Angelina Saule Interviews Mohammed Bennis

By | 1 October 2015

A sustained process of conditioning is taking place within the cultural life of the Arab world. For writers and poets, the trends are somewhat narrow due to the growing intolerance of literary self-expression which is seen to be challenging notions of public morality. It is widely believed that the peripheries are more folk-like or upholding traditions and narratives accepted by the hoi polloi, rather than gravitating towards experimentation. In urban centres, trends within contemporary literature include the growth of women’s writing and memoir-like personal narratives against the political, which are developing now against the officially acceptable discourse of political Islam in a specific way that differs from the former discourse of Arabism, though both discourses are breeding an atmosphere of suffocation.


AS: Has stepping aside and excluding yourself from Moroccan cultural life allowed you to participate in enriching language? Has the process allowed you to gain more clarity and a closer relationship to language itself?

MB: Moroccan cultural life was traditional. This situation was not easy for new writing and I have needed to be closer to Arabic and international poetry movements. Those movements helped me to have a free vision of language and writing verse.

AS: How much does the art of translation – and you have translated many works – affect your own method and practice of composing verse?

MB: Translation is decisive in modern poetry over the world: it is the laboratory of the writing. It is the signature of the intercultural between poetics and cultures. Every modern poet practises translation not as superficial work, but as a necessity of dialogue between languages and writing methods. It is just that every poet has their own writing method, but at the same time, they are in perpetual dialogue with the methods of others.

AS: Is there enough Arabic poetry being translated into other languages? Would you like to see more translations from Arabic? Do you think that Arabic poetry may inform and offer insight into the contemporary cultural situations in the Arab world?

MB: The number and collections of Arabic poetry translated into occidental languages are not enough. It is normal that I would like to see more and more translations of Arabic poetry into different languages, as our world needs to understand Arabic poetry for changing the ideas about our culture, our mind and our civilisation. Culture and the arts are necessary for everyone in order to understand others. If we do not make an effort to translate more books of poetry and novels, it will be rather difficult to have a dialogue between our two worlds.


The dialogue between the two worlds is dependent on and must respond to the demands of the target audience and its market, including the particular perception of what Arab societies are like, whether picturesque or chaotic, decadent or backward; consumerism ensues to dictate what deserves to be translated. Salih Altoma in Modern Arabic Literature in Translation quotes statistics from 1947 to 2005 stating that of modern literary titles translated into English, 170 titles were Egyptian, twenty-six were Lebanese and eight were Moroccan. Obviously, the periphery/centre in the Arab world mentioned above is also reflected in which writers are chosen to be translated, according to preconceived notions of a ‘centre’ of Arabic cultural life.


AS: How would you describe your writing method?

MB: It is difficult for me to describe my writing method, but it is possible to say that is it a material method. I am working on syntax and not on metaphors: this does not mean that my writing does not use metaphors, but they are not dominant. It means that initially my writing is a work on grammatical relations between words.


It appears that the literary elite of Arabism, from Elias Khoury to Adonis to Nawal El Saadawi, are in denial or are immune to the present generation, who are turned off by the elite and are more prone to reading the hadith on their iPhones rather than qasida (a pre-Islamic poetic form revived by the free verse movement). Perhaps Bennis, meditative at the ivory peripheries of a poetic language that border the Atlantic, is highly conscious to go against the tide of instruction and formalism, preferring to work in solitude.


AS: What would be your advice to younger poets in Morocco today?

MB: I do not permit myself to give advice to younger poets: we have a cruel history of submission. No, I am against all forms of advice. I have helped many younger poets, but it is not always safe, as I have had many tragic consequences with some people. As I said, our literary history is difficult. I prefer now to work in absolute solitude.

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