
No one asks for them 
Isn’t it the survival of some sort of atavism?
Nomadism is an art           a camel is indispensable

The Tartars know something about it 
What they recount was classed as a world heritage
But they’re not the only ones to have
Made use of a scholarly poetry on the question 
And oases for thirst as the saying goes
Property of the picturesque nomad
The affirmation is categorical 
Scathing cutting all discussion short 


This particular Tartar doesn’t leave                                 that is to say never leaves
                                   the enclosure of the Kremlin
High walls pulled down now since June
Trenches filled in gigantic peripheral highways
Places for not-so-weekly markets
Not very talented                                 maybe a mask
Strategy of representation
Poison of urban phantasmagoria 
A character wrung out like a dishrag
It’s not amusing
Not dramatic either 
He daydreams in his garret of unveiling the mysteries of magnificent cities

The briefest departure                                  as soon as it’s imagined
Which is rare                                               turns out to be a Chinese puzzle
He’s got to think about it at length             very lengthily indeed
To mope    to dissect  to gnaw away at it    to howl at the crows
In order to rouse himself
How do you decide to leave?
It’s complicated                                         it requires loads of energy
Contrary to preconceived ideas
Or received ones
That cast shadows on the wall behind the dump

He’s constantly preparing detailed itineraries
Drawn down to the millimeter
With a Prussian staff officer’s precision 
For minutiae he has                           a compass in his eye
Despite his genetic stain
He works on it nonstop                   for weeks
Suddenly just like that presto subito
Realizes that he doesn’t have the means to do this or
Another extravagant destination occurs to him
And then                            what good is it all?
Finished!  Trashcan!
What a pity

Going down the road to bargain-hunt at the Villejuif fleamarket or have a look
At the Canon at Gobelins that’s an expedition
A real one              there where they shiver in bomb-craters
The famous voyages of Sindbad the Sailor on the Indian Ocean or the Coral Sea, that he devours greedily in the Galland translation (especially the prints that he acquired under the counter) are no great thing. Ordinary Sunday strolls, rubbish, compared to the slightest displacement he’s obliged to make out of his village.

That’s something serious!
Like hearing the moans at dawn
                                             fifty leagues off, of Behemoths in heat 
Nothing to do with meaningless roadside rustlings 

It’s not that he’s cowardly like those Uighurs of the second
Or even the third generation and after
Those arrogant bastards don’t ever dare decamp from their seedy ghetto
Where they terrorize old ladies on the staircase landing!
Troublesome delinquents! Drug dealers!
Part-time swindlers and pyromaniacs!
And you, mate, you don’t like the Uighurs much
No one can stand the Uighurs!
It’s an open wound 

Not a loafer like those Merovingian kings
Who, the new schoolbooks affirm,
Would travel sluggishly supine in ox-carts
Ambulant jellies obstructing the roadways 
The palace mayors                                      fortunately they were around 
Put up with the job 
No, certainly not 
He wasn’t indecisive either
Don’t trust appearances 

The Tartars obstinate enterprising people
Who don’t give in easily 
Calloused hands agile minds in an era where
Ploughs / feathers don’t mean a thing
Defying maledictions all day long and daily
Demoralized and downcast for ages
Accursed crow so white and beautiful O God
Turned swarthy for having disobeyed deliberately or
Just mistaken a bag of lice for a bag of gold 
A regrettable incident            it only happens to people like us
Or we would have ended up like this
But we ended up like this
In the same satchel as the Uighurs

But none of this concerns him
His almost-official lodging on the outskirts of Bicêtre
A small government flat as he’s a veteran
Taught him 
While forgetting proverbs the steel of the tribe
To temper his nomad ancestry
To park his suitcases on the parquet
A dream the soldier cherishes while marching
Easier to say than to do           but it’s done
An unchanging existence doesn’t kill you really
You taste things differently diminishing            like soap

To draw a line through his past
                                                    —he’d like to write
his memoirs
                                                    One foot in the grave
The hope of a conversation with himself
Getting rid of his illusions 
Finding the words to say who he is
It brings a kind of lightness
No moodiness       or extravagance
He’d been able to attempt the impossible                  Win that great victory 


Into the closet with his bellicose instincts his morbid frenzy his unsatisfied sexual appetites his trashy primitive nostalgia to peacefully cultivate a sparse rocky patch of land 

(above all prefers pampering a tomato plant he brought back from Toulon with lettuces sorrel and wild thyme)
won without cheating 
memorable Tarot reading
they still talk about it today
profusion of savory details
witticisms you had to admire
that card game at the Café de la Mairie

This particular Tartar is unbeatable at cards
Except for whist (not a game for Tartars)
Which permits him to make ends meet
Sometimes throw a party, a feast
Where all the neighborhood enjoys his largesse
Well-planned banquets, a sophisticated mise en scène
Remembered for a certain decorum
Generosity in the blood secular recommendations
What he says so as not to be labeled a brainless spender
And maybe he believes it
Everyone’s there to receive the manna
Celebrate the donor
Shouting his slogan: I sow gold . . . 
We’re not likely to see such days again soon 

There’s always a glistening pigeon            favorable circumstances 
Newly arrived in the neighborhood
                                                         the bird
lets himself be plucked
without a fuss                                  Satisfied, even
The game takes place according to the rules
A good-natured politeness
Nothing to be said                           No regrets
no unseemly protests 
Everyone sympathizes  /  calm  /  the sucker
holds the spittoon while they tot up the score
In such a situation you can lose with style
Not lose face