The Tongue of Adam by Abdelfattah Kilito (tr. Robyn Creswell). New Directions. 98pp, $13.95.
No longer than the lead piece in the latest literary quarterly, yet unearthing a teleology for some of humanity’s oldest stories, The Tongue of Adam sets a reader thinking of noble forebears. W.G. Sebald comes to mind, though there’s no meandering involved, and Anne Carson, though there’s no anachronism or toying with form. Jorge Luis Borges, especially, casts his shadow, given the erudite cool with which this text handles Adam and Eve, Eden and Babel, effortlessly switching between Quranic (as spelled by Kilito) sources and Judeo-Christian. Similar material, in the hands of the great Argentine, resulted in amazing aesthetic objects, and to say the latest from Abdelfattah Kilito doesn’t shrivel in comparison—well, that’s high praise. Even more noteworthy, however, may be what the book accomplishes, at this hour of the world, for Arab civilization in general.
The Tongue of Adam began as a series of lectures at a French university, as one of the author’s colleagues explains in the introduction (sensitive, if at times gushing). Then following seven short chapters—essays, meditations—Kilito himself provides the afterward, revealing that he taught in French, and often French literature, for forty years. Nonetheless this epilog, like his text, makes an argument for his culture of origin. Born in Rabat during the colonial era, earning tenure at his Moroccan alma mater, Kilito is one multilingual thinker who never severed native connections—Maghreb, specifically—and knows how they matter:
Every Maghrebian writer has a story to tell about their language or languages . . . , a story always on the tip of their tongue, that constitutes the background of what they write, so that nothing they say can be understood without it.
The “tongue” idiom exists in French, sur le bout de la langue, but it offers more than an example of the care Robyn Creswell took with his translation. Also it resonates with the title and the abiding concern for Arab identity: a story that history has left caught in the throat, largely unvoiced.
Kilito’s opening disquisition considers the myth of Eden, and in particular the serpent, who in both the Quran and Genesis wields a “tongue . . . God split in two.” The metaphors abound, to be sure, but Kilito’s interest lies in how the image suggests the multiple languages of the fallen world, while raising the question of what unique, Paradisiacal tongue could’ve preceded them. Early speculation concerning the first human language take over the chapter, which cites everything from Herodotus to the ninth-century Book of Animals by Jahiz, all while never losing the common touch: “First one eats, then one speaks—we note once more the link between food and language.” Then to close out this first cycle of thought, Kilito selects a charming fable out of Andalusia, while also mentioning The Thousand and One Nights. That is, the chapter’s emphasis falls finally on native materials, and likewise thereafter, as the author mulls over other primordial tales, especially Abel’s murder and its aftermath, he keeps revisiting the same extraordinary historical moment:
The Arab Empire was . . . an immense Tower of Babel. Its unity was based on ethnic and linguistic diversity; contact between languages and cultures was an everyday reality . . . . The tenth-century grammarian Zubaydi could therefore remark: “all tongues (alsina) . . . are now gathered in Islam.”
So the Babel story, the subject of the second essay, leaves this author with a very different takeaway than in the First Book of Moses. Tongue of Adam declares diversity “a divine gift,” whether in the case of language or skin color: “Knowledge . . . flow[s] from the distinctions that exist between men.” So too, the latter half of the book ruminates on a text that exists only in Islamic tradition, namely, Adam’s elegy for his murdered son. Kilito, again citing commentators from the turn of the First Millennium, terms this “the oldest poem in the world,” and as he begins his investigations, he once more demonstrates a common touch. “The original poem,” he asserts, “emerges out of loss, absence, and death,” and grief indeed rules the earliest version he turns up: “the earth’s surface was terrible and covered in dust.”
Subsequent explorations offer variants and responses, including a pitiless sneer out of Satan’s serpent and Eve’s moving call for acceptance: “What good are mourner’s tears when man is shut in the tomb?” Then comes the larger question of the poem’s place in the culture. Much of this I found fascinating, such as the early quandary over whether Adam could be both prophet and poet. The roles couldn’t co-exist, according to true believers, since one was divinely inspired and the other possessed by a djinn, and the wrangle also took early scholars back to the question of Eden’s language. Arabic alone was viewed as the vehicle for poetry, even by Averroes and others who knew the Greeks; poetry in another tongue was no more than “a form” for “content,” devoid of its “fundamental element, rhythm (wazn).” The same argument can be heard today, of course, Tongue of Adam follows up with another intriguing echo of Western literature, from the eleventh-century poet al-Ma’arri; his Epistle of Forgiveness seems like a model for Dante, visiting realms of the dead. All fascinating, as I say, though these closing chapters also suffered a couple of obscure phrasings, when I couldn’t distinguish the author’s assessment from that of some long-dead scribe.
Still, the ultimate justification for both Adam’s elegy and Kilito’s text is the holistic business of completing the story: “A death with no funeral song lacks majesty and nobility; only poetry can yield catharsis and peace of mind.” The Tongue of Adam, that is, upholds storytelling as that essential nutrient on the tip of every culture’s tongue: the organ’s greatest purpose. Storytelling, what’s more, gave us this author’s last book in English, The Clash of Images (2010), his first fiction following two translations of scholarship (in French or Arabic, he has a good dozen more titles). Clash, another pocket-sized text from New Directions, sketched thirteen coming-of-age narratives in a Franco-African seaport, back in days when Kilito himself was young. That his biography provided his fiction’s wellsprings, however, mattered far less than the sympathy it stirred. As the central figure marked notches on the walls of his home, anyone could identify. Thus in our contemporary context, when so many in Europe and America see Islam as utterly alien, not to say monstrous, the stories served as an antitoxin. Tongue of Adam, in its bookish way, continues that healing, that relief from tragedies afflicting today’s Arab world—not least of which is their distortion in the West.
John Domini’s latest book is MOVIEOLA!, linked stories, on Dzanc. In early 2019, he’ll publish his fourth novel, The Color Inside a Melon.
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