What if you could remember every poem in the next life?
The dead play a sly trick on the living: in dying, they pass on the duty of interpreting what they thought, of arguing over what they said—or might have said, or even what they never said. This is how we get the fantasy, as stubborn as it is unrealizable, of interrogating the dead directly and without an interpreter. To meet them, just once, and to ask them to clarify what they’d said—or even, in certain cases, to ask if they said it at all. If only they would speak, all outstanding claims would be resolved, the contradictions smoothed over, the ambiguities explained. Confronted with the light of truth, all men would agree and no argument would be possible.
This fantasy has produced an entire genre of literature: the dialogue with the dead. One example of the genre in Arabic is The Epistle of Forgiveness (Risalat al-ghufran) by the eleventh century poet al-Ma‘arri, which narrates a journey to the life. Following the Day of Judgment, the hero Ibn al-Qarih is admitted into paradise, where he meets the poets he most esteems, or those whose verses have especially provoked his philological curiosity. During a sojourn in hell, he’s also permitted to interview the poètes maudits. And finally, returning to paradise, he meets Adam.
The Epistle of Forgiveness is a work of tremendous richness. My aim here is merely to examine what it says, directly or otherwise, about poetry and the forgetting of language.
Each time Ibn al-Qarih makes his prayers, he begs God to let him keep the memory of those poems he knows by heart in the afterlife. The empty page, the innocent gaze—these hold no appeal for him. He wants to be reborn with all his literary memories intact, as well as his language. He can’t imagine finding himself in paradise without the knowledge of poetry he spent an entire life acquiring; amnesia would be hell, the worst possible fate. It would seem that his prayers weren’t in vain—his wishes are more or less granted: not only does he keep his memory in the afterlife, but he finds himself among the poets he most admires and appreciates. To each his own paradise: an homme des lettres, Ibn al-Qarih mingles exclusively with his peers; all that he does and says take place under the sign of literature.
But things aren’t so easy for him. The Day of Judgment, which lasts fifty thousand years, is rather terrifying. An angel brings our hero the ledger that lists his deeds—a rather unpromising catalog—but which ends with an attestation of repentance “which cancels all sins” (the mawh, which is to say, the erasure of traces, is a form of forgetting). Full of hope, Ibn al-Qarih needs only to wait for admittance into paradise. After two months, however, he begins to feel impatient. Unable to bear the heat and thirst, he decides to ingratiate himself with the angels guarding the doors of paradise by composing a few panegyrics in their honor. But in vain: the angels don’t know what poetry is, and despite his best efforts to give them a few lessons in the art, they remain unmoved. In desperation, he sits down with a group among whom he recognizes the tenth-century grammarian Abu ‘Ali al-Farisi, who is being criticized by poets for having misinterpreted their verses. Forgetting his own troubles, Ibn al-Qarih dives into this semantic dispute, saves the grammarian from the poets’ claws, and loses his certificate of repentance in the melee. By very good fortune, a judge bears witness in his favor, and after many tribulations, Ibn al-Qarih is allowed to enter paradise. As the wait lasted no more than six mortal months, a relatively short amount of time, his memory remains intact.
In paradise, Ibn al-Qarih must relearn the names of those he meets and doesn’t recognize. The garden is, in effect, a site of metamorphoses. Because each individual now bears a different appearance than down below on earth, names no longer apply with certainty. Each person has a new body, a new look, and so on each occasion one must match the name to the face. It’s true that Ibn al-Qarih never knew the poets that he meets in the life, but he had formed an idea of them through some aspect of their work, or an anecdote from their biographies. But these impressions are now completely irrelevant, since one’s imperfections on earth are absolved in paradise: a pre-Islamic poet (Zuhayr), who lamented the arrival of old age, is now a young man full of vitality; another poet, famous for his short-sightedness (A‘sha), now has beautiful eyes with which he can see what transpires on the other end of paradise. Physical renewal happens only once for humans, who henceforth keep their looks. By contrast, some animals are able to change forms at will. A peacock that has just been eaten is reborn from its bones; vipers and geese transform themselves into young women (whom men avoid for fear of being accused of bestiality). While being hunted, a wild bull suddenly acquires the power of speech and asks for mercy just as the spear is about to pierce him. Even fruits are subject to the general law of transformation: from a pomegranate or apple plucked in innocence springs a ravishing houri.
All of which is to say that Ibn al-Qarih is a second Adam. The father of the human species, born from a few handfuls of clay, Adam didn’t know the names of the things of the world, but God, who looked him, taught him the words. Well before his creation, the names had been uttered; the things were there, ripe and ready for the man who would ratify their existence by applying the designation God reserved for them at the beginning. If God hadn’t taught him the names, Adam would have wandered in ignorance even of his own. But thanks to this divine intervention, he familiarizes himself with the things of the world and feels at home in the garden.
What will Ibn al-Qarih do with all his literary knowledge? What does he intend to accomplish with all the things he still remembers? The delights of paradise are of course many and varied, but our hero is full of nostalgia for a specific sort of life— the sort found in poetry. He constantly recalls deeds mentioned in poetry and quickly begins to imitate them, to bring them to life (in paradise, he need only desire a thing for it to appear before him). No sooner do the words of cynegetic poems, for example, gallop through his head than he immediately saddles up a horse for the hunt. The pleasures he enjoys with a houri mimic those described by the pre-Islamic poet Imru al-Qays in his mu‘allaqa. Remembering the disputes of learned men from his worldly days, Ibn al-Qarih organizes a banquet to which he invites poets and grammarians; and as one might expect, it isn’t long before controversy ares up, insults are exchanged, and a brawl ensues. In this way, Ibn al-Qarih invests paradise with the themes and motifs of poetry, and like some lucky Don Quixote—if I might be allowed the comparison—he lives out the things he’s read and heard.
Ibn al-Qarih also takes advantage of these encounters to try to resolve, in definitive fashion, a few philological problems that bedeviled him while on earth. So we witness scholarly debates whose participants include the damned as well as the saved. The comedy of The Epistle of Forgiveness arises in part from the discrepancy between the condition of the poètes maudits, trapped in the midst of their suffering, and that of Ibn al-Qarih, who, leaning over the abyss, interrogates them about fraudulent attributions and the syntax of subject and predicate in this verse or that. Generally speaking, the poets of paradise are more kindly disposed to answer his questions, but their responses are often disappointing: some claim they’ve lost their memory since the Day of Judgment, while others say they have better things to think about than poetry. In sum, Ibn al-Qarih learns nothing that he didn’t know already and the knottiest philological questions remain unresolved.
Ibn al-Qarih has better luck with the djinn of paradise: because they are made of re their memories remain intact, while humankind, made of wet clay, is by nature forgetful. Ibn al-Qarih learns that the djinn were formerly able to change shape and slip into the bodies of a mouse, a pigeon, or a serpent—actions forbidden to them in paradise. They also used to compose poems and, of course, provide men with inspiration. Finally, they used to know all human tongues but also spoke a language of their own, which mankind could not understand.
While wandering through paradise, Ibn al-Qarih has the great good fortune to run into Adam. How does he recognize him? The text, which provides no description of the father of mankind, does not say. It would seem that Adam doesn’t need to be introduced, unlike other figures in The Epistle of Forgiveness, whose metamorphoses have made them unrecognizable.
The two men enter into a conversation in which philology outweighs any other concern. The theme of forgetting, which runs throughout the work, receives particular emphasis here.
Ibn al-Qarih questions Adam very closely about two gnomic verses attributed to him, which I have not found anywhere outside al-Ma‘arri’s text.
We are the children of the earth and its residents.
We were created of earth and to earth we shall return.
Good fortune never lasts long for humankind,
And bad fortune is undone by nights of happiness.
The content of these verses doesn’t contradict what we know of Adam, who was born of the earth, knew the delights of Eden and the pain of expulsion, and, having lived more than nine centuries, returned to the earth. But their gnomic air makes them applicable to anyone; every person can feel, in their own flesh, the truth of these wise affirmations. And yet no one is more suitable than Adam to be the author, for he is troubled more than anyone by our common fate for which he is responsible.
Adam agrees that what the verses say is true—and that they must have been composed by a wise man—but this is the first time he’s heard them. Ibn al-Qarih isn’t at all satisfied by this response, for a worry has sprung to his mind: couldn’t Adam have forgotten his own poems? It’s a valid worry, since the Quran is clear about Adam’s susceptibility to forgetting: “We entrusted our revelation to Adam in days gone by, but he forgot, and We found in him no steadfastness.” In addition, Ibn al-Qarih remarks, the species name for Adam, insan (man), derives from nisyan (forgetting). This idea is so close to al-Ma‘arri’s heart that he reproduces it in another of his works, Heel the Barking Hound, where he justifies the same etymology with a verse by Abu Tammam:
Do not forget your obligations: for it is certain
You are called man (insan) because you are forgetful (nasi).
The essence of man is the oblivion inscribed in his name. Man is exposed to the shipwreck of memory, the extinction of his past. Adam “forgot” the divine interdiction and ate the forbidden fruit, so it’s not surprising that he forgot his poems, too.
Adam is unruffled by this mention of his absentmindedness and tries to prove to Ibn al-Qarih that he cannot possibly have authored these gnomic lines. The language he spoke in paradise was Arabic, he says. When he “went down” to earth he began speaking Syriac and did so until he died. At what moment would he have composed the verses Ibn al-Qarih is so eager to attribute to him? During his time on earth? But there he spoke Syriac, while the verses are in Arabic. During his time in the garden? But how could he have said, “to earth we shall return,” when he had no knowledge of death? And to claim he composed them returning to paradise makes no sense: having become immortal, he would have no reason to speak of death.
This is sound reasoning: the forgery is given away by the phrase “to earth we shall return,” which doesn’t fit Adam’s case. The clumsy forger hasn’t taken into account the various phases of the first man’s life. But Ibn al-Qarih, loath to admit that Adam isn’t a poet, will not give up. To refute the linguistic argument put forward by his interlocutor, he invokes tradition. It is said, Ibn al-Qarih asserts, that these two verses were discovered among some Syriac manuscripts by Ya‘rub, who subsequently translated them into Arabic.
Ibn al-Qarih also takes up the problem of the elegy. This time, the exasperated first man takes recourse in an oath: he swears that neither he nor any of his contemporaries composed the lines. The dialogue thereby comes to an abrupt stop—when a prophet swears by God, there’s nothing more to be said.
The exchange suggests how forgetfulness dictates the course of Adam’s life. Forgetfulness is a false step, a loss of balance, a fall by which one passes from one level to another, from high to low, from the heavens to the earth.8 Adam and his companion slipped, their direction is down: “We said, ‘Go down [from the garden]!’” Expelled from paradise, Adam forgets Arabic and speaks Syriac. Upon his return to paradise, he forgets Syriac and speaks Arabic. For him, a change of place signals the loss of one language and the acquisition of another. He is, very emphatically, the man with just one tongue: one can’t call him bilingual for he never has two tongues at the same time. For him, one language means the exclusion of the other; speech is premised on forgetting.
This is essay is excerpted from The Tongue of Adam, available now from New Directions. Reprinted with permission.
Abdelfattah Kilito was born in Rabat, Morocco, in 1945. He has received the Great Moroccan Award (1989), the French Academy Award (1996), and the Sultan Al Owais Prize for Criticism and Literature Studies (2006).
Translated from the French by Robyn Creswell, The Paris Review’s poetry editor.