Kilito’s Way: On Abdelfattah Kilito

Kilito’s Way: On Abdelfattah Kilito

In The Clash of Images Abdelfattah Kilito creates a touching portrait of a young man coming of age in French-occupied Morocco.


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.

Nowhere was the fluidity of authorship more debated than with the Hadith, the collection of sayings of the Prophet Muhammad. The Hadith were sayings of the Prophet that were orally transmitted by his companions and contemporaries; but two centuries after his death, the number of sayings attributed to him had grown so large and unwieldy that it became necessary to collect them and, in a sense, certify their authorship. This process required detective work: the compilers had to track down people who were reported to have transmitted certain sayings, verify what was said and confirm the good moral character of each of the transmitters before deciding whether a saying was sound, and could be added to a collection, or false, and should be rejected.

These are just a few examples of Kilito’s wide-ranging discussion of authorship. He delights in interrogating assumptions and suggesting new ways of looking at old material, but rarely does he provide a simple answer or a single thesis. Two years ago, Syracuse released another of Kilito’s books of criticism. Thou Shalt Not Speak My Language, translated from the Arabic by Wail Hassan, is a timely and fascinating study of Arabs’ relationship to the art of translation. Compared with other languages, Kilito argues, Arabic has changed relatively little over the centuries. A person with a reasonable training in Arabic can read texts of the classical era with little help, whereas ancient English or French texts require translation or annotation.

For the Arabs of the ninth century, poetry was the highest form of expression; they did not bother to translate poetry from other languages, or to have their poetry translated into other languages. Thus, while they translated ancient Greek philosophers, they hardly bothered with Homer. Today, the opposite situation obtains. Some Arab authors, Kilito argues, write their stories and novels with a view to translation, omitting any obscure references or difficult turns of phrase in order to increase the likelihood that their works will be translated into European languages. For these authors, translation has become the key to successful international careers.

* * *

Because Kilito is primarily known for his essays and criticism, the American reader has had to wait until this year to get a taste of his fiction. The Clash of Images, published in Casablanca in 1995, recently won a PEN Translation Fund award and is now available in a fluent translation from the French by Robyn Creswell. The thirteen stories in this book are seemingly autobiographical, loosely connected, and combine to create the portrait of a young man coming of age in French-occupied Morocco.

Abdallah, the main character, is a doppelgänger for the author. Both lived in the Rabat medina, attended Koranic school and later transferred to a French school. Both are drawn to comic books, and though they soon make a transition to reading narrative literature, they never lose their love of the comics of their childhood. (Kilito recently told an interviewer that he has kept his passion for comic books and that he is unbeatable on the subject of Tintin.) Both came of age "during the transition between a culture based on the text and a culture in which the image comes into being—very hesitantly at first, then more aggressively as it gains more ground—and eventually seeks to banish the text altogether, to replace it." If Kilito is the author, then Abdallah is his double.

In the first two stories, "The Wife of R." and "Djinn," Abdallah is an observer of other people’s lives. He marvels at the woman who spends her day hidden behind her front door, watching her neighbors come and go, collecting details and gossip, which, late at night, she can use to fashion stories with which to entertain her husband. He watches the madmen and madwomen who are sent to the local saint’s tomb, in the hope that they will be cured of their fantasies. As the book progresses, however, Abdallah becomes its protagonist. In "Revolt in the Msid," Kilito writes with a mix of humor and nostalgia about the Koranic school, the place where young boys are trained to read and memorize the holy book:

The monotony of the msid is thus interrupted, at regular intervals, by the spectacle of a beating. Although this spectacle is repetitive…each performance is new, for each student has a special way of showing his terror, crying out, contorting his body, and begging the instructor while fluttering his fingers against his mouth. Unforgettable gestures. Even when he’s grown up he remains for his old friends that child who invented a novel way to suffer.

In "Don Quixote’s Niece," young Abdallah’s first encounter with a novel, Quest for Fire, is disastrous. The illustrations that accompany the text seem to him not to add up to anything coherent. He tries The Prince and the Pauper but finds it wholly impenetrable. "The words refused to disclose the wonderful world that Abdallah suspected lay behind them." But once he discovers the Kiwi and Rodeo comic book series, he is hooked by the combined power of images and words. (And I should know. I was weaned on Kiwi and Rodeo.) Abdallah is able to journey to a whole new world, a land in which the hero, Blek le Roc, is fighting for independence from the British. In this story, Kilito refrains from training his critical eye on the irony that Kiwi was written and drawn by Italian artists, translated into French and distributed in France and its colonies, and that it featured an American settler fighting the British, as well as the occasional hostile Indian.

Sometimes, though, words and images clash in ways that Abdallah does not expect. In "The Image of the Prophet" Abdallah, now a student in middle school, finds in his French textbook an illustration of the Prophet. This "risky undertaking " astonishes, but he reasons that the Turkish miniatures of the Night Journey, the Prophet’s mythical ascent to the heavens on a winged horse, make other images of the man possible. His objection has more to do with the depiction of the Prophet as a bearded peasant. "And this was perhaps what troubled me the most, having been raised, like my peers, with a town-dweller’s traditional disdain for the peasantry." Still, Abdallah doesn’t get a chance to bring up his interpretations of the image—his teacher, Monsieur Andet, does not use it, or the accompanying text, in the course.

As with Kilito’s critical work, the vignettes in The Clash of Images often have the effect of raising questions without providing a narrative resolution. We do not know, for instance, what would have happened if Monsieur Andet had asked his class to discuss the offending image. Instead, we are left to ponder the power of images like it, even today, to provoke the ire or the fascination of the people who behold them.

But Kilito’s choice of detail, together with his use of embedded stories, compel us to keep reading. He effortlessly weaves together high and low culture, novels and comic books, literature and film, Arabic and French, the Moroccan and the foreign, leaving his reader with questions about how each of us, in his or her own way, apprehends the transition between one mode of perceiving and expressing the world and another.

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