Farouk Mustafa Memorial Lecture on Modern Arabic Literature (Workshop Keynote)

Shaden Tageldin (University of Minnesota)

"Measures of the Modern: Arabic Literature in the Shadow of Comparison"

To Victor Hugo’s question in Les Orientales (1829), “With what does the Orient rhyme?”, the Ottoman-Palestinian intellectual Rūḥī al-Khālidī might reply, With a broken chime.  In al-Khālidī’s pioneering comparative study of French and Arabic literatures, Tārīkh ʿIlm al-Adab ʿind al-Ifranj wa-l-ʿArab, wa Fīktūr Hūkū (1902–3, 1904, 1912), the figure of Hugo drives the modern Orient’s uneven chime and break with select parts of its literary past and select parts of Europe’s literary present.  Comparing Hugo’s call for a literary language less interested in itself than in the ideas it expresses with similar pronouncements by medieval Arab-Islamic theorists, al-Khālidī incarnates in Hugo the lost “nature” to which an “artificial” modern Arabic letters must return.  As a touchstone of the once-and-future modernity to which the writer of Arabic should aspire, he cites Hugo’s 1822 dictum, “Poetry is not in the form of ideas but in the ideas themselves.”  Al-Khālidī sees in such semiotic transparency the equality and fraternity of signs, their utterers, and their receivers—a literature underwritten by a democracy of words.  That democracy upends a hierarchy of “literary” over “common” language in Arabic.  For in a new linguistic regime in which the everyday trumps the recherché, the common word holds an edge over the literary.  Still, one caveat limits that excess:  the exchange of the common for the literary word, al-Khālidī stresses, must not violate Arabic grammar.  In the crucible of translation between “old” Arab-Islamic and “new” French theories, the language of modern Arabic literature ultimately emerges between excess and its limit.

Workshop Participants

Lara Harb (Princeton University)

"Plot in Aristotelian Arabic Poetics"

It is well known that Arabic philosophy had a unique reading of Aristotle’s Poetics. Having understood the work as part of the Organon, they interpreted poetry as a kind of syllogism.  This led them to understand the Aristotelian concept of mimesis or imitation as simile (tashbīh). In this paper, I investigate what they make of Aristotle’s concept of plot (mythos), especially in light of his definition of the term as “the imitation of action” and “the arrangement of incidents.” How is an “imitation of action” understood in a philosophical tradition that conceived of mimesis in terms of a rhetorical figure? How is a temporal “arrangement of incidents” understood in a critical tradition that rarely discusses narrative structure? The answers to these questions (which I will only begin to attempt to answer in this paper) would shed light on medieval Arabic conceptions of fiction, narrative, and the literary representation of reality, informing our understanding ofadab and other forms of narrative prose writing.  I will focus on Ibn Sīnā (d. 428/1037), with some reference to later philosophically-influenced authors, including al-Qarṭājannī (d. 639/1242).

Bilal Orfali (American University of Beirut)

"Two picaresque Tales and a Yellow Cow: Black Humor and Qurʾānic References in Hamadhānī’s al-Maqāma al-Mawṣiliyya"

This paper focuses on al-Maqāma al-Mawṣiliyya (The Maqāma of Mawṣil) of Hamadhānī (d. 958). Through analyzing motifs, cultural codes, and qur’anic references in the maqāma, the paper attempts to reveal the author’s craft in producing a piece of Black humor that uses mockery and low comedy to make clear that individuals are helpless victims of fate and character.  

Jocelyn Sharlet (University of California, Davis)

In the anecdote about characters who are historical, exemplary, or just realistic, Abbasid writers make the most of the tradition’s capacity for creative writing in a way that seems to place a priority on the analysis of the human condition, including the artistic shaping of historical narrative which may function as an indirect commentary. This essay discusses three series of Abbasid-era Arabic anecdotes that foreground major social dislocations: stories of the Lakhmid Hind bint Nuʿman, the poet ‘Adi b. Zayd, and three early Muslim rulers; stories of Umm Salama, the Umayyad ‘Abda, and the political change from the Umayyads to the Abbasids; and stories of the slave woman Dananir, Umm Ja’far, the Baramika, the Abbasids, and the Bakhtishuʿ family of doctors. The writers place the women’s emphatically embodied status in counterpoint to their rhetorical maneuvers, reminding us that what you see is not what you get. In these stories, this is exactly what facilitates a perspective on each social dislocation that seems uneasy and edgy yet engaging, even when it displays a kind of relief after suffering.       

Hoda El Shakry (Penn State University)

"Theorizing from Below: Culture and Critique in the Maghreb"

This paper challenges the prominence of (post)colonialist approaches to the study of non-western cultural production.  It does so by examining how North African intellectuals, writers, and artists at once theorize and cultivate modes of cultural capital that move beyond the binary of ‘authenticity’ [aṣāla] and ‘imitation’ [taqlīd]. To that end, it is part of a broader critical effort within Global South studies to theorize from below—namely, to decentralize Euro-American historical frameworks, periodizations, and critical methodologies mobilized in the study of non-western cultural practices and forms. 
The paper focuses on an archive of twentieth century arabophone and francophone Maghrebi cultural journals.  It theorizes the cultural journal as a humanistic mode of knowledge production that centers on the serialized and shared dissemination of information.  Looking beyond the world-systems-theory binary language of center and periphery, it interrogates how these journals transform the conceptual and historical frameworks through which cultural modernity is theorized. 
In addition to serializing and publishing poetry, short stories, and novels, Maghrebi cultural journals covered aesthetic theory, decolonization, secularism, Islamic Humanism, and Marxism, in addition to the supranational ideologies of Pan-Arabism, Pan-Africanism, Pan-Islamism, and Third-Worldism.  Moreover, the archive of Maghrebi cultural journals reveals the supranational networks that emerged across the region during this period. Their global financing, publication, circulation, and readership, expose circuits spanning North and Sub-Saharan Africa, the Middle East, the Mediterranean basin and Europe; not to mention internationalist alliances with colonized and stateless populations. These rhizomatic flows of cultural capital signal subversive geopolitical exchanges operating outside the dominant logics of colonial mediation.

Alexandra Chreiteh (Shraytekh) - (Tufts University)

"Politicizing Horror: the Undead and Body Politic"

This paper explores the politicization of the mode of horror in contemporary fiction in Arabic. It argues that the monstrous, undead bodies that populate the pages of recent gothic, dystopian, and science fiction novels invite a revision of the body politic. Ahmed Sa’adawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad (2014) and Ahmad Za’atari’s Bending Over the Corpse of ‘Amman (2014) link the architectural destruction of capital cities with societal collapse, both metonymized by bodies caught in the liminal space between life and death. Through the figure of Frankenstein’s monster on the one hand and zombies on the other, these liminal bodies break with the modernist rhetoric of rebirth and rejuvenation, writing against the literary and political tropes of Ba’ath. Furthermore, the tropes and modalities of horror fiction are employed in order to explore the horror of facing newly-conceived Others in Iraq’s post-2003 sectarian strife, as well as following Jordan’s failed “Spring.” Fear in contemporary horror novels is the fear of Otherness, while monsters are “unnaturally” fashioned by sewing together various warring sectors of society (Sa’adawi); they consume and digest one another (Zaatari). Instead of Ba’ath, the new body politic is metonymized as a self-destructive artifact. Horror in Arabic fiction thus questions the possibility of building a new society after failed revolutions, and collectively calls for a re-imagination of political and literary aesthetics.

Haytham Bahoora (University of Toronto)

"Excavating the Early Iraqi Novel: Mahmud Ahmad al-Sayyid and the Search for Form"

Recent scholarship on the origins and formal qualities of the early Arabic novel have challenged prior critical approaches that largely adopted European aesthetic standards in their assessments of modern Arabic literary developments. This paper engages questions of form and style in the early Arabic novel through an analysis of the Iraqi novelist Mahmud Ahmad al-Sayyid’s (1903-1937) prose. Al-Sayyid is often credited with authoring Iraq’s first “artistic” novel, Jalal Khalid (1928), largely because of its stylistic (proto-realist) and thematic (nationalist) engagements. Yet even stylistically, Jalal Khalid is a mix of genres, including autobiography, epistolary prose, and romance. Taking this formal indeterminacy as a point of departure, this paper examines two prose works by al-Sayyid, one written at the beginning of his career (Masir al-Duʿafaʾ, 1922) and one written at the end (Inqilab, 1935), in order to trace the aesthetic shifts and transformations of al-Sayyid’s prose and to reassess the social, political, and literary influences that shaped the early Iraqi novel.

Dima Ayoub (Middlebury College)

"Paratextual Attachments: Modern Arabic Literature in English Translation"

What happens to our reading of Modern Arabic literature in English translation if the role of the paratext, instead of the text, is foregrounded? This project analyzes the ubiquitous use of paratexts, particularly the glossary, in English translations of Modern Arabic literature from the late 1960s until the present as a crucial site of translation in translation. In particular, I track the use of certain words between the 1970s to the early 2000s in order to ask how paratexts in general, and glossaries in particular, create a complex network of liminal mediation between the text, author, translator, publisher, and reader. Defined as a heterogeneous term that encompasses all aspects of a text’s accompanying material, in Seuils (1987), Gérard Genette draws attention to the role of paratexts as thresholds, boundary setters, and zones of transition and transaction. Paratexts, as thresholds of interpretation are particularly useful in analyzing the non-fictional, often short, and seemingly secondary texts that populate English translations of Modern Arabic literature. I am interested in examining the glossary beyond its functionality, even utility, in English translations of Modern Arabic literature. What does the glossary tell us about the specific case of Arabic in English? Does the glossary have a function beyond the taxonomic? Perhaps examining Arabic literature in English translation through the lens of the paratext can help us better analyze arguments about Arabic as untranslatable, controversial, and embargoed. Indeed, rather than analyzing the glossary as a taxonomical force, my project understands the glossary as a technology wielded by a complex mediating network that produces literary effect and further, a technology that functions processually alongside translation.

Johanna Sellman (Ohio State University)

"The Subversion of Borders in Hassan Blasim’s Short Stories and Theater"

This article focuses on the relationship between crossing national borders and theorizing more open subjectivities in Finland-based Iraqi writer Hassan Blasim’s literary narratives on undocumented migration. By analyzing stories in his short story collections Majnun Sahat al-Huriyya (The Madman of Freedom Square) and Ma’rid al-Juthath (The Corpse Exhibition) and his play Luʿbat al-Qubʿat al-Raqamiyya (The Digital Hats Game), this article queries the way that the encounter with and crossing of borders in contexts of migration coincide with a project of writing porous, networked, and open subjectivities. While borders and boundaries are omnipresent in Blasim’s texts, his writing creatively subverts these same boundaries, narrating, for example, the hacking of national borders, the blending together of human bodies, networked connectivity, parasitic relationships that challenge the integrity of the individual, and the breaking down of boundaries between what is human and non-human. His writing of migration is intertwined with a project of imagining more porous ways of conceiving of ourselves and what we call community. Here, the idea of opening up borders is continuously haunted and inspired by an undoing of the borders of the human, a process in which dystopias and utopian outcomes co-exist.

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