Readings — From the November 2016 issue

Le Mot Injuste

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By Abdelfattah Kilito, from The Tongue of Adam, which was published this month by New Directions. Kilito was born in Morocco in 1945. Translated from the French by Robyn Creswell.

Ordinarily, a writer knows instinctively what language he’ll write in, just as he knows the language of his audience. For Moroccan writers, or let us say for Maghrebi writers, it’s not so straightforward. All Maghrebi writers have a story to tell about their language or languages — Arabic, French, Tamazight — that constitutes the background of what they write such that nothing they say can be understood without it.

At school, I took pains to learn French, and at university I specialized 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, nor did my students consider speaking to me in Moroccan dialect. We continued to speak French outside the classroom — it was a tacit agreement we made, perhaps to preserve a certain distance. I haven’t saved any of the lessons I taught at university; I tore up the pages I’d prepared as soon as class was over. There’s no record of all those years of lecturing, and I’ve rarely made an effort to publish anything on French literature. I know I can’t add anything significant to what the French have already written. In any case — this is the important part — the French don’t expect me to write about their literature. Their literature doesn’t need me.

Arabic literature does need me, however, just as much as I need it. This has always been a firm belief of mine; without it, I never would have written anything at all. I’ve always obscurely felt that I could add something to Arabic literature. This feeling arises directly from my study of European literature. You might even say that I learned French, paradoxically, so that I could write in Arabic.

Once, I decided to write an essay on Flaubert for a large anthology that was to be published in Italian. But then I hesitated, thinking I might not be qualified, and in the end I backed out. The Italian scholar in charge of the project was disappointed and said he’d hoped I might cast some new light on the novelist. I felt a twinge in my heart: to imagine that what you say — or might have said and didn’t say — would be unlike anything said before. I could have supplied an interpretive arabesque, something Flaubert could not receive except from a foreign, non-European reader — something characteristically Arabic. Even now, I think longingly about that singular and distinctive work I never began, whose arguments and conclusions I have no conception of. I’m even rather proud of this great work I never undertook — just as I’m proud of all those studies I never produced, which remain elusive, desirable, promissory. How beautiful they all are, the things I never wrote!

When my book The Author and His Doubles appeared, some were taken aback by the fact that it was written in French although its subject was classical Arabic literature. Thinking I might rectify things, I published my next book in Arabic. It was written, of course, for Arabs — but also for students and experts in the field who lived outside the Arab world. I sent a copy to a French scholar of Arab descent, who published his studies of Arabic literature in French. He wrote back in French, thanking me and expressing his admiration for my work. It was clear he hadn’t read it. Then he advised me to write “now and forever” (“d’ores et déjà”) in French. It’s good to study the heritage, in other words, but do so in French, from which comes all good things. Write in French and then perhaps I’ll read you.

Some time after, I spent a couple days in a European capital at the invitation of a professor who was a specialist in modern Arabic literature, though she herself was not Arab. Inevitably we broached the subject of books in Arabic and she confided to me, laughing, that poets would give her their books and say, “Translate it!” As though their fate were in her hands. We were talking in Arabic, a language she spoke with great skill. At some point, she said that she actually didn’t like reading Arabic. For her, Arabic was a “work language.” I understood then why the French professor had not read my book.

The first draft of that book was in French, but I rewrote it in Arabic. I don’t know why, to what end — out of loyalty to what principle, in thrall to what passion. Maybe I did it to defend a language I felt was under attack. Maybe I did it out of solidarity with the writers I loved in my childhood, writers such as Tawfiq al-Hakim and Taha Hussein, who made no secret of their love for French literature. In classroom debates, I had often argued on their behalf. Against whom? I read them in Arabic while my mind was drifting into French.

Nathalie Sarraute has a play that concerns two people whose friendship has run aground and who are trying to discover the reasons. The rift occurs when one of them tells the other about some success he’s had in one of his endeavors, and the other says, “That’s nice.” “C’est bien, ça.” The first character becomes upset. Because of a pause between “that’s” and “nice,” he takes it as an insult. He understands the pause as a sign of derision. I remembered this moment one day when I bumped into a student whom I hadn’t seen in almost twenty years. The student and I began speaking in French, as we always had, and she asked me the expected question: “What are you working on?” I told her I’d been revising my collected writings. She smiled brightly and looked pleased, until I added, “in Arabic.” The student’s smile slipped away; her enthusiasm vanished. Gloom settled over us. The publication of my works in Arabic didn’t impress her, that much was clear. It meant nothing to her, maybe annoyed her. She couldn’t be bothered to ask when it would be published or who the publisher was. “That’s . . . nice.” For a brief moment, I felt I had indeed chosen the wrong language. I was ashamed of my writings in Arabic. And when I came back to myself, I was ashamed at my shame.

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