The Clash of Images

The Clash of Images
By Abdelfattah Kilito
Translated from French by Robyn Creswell
New Directions Publishing, 2010
Editions Eddif, 1996

“Today everybody has a face, which is to say an image that doubles him. Everybody exists outside himself. More than that, everybody must have an image. An individual doesn’t exist, officially, except by way of a photo ID.” — Author’s note, from The Clash of Images

There was, once, we are told, a time when the image did not exist. Or at least, didn’t exist as we know it. There was no figurative representation. Prophets and caliphs and poets were memorialized through the recitation of their stories, their portraits built on narratives — oral and of metrical prose — depicting their noble character and divine wisdom.

The prophet Mohammed, Al-Mutanabb, Haroun al-Rashid — what did they look like?

It is in this time and space before the image that Moroccan author Abdelfattah Kilito’s The Clash of Images begins. And it is in the fraught transition toward modernity — when illustrations replace oral traditions and the once-forbidden photograph becomes a necessity in gaining permission for the sacred rite of pilgrimage — that his stories end. In narratives that privilege anecdote over argument or arch, Kilito weaves tales that recount the diverse lives of images in the Islamic world, and by extension, what Arabs gained, and lost, with the ascendance of the image. In this Borgesian set of very short, short stories that are part memoir, part fable, part criticism, a young Abdallah, who serves as the central character through most of the stories, comes of age in a small unnamed town on the coast of Morocco.

“SO MUCH HAS BEEN SAID,” Kilito begins in “Revolt in the Msid,” “about the msid, that place where knowledge is acquired… . The msid is a stage on which a ritual murder is acted out. It is childhood — a naughty, defective, and impulsive phase — that must be put to death to prepare the way for an ontological mutation, the hazardous leap into adulthood. You don’t leave the msid until you have buried your childhood.”

In the msid, the Qur’anic school, we encounter the professor, a God-like being who has the Qur’an committed to memory: the most pious man in the village, no doubt. Under his tutelage, Abdallah and his classmates repeat passages from the Qur’an, daily, all day. For errors of speech, or for the child numbed, drowsy, dozing, there is a caning — a spectacle of beating that interrupts the monotony of recitation. Each boy, in his particular show of terror, offers a new performance, a new way to experience pain, a new impetus to remember the sacred and forget the sinful. No boy dares to disobey the professor, until one day Fa, faced with the prospect of beating, refuses to comply with instructions, and then, when beaten, refuses to cry. Invoking the revolt of Satan and his seduction of Adam and Eve, the professor expels Fa, who is then sent, without other option, to school with the French, the Infidels.

As the story unfolds, and the image of revolt seared in their memories offers possibility, more boys act up and follow Fa to another school, Abdallah himself urging his grandfather to send him there too. His grandfather — ostensibly against the West and its modern face, against the impurities that lie beyond the bounds of the Qur’an — yields. And, “a week or two later, while I was engaged in deciphering a book, I heard him say to my grandmother softly: ‘The boy has learned French.’ His tone was serene, indulgent, even pleased.”

Had the patriarch abandoned his principles and the winds of history swept him up, too? Had he understood that success in the modern world requires knowledge of the language of sin? Or had, indeed, the patriarch come to realize that the conflicts dividing the world are caused by man and history and not by languages; that French, like Arabic, is a system of sounds and letters, a puzzle of grammar and syntax, and that in this sense all languages are equal — each a gift from God?

It is in this same story, amid the same currents of change, that the professor himself — faced with the prospect of modernity — is forced to concede. Growing old, aware of his fragility, he decides to take his obligatory Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca, “to drink the water of Zamzam, to throw stones at Satan, to circle the Ka’aba, and see the tomb of the prophet.” But to do so in this modernizing Arab world would require, oh “horrors of horrors,” a passport, a photo, an image of himself.

The professor was full of contempt for images and in particular for the diabolical invention of photography, which he believed mimicked creation to compete with the work of God. The earth, the sea, the beasts, and all matter of mankind emerge from this black box just as they emerged at the beginning of time. “The Seducer, Master of Illusion, fabricates a second genesis in black and white, all surface, cold and flat as a mirror — a mirror all the more dangerous for being perfectly accurate. Photography was a hoax, a vain copy, an insidious reflection and satanic artifice. Anyone who gives himself up to photography allies himself with the enemy of mankind and sins against God.”

On the quay in Casablanca where the boat departs for Jeddah, on the arm of a young man, his son, the professor bumps into three of his old students. He is frail, unable to balance himself without help. It is on their shoulders that he performs his pilgrimage, his papers in a pouch around his neck.

The fragments of this story, through which the narrator drifts in and out, weave themselves through Kilito’s loosely linked collection. In “The Image of the Prophet” Abdallah faces his own first encounters with the image. In a market by the Old Mosque, sellers bargained away images of Ali, the fourth caliph, seated cross-legged flanked by his sons. Noah in his ark with full menagerie. Solomon among his servants. Abraham with a beard that reaches his knees. And under a tree, entwined by the serpent, in dialogue with the conspirator, Adam and Eve.

And yet, in spite of these violations, there was one red line that was always respected: the prophet Mohammed was never depicted. The prophet was a story, a word, a series of tales, but never a face. And then, there, in the textbook of the infidels, in a French text on the Hegira: a man, trimmed beard, adorned in a turban, a flowing galabiya, a leather satchel slung across his chest. He was, no doubt, the prophet.

In the classroom, Abdallah found himself bearing the weight of this heavy secret. His grandfather had passed away by then, and Abdallah, seeking respite from this burden, sought out his grandmother, handing her the book. Joining index finger and thumb, she peered through her monocle, squinting, bringing the page closer to her eye. She lingered, but didn’t say a word.

In the end, The Clash of Images is a collection that sets Kilito apart from the work of his Arab contemporaries, not least because of its unique and compelling premise. Navigating fluidly between history and the fantastically fictive, the volume evokes a time, a place, and a style that seems long extinguished; herein is a manner of storytelling that probably existed long before the image was ascendant, at a time when oral history was still our lingua franca.