Home Book Review Mapping a Book: About Tebrae by Ismael Diadié Haidara

Mapping a Book: About Tebrae by Ismael Diadié Haidara

Mapping a Book: About Tebrae by Ismael Diadié Haidara
Ismael Diadié Haidara (photo by: Rodrigo Valero Gonzalez)

Ismael in Tebrae gives us an ephemeral peace in nature where we see our human fragility. Tebrae leaves us in the end more fragile and helpless, but freer, more human.

By Virginia. Fernández Collado


Tebrae by Malian poet, philosopher and historian Ismaël Diadié Haïdara, who is exiled in Spain, has just been published by the Editorial Libros del Aire in Spanish, with a preface by the poet and journalist José Manuel Suarez. Tebrae contains 1203 poems, in addition to the preface, it has a prelude by the poet, followed at the end of the book by a glossary, a thematic index and a chronology, which is necessary to understand the life and work of the author. In this work, Ismaël D. Haïdara likens his philosophy of life and his poetic to that of Japanese Ikkyu whose work has about 1056 poems, and the poet E. Dickinson whose complete poetry is made up of 1789 poems. Tebrae represents not the work of a lifetime but of ten years of writing in exile, from 2011 to 2021.

The library of the Kati Fund, was reunified in 2002 by Ismael Diadié Haidara. It is made up of manuscripts from the imperial collection of the Askia, his maternal family, and those of his paternal family, brought by his ancestors, the poets Es-Sahili and Ali b. Ziyad al-Quti de Toledo.

After the reunifying of the library Ismael Diadié Haidara stripped off his possessions and retired to his parents’ land in Kirchamba, on the banks of the Niger River. Here he managed to have a hut and an orchard where he lead a life of voluntary simplicity.

In 2012, the war waged by Islamists and independence fighters against the Malian state drove him out of that retirement. Since then he has led a wandering life. In his wanderings through various towns and cities, he has written these short poems called Tebrae – in his land of birth, – leaving the French language for the Castilian of his ancestors and adopting the name Lélé.  The name his mother and childhood friends called him.


If the five-line tanka have their poet in Takuboku, the four-line quartets in Khayyam, their great creator, and the three-line haikus in Bashô, their most representative poet, then we can say without exaggeration that the tebrae, two-line poems, the most brief so far, have their creator in Ismael, he gives us a new genre in short poetry whose roots are the songs of the African women of the Sahara.

Ismael’s maternal ancestor, Es-Sahili al-Gharnati, is the creator of the so-called sahiliyya in Arabic poetry. According to Basanta, in a poem of 118 lines, written from al-Tugramiyya or Lamiyyat al-`ajam of the secretary of the Seljuks of Mosul, alchemist and poet, Mu ‘helps al-Din al- Isfahani al-Tugra ‘i (d. 1121).  Basanta says: “This famous composition, then, written by our teacher, extends over 59 verses, and the method followed by Abu Ishaq to comment on it consisted in adding a second hemistich to each of the first verses of al-Tugrâ ´î (ta`yiz), and a first hemistich to each of the seconds (tasdir), converting each verse of two hemistichs into a quartet and, therefore, doubling the total number of verses of the original poem.”. Following the steps of his ancestor, Ismael revolutionizes the theory by giving us the Ismaelian theory.

Tebrae are love poems made and sung by women. At night, on the dunes or around tea, African women meet and sing these tebrae.

According to the Mauritanian scholar Ahmed Bâba Miské in his work Al Wasît the tebrae (singular tebria) are poetic compositions of two verses that rhyme together and have the same meters. In “Hassaâni love poetry is exclusive to women: ət-təbṛāˁ, Ahmed Salim Ould Mohamed Baba indicates that “From the formal point of view, ət-təbṛāˁ is composed of a single gāf (of two hemistichs), in which they are expressed very “condensed” love feelings using a tropological style, with abundant metaphors, similes, metonymies.”

Tebrae are love poems made and sung by women. At night, on the dunes or around tea, African women meet and sing these tebrae. One composes a tebria and the other answers with another tebria. In general, Aline Tauzin says, they take the first verse of a classic poem and compose a second verse, creating a small universe between the two verses. They are an exclusively feminine genre of poetry, sometimes, as A. B. Miske has pointed out, lovers have been able to dialogue, composing tebrae, forced to give the maximum meaning in just two verses. The theory always leads to expressing the maximum with the minimum of resources. There is a certain parallelism between these brief compositions and certain minimal pieces (some of them the thickness and size of a pin) made by the sculptor Alberto Giacometti in the 1940’s and 1950’s who said: “I do it to enlarge the space.” This way of seeing the universe from the small is the same, from my point of view, as what happens with the composition of the tebria. For example, in this one cited by A. B. Miske:

Man-darti kân, man-darti kân:

Ragg-elmahshar, vîh assebyân

Who will tell me, who will tell me

If we will love each other in paradise?


As I point out in the introduction to the anthology that I edited: ‘Woman, world and death’ feminine poetry existed in different places and at different times. In the Heian era (10th century) in Japan some classes of the nobility, instead of writing letters, wrote wakas, which means poem in Japanese. There was a whole typology of poems that were included in what were called wakas; one of them is the tanka, or short poem. It is a poetic composition similar to haiku, but a little longer. If two friends missed each other, they always wrote a tanka with figures of nature as a metaphor for the emotion or feeling they were going through. Not only lovers, they could be two friends, but also when a man spent the night with a woman the next day from his bachelor house or from his workplace, he had to write a tanka to her. If she answered, it was a sign that the relationship could continue. The wakas had to be written in kana, literally the writing of the emotions.

The women banished by their sex and formation of the study of the kanji (literary vehicle proper to an exclusive academic status of men) used the kana as a sanctuary and literary medium of expression of the emotions of the heart. So associated was this type of writing with women that a Ki no Tsurayuki writer pretended to be a woman in 935 to write his Tosa nikki in Kana, in which he expressed grief for his dead daughter . This anecdote is reminiscent of Ismael and his use of tebrae as a form of writing.

In a first book of poetry, Las lamentaciones del viejo Tombo , published in Malaga by Aurora Luque and Jesús Aguado, Ismael already included six tebrae  in the chapters called “Tebrae de un cirenaico” with a quote from Omar Khayyam that says “Since you ignore what tomorrow holds for you, strive to be happy today. Have a jug of wine, sit by the light of the moon and drink thinking that tomorrow the moon may search for you uselessly’ and in Tebria,  ‘the ground millet is enough for me’.

The poems are very similar in content to the book presented here. In 2001, with the death of his mother, he wrote ‘Tebrae for my mother’, later published in Malaga. It is composed of 151 poems of two verses and uses this genre of women to sing the pain for the death of his mother. Why adopt the feminine gender to cry? Already in the year 935, as I have pointed out, the writer Ki no Tsurayuki did it. Two writers from two different eras and cultures have adopted this genre to mourn, love and sing about the pain of their dead women, one his daughter, the other his mother.

Today in Tebrae published by Libros del aire, we are offered a copious volume of 1203 two-line poems.

Without ceasing to sing love as in the tebrae of the women of Walata, Shinguetti, Wadan, Arawan or Timbuktu, Ismael reinvents a literary genre and universalizes it.


In Tebrae, from the formal point of view, Ismaël changes the poem of a verse of two hemistichs, in one of two complementary or independent verses, and does it in free verse. It should be remembered here that, as noted by Ahmed Salem: “From the point of view of metric, each təbṛīˁa has five mutaḥarrik “feet” in the first hemistich (sometimes 6) and 8 mutaḥarrik “feet” in the second, but generally it is not subject to any metric norm  ”. Ismaël frees the tebrae from the metric limitations and, without leaving the composition in two verses, opens the poems to multiple subjects, often taking them out of the single love theme of the classic tebrae of Hassaniya literature.

The first verse expresses his thoughts, feelings, and emotions of the moment. In the second, the poem takes its matter from phenomena of nature. In some cases, the two lines of the poem are complementary, in others, there is a disjunction. In one verse he expresses his states of mind, in another, the states of nature. The first verse reveals the self and the circumstances in which the poet is totally submerged. The second verse opens the poem to a vision of natural phenomena, thus bringing the poet’s experiences to a certain relativism.

Thus, the verse about the anxieties of the self is opposed by another about the stillness of nature, giving rise to an ironic way of taking on human affairs. Nothing human is absolute. While the poet suffers, cries, enjoys life, heaven and earth follow their course. That relativism reduces the power of the poet’s feelings, takes away their universal character. The second verse, or sometimes the first, when it is this that speaks of nature not only relativizes the self and its circumstances, it, also shows an unbearable insignificance of man in the world and, also refers to his intrinsic loneliness. It is this contradiction that gives rise to a bitter irony that runs through the entire book.

Ishmael’s poetry has been until now, a poetry of testimony.

The irony is more evident in the poems in which a tragic circumstance of the first verse is opposed to another of a distant, indifferent private life. This form of irony is also found in Kafka’s Diary, see: “August 2. Germany has declared war on Russia. – Afternoon, swimming school”. It mixes the serious and the almost frivolous. Tebrae is a book whose poems show a certain indifference to history and the world, poems in which laughter chokes in the face of the tragic or, on the contrary, the tragic dissolves in laughter.

Ishmael’s poetry has been until now, a poetry of testimony. Une cabane au bord de l’eau , is a book of 215 prose poems inspired by the poetic genre of the Lelewel  in which he speaks as a witness of the famines, wars, epidemics that he knew from his childhood and, at the end, of the war and his exile. In the foreword, he says that he writes to testify. In Sahel, he cites Primo Levi as an epigraph, who says in a letter to Jean Samuel of April 1946: “Que nous le voulions ou non, nous sommes des témoins et nous en portons le poids “. The commitment that he has with himself as Primo Levi or Celan had, he continues to keep in Tebrae but, in this latest book, he takes an ironic distance from the drama of his existence and the tragedy that his land of birth has known for decades.  He puts before this tragedy the events that trouble the heart, the calm of the universe, reducing everything that makes his unbearable daily life – made of burned peoples, severed hands, exiles – to relative events in a world in which there is also a rising sun, a cricket that sings, herons that fly and waves of the sea that come and go. The testimony, the driving force behind Une cabane au bord de l’eau and the Sahel, takes a back seat. Without disappearing altogether, the intrinsic irony of some Tebrae attenuates their drama so evident in these latest books.

In fact, Tebrae is a rare bird in the literature of Spanish expression as pointed out in his preface by José Manuel Suárez and also, it must be added, in African poetry.

In front of these poems are those that are of love and follow in the wake of the traditional tebrae. There is less humor in these classical poems, not so common in African literature of the last century and this one.

In fact, Tebrae is a rare bird in the literature of Spanish expression as pointed out in his preface by José Manuel Suárez and also, it must be added, in African poetry.

Whilst the African poetry championed by Léopold Sédar Senghor in the 20th century is characterized by the struggle for the freedom of peoples, their independence and their dignity, Ismael’s poetry transposes that struggle to that of an “I” that jealously guards its freedom and fight without drama for his independence towards everything and everyone. He does not fight for a country or for a truth, he has no cause outside himself. Said S. Zweig speaking of Montaigne: “Montaigne would have smiled at the idea of trying to transfer to others, and less to the masses, something as personal as inner freedom, and from the depths of his soul he hated the professional reformers of the world, to the theorists and dispensers of ideologies. He knew well enough that it is already a colossal task in itself to preserve one’s inner independence.

So, he restricts his fight exclusively to defensive action, to the defense of that most remote fortress that Goethe calls the “citadel” and access to which no one allows anyone. His technique and tactics consist of keeping outwardly as discreet and as unobtrusive as possible, in going around the world with a kind of hood to find his way to himself”.  Ismael shifts the struggle for independence from the exterior to the interior. Free from any homeland in which to shut himself up, he reveals himself to be wandering, without a cause in this world. Where homeland is spoken, Ismael speaks of the body as the only territory; where he speaks of people, of color, he speaks of himself in front of everyone, and where poets sacrifice themselves for noble causes, he lends himself, smiles and walks away without ever giving himself, like Montaigne.

In all times of fanaticism and human madness like ours, so similar to Montaigne, Khayyam or Zhuang-zi, recurring readings in Ismael, the questions of the man who does not want to lose his humanity is the same. Stefan Zweig who formulates it like this:

“How can I stay free? How do I preserve myself despite all the threats and all the dangers, in the midst of the fighting gangs, the unflinching clarity of the spirit, and how to preserve the humanity of the heart unscathed in the midst of bestiality? How can I escape the demands that the State and the Church or politics want to impose on me against my will? How can I defend myself so that my words and actions do not go beyond where my most intimate self wants to go? How to preserve that unique and particular part of my self, which in a unique corner reflects the universe against me against submission to the measures regulated and decreed from outside? How to preserve my own individual soul, and its matter, which only belongs to me, how to remove my body, my health, my nerves, my thoughts, my feelings, from the danger of falling victim to madness and foreign interests?”

Tebrae, a book written in times of uncertainty, fanatical madness and blindness of all kinds answers these questions, which are Zweig’s and Montaigne’s. Poet of a disenchanted laugh, of wandering, of a pleasure that does not ignore that the bells will toll for all.  Ismael in Tebrae gives us an ephemeral peace in nature where we see our human fragility. Tebrae leaves us in the end more fragile and helpless, but freer, more human.

Tebrae is not a linear book. Tebrae’s poetics somehow brings us closer to that of the Russian filmmaker Tarkovsky in his short film work. There is no linear argument, only sequences of time are followed that end up forming before the reader’s gaze, a relative set, necessarily different from that of another reader.

The book does not begin, it can end at any point, at any time, like life itself. As in Julio Cortázar’s Hopscotch, the reader has different ways of reading the book. Julio Cortázar in his “Board of Directors” says that Hopscotch is many books, but above all two. In the case of Tebrae, the reader can read the book from the first poem to the last according to their preference.

Since I was born, I have never had a place of my own.

The heron flies in silence and no one says that he is going into exile

Outside of this beginning-to-end reading, you have multiple ways of reading it by theme. You can take in the following index of love, exile, war, dragonflies, or flowers and by reading, compose a different book dealing only with these chosen themes. The reader can also combine themes such as love and war, exile and homeland, flowers and wandering. Each combination creates a new book within the book, forms a cartography according to their own concerns. The formation of new maps according to the themes makes Tebrae an infinite book. This is also the case in Montaigne’s Essays, which is basically a book made up of multiple books, according to the chosen theme.

A serious reading of the book from the percentages of the words used shows us the poet’s real concerns, his philosophy of life and the central themes around which this philosophy of life is expressed. At a glance, the reader can see these main entries in the index that follows.



I forgot my bowl and my wool blanket in Timbuktu.

The dragonfly only has its blue wings.


Those blue days start in your eyes.

They are like the tracks of white geese on snow.


Everywhere I feel at home.

I was born among the birds, the growing wheat and the blue of the sky.


At first it was silence.

The verb came later with your blue-sky eyes.


Blue night blue.

Extend your hand to me.



I still have dreams that I have not dreamed.

That is why, beloved, I sleep despite the world to laugh with you.


Truth, Good and Evil have died in me.

I only have my laugh left.


I have no more time to live than this.

I can’t let a day go by without laughing and loving you.


Only those who have the strength to forget can laugh.

Beloved, in your arms I still miss you.


One day the grass will grow on my grave, but do not cry.

Floating cloud, I have laughed at everything.



I belonged to a country that does not know spring.

There were only seasons of famines, wars, and epidemics.


He had a library, a garden, a turtle.

The war has arrived, and I wander between memory and the roads.


I have known peace and then war.

Everything happens like a lightning bolt.


In the war I was fighting to live.

Now I am fighting not to kill myself.


The war came, the doors closed.

I went into exile.



My country is exile.

I wipe the dust off the roads with my sandals.


The years pass and the exile does not end.

Among the ruins of our house there are spider webs.


The great exile begins in contemplation,

Its nights, its cracks, and illuminations.


Exile saves.

I want to be a butterfly among the epitaphs of heroes.


Since I was born, I have never had a place of my own.

The heron flies in silence and no one says that he is going into exile.

I would not like to end without thanking Ismaël Diadié Haidara for the invaluable clarifications and help that he gave me, in the different interviews and meetings in which we were able to address all the issues raised here.


About the author

Virginia Fernández Collado
Virginia Fernández Collado. (Photo by: RODRIGO VALERO)

Virginia Fernández Collado is a recipient of the 1st Prize (poetry mode) at the XII Young Creation Competition, Ciudad de Almería in 2011. She has collaborated in the magazine “Axarquia”. Some of her poems have appeared in joint books. Her published books are Predator (2015), and Poems 2006-2016 (2017), Bosque/Forest, Fondo Kati (2020), Rain, Poems 2006-2016, Fondo Kati (2020), etc. She has also coordinated several poetry anthologies. She is a Professor of Business Administration in Secondary Education and holds a Doctorate in Applied Economics besides a Master´s degree in “Fiscal Consulting” from the GADE Business School, Madrid.




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