Habib Tengour

from the Introduction to Empedocles's Sandal (Duration Press, 1999)

Born in 1947 in Mostaganem, Eastern Algeria, raised on the Arab and Berber voices of marketplace storytellers, Habib Tengour has lived between Algeria and Paris ever since. Trained as an anthropologist and sociologist, he has taught at universities in both countries, while emerging over the years as one of the Maghreb's most forceful and visionary francophone poetic voices of the post-colonial era. The work has the desire and intelligence to be epic, or at least to invent narrative possibilities beyond the strictures of the Western / French lyric tradition, in which his colonial childhood had schooled him. Core to it is thus the ongoing invention of a Maghrebian space for and of writing, the ongoing quest for the identification of such a space and self. For, as another Maghrebian, Jacques Derrida put it: "Autobiographical anamnesis presupposes identification. And precisely not identity. No, an identity is never given, received or attained; only the interminable and indefinitely phantasmatic process of identification endures." Or, Tengour in a kind of manifesto piece, "Maghrebian Surrealism," that situates the tradition of French Surrealism as a late local variation of a much older and wider practice:

Who is this Maghrebian? How to define him?
           "The woods are white or black "despite the hidden presence of nuances.
Today definition fascinates because of its implications. A domain that misleads. Political jealousy far from the exploded sense of the real.
            Indeed there exists a divided space called the Maghreb but the Maghrebian is always elsewhere. And that's where he makes himself come true.
            Jugurtha lacked money to buy Rome.
            Tariq gave his name to a Spanish mountain.
            Ibn Khaldûn found himself obliged to give his steed to Tamerlaine.
           Abd El Krim corresponded with the Third International….

The core achievement of the poetics thus the successful relay between modernist Euro-American experiments and local traditions of sociopolitical and spiritual narrative explorations: "It is, finally, in Maghrebian Sufism that surrealist subversion inserts itself: 'pure psychic automatism,' 'amour fou,' revolt, unexpected encounters, etc…. There always resides a spark of un(?) conscious Sufism in those Maghrebian writers who are not simply smart operators - go reread Kateb or Khair-Eddine."

           Besides a range of lyrical works - works that always stretch the imagination of what the lyrical can be - such as Schistes de Tahmad 2 (1983), Tengour's main books are the narratives Le Vieux de la Montagne (called a "Relation," 1983), the retelling of the story of that most famous Arab triumvirate of Omar Khayyam, Hassan as-Sabbah and Nizam al-Mulk, Sultan Galiev, (1985) and two prose narratives, L'Epreuve d l'arc (1990) and Gens de Mosta (1997). His work has been translated into German and Italian.

Pierre Joris