The Clash of Images by Abdelfattah Kilito, translated by Robyn Creswell
Abdelfattah Kilito sets his short stories in places rich with stunning imagery, such as in the shadows of a cinema, where an Arab boy watches cowboy movies, “anxious and trembling with desire.” The movie’s images -- the duel, the mount-up, the Indian attack, the fight in the saloon, the kiss -- help push the boy into adulthood and leave him troubled by their power to entrance. “In the cave whose lights had just come on they were freed of their chains, yet they wanted nothing more than to put the chains back on, to dive back into the darkness, lose consciousness of themselves and let their gazes glide over those fleeting, illusory, and deceitful images,” Kilito writes in his collection of stories, The Clash of Images, recently translated into English by Robyn Creswell.
Such scenes and the reflection that follows them provide a fascinating analysis of images in post-modern society, by an author who proves he is not desensitized to them. The collection contains 13 loosely linked stories, told mostly from the perspective of young North African men and boys. Kilito, a professor at the Mohammed V University in Morocco, primarily writes criticism of Arab literature, but makes a deft turn to a blend of fiction and memoir in The Clash of Images. The stories verge on family and cultural history, blurring the line between fiction, fantasy and reality in an attempt to cope with the meeting of Islam and the West’s various forms of image making -- the photograph, the comic book, the film and even literature like Don Quixote. Kilito attempts to map the transition of a culture from oral and text based modes of representation into today’s world, where the image rules. The stories accomplish deep reflection about the role of the image and its manipulation of identity in post-modern society with winsome storytelling and delightful characters.
The Clash of Images will force American readers to question their understanding of the images that pervade our society and the power they exercise in our lives. In the author’s note, Kilito wonders whether the image ushered Arabs into the modern world, pointing out that everyone must have a “double” today, at least in the form of government identification. This rests uneasily in societies that forbid making physical representations of God’s creation. Kilito’s Arab ancestors were faceless, lacking ids and photographs, he writes. Yet, “My idea is not at all to pity them,” Kilito writes. “What I’d like to know… is what profit they made by giving up figural representation.” The question to American readers of themselves becomes: What profit do we make by living in a society obsessed with images?
When I lived in the Hashemite Kingdom of Jordan from 2008 to 2011, I experienced the clash between the Muslim villager’s idea and my American idea of images. The refusal of my Arabic teacher’s eldest daughter to be photographed frustrated me. I couldn’t understand how else to remember her face, if I did not possess an image of her. While studying the stories of Islam, I found it difficult to visualize the Prophet Mohammed, of whom no authentic images exist. I asked my tutor over and over again, “But what did he look like?” I thought it would be easier to understand the stories they told me if I could imagine the main character in detail. Finally, my teacher acquiesced, providing a brief description from a hadith: He was handsome, with long eye lashes, and he wore a beard that often carried the red hue of henna. I quickly realized my error. The physical description of The Prophet allowed me to imagine a caricature, a stereotypical Muslim, like one from a cartoon strip in an American newspaper, an inaccurate representation. Yet, I still regret the lack of photographs of the women I cared about in Jordan. The contours of their faces have faded, a fact I cannot interpret any other way than a loss, one that an image might have remedied, at least partially. It seemed then like a contradiction for which there was no solution and Kilito, while skillfully sketching the lines of the conflict, doesn’t provide one either. Images both trouble and awe the characters of his stories.
The narrator of the story, “The Image of the Prophet,” takes up a similar issue, that of representing the Prophet Mohammed to facilitate understanding. A young Muslim boy in a French school, the narrator is confronted by an image of the Prophet in a French text book in a picture depicting the Hegira, the Muslims’ forced migration from Mecca to Medina. In the picture the Prophet, “wore a turban, a checkered jalabiya, and a flat leather sack strung across his chest. A short, trim beard covered his jaw.” Upon seeing the image, the narrator reflects:
Although the image disturbs the narrator, his instructor never mentions it. The narrator’s pondering leads him to this conclusion: “The image is a site where eyes flee from each other, where glances never meet, where there is no face-to-face or actual encounter.” Here, Kilito’s narrator emphasizes the inherent superficiality of representation. While the image is beautiful, and while it conveys information, it also manipulates. In this way the story reaches its crescendo -- lacking dramatic action, the narrator instead offers a meditation on a small, but revealing instance of cultural collision.
This was, on the part of the illustrator, a risky undertaking, and one whose full consequences he didn’t seem to have considered -- unless, knowing the students who made up his audience were rather provincial, he was simply defying a prohibition he felt to be unjustified.
The power of images has occupied Kilito’s work before, surfacing in his book of literary scholarship, Thou Shalt Not Speak My Language, translated into English by Wail Hassan. Kilito describes the shock and confusion of the Moroccan scholar as-Saffar, who first saw a crucifix in France in 1845. (Aside from the figure appearing real, as-Saffar was shocked because Jesus Christ, a prophet in Islam, is not believed to be the son of God, nor is he believed to have died on the cross.) As-Saffar notes the “strong passion for mirrors” of the French and a set of a play in the theater that, although drawn on paper, looks real. As-Saffar, according to Kilito, described the French as “masters of deceptive appearances.” The statement reads nearly like a prophecy, a foreshadowing of the airbrushing of models in magazines, video games with hyper real graphics and other types of image manipulation, which saturate Western society today.
Although the stories lack what Western readers would think of as narrative arc -- their conclusions come instead as brief epiphanies of thought -- they gain charm and believability from their young narrator or, in the case of third person narration, the young main character, and his earnest attempt to reconcile the two worlds he grows up in. The narrator proves obsessed with comics, books and films. In “Pleiades” Abdullah follows a girl named Pleiades (Thurayya in Arabic) through the streets, hoping they will accidentally meet. Pleiades earned her reputation by removing a photo of a boy from her bra and eating it to demonstrate her passion. When Pleiades has a change of heart and finally kisses Abdullah, he thinks of literature. “The verse of Mallarme, 'It was the blessed day of your first kiss,' sprung inevitably to his lips, along with the bittersweet aftertaste of an old photograph.” Kilito’s boy characters will grab the attention of readers with their humor and capacity for introspection. While the stories offer myriad insights into the world of young Moroccan boys, they also provide a site of reflection, points of reference to begin questioning our own cultural values, our own ideas of image and identity. The translation of this book into English is truly a gift to American readers.
The Clash of Images by Abdelfattah Kilito, translated by Robyn Creswell