By Suzanne Ruta
Abdellatif el Jaziri was a Moroccan from Fez with a fine Berber head (long and narrow, with a strong chin and prominent cheekbones) and an unflappable sense of humor. Until recently, he taught Arabic in New York City.
“Sometimes it seemed like half the city wanted him to teach them Arabic,” his wife, Melanie, recalls. He taught at ABC Language Exchange, at N.Y.U, and a couple of other venues. He had a stable of private pupils, travelers, musicians, writers, even a Moroccan lawyer who had been educated in French only, in colonial times.
He translated subtitles for Michael Moore movies, he coached actors at the Public Theatre into the wee hours. He was also, and primarily, an artist—a painter, a decorator (elaborate plaster moldings in Moorish style), an expert cook, a jewelry maker. He was writing his first book, part memoir, part sociology, about relations between the sexes in the small town outside Fez, where he spent time as a child. He wrote by hand, in Arabic, in those cheap composition notebooks where we learned to spell cat rat hat. He was taking courses in film editing and script writing at N.Y.U. He was about to obtain his citizenship.
At our first private lesson, in spring 2009, he was amused that of all things Arabic, I wanted help deciphering the lyrics to Algerian rai songs.
“Kayen rabi. I know that song. Rab means God. The final ‘i’ means to me, for me. There is a God for me, or God is on my side. When someone turns you down for a loan or you lose your girlfriend, it’s a way of ‘soulagement de soi,’” Latif explained, lapsing into French. “It’s a form of consolation.”
Consolation eludes us now. Abdellatif, forty-one and full of plans for the future, died last November, within months of a diagnosis of cancer.
His colleague Ahmed Eissawi, an Egyptian-born journalist, teacher, and poet, heard the news and wrote a poem celebrating Latif’s life. Its refrain, “He had a lot of trouble,” refers, he explains, not to Latif’s failing health but to his struggle to achieve his goals, the suffering of the sensitive for themselves and others. Colleague Mohamed Alsiadi, a musician from Aleppo, remembers being impressed by Latif’s clarity as a teacher, and attributed it to his involvement with film.
“When you think,” Alsiadi vented his grief, “of the immigrants who have plans and then don’t get to fulfill them . . . there should be a museum for incomplete art.”
Meanwhile there was the memorial, in mid December, at Alwan for the Arts, in downtown Manhattan. Friends, colleagues, students remembered Abdu’s tact, his generosity, his subtlety, his warmth.
“Even in the hospital, in pain, he welcomed guests, ‘Come in, sit down,’” his friend, jazz trumpeter Amir alSaffar told us, while the computer screen flashed its seductive sequence: Abdu lounging at home in djellaba and green leather babouches; Abdu in a parka, reclining on a berm of Catskill snow; Abdu emerging from someone’s kitchen with a heaping platter of couscous.
We learned his nicknames. Abdubu. Buffy. (Only a man quite sure of his dignity could rejoice in the nickname Buffy.) We heard about his readiness to pitch in to the work at hand—ripping invasive cattails out of a fire pond in the remote Catskills, pouring his grief over an Iraqi neighbor’s death into a painting. An ABC colleague remembered the visit to a New York City school, to encourage students to learn Chinese and Arabic, where Abdu talked and joked with the kids while their parents wondered, amazed, at this genial young man, not at all like the Arabs you read about in the papers . . . AlSaffar, a master of both jazz and traditional Iraqi modes, played the santour like an angel and sang a song about a pomegranate tree. A close friend described the snowbound Monday morning in winter 2002, when Abdu and Melanie called to tell her they had decided to marry and wanted her as their witness. They married later that same day at Queens County Courthouse; then the three of them went out to a seafood lunch.
Latif was an excellent teacher, clear, patient, courteous to a fault. He apologized for asking me to read the grim word (in a beginner’s exercise) tabut, meaning coffin. It was my impatience that slowed our progress. Instead of toiling over the alphabet, I wanted proverbs, as many as possible. Some I found on the internet; others Latif pulled out of his own great store. At home he had heard men swap proverbs by the hour; it was a form of conversation.His proverbs were strangely moving.
Ma 3andel mous ma yaddi man khooh? What would a knife take from his brother? (Algerian) reminded me of the dispute over a stolen knife in the first pages of Kateb Yacine’s great novel of late colonial Algeria, Nedjma: the bare knife as symbol not of aggression but of straight-edged poverty. Fi 3erssou na33as, ou fi 3ers el nass raqqass! “He sleeps at his wedding and dances at everyone else’s” was more familiar. In Spanish they say “Candiles de la calle, oscuridad de la casa.” Raqqas, Latif explained, meant one who made a back-and-forth motion, commuter, go-between, courier, middleman, dancer. (From raqqas comes the Italian ragazzo. Arabic is deeply rooted in Italian, as novelist Amara Lakhous, who writes both Italian and Arabic versions of his books, loves to point out.) Raqqas described Latif himself, I thought, with his back-and-forth life between the U.S. and Morocco, between Brooklyn and Fez.
At one of our last lessons I asked him for his take on sociologist Pierre Bourdieu’s claim that the chief product of Algeria, at the time of the French invasion in 1830, was “la conversation.”
“Oh sure,” he said. “That’s Africa.” As usual he had a story ready to illustrate his point. A friend visited a remote village in West Africa, looked around and asked, “But what do you people do here? What do you produce?”
“Well,” he was told, “we have the sun. “
“Morocco is like that too,” Abdu said. “There’s time to sit around and talk.”
“Where would you live if you had the choice?” I asked.
“In Morocco, I miss the warmth.”
We miss it too.
Published Jan 20, 2011 Copyright 2011 Suzanne Ruta