Habibi: The Diwan of Alim Maghrebi is a new book of poems by Canadian poet-essayist and frequent PJ Media contributor David Solway. It belongs to his acclaimed series of “translations” of imaginary foreign poets. In this case the ostensible poet, Alim Maghrebi, is a Moroccan who, as Solway tells us in his ostensible introduction, belongs to the (actually existing) school of “new Arab poetry” — “a poetic alloy…of ancestral themes and preoccupations modulated in the language of the street, the newspaper, movies, technology and the Internet.”
Moreover, the introduction tells us, Maghrebi alludes pervasively to the (historical) Meccan poet Umar ibn Abi Rabi’a (644-721), “who was famed for his lyrics lamenting the melancholy transience of love….” Habibi is, indeed, an extended paean and plaint to Maghrebi’s habibi (loved one)—a nameless young Moroccan woman who consumes his days with passions, exaltations, fears, and mortifications.
Habibi is also, simply, a delight from start to finish. Readers who may be chary of today’s often demanding poetry will find this book to be written in a simple and direct, yet poignant and musical language that rises and falls with Maghrebi’s mercurial responses to his fickle, often evasive lover.
When things are going well, the habibi is
…the palm, the date, the sun,
an oasis in the heart of the desert
and also the desert itself
whose dunes undulate in my heart
where no oasis is
She is “…unlikely and consoling/ as peace descending on the Middle East/ or rain upon the arid heart of Marrakech,” and she “…came into my life/ in a flowing garment of laughter,/ redolent of baclava drenched in honey,…”
She offers, too, erotic repletion:
And the tip of my tongue tingles
to taste once again
the subtlety of mint
that flavours your tumbler
of Moroccan tea….
My senses live in you
like contented citizens,…
assured of employment,…
happy in the homeland of their love.
Not for Maghrebi the Koranic heaven with its “shy virgins” and “rivers…rippl[ing] with wine and honey”:
When I set forth in the morning
to jog in the park
I think of you in your designer shorts,
your tank-top t-shirt
and your Nike running shoes…
you who are neither virgin nor bashful
though your eyes are dark and limned with kohl;…
But all that is only one side of this romance; being besotted with this habibi also means suffering from anxiety, jealousy, and desolation. Maghrebi goes so far as to order her a chastity belt from Saudi Arabia — “highly recommended,” no less, by “my friend Prince Bandar.” Yet, all the same, he finds himself accompanying her to a flying-carpet terminal from which she “ascend[s] into the wind” on a finely woven Persian conveyance, on her way to a (presumed) unknown lover.
Worst of all is the dread of the habibi’s indifference, particularly of her intonation when it lacks the right signals of acceptance and ardor. As when:
I picked up the little black portable
to call you
but my fingers froze above the buttons…
Sometimes I grow fearful, love…
to hear the distance in the voice…
to hear the unseasonable silence.
Then I am less than nothing…
I found most powerful in this vein “When the Screen Goes Dark,” an evocation of the sudden anomie of a computer crash:
when the power goes
and the message I haven’t sent
for fear of your reply
as if wiped from the slate
when the lesson is done,
when a world ends,
even a little simulated world,
with a quick electric click
and an echoing clap of silence,
I grow virtual and disappear…
This little book is, then, a rollercoaster ride of amorous joys and woes. It is also a feat of imagination, organically and seemingly effortlessly situating its fictive poet-protagonist at a rich intersection of contemporary life and Arab and Islamic lore.
Two of Maghrebi’s poems are, however, fraternal responses to similarly themed love poems by another Solway persona — an ostensible Israeli poet named Dov Ben-Zamir. As the introduction to Habibi notes, Maghrebi eschews the region’s turmoil and animosities for a “profound…immersion in the stream of personal emotion.” It is, I can add, personal emotion conveyed so compellingly as to give this book an exceptional charm and impact.