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Literary history and the Arabic Novel. (Cover Story).




Within such an investigative framework the year 1988 may be seen as a significant watershed, in that the Egyptian novelist Najib Mahfuz (b. 1911) was announced as that year's winner of the Nobel Prize in Literature (an event, incidentally, in which this journal and the present writer were closely involved; see "The Nobel Prizes in Literature 1967-1987: A Symposium," WLT 62:2 [Spring 1988], pp. 201-3). At the time Mahfuz (often transliterated as "Mahfouz" in the West) was hailed by the Nobel Committee and by literary commentators as "the Dickens of Cairo" or "the Balzac of Cairo." Along with the usual supply of political sour grapes and pretentious nonsense that accompanies the annual Nobel announcement in October, a number of questions were raised by Arab critics as to precisely what the longer-term implications of this award to an Arab novelist might be. I shall refer to some of those issues below, but at this juncture the major point I wish to emphasize is that, from a historical perspective, the 1988 date is already chronologically misleading. Even though Mahfuz had continued writing novels and short stories right up to the time of the announcement of the award and indeed thereafter, the Nobel citation made no mention of his recent works and concentrated instead on those published before the June War of 1967 (the so-called "setback" or al-naksah), lavishing particular praise on one work, Al-Thulathiyyah (The Trilogy), a three-novel family saga set in inter-world-war Cairo that was originally published in the Egyptian capital in 1956 and 1957 (the three volumes were published in English by Doubleday between 1990 and 1992 under the titles Palace Walk, Palace of Desire, and Sugar Street). These novels have long since come to be regarded as a kind of capstone to a particular phase in the Arabic novel's development, and indeed as the most visible sign of a rigorous and carefully planned process whereby Mahfuz brought the development of the Arabic novel to a stage of complete maturity. In the words of more than one critic, the European novel had thereby become a fully domesticated literary genre within the Arab world.

Mahfuz's own career as a published writer extended back into the 1930s. He himself had started with the short-story genre, the mode of fiction which, for a number of reasons, had reached a level of maturity earlier than its longer fictional cousin; in Egypt this was largely due to the efforts and artistry of a group of writers known as jama'at al-madrasah al-hadithah or the "New School Group," many of whom Mahfuz admired greatly. During this particular decade, a whole host of Egyptian litterateurs decided to "try their hand" at novel writing, most notably Ibrahim `Abd al-Qadir al-Mazini (d. 1949) with Ibraham al-Katib (1931; Eng. Ibrahim the Writer, 1976), and Tawfiq al-Hakim (d. 1987), with several novels, of which `Awdat al-ruh (1933; Eng. Return of the Spirit, 1990) and Yawmiyyat na'ib fi al-aryaf (Diaries of a Public Prosecutor in the Provinces, 1937; Eng. The Maze of Justice, 1947, repr. 1989) are the most accomplished. Mahfuz appears to have been drawn into this arena of experiment, but, in an absolutely typical gesture, he went about it in a methodical manner, setting himself to read John Drinkwater's introductory work, The Outline of Literature, and then doggedly making his way through examples (mostly in English or English translation) of many of the novels listed there. The notion of The Trilogy as a final stage in a pro cess of experiment toward the completion of a transplanted European novel of family life composed in Arabic, as noted above, thus seems entirely reasonable.

These "novelists of the `30s" were the inheritors of a process of novelistic development that traces its beginnings to what is regarded as the cultural renaissance of the nineteenth century (known in Arabic as al-nahdah), a movement that involved in varying degrees a combination of, first, an encounter with the West and its different and more "advanced" culture, and second (and subsequently), a retrospect into the Arab-Islamic past. One of the great problems connected with this approach to "the modern" in the Arab world context is that this retrospective process did not involve an engagement with the immediate past (which was, and often still is, regarded as a literary and cultural wasteland, tarred with that kiss-of-death epithet, "decadent") but rather a huge chronological leapfrog to an idealized "classical" era some seven centuries earlier. The ongoing effects of this process of retrospect on the emergence of "neoclassical" movements and on critical (and historical) attitudes to generic development have been profound and retain their ability to obfuscate and obliterate the investigation of possible continuities right up to the present.

Convenience and economy being basic principles of human endeavor, not least in the writing of literary history, it has been customary to use the cultural history of Egypt as a general model for the development of genres, and especially fictional genres, in the Arab world. Certainly, there are a number of reasons to justify such a choice: the centrality of the country within the larger region, the dominant political and cultural role that the country played from an early stage in the modern history of the Middle East, the large number of citizens living within its borders, and the warm welcome it has provided to exiles from other regions, most particularly the Christian communities of Syro-Lebanon during the second half of the nineteenth century. Certainly also, the basic matrix of generic importation that the case of Egypt presents is applicable, albeit within very different time frames -- some earlier, some later -- to the other regions of the Arab world. The first stage involves translation, and Egypt, with its Translation School (under the directorship of the renowned Rifa'ah al-Tahtawi [d. 1873]), is certainly a pioneer in that regard. The initial priority in the translation endeavor was toward more practical matters (technical manuals), but it was not long before versions appeared in Arabic (and other Middle Eastern languages) of swashbuckling adventure romances. Bearing in mind the strong influence of The Arabian Nights on Alexandre Dumas, it comes as no surprise that one of the very first works to be published was The Count of Monte Cristo. A second stage in the matrix involved imitation, and the 1880s and 1890s witnessed a flood of weekly and monthly magazines publishing works by such writers as Sa'id al-Bustani Ya'qub Sarruf, and, above all, Jurji Zaydan, whose historical novels, still popular today, presented a wide variety of historical episodes from Arab and Islamic history in attractive novelistic frameworks. It needs to be noted in this context that women were, as in the European model, primary readers of these works and that there were also publications produced by and aimed specifically at a women's readership.

Within this historical model, certain other works ofa more neoclassical mode are always mentioned and frequently honored. For example, Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq's (d. 1887) Al-Saq ala al-Saq fi-ma huwa al-Far-Yaq (approximately, "One Leg Over Another / The Pigeon the Tree-Branch / Concerning the Doings of Far-Yaq, 1855) announces in the very complexity of its title (including double entendres and rhymes) that its author relishes the opportunity to play with the Arabic language in ways that are utterly characteristic of earlier tastes in prose composition and its reception. Even within this pioneering work in fictional autobiography, Al-Shidyaq feels somehow compelled to insert some examples of the most popular genre of "elite" prose narrative from the premodern period, the maqamah, and indeed to provide glossaries of their lexical complexities. Such essays in prose writing were written to appeal to the tastes of an educated elite and clearly, in terms of reader popularity, presented no challenge to the increasingly popular novel-romance genre. Even Muhammad al-Muwaylihi's (d. 1930) highly critical and witty Hadith `Isa ibn Hisham (1907; Eng. A Period of Time, 1974, 1992), also written in a style that would appeal to an elite readership, did not manage to serve as a counterweight to the growing popularity of the "imported" genre of the novel in spite of its highly realistic portrayal of life in Egypt under British occupation. While other writers in Egypt and elsewhere in the Arab world used the maqamah genre -- whether its form, language, ironic tone, or picaresque themes -- to serve as a kind of "bridge" between classical and modern prose writing, the genre was reckoned to have seen its "swan song," at least within this historical approach to the Arabic novel, with al-Muwaylihi (the phrase is that of the great French scholar Regis Blachere).

While Al-Shidyaq and Al-Muwaylihi receive polite tips of the hat in this procession toward the 1930s, The Trilogy, and the Nobel Prize of 1988, it is a single novel, Zaynab, that has consistently been awarded a prize of its own as "the first Arabic novel," "the first real Arabic novel," "the first artistic Arabic novel" (and so on). Muhammad Husayn Haykal's (d. 1956) novel was written in France in 1911 and published in Egypt in 1913 under a pseudonym (a sign of the new fictional genre's continuingly suspect moral probity). It is indeed a major monument in modern Arabic fiction, but, as I have argued elsewhere (see, for example, Modern Arabic Literature, ed. M. M. Badawi, Cambridge University Press, 1992), its significant advances in the treatment of social themes (especially the status of women within the family structure) and in the use of language need to be relieved of the burden of "firstness" and placed within a broader historical and developmental framework. This notion that the Arabic novel "begins" in 1913 is merely one of the problems associated with the retrospective matrix that I have just tried to outline.


This type of historical analysis applied to a novelistic tradition within a particular world culture leads, almost automatically, to a number of questions concerning the processes of "translation," used here in the literal sense to describe the process whereby an artifact or genre is "carried across" the divide between two literary traditions, and therefrom to a (re)examination of the origins and development of the novel genre itself -- issues of definition and development, of "the novel before the novel," and so on. Much ink has been expended on these topics, and I do not propose to enter the lists here. However, the Western world's plaudits in 1988 for Najib Mahfuz as the author of an Egyptian family saga written in Arabic and published in 1956-57 do point to some interesting questions regarding cultural hegemony and future directions for the Arabic novel. It is those I wish to address in what follows.

Is it the fate of the Arabic novel, for example (and by extension those of other non-Western / Third World cultures) to play a continuous and eventually unsuccessful game of "catch-up" with the various subdivisions of the Western novel? According to the matrix that we have explored above, does The Trilogy of Mahfuz represent the (now "certified") culmination of a "Western" phase in the development of the Arabic novel, after which he, along with his contemporary and successor novelist colleagues, could and can explore more intrinsically "Arab" narrative elements in their compositions? What might the "particularities" of such novels be? And, most fascinating from the Western point of view in the post-1988 era of the Arabic novel, what is the likely reception of translations of narratives that add other elements of cultural difference to those already furnished by language and social/cultural setting (and perhaps an interest in the "exotic" as a residue from the reception history of The Arabian Nights)? In Walter Benjamin's terms (in his famous essay in Illuminations), what is the potential "translatability" of such works? In this instance, we already have an interesting test case in the reception of translations of Mahfuz's novels into English during the post-1988 period. For, while the majority of his novelistic oeuvre has now been rendered into English and published by Doubleday in attractive editions, it is very noticeable to someone such as myself who keeps track of such trends that the only work(s) that consistently remain on the shelves of bookstores at this point are the volumes of The Trilogy (in their often less than satisfactory English titles). By contrast, none of those works written by the Nobel laureate in which he follows the more "particularizing" trend noted above, by attempting to utilize the styles and structures of more indigenous narrative genres (albeit for the purpose of thoroughly contemporary commentary) -- for example, Rihlat Ibn Fattumah (1983; Eng. The Journey of Ibn Fattouma, 1992) and Layali Alf Laylah (Nights of a Thousand Nights, 1982; Eng. Arabian Nights and Days, 1995) -- none of these translated works has earned a broad readership in European or Anglo-American markets. These observations regarding the English translations of Mahfuz's works provide further evidence, if required, of the urgent need, within the realm of reception theory, for critical analysis of the factors involved in the process of reading translated works from noncontiguous literary traditions.


The novel being a most effective mirror of society and the circumstances within which it functions, any attempt to reformulate a history of Arabic versions of the genre from a different, more recent perspective must of necessity take into consideration a whole host of contributors to political and social change (although here I will try to summarize them as briefly as possible).

The June War of 1967 came as a devastating blow to all those political institutions and social structures that the Arabic novel, fulfilling its most direct generic purpose, had striven to foster and reflect. From that point of view at least, the selection of works mentioned in Mahfuz's Nobel citation (all written before 1967) was an accurate reflection of a genuine watershed in the modern history of the Arab world. After a prolonged and often bitter era of struggle against occupation by European powers (beginning in the nineteenth century) and of aspiration toward an Arab nationalism (culminating in the establishment in Cairo of the League of Arab States in 1945), the 1950s had ushered in a new age of independence for a number of nations within the Middle Eastern region. This process is seen at its most bitter in Algeria, where the depth of French political and cultural penetration (beginning as early as 1830) led to a vicious war that resulted in independence but did not resolve many internal issues which continue to beset that society to this very day.

The dominant figure in this postindependence period had undoubtedly been the President of Egypt, Jamal `Abd al-Nasir (Nasser), but the heady days represented by the Bandung Conference, the creation of the United Arab Republic (1958-61), the building of the Aswan High Dam with Soviet help -- all these faded into the background in the wake of a total defeat of forces and institutions in 1967. During those six days the propaganda machines that Arab regimes had put together to foster a new spirit of elan and optimism systematically lied to the Arab people. As several writers ruefully observed, the word itself had become totally discredited. Such was the scale of this "setback" (naksah) that a period of the most profound self-reflection was called for; as part of it, many intellectuals undertook a wholesale reexamination of the very bases of Arab values. Which elements in Arab culture were asil (an epithet implying an authenticity to one's cultural roots)? What was there in the Arab-Islamic heritage (turath) that might provide lessons for the present? Thus, while certain Arab novelists such as Salim Barakat almost immediately addressed themselves with a new and devastating candor to the events of the war itself, including the media's deliberately misleading information (in `Awdat al-ta'ir ila al-bahr [Return of the Flying Dutchman to the Sea, 1969; Eng. Days of Dust, 1974]), others chose to pause for thought and then to invoke texts from the past, often with a heavily ironic overlay, all in order to suggest bitter lessons for the present. Emil Habibi's Al-Waqa'i 'al-gharibah fi-ikhtifa' Sa'id Abi al-Nahs al-Mutasha'il (The Strange Events Surrounding the Disappearance of Sa'id, Father of Misfortune, the Pessoptimist, 1972, 1974; Eng. The Secret Life of Saeed the Pessoptimist, 1982, 1985) and Jamal al-Ghitani's Al-Zayni Barakat (1971; Eng. Al-Zayni Barakat, 1988) are two early and brilliant contributions to this new trend in the Arabic novel.

The carefully fostered image of Arab nationalism and unity was to be further buffeted in the years that followed the June War. Nasser's successor, Anwar al-Sadat, turned to the West for support, opened the Egyptian economy to the outside world, and in 1979 signed the Camp David Accords with Israel. Egypt, with its class structure increasingly polarized by the processes of economic change he had initiated, was now ostracized by the Arab League (which moved its headquarters to Tunis). While a concept of Arab unity remained a reality, particularly in times of crisis, regionalism and localism were now to an increasing extent the preferred models (and perhaps, one might suggest, the more natural ones in view of the size of the region and the diversities involved).

The 1970s were to see at least two other major events in the Middle East region that were to have an enormous impact on every conceivable aspect of society. During the 1973 conflict between Israel and its Arab neighbors, the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries (OPEC) severely restricted the flow of oil to the West, causing a major economic crisis. Oil, already an economic weapon, now became a strategic one as well. Furthermore, the Arab states with the smallest populations and the most traditional lifestyles now found themselves in control of the flow and pricing of the world's largest reserves of a vital commodity and accruing staggering amounts of money. The devastating impact of this new wealth on the inherited values of those traditional economies is graphically captured in the renowned quintet of novels by the Saudi-born novelist `Abd al-Rahman Munif (b. 1933), Mudun al-milh (Cities of Salt, 1984; Eng. Cities of Salt, 1987; The Trench, 1991; Variations on Night and Day, 1993). Less well known but equally significant for Arab societies was the effect of workers' migration from the most populous (and poorer) countries -- in particular, Egypt -- to the Gulf states, and the concomitant effect on family life and its authority structures. This issue of gender roles and women's status has been a major topic of the Arabic novel since Haykal's Zaynab and before, and remains so. In that, it finds itself in frequent opposition to the second event of the 1970s, the revolution in Iran (1979) that created the first Islamic Republic and thereafter fostered (and sometimes financed) popular religious movements elsewhere in the region (most notably in Lebanon, which suffered through its own gruesome civil-war experience between 1975 and 1988). While it is obviously not the case that Shi'ite Iran has single-handedly been responsible for the appearance of all the popular religious movements that have sprung up across the Arab world in recent decades, it is certainly true that the model of an Islamic state, with its consistent reliance on Islamic tradition for precedents, has found a ready reception among those disillusioned inhabitants of Arab nations who see in the adoption of Western economic and political systems a future of never-ending dependence.

"A disturbance of spirits" is the apposite phrase used by Albert Hourani (A History of the Arab Peoples, 1992) to describe the set of events and transformations in the Middle Eastern region that I have just surveyed. The ongoing conflicts, the economic disparities between and within nations, the clash of generations within the family, the struggle for women's rights, the parlous state of individual liberties -- not least of those individuals who choose to express their views and aspirations in literary form -- all these political and social phenomena have indeed been "disturbed" by the rapidity of the changes that have affected the Middle East in recent times. It almost goes without saying that all of them have also provided fruitful topics for the Arabic novel. Indeed, as Gaber Asfour suggests in his Zaman al-riwayah (Time of the Novel, 1999), the very rapidity and intensity with which these factors have impinged upon the societies of the region is a major contributor to the prolific way in which Arab litterateurs are now producing distinguished examples of the novel genre.


Of all these "disturbances," it is the marked shift to regionalism and localism that has had a profound effect on recent developments in the Arabic novel. Needless to say, local trends have always been in evidence since the earliest stages as each subregion -- Palestine, Egypt, and Algeria, for example -- has seen its own struggles reflected in fictional form. This feature has also characterized studies of the Arabic novel. For, while the adjective Arabic may have been used in a very large number of studies, the number of works that have sought to survey the genre throughout the entire Arabic-speaking region has been very small. Those, such as my own (The Arabic Novel, 2d ed., 1995), that have endeavored to do so have found the process of summarizing such novelistic depth and variety as has recently emerged increasingly difficult. It needs to be emphasized that the application of modern narratological approaches by contemporary critics has served to improve the situation considerably as the focus has shifted more to subgenres of the novel and to various critical evaluations of them, but the situation with regard to the distribution and availability of books between the Arab world nations is a constant source of frustration for writers and critics alike throughout the region.

One of the first casualties of these fresh configurations should clearly be the adoption of the Egyptian model of cultural development as a model for the entire region (a trend particularly common in English writing on the subject, my own included). As novel writing in many regions of the Arabic-speaking world has developed to a stage of maturity, critics have written literary histories of the genre and of linkages to its precedents, a process that has often revealed striking dissimilarities between regions and, in certain cases, required the rewriting of earlier versions composed during the initial fervor of postindependence and nationalist rhetoric. As an example, I will cite the countries of the Maghrib (Northwest African) region. Quite apart from issues connected with the multilingual situation (to be discussed below), the region differs from the "Mashriq" (countries of the Middle East) in at least two major ways: first, the region of the far west was not subsumed under the aegis of the Ottoman Empire, and so cultural perceptions regarding premodern history are considerably different from those of countries further to the east; second, the somewhat later time frame for the development of fictional genres in the Maghrib implies that many incipient litterateurs had direct access to early examples from the countries of the Mashriq that were already available in Arabic, so that the relative role of translated European works differed from that encountered at an earlier stage in eastern regions.

What exactly are some of the particularities that can be identified within this more localist framework? One of the most marked is, ironically, that single element that binds the Arab world together: namely, the Arabic language. Thus, there are a large number of novelists who, acknowledging the region-wide applicability of written Arabic, choose to write their novels -- including dialogue -- in that level of the language. Chief among them is, of course, Najib Mahfuz, himself, who -- unfortunately, in my opinion -- has termed the different colloquial dialects of Arabic a "disease" and yet is not averse to including individual items from the local vocabulary of Egypt in his novels. He is joined in this approach by a large number of other novelists, among whom Jabra Ibrahim Jabra and `Abd al-Rahman Munif are two of the most renowned. However, alongside the "pan-Arabic" approach implicit in this choice of language level, there has from the outset been an expressed unease with the couching of dialogue -- the "dramatic" element in fiction -- in a language which is not that of daily conversation. For some pioneers in the development of the Arabic novel -- for example, Muhammad Husayn Haykal and Ibrahim al-Mazini in Egypt, or al-Bashir Khurayyif in Tunisia -- the need to use the colloquial to give authentic coloring to novelistic dialogue has ruled out any other alternative. A listing of contemporary novelists who resort to the colloquial in novelistic dialogue would be extremely long, but in such a context the principal point to observe is that, while there may be a certain "universality" to the dialect of Cairo thanks to the general distribution of Egyptian films and television, the same cannot be said of the "outlying" dialects: those, say, of Iraq and Morocco. Thus, those novelists, such as the Iraqi Fu'ad al-Tikirli or the Tunisian `Aliya' al-Tabi'i, who utilize their own colloquials in novels are, almost automatically, restricting the marketability of their fiction. (In her novel Zahrat al-Subbar [Thorn-Flower, 1991], al-Tabi'i follows her illustrious predecessor, al-Bashir Khurayyif, in providing footnotes that "translate" the Tunisian colloquial phrases into standard Arabic.)

Adding to the complexities of the Arabic language situation itself is the fact that the Arabic novel is now a vigorous literary presence in those areas of the Arab world that are intrinsically multilingual. One of the most prolifically talented of novelists writing today is the Libyan Ibrahim al-Kuni, who makes abundant use of his Tuareg origins deep in the southern Sahara to produce unforgettably rich fantasies of desert existence far from the city, full of references to myth, folktales, and animistic beliefs. His frequent invocation of phrases in the indigenous Amazigh language (often termed Berber) enriches his novelistic world while at the same time interjecting yet another linguistic level into the reading process. However, most famous and well researched of all the multilingual situations is that which has been the natural consequence of French colonial policy in the Maghrib. The extensive gallicization of the educational systems in Tunisia, Morocco, and (especially) Algeria has led to a situation in which, in spite of determined efforts at ta'rib (arabization) on the official level, a substantial number of writers and intellectuals in those countries have continued to write in French, thus enriching the repertoire of French fiction to a considerable extent, as the popularity of the works of Tahir ibn Jallun (Tahar Ben Jelloun), Muhammad Dib, `Abd al-Kabir al-Khatibi, Katib Yasin, Assia Djebar, Rashid Abu Jadrah, and others clearly shows. (One might note here en passant that the willingness of the French government to subsidize the publication of books written in French is a not unpersuasive factor in this complicated situation.) Those Maghribi novelists who have taken on the task of developing the novel genre in Arabic within this creative environment have faced a prolonged struggle, but a major feature of recent decades has been the emergence of a younger generation of writers who have made major contributions to the Arabic novel, although it needs to be added with regret that, book distribution within the Arab world being as atrocious as it is, their efforts have not been widely noticed. And, in the midst of these linguistic complexities, there is a wide arena within which creative writers and critics have explored the postcolonial phenomenon that Lyotard has termed "metissage," that central space, that "mingling," within which writers such as al-Khatibi and Abu Jadrah find themselves exploring new approaches to culture and language. In fact, the career of Abu Jadrah, who began writing in French and earned a high reputation in France (particularly with his novel La repudiation [1969]), may be considered emblematic of the complexities involved here. Having announced in 1981 that he was now going to compose his works in Arabic, he has since been the focus of considerable debate, as critics have wondered out loud whether the publication of the Arabic version of his works (which regularly appear in both Arabic and French) before the French one actually reflects original composition in Arabic.

Thus, linguistic realities and the practicalities of cultural politics impinge in direct ways on the Arabic novel and its course of development, for good and for ill. Nor are they the only factors involved. The variable and mostly lamentable state of civil liberties in the majority of Arab states (one that can be seen as deteriorating in more than one region, most notably Egypt) means that the Arab novelist needs courage as well as artistry. A listing of those who have been imprisoned or exiled would be regrettably long. In spite of that, many writers continue to address themselves to the crucial societal and political issues of their time and region. Nor is the phenomenon confined to male writers. Layla Ba'albakki (Lebanon), Nawal al-Sa'dawi (Egypt), and Layla al-`Uthman (Kuwait) are all women novelists who have been subjected to trial and/or imprisonment, yet they and their fellow writers have not flinched in addressing the needs of women, both within the family structure and in the public domain, in a forthright manner. In so doing, they have made crucial contributions to the ability of the Arabic novel to confront genuine social concerns, and in particular gender roles, in a much more convincing fashion than heretofore. Writers of both genders have joined forces in order to express their anger and frustration at the violence and oppression that has afflicted their societies from within and without, most notably in Lebanon but also in Palestine and Algeria. And, no doubt as a consequence of these circumstances and the generally inimical atmosphere within which the vast majority of Arab novelists attempt to eke out a living, alienation and exile, real and fictional, are frequent resorts as an escape from the intolerable.

In order to give fictional expression to these often unpleasant realities, Arab novelists have adopted a number of creative strategies, prime among which has been a resort to texts from other sources, both contemporary and historical, within the narrative. These range from Sun'allah Ibrahim's use of newspaper clippings in his novel Dhat (Self, 1992) to the insertion into novels by Jamal al-Ghitani, `Abd al-Rahman Munif, and BenSalim Himmish of actual documents from classical narrative sources, but all for thoroughly contemporary purposes. In this way the invocation of materials from the cultural heritage of Arabic becomes not merely a revival of an earlier style or form but also a powerful commentary on the political circumstances of the present. Other novelists who confront this same set of circumstances choose to remain resolutely with the present, but refuse to provide their readers with any sort of ordering or reordering of the totally fractured world within which they find themselves living. In a series of disturbing novels, the Lebanese writer Ilyas Khuri (Elias Khoury) has perfected a craft of complete narrative uncertainty in which a "speaker" is unable to explain much of the causality of what he endeavors to report (Al-Jabal al-saghir, 1977 [Eng. Little Mountain, 1989]; Abwab al-madinah, 1981 [Eng. Gates of the City, 1992]; Rihlat Ghandi al-saghir, 1989 [Eng. The Journey of Little Gandhi, 1994])- Khuri's Lebanese colleagues Rashid al-Da'if and Hasan Da'ud reflect the same sense of disillusion by depicting the mundane elements of daily existence in truly obsessive detail.

In moving from a previous more overtly public role to one that sees the world through the eyes and angst of the individual, the Arabic novel now adopts oppression of all kinds -- political, social, gender-based -- as a major theme and reflects its disillusion with prevailing norms and structures through a search for alternative models. In such a context the reexamination of national myth(s) and the revival of earlier modes of expression are currently playing a key role.


In returning now to the historical framework I invoked above, I trust it is clear that this somewhat lengthy yet still recklessly brief survey of recent trends in Arabic novel writing illustrates a need to reexamine the Arabic novel's literary history and heritage. To provide one concrete example, I will use the novelistic output of Tawfiq al-Hakim. Within a model of novelistic history that seeks a process of development toward an acme that is Mahfuz's Trilogy, the novels of al-Hakim that have taken pride of place in the historical record are `Awdat al-ruh (1933; Eng. Return of the Spirit, 1990) and `Usfur min al-Sharq (1938; Eng. A Bird from the East, 1966), and it is certainly true that their themes and experiments with novelistic technique do represent significant advances within the context of a quest for an imported novel genre. If, on the other hand, we now look back from a perspective that seeks inspiration from a rereading and rewriting of traditional narrative forms and styles, then clearly the annalistic structure and picaresque qualities of al-Hakim's Yawmiyyat na'ib fi al-aryaf (Diaries of a Public Prosecutor in the Provinces, 1937) come to assume a more central role (quite apart from the fact that, in my view, it is a much better novel). Using this same perspective to move back in time, it emerges that the structures of al-Shidyaq's Al-Saq `ala al-saq (One Leg Over Another, 1855) and al-Muwaylihi's Hadith `Isa ibn Hisham (1907; Eng. A Period of Time, 1979, 1992), both formerly regarded as neoclassical precursors to a tradition of modern fiction, now become important attempts at combining autobiography and fiction (in the former case) and in utilizing a traditional picaresque genre (and its accompanying style) for some highly accurate social criticism (in the latter case) -- a level of critical realism that was, in fact, not equaled until the novels of the 1930s. Of more recent works that fit this same mold, Emil Habibi's carnivalesque intertextual romp through the daily life of an Israeli Palestinian, Al-Waqa'i `al-gharibah fi-ikhtifa' Sa'id Abi al-Nahs al-mutasha'il (Eng. The Secret Life of Saeed the Pessoptimist) is the outstanding example.

From the perspective of the post-1967 (and perhaps even the post-1988) era, there is clearly a need to revisit the literary history of the Arabic novel; and indeed, the critics of several Arab world nations have begun to do precisely that. If we acknowledge first that the nineteenth-century cultural renaissance known as al-nahdah involved, to varying degrees, two primary forces -- the exposure to and importation of Western literary genres on the one hand, and on the other the rediscovery of the cultural heritage of the past -- and, second, that early developments in the Arabic novel were placed into a literary-critical and literary-historical framework that emphasized the role of the former over the latter, then we have now to suggest that more recent trends in novel writing demand a change of balance between the two. It has immediately to be acknowledged that, as soon as this need is identified, a number of interfering factors become evident. I have already alluded to the first, a literary-historical issue of major importance within the Arabic tradition: namely, that our knowledge of the period (say, the sixteenth to the eighteenth centuries) immediately anterior to the beginnings of a "modern" period -- whenever that is seen to take place -- is very poor indeed, whether we talk about indigenous or Western research. A second factor, which is in effect a subset of the same literary-historical dilemma, is that the values attached to the different levels of the Arabic language (to which I alluded briefly above) have prevented the vast repertoire of premodern narratives composed in an Arabic that is not the "classical" standard -- thus including, for example, The Arabian Nights -- from incorporation within the canon of what is "literary." This situation is changing rapidly as the social-scientific approaches to folklore and cultural traditions make their way into the educational systems of the Arab world countries and impinge upon the national conscience. Lastly, the sheer variety of the literary production within the Arab world (to which I have also drawn attention) now almost demands an approach to the literary history of the Arabic novel that is more concerned with the particular features of each regional tradition rather than an attempt to identify those common features that unite the Arabic tradition as a whole.


From the post-1988 perspective, by which I imply the "translation" or "exportation" of the Arabic novel to a larger readership, the Arabic novel clearly enjoys a higher profile than was the case before the award of the Nobel Prize. This is, of course, largely thanks to Najib Mahfuz, the laureate himself, but other novelists -- Jamal al-Ghitani, Hanan al-Shaykh, `Abd al-Rahman Munif, and Ilyas Khuri, for example -- have been able to share some of the limelight of Western (and Eastern) interest. That said, however, the current situation poses an interesting dilemma for Arab novelists. If the novel has now been recognized in the Arab world as being a literary genre, or, as some critics would have it, the literary genre of this era (the "time of the novel," as Gaber Asfour's book title has it), and if a Western readership has now become somewhat familiar with a few examples of that productivity, then how does the Arabic novel proceed to fulfill its role as an agent of change within the context of the Arab world, its cultural values, and its sense of heritage? And, if it chooses to do so, then what will be the reception of such works both within the different regions of the Arab world itself and, via translation, in the broader context of world literature? Those are, of course, open questions, but I hope to have pointed in this study to some of the complex issues that are involved in the process of answering them.

(1) I would like to acknowledge here that these thoughts on the Arabic novel tradition are much influenced by readings of the work of two colleagues in the Arab world itself. One is the Moroccan critic and novelist Muhammad Barradah, in his As'ilat al-riwayah, as'ilat al-naqd [Questions on the Novel, Questions on Criticism], Rabbat, Sharikat al-Rabitah, 1996. The second is Jabir `Usfur [Gaber Asfour], Egyptian critic and Secretary-General of the Supreme Council for Culture in Egypt, in his collection of essays, Zaman al-Riwayah [The Time of the Novel], Beirut, Dar al-Mada, 1999.

(2) I should note here that, with the WLT readership in mind, I will endeavor in what follows to cite works that are available in translation.

ROGER ALLEN is Professor of Arabic Language and Literature at the University of Pennsylvania, with specializations in Arabic narrative and drama and in Arabic-language pedagogy. His major book publications include The Arabic Novel (1982, 1994), the critical anthology Modern Arabic Literature (1985), and The Arabic Literary Heritage (1998), and he has produced numerous translations of the work of such noted Arabic authors as Mahfuz, Jabra, Munif, and Idris. A ten-year member of the WLT editorial board, he has reviewed and written on contemporary Arabic belles lettres for the journal since 1979.
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Author:Allen, Roger
Publication:World Literature Today
Geographic Code:70MID
Date:Mar 22, 2001
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