Abdelfattah Kilito

  • Interview by Robyn Creswell
  • Issue 5
  • Free Radical

Abdelfattah Kilito was born in Rabat, Morocco, in 1945. Trained as a scholar of classical Arabic literature, his oeuvre now includes several collections of beguiling short stories, as well as books of criticism. Both his scholarly writings and his fiction are the work of a stylist in the classical French manner, unless it is the classical Arabic manner—they are elegant, lucid, and erudite. He is one of those writers who is as interesting to read on ancient theories of metaphor as on the films of Abel Gance or detective pulps by Donna Leon. As Marina Warner recently wrote, in an essay devoted to his work in the London Review of Books, “Kilito is a mandarin who likes comic books.”

Kilito’s first book translated into English was The Author and His Doubles (2001; original 1985), a study of forgery, imitation, and invention in classical Arabic literature. This was followed by Thou Shalt Not Speak My Language (2008; original 2002), a collection of essays about the varieties of mistranslation, and The Clash of Images (2010; original 1995), a Proustian memoir about growing up in 1950s Rabat. Another collection of critical writings, Arabs and the Art of Storytelling, is slated for publication this fall.

Kilito lives and teaches in Rabat. This interview was conducted by email, in French, and translated by the interviewer.

Robyn Creswell

You were eleven years old when Morocco won its independence from France in 1956. What do you remember of that time?

Abdelfattah Kilito

A few months before independence, just after it was announced that Sultan Mohammed V would return from exile, there was jubilation in the streets of Rabat. Everyone came out, young and old people sang patriotic songs. One day, a blind man joined the group I was in. He must have been about twenty years old, and was rather thin. I’d often seen him taking a walk, preceded by his cane, ringing softly on the ground. Every day he took the same route before returning home. I’d never seen him accompanied by anyone, nor even in conversation. But that day he joined us and, with a delicate voice, took up the song. He tucked the cane under his arm so that he could clap and cheer.

Photographs of the sultan were sold everywhere. At school we pooled our money to buy one, then had it framed. One morning we hung it above the blackboard, waiting for the reaction of Monsieur Andet. Entering the classroom, he was surprised for a moment, but soon gave us a big smile.

It was a time when no one thought of himself. The individual didn’t exist. You and your fellows became part of the larger group.

I believe you went to a French school, a lycée, at the time? This is an experience many Moroccan authors—yourself included—write about. What did the lycée mean to you and your generation of intellectuals?

In fact it was a Moroccan lycée, where all subjects were taught in French by French instructors, except of course for Arabic. To be at the lycée was to feel singled out. From then on, you were part of the intellectual elite. There were very few students in 1963 who had their studies crowned with a baccalaureate—the key to success, and to a bright future. A university degree automatically entitled you to a prestigious job: engineer, professor, architect. Things are rather different today.

Our parents worshipped us. In their eyes we were experts, of one sort or another. Hadn’t we mastered foreign languages while they could only speak Arabic? In addition to French, all students had to chose a second foreign language—typically English or Spanish. I chose German. One of our teachers claimed that if you didn’t know German you couldn’t be a poet or philosopher. I dreamed of becoming a writer. I filled dozens of notebooks and waited for my time to come. It was in no hurry.

What did you read at school? And what did you read at home, for pleasure?

I don’t really remember what we read in class. Daudet’s Letters from My Windmill, Gargantua (a modernized edition), Tartuffe, Les Misérables (an abbreviated version). What else? My mind was elsewhere. At home I read Musil’s The Man Without Qualities, Mann’s The Magic Mountain, Hesse’s Narcissus and Goldmund, Wagner’s operas, Heinrich Heine, the plays of Brecht, all of Kafka (minus the diaries). I also read Dos Passos, if memory serves. And of course Jean-Paul Sartre. I prided myself on knowing all his literary works. But one day a friend who had read Nekrassov asked if I knew that play, too. I did not. Point to him.

At that time in the Middle East, Russian and Soviet literature were all the rage. Yevtushenko was on a world tour, everyone was reading Solzhenitsyn. Not you?

I remember reading Doctor Zhivago in Arabic, sometime during the 1960s. And I would see the works of Gorky in the bookshops, but for some reason they never tempted me. No doubt because of the pictures on the cover.

You haven’t mentioned any Arabic works, but I suppose you read some?

I read just about everything Egyptian and Lebanese writers published. I’m not bragging: there wasn’t much of it. I had a weakness for Taha Husayn. It was thanks to him I discovered that everything was up for grabs and subject to debate—even the great dead authors. Taha Husayn had no mercy, worshipped no one. Even myths weren’t safe. In one sense, it was disillusioning: after Husayn, there was nothing to admire, there were no more heroes. But at the same time I had the impression, while reading him, of becoming intelligent.

I also liked Tawfiq al-Hakim, though for a different reason. His novel, A Bird of the East, made a deep impression on me. I needed to travel to Paris like him, go to the theaters, visit the museums, fall in love with a French woman. Only in this way, I thought, could I also become a writer.

What did that mean to you at the time, to “become a writer”?

A writer was a sort of creator, naturally, but I always liked to think of him as a reader as well—a great reader. By way of his writing, I tried to make out, or guess at, what he’d read. A sort of literary voyeurism. And the writer would often show his hand, as though by chance. I felt a wonderful sense of complicity when I was able to recognize a title, or a line of poetry, or an allusion. If a character was also man of letters—Bergotte in Proust’s À la recherche, or Norbert de Varenne in Maupassant’s Bel-Ami—I paid special attention. A character’s reading says so much about him. Don Quixote, Emma Bovary…I dreamt of writing an essay on A Sentimental Education that would take Frédéric Moreau’s readings as its guiding thread.

You studied in France?

No, I was only ever a student in Morocco. The first time I set foot in a French University was to defend my doctoral thesis on the maqama—a medieval Arabic prose genre—at the Sorbonne. At the end of the 1960s I was already in the Faculté des Lettres at the University of Rabat, teaching Baudelaire and Zola. One of my colleagues was Roland Barthes.

What do you remember of Barthes—as a man, as a colleague, as a reader?

I didn’t know him well, though he was very approachable. On the other hand, his intellectual superiority made him intimidating. So there was really only one thing one could do, which was to read him, to read everything he’d written. So I did. He gave a course on Proust and another on Verne’s The Mysterious Island. He would occasionally draw his students’ attention to newspaper headlines, for example: “End of Strike”—as he rightly pointed out, there had never been a word about its beginning. Students who wanted to provoke him liked to ask, “What good is structuralism in a Third World country?” I don’t know what his answer was, nor if they remember it today.

During my time as a student, I read quite a bit of literary criticism that I thought was good, and guessed I could do just as well. With Barthes, everything changed. I discovered a new way of reading, a new way of writing. For literature, there really is a [B]efore and [A]fter Roland Barthes.

There’s MORE THAN a hint of structuralism in your early work on classical Arabic literature. What did structuralism mean to you at the time? Did you never ask yourself, “What good is structuralism in a Third World country?”

I should say something about the intellectual atmosphere of the time—the 1960s. The University at that moment was a place of violent conflict—political conflict, but also cultural and literary conflict. Rather than pursuing classical methods, everyone wanted to be on the cutting edge of the modern. If you didn’t know linguistics, everybody agreed, there was no help for you. Two names became myths, Ferdinand de Saussure and Noam Chomsky. It was a great time for names. Pity the scholar who didn’t cite the right ones! I’ll never forget the confusion of a French academic, conventionally trained, who was brought up short at the end of a conference by the imperious question, flung at him by Moroccan students: “Where are you speaking from?” “How can you talk about literature without mentioning Derrida and Althusser?”

Under these circumstances, the question of what purpose structuralism served in the Third World implied other questions as well: Weren’t we more in need of a Marxist approach to literature? Which was the right choice for us, in the here and now? For my own part, I didn’t really know where to turn, but one thing was sure: I had begun my apprenticeship and I knew that I had a great deal of reading to do.

Most of your fictions are written in French, whereas most of your criticism—though not all of it—is in Arabic. Is there a reason? Is the distinction between criticism and fiction a useful one?

There’s an element of chance in one’s choice to write in a given language rather than another. Without going too deeply into the details, I would say my own fictions are born of an encounter, or an intimation. For example, the collection En quête (“In Search”) has its origins in a conversation with a French editor in Tangiers. Whatever the language I write in, the essay is the most representative genre for what I do—and in that sense, I pass for a literary critic. But some of my essays read like stories, and my fictions often take writing, or literature, as their subject. I admit that belonging to the place in between doesn’t at all displease me.

Which reminds me of Borges, whose fictions read like essays and vice-versa. You’ve written about Borges a number of times. His sense of his own marginality has echoes in your work. How would you characterize your relation to him?

I owe him a great deal, though I read him rather late—at the same time I was writing The Author and His Doubles (1985). In my work since that time, it’s easy to spot a number of his favorite themes: the library, the book that doesn’t end, the mirror, the double. His essays have helped me to see Arabic literature in a new way. Let me note two classical authors he has an affinity with. First, the great prose writer of the ninth century, al-Jahiz (“The Bug-Eyed”), another expert in forgery and literary misattribution. Borges writes about him in “Averroes’ Search.” And second, al-Ma‘arri, the great blind poet of the eleventh century. Borges has a number of things in common with al-Ma‘arri—their attachment to the mother, but also a horror of procreation, or reproduction.

Classical Arabic literature is a rich literary corpus, yet it’s almost entirely unknown in this country. What does it have to offer those who have never read it? What do you tell your students (there must be a few skeptics)?

As for the skeptics, I resist the temptation to tell them they don’t know what they’re missing. If people turn up their noses at classical literature, I suppose there are reasons—in the first place, because it’s so strange. Classical literature has its own codes, a particular set of norms. One has to make an effort to read it.

What can it offer us? In the most general terms, reading writers like Ibn al- Muqaffa‘, al-Jahiz, Tawhidi, and Ibn Tufayl, one imbibes a certain kind of wisdom. Through their open-mindedness, they give us a lesson in tolerance—a tolerance of others’ ideas. Unfortunately, these authors are not well studied, nor are they well translated. It all really comes back to the question of translation. This is also true of Arabic poetry—which is often thought to be unreadable except in Arabic, though few people would say so openly. Aside from specialists, no one in America or in Europe is likely to be able to name a single Arab poet. There are translations, though they’ve rarely had much success. Certainly nothing to compare with the success of Edward FitzGerald’s version of Omar Khayyam’s Rubaiyat (translated from the Persian). But I would point to the beautiful French translations of André Miquel, who has given us versions of Majnun (lover of Layla), Abu al-Atahiya, Abu Firas, and Ibn Zaydun. The maqamat of Hamadhani and Hariri still await their FitzGerald—or, even better, their Antoine Galland, who translated The Thousand and One Nights at the beginning of the eighteenth century. Since then, the book has never been out of style, and its influence is felt everywhere, even among those who’ve never read it. This was the real miracle.

Robyn Creswell is Assistant Professor of Comparative Literature at Yale University, and poetry editor of The Paris Review. He is the translator of Abdelfattah Kilito’s The Clash of Images and Sonallah Ibrahim’s That Smell and Notes from Prison.

Stills © Colin Snapp, from the video Continental Drift, which explores mediation and memory in contemporary Morocco.