Algerian Sketches Savage Beauty of Tribal Dancer Inspires a Poem

Ouled Nail, a 46-line poem, is the Coups de Coeur Editor’s Choice poem in the the Spring 2010 issue of CELAAN, the review of the Center for the Studies of the Literature and Arts of North Africa at Skidmore College, Saratoga Springs, New York, edited by Prof. Hedi Abdel-Jaouad.

The poem, which I wrote as a kind of homage to my father’s tribe, the Ouled Nail of eastern Algeria, is followed by a revealing essay about paintings and drawings by my mother, Juanita Marbrook Guccione, and nine of her charcoal drawings, including works from her life in Algeria in the early 1930s and an early self-portrait that she probably drew shortly after I was born in 1934.

The drawings are among 174 paintings, watercolors and drawings owned by Sonatrach, the Algerian national energy company. Sonatrach has said they will be permanently exhibited at its headquarters in the Hydra district of Algiers. This project has enjoyed the attentive patronage of Dr. Chakib Khelil, Algeria’s Minister for Energy and Mines.

Algerian sketches
The Game, charcoal drawing by Juanita Guccione, circa 1933

The poem was inspired by an old sepia monochrome of an Ouled Nail dancer. The photograph haunted me from the moment I first saw it. The savage beauty-that is the only term I have been able to settle upon to describe her-conveys an unearthly hauteur and reserve that I had never quite seen before in a human being. If the French had been wise-and who among us truly is wise for very long?-that look would have sent them packing. But, in another sense, it would send anyone packing. To me it said, I am, I choose, don’t even think of messing with me. I use the term savage beauty hesitantly because I recognize it might be taken as condescending and Eurocentric. Edward Said might have called it orientalist. But as a poet I would unhesitatingly call an Appalachian woman or a Parisian fashion model savagely beautiful if I thought the description apt.

I thought of the word hauteur to describe this dancer’s level gaze, but the word, to me at least, conveys a certain self-consciousness, a desire for effect, whereas this young woman’s look inspired in me at once those words, I am, I choose. I also thought of the word defiant, but she had nothing to defy. She simply looks at the camera, which was undoubtedly one of those big, awkward boxes, as she probably regarded the world and everyone in it-So there you are, that’s how you look.

The declarations I am, I choose sum up many descriptions of the Ouled Nail dancers. They have been compared to Japanese geishas. They have been mentioned in the same breath with the Kahena, the legendary Berber queen who resisted Arab invaders. And all that we know of the Ouled Nail, people of the river, is somehow shrouded in romanticism and misunderstanding. But on one point everyone agrees: the Ouled Nail women are extraordinarily independent.

I think that is why my mother was drawn to them. They are a sisterhood, and she saw them with the eyes and mind of a sister, not a client or sociologist. She instinctively related to their understanding of the foibles of men and their uses.

This is the perfect moment to mention two French language books by Mlle. Barkahoum Ferhati, De La Tolerance and Le Costume Feminin de Bou Saada. The city of Bou Saada in M’Sila Province is one of the principal sites of the Ouled Nail tribe. It was my father’s hometown, although his nomadic parents came from the oasis of Ain Rich. De La Tolerance explores prostitution under the French colonial regime in Algeria. It raises important questions-habitually swept under the rug by warring nations-about sexuality and militarism, questions we should be addressing ourselves in Iraq and Afghanistan, instead of pretending our soldiers, men and women, are asexual, which is, of course, to dehumanize them.

Hear me read and talk about poetry

Djelloul (jeh-lool) Marbrook was born in 1934 in Algiers to a Bedouin father and an American painter. He grew up in Brooklyn, West Islip and Manhattan, New York, where he attended Dwight Preparatory School and Columbia. He then served in the U.S. Navy.

His book of poems, Far From Algiers, won the Stan and Tom Wick Poetry Prize from Kent State University in 2007 and was published in 2008. His story, Artists Hill, adapted from the second novel of an unpublished trilogy, won the Literal Latte first prize in fiction in 2008. His poems have been published in The American Poetry Review, Barrow Street, poemeleon, The Same, and other journals. The pioneering e-book publisher, Online Originals (UK), published his novella, Alice MIller’s Room, in 1999.

He worked as a reporter for The Providence Journal and as an editor for The Elmira (NY) Star-Gazette, The Baltimore Sun, The Winston-Salem Journal & Sentinel and The Washington Star. Later he worked as executive editor of four small dailies in northeast Ohio and two medium-size dailies in northern New Jersey.

Del’s book, Far From Algiers:

New review of Far from Algiers:

Artists Hill, Literal Latte’s fiction first prize:

His blog:

His mother’s art:

His aunt’s art: