Also posted at OnlineAhwa
My Mother’s Language
It’s been twenty years since I last saw my mother 1
She starved herself to death
They say that each morning
she would pull her headscarf off
and strike the floor seven times 5
cursing the heavens and the Tyrant
I was in the cave
where convicts read in the dark
and painted the bestiary of the future on the walls
It’s been twenty years since I last saw my mother 10
She left me a china coffee set
and though the cups have broken one by one
they were so ugly I didn’t regret their loss
even though coffee’s the only drink I like
These days, when I’m alone 15
I start to sound like my mother
or rather, it’s as if she were using my mouth
to voice her profanities, curses and gibberish
the invisible litany of her nicknames
all the endangered species of her sayings 20
It’s been twenty years since I last saw my mother
but I am the last man
who still speaks her language
Abdellatif Laâbi is a Moroccan poet, born in Fez and now living in France (PTC). His desire to renew post-colonial culture in Morocco led him to start a literary magazine, Souffles, in 1966, but the combination of literature, culture, and politics earned him eight years in prison under Hassan II (Babana-Hampton 131, PTC). Afterwards, he moved to France, where his writing has gained great acclaim (PTC). “La Langue de Ma Mère” or “My Mother’s Language” was written in 1993, almost 20 years after he left Morocco (Rumens). In it, Laâbi recognizes all that he shares with his mother while grieving her loss.
Language is complicated in Morocco, where Moroccan Darija, Standard Arabic, French, and the Amazigh languages are all spoken to varying degrees. Laâbi writes in French, as did many of the poets of Souffles (Alessandra 154). While Moroccan literature in Arabic is not seen as prestigious, Laâbi considers this a failing of the writers who attempted to use it and not of the language itself (154). He is more concerned with how poets express themselves than with the language they do so in (154). Along this line, Laâbi does not specify his mother’s language. Instead, he emphasizes how she uses her language:
“her profanities, curses and gibberish
the invisible litany of her nicknames
all the endangered species of her sayings” (18-20).
She has passed this wealth of words on to him, as his mother tongue. Specifically, she curses the Tyrant, presumably the same king who sent him to prison. This linguistic inheritance comes with mixed intimacy and sorrow, as there is no one else left who speaks the same language.
Two of the other striking images of the poem are the cave and the coffee cups. The cave is quite clearly a metaphor for prison. “The bestiary of the future” (9) likely refers to cave paintings that often contain images of animals and hunters (Rumens). Cave paintings were some of the earliest art forms, and Laâbi sees himself as a creator of Moroccan culture (Babana-Hampton 132). Although prehistoric painting is by definition of the past, Laâbi uses this image to point us towards the future of art and culture.
Besides language, the broken coffee cups are one of the primary connections between Laâbi and his mother in this poem. Morocco, and particularly Fez, is famous for its pottery, so the cups represent their shared national identity (Kenny). However, this identity has broken as Laâbi had to leave Morocco and live in France. Nonetheless, coffee maintains a strong presence in his life, both because of his personal taste (14) and because the French coffee and café culture is quite similar to that of Morocco. The method by which he takes coffee, that is, his national identity, has changed, but he still loves the same things as he did as a young poet in Morocco.
The combination of images in “My Mother’s Language” illustrate Laâbi’s view of poetry as highly personal yet nationalistic. His connection to his mother, which has been broken by distance and her suicide, resembles his exile from his native land. His national, personal, and linguistic identity plays out in the words that he chooses or that are spoken through him.
“Abdellatif Laâbi.” Poetry Translation Centre, http://www.poetrytranslation.org/poets/abdellatif-laabi. Accessed 26 Apr. 2017.
Alessandra, Jacques and Richard Bjornson. “Abdellatif Laâbi: A Writing of Dissidence.” Research in African Literatures, vol. 23, no. 2, 1992, http://www.jstor.org/stable/3820402. Accessed 26 Apr. 2017.
Babana-Hampton, Safoi. “Écrire marocain: Devoir d’imagination et portraits du citoyen chez Abdellatif Laâbi, Fatéma Mernissi et Ghita El Khayat.” Nouvelles Études Francophones, vol. 24, no. 1 (2009), http://www.jstor.org/stable/25702191. Accessed 26 Apr. 2017.
Kenny, Adele. “Moroccan Ceramics Are Rich In History.” Antiques and Auction News, 3 Feb. 2011, https://www.antiquesandauctionnews.net/Article+Display/Moroccan+Ceramics+Are+Rich+In+History/. Accessed 27 Apr. 2017.
“My Mother’s Language.” Poetry Translation Centre, http://www.poetrytranslation.org/poems/my-mothers-language. Accessed 26 Apr. 2017.
Rumens, Carol. “Poem of the week: My Mother’s Language by Abdellatif Laâbi.” The Guardian, 22 Aug. 2016, https://www.theguardian.com/books/booksblog/2016/aug/22/poem-of-the-week-my-mothers-language-by-abdellatif-laabi. Accessed 27 Apr. 2017.