Le cercle des Arabes disparus … et retrouvés / The circle of Arabs lost … and found


Published as a bilingual edition:
Translated from French into English by Donald Nicholson-Smith

Illustration by Rem Stahl
June 2020

“Ici la Voix des Arabes libres. Nous vous parlons de quelque part, et le temps nous est compté. Car, n’hésitons pas à le dire, nous faisons partie d’une espèce menacée de disparition. L’air se raréfie autour de nous tant la pollution est généralisée, la pire pour nous étant celle du langage. Que d’oiseaux mazoutés peinent à remuer leurs ailes dans nos gorges. Que de roses assiégées par les immondices n’ont plus à coeur de libérer leur parfum. Que de mots nobles et sincères sont traînés dans la boue, prostitués et vendus à la criée sur les panneaux de réclame.”

“This is the Voice of Free Arabs. We are speaking to you from somewhere, and our time is limited. For, let it be said, we belong to a species threatened with extinction. So pervasive is the pollution that the atmosphere around us is ever more tainted, the worst in our view being the pollution of language. How many oil-soaked birds struggle to spread their wings in our throats? How many roses besieged by filth have given up striving to release their perfume? How many fine and truthful words are dragged in the mud, prostituted and commodified on billboards?”


Through this short essay, Moroccan writer Abdellatif Laâbi’s evocative, lyrical prose presents the reader with a gift that is a pleasure to return to again and again. Bristling with passion, Le Cercle des Arabes Disparus… et Retrouvés is appealing with its clarity, while never betraying the rich capacities of the imagination of which political literature is increasingly starved.

With its particular reference to the eruption of the Arab Spring, Laâbi’s work remains urgent in its call to shake off the persistent bounds of hypocrisy and corruption. It is a cry against the theft and deformation of identity that is wrought by imperialism. At this moment, perhaps more than ever, it is a call to listen⁠—to bravely face the potential for corruption, apathy, and conformity that lies dormant in all of us, and to give “a good kick” to the doors that lie ahead. 

This essay is but one glimpse into Laâbi’s compelling body of work that disparages the abuses of society’s powerful class, while never failing to keep a sharp eye on the cultural norms and hypocrisies that are enabled by temporary activists, by profiteers of social clout, drunk on “this poison of power”. In his collection of poetry, The Rule of Barbarism—translated by André Naffis-Sahely—Laâbi writes (among other things) of the convoluted roads that are taken by revolutions and activists for personal gain, with an extraordinary prescience (and an unfortunate timelessness): “I foresee all future earthquakes / the double identification of victim and executioner / a shrug where we no longer know who’s giving and who’s taking”.  

In his novel Rue de Retour—translated by Jacqueline Kaye—Laâbi documents the intimate experience and emotions surrounding the recollections of his arrest in Rabat and his eventual return home, having survived a decade of imprisonment. Arrested for “crimes of opinion”, Laâbi detailed the horrors he experienced in prison, and the changes wrought upon Moroccan society over a decade, while sharing with the reader an incredible journey of hope and perseverance.

Much of Laâbi’s work confronts the intersections of memory, history and Arab identities. Across his works, Laâbi asks, at what point does an identity become a burden, shaped by another’s hands and language? And at what point does one recognize, amid this distraction, the precious threads of continuity that cannot be allowed to be destroyed by a casual amnesia? Threads of Laâbi’s experiences and concerns are distilled in the short text presented here, born of a writer’s eye that so clearly centers humanity and beauty, despite the brutality we so easily adopt.

Abdellatif Laâbi

Poet, novelist, playwright, and essayist, Abdellatif Laâbi is one of the most prolific and critically acclaimed of contemporary North African writers. He is also responsible for several translations from Arabic into French, especially poetry.

Born in Fez, Morocco, in 1942, he founded the magazine “Souffles” in 1966, which played a major role in sparking a literary and artistic renaissance throughout the Maghreb. In 1972, he was imprisoned, tortured and sentenced to ten years in prison for his political beliefs and his writings. Adopted as an Amnesty International prisoner of conscience, he was awarded the Prix de la Liberté, PEN Club, and the Prix International de Poésie by the Fondation des Arts, Rotterdam, while still in jail. In 1980, an international campaign in its favor resulted in its release from jail. Since 1985, he lives in Paris.