In Review: The Tongue of Adam by Abdelfattah Kilito

All languages had the same value . . . The plurality of tongues was synonymous with cohesion—diversity with unity.

In the afterword to the book, Abdelfattah Kilito, a Moroccan writer who writes in both French and Arabic, speaks about his obsession with “the fact of language”. And this obsession is exactly what we get a great introduction to in his intriguing new book of essays, The Tongue of Adam (New Directions, 2016, tr. Robyn Creswell).

The book is divided into several chapters: “Babblings,” “Babels,” “A Babelian Eden,” “The Oldest Poem in the World,” “Poet or Prophet?” “The Oblivion of Adam,” “Poetic Destiny,” and the afterword entitled “That’s . . . nice.” In these chapters, he takes us on an exploration into our origins of language, multilingualism, poetry, history, religion, myth, translation, and much more, consulting ancient Arabic sources throughout.

In “Babblings”, Kilito writes, “No one bothers to ask about the tongue of Adam anymore. It’s a naïve question, vaguely embarrassing and irksome, like questions posed by children, which can only be answered rather stupidly. But for the ancients this question was serious and consequential. To answer it meant to take a stand”.  So that is where he begins: he asks about the tongue (the language and the organ) and discusses what the ancients thought about the original human language, approaching these questions with an attitude that is serious and playful at the same time.

The inquiry into humanity’s original language, Kilito informs us, can arise only “when multiple languages are found in a state of competition or rivalry. Every inquiry into the tongue of Adam hopes to uncover a beginning”—to identify the one and only language of origin—but such inquiries also point toward the one who asks the question: Why does my language differ from that of others? How can we explain the plurality of languages?” These are post-Babelian inquiries, implying a rupture between communities.

Kilito discusses various historical narratives about why the tower of Babel dissolved and people scattered and one single language became multiple ones. Maybe it happened because “God’s confusion of tongues ensures His supremacy”. Maybe it happened to punish Nimrod’s transgression. Maybe, according to Yaqut or Suyuti’s versions of the story, it actually happened during an “episode of serenity—almost a festival”. Or, according to Ibn Manzur, it was God’s design to distinguish men “by their colors and tongues,” the way the earth was divided from the heavens, to complete God’s creation.

(Consider the implications for those who speak multiple languages, translators, and writers if, say, we accepted the tale of Babel as a punishment for a sin, as a catastrophe. Or what if we accepted that it was associated with festivity? Or that it was a “divine decision”, aimed at completing His creation, and thus a positive outcome? Would each version inform how we carry ourselves and form our identities in the world today?)

Kilito then returns, by way of investigating the tongue of the Arab Empire, to the question of the original tongue, the one Adam spoke in paradise. He discusses Ibn Abbas and Ibn Jinni’s arguments on the matter and notes, “In the beginning, then, Adam and his children knew all languages. They could speak one as easily as the next, and it was deemed praiseworthy to use several languages at once”. He calls this multilingualism “harmonious” and Adam and Eve’s “only souvenir from their time in the garden”. This was the time and place when “all languages had the same value . . . The plurality of tongues was synonymous with cohesion—diversity with unity. There was no such thing as a native tongue or a mother tongue”. But then things began to change, Adam’s children dispersed and each attached himself to one place and one language, and the era of mother tongues began.

(It seems impossible to imagine a multiplicity of languages that does not attach value to one language over the other. How can such a vision redefine our geopolitical and humanistic struggles for the visions we have of an ideal world? How can we even begin to imagine multilingualism that is not preceded by a mother tongue? If we consider this the Edenic image of linguistic unity, how does this vision affect those of us who have found so much depth, vastness, joy, or pain, in the very existence of tongues associated with places and times? What would it actually mean to live in a world where there are no barriers between languages, no need for translators?)

In the following chapters, Kilito adds another layer to this exploration of Adam’s language: that of the first poem of the world, which according to some scholars was spoken by Adam in the face of the murder of his son Abel by his other son Cain. As such, the original poem emerged “out of loss, absence, and death. Someone was there and is no longer. Lamentations for the dead are at the origins of poetry. The primordial poetic genre, the one from which all others derive, is the elegy ”.

(What does this history mean to those of us who call ourselves poets? What does it mean to us if we accept that poetry originated from a lack, a loss, a death, and not for example in celebration of bounty or life?)

Kilito recites the original poem based on the source he believes first mentioned it—Jamharat ash’ar al-‘arab, by Abu Zyad al-Qurashi—and goes on to delve into the distinct versions provided in other Arabic sources. The poem, we learn, received responses from two other voices: that of Satan and that of an angel. But what about Eve? Did she speak in the face of her son’s loss, one wonders. It is interesting to learn that only two sources mention Eve’s words. Tha’labi was the first to record her verses and after him they were actually not “transmitted” except in one other source by Sibt ibn al-Jawzi. There seems to have been no need to analyze her poems because she was not a prophet. It is also interesting to see that the three lines attributed to her take a stance so distinct from Adam’s elegy. Whereas his is more of a lament about a loss already past, Eve’s is an imperative call and a commentary on the future: “Weep not” for them, but “for yourself and give up dreaming: you’re no more immortal than the slain”.

(That Adam’s poem, the original human poem, looks at a death that has already happened, and Eve’s poem, the first spoken in response to another’s, looks ahead to a death that all shall meet, bounds not only humanity but also poetry as a genre, by death on either end. There is a significance in this idea that we need to address. And what does this lack of attention to Eve’s perspective add to the history of the transmission and translation of the women’s words versus men’s?)

In the next few chapters, Kilito launches a manifold investigation of Adam’s poem. The first question he asks is whether the elegy is authentic, meaning whether it was actually Adam who spoke it. The second question is what the original language of the poem was, a mystery tied to the debate about what language Adam spoke after the Fall. The third question is about the poem’s transmission throughout history and the last concerns its aesthetic quality.

In order to address these questions, Kilito recounts and analyzes various historical Arabic sources, using an engaging circular narrative that follows the Eastern tradition of argumentation and seems to aim more for an exploration than a definitive answer. He goes from Ibn Abbas to Tha’labi to Jahiz to Ibn Rashiq to Ibn Khaldun. One argument he considers is that prophets—including Adam—cannot be poets because the sources of inspiration for poetry and prophecy are “antithetical”: “Poetry and divination have a demonic origin, while prophecy has a divine origin”. This would make the elegy attributed to Adam a forgery.

(What are the implications, for poetry and poets today, of accepting this hypothesis of the demonic origins of poetry?)

Kilito furthermore looks into sources that argue about the “funeral eulogy” (54) from another perspective: that it was originally not in poetry form, but in prose; and not in Arabic, but in Syriac. It was actually through translation that later generations read Adam’s words as Arabic poetry. Kilito, moreover, introduces readers to Ya’rub ibn Qahtan, once king of Yemen and the first “bilingual in the history of humanity”. Qahtan was also the first translator in the world (57) who, by turning Adam’s supposed Syriac prose into Arabic poetry, repaired “the link to the language of paradise”.

(This version of events would allow the audience to receive the words of Adam not in the language of the Fall, but what was thought to be the original language of paradise. Is the translation an intervention in God’s plan, since it returns to Adam, at least in the ears of his posthumous audience, what God took from him when he exiled him from his place and his language? And yet, while the translation gives Adam the language of paradise again, it changes the form of his utterance into the demonic form of poetry. If we consider this to be the origin story of translation, and of poetry, how does it affect translators’ unconscious, and our role in the transmission of literature today?)

In the chapter “The Oblivion of Adam,” Kilito digs into The Epistle of Forgiveness [Risalat al-ghufran] by eleventh-century poet al-Ma’arri. Following the final judgment the story’s hero, Ibn al-Qarih, he meets with Adam in paradise and brings up the question of the elegy. To answer his question, Adam takes an oath, “that neither he nor any of his contemporaries composed the lines”. And that is the end of the discussion: “When a prophet swears by God, there’s nothing more to say”. This, however, can be overshadowed by the previous part of the conversation between the two, about other verses al-Qarih attributed to Adam. There the narrator reminded Adam that the Quran speaks of his “susceptibility to forgetting”, that the name for his own species, insan [man], derives from nisyan [forgetting]; and Adam reminded him that he spoke Arabic in paradise and Syriac on earth (so he forgot the language of paradise when he was expelled from the garden, and forgot his earthly tongue upon his return to paradise).

In the final chapter, the discussion turns to the aesthetic quality of the poem. For his analysis, Kilito divides commentators into three groups: those who cite the poem without expressing an opinion about it; those who doubt the authenticity of the poem but don’t go so far as to delegitimize it; and those who are “sarcastic and dismissive” of the poem. Of the first two groups, neither has any opinion about the quality of the verses, but the third seems unable to “forgive a poem that claims to be original—even primordial—for not being the most beautiful poem in the world”.

(But that implies there is a yardstick for such a measure, and an appropriate judge. What would make a poem the most beautiful poem in the world? Is that a decision that one can make once and for all or does that change based on the changes of time, place, and language?)

Kilito concludes the chapter and the book by pointing to how “one way or another everyone falls under [the elegy’s] spell”. “Authentic or not”, in Arabic or not, the most beautiful poem in the world or not, the elegy remains forever “linked to Adam” and to the story of the death of his son, the “first man to die”. Even if the poem is not by Adam, it is what he should have been inspired to write in the face of that death of Abel, Kilito notes. It is as if the story cannot find its “closure” without the citing of its “funeral song”.

In the end, what matters most about the poem, Kilito reminds us, is that it has survived, despite all the debates around it and the linguistic changes throughout the time, reaching “all the way to us” “via an unbroken chain of transmitters”.

And what matters most about The Tongue of Adam is how Abdelfattah Kilito turns his obsession with “the fact of language” into a thrilling tour de force that invites us to rethink the myths of our human origins, leading us into a labyrinthine wonder world of linguistic inquiries.

Poupeh Missaghi is a writer, English <>Persian translator, and Iran’s editor-at-large for Asymptote. A recent Ph.D. graduate from the University of Denver’s Creative Writing Program, she has published both fiction and non-fiction work in Entropy, The Brooklyn Rail, the Feminist WireWorld Literature Today, Guernica, the Quarterly Conversation, and elsewhere.

Sign up to be a sustaining member today at just $5 a month! We’re still short of hitting our target by several members; each additional membership takes us closer to being able to operate beyond April 2017.

To reward your support, we have a whole range of Asymptote memorabilia—don’t forget to check them out!

Read More Book Reviews:


  • sye

    Anyone here read Patty Smith’s “chain gang” from her book “Babel”?

  • sye

    I can see that point. It’s always a fine line for poetic passion to oscillate between “grace and mercy” vs. “power and might”
    — quote —

    ” One argument he considers is that prophets—including Adam—cannot be poets because the sources of inspiration for poetry and prophecy are “antithetical”: “Poetry and divination have a demonic origin, while prophecy has a divine origin”. This would make the elegy attributed to Adam a forgery.

    (What are the implications, for poetry and poets today, of accepting this hypothesis of the demonic origins of poetry?)

    –unquote —