Tall, thin, dark-skinned, with a rough and severe expression, Hawad arrived in Ostana during the afternoon of the first day of June 23 to attend the cultural program of the Ostana Prize, "Writings in Mother Tongues” organized by the Chambra d’Òc in the Occitan valleys of Piedmont, and receive the 2023 Special Award.
Although he was born in the Aïr Mountains, in Niger, Hawad refuses to identify with this State, an important detail that his wife, the anthropologist and translator Hélène Claudot-Hawad would later explain at the lectio magistralis in Ostana, insisting that we use “Tuareg area” as Hawad’s place of origin in all the Prize’s publications. By highlighting this, Hawad made us aware that the division of the Tuareg territory into 5 states —Libya, Algeria, Niger, Mali, and Burkina Faso— is artificial and a product of colonisation.
A poet and visual artist, in his youth Hawad traveled to Egypt and Iraq, before working as a labourer in Libya and Algeria in the 1970s, where he began to write. His political commitment led him to form resistance movements with other exiled people, and his actions landed him in prison at different times in Algeria, Libya and Nigeria. In addition to being the author of a dozen books of poetry and fiction, Hawad’s pictures have been exhibited in cities such as Paris, Casablanca, New York and Medellín. It is inexplicable that the most recognised living Tuareg author has had to publish all his poetry in French editions, and that only a relatively small part of his work has been translated.
As part of the organisation of the Ostana Prize, I had the privilege of sharing unique moments with Hawad: the guttural, spontaneous singing that emerged at night as he told us about his life experiences, in a singing that welcomed our voices to form a polyphonic chorus of poignant, gutted, painful sounds. Laments, whistles, animal sounds, a frenzy of words spat in an unknown language, the language of fury, the “furigraphy” that characterises the author’s poetry and paintings. I often hear the life story of my interviewees in the form of a coherent story, in words, but feeling that in the body and living it is an entirely different experience. That night, and during the Prize collection two days later, Hawad’s guttural singing brought the Ostana Prize attendees an experience of collective liberation, a catharsis.
That’s why, when I sat down to interview him after the hurricane that generated his passage through Ostana, I didn’t know what to expect. I actually entered a tunnel and lost track of time. Transcribing this interview was particularly difficult. Hawad’s body language is impossible to convey and is as important as his words. I invite you to imagine him, inflamed, throwing words like darts, with intention, in motion, just like his art, his voice, his thought.
I would like to thank Tee Edwards Dos Santos for his invaluable aid and patience in correcting and improving the English translation of this interview.
Mariona Miret: Tamazight is your mother tongue. Where and how did you grow up, and why did you decide to write in your mother tongue?
Hawad: Tamajaght is my language. In general, our language is called Tamazight. It is the language of all native North African peoples, ranging from the Mediterranean coast to the South of the Sahara, from the west of Egypt to the Atlantic.
I am part of the Imazighen Teneré people, the Amazigh of the desert, in central Sahara. It is there that the Amazigh civilisation and our writing were born. Our civilisation began after the Neolithic era, it is that ancient. This is my birthplace, and it is not unusual to find ancient tombs in every desert fold, cave paintings in every stone, history on every mound. The Sahara is a true open-air museum. The Sahara has a critical role in the history of our cultures, as relevant as Mesopotamia in terms of the agricultural revolution and as the invention of writing: it has played this role for the whole western Mediterranean area.
For me, writing in my language is simply natural. But it is much more than that: it is our way of life. We have our own alphabet. Since my childhood we would write everywhere: in the sand, on the stones... The alphabet of my people is called “Tifinagh” and it is different from that of our neighbours: for us, “the other” were the Egyptians, the Greeks, and the Romans. Our culture has always sought to develop something different to these three civilisations: knowledge, an anarchic organisation. The Greeks brought “the city” as a political entity, we have “the road”, the route that leads to a crossroads, where political ideas and social nuances meet, connect and contrast. Therefore, we did not want to adopt Egyptian hieroglyphs, nor the Greek or Roman alphabets.
I was born into writing. What is writing for us? It means writing from signs we already had, and which came from our animals: we made them into symbols, and then letters which have evolved over time. These letters are not just letters; for us, they are the topography of our mental structure.
«What is writing for us? It means writing from signs we already had, and which came from our animals: we made them into symbols, and then letters which have evolved over time. These letters are not just letters; for us, they are the topography of our mental structure»Why do I write in my language? When a system that comes from the outside corners me and wants to tear out my language, to impose a single language, I can’t do anything other than use my language, use my alphabet, my writing. It interests me how can I transform writing in my language, as a metamorphosis, how do I make it “angry” so that it contests the oppressive writing?
Writing becomes a weapon to aim at the other, like a rifle to fire against adversity, against hostility. When colonisation and the technological age began, the imposition of languages came- I then took my mother’s old rifle, which is our language, our alphabet, and I loaded it, prepared it. I cut the bullets so that they were “furigraphic” and sprayed everywhere.
M. M.: What does the concept of “furigraphy” mean? It is central to your universe and to your poetry. How did you conceive of the term?
«At the beginning I wrote in our system, Tifinagh, to preserve our memory; I wrote novels, short stories, theatre. I wrote to show the absurdity of my people’s situation. But I realised that this type of writing could not express the depth of what I lived and felt, it did not correspond to my suffering. The rage that I experienced, and that I want to experience, in the face of chaos. I had to invent my chaos against chaos.»H.: When I turned 17 I could no longer live where I was born. It was the first time that colonial domination became impossible for my people to fight against. The Amazigh could not resist as they had before: with technology and with territorial encirclement, any clandestine resistance was impossible. I was born in 1950, and in 1967, at the age of 17, I started to travel, and then I became the football of the countries: I was kicked, thrown, pushed out of wherever I was. I was done! That’s when I started writing. At the beginning I wrote in our system, Tifinagh, to preserve our memory; I wrote novels, short stories, theatre. I wrote to show the absurdity of my people’s situation.
But I realised that this type of writing could not express the depth of what I lived and felt, it did not correspond to my suffering. The rage that I experienced, and that I want to experience, in the face of chaos. I had to invent my chaos against chaos. To be a small grain of sand that enters the machine that crumbled me.
When I write in my language, in my alphabet, am I writing in my language? No. All the dominated, strangled languages, when we write, we create another language on the margin of our language: that of our suffering.
In my case, the words are Tuareg, but the syntax, the way of choosing the words, a normal society could not do that. We need to find a language different from the mutilated language, in order to find the words for chaos.
The problem is not safeguarding languages, for me. I need to extract a language from my language; my own expression, so that my mother tongue is enriched, so that it becomes strong. This is not a rupture. Every language has a reserve of vocabulary and syntax that we don’t use. This reserve only appears when we unsettle the emotion, the soul of the language. You have to find that expression when the soul is disturbed, when it has taken on the colouration of joy and suffering.
Yes, I write in Amazigh, my mother tongue, but I write in my personal language. It is mine not because it is that of my mother and Tuareg people, no, it is mine because I speak in the reserve of my language. How can I speak to the one who is in the abyss, on the margins? If I speak in everyday language they will not be able to understand my true message. I need to find the language of that person who is in the abyss, that’s the only way they can understand me. You have to extract, you have to find the emotional gateways that have the ability to invade the other.
And so every threatened language, every persecuted individual must find a language in accordance with the situation they live in. All languages in the world have this ability. And that’s what counts. It is this imagination, this sensitivity that we must provoke so that it grows, so that it intensifies in fury, in anger.
It is not an everyday fury, it is a latent force, which works at the level of collective culture. Languages need to be more than just instruments of communication: they need to become sound, to become noise, a noise that provokes emotion and disturbs the imagination, so that we have even more things to imagine. To me, this is what “furigraphy” does, this is what it is.
M. M.: I want to ask you about the Tuareg people outside your land, abroad. Is it possible to exist as a people in exile?
«A people cannot exist in exile. An individual can exist in exile. Exile is not good for peoples. But a people exiled in their own territory, which becomes a foreigner in the territory of their ancestors, that is the hardest thing: it is a double exile»H.: No, a people cannot exist in exile. An individual can exist in exile. Exile is not good for peoples, perhaps it is good for the individual. It is very difficult for the Amazigh peoples, especially the "internal exile" from their own territory. It’s easy for a person like me, a person who goes into exile. But a people exiled in their own territory, which becomes a foreigner in the territory of their ancestors, that is the hardest thing: it is a double exile.
I think it is possible to resist. But a people that has children, women, elderly people, weak people on its back... it’s quite difficult. You need to lighten your bags to run and be able to fight. It must not be heavy. And a people always weighs, even a nomadic people like us.
It’s hard but I think it’s possible to resist. It is necessary to find a “desert” —not the mineral desert, but sobriety, flexibility of collective culture. It is necessary to recycle the wisdom, the poetics of the other so that they do not overwhelm us. It is an almost alchemical art. It is possible but a people always slow down any resistance because it weighs.
Some people don’t even want to resist, some prefer to die, some prefer to give up on themselves and become their own executioner, the person who kills to have peace. Quietness. Self-forgetfulness, self-renunciation. So, yes, it is possible to resist, but very difficult, as a group.
M. M.: Is there a minority language or minoritised community that has inspired you in your struggle as Tuaregs?
H.: There are ways of resisting that have inspired us on a general level, as an Amazigh people: on a cultural level, the Catalans. Catalonia taught us how to approach resistance, how to face a hyper-mechanised, hyper-performing system that has the ability to manufacture images of modernity that dazzle people, and to resist it with its own means.
To people like me, and to many Amazigh like the Imazighen or our Kabyle brothers, the Catalans taught us that we can be ourselves while we resist. They showed us how to face a modern adversity for which we have no tools without losing ourselves, without going through a useless metamorphosis.
«Personally, I am nourished by the resistance of all oppressed peoples. All the peoples who, through suffering, have not forgotten what they want to be, deserve to inspire us»Personally, I am nourished by the resistance of all oppressed peoples, not only the marginalised: by the great tragedy of the Jewish people during their pilgrimage, during their great exile. I’m talking about the great resistance, I’m not talking about after the war. They are an example of how not to despair in the loss of oneself, nor in running away, nor in exile. It makes me almost cry to think about it: they are the symbol of suffering that has lasted over time, and of the suffering of not having a territory. Of despair, of crematoriums. They have always inspired us the Amazigh.
We were inspired by the Apaches, due to the genius of their resistance, by personalities like Gerónimo, who had an ideal, and who believed that it is necessary to die in the name of this ideal. Oh, and the Kurds have influenced us, no doubt. Any human suffering has inspired us. All the peoples who, through suffering, have not forgotten what they want to be, deserve to inspire us.
M. M.: In a recent interview you said that you favour an anarchic type of organisation, to “federate people, groups, towns, without a vertical structure”. Why? To what extent do minoritised communities need politics?
H.: Any policy that we do not make will be made against us. I think it is necessary to go beyond politics, to surpass them. I am in favour of an anarchic kind of organisation, not anarchy as it is known nowadays: I am not talking about Malatesta, Bakunin or other political ideas; I am in favour above all of the Amazigh way of organising, which consists of federating small groups, small towns, in the form of cooperatives, which federate infinitely.
«I am in favour of an anarchic kind of organisation, not anarchy as it is known nowadays. I am in favour above all of the Amazigh way of organising, which consists of federating small groups, small towns, in the form of cooperatives, which federate infinitely. It is not chaos or anomie. I am responsible for myself was well as for my neighbours»I am not in favour of democracy, of the power of the people. A people that entrusts its power to an elite... that is not freedom. They talk about the power of the majority. The majority killing the minority! We need an anarchic organisation. Anarchy gives us responsibility. It is not chaos or anomie. I am responsible for myself was well as for my neighbours.
A president can bring us together, we give him or her the power. But not the power to kill us. I am against the word hierarchy. I am for counterpower, of making freedom fructify. There are no thieves in my city. A society that needs a policeman is a sick society. Who made the thieves?
This absolute pharaonic side of power is unbearable and has destroyed the world. The nation-state is a monster. It needs war, it needs destruction, it needs peripheral peoples. I am for anarchy, even if it is utopian.
It is this anarchist organisation that has protected me and brought me to this day. We have not conquered any country with it and we do not need to. It has also allowed us to organise resistance against the conquest of others. All my neighbours and their languages have died: the Romans who came over, the Greeks, too; the language of the Egyptians, Coptic, it is dead, and it is thanks to anarchy that I can speak my language and that I can say that I am Amazigh.
M. M.: What did you find here, at the Ostana Prize? Is there anything that particularly impacted you?
H.: In Ostana I have found fraternity and, above all, something that is missing in many cultural meetings: simplicity, going to the essential. People do things as they can —to fight for their language, I mean. Here I’ve found a fraternity of action without mannerisms.
And this is what I expect from these types of encounters, but it’s rare to find. To go straight to what we need. It’s the right thing to do. It is not to please the external world or their gaze, nor to imitate what others do. We started from the mundane, from everyday matter, and did extraordinary things.
M. M.: What present and future do you see for your language and your culture?
H.: It will be very difficult for us Tuaregs. We have a very difficult job to do, the job of restoring the collective ethos. We need autonomy of spirit, an independence of spirit that we are losing. People today are easily impressed and influenced by money, by weapons, and by technological instruments. By majority languages that dominate.
We have no neighbours in the North or South of the Mediterranean that inspire us on the level of “there is something new that is being born”. We do not have a horizon of resistance, a collective struggle that moves us and gives us hope, so that we can continue to resist.
«Tuaregs need an independence of spirit that we are losing. Before, memory was our greatest ally. With new technologies, people no longer have memory. We need to accumulate a reserve of memory, to accumulate a large amount of ammunition to illuminate the future, to trace a future, to force a future. If you don’t have enough hindsight —the hindsight that memory allows— you cannot face the adversity of the future»Before, memory was our greatest ally. With new technologies, people no longer have memory. The Tuaregs have no memory reserve; they are not interested in the past. They are in the present. When you find yourself cornered between two banks of violence, you need to get out of the dismembering body and cling to a sense of heritage and an idyllic future.
Today, with internet and WhatsApp, everything is immediate. Many people thought that the internet would bring many good things. But in reality we have become consumers of information, of knowledge, as if we were bulimic. And this is very dangerous for us.
We need to accumulate a reserve of memory, to accumulate a large amount of ammunition to illuminate the future, to trace a future, to force a future. If you don’t have enough hindsight, the hindsight that memory allows, you cannot face the adversity of the future. If the future finds you dismembered, you tremble, you have nothing to face it. Even the word “future” will make you crumble.
If today, as Amazigh people, we were given freedom, our land, our Sahara back; if they authorised our language, gave us right over our soil rich in raw materials, this would destroy us. We would become obese like in Saudi Arabia.
We are becoming more fragile as Tuaregs. Asceticism, the renunciation of certain things, has always been part of the Tuareg way of thinking. You must give up material wealth. And give up a certain tranquillity. Being calm! We need restlessness to reignite our collective imagination. And we need sobriety: no more than is necessary. It’s not easy nowadays. The telephone with internet, among the Tuaregs, broke out like lightning. Go on! Everyone getting a phone! And what is being said in there? Nothing interesting. Internet is a vehicle for foreign languages that eat our languages. We cannot build a culture, or a capital of thought, with this.
«We Tuaregs transformed hell into paradise: the Sahara. From scratch. Why? Because we gave up everything but the ideal of being free»Our ancestors, my parents and up to my generation, all of us suffered from hunger: we were hungry with hunger, thirsty with thirst. We transformed hell into paradise: the Sahara. From scratch. Why? Because we gave up everything but the ideal of being free. This is not easy nowadays. We are in the era of the wax man. Any fire, any spark, and it melts. Because we have destroyed his memory, so he becomes a soulless man, who only consumes.
That is why I think it’s going to be tough. Frankly, Tuaregs have a tough future ahead of them. I’m not saying everything is lost because I’m not a prophet, nor do I want to be. The fight will be tough, especially because we have run out of memory, and we have no references. A reference to cling to.