Ici, où je suis, où vous êtes, je ne connais pas la naissance, je n'accomplis ni ne présente un être de femme, ni d'Arabe, ni de musulmane. Ni de conteuse, ni d'écouteuse, moi, "l'accidentée des contes". Une histoire est blessée, son histoire, et ne sera jamais guérie ni restaurée. Elle commencera sans commencer, elle vient déjà sans naître - non pas mise au monde mais retenue, comme sa langue arabe est retenue dans sa française, comme son Coran est retenu dans les versets de son poème, et le poème lui-même toujours plus retenu, toujours plus retiré, plus reculé, contenu et tenu en réserve, une pensée scellée, celée sous ses lèvres. La retenue : ce que l'on impose à un cheval fougueux, à un cours d'eau dont on capte l'énergie, une réserve par laquelle une force est empêchée et préservée. Ce que Shéhérazade impose au sultan.
Jean-Luc Nancy (préface à l'ouvrage)
Préface, par Jean-Luc Nancy
I wish I'd never been born! I wish you'd never been born! Whoever it's addressed to, the old imprecation, the most heartrending and the most desolate of all, does not curse being, but being born. To be, one had to be born, and to be born, one had to be preceded (preceded onto the world's stage, p. 17). It's to do with a before/after, a preceding and succeeding, and not with a being/non-being. Not to be born does not correspond to not to be. It's not a binary logic, maybe it isn't a logic at all. Not to be born, would be to stay in the precedence of the self, which is not the negation of the self. It would be to precede oneself, or come to that, to succeed oneself, without coinciding with oneself, at least if we want to admit that such a coincidence should respond to the birth. To be born would always mean "I was born", an "I" is given, placed or thrown. But not to be born would mean staying beneath an "I", or above, before or beyond the point of coincidence. It would be staying in the antecedents of the self, in a world of possibility and waiting.
Safaa Fathy does not ask not to be born. She doesn't cry to herself "I wish...!". She wonders where not to be born: where to stay withdrawn from the world's stage to safeguard the powerful and fragile reserve of the possible. Not therefore "not to be", but by being without end, without however being born, being only could-be.
Or else she implies something else again. She neither asks for not wonders about anything. Where not to be born is preceded by an ellipsis. You may think that this place of non-birth has already been found and occupied. You could think that it is right here, on the edge of her poem, or that it is the actual edge of the poem: the evidence that holds it.
No hope/no despair she writes (p. 69). Hope and despair are in the order of being, in which we can expect or deplore their presence. But that's not what she wants to say and that's not how she writes. On the contrary, she writes that her poem isn't quite translated (p. 8). It is Arabic, Koranic Arabic, and it is (of) woman: two or three ways to be not quite present. Woman, Arabic, Islam: three means of being withdrawn, three ways of being in absence, turned towards an absence. To not be quite "in the world", rather to be like the child who has not yet seen the world (p. 13): a child already, not yet born.
Who hasn't seen the world yet and who will never see it, because it's not her concern, not her prayer, not her language. A language that does not talk of seeing, but of hearing and saying, replying or lowering over the eyes eyelids and the dark powder of antimony (p. 25). Or else it's the whole face she hides behind a swathe of the dress (p. 45). Language that veils and unveils visions, faces, looks, to only leave the resounding appeal of a god who is so absent that even his appeal does not reveal him. But the language of her poem, hers.
Be not born - where? Right here. The title is a designation, as are all titles: The Thousand and One Nights, to take this example that is more than an example, says that it is a story of one thousand and one nights, but says at the same time that those nights are the book itself and there is nothing else, no other time, no other day outside of them. (For Safaa as for Proust, as for us all, this title pronounces the infinite night watch of words)
Here, where I am, where you are, I don't know birth, I do not accomplish or present a being who is a woman, an Arab, a Muslim. Nor a storyteller, nor a listener, me, injured by the tales (p. 51).
A story is wounded, her story, and will never be healed or restored. It will begin without beginning, she already comes without being born - not brought into the world, but held, as her Arabic language is held in her French, as her Koran is held in the verses of her poem, and the poem itself ever more restrained, ever more withdrawn, more in retreat, contained and held in reserve, a sealed thought, sealed under her lips. Dammed, like a river whose energy is captured in a reservoir, a reserve by which a force is reined in and preserved. What Scheherazade imposes on the sultan.
All the power of that which desires without being able to desire (p.19) is held therein. It - he, she - finally desires truly: does not aspire to being or birth, aspires to nothing, because the paths that lead to heaven/stop at the outer reaches of the clouds (p. 15). Neither Earth nor heaven, but between the two, apart from both, during the muezzins' distraction (p. 23), I watch over words down whose fingers/runs immaculate milk (p.37). Such is the prayer welling up from her: look at this language and this love flowing from my hands, this love of my language and this language of my love.
The streets of the big city
Are a summer mourning
And its air
A pale breath
At the frontiers, the deserts are on alert
The place is a hostage
And the big eyes shine with darkness.
The heart of this city
Is a liquid rich with finitude.
The ways which lead to the heavens
Stop at the confines of the clouds
And on their heights
Repose symbols of deafness
Deaf is the air
Crawls on the city.
And the passerbys,
to avoid the street
bristle against each other
They swallow the stagnant air
… on café terraces.
Empty of birds
The sky of this ancient city
Its children dance in complete quiet
Stop and stop, exhausted.
They get used to it.
On the dusty minarets
Tired throats wail
A last cry.