Multilingualism, Heterogeneity, Poetry and Paradise: “The Tongue of Adam” by Abdelfattah Kilito

Searching for Moroccan literature last week, I discovered Abdelfattah Kilito (born 1945, Rabat) – who writes in both French and Arabic. He is the author of books such as The Author and His Doubles: Essays on Classical Arabic Culture, The Clash of Images and Arabs and the Art of Storytelling: A Strange Familiarity. Some of the awards Kilito has won are the Great Moroccan Award (1989), the Atlas Award (1996), the French Academy Award (1996) and Sultan Al Owais Prize for Criticism and Literature Studies (2006).

New Directions (@NewDirections@ndbooks) – mentioned before – recently published the Moroccan author’s The Tongue of Adam, a collection that grew out of a series of lectures given at the Collège de France in 1990. This volume is introduced by British mythographer Marina Warner who describes Kilito’s dominant themes as “medieval Arabic poetry, narrative and learning, interactions with European literature, the destiny of writers and the books they write, their purposes and the pleasures they offer.” She goes on to write that:

The Tongue of Adam by Abdelfattah Kilito translated by Robyn Cresswell and introduced by Marina Warner (2016, New Directions)

Abdelfattah Kilito has long explored books as mirrors of possible selves, speaking in possible tongues, and he has done so with generosity and warmth, reading and listening to the writings of unfamiliar others, recognizing their strangeness yet bringing them into focus, so that readers like you and me can wipe the mirror and also come face-to-face with another self.

The Tongue of Adam is a strange volume – scholarly and playful at the same time. I didn’t quite know how to classify it: literary criticism, personal reflections? Principally, it appeared to me like a wonderful conversation between Myth and History – over the subjects of Language and Paradise. Kilito reads the narratives of the Fall of Adam and Eve, the destruction of the Tower of Babel and Cain’s murder of Abel through the lenses of various exegetes and artists. Sometimes the original legend gets magnified, often it turns completely inside-out and upside-down.

There were two chapters that I liked a lot: “A Babelian Eden” and “The Oldest Poem in the World”. In the first, Kilito mentions the ethnic and linguistic diversity of the Arab Empire, where contact between cultures was an everyday reality. This led to certain positive assessments of Babel:

In the early days, multilingualism was the rule–a multilingualism that was commonly practiced and even nurtured. All languages had the same value; none had precedence; none suppressed or excluded the others. All languages were sanctified because they were taught by God. The plurality of tongues was synonymous with cohesion–diversity with unity. There was no such thing as a native tongue or a mother tongue…This harmonious multilingualism wasn’t unique to paradise. The original sin didn’t bring it to an end, or at least not right away. Adam and Eve continued to live in many tongues; the only souvenir from their time in the garden was their knowledge of languages. Expelled from paradise, they found themselves utterly destitute, shamefully naked, but preserving the habit of tongues, which their descendants would speak through centuries to come…


Abdelfattah Kilito in 2010 by User “Ji-Elle”, CC BY-SA 3.0, Wikipedia


Kilito writes: “The Arab Empire was, in some ways, an immense tower of Babel…thanks to the new religion, the catastrophe of Babel was made good.” (Picture: The Caliphate around 750 AD, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain]


And then slowly things began to change. From unity in the diversity of tongues came disunity in the monotony of single tongues. In the beginning, mankind lived in the same place and spoke the same languages; after dispersing, Adam’s children attached themselves to particular places and particular languages. Moving away from the original place meant moving away from multilingualism, which slowly slipped out of memory. They forgot all the languages except one. So began the era of ethnicities, of communities irremediably divided form one another–in other words, the era of mother tongues.

The other essay “The Oldest Poem in the World” discusses interpretations of the Quranic narrative of Cain and Abel. When Cain murders Abel (in India; Adam is in Mecca), the earth is weakened and made sterile by drinking the blood, it takes corruption and evil to its breast. Adam is alerted by the transformations of nature, he knows something terrible has happened, and travels to India. Upon hearing of Abel’s death, his composes an elegy. This elegy was recorded in A Gathering of the Poems of the Arabs by Abu Zayd al-Quranshi, a ninth century author. It includes the following words:

An enemy that never dies is stalking us, / A cursed thing whose death and nothing else / will let us breathe. / O Abel, now that you are dead, my heart / Suffers and bleeds for you.

Later, Eve says (according to the thirteenth century preacher and historian Sibt ibn al-Jawzi):

Weep not, for they are both dead / and nothing shall bring them back. / What good are mourners’ tears when man is shut in the tomb? / Weep for yourself and give up dreaming: / you’re no more immortal than the slain.

Eve exhorts Adam to resign himself to what must be: “the death of Abel prefigures their own.” Kilito finds the origins of poetry in the lamentations for the dead. “The original poem,” writes he, “emerges out of loss, absence, and death. Someone was there and is no longer…The primordial poetic genre, the one from which all others derive, is the elegy.” I found this a very interesting thought – but I’m not sure I can agree entirely. Within the Abrahamic tradition itself, there’s another “first poem” rising not from grief but wonder (it comes close to a poem at least) – Genesis 2:23 – The man said, “This is now bone of my bones / and flesh of my flesh; / she shall be called ‘woman,’ / for she was taken out of man.” 

Anyway, for more information on Kilito, check out this piece by Marina Warner called “Story-bearers” published in March 2013 in the London Review of Books.


Image Credit:

Featured: The Destruction of the Tower of Babel from the 12th-century Byzantine manuscript Constantine Manasses Chronicle, Wikimedia Commons, Public Domain