The Prophet Of Black Folk


After the death of Ali
who will
for Black Folk in this surrounding
darkness, the flame of

So writes the poet Adonis in the beginning of his book, Al Kitab III (2001). Ali [Ibn Muhammad] led an African slave revolt in 9th Century Iraq:The Zanj Revolt. It is an astounding episode of history that has since inspired both defiance and empowerment. Groups of slaves were brought from East Africa to clear salt from Iraq southern marshes in order to allow cultivation. This is said to be the first time in that era and culture that slaves were not domestic workers, but were to be employed for a large rural project and under harsh conditions. Ali Ibn Muhammad an Arab poet and literary figure took on the cause of the people of color -like today’s Subcommandante Marcos in Mexico- and engaged in a military rebellion against the Abbasid Empire one of the most powerful of the time. Ali’s leadership was such that some asked him to declare prophesy which he declined fearing he would not be able to bear its burden. The Abbasid Caliph Al Muawaffaq tried to bribe Ali, but without success. The Caliph then vowed to crush the revolt and kill Ali and ultimately did. The severed head of Ali was brought to Al Muawaffaq as a proof of victory. The revolt lasted fourteen years during which the Zanj people built their own capital, minted their own coins and conquered the city of Basra for ten years.
   I read Ezzedine Madani’s play about the Zanj revolt while a high school student in Tunisia. The history of the Zanj was used as a metaphor to recount the tale of colonized people, their struggle for independence and much of the glory and deception that followed. For Adonis, Ali Ibn Muhammad is the prophet he declined to be in his time. He is the spirit of empowerment and the flame to be rekindled.
   Adonis’ ability to paint with the word has always fascinated and inspired me. When I read: Black ink is flowing/over the papers of this/world: whiteness cannot/be unless it is fertilized by/Black luster, it felt to me like an assignment an image that I needed to paint, draw and etch. From this poem grew the idea of The Prophet of Black Folk, for which I have chosen twelve poems from Adonis’ Al Kitab II and III. The text had to be an integral part of the image and not a distant inspiration. The text is rendered as a computer printout or my handwriting, not elaborate or calligraphic. Ali is here and now. It took over a year for this work to materialize. During this time current events caught up with history. I saw Basra again embattled, the dead bodies are still flaunted as proof of military victory, and the people of color are still seeking empowerment. The death of Edward Said sadly recalls the death of Ali as described above by Adonis. Said was a restless articulate voice speaking out in the face of injustice, cultural and material dispossession, and the dignity denied to his people: the Palestinians, the Arabs, the Muslims. The Natives.
   When I read Adonis’ glorification of the Zanj, I heard the echoes of Césaire, Senghor and the Négritude poets, who articulated the spirit of a tremendous endeavor for cultural emancipation. In my English translation of Adonis, I called on W.E.B. Dubois and the Soul of Black Folk for inspiration and power; Blacks that we all natives are.

Emna Zghal, Sep. 03
Citizen Of Carthage