“Exile is my trade. It’s hard to change careers.” Prophetic words from Habib Tengour, who was just 29 when he wrote them in his first book “Tapapakitaques _ la poésie-île. Chronique 96 567 897 012,” which was published in 1976. When he wrote those words, Tengour couldn’t have known what he would later become: a prototypical immigrant writer. He was born in 1947 in Mostaganem, a port city in western Algeria, which is the Mecca of Sufi mysticism of the Maghreb. When he wrote his first book, it seemed that the world was at his fingertips in Algeria, which had gained its independence just a few years earlier. In 1973 Tengour returned to the country with his parents – who had been actively engaged in the war for independence. While in Paris, Tengour had first-hand experience of the student revolts of 1968 and completed his studies in sociology and ethnology. That same year – 1973 – he became director of the newly founded Institute for Sociology at the University of Constantine. He then received his doctorate in ethnology in 1985. And yet the dream of a new beginning could not be realized: Student unrest started in 1986, leading to Tengour’s arrest. He returned to his exile in Paris in 1991 and, as a critical voice of left-wing intellectuals, was officially dismissed from the University of Constantine in 1995, which had long become a hotbed of Islamism. After that, Tengour becomes the chronicler of postcolonial Algeria, although it must be noted that his writings are always poetical, not political. Homer’s Odyssey as well as Ulysses are important mythical references and were already present in his aforementioned debut. Like the Odyssey, Tengour considers his work to be an expression of travel and migration, and as the search for a place that the roving poet can call home. For Tengour, it can be found in language – and in the Elsewhere. In his manifesto “Le Surréalisme Maghrébin,” Tengour calls this Elsewhere the Maghreb’s answer to the Surrealist Manifesto by André Breton, which concludes with the well-known words, “Existence is elsewhere”: “There is a clearly demarcated place called the Maghreb, yet its inhabitant is always elsewhere. And that is the only place he can become himself.” Tengour reaps vast rewards from the literary device “Elsewhere,” never reducing it to a lament about the trials of exile. On the contrary: He creates a masterly mix combining poetry and ethnology, and mysticism and modernity, based on his training in sociology and ethnology, dissertation on the folk Islamic customs of Algerian tribes and knowledge about the twentieth-century Western avant-garde. According to his German translator Regina Keil-Sagawe, his first attempts at writing took place in “the rumbling trains of the Parisian banlieue”; his following books serve to confirm his reputation as a writer “on the road” par excellence. In the cycle “La nacre à l’âme,” the word “voyage” is even ennobled like with capital letters. In the volume, melancholy and irony hold the balance, as nomadism opens up new formal possibilities. Tengour – who wrote his books his French from the very beginning – is poised at the border between worlds – that of the postcolonial and globalized postmodern subject – thereby reflecting an attitude towards life that feels very current. His poems are enriched by a vast realm filled with images and quotations, that equally embraces elements from Europe, France, Algeria and the Arabic-Muslim world. The components seem to scatter in all directions; Tengour’s nomadic frame of mind – restless, always moving and erupting – is formally inscribed in the poems through enjambment and ruptures. Even his characters are hurled through time and space: In “La Sandale d’Empédocle,” Empedocles finds himself in Paris once again – the migrants from the Maghreb now living in exile in Paris are transformed into “Tatars” in his famous prose poem “Ce Tatar-là 2,” in which he mines how he and others view people in his situation to create a dense text filled with symbolism about the treatment of foreigners and about how we construct identity in light of migration and mobility. The prose poem should be considered in connection with the cycles “Au pays des morts” as well as “La mort de Abderrahman.” Both poems offer a reflexive answer to the so-called “Black Decade” in Algeria, when Islamist terrorists went after civilians, taking particular aim at artists and intellectuals. Tengour’s former colleague at the University of Constantine, Abderrahman Benlazhar, was murdered by Islamists in 1992; Tengour dedicated the volume to him. Tengour published “Au pays de la mort” in 1995 – when the civil war was to last another five years and lead to the death of about 200,000 people: In the book, Tengour portrays Algeria as a gloomy shadow regime, which, despite all the horrors he will encounter there, he needs to enter in light of his role as poet in order to learn about that which was lost forever – and what the future holds in store. Skepticism and disillusionment pervade Tengour’s later work: Skepticism towards history, and towards the idea of historical progress. Returning is out of the question: “There’s no path to the harbor,” as in his laconic formulation in “L’Ile au loin”. As Keil-Sagawe stressed, writing is for Tengour “an act of unveiling”, alluding to what mystics call “kashf alasrar,” that is, “revealing secrets.” Indeed, his work uncannily predicts major political events: In 1981 he depicts the failure of Socialism in his novel “Sultan Galièv,” and in 1983 he predicted the rise of Algerian Islamism in his work “Le Vieux de la Montagne.” Even the novel “Le poisson de Moïse,” first published in French in 2001, reads like an account of the present day: Against the backdrop of the war in Afghanistan, he ponders what drives young men to become jihadists and fight a war that is not their own. His literature, which at first glance may seem strange, actually holds up a mirror to our society. Tengour achieves this with highest discretion, and with texts that retain their sense of mystery and poetry.
Text: Claudia Kramatschek
English translation: Amy Pradell
Photo: Pierre Joris Print