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The Rising of the Ashesby Tahar Ben Jelloun
When I first encountered this book, I was drawn immediately to its central imaginative and political projects: to make words where there had been the speechlessness of violence and to return personhood to war’s victims — to identify the unidentified.
Written in French by the Paris-residing Moroccan author Tahar Ben Jelloun, La remontée des cendres (The Rising of the Ashes) appeared as a bilingual volume in 1991, the Iraqi poet Kadhim Jihad rendering the accompanying Arabic translation. The first of the book’s two long poems bears the book’s title, La remontée des cendres, and responds to the human devastation caused by the Gulf War. It is dated February-April 1991. The second poem, Non identifiés (Unidentified), testifies to the displacement and killing of Palestinians in Lebanon and the Occupied Territories during the 1980s.
The first thing I loved about this book was its relationship with history’s dates: how it summons them in all their irrefutable numerical precision and then puts them to the text’s own quiet work of record-making. February 1, 1983; April 14, 1983; November 24, 1988; Samia Hussein; Yusra Akel; Ibn Hassan Mokaddam — the poet is unrelenting in his excavation and tribute, this litany of names and dates, daily atrocities and pleasures.
And although the poems take events of the past as their subject, their words resonate intimately with the present. In late 2003, nine months after the U.S. invasion of Iraq, when I first read the book in the original, it seemed to me the best possible moment to translate it for an Anglophone readership. In 2009, publication seems no less timely.
I often despair the “deployment” of words in our present — the official apologies, the language of reporting, the sanitizing and romanticizing of war, the relentless omissions. I sometimes remind myself of Ben Jelloun’s preface to this book: he insists not only on the necessity of words, but on the power of poetry’s words in particular — even if they are said “in silence,” even if they “bash” themselves until they, the words, are “senseless.”
The Rising of The Ashes makes a place for grief, as well as for rage and questions and careful description. The poems follow their own imperative
Officially, the Gulf War is over. Kuwait is no longer occupied. Iraq is in large part destroyed. And the dead are buried. But not all the dead. The Westerners counted their dead and repatriated them. Exiting, they left behind thousands of victims. We will perhaps never know how many people, troops and civilians, were killed by the tons of bombs dropped on Iraq. It is to these anonymous bodies, bodies burnt to ashes seen briefly in television images, that this text intends to give homage. It would give them names and inscribe them on a gravestone for remembrance. Without hatred. With dignity. In their mass grave, the bodies will form a kind of anonymous face, containing and evoking all the dead.
It was necessary to wash the words, to uproot the glistening red grass, to chisel the images onto a memory that is both recent and very old. The images are often naked and have endured many displacements. They have traveled, crossed
Each war leaves behind remains. The Gulf War left many. As for the world, the conscience of the world has already set its eyes elsewhere. It is a matter of habit. The world of the powerful the United States of America and its allies has developed the habit of washing its hands and soothing its conscience after having caused death and destruction. After declaring the logic of war, this world takes up, with complete equanimity, the logic of the gravedigger.
Once one has covered thousands of anonymous corpses with a blanket of ashes and sand, one cultivates forgetting.
So poetry rises. Out of necessity. Amidst the disorder where human dignity is trampled, poetry becomes urgent language.
But words pale when the wound is deep, when the well-planned chaos is brutal and irreversible. Against that, words. And what can they do?
Between murderous silence and desperate babbling, poetry stubbornly speaks. The poet shouts or murmurs; knows silence could be akin to an
A very old suffering makes our breath pitiful. The poet is one who risks words. The poet sets them down in order to breathe. This does not make the nights easier.
To name the wound, to give a name again to the face voided by flame, to tell, to make and remake the borders of silence, that is what the poet’s conscience dictates. The poet must consider the powerlessness of language in the face of history’s extreme brutality, in the face of the suffering of those who have nothing left, not even a reason to survive and forget.
Tomorrow, men, stripes of braid on their shoulders, medals on their chests, with the berets of generals and marshals, will come together before a map. Calmly, coolly, they will decide to advance their troops here, or there, invading a country, massacring civilians in their sleep, and this will occur with utter impunity since those who have caused the suffering will then come together once again, before the same map, to end what they call “hostilities.” And the world will go on breathing as it has done for millions of years.
Who will speak for the buried, those flayed, those hung, those thrown into mass graves?
The armies will make them into a tidy parcel, an abstraction, on which they will inscribe the word “Martyrs.” And then we will forget. Necessarily.
Poetry will content itself with being here, being said as a prayer, in silence, in the contemplation grief provokes.
Our need to speak is without measure, even if our words, taken by the wind, bash themselves against mountains until they are senseless, until they open holes in the rock and shift the heavy stones of insomnia.
Tahar Ben Jelloun, June 1991
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