Abdelfattah Kilito’s “Why Read the Classics?” is from his new collection Fi jaw min an-nadm al-fīkri (“In a Spirit of Intellectual Repentance”), and appears at The Baffler in Safwan Khatib‘s translation:
The essay originally titled ” …لهذا نقرأ الأدب الكلاسيكي” or “This is Why We Read Classic Literature…” opens, charmingly:
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.
It goes on to look at what a “classic” might be, and how Arabic classics are shaped not only by their relationship to a contemporary Arabic literature and lived reality, but also to their translators and to European “classics,” the literatures of empire.
Kilito revisits his childhood in Rabat, the moment at which he first memorized classic verse of Abu-l-Ala Al-Ma’arri’s: “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.”
He goes on to consider how al-Ma’arri appears through the lens of French translation, and in the context of French classics, “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in their subject matter and images, seemed to us, when we looked upon them from the vantage point of French literature, outdated, unsuitable.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.”
He asks: “Isn’t our notion of the classic influenced by the other? Doesn’t the standing of Arabic literature rely upon foreign literature?”
Read all of Kilito’s “Why Read the Classics?,” in Khatib’s excellent translation, at The Baffler.