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Why Read the Classics?

A Moroccan master reflects on the Arabic tradition

English | العربية‎

What follows is an essay by the Moroccan writer Abdelfattah Kilito, from his new collection Fi jaw min an-nadm al-fīkri (“In a Spirit of Intellectual Repentance”), at present available only in Arabic.

Born in 1945, Kilito is the author of a number of books on Arabic literature––though it would be inadequate to simply describe him as a scholar and critic. His work elides the distinction between literary criticism and storytelling, analysis and fabulation. Among his books translated into English are: Thou Shalt Not Speak My Language, translated by Waïl S. Hassan (Syracuse University Press), The Tongue of Adam, translated by Robyn Creswell (New Directions), and The Author and His Doubles, translated by Michael Cooperson (Syracuse University Press).

Fi jaw min an-nadm al-fīkri is made up of fourteen short essays that range from records of personal encounters, to reflections on the fundamentals of literary expression (punctuation, for instance), to new considerations of his favorite classical Arabic texts (The book opens with the Maqamāt and closes with the final story of The Thousand and One Nights). As in much of his work, Kilito writes in an associative mode, weaving together figures from various places and periods in literary history. Al-Jahiz, Kafka, Al-Ma’arri, Charles Pellat, Al-Khatibi, and Borges are among those who put in an appearance.

Lihadā naqrʾa al-ʾadab al-klāsīkī . . . (“This is Why We Read Classic Literature…”) is an essay that cannot be neatly summarized. It is, in part, the author’s reflection upon his experience of learning the written Arabic language and its literature in primary school. Readers hoping to find here yet another defense of some or other certain literary canon will be disappointed, as will be those seeking fodder for an easy rejection of the past. Instead, Kilito pursues subtler and more disconcerting questions. What does it mean to live as if we have read the proper books, as if we have surpassed our predecessors? Can we reconcile our longing for progress with the fact that we have been shaped since our earliest days by encounters with the dead?

A word on the translation. Throughout this essay, Kilito makes reference to canonical books with which non-Arabic-speaking readers may not be familiar. I’ve decided against literally translating the titles, as their language is often rooted in a culturally specific style of rhyming prose. The meanings of the titles arise through sound, dense allusion, and word play specific to the Arabic language. Where useful, I have added footnotes, providing the context about a text or writer.

—Safwan Khatib


What is the point of reading the ancients? They are not of our world. They are peacefully asleep and do not want us to wake them. Let the dead bury their dead. We may hesitate a moment in our judgement and suppose that there are, perhaps, benefits and advantages to be gained from their company. Yet we immediately turn our faces away from them, admitting: we ought to read them, but we don’t. The matter remains a mysterious aspiration.

The strange thing is that despite not reading them, we behave as though we have read them and lay claim to the knowledge of their production. Personally, I have not read the Iliad, but I know the gist of it—and by the way, who reads Don Quixote? Most know about it only through the drawings of Gustave Doré or by way of a paragraph in the pages of a school textbook. This applies just as well to the majority of works designated as “classic.” What does this designation mean? Italo Calvino presented fourteen definitions of it, opening with the statement that the classic book is one which the reader says they re-read and never says they are currently reading.

It is commonly understood that every literature has a particular temporal sequence and a unique nomenclature for its stages. As a simple example, the French researcher in the literature of the Middle Ages is designated a “médiéviste.” (Paul Zumthor[1] is among the distinguished researchers in this field). Is it possible to apply this description to a researcher interested in Arabic texts in their particular era, regardless of whether the researcher is Arab or non-Arab? This seems to me quite farfetched, since the term “Middle Ages” does not align with Arab history, nor does it agree with what we know of the development of Arabic literature. Every literature has its own periodization, hierarchy, classic texts, and even classical age. According to the French, as it is known, the classical age par excellence is the seventeenth century.

The classic books are disseminated into numerous languages and that their translations continue within the language itself.

As for Arab culture, matters appear complicated from the first glance. First of all, is there any Arabic word that could approximate the meaning of the word “classique”? The word klāsīk is sometimes used to refer to al-adab al-qadīm (“ancient literature”), what may be called al-adab al-klāsīki (“classic literature”). That said, this body of literature is usually referred to as ancient literature in order to distinguish it from modern literature. There are specialists in this or that field, as if we were confronted with two different literatures, two disparate worlds. Yet the reality is that as soon as one is mentioned, the other comes to mind at once. In many cases, ancient Arabic literature is judged in light of what came after it, in light of modern literature. And conversely, as Italo Calvino points out, the classic book “compels us to identify ourselves in comparison with it, and perhaps in opposition to it.” Whatever the case may be, anyone who studies a classic Arabic work inevitably reveals their own origin and lineage—we know instantly whether they are Arab, or French, or American, regardless of the language they are using.

On the topic of Arabic literature, what are the works that one must read? We stumble upon one answer in the Muqaddimah (“The Prologomena”) of Ibn Khaldoun.[2] In his discussion of ‘ilm al-adab, he says, quoting his teachers:

The foundations and pillars of this art are four collections, and they are Adab Al-Kuttāb by Ibn Qutayba, Kitāb Al-Kāmil by Al-Mubarrad, Al-Bayān wa Al-Tabyīn by Al-Jahiz and Kitāb Al-Nawādir by Abu ‘Ali Al-Qali al-Baghdadi. As for any works other than these four, they follow their lead and branch off from them.[3]

Certainly, these are essential works that cannot be left unread. Nor is it permissible for a beginner writer to remain ignorant of them, since it is by familiarizing himself with these works that he develops, of course, his knowledge of the Arabic language, of the literature, of the art of writing and becomes, in principle, a well-read author capable of composing texts of good quality or, at least, of decent quality. This statement of mine is an announcement for the amateurs, for those who dream of writing in the Arabic language!

Naguib Mahfouz described one such amateur in his novel Khan El-Khalili.[4] He described someone who aspired to become an author and who, in order to achieve this goal, read, with great care, the four books that Ibn Khaldoun mentioned. What was the result? Despite all the effort he put forth, he remained unable to write. Taking this example into account, the idea set out by Ibn Khaldoun’s teachers is still, however, worthy of interest. Is there an Arab reader who doesn’t long to read the four distinguished works he has indicated? As for myself, I heeded the lesson of the failure of the person that Mahfouz mentioned, so I haven’t read any of them except Al-Bayān wa Al-Tabyīn by Al-Jāhiz. Therefore, I am, no doubt, lacking in literary education.

But there are other things that enter into consideration. Aside from the national books—allow us to call them that—which are canonized by region and associated with a particular language, there are also worldly books, most of which are read in translation. With these the question invariably arises: In which translation shall we read them? Once we feel the need to familiarize ourselves with them, this question always comes up. For it is well known that the classic books are disseminated into numerous languages and that their translations continue within the language itself. They are constantly translated, adapted, and in a certain sense refashioned.

What should be pointed out is that the translators of the canonical Arabic texts are known. We know their names. A translation in which the translator’s name goes unmentioned is a rare thing indeed; it is hardly even conceivable. If such a thing does occur, the name becomes the site of questionings, suspicions, and guesswork. It was this fact to which one of them referred when he said, “The classic books are those whose translators’ names are known.” There are, of course, untranslated books, yet they are still, despite this fact, considered classics within their local context. Yet in this situation, in which the books are not translated, their commentators are known. The classics, then, are those books whose translators’ or commentators’ names are known, and perhaps even the names of their publishers. The classic text is generally accompanied by a commentary, and in some cases it can hardly be understood without explanations at the bottom of the page, as is the case in the Mu’allaqāt. And among the signs of its constitution as a classic text is that it is completely marked with diacritics, not only in the case of poetic compositions, but also essential prose texts, as in the Muqaddimah.

Abdelfattah Kilito. | Wikimedia Commons

Who decides that a book marks a critical moment, a significant turning point, and subsequently singles it out for inclusion in the history of literature? Who determines its inclusion into the curricula? Here we arrive, perhaps, at a definition that is not new (the fifteenth?); it is a definition that may be considered trivial, though it is convenient. The classic book is that which is studied in class, in educational institutions.

Like all students, I first came upon Arabic literature in primary school. It is important to emphasize that the encounter with literary texts is an encounter with the Arabic language, and, in the particular case of Arabic writing, with fūsha.[5] As soon as I set out to learn the written Arabic language, I had already set foot in the field of literature. In traditional schools, as in modern schools, students learn the Arabic language by tracing out its letters. The classic text is the text which is written in fushā, studied under the supervision of a teacher, and is sometimes necessary to memorize by heart. Reciting poetry from memory was, in the past (is it still the case?) a compulsory exercise, required at the conclusion of the exam.

One of the many verses we memorized was from Saqt Az-Zand by Abu-l-Ala Al-Ma’arri, in which he praises himself, a poem of pride:

            Isn’t it the path to glory: what I have done,
            My virtue, courage, resolution and generosity?

And in the same poem he says:

            They know me well.
            How could they conceal a resplendent sun? 

The august, the esteemed, the exalted Abu-l-Ala . . . comparing himself to the sun, he who lost his eyesight at four years old. We knew that much, but what was invisible to us is that he composed this ingenious and virtuosic poem when he was just fifteen years old. We were at that time about ten or eleven. It was 1956, the year Morocco achieved independence, and the future lay open and gleaming before us. Every one of us was headed for an exceptional fate, or imagined that would be the case, much like Abu-l-Ala. Isn’t he the one who says, in one of his poems:

            If I should be the final voice of my era
            I’ll bring to pass what my forerunners could not

What was he supposed to bring to pass? A new poetics, no doubt about that. His predecessors didn’t say everything.[6] There are still things they were not able to say. Abu-l-Ala challenges them and, at the same time, presents a challenge to himself: the possibility of coming up with a new poetic utterance. As for what actually happened, Abu-l-Ala didn’t break his promise; he produced an original poetry and perhaps even overcame his ancestors, preceding them in a sense.

It is our obligation to care for those who came before us, for our ancestors.

But as students of ten or eleven years old, how did we receive this thunderous and dazzling verse? Did we believe, as we recited it aloud, that we too would do what our forerunners couldn’t—even though we came later, even though we were arriving late? Perhaps we did think about that. Or else why were we in school? A related question, and this is more important, why did our teachers decide to present us with this poem in particular, a poem of pride and self-esteem? The decision was probably not a coincidence. In all likelihood, it was chosen to present us with an example to follow.

Later, we memorized another poem from the same volume. It begins:

            In the end, whether we give voice to the griefsong
            of mourners or the cadence of the chant,
                                                                         we aren’t of much use.

This time, the poet’s voice is different. The tone is no longer self-important and grandiose, rather melancholy and bitter—with a good measure of cutting irony. Contrary to what is sometimes assumed about him, Abu-l-Ala is not a harsh writer, but rather playful, and endowed with a sophisticated comic sensibility. This poem is also about his predecessors, his ancestors, the dead. The earth seems an enormous graveyard: “our graves are terribly vast.” After all, we set foot upon the bodies of the dead without realizing it. We should learn, therefore, how to walk humbly. As Abu-l-Ala puts it:

            The face of the earth seems to me
            nothing but the bodies of the dead,
                                                                    so tread lightly—

            It would be a villainy, despite the passing of time,
           To humiliate our fathers and grandfathers     

It is our obligation to care for those who came before us, for our ancestors. It does not befit us to push them aside and disrespect them; rather, we must live among them in harmony. The greatest act of respect is to not forget them, to keep speaking with them. To achieve this, we must, as young students, work to continue their language, especially since they can hardly grasp our language. By learning fūsha, we, being the young ones, shield the dead from oblivion and make possible their survival. We must learn their language in order to engage them in conversation. In this way they shall fantasize that they are still alive, their pains and sufferings lessened. That is, the dead, if we trust what Charles Baudelaire said in Les Fleurs du Mal, are in agony:

            Ah the dead suffer, the poor dead, from great pains.

Am I, without justification, attributing to children from the past a way of thinking beyond the pale of the classical? Absolutely. But then again, upon closer examination, didn’t this discussion occur to us at that time? Weren’t we posing questions to ourselves without daring to declare them out loud? Echoes reached us about attempts to renew Arabic literature in Cairo and Beirut, and in fact, discussions about the matter of our predecessors have been raised for a long time. Several years may come to mind. As for me, the year that demonstrated it is 1855, when Ahmad Faris Al-Shidyaq’s Al-Saq  ‘ala Al-Saq was published.[7] In his introduction, he informs the reader that he will do away completely with rhymed prose (saj’), as well as the fantastic embellishments and traditional, rhetorical images. Departing from the arcane style of Harīri and Zamakhashri, he advocated a style of writing that was intended, in so far as its expression was concerned, “for any possible reader.”

Al-Shidyaq pushed Arabic literature in a different direction. Literary history teaches us that the renewal of poetry occurs when the poet stands in opposition to a style, against a tradition or school. It will suffice to remember, on this topic, the cases of Abu Tamām and Abu Nawās. In general, literary vitality is dependent upon the strength with which traditions are overcome and previous discourses are surpassed. What about Abu-l-Ala Al-Ma’arri? He went quite a bit further. In Luzūm Ma La Yalzam he didn’t merely diverge from his bygone ancestors, but in fact even from himself. He refused the subject matter and elements of traditional poetry and disavowed, unequivocally, his first collection Saqt Az-Zand.

It is possible, then, for us to go further, to claim that the renewal of poetry occurs through an unabashed departure from poetry in its entirety. This is what follows from a strange passage in the Muqaddimah: “Many of the teachers we have come across [who specialize] in this matter of literary composition think that the verse of Al-Mutannabi and Al-Ma’arri isn’t poetry at all, since the two didn’t take after the poetic styles of the Arabs.” He goes on to say: “They would ridicule the poetry of Al-Mutannabi and Al-Ma’arri for its not being woven according to the styles proper to the Arabic language.” We should note that Ibn Khaldoun does not generalize; there isn’t a consensus among his teachers concerning the two poets. He only asserts that a considerable number of them believe that Al-Mutanabbi and Al-Ma’arri’s verse has nothing to do with poetry, because they stray from the familiar trajectories of Arabic poetry. The unexpected consequence of this judgement is that the two greatest Arab poets weren’t poets. And yet, in their emancipation from poetry, they came up with what their forerunners could not. Surpassing poetry, they pioneered a strange art, unprecedented and unnamed.

Doesn’t the standing of Arabic literature rely upon foreign literature?

Let’s return to our young schoolchildren. I said, as a conjecture, that Abu-l-Ala was implicitly inviting us to be different from our predecessors. Who might these be? Our fathers and mothers first and foremost. Of course, we used to appreciate and revere them, but we felt that we would not be copies of them, that we would achieve something else, that we would be different. What am I saying? We were truly different, and we understood that. Didn’t we come to know—in addition to the Arabic language—a foreign tongue, French, a language our fathers do not know, let alone our distant grandfathers?

At that time, texts in this language were familiar among us. We used to pore over the poems of Victor Hugo and Théophile Gautier, so there appeared to us, then, a clear difference between Arabic literature and French literature. We were encountering two poetic traditions which, in many respects, cannot be reconciled. If necessary, it is possible to imagine Al-Ma’arri’s poem in which he speaks about the dead in the French language, since the dead share the same pains . . . to put it another way, its translation is palatable, but his self-adulation cannot be conceived in French. In general, many of the older kinds of poetry, in their subject matter and images, seemed to us, when we looked upon them from the vantage point of French literature, outdated, unsuitable. Our teachers were sometimes embarrassed, despite the vague excuses they used to make.

We increasingly found ourselves, because of the educational training we pursued at that time, before two different families of predecessors, two notions of the classic, two literary histories: our past—–or what we used to imagine was our past—and the European past that suddenly befell us. And lastly, what about today? Isn’t our notion of the classic influenced by the other? Doesn’t the standing of Arabic literature rely upon foreign literature?



[1] Paul Zumthor (1915-95) was a scholar of Medieval French poetry and Romance literature.

[2] The Muqaddimah, written in the fourteenth century, has become a canonical work of pre-modern Arabic historiography. The only complete English translation of this text currently available is that of Franz Rosenthal (Princeton University Press, 1967). Kilito is referring to the final portion of the work, dedicated to ‘ilm al-adab, the realm of inquiry pertaining to the nature and practice of poetry and prose. My decision to translate the Arabic word shaykh here as “teacher” stems from the context in which Ibn Khaldoun is using the word.

[4] The title is a reference to a Cairo neighborhood. This book has been translated into English by Roger Allen (Anchor).

[5] The register of the Arabic language present in literary (and other) texts from at least the seventh-eighth century onwards. It has a particular and complex history which does not map neatly onto categories familiar to speakers of French and English.

[6] This is what Antara bin Shadād already expressed in the first line of his mu’āllaqa: “Have the poets left me anything to say . . .”   

[7] The book is famously difficult to categorize, as it is comprised of satirical records of the travels and experiences of the protagonist, who both is and is not the author Ahmad Faris Al-Shidyaq. Humphrey Davies has translated it into English under the title Leg Over Leg (NYU Press).