Story-Bearers

Marina Warner

  • Je parle toutes les langues, mais en arabe by Abdelfattah Kilito
    Actes Sud, 144 pp, €19.00, March 2013, ISBN 978 2 330 01634 0

‘I speak all languages but in Yiddish,’ Kafka remarks in his Diaries; and when it came to writing, he might have chosen any one of them, besides German. We now read him in all languages, receiving glimpses, like faraway signals at sea, of the original German, and beyond the German of the other languages that made up Kafka’s mindscape, with Yiddish beating out a bass line, familiar ground. Echoing Kafka, the Moroccan writer and scholar of Arabic literature Abdelfattah Kilito declares ‘I speak all languages but in Arabic,’ in the title of his recent collection of essays. Kilito is a writer who reads (not all do) – and widely, in several languages. He’s an amphibian creature, living in Arabic and French with equal agility, and ambidextrous with it, continuing to use one language or other at will for his critical studies or his ‘récits’ – his gnomic, often poignant memoirs and fictions.

He was born in 1945 and brought up in the capital, Rabat. Morocco was then still a French protectorate and from the age of six Kilito was taught in French, a language neither of his parents knew. The family lived in the medina in the old city, where the labyrinthine alleys and secret doors set the scene for many of the wry, occasionally hilarious autobiographical tales collected in The Clash of Images (2008), translated most effectively by Robyn Creswell. In one of these, ‘Tomorrows That Sing’, Kilito remembers a summer camp where the boys were starved and made to keep their spirits up by singing patriotic songs all day long – until a strange woman appeared driving a car (something unheard of in the boys’ experience), and ordered the camp commandant to change his ways. He didn’t but his victims knew his authority was broken.

French was the language of the former colonisers; colloquial Arabic was identified with the country’s once subjugated inhabitants – ‘les indigènes’ – while the Berbers’ Tamazight was banned (it has since been recognised as one of Morocco’s official languages). Formal Arabic – the language of literature and learning – has remained sufficiently unchanged for a reader of the region’s newspapers today to find it easy enough to read the historian Ibn Khaldun, who was active in the 14th century.

Crucially for the young Kilito, culture itself in those days was coloured French; colonial cringe meant that for a long time literature wasn’t considered worthy of the name in the Middle East and North Africa unless it fitted into the European tradition (the US didn’t set the standard, then). Embarrassment hung around the very concept of Arabic literature, and it was in any case inaccessible – print didn’t play much part in the French empire’s civilising mission in the modern period. The situation is improving today, in the Maghreb and in the historical Anglo-American sphere of domination; but linguistic complexity, compounded by lingering hostility, means that the shelves marked ‘Arabic literature’ are pretty empty in most readers’ minds. Because the classical language was neglected during colonial rule, the repercussions continue; in the United Arab Emirates, for example, knowledge of this universal literary language is very weak among the wealthy offspring of the elite, and a globish, Arabish, Twittersphere patois is spreading. Arabic poetry, fiction, philosophy, science and travel writing, once eagerly explored by Europeans (Dante, for instance, seems to have had more contact than most of us today with these works), still remain utterly obscure to many, including someone like me, who is actively interested.

Kilito began as a scholar of the classical Arabic tradition, both before and after the foundation of Islam, and his work has kept burrowing under the colonial edifice, not in a spirit of contrariety or grievance, but with scintillating good humour. His first book, Les Séances (1983), was about al-Hamadhāni’s Maqamat, a tenth-century collection of picaresque and satirical anecdotes, vigorously told. One of the difficulties in approaching the literary tradition of the Middle East is that the genres don’t align neatly. Kilito defends Averroes (Ibn Rushd) from the scorn he incurred for rendering Aristotle’s term ‘tragedy’ as ‘panegyric’ and his ‘comedy’ as ‘satire’, but there was no theatre in the medieval Arab world, just as there was no novel as such until the 19th century. Tales, romances, travel yarns, parables, fables, riddles, diatribes, eulogies, erotica, rude stuff, brain-teasing prosody, lots of fantasy and invention, mirrors of princes, yes, but no mirrors of ordinary manners and morals for the stage or the page – or the voice. Kilito is not a cultural nationalist, or a linguistic apologist claiming the superiority of this tradition or that genre. Mallarmé matters to him almost as much as al-Ma‘arri; a swan immobilised in ice is a symbol as potent as a laden camel stepping through the desert.

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[*] New York, 464 pp. and 346 pp., £29.99 and £23.99, September 2013 and April, 978 0 8147 6378 2 and 978 0 8147 7194 5.