on The Tongue of Adam by Abdelfattah Kilito, tr. by Robyn Creswell (New Directions)

In her foreword to The Tongue of Adam, Marina Warner notes that Abdelfattah Kilito has long been known for “his strong love of the literature of astonishment (aj’aib) and his own taste for what is called gharaba, strangeness.” Born in Rabat in 1945, Kilito was educated in the language of his colonizers and taught to esteem European culture. In his new book’s final essay, he writes, “At school, I took pains to learn French, and at university I ‘specialized’ – assuming this word means anything – in French literature, which I then taught for more than forty years. During that time, I never spoke a word of Arabic to my students, nor did I mention the name of a single Arab author.”

Kilito.jpegKilito has previously expanded on the bilinguistic philosophy of Edward Said who illuminated what it takes, in Said’s words, 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 … 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.” But for Kilito, the gap more than the bridge has more appeal to the imagination and its expression. Without minimizing the despotism of the colonizer, Kilito simply finds it astonishing and strange that we speak in many tongues. The abiding spirit is Borgesian, a lifelong curiosity about the nature of words and books and how texts call out to and comment on each other. The appreciative management of linguistic diversity is elevated to an essential, gratifying responsibility. As a scholar of classical Arabic literature, Kilito employs those texts to ask intriguing, vexing or playful questions about how words work.

For readers unfamiliar with Kilito, The Tongue of Adam returns to his central topics: the communal sources of language, the motive for expression and the power of narrative, the history of Arabic poetry, and the fate of the dual-tongued speaker. If humankind has “fallen” from the single language of Eden into multi-sonic “mother tongues,” then one must reimagine Eden: “Languages have no relation to history and time, unless it is to the very first story, the very first time …” He considers various tellings of the myth of Babel through the centuries, and concludes:

KilitoCover.jpgDissemination in space, diversity of tongues and colors: these are good things – they are realizations of God’s designs. The confusion of tongues is no curse. Instead, it’s a divine sign, like man’s geographic dispersal. God purposefully introduces diversity into His creation … Voice, like the color of the skin, varies from one individual to the next. This is a divine gift. Otherwise, ambiguity, disorder, and misunderstanding would reign.

Kilito has become better known among Anglophones through recent translations of his commentary on the disregard of Arabic literature beyond its lands of origin (Thou Shalt Not Speak My Language, 2008) and his stories of growing up in the medina (The Clash of Images 2010). Yet the Arabic view of translation is one of Kilito’s most piquant topics. He writes, “To translate poetry is to compel a fall: rupture and dissemination follow an original cohesion and harmony; in place of poetic organization, the disharmony and chaos of prose.” The original must not be violated by the colonizer – and yet, new versions comprise our fate.

[Published November 10, 2016. 128 pages, $13.95 paperback]