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The Rising of the Ashes


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Translator’s Foreword

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
— to speak where there is silence, injustice, death — yet they allow for another silence, one that makes mourning possible. I suspect that silence might be as necessary to us as Ben Jelloun’s words.



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
centuries, and continue to seek shelter between emotion and humility.

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
offense, a crime.

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

Product Details

Jelloun, Tahar Ben
City Lights Books
Goldblatt, Cullen
Goldblatt, Cullen
Ben Jelloun, Tahar
Middle Eastern
Arab-Israeli conflict
Persian gulf war, 1991
Continental european
General Poetry
Anthologies-Miscellaneous International Poetry
Edition Description:
Trade Paper
Publication Date:
7.75 x 5.25 in 5.5 oz

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Related Subjects

Fiction and Poetry » Anthologies » Miscellaneous International Poetry
Fiction and Poetry » Poetry » A to Z
Fiction and Poetry » Poetry » Epic
History and Social Science » Politics » General

The Rising of the Ashes New Trade Paper
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Product details 160 pages City Lights Books - English 9780872865266 Reviews:
"Review" by , "This is the book many of us, heartsick over the wastes of war, have been waiting for. How such elegant, calming awareness — healing in its careful attention and deliberate momentum — can spring from the tragedies of excruciating loss, is the wonder of poetry. Readers will feel grateful to Tahar Ben Jelloun for his loving conscience and generous focus. Cullen Goldblatt has rendered an exacting and graceful translation. Somehow, with no stridency, but with immense and thoughtful sorrow, a compassionate gaze and an urgency deep as all forgotten, precious worlds, Tahar Ben Jelloun creates the holy land of remembrance. A brilliant and necessary poet and text." — Naomi Shihab Nye, author of
"Review" by , "The Rising of the Ashes is exquisite poetry in both French and English. The writer and his translator have found an economy of words that speaks, as few other languages could, to the silence that follows massacre. Goldblatt's translation renders with eloquence and empathy the soul of Ben Jelloun’s original. The English echoes the French in a rich and rare exchange — a dialogue between two powerful texts." — Dominique Malaquais, Senior Researcher, CNRS / Centre National de la Recherche Scientifique, Paris
"Review" by , “In The Rising of the Ashes, North African author Tahar Ben Jelloun tracks the tragedy of two Middle Eastern wars in two precisely calibrated verse collections. The first, about 1991’s Gulf War, includes poems with lines such as ‘Our speech fell into the grave / there are no longer words / only sticky liquid in the mud and shame.’ The second, Unidentified, contains short renderings — often titled with simply a name or a date — of Palestinian victims of the early 1980’s wars in Lebanon. Ben Jelloun says of poetry’s relevance in calamitous times: ‘So, Poetry rises. Out of Necessity. Amidst the disorder where human dignity is trampled, poetry becomes urgent language.’” — David O'Neill,
"Review" by , "The Rising of the Ashes, poems by Tahar Ben Jelloun is another welcome example of the City Lights mission. . . . What Jelloun proves throughout this book is that he has not let language(s) fail him or the people, places and historical moments he memorializes, making dates that are not headlines as important as front page news." — Barbara Berman,
"Review" by , "Riveting, heartfelt, and a bit sobering, The Rising of the Ashes is masterfully translated by Cullen Goldblatt and makes a strong choice for readers."—
"Review" by , "The febrile sense of the future suggested in these poems is of course our present, and of that, The Rising of the Ashes is eerily, engagingly and urgently penetrating." —Colin Herd,
"Review" by , "Poetry written out of anger or outrage, or to express political convictions, doesn’t often last as long as that, but this book remains raw, painful, and effective." —Geoff Wisner,
"Review" by , "Although Jelloun composed these pieces in direct response to the atrocities of the Gulf War, the overarching message of his poetry soars beyond that. The reader may find meaning in a war of any age, any race, any people; Jelloun's outrage cries beyond the borders set by the status quo to unite a worldwide readership." -Julie LeBlanc,
"Synopsis" by ,
Two epic poems focus on the bitter consequences of war and violence in the Middle East.
"Synopsis" by , Poetry. Middle East Studies. Translated from the French by Cullen Goldblatt. The violence of war is rendered immediate and vividly personal in this powerful book by one of North Africa's premier writers and intellectuals. The human devastation wrought upon Iraqis in the Gulf War and upon Palestinian refugees in Lebanon and the Occupied Territories is captured in a quietly unrelenting, essential act of remembering that balances lyricism with horror.
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