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Two Islamic Writers on the Cutting Edge

In an astonishing collection of linked short stories, Abdelfattah Kilito, a Moroccan, debates the traditional Islamic prohibition against images no more clearly articulated than in beliefs of a Muslim holy man: “He was full of contempt for images and especially for photography, a diabolical invention that mimicked creation and competed with the work of God. The sky, the earth, the sea, the beasts, mankind and all the infinite variety of the world emerge from this black box, just as they emerged at the beginning of time from the will of God.

“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. ‘Yes, but let them try putting a soul in it,’ he would say in vengeful tones. Photography was a hoax, a vain copy, an insidious reflection and satanic artifice, showing water where there was only a mirage, life where there was only death. ‘Anyone who gives himself up to photography allies himself with the enemy of mankind and sins against God.'”

This is the usual argument of conservatives, the literalists: it’s not in the Quran, or the Bible, or the Constitution. The narrator understands why “Our ancestors were faceless,” but—in hindsight, as an adult—he reasons, “Wasn’t the Arabs’ entrance into modernity accomplished in large part thanks to the image?” More specifically, in regards to his own childhood, the narrator observes, “I had never seen any images properly speaking, except my own in the mirror. On the walls of our house there were no photographs, no reproductions of any sort. The walls were white, cold, and smooth, with no more than one Quranic verse in calligraphy: ‘The All-Merciful is seated firmly upon the throne.” Am ambiguous verse and one that—despite the ingenuity of exegetes bent on removing all traces of anthropomorphism—presents an image.” Ergo, “The prophet of Islam was never pictured. The prophet was a story, a word in the mouth, not a face. And yet many claimed to have seen him in their dreams (with what features?)”

It is the struggle with modernity that Kilito’s narrator agonizes to understand at the traditional, Quranic school, beginning as a child with the memorization of the Quran—memorized but not understood. “It is by memorizing the Quran that we master the course of events, preside over the past and the future of mankind, and insert ourselves into eternity.” But when he begins attending the local French school, the conflicting images confront him immediately, not simply on the walls of the classrooms. More threatening? In the French reader designed for Moroccan students, “there was a text that recounted the prophet’s flight from Mecca to Medina. I was astonished that non-Muslims knew of the Hegira, the founding moment of Islam and keystone for the new history. So the Event was recognized and corroborated by Christians. In my naiveté this struck me as all the more remarkable, since I didn’t imagine a scene from the life of Christ would figure in any Arabic reader.”

For Abdelfattah Kilito and for his main character, Abdullah, it’s not a simple matter of moving from a culture where images are scorned to one where they are celebrated. It’s the exposure to western literary works: first, Quest for Fire and The Prince and the Pauper, but soon, Treasure Island, The Adventures of Arthur Gordon Pym, The Prairie, even Moby Dick. His father warns him that “Books can kill; they can also cause blindness.” Along the way, there have also been comic books, and soon it will be something much more threatening: movies. Images and more images. It is this clash with Muslim and Western cultures that Kilito records so extraordinarily, hinting—finally—at a way to escape the traditional Islamic culture: become a writer.

There’s one final caveat, one final nail in the coffin of traditional values. Years after Abdullah was a child in the Quranic school, he learned that his tutor, by then quite old, wanted the visit Mecca. No big problem except for the need for a passport and for that he will need a photo. Thus, I repeat a sentence quoted earlier: “Wasn’t the Arabs’ entrance to modernity accomplished in large part thanks to the image?”

This is a small book about a large topic, a perceptive analysis not using the traditional cliché of the conflict of cultures but, instead, images—either those missing from a culture or those central to it. Robyn Creswell’s translation is sublime.

There’s another perhaps even stronger barrier that is broken in Atiq Rahimi’s disturbing novel, A Thousand Rooms of Dream and Fear. The writer is an Afghani novelist and filmmaker who divides his time between France and Afghanistan. The story takes place in Kabul, shortly before the Soviet invasion in 1979, when a student named Farhad is brutalized by soldiers. “Every single one of my bones feels as though it’s broken, my veins have been severed, my brain turned to pulp, my muscles torn out…No, I’m not trapped in a nightmare. I’ve not been possessed by the djinn: I am dead.” Or so he thinks, lying on the ground.

But then hands touch him, pull him inside a house where over many hours he gains consciousness only to realize that the good Samaritan who has saved him is a young woman. She has a son, perhaps three years old, who keeps calling him father. And as he recovers from the ordeal, he learns that the young woman is a widow, her husband executed in the unrest that has plagued the country for years. As Farhad slips in and out of dreams and memories of the past and the present, he realizes how attracted he is to the young woman, and how smitten he is by the way she pushes her hair away from her face. Other than his mother, he’s never been this close to a woman before.

The taboo is a man alone together with a young woman with nothing covering her hair. Farhad can’t stop looking at her, but when his family discovers where he is being hidden, they know that their son is going to have to flee to Pakistan because the soldiers are looking for him. What unfolds during the remaining part of the story is terrifying and beautiful, as Rahimi puts us inside of Farhad’s mind, with his growing concern not just for himself but for the woman and her child. What will happen to her if it becomes known that she harbored a fugitive?

A Thousand Rooms of Dream and Fear is brief, poetic, visceral, and haunting. Sarah Maguire and Yama Yari’s translation from Dari has some rough spots, but you’ll find the book a revelation—as is Kilito’s Clash of Images.

The Clash of Images
By Abdelfattah Kilito
Trans. by Robyn Creswell
New Directions, 118 pp., $12.95

A Thousand Rooms of Dream and Fear
By Atiq Rahimi
Trans. by Sarah Maguire and Yama Yari
Other Press, 155 pp., $15.95

CHARLES R. LARSON is Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C.

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Charles R. Larson is Emeritus Professor of Literature at American University, in Washington, D.C. Email = clarson@american.edu. Twitter @LarsonChuck.

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