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Does Middle Eastern Modernism Exist?

Panel I-14, 2022 Annual Meeting

On Thursday, December 1 at 3:00 pm

Panel Description
1922 was a landmark year for literary modernism’s development. One hundred years ago, the literary world saw the first publication of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land, the completion of James Joyce’s Ulysses, and the English translation of Marcel Proust’s In Search of Lost Time, as Kevin Jackson’s Constellation of Genius: 1922: Modernism Year One reminds us. While we celebrate the centennial anniversary of these famous Western texts, this panel’s participants address a variety of works from the Middle East—in Arabic, Turkish, Persian, and Urdu—to answer the question: does Middle Eastern modernism exist? The panel asks whether there are distinct features that set Middle Eastern modernism apart from Western modernism. Panelists also contemplate whether Middle Eastern modernism might simply be an iteration of Western modernist styles and preoccupations or an instance of a global phenomenon that manifests differently in diverse geographic and linguistic contexts. We begin with an 1860 satirical novel by Khalil al-Khuri that marks a clear difference between European and Arabic literary modernism with its title, Oh no, I am Not European, and other panelists continue in this vein. One takes up the Syro-Lebanese poet Adunis’s critical engagement of an Arabic modernism that can be traced back to the Abbasid era and beyond. Another returns to the famous Iranian modernist poet Nima Yushij, whose famous modernist manifesto in the introduction to the long poem Afsanah (Legend or Myth) likewise came out in 1922. The paper considers what we can learn from the distinct differences between Nima’s poetry and “standard” Persian in light of the poet’s own theory of poetic defamiliarization and the challenges it poses to the lyric subject within the political context of colonial modernity in twentieth century Iran. A fourth situates Muhammad Husayn Haykal’s Zaynab (1913), purportedly the first modern novel in Arabic, in relation to other “village literature” in Egypt, including Yusuf al-Shirbini’s Hazz al-Quhuf (Brains Confounded) from the seventeenth century and Mahmud Tahir Haqqi’s ‘Adhra’ Dinshaway (The Dinshaway Virgin, 1906). The last paper extends our analysis into the Urdu context with readings of Quratulain Hyder’s reception of Eliot’s The Dry Salvages and Intizar Hussain’s 1979 novel Basti (Settlement), both of which displace European modernism. This paper emphasizes instead profound connections between non-Western modernisms through a transnational reflection between Urdu and Arabic modernisms. Overall, panelists suggest a significant shift away from Eurocentric analyses of modernism in the Middle East.
  • Hajar Mahfoodh
    Syrian poet Adunis explores modernism beyond its Western definition by integrating what he defines as the first Arab experience of modernism that took place during the medieval era. While Adunis acknowledges twentieth-century Francophone influences in shaping Arab modernism, he questions the Western experience of modernism. Building on the Sufi poetics of Ibn-Arabi and Al-Hallaj, Adunis defines modernism as a revolution within the culture that is in constant tension and progress and thereby never-ending. This paper explores the modernist experience of Adunis in both his poetry and theory, analyzing his work as an integration of re-created Sufism and Francophone theories to produce what he terms revolutionary poetry. Based on his poetic and critical experience, Adunis accuses Arab literary heritage and its narratives of practicing a hegemonic power that ignores and conceals boundaries within society and the minorities they marginalize. Consequently, he defies cultural heritage and literary narratives by forging an alternative memory of Arab heritage based on decentralizing and empowering those confined to the margins. These ideas are explored specifically in The Stage and the Mirrors (1968) and The Songs of Mihyar the Damascene (1961), along with his critical theories of poetry and culture.
  • Maziyar Faridi
    This article investigates the ruptures of the “standard” Persian language, both syntactically and semantically, in Nima Yushij’s writings. Reading excerpts of his prose and poetry, I look at two possible sources for what I have theorized as “linguistic anxiety” in his writings. As noted previously in the scholarship on Nima, the affective disruption of the symbolic relations in the Persian language stems partly from Nima’s native language Tabari, a minor Iranian language, which influenced his poetry. Second, Nima also developed a theory of poetic defamiliarization through his engagement with tropes of poetic ambiguity in a specific tradition of Persian poetry. The impossibility of “mastering” language in some instances of Nima’s poetry poses a threat to the sovereignty of the lyric subject, pushing the Persianist critics to characterize his language derogatorily as “translation-like.” Thinking through the questions proposed by the panel, I argue that, in addition to or perhaps beyond his prosody, Nima’s “modernist” aesthetics emerges when read in tension with the political context of colonial modernity in which “national subject” becomes an institutionalized linguistic sign in modern Iran.
  • This paper explores the Khalīl al-Khūrī’s 1860 novel Way idhan, lastu bi-Ifranjī (Oh no, I am not European) as both a plea for and example of Arabic literary modernism. This novel is a biting satirical novel that parodies the growing impact of European influence on the Levant in the nineteenth century. In the first part, the narrator takes the reader on a tour from Beirut to Aleppo as he showcases the cultural colonialism taking hold in the Levant. The second part of the novel consists of a love triangle involving Edmond, a Frenchman hiding out in Aleppo, a young Syrian woman, Émilie, and her Arab cousin Asʿad. Her father Mīkhālī believes himself to be a European and wishes to marry her off to Edmond and not to her cousin Asʿad with whom she is initially in love. The two sections are brought together by a brief comedic excursus comparing the poetic achievements of the French writer and politician Alphonse de Lamartine (d. 1869) with those of the renowned Arabic poet Abū al-Ṭayyib al-Mutanabbī (d. 965). Through these sections, al-Khūrī sets the stage for a revitalized Arabic culture that maintains a critical distance from Europe, celebrates Arabic literary history, and looks towards a new and interconnected world.
  • Asadullah Alvi
    In this developing work, I approach two literary objects from an otherwise broad-ranging archive of modern Urdu literary texts: first, Quratulain Hyder’s translation and re-inscription of T.S Eliot’s The Dry Salvages into the Urdu language, with which she prefaces her 1959 magnum-opus Urdu novel Āg kā Daryā (River of Fire). This translation, I demonstrate, disorients us from dominant modes through which we have come recognize a category and genre called modernism (vis-à-vis Eliot and others, those based within the Euro-American context). In a highly charged process of translation, Hyder transforms The Dry Salvages into unrecognizable form, locating it within the idiom, register and language of South Asian religious syncretism. I read this as a form of catachresis. What is displaced here is the Christian subtext of Eliot’s modernism. The second object I read is the opening section of Intizar Hussain’s 1979 novel Bastī (Settlement), a powerful critique of colonial rule effected through a modernist construction of (cyclical) time. In the case of Hussain, too, such cyclicality is staged not through an inspiration from Euro-American modernist sources, but rather through a recourse to syncretic forms of South Asian mythic and mystical source material, borrowed from the literary traditions of Islam and Hinduism respectively. In both of these writers, the ghost of what Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak has called an “intuition of the transcendental” appears and lingers. Such intuitions can expand, I show, the ways we conceptualize dominant literary categories, genres and thought, displacing the Christian and colonial histories associated with them (in this context “Western modernism”), in service of making space for transcendental and literary worlds found elsewhere. Such intuitions also connect Urdu modernisms with Middle Eastern modernisms, as well as modernisms emergent in other peripheries. Tracking these comparisons thus allows for a truly transnational, planetary and broad-ranging inquiry into how modernisms manifest in multiple geographies and linguistic contexts, as is the vision of this panel.
  • Despite Elliot Colla's brilliant 2009 article that deconstructed of the mythology surrounding Muhammad Husayn Haykal's novel Zaynab (1913) and it's supposed status as the "first modern novel in Arabic," the novel is still seen as a major milestone in cultural modernism, both within Egypt and in Anglo-American Middle East Studies. This paper seeks to situate Haykal's novel within the Egyptian tradition of village literature (e.g. Yusuf al-Shirbini's Huzz al-Quhuf (17th century) and Mahmud Tahir Haqqi's 'Adhra' Dinshaway (1906)) as well as in the context of global modernist discourses like nationalism, anthropology, and agrarian capitalism. In the process, we will see how the "peasant" (fallah) came to represent the national essence of Egyptians in a durable structure of feeling that has persisted to this day, leaving Haykal's novel with an impenetrable mystique as Egypt’s "first modern novel.”