On Idriss al-Azhar Street in downtown Rabat, not far from the Muhammad V Mausoleum, there is an unassuming but wonderful little coffee shop, the Café Jacaranda, where book readings are held and young artists’ paintings exhibited. There, on a warm spring afternoon three years ago, I went to hear two of Morocco’s foremost intellectuals discuss the feminine and masculine in classical Arabic literature. One was Fatema Mernissi, the world-renowned feminist, sociologist and memoirist, the author of some twenty books on feminism and Islam, and co-winner, along with Susan Sontag, of the Prince of Asturias Award. Her arrival at the cafe was met with murmurs of awe. A throng of admirers immediately surrounded her, so that the only part of her that remained visible from the other end of the lobby was her fiery red hair.
The arrival of the other panelist, Abdelfattah Kilito, went unnoticed. Where Mernissi was gregarious and funny, Kilito was reserved and bookish. Once the panel discussion started, however, the audience got to hear Kilito speak knowledgeably about Maqamat al-Hariri, the classical work of rhymed prose that until the end of the nineteenth century was one of the most widely read books of Arabic literature. Kilito spoke about the use of the sun and the moon as symbols for the masculine and feminine, the popularity of the Maqamat, the miniatures that the artist al-Wasiti created to illustrate the manuscript, the reasons these miniatures are nowadays more widely disseminated than the text itself—and much else besides.
Among Moroccan writers, Kilito has always cut an unusual figure. He is equally at home in French and Arabic, in a country where language lines are drawn early and barriers are rarely crossed. He is not particularly known for his politics, in a society that routinely expects—and occasionally even demands—of its writers that they be politically engaged. His is not the name you will see mixed up in the kind of controversy that attracts the international press. But one would be hard-pressed to find a Moroccan writer who is more respected by his peers and more appreciated by his readers than Abdelfattah Kilito.
Kilito was born in Rabat in 1945, at a time when Morocco was fully engaged in its resistance against French occupation. He studied literature at the Faculty of Letters in his hometown and later earned his doctorate at the Sorbonne. He has written thirteen works of fiction and nonfiction, in French and in Arabic, among them Al-hikaya wa at-ta’wil, a study of the art of storytelling in Arabic literary tradition; Les Séances, an examination of the works of al-Hamadhani and al-Hariri; and L’Oeil et l’aiguille, a reading of the One Thousand and One Nights that ponders the question of how Scheherazade’s stories became a book. The recipient of many awards, including the Atlas Prize, he is currently a professor in the French department at Muhammad V University.
Despite his standing in the Arab and Francophone worlds, Kilito has only recently attracted the attention of American publishers. In 2001 Syracuse University Press published one of his books of criticism, The Author and His Doubles, in a translation from the French by Michael Cooperson. In it, Kilito examines the common modern assumption that each text has an author, breaking the idea apart through his study of classical Arabic literature. Arab writers of the classical era often hesitated, early in their careers, to produce works in their own names, preferring instead to attribute the manuscript to more illustrious authors. It is difficult to determine the author of a particular text simply by examining stylistic choices because writers worked within specific genres and the idea of personal style was virtually nonexistent. In addition, because writers dictated their work to secretaries for transcription, the secretaries also played an important role in transmitting the work to the audience. The author, Kilito argues, could be a transcriber, a reporter, a surrogate, a forger, a plagiarist or all these roles at once.