Moroccan novelist, essayist, and critic Abdelfattah Kilito has a new book out in English translation this fall: Arabs and the Art of Storytelling: A Strange Familiarity, co-translated by Mbarek Sryfi and Eric Sellin. Kilito recently exchanged emails with translator and critic Robyn Creswell, who shared the exchange onAesop:
The exchange is wonderfully charming, and ranges from Kilito’s youthful reading to his studies in France to Kilito’s relationship to Borges.
On his own reading:
RC: You haven’t mentioned any Arabic works, but I suppose you read some?
AK: I read just about everything Egyptian and Lebanese writers published. I’m not bragging: there wasn’t much of it. I had a weakness for Taha Husayn. It was thanks to him I discovered that everything was up for grabs and subject to debate—even the great dead authors. Taha Husayn had no mercy, worshipped no one. Even myths weren’t safe. In one sense, it was disillusioning: after Husayn, there was nothing to admire, there were no more heroes. But at the same time I had the impression, while reading him, of becoming intelligent.
I also liked Tawfiq al-Hakim, though for a different reason. His novel, A Bird of the East, made a deep impression on me. I needed to travel to Paris like him, go to the theaters, visit the museums, fall in love with a French woman. Only in this way, I thought, could I also become a writer.
And on the classics:
RC: Classical Arabic literature is as rich a literary corpus as those of classical Greece or China, yet it’s almost entirely unknown in this country (it might be slightly better known in France). As a lover of this literature, and an expert, what does it have to offer those who have never read it? What do you tell your students (there must be a few skeptics)?
AK: As for the skeptics, I resist the temptation to tell them they don’t know what they’re missing. If people turn up their noses at classical literature, I suppose there are reasons—in the first place, because it’s so strange. Classical literature has its own codes, a particular set of norms. One has to make an effort to read it.
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