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Review of THE BOTTOM OF THE JAR in Chimurenga Magazine

Chimurenga Magazine, Cape Town – Chronic Books Supplement
August 19, 2013
by Stacy Hardy and Wanjiru Koinange



Abdellatif Laâbi (translated by André Naffis-Sahely)

Archipelago Books, 2013


Born in Fez in 1942, Abdellatif Laâbi co-founded the poetry review, Souffles, in 1966. Instigated by a small group of self-professed “linguistic guerrillas”, Souffles staged a linguistic revolution against imperialist and colonial cultural domination in Morocco. Six years later, the magazine was banned and Laâbi imprisoned. After a long solidarity campaign, he regained his freedom in 1980 and later moved to France where he has resided ever since.


Although he’s best known in his adopted country as a poet (in 2009, he received the Prix Goncourt de la Poésie and in 2011 the Académie Française’s Grand prix de la Francophonie), Laâbi is also a skilled writer of prose, as his memoir, The Bottom of the Jar, attests. With its childlike surrender to imagination, The Bottom of the Jar is a beautiful roman á clef that follows Laâbi’s experiences as a young boy in Fez, during the final days of French colonial occupation and along the painful road to independence. But this is not merely the ‘sentimental journey’ of a nostalgic old man. He may be 71 years old, but Laâbi is still keenly in tune with the contemporary and recently collaborated with Moroccan rapper, Rival. In The Bottom of the Jar he turns historic space into a medina of interlocking maze-like streets, where the past bleeds into the present, politics morphs into opression, revolution into terrorism, activist into criminal, vice into art and back again. As the Arabic saying Laâbi quotes in the book goes: “Fez is a mirror.” In this case it’s a mirror pointed directly at today; at the Arab Spring uprisings; at 9/11, the ‘war on terror’ and the United State’s invasion of Iraq and Afghanistan; and at the conflict between Israel and Palestine. Reflecting how terrorism has shaped world culture, and how, in turn, our world shapes us, The Bottom of the Jar is ultimately testimony to how language can reshape both. When it comes to “raising a song of possibilities above the dirge of cruelty”, Laâbi is still without rival.


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