by Mohammed Khaïr-Eddine (Morocco)
translated from French by Jake Syersak
Released August 15, 2019
now available for free download
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What, are we or aren’t we eagles?
Europe fabricates you into an asthma of sand
with its fatal rat tail
heading out to catch the last act of winter
the miracle does not bend the will of the sky’s reeling
the devil was casting out his nets and selling off the people’s
skin cleverly sewn together by the prophet
I’m off in the wrong direction of Time
but I’m swapping out tough luck I’m swapping out my rage
for the beautiful mouth hanging open on the sidewalk of the riot
Praise for FIRST BREATHS:
"I didn't vomit / the pistol-like word which is fearless.” I'm grateful to Jake Syersak for continuing to bring Moroccan poet Mohammed Khaïr-Eddine's work into English. These poems are written with the greatest intensity and urgency. They are angry and political, but they are also deliriously intoxicated with language and its possibilities.
—Johannes Göransson, author of Transgressive Circulation: Essays On Translation
Among the most “intrepid horses” of avant-garde North Africa, midcentury poet Khaïr-Eddine was a vicious, visceral critic of colonialism whose “entranced transmutations” acted as a countervailing cultural force for self-definition and determination. In these early poems written from exile, fluent with delirium, Khaïr-Eddine collapses firmament and abyss, glottal-stopping a psychosomatic j’accuse at once terrifying and glamorous: “pack of jackals” and “blacking out,” “voodoo magic,” “violet ink,” epidemics of “brutal shock” and alchemical ache. In Jake Syersak’s versions—deftly cauterized, now bleeding out—these spasms evoke a triggerhappy seer packing “the pistol-like word,” itching “to take up my work once more.”
—Andrew Zawacki, author of Unsun : f/11
Who was Mohammed Khaïr-Eddine? A poet, a Berber, a technician of “guerilla linguistics.” An intercessor to the gods of revolution, Khaïr-Eddine sang the psychoses of his country in its post-colonial and autocratic crises. I know this because of Jake Syersak, who here translates some early and vicious poems from this giant of Moroccan literature. The language of this translator is, like that of the poet, made of antennae: it receives, and gives receipt of, the commotions and collusions of nature, “the secret still-birth(s)” and “geological fears,” the sonic eruptions of peoples in strife and corpses in decay. I am ever grateful for this ongoing work of translation.
—Aditi Machado, author of Some Beheadings and Prosopopoeia
Jake Syersak has rendered the fugitive brilliance of Mohammed Khaïr-Eddine by expanding his verbal inclement into English. This being an inclement that positively infects our collective auditory range, verbally scorching the isolate capillaries of monsters who seem empowered by malevolence. Not unlike Césaire, Khaïr-Eddine savages this malevolence by opening to us a kind of neurological revelation. In this translation, the work of Mohammed Khaïr-Eddine rises up as a creature from the unexpected torching rational containment via his complex imaginal salivation, so that the Maghreb and by implication sub-saharan Africa gains by his incensement the nobility that magically honours resistance.
—Will Alexander, author of Across the Vapour Gulf
A Note from the Translator
In 1966 Abdellatif Laâbi—with the support of Mohammed Khaïr-Eddine, Mostafa Nissabouri, and other notable franco-phone African artists—founded a quarterly “political and literary review” known as Souffles in Rabat, Morocco. Originally designed primarily as a conduit for literature that would challenge imperialist and colonial cultural domination, and to shed light on avant-garde experimentation taking place in North Africa or the “Maghreb” region, Souffles [Breaths] would eventually expand into Souffles-Anfas, strengthening its reach across the francophone and Arab world and optimizing its revolutionary political influence. In 1972, after publishing 22 issues, the review was banned by the Moroccan government and Laâbi was imprisoned.
First Breaths is a translation, from the original French, of all the works Mohammed Khaïr-Eddine contributed to the first two issues of Souffles in 1966. Some of his earliest work in print, it was contributed while living in exile in Paris and remains remarkable for its bold and confident pronouncement of a “true” literary avant-garde presence in Africa, its unapologetic claim to Berber (Amazigh) culture, its vivid descriptions of the Moroccan landscape, and its deployment of a Surrealist aesthetic (referred to elsewhere by Khaïr-Eddine as a “guerrilla linguistic”), by which he resists, disrupts, and subverts the colonizer’s language.
All original issues of Souffles and Souffles-Anfas have been fully digitalized and made available to the public. They can be found at https://monoskop.org/Souffles.
About the Author
Mohammed Khaïr-Eddine was born in 1941 in Tafraout, Morocco. Widely regarded as one of the most influential avant-garde intellectuals and writers of the Maghreb region of Northern Africa, he is especially renowned for his “guerrilla linguistic,” an incendiary, Surrealist-inspired literary style which critically and iconoclastically engages the cultural and political hegemony of postcolonial Moroccan society. A vocal critic of King Hassan II, Khaïr-Eddine was forced into exile in 1965 for his radical political views. Alongside Abdelaatif Laâbi and Mostafa Nissabouri, he helped found the avant-garde journal of Francophone/Arab art and culture, Souffles-Anfas. He eventually returned to Morocco in 1979 and died in Rabat, the capital, in 1995..
About the Translator
Jake Syersak holds an MFA from the University of Arizona and a PhD in English and Creative Writing from the University of Georgia. He is the author of the full-length book Yield Architecture (Burnside Review Books, 2018) and several chapbooks. He edits Cloud Rodeo, co-edits Radioactive Cloud, and serves as a contributing editor for Letter Machine Editions.