Je parle toutes les langues, mais en arabe 
by Abdelfattah Kilito.
Actes Sud, 144 pp., €19, March 2013, 978 2 330 01634 0
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‘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.

Al-Ma‘arri is the 11th-century author of The Epistle of Forgiveness, a key work of the visionary imagination. (It has recently appeared in two elegant, dual-language volumes, in a clear and adroit translation by Geert Jan van Gelder and Gregor Schoeler.*) The poem is a vision of the end of things, recounted by a polymath. It would be easy to call al-Ma‘arri the Arabic Dante, but that would be falling into a trap Kilito explores acerbically in his book Thou Shalt Not Speak My Language (2008), where he points out that critics like to communicate the value of a Middle Eastern work by assimilating it to a European double: the Algerian Conrad, the Egyptian Joyce, the Lebanese Austen etc. Kilito can be fierce when he examines the glib equivalences and assumptions readers – and translators – make when they try to understand one language and culture through the lens of another.

In his own work, both critical studies and fiction, Kilito chooses to write in Arabic or French depending on the intended reader or audience (Casablanca, Princeton). He doesn’t translate his own writing, unlike some authors, nor does he code-switch, using Arabic for one genre and French for another. Nor has he abandoned one for the other at different times. Not many writers are at home in the mother tongue and in another language; many émigrés or refugees or transplanted folk (‘homeloose’ in James Wood’s coinage) end up with a rusty, old-fashioned command of their language of origin and an imperfect mastery of the newly acquired tongue. There are a few exceptions, but it is more usual to have one language for the library and another for the bedroom – party shoes v. slippers.

As in the case of Edward Said, about whose bilingualism he has written perceptively, Kilito keeps touching and testing his daily experience of duality, and his thoughtful accounts of Arabic writers and tales deliver a most unusual fertility of ideas about what it means to give tongue – in one voice or another. He quotes Said – ‘I began to think and write contrapuntally, using the disparate halves of my experience, as an Arab and as an American, to work with and also against each other’ – and then comments: ‘Bridging the gap: laying a bridge which makes the language a translation, the identity a movement between two legacies and two cultures, and which makes the intellectual a porter striving to link one shore to another.’

When Kilito appeared at the London Review Bookshop during the World Literature Festival last year, he talked about this figure of the porter. He evoked the colporteur, the hawker of books and ballads, almanacs and tales, and his counterparts. One of his favourite anecdotes has to do with Averroes, whose corpse was loaded on one side of a mule, balanced by his manuscripts, which were in a bag on the animal’s other side; both were then carried from Marrakesh, where the philosopher had died, to Cordoba, where he wanted to be buried. Kilito is engrossed by questions about writing and translation, about stories and their migrations through different cultures; literature is freight, and needs to be transported to find readers. He refers to himself as a raawii, a ‘transmitter’. Writers who come after others and carry on their works are ruwaat, moving between eras and places. Raawii also means something like a ‘rhapsode’, the Greek term for a writer who performs in public and calls attention to another’s words and deeds. When the Old Man of the Sea wheedles his way onto Sindbad’s back, and then clings on tight, growing heavier and heavier, he personifies literary baggage itself; later, Sindbad of the Land will receive the long story of adventures as regaled by Sindbad of the Sea, and take them somewhere else. Kilito embraces the load and his calling as a porter, a bearer of words.

Mules aren’t Kilito’s favourite beasts of burden, though. In ‘Metaphor’, a tale from a recent opuscule called Archéologies, he writes:

According to the poets in former times, the ode is a stray she-camel: you don’t know where she’ll end up. Lost in the immensity of the desert, she wanders looking for her nearest and dearest, animal and human. But it’s not certain that she’ll find them again. One day or other, the orphan will be taken in by persons unknown, who’ll adopt her and she’ll spend the rest of her days among them. Unless she wanders off again.

Pre-Islamic rhapsodes recited these story-poems, which laid down the rhythms, plots, rhymes and other verbal patterning for subsequent repetitions, retellings and revisionings, so they could be taken up here and put down there. Kilito goes on, thinking about literature on its travels across borders:

Isn’t it the fate of an ode to wander, to be a stranger everywhere?

This was something known to the Arab poet of the desert. But he thought that his odes would never be read other than in Arabic. He was far from grasping that his she-camels, centuries later, would have reached towns of which he had not the slightest idea: Berlin, Paris, London, New York.

Translated, interpreted, accompanied by commentaries, they now speak in foreign tongues.

With time, they’ll doubtless forget the idiom of their original.

Until recently, especially in the Maghreb and the Horn of Africa, travel writing occupied a more valued place in the tradition than it did in Western Europe. Nomadism, migration and pilgrimage were central to social structure and social encounters, while the calendar itself was established to commemorate, not the birth of the prophet, but his flight – the Hegira to Medina of year one of the Islamic era. When Kilito comments on Ibn Battuta, the most famous and restless of wandering writers, he is more interested in his anonymous entourage. Literature is a caravan, accumulating and shedding stuff as it moves across the map and time; some of this stuff is knowledge but Kilito likes to give pride of place to stories: the travellers and their entourage pick them up and load them on the ode-camels, and then set them down, not consciously intent on collecting tales or making literature, but effectively doing so. His she-camel is a daughter to the women story-bearers, those tellers who, unlike Shahrazad, have no names in history. Another of his stories, ‘The Wife of R.’, remembers a woman who scandalised her neighbourhood because she stood at her door all day, seeing and being seen. When her husband died, she disappeared from her post: she had gathered news to entertain him through the night.

I first met​ Abdelfattah Kilito in Paris, at the Centre Pompidou, when we were both invited by Alberto Manguel, another dedicated reader, to speak about the 1001 Nights. We found that we agreed about the book and about which were the most marvellous stories in it. We looked at each other in delight – there’s nothing like recognising like-mindedness about a writer, or a book, or a scene in a book, or a character in it, to cement a friendship. And we both picked out Buluqiya, the hero of a wild farrago of adventures involving the Queen of Serpents and a yet more deadly enchantress, Queen Lab, who turns her lovers into birds; a terrifying encounter with the mummified effigy of King Solomon and his magic ring, guarded by giant serpents; a descent into the underworld; a young lover who sits disconsolate after the death of his beloved from a snake bite. Kilito has often returned to The Arabian Nights in fine-grained studies with a quixotic approach to imagery and plot; more recently, he has been combining scholarly, essayistic reflections with storytelling.

As with Borges, much of Kilito’s writing moves between recondite learning and playful fancy; the danger is that the learning turns scholastic, and the play to whimsy. But the ease and warmth with which Kilito reads and thinks lifts his criticism clear of these pitfalls. Manguel’s invitation to Kilito was entirely logical: as a young man in Buenos Aires, Manguel used to read to the blind Borges, and he himself is another of those writers who live in libraries and are themselves living libraries (like those riddle-pictures by Arcimboldo, these figures come up in the mind’s eye as made up of books – Lampedusa at his café circle in Palermo). Borges’s afterglow falls on Kilito’s pages, and he shares the Argentinian’s relish for puzzles, mazes and riddling forms, as well as a love of pulp on one hand and the rare and raffiné on the other, al-Jahiz’s philosophy of discretion alongside Tintin, Sufi metaphysical lyrics and the Queen of the Serpents’ spells. Kilito is a mandarin who likes comic books.

The scriptural obsessiveness of Arabic literature, and its indissoluble relation to the Quran, leads to a corpus filled with commentaries, glosses, arguments about what words do, what books are, what words and books should be, in books that are essentially about books (in Hell, according to al-Ma‘arri’s vision, the sinners are mostly writers guilty of blasphemy, rebelliousness, transgressing aesthetic standards, metrical rules etc). ‘Don Quixote’s Niece’, one of the short memoir-tales, describes how Kilito neglected his schoolwork but devoured all the books he could, including the bandes dessinées of French culture, thrice forbidden, being profane, low and blasphemously full of pictures. One afternoon he was caught red-handed by his father with a graphic version of The Deerslayer. He had reached a particularly enthralling episode (Hurry ‘seized the nearest Huron by the waist and … hurled him into the water’) when his father took the book from him; he expected to be punished, to have the book confiscated, but no, his father ‘gave the book back without a word’. Later, he wondered about the cause of ‘this sudden indulgence’, and realised that his father hadn’t taken the book away in anger, but ‘to look at the pictures … Having succumbed to the charm of the images, he was utterly disarmed and unable to carry out his duties as iconoclast and censor.’

Robyn Creswell, the translator of those stories, is planning to translate Kilito’s quizzical essays, La Langue d’Adam – delivered at the Collège de France in 1990. In them Kilito talks of the tongue as the organ of taste that taught our first parents how to know good and evil, and revisits the ancient question about the tongue – the language – spoken in Eden before Babel. He alludes to some of the historical suggestions: according to Herodotus, the pharaoh Psammeticus decided to conduct a scientific experiment by plucking two newborn babies from their families, handing them over to a shepherd, ordering him never to speak to them and to keep them in solitary confinement, with only a nanny goat coming by occasionally to feed them. Then, as the infants began to talk, they’d reveal the natural language of humanity. The experiment was successful: when the children were two, they ran up to the shepherd, uttering the single word, becos, which Psammeticus discovered was Phrygian for ‘bread’. On these grounds, the pharaoh conceded priority to Phrygian over Egyptian.

Arabic commentators decided that Arabic was the language of Paradise and that after the Fall our first parents had to learn Syriac – was it the official medium of authority? Most interestingly, Kilito explores Adam’s role as the first poet. According to the 11th-century writer al-Tha’labi, Adam was at Mecca when he heard that Cain had murdered Abel. The disruption of nature – thorns sprouted from trees, fruit soured, and the ground turned to dust – made it plain to him that a cataclysm had taken place and he returned home quickly. Finding Abel dead, he composed a threnody over his body:

All that has colour and taste has altered
And the gaiety of his lovely face has faded …
O Abel, for you, now that you are dead, my heart
Is afflicted and wounded.

Apparitions never have trouble speaking in the seer’s own language: as Dante travels upwards to Paradise, some souls he encounters recall their roots with a touch of their local brogue; one or two others let us know they are learned and speak Latin; the monster guardians in Hell gibber and squeak as the Bible says they do; and those who have sinned through acidie lie choked in mud and croak wordlessly like frogs. But the linguistically handicapped examples are few and far between: almost everyone the poet meets speaks to him in his own Toscano, the Florentine version of Italian.

What language did St Michael speak, the inquisitors asked Joan of Arc, challenging her to prove her visions came from heaven. What clothes was he wearing? Their tone was scornful. Joan flashed back with her usual quick indignation: how could angels not know French? Did the judges think God did not have the wherewithal to clothe his angels? The history of visions reveals constant versatility: the Virgin of Guadalupe made her wishes clear to the Indian Juan Diego, Mary spoke in Pyrenean patois to Bernadette. It is possible that the imaginary, edenic state of language before Babel was not monolingual at all but infinitely polyglot: that Adam and Eve before the Fall could have understood anything in any language – like Solomon in the Arabic tradition or Fionn mac Cumhaill after he’s tasted the salmon of knowledge. For them, the song of birds and the sounds of every other creature become lucid. The snake made himself understood without difficulty. Christian eschatology was deeply concerned with the resurrection of the body, but I don’t know of any substantial work about communications in the hereafter. Perhaps we shall all be multilingual there too.

But Hell is another place, and when it comes to language, another matter. Kilito has noticed that the dead in many different underworlds have nothing to read. Hell shares this feature with the most atrocious prisons – something Chris Grayling, the ‘justice secretary’, now wishes to imitate here. In another of Kilito’s fables, called ‘The Message of Forgiveness’, the dead overcome their deprivation by sharing their files from the Book of Life in which the angel of judgment has set down the record of their deeds. Some, however, are fearful of their lives being disclosed; they wish to preserve confidentiality. So the dead decide among themselves, rather like the editors of WikiLeaks and of the papers that drew on the revelations, that they will cover up the subjects’ identities by tearing off the title page of their own register; then the reading matter can be circulated without anxiety.

‘But one day or other,’ Kilito continues in this pungent story,

supposing that the notion of day itself still has any value – the desire to reread one’s own book will begin to be felt. At first it will seize a few; then, little by little, everybody. The great disappointment, however, will be at the meeting: in the anonymous mass of books, how to rediscover one’s own? Also, in the rage and feverishness, each and every one will set to find it, each and every one will try to rediscover themselves in the immense library. An infinite task: unless they strike lucky in their quest at one moment or another, they will have to read all the books, and supposing that they succeed in this, the outcome isn’t clear because, in the interval, oblivion will have worked its ravages on their minds, and ineluctably there will come a day when they will be incapable of recognising their book, of recognising themselves.

The Author and His Doubles (1985), the first work of Kilito’s to be translated into English (in 2001), explores ideas about identity and origin, and about individual recognition. Writers in the Arabic tradition were praised when they could not be recognised, when they succeeded in becoming indistinguishable from a revered precursor. Imitatio was a high art, as it was in the Elizabethan period, when Marlowe and Shakespeare went to school and learned to do Ovid, and later, when Dryden distinguished it from translating ‘Line by Line’ and from ‘Translation with Latitude’, calling it ‘the Third Way … where the Translator … assumes the liberty not only to vary from the words and sense, but to forsake them both as he sees occasion’. Dryden’s vision allows for a new work to emerge, turning the writer into a composer who takes a familiar tune and, while keeping it sounding in our ears, makes it marvellously strange with changes of key and speed. Kilito makes the classical Arabic tradition sound less independent by design, but equally improvisatory on a given theme and mode. Writers exulted in doubling another writer. Storytellers try to reproduce what they have heard, not to make a new suit out of whole cloth. Sometimes too they are trying to hide from censorship. This strategy continues: writers like the Egyptian Gamal al-Ghitani and the Moroccan Bensalem Himmich compose detailed portraits of figures from the historical and literary past who encode in secret hieroglyphs lacerating critiques of present thought and political conflicts, especially over the changing character of Islam.

In a discussion about the origin of writing at a conference on migration last summer, members of the audience offered various suggestions: Babylonian cuneiform tablets? Chinese oracle bones? Kilito was on the platform; he had given a talk about dream knowledge in stories from The Arabian Nights. He then added, softly: ‘Animals were the first writers.’ There were several titters of disbelief from the crowded hall. Animals, writers? Kilito mimed a tracker, a hunter-gatherer examining prints on the ground, an augur scanning the sky; we followed his gaze and saw a skein of geese, the quick stitches of swallows across the sky. ‘It was animals who taught us to read,’ he said. He was smiling, of course.

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Vol. 36 No. 10 · 22 May 2014

Marina Warner writes that in The Divine Comedy ‘almost everyone the poet meets speaks to him in his own Toscano, the Florentine version of Italian’ (LRB, 17 April). At that time Tuscan was just one of many versions of late Latin that had evolved in Italy, and ‘Italian’ had yet to be invented. In his Prose della volgar lingua (‘Writings in the Vernacular Tongue’) of 1525, the Venetian humanist Pietro Bembo successfully argued for the adoption of a standardised version of Tuscan, substantially based on the works of Dante and Boccaccio – on the written rather than the spoken word – and codified by Bembo himself, as the basis for a future language for the whole of Italy. Significantly, toscan and italian are used synonymously by speakers of venessian (Venetian), another regional language that evolved independently from late Latin, to refer to the national language.

Roderick Conway Morris

Vol. 36 No. 11 · 5 June 2014

The final sentence of Roderick Conway-Morris’s letter in the last issue should have read (and it’s our fault that it didn’t): ‘Significantly, toscan and italian are used synonymously by speakers of venessian (Venetian), another regional language that evolved independently from late Latin, to refer to the national language.’

Editor, ‘London Review’

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