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Genre and Language in Modern Arabic Literature.

This work is subdivided into two sections: "Prolegomena" and "Case Studies". The latter are, as the author notes, based on previously published materials. Such collections often fail to coalesce into a unified, carefully focused presentation. In this case, however, the theoretical and applied bases for the general topic of genres are so well established by the first section of the book that it almost seems as though Somekh's publications for some time have been penned with the organizing principles of this work in mind.

The major topic is the relationship in modern Arabic texts between generic purpose and the kind of language that is used to express that purpose. Part one explores specific issues relating to language use, focusing, as might be expected, primarily on the diglossic nature of Arabic and the ramifications that this linguistic situation has had on the development and nature of the various literary genres. After two initial chapters in which the complicated spectrum of language usage in the Arabic-speaking and -writing world is explored, Somekh provides his readers with admirably succinct surveys of the development of prose fiction, drama, and modern poetry in order to illustrate the ways in which the various "levels" of standard written (fusha) and dialectal (ammiyyah) Arabic have been differentiated and, in some cases, combined. With regard to the chapter on drama, I would merely suggest that the case of the Syrian playwright, Sa dallah Wannus, provides a further scenario regarding theatrical texts: the preparation by the author of a "blue-print" text in standard written Arabic, with instructions to directors and performers to translate the dialogue into the local dialect (and to use appropriate local music and other artifacts) for the performance itself. While this clearly "dodges" the linguistic issues of multiple-texts that Somekh is addressing, it would appear to offer an alternative and, theatrically speaking, more satisfactory solution than those based on more than one version of the play's text. In a particularly important chapter 6, the subject of the colloquial dialect as a literary medium is discussed, along with the literary marginalization that has been the fate of such significant writers as Bayram al-Tunisi, Michel Trad, and Muzaffar al-Nawwab. In view of the increasing attention now being paid by Western literary scholars to these and other expressions in dialect, the incorporation of this chapter into a theoretical discussion of the relationship between genre and language usage is clearly timely.

The second part of the work addresses particular examples of language use in modern Arabic literature from a number of viewpoints. The first section discusses early efforts at translation, concentrating on a comparison between the language used by Al-Tahtawi in his translation of Fenelon's Tele-maque and that of Butrus al-Bustani in his of Robinson Crusoe. We then move to discussions of three genres: the short story, with examples from Yusuf Idris to illustrate the creative interplay of different levels of language; the drama, through a discussion of the two separate versions of the play, Kidhb fi Kidhb, by Mahmud Taymur; and poetry, via an analysis of the translations of Shelley's poetry. A final chapter (11) analyzes the way in which a variety of authors--including Tawfiq al-Hakim, Ilyas Abu Shabakah, and Salah Abd al-Sabur--have experimented with a "third language" in their attempts to wed generic purpose and language.

Each of the chapters in this work is succinct, clear, and accurate; the phenomena under discussion are illustrated with examples culled from a wide reading of modern Arabic literary texts. In a word, this book will be a most useful manual for students. However, one can, indeed one must, go further and observe that, in view of the fact that so little scholarly attention has focused on this topic up till now, the groundwork laid out so carefully here constitutes a model for other, more detailed studies of each of the genres and their subcategories. In using this study to point the way, Somekh has placed us all in his debt.
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Author:Allen, Roger
Publication:The Journal of the American Oriental Society
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Oct 1, 1992
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