Printer Friendly


I. The Static, the Dynamic, and the Arab Boom

The decades following the collapse of the colonial-backed regimes--from Egypt (1952) and Morocco (1956) to Tunisia (1956) and Iraq (1958)---brought forth multiple revolutions for artists in the Arab world, political as well as social, technical as well as cultural. In the wake of the so-called "Arab Spring" and the explosion of artistic and critical activity that followed, Arabic cultural production from this earlier period has witnessed a spate of scholarly interest. The following essay proposes to add to the discussion by examining one dimension that binds together several key works from this time: an aspect I describe, borrowing the words of critic and novelist Yahya Haqqi, as "the static and the dynamic" of post-revolutionary aesthetics. (1) Rather than attempting to survey the entire field of post-revolutionary Arabic literature, this essay focuses on four works that are universally understood to have made a major contribution to the development of the Arabic novel.

At the core of the post-revolutionary cultural boom there appeared a crisis of confidence. As the newly independent nations rambled towards an uncertain destiny, writers and politicians looked to the past in an attempt to resuscitate order. "Ours is a scientific socialism based on science not on chaos," claimed Gamal 'Abdel Nasser in 1954:
It is not at all a material socialism. We have never said that it was,
nor have we said that we were opposed to religion. What we have said
was that our religion is a socialist one and that in the Middle Ages
Islam had successfully applied the first socialist experiment in the
world, (qtd. in Baker 105)

From the specter of history emerged new forms of absolutism, "new dominant systems" of authority that refused "divine religion," opting instead for another "positivist 'religion'" in its place (84). Yet "disillusionment with romanticized views of history," in the words of Muhsin J. al-Musawi (259), became the foundational charge by which a more dynamic, intersubjective mode of literary innovation emerged. The two novels I discuss in this regard--Naguib Mahfouz's al-Maraya (Mirrors, 1972) and Mohamed Choukri's al-Khubz al-hafi (For Bread Alone, 1973)--have been described as "existential" in their willingness to break from tradition and to explore the quotidian dimensions of lived experience. The coinage, however, is misleading in the Arabic tradition where the term "existential" has come to mean less a Sartrean mode of ontological good faith than an ideological expression of 'commitment,' or iltizam. (2) For this reason, I argue these works be read simply as manifestations of a post-revolutionary mode, one that was conceived and executed in a dialectical stance to the state-sponsored imperatives of the 1950s and '60s to 'write' the revolution. Their aesthetic evolves out of an earlier moment of novel writing from the heart of the revolutionary fervor in North Africa, when artists sought to infiltrate the preponderance of social realism with a religiously-tinted code of humanism. I examine this emphasis on revolt and revelation through an analysis of al-Bashir Khurayyif's al-Diqla fi 'arajiniha (Date Palms, 1969) and Mahfouz's Awlad haratina (Children of the Alley, 1959). Taken as a whole, and in strictly emblematic fashion, I suggest these works provide a valuable point of reference for understanding the aesthetic nature of a most dynamic period in modem Arab history. And, indeed, it is this contextual dynamic that is important to invoke. All too often, as Terri DeYoung writes, Arabic literature is proscribed an "irremediably belated" position to the West (148). Comparative literary readings, moreover, tend to avoid confronting "what it means to make literature in societies that lack a sufficiently developed market for an autonomous cultural field to exist," as Nestor Garcia Canclini once wrote of Latin American letters (47). To that end, I argue, not unlike Latin American literature of the 1960s, the novels observed in this essay were part of an explosion or 'boom' in cultural production that must be understood in response to a period of exceptional social transformation.

II. "Literature of the Revolution"

"No sooner had our revolution--in its myriad aspirations and manifestations--begun to reach the hearts and minds of the people than writers within the movement began to pose an urgent question," wrote Taha Husayn in 1954: '"where is the literature of the revolution?'" (59). For the reigning dean of Arab letters it was a rhetorical question. "Literary insight will not suddenly fall from the sky," he exclaimed, "nor erupt from the soil because a revolution broke out on July 23, 1952" (59). The very impermanence of revolutionary times, he held, reinforces the ahistoricity of literature. This, despite the modem requisite of the craft, of the novel, especially, to convey subjectivity--the dynamism of particulars--as Husayn himself so forcefully realized in his three-part masterpiece al-Ayyam (The Days, 1926, 1940, 1955). The "ambition of those who would bring about the literature they had in mind, one that would recall the exuberance inspired in them by the revolution and the profound emotion they felt upon its success, with photography and data in hand," generated, as Husayn observed, a "literature of the revolution that was more a 'revolutionary literature,'" more a formulaic intercept of that which preceded it than a new form of expression. "Never once did it occur to them in their discussions that their literature, just like those failed and hopeless efforts from the past, was the result of yet another decree from on high to deepen our understanding of society, to put things in their place" (Husayn 59). Husayn's 1954 essay, which was republished in a special edition of the renowned cultural journal Al-Hilal in 2015, struck an undeniably confrontational tone at the time of its publication. Responding, in part, to a much celebrated discussion between himself, the psychologist 'Abbas Mahmud al-'Aqqad, and the famed playwright Tawfiq al-Hakim in Al-Hilal two years prior, Husayn continued to scorn al-'Aqqad's position that the revolution would inspire literary innovation and that those striving to articulate not simply the "spirit of the revolution" in political terms, but, as he wrote, the "hidden spirit that accompanies the revolution in the soul" would invariably achieve a kind of cultural revolution (al-'Aqqad 12-15). He took aim not simply at those of his own generation who had swooned to the romance of revolution, but, principally, the "new intelligentsia"--"students and petty officials" whose principal task, as one particularly cantankerous ally observed, was the "translation and compilation of reading matter for city-dwellers and provincials eaten by social angst" (Ketman 482). While it could be argued that this literature produced little in the way of lasting influence, there were undoubtedly bright spots.

The most financially successful interlocutors of the revolutionary imperative found their voice on the silver screen, where the technology of mimesis and the ideology of crowds converged. The work of realist filmmakers and writers--from Niyazi Mustafa, Salah Abu Sayf, and Tawfiq Salih to Mahfouz, Bayram al-Tunisi, and 'Abd al-Rahman al-Sharqawi--figured neatly into the narrative of the revolution insofar as the world they depicted--often gritty, crime-filled and unflinchingly critical of corrupt societal practices--highlighted that which the British and the Monarchy had left behind. Virtually all of the films from this time conclude on a triumphal note with the arrival of law and order in the form of a sharply uniformed Anwar Wajdi, or another leading figure from the actors' guild at Studio Misr. The gritty street dramas would be eclipsed, however, as the revolution progressed. It is fitting that Mahfouz, who emerged as a preeminent scenarist of this period, would gain his final credit (beyond allowing his novels to be adapted) in advising Youssef Chahine on the historical drama al-Nasir Salah al-Din (Saladin the Victorious, 1963). One can imagine how this depiction of the liberator of Jerusalem, with one of the largest budgets to date, directly served in "the formation and education of citizens in a socialist-humanist state"--a description of the role of cinema Mahfouz posited in his position as the "Literary Adviser to the Cinema Foundation" in the mid-1950s (Mahfouz, "Ana" 334). But drenched in the proto-nationalist romance of turath (heritage) and the technicolor glare of faded glory, it was a far cry, aesthetically, from where he and revolutionary cinema had started.

The capacity of film to capture reality and to organize narrative along neatly sequenced successions of symbolic images inspired Mahfouz, along with writers like Yusuf al-Siba'i, Ihsan 'Abd al-Quddus, Fathi Ghanim, and Yusuf Idris, to create new modes of storytelling--slimmer, more plot-driven works of fiction designed for easy consumption and rapid adaptation. Much of the literature produced for cinema at this time was designed for the explicit purpose of communicating the ideology of the revolution. For some artists, like Chahine, this reality was a point of significant consternation (Gordon 80). For others, like Siba'i, a ranking officer in the military prior to 1952 and later Egypt's Minister of Culture, the Nasserite experiment of secular nationalism created an opening for the morality tale, a genre which, ironically, had served to disarm social critique under the monarchy by restricting the audience's gaze to the contrition of the aristocracy. By 1957, as Samah Selim has observed, the adaptation of Siba'i's 1955 rural novel Rudda Qalbi (Requite My Love), a reiteration of the star-crossed lovers motif set against the grain of neo-feudalism, had become "the dominant cultural emblem of the post-revolutionary political establishment" (147). An alternative to the ethical machinery of religion as well as colonial rule, Siba'i's brand of storytelling became evermore central as the revolutionary regime moved the country still deeper into its grand experiment in secular nationalism. For artists in the avant-garde, however, the effect of such heavy-handedness in literary-aesthetic terms was blinding as even the most compelling stories (witness the film Jamila discussed below) became shackled by the language of symbolism.

Apart from these examples of cinematic prose, the early days of the boom generated several masterworks of the revolutionary novel genre that warrant careful attention. Chief among these are 'Abd al-Rahman al-Sharqawi's al-'Ard (Egyptian Earth, 1954), Mohamed Dib's Sayf Afriqi (An African Summer, 1959), and, perhaps most notably, Mahfouz's Awlad haratina (Children of the Alley, 1959). One of the least studied such novels to date, but an exemplary work in this tradition, is the monumental al-Diqla fi 'arajniha (Date Palms, 1969) by the Tunisian 'father of realism,' al-Bashir Khurayyif.

III. Revelation and Revolt

Set primarily in the mining village of Mitlawi in the heart of the rural Tunisian province al-Qafsa and peppered throughout by rich descriptions of the country's railway--still to this day the lifeline to the region's phosphate industry--Khurayyif's al-Diqla fi 'arajniha paints a picture of communal exploitation, on one hand, and social integration and resistance on the other. As with many works of revolutionary literature, the story is set in pre-revolutionary times. But Khurayyif still seeks to illuminate, in no subtle fashion, core dimensions of post-independence Tunisia (1956), including, in particular, the increasingly tense relationship between the ultra-secular Neo-Dustour Party of the country's founding president Habib Bourguiba and the Tunisian General Labor Union, or UGTT, then led by the outspoken government critic Habib 'Ashur.

Khurayyif sets the novel in the immediate years following the Great War, when the "hero-slaves" of the French protectorate had returned from forced enlistment, maimed and landless, but intoxicated with their experience of the West and, above all, the ideology of liberation. Drifting through the pages like ghosts, Khurayyif stages theatrical interventions into reality: the photographs of the Ottoman leader Mustafa Kamal, or the Berber leader of resistance to French rule in the Rif, 'Abd al-Karim al-Khattabi, adorn the walls of coffee shops alongside an image of Imam ' Ali conquering the Jinn. Similarly, in the tradition of Muhammad Husayn Haykal's Zaynab (1914) or, more explicitly, al-'Aqqad's Sara (1938), the young protagonist "Mekki" remains haunted by the image of a girl from his past. Both gestures illuminate a basic impulse of the revolutionary aesthetic in the symbolic interlacing of the past and present. The effect summons a degree of national romance, inevitably--Mekki's voyage from his rural village leads him, at first, neither to Europe nor to the capital in the tradition of Zaynab or Tawfiq al-Hakim's 'Awdat al-ruh (Return of the Spirit, 1933), but to the heart of the Tunisian labor movement--yet Khurayyif's novel is more complex in its engagement with nationalism. Naturalist in tone, with explicit overtures to the work of Zola, the author endeavors to infuse his aesthetic of the labor movement in Tunisia with a starkly humanistic element of dualistic morality. In Metlawi, Mekki discovers, the miners' universe is characterized by an identitarian code of ethics, one uniquely defined by the parameters of their common experience. At the same time, however, this code exposes the workers to an emerging regime of sorts in the leadership of the strongman organizer Dabanjaq. In Mekki's eyes, Dabanjaq, whose proximity to the assassinated labor leader Farhat Hached (d. 1952) is implicit, seems like an idol among men, as rigid and stoic an institution as those found in the pre-Stalinist poetics of a Maxim Gorky. (3) But Dabanjaq, whose speech the author often renders in the colloquial, also preaches a distinct if superficial brand of conservatism alongside his egalitarian rhetoric. Confronting a group of Bedouin he asks: "do you believe in Muhammad or not?" (inta tu 'min bi-Muhammad walla ma tu 'minshi), a colloquial form of greeting to which they are nonetheless obliged to reply in the affirmative before taking their rest (al-Khurayyif 275). Elsewhere the workers swear before him to remain united in the midst of the strike. One even calls for a copy of the Qur'an to underscore his zeal (277). With his authority secure, Dabanjaq institutes a prison system for those in violation "of the law of the community" (263). Relaxation is allowed only on Saturday evenings. Like the "futuwwat" of Mahfouz's Children of the Alley, the strongmen protectors of the God-like overlord Jabalawi, Dabanjaq's influence foreshadows a greater impulse to encode the secular collective with an ethical imprint. But also like Mahfouz's enforcers of the 'Big House,' complicating Khurayyif's depiction of the character is a distinctly post-revolutionary undertone of hypocrisy. The denouement of the strike finds Dabanjaq chatting with the company director while his coworkers are hauled off and arrested.

Reminiscent of the many revolution-inspired novels positioned, often, on the outskirts of the global modernist canon--Eliot's Felix Holt: The Radical (1866), for example, or Zola's La Terre (1877), or Azuela's Los de abajo (1915)--such 'revolutionary literature,' though didactic at times, nonetheless contained important interrogations into the shifting social landscape of the 1950s and '60s. In the modem Arabic tradition nowhere is this facet of the revolutionary mode distilled more clearly than in Mahfouz's Children of the Alley.

Having abandoned the monumentalist and ideologically-laden narratives of his screenplays, by 1959 Mahfouz had begun transitioning towards an existential brand of literary discourse focused on the individual dimensions of political change. This trajectory would manifest in its most radical form in his 1972 book al-Maraya (Mirrors), which I will address shortly, but it originates, unmistakably, in Children of the Alley. Though centered on the lives of five protagonists, the supporting cast is superabundant. This becomes evident in the novel's most controversial section, which recounts the life of Qasim, the leader of an outcast tribe, the "Desert Rats," and the fourth protagonist in a line of revolutionary "great men." Following the death of his wife--an incident reminiscent of the life of the Prophet Mohammad--Qasim steps outside his house to greet the "crowd of mourners" awaiting his response. The narrator continues:
The ties of kinship commanded a deep-seated respect in the alley
(which, however, enjoyed not one of its many benefits), so Sawaris had
to come to offer condolences, and the Desert Rats were quick to follow
behind. The overseer, Rifaat, had to come to offer condolences, and he
was immediately followed by Lahita, Jalta and Hajj, and everyone in
the alley followed them. The funeral was joined by huge throngs
(jumu'an ghafirah) such as the alley had never seen before except at
gangster's (futuwwai) funerals. Qasim showed a wise man's composure
despite his hidden agonies. (Mahfouz, Awlad Haratina 413-14).

The episode is one of many in the novel where the author assembles a "throng" (jumu 'an) of spectators to bear witness to an unexpected incident. Unlike the barricaders of Hugo's Paris, or the "buzzing" crowds of Eliot's Felix Holt, however, Mahfouz's masses are more carefully delineated, a facet illustrated by his assigning of names (223). Still, their individualism remains illusionary. None of the characters have a family name and the names they carry denote prototypical traits. Such genericism signals a derivative mode of realism bound, at once, to the cinematic 'crowd,' as Sartre observed, and a more cynical reaction towards the democratic cooptation of human autonomy. (4) Apart from the author's broadly discussed commentary on the political use of religion, (5) this latter dimension of critique embedded in the novel would emerge as a clear point of cohesion among writers of the post-revolutionary moment invested in the question of existentialism.

Distinct from the French-Hegelian strand of thought that would posit, in the midst of the two World Wars, the human condition as "posthistorical" (Kojeve 161), the predominate Arab interpretation of 'commitment' (iltizam) insisted on a distinctly secular application whereby iltizam would be read as political action, social solidarity, and, perhaps above all, a clear-eyed stance on the injustice of Israeli occupation. However, for Mahfouz and, as I discuss here, Choukri, the literary imperative of existential thought manifested in a more plainly conceived engagement with the humanity and experience of the public sphere. For literary historians this strain of existential thought in the post-WWII Arabic milieu should hardly be surprising. While the 1950s was, "for the young literati," undoubtedly "the golden age of existentialism," as Jabra I. Jabra observed from Baghdad, it was hardly limited by the influence of Sartre's expositions on commitment (Princess 74). Already by 1954, the philosopher's compelling reflection on Bergsonian metaphysics in Existentialism is a Humanism (1946) had appeared in Arabic translation. Beckett and Camus were translated in 1964 (Endgame) and 1967 (The Stranger). In 1955, the academic and philosopher 'Abd al-Rahman Badawi published the monograph of his dissertation from the Sorbonne, "Le problem de la mort dans la philosophic existentielle" ("The Problem of Death in Existentialist Philosophy," 1943), under the title al-Zaman al-wujudi (Existential Time), and prior to that, in 1947, al-Insaniyya wa al-wujudiyya fi al-fikr al- 'Arabi (Humanism and Existentialism in Arab Thought) (Greenberg 42). Measuring influence is always tenuous in the reading of literature, of course. But it is undeniable that Arab novelists considered their project of capturing the "revolutionary fire" of the time to be in conversation with universal questions of man, society, and the sustainability of democracy (Jabra, "Jabra" 49). Mahfouz in particular sought to invoke in his depictions of social existence following the revolutionary heyday of the 1950s a depth of meaning that could endow the post-revolutionary experience with its own--if fleeting--cosmology: a new normative metaphysics of "public humanity." (6)

IV. Mirroring

Emerging at the nexus of social independence and liberal cooptation, the Homo Politicus of modern Arabic literature--from Khurayyif's Dabanjaq to Mahfouz's Qasim--embodied the quintessence of this notion insofar as his identity is cast against the freeze of colonialism, the prospect of absolutism, and the promise of democracy. Against the grain of ideology, the spiritualism of the Arab world's leading artists gravitated towards the kind of self-exegesis Husayn had insisted on. But through the revolutionary experience this vision would be multiplied and comparted through crowds and classrooms and the indelible "Third Spaces" so integral to the grand social narrative of democratic enlightenment. (7)

This aesthetic embrace of the static and the dynamic transcended media, politics, geography, and time. In film: Youssef Chahine's 1959 Jamila al-Jaza'iriyya (Jamila the Algerian), based on a story by Yusuf al-Siba'i with a screenplay and dialogue co-written by Mahfouz, 'Ali al-Zarqani, and 'Abd al-Rahman al-Sharqawi, finds its seminal moment in a college classroom where a professor is lecturing his students on the heroes of the French Revolution. When gendarmerie burst into the classroom, stealing away one of the young students, Jamila Buhayrd, the protagonist, delivers an impassioned speech, listing off the names of Algeria's indigenous freedom fighters. The film concludes with an image of Jamila chained to a stake like Joan of Arc while surging masses break into song. Through martyrdom her kinetic story invokes, dialectically, the timeless cause of the nation.

Or in sculpture: the famed Iraqi artist Jawad Salim's Nasb al-Hurriyya (Monument of Liberty), commissioned by the leaders of the 1958 revolution in Iraq, epitomized the static and the dynamic of post-revolutionary aesthetics (see Figure 1). Referencing Assyrian and Babylonian wall-reliefs, the giant bronze figures of the monument set against an enormous travertine slab in the heart of Baghdad told a "visual narrative" of the Free-Officers Coup (al-Khalil 83). Yet--reflecting a motif Salim had developed through painting in his pre-revolutionary work--the monument's signature feature of isolated figures, disjointed and separated by asymmetrical blank spaces, spoke of a certain "kineticism," in the words of the critic Baland al-Haydari, a dynamism to the stasis of historical thought that constituted, paradoxically, both the absence and idea of coalescence (Haydari 78). Emerging from the core of the booming Baghdad art scene of the mid-twentieth century, which, as Nasser Rabbat recently noted, has begun to fetch enormous sums at auction (Rabbat), Selim's work (along with that of people like Shaker Hassan al-Said, Hafidh al-Droubi, and Mahmoud Sabri) synthesized through the vernacular of painting what art historians Seleem al-Bahloly and Nada Shabout described as "freedom in the non-structure" of mid-twentieth-century modernism (Bahloly).

In theater: Idris's post-revolutionary, "non-Aristotelian" productions signaled a return to traditionalism, embracing an aesthetics of orality that, again paradoxically, denied conformity by reaffirming individuality with each rendition. Breaking from the monolithic influence of Bertolt Brecht, echoes of Beckett are unmistakable amidst the smoky playhouse in Cairo where Idris's 1964 al-Farafir (Flipflap and his Master) was first performed (see Figure 2). Stripped of history, the players and their anonymous space convey a mode of politics free of ideology, decentered, fallible, inconsistent, and, ultimately, human.

So too in the world of the cafe did artists imagine a secular space for the emergence of a new normative ethos: one that was intersubjective, horizontal, defined through consensus, and--for better or worse--ratified by rumor. It is in this mode that Mahfouz, above all, must be considered a key voice in the greater, post-WWII story of global democratization as he would go further than any of his contemporaries in realizing the aesthetic dynamics of third spaces.

It is difficult to point to a single work by Mahfouz that best captures the intellectual urgency with which he wrote. Children of the Alley and the short, existential novels of the 1960s, including Al-Liss wa-al-kilab (The Thief and the Dogs, 1961), al-Summan wa-al-kharif (Autumn Quail, 1962), Tharthara fawq al-Nil (Adrift on the Nile, 1966), al-Shahhadh (The Beggar, 1965), al-Tariq (The Search, 1966), and Miramar (1967), all pivot around the fate of individual actors whose mundane realities place them at odds with the machinations of memory, longing, routine, and religion. These texts in many ways epitomized the author's aesthetic of revolution, but they remained confined, still, by the mandate of narrative and the necessary political unconscious that sustained his work from this time as a recognizable expression of the post-colonial Arab experience. Only with Mirrors did Mahfouz fully endeavor to write a book aimed at understanding the tragedy of man, not society. In this respect, it can be understood as representing the pinnacle of the author's fascination with the metaphysics of public humanity. But Mirrors also signaled a certain conclusionary gesture, not simply because it appeared after the great Arab disaster of 1967, but because it was with this book that Mahfouz looked definitively beyond the socio-historic parameters of the day, returning once more to stories of the past, imagined and otherwise. While the 1960s would entail, for Mahfouz, an ever-closer iteration of the novel as an "art of particulars," in Mirrors he would realize what can only be described as a pointillist vision of society. (8) He rejected describing the work as a riwaya, a novel, but recognized its integrity as a book. Consisting of fifty-five literary portraits of individuals from the author's social universe, the work appeared as an amalgamation of parts--vignettes published separately in a quotidian journal and with no exacting order. Yet there is a clear coherence to both the flow of the narrative, overall, and the evolution of the underlying subject matter, despite the book's ostensibly synchronic structure.

Mahfouz organizes the chapters alphabetically and without chronological order. The only element consistent to each chapter is the narrator's familiarity with the character featured therein. Most of the sketches end on a mournful note, with the character in question having died or suffered an immense emotional blow (a gesture that continues to attract readers to the post-'67 implications of the work). The openings too convey a sense of fleeting time. "He exists and he doesn't" begins the chapter on Gad Abu al-Ala' (45); "he was a friend in secondary school for just two years, then he disappeared," begins the chapter on Saba Ramzi (91). The names, like thoughts, flicker across the narrator's discourse. And while themes of politics, love, art, and literature run throughout, they are always bound, carefully, to the identity of individuals. Such intersubjectivity enhances the effect of the work's most defining gesture: the complete separation of time and space. The streets of downtown Cairo flit in and out of the narrator's exposition. An innocuous institution, the "secretariat," gradually emerges into focus as the place of employment for many of the characters. In Mirrors, Mahfouz comes closest to an aesthetic manifestation of the idea, as one of his early philosophical idols William James wrote, that we exist in "partial systems" and that "parts are not interchangeable in the spiritual life" (James 531). At risk with such a hyper-localized and pluralized aesthetic are those imagined continuums of social existence: nation, class, family, religion. The portrait of Abbas Fawzi, "deputy-director of the secretariat" found midway through Mirrors, shows a man drifting towards just such a conundrum. "Burdened with children and poverty, struggling to satisfy himself and his family," Fawzi, writes the narrator, "exuded bitterness" (156). "Expressed in vicious sarcasms that spared none, he disdained the bureaucrats' morality that soaked him up to his head, and derided successful intellectuals, although he failed to match their achievements, even in his own field" (156). The irony of this man, whom the narrator describes as "a jewel in my new world," was that at the core of his ruthlessness was his own source of genius (157). "His real value was in Arabic-language classics," writes the narrator. "With no exaggeration, he knew it all, prose and verse, by heart" (157). His life is marked by the very kind of moral duality summarized by the narrator's portrait. Despite his refined knowledge, or rather, because of it, he was disliked by those very same colleagues who admired him. His talent became a source of misery. "His books did not flourish as university professors debated with him," writes the narrator, "their modern intellectual approach giving them an edge. His anguish increased when one of his students used his knowledge of the classics to write religious works about the Prophet and the Quran, making an incredible amount of money. Abbas Fawzi almost went out of his mind" (161). In both a literal and figurative sense, he has made that which is sacred into a profound endeavor. Depicting a life of self-contained, dueling moralities, Mahfouz's portrait of 'Abbas Fawzi, like many from the collection, reflects a man divorced from social allegory. The description of his profession is an indicator of the aesthetic at play. His title ("deputy-director of the secretariat") is at once entirely vague and absurdly specific. He is defined by his own symbolic contradictions: a classical Arabic professor who fails to profit from his knowledge, having to resort to the translation of Western texts written about Islam. Oscillatory, two-sided individualism emerges here, and throughout much of Mahfouz's post-revolutionary corpus, as a kind of affliction--the unhappy state of failed social cohesion. Very much in line with Husayn's reservations, Mahfouz's literature from the Nasser years emotes desolation and a critique of any social remedy absent immortal divination.

This revolutionary full circle constitutes the core of Mahfouz's post-revolutionary literature. As Husayn anticipated, the aesthetic of social solidarity as a secular ideal predisposed artists to its antithesis, which, in turn, created a spectrum of existential martyrs--from Kanafani's men in the sun, to Idris's flip-flopper, or Habibi's Pessoptomist--seeking, and most often denied, a more profound sense of community. This trajectory of revolutionary aesthetics reached its pinnacle in an outlier text, Choukri's fictionalized autobiography al-Khubz al-hafi (For Bread Alone, 1973).

Conclusion: Mohamed Choukri (On the Sum of the Parts)

As is often the case with great works of literature, Choukri's novel has generated more than its fair share of controversy over the years. But interpretations of the work have been overwhelmingly misplaced, not so much in their moral evaluation of the text, as in their basic understanding of what is at stake in the novel. Indeed, it is safe to say that few works of modem literature have been so profoundly misread. Censored in Morocco following its initial publication in the early '80s and the catalyst for a lawsuit in Cairo in the late '90s, For Bread Alone has divided readers over its purported sexual vulgarity and liberal testimony. (9) Equally controversial as the protagonist's sexual escapades has been the novel's history of translation. The text is a virtual playground for post-structural discourse on the 'differance' of local content by alien form. The well-known history of Paul Bowles receiving the material via dictation, and in Spanish as translated by Choukri from his then-unpublished manuscript in Arabic, has fed the position of critics who see the text as a product of the American's "fascination with the primitive," a conclusion which, in less than subtle tones, has been used to account for some of the more graphic content of the work, including its depictions of homosexuality. (10) Neither line of inquiry, however, sheds much light on the genius of For Bread Alone, a story which concludes in 1956, the year of Moroccan independence and of Choukri's own departure from the country to Europe for nearly a decade.

Described by Choukri as a sira dhatiyya riwa'iyya, or 'fictional autobiography,' For Bread Alone, while ostensibly a coming of age tale, hinges on Mohamed's experience of revolution as an ontological and temporal event. This dynamic is made vivid midway through the novel where Choukri takes the reader into the opening moments of a demonstration, on March 30, 1952, the date marking the fortieth anniversary of the French protectorate. The episode begins when Mohamed and his friends, sitting at a cafe playing cards, are distracted by the shouts of an invalid "shaking his arms excitedly in the air" and shouting "al-jala"' ("out with colonialism!") (al-Khubz 122). In his scramble to see the action in the square, Mohamed separates from one group of friends and falls in with another. "Piles of stones" come into focus as the people around him begin collecting broken parts of the street to arm themselves (125). The crowd diverges, heading in four separate directions. The streets he knows by memory suddenly assume a new purpose. One group begins to storm a police station, a powerful indicator that everything is up for grabs. Mohamed injects himself into the narrative, now part of the mob. Violence begins its irreversible trajectory as stones fly in the direction of a policeman. One of the stone-throwers hurls "a rock at a large clock" hanging over the entrance to an Indian bazaar. "The clock said 1:15 when he smashed it" (125). Choukri recalled this exact detail many years later in an interview he gave for German TV. And indeed the image is striking, frozen in place; the uprising signaled for Mohamed, too, a certain ending of time as an external mandate.

A profound universality emerges from this otherwise specific accounting of 1956. The songs and politics of revolution may vary but 'the day of,' as it were, follows a certain timeless formula: the surging of a crowd, the shattering of shop windows, the creeping collective sensation of no turning back (see Figures 3 and 4). In addition to the lucidity with which the author recounts the details of the city's transformation, the most striking component of the March 30 sequence is the corresponding epistemological shift from an a posteriori narrative to an a priori one. Up to this point, external phenomena dictate the protagonist's thoughts and movements. Action leads to reaction. Hunger sends him into the ocean for scraps of bread, fatigue in search of shelter. The revolutionary sequence represents a collective culmination of this temporal aesthetic, what Choukri described in the preface to the 2009 Arabic edition as "la 'b al-zaman," a play of time (al-Khubz 4). Prior to and during the outbreak of the revolution, Mohamed's temporal existence moves only forward. He thinks fast and never slow, with another part of his history--his homeland, his father, his siblings, or just the night before--severed and forgotten with every page. In the end, however, the revolution precipitates a pragmatic reorienting of life for the young protagonist. Taking refuge from the chaos with his friend al-Kabdani, the latter soon introduces him to the more elaborate and well-planned enterprise of selling stolen goods to offshore tourist vessels. This ultimately lands him in prison. But prison leads him to question his illiteracy for the first time. His cellmate writes some verses of poetry on the wall and Mohamed is struck by the relevance of its meaning.

The lines--"If ever the people elect to live, fate must bend to that desire"--from Abu al-Qasim al-Shabbi's renowned qasida penned a year before his death amidst a burgeoning anti-colonial movement in Tunisia and famously echoed again in the capitals of the Arab world in 2011, inspire Choukri's protagonist to begin life anew. (11) His desire to learn to read becomes a stopgap to his life of drugs, sex, and petty crime--a life of instant gratification and blind faith in the moment. It is the denouement of the novel, which, as the lines by al-Shabbi recall, had reached its climax in the midst of revolution. He would no longer live day by day, but plan ahead, and ultimately, begin to look back. The novel concludes with him visiting the unmarked grave of his dead brother. The absence of an inscription on the tombstone, suggesting as it does a life lived in illiteracy and delinquency, speaks to the revolutionary import of memory as both a private and collective mode of transcendence over the mundane flow of quotidian life--the necessary stasis to a world in flux.

Concluding this essay with Choukri's novel does not imply the work eclipsed others from the period as an exemplar of form or even historical significance. For Bread Alone, however, provides a seminal gesture to the aesthetic I have discussed as it serves to bring into focus the synergy of static and dynamic thought so quintessential to the Arab avant-garde of the 1960s and '70s. The revolutionary imperative to imagine the nation with broad, symbolically-laden strokes compelled authors like Mahfouz and Khurayyif towards more subtle forms of interpersonal agency, integrating into their narratives of social convulsion elements of spiritual dogma, human error, and hypocrisy. Mahfouz, especially, would continue to pursue ever more singular portraits of the social actors around him (from the 'holy thief' Sa'id Mahran in The Thief and the Dogs to the revolutionary-cum-bureaucrat Sarhan al-Buhayri in Miramar) before arriving at the amalgam of friends and colleagues immortalized in the anti-novel Mirrors. But it is in Tangiers, as I have suggested, with Choukri's radically particularistic, biographical fiction, that the ideal of freedom as an existential condition arrives full circle at transcendental communion. The protagonist's recuperation of civic identity through memory and through the seed of language echoes the kind of post-national "theory of communication"--"almost telepathic"--at the heart of another, more famous literary boom alluded to at the beginning of this essay (Cortazar 165). (12) Julio Cortazar's storied rejection of Juan Domingo Peron's nationalist "nostalgia" did not, in the end, prevent the Argentine doyen of Latin American letters from imagining, through his rambling magnum opus Rayuela (1963), a democratic public sphere of sorts in the smoky third space of his Parisian apartment. The "central attitude" of that boom (Cortazar 162) finds clear resonance in Mahfouz's metaphysics of public humanity. In Choukri's novel we witness once more the synchronicity of this idea of revolution, not as a coming together, but as a coming apart--a condition through which a more profound union can be imagined.



(1) Yahya Haqqi's article "Al-Estatiqqiyya wa-al-dinamiqqiyya" ("The Static and the Dynamic") appears in the collection Al-Rajul wa-l-qimma: buhuth wa-dirasat. Ed. Fadil Aswad, Shukri Shami, 'Abd al-Tawwab Hammad, and Yaqut Dib. Cairo: al-Hay'a al-Misriyya al-'Amma lil-Kitab, 1989. The renowned Syrian-Lebanese poet Adonis gave his three-volume dissertation a similiar title (al-Thabit wa al-mutahawwat). Haqqi's article, while indirectly in dialogue with that work, focused on the varying stages of Mahfouz's career.

(2) The modern Arab history of literary commitment ("iltizam") is addressed at length in the recent collection Commitment and Beyond: Reflections on/of the Political in Arabic Literature since the 1940s. Ed. Friederike Pannewick and Georges Khalil. Germany: Reichert, 2015.

(3) In his introduction to the recently published al- 'Amal al-Kamila (Complete Works) of al-Bashir Khurayyif, Fawzi al-Zumarali notes that Khurayyif described his work as "social realism," drawing reference to the work of Zola and Gorky (9).

(4) In his essay "Situation of the Writer in 1947," Sartre writes that film "by its very nature, speaks to crowds; it speaks to them about crowds and about their destiny" (216).

(5) See for example Roger Allen, "Najib Mahfuz's Awlad haratina: A History and Interpretation," in From New Values to New Aesthetics: Turning Points in Modern Arabic Literature (Wiesbaden: Harrassowitz, 2011), 33-58.

(6) The term "al-insaniyya al- 'amma " ("public" or "common humanity") stems from Raja' Naqqash's interview with Naguib Mahfouz in the collection Najib Mahfuz: safahat min mudhakkiratihi wa-adwa' jadida 'ala adabihi wa-havatih (al-Qahira: Markaz al-Ahram lil-Tarjama wa-l-Nashr, 1998), 142.

(7) The notion of "Third Spaces," and the relation to the practices of enlightenment, is cleverly fleshed out by Eric Weiner in The Geography of Genius: A Search for the World's Most Creative Places from Ancient Athens to Silicon Valley (New York: Simon & Schuster, 2016).

(8) I borrow the phrase "art of particulars" from Martha Nussbaum's brilliant reading of Henry James's novel The Princess Casamissima (1886). As she observed of the American, his preoccupation with "particulars" served to illuminate a certain "native resistance" to the "rule of the cheap and easy" in nationalist discourse. Of the novel, Nussbaum wrote: "there is, then, a revolution called.... Not the revolution its characters envisage at the start, but one both more achievable and more radical" (217).

(9) For an excellent and intimate description of the book's controversy and the controversy surrounding its place in contemporary Arab society, see Samia Mchrez, Egypt's Culture Wars: Politics and Practice (Abingdon, UK.: Routledge, 2008).

(10) Nirvana Tanoukhi, "Rewriting political commitment for an international canon: Paul Bowles's 'For bread alone' as translation of Mohamcd Choukri's 'Al-Khubz Al-Hafi," Research in African Literatures: Official Journal of the African Literature Committee of the African Studies Association of America and the African Literatures Seminar of the Modern Language Association 34.2 (2003): 130.

(11) For a translation of Chaabi's poem "Will to Life" ("Iradat al-hayya"), see Gael Raphael, "Al-Shaabi's 'The Will to Life'" (Jadaliyya, May 2, 2011). Available online:

(12) The italics are mine.


Adonis. An Introduction to Arab Poetics. Trans. Catherine Cobham. London: Saqi Books, 2013.

al-'Aqqad, 'Abbas Mahmud. "Adab al-nahdha al-jadida" [literature of the new renaissance]. Al-Hilal 12.60(1952), 12-15.

al-Bahloly, Saleem. "Freedom in the non-structure: Saleem al-Bahloly in conversation with the art historian Nada Shabout." "Global Modernisms: Contiguities, Infrastructures and Aesthetic Practices." Conference organized by the Forum Transregionale Studien and the Max Weber Stiftung in cooperation with the Haus der Kulturen der Welt. Jan. 15,2016. Available online:

Baker, William. Egypt's Uncertain Revolution under Nasser and Sadat. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1978.

Canclini, Nestor Garcia. Hybrid Cultures: Strategies for Entering and Leaving Modernity. Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1995.

Choukri, Mohamed. For Bread Alone. Trans. Paul Bowles. London: P. Owen, 1973.

----. Al-Khubz al-hafi. Nashr al-finak: Dar al-Bayda', 2009.

Cortazar, Julio. Rayuela. Madrid: Catedra, 1984.

DeYoung, Terri. Placing the Poet: Badr Shakir Al-Sayyab and Postcolonial Iraq. Albany: State U of New York P, 1998.

Eliot, George. Novels of George Eliot. VIII: Felix Holt. New York: Harper & Brothers, 1906.

Gordon, Joel. Revolutionary Melodrama: Popular Film and Civic Identity in Nasser's Egypt. Chicago: Middle East Documentation Center, 2002.

Greenberg, Nathaniel. The Aesthetic of Revolution in the Film and Literature of Naguib Mahfouz (1952-1967). Lanham, MD: Lexington, 2014.

al-Haydari, Baland. "Ma'rid al-thani l-il-jama'a Baghdad l-il-fann al-hadith" [The Second Exhibition of the Baghdad Modern Art Group], Al-Adab 1.6 (1953): 78-80.

Husayn, Taha. "Adab al-thawra wa thawrat al-adab" [literature of the revolution and the revolution of literature]. Al-Hilal (Jan. 2015): 58-66.

Jabra, Jabra Ibrahim. "Jabra Jabra's Interpoetics: An Interview with Jabra." Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics 1 (1989): 49-55.

----. Princesses 'Street. Trans. Issa J. Boullata. Fayetteville: U of Arkansas P, 2000.

James, William. The Varieties of Religious Experience: A Study in Human Nature. New York: Modern Library, 1994.

Jameson, Fredric. Marxism and Form. New Jersey: Princeton UP, 1974.

Ketman, George. "The Egyptian Intelligentsia." The Middle East in Transition. Ed. Walter Z. Laqueur. Praegar: New York, 1958.

al-Khalil, Samir. The Monument: Art, Vulgarity, and Responsibility in Iraq. Berkeley: U of California P, 1991.

Khurayyif, al-Bashir. Al-Diqla fx 'arajiniha. Tunis: al-Dar al-Tunisiyya lil-Nashr, 1978.

Kojeve, Alexandre, Raymond Queneau, Allan Bloom, and J. H. Nichols Jr. Introduction to the Reading of Hegel. Ithaca, NY: Cornell UP, 2012.

Mahfouz, Naguib. "Ana wa al-sinima." Mawsu'at Najib Mahfuz wa-al-sinima, 1947-2000. Ed. Madkur Thabit and Ibrahim Fathi. Giza: Akadimiyat al-Funun, 2006.

----. Awlad haratina. al-Qahira: Dar al-Shuruq, 2008.

----. Mirrors. Trans. Roger Allen. Minneapolis: Bibliotecha Islamica, 1977.

al-Musawi, Muhsin Jasim. Islam on the Street: Religion in Modern Arabic Literature. Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2009.

----. The Postcolonial Arabic Novel: Debating Ambivalence. Leiden, UK: Brill, 2003.

Nussbaum, Martha C. Love's Knowledge: Essays on Philosophy and Literature. New York: Oxford UP, 1990.

Rabbat, Nasser O. Remarks for the panel "The Islamic and the Modern in the Twentieth Century Visual Middle East," at the Middle East Studies Association. Washington, DC. Nov. 19, 2017.

Samah Selim, The Novel and the Rural Imaginary in Egypt, 1880-1985. New York: RoutledgeCurzon, 2004.

Sartre, Jean-Paul. "What Is Literature? " and Other Essays. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1988.

Thoraval, Yves. Regards sur le cinema Egyptien. Beyrouth: Dar el-Machreq, 1975.

Zumarali, Fawzi. Intro. Al- 'Amal al-kamila al-Bashir al-Khurayyif. Tunis: Wizarat al-Thaqafa wa-al-Muhafazat 'ala al-Turath, 2005. 9-58.
COPYRIGHT 2019 Johns Hopkins University Press
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 2019 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

Article Details
Printer friendly Cite/link Email Feedback
Title Annotation:impact of 1952 Free Officers Coup in Egypt
Author:Greenberg, Nathaniel
Publication:Studies in the Novel
Article Type:Critical essay
Geographic Code:7EGYP
Date:Jun 22, 2019

Terms of use | Privacy policy | Copyright © 2021 Farlex, Inc. | Feedback | For webmasters