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from the January 2019 issue

The Tartar from the Kremlin

From behind the high walls of the Kremlin, a Tartar dreams of Sindbad and magnificent cities he'll never visit. 

This particular Tartar doesn’t have four dromedaries for traveling

That’s what he usually says                              Not without a touch of irony

—it’s annoying to repeat yourself

Justify your immobility

Give all sorts of explanations

No one asks for them 

Isn’t it the survival of some sort of atavism?


Nomadism is an art           a camel is indispensable




The Tartars know something about it 

What they recount was classed as a world heritage

But they’re not the only ones to have

Made use of a scholarly poetry on the question 


And oases for thirst as the saying goes

Property of the picturesque nomad

The affirmation is categorical 


Scathing cutting all discussion short 




This particular Tartar doesn’t leave                                 that is to say never leaves

                                   the enclosure of the Kremlin

High walls pulled down now since June

Trenches filled in gigantic peripheral highways

Places for not-so-weekly markets



Not very talented                                 maybe a mask

Strategy of representation

Poison of urban phantasmagoria 

A character wrung out like a dishrag


It’s not amusing

Not dramatic either 


He daydreams in his garret of unveiling the mysteries of magnificent cities






The briefest departure                                  as soon as it’s imagined

Which is rare                                               turns out to be a Chinese puzzle

He’s got to think about it at length             very lengthily indeed

To mope    to dissect  to gnaw away at it    to howl at the crows

In order to rouse himself


How do you decide to leave?


It’s complicated                                         it requires loads of energy

Contrary to preconceived ideas

Or received ones


That cast shadows on the wall behind the dump




He’s constantly preparing detailed itineraries

Drawn down to the millimeter

With a Prussian staff officer’s precision 

For minutiae he has                           a compass in his eye

Despite his genetic stain


He works on it nonstop                   for weeks


Suddenly just like that presto subito

Realizes that he doesn’t have the means to do this or

Another extravagant destination occurs to him

And then                            what good is it all?

Finished!  Trashcan!


What a pity



Going down the road to bargain-hunt at the Villejuif fleamarket or have a look

At the Canon at Gobelins that’s an expedition


A real one              there where they shiver in bomb-craters


The famous voyages of Sindbad the Sailor on the Indian Ocean or the Coral Sea, that he devours greedily in the Galland translation (especially the prints that he acquired under the counter) are no great thing. Ordinary Sunday strolls, rubbish, compared to the slightest displacement he’s obliged to make out of his village.

That’s something serious!


Like hearing the moans at dawn

                                             fifty leagues off, of Behemoths in heat 

Nothing to do with meaningless roadside rustlings 




It’s not that he’s cowardly like those Uighurs of the second

Or even the third generation and after

Those arrogant bastards don’t ever dare decamp from their seedy ghetto

Where they terrorize old ladies on the staircase landing!

Troublesome delinquents! Drug dealers!

Part-time swindlers and pyromaniacs!


And you, mate, you don’t like the Uighurs much


No one can stand the Uighurs!

It’s an open wound 




Not a loafer like those Merovingian kings

Who, the new schoolbooks affirm,

Would travel sluggishly supine in ox-carts


Ambulant jellies obstructing the roadways 

The palace mayors                                      fortunately they were around 

Put up with the job 


No, certainly not 


He wasn’t indecisive either

Don’t trust appearances 



The Tartars obstinate enterprising people

Who don’t give in easily 

Calloused hands agile minds in an era where

Ploughs / feathers don’t mean a thing

Defying maledictions all day long and daily

Demoralized and downcast for ages


Accursed crow so white and beautiful O God

Turned swarthy for having disobeyed deliberately or

Just mistaken a bag of lice for a bag of gold 


A regrettable incident            it only happens to people like us

Or we would have ended up like this

But we ended up like this


In the same satchel as the Uighurs




But none of this concerns him


His almost-official lodging on the outskirts of Bicêtre

A small government flat as he’s a veteran

Taught him 

While forgetting proverbs the steel of the tribe

To temper his nomad ancestry


To park his suitcases on the parquet


A dream the soldier cherishes while marching

Easier to say than to do           but it’s done


An unchanging existence doesn’t kill you really

You taste things differently diminishing            like soap




To draw a line through his past

                                                    —he’d like to write

his memoirs

                                                    One foot in the grave


The hope of a conversation with himself

Getting rid of his illusions 

Finding the words to say who he is


It brings a kind of lightness


No moodiness       or extravagance


He’d been able to attempt the impossible                  Win that great victory 




Into the closet with his bellicose instincts his morbid frenzy his unsatisfied sexual appetites his trashy primitive nostalgia to peacefully cultivate a sparse rocky patch of land

(above all prefers pampering a tomato plant he brought back from Toulon with lettuces sorrel and wild thyme)


won without cheating 

memorable Tarot reading

they still talk about it today

profusion of savory details

witticisms you had to admire

that card game at the Café de la Mairie




This particular Tartar is unbeatable at cards

Except for whist (not a game for Tartars)

Which permits him to make ends meet

Sometimes throw a party, a feast

Where all the neighborhood enjoys his largesse


Well-planned banquets, a sophisticated mise en scène

Remembered for a certain decorum


Generosity in the blood secular recommendations

What he says so as not to be labeled a brainless spender

And maybe he believes it

Everyone’s there to receive the manna

Celebrate the donor

Shouting his slogan: I sow gold . . . 


We’re not likely to see such days again soon 




There’s always a glistening pigeon            favorable circumstances 

Newly arrived in the neighborhood

                                                         the bird

lets himself be plucked

without a fuss                                  Satisfied, even


The game takes place according to the rules

A good-natured politeness

Nothing to be said                           No regrets

no unseemly protests 


Everyone sympathizes  /  calm  /  the sucker

holds the spittoon while they tot up the score


In such a situation you can lose with style

Not lose face 

“Le Tatar du Kremlin” © Habib Tengour. By arrangement with the author. Translation © 2019 by Marilyn Hacker. All rights reserved.

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