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Packrats and Hoarders of Arabic Literature

Panel III-6, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Friday, November 3 at 8:30 am

Panel Description
This panel explores the collecting impulse among Arabic authors, editors, and readers. We present our research on the act of gathering literary material, but also on the ideology around copiousness. At what historical moments have writers pushed themselves and one another to memorize, anthologize, edit, create, flaunt, or synthesize large bodies of text? What do such moments tell us about literary form and political life throughout the tradition? And how do audiences collect material over time? To answer these questions, the panel works from premodernity, to the Ottoman era, and into recent decades of national life. We employ the “packrat” metaphor to move past some of the more comfortable axioms on Arabic cultural history, e.g., the unity of the qasida, imitation of a select few artistic masters, defining adab as “belles-lettres,” and the cliche of great modernists writing from solitary contemplation. Two papers address the Classical tradition: one a study of poetry anthologists’ innovations against the backdrop of ‘Abbasid cultural politics, the other investigating the medieval ruba‘i (quatrain) as an uncomfortable category of “World Literature.” Both of those presentations ask how efforts to build large compendia of literature create new taxonomies of adab. The two papers that deal exclusively with twentieth-century works will investigate Egypt as a publishing and archiving center of literary life. One paper examines the abject and the accumulation of filth in contemporary Egyptian fiction, as an alternative repertoire of literary and political resistance. Another analyzes poet Ahmad Zaki Abushady’s voluminous poetry collection Tearful Twilight (Al-Shafaq al-Baki) as a genre-bending compilation of verse, prose, paintings, photographs, and prints that aimed to transform the book--and, by extension, the literary--into its own covetable art-object. As a whole, the panel finds that clutter does more than occludes the senses; it also enables new forms of historicist critique.
Library Science
Media Arts
  • In this presentation, I will analyze and historicize the most prominent medium of Arabic poetry encoding, the collection, as part of a wider argument about the mediated lives (or forms of existence) that Classical Arabic poetry takes. To do this, I will bring together a few key examples of early Diwans and poetry anthologies alongside less canonical examples from later periods of Arabic literary history and from outside the core Arabic-speaking areas. Returning to manuscripts, I will ask how and for whom Arabic poetry came to be organized in a series of well established formats in the formative period of pre-modern Arabic scholarship. In pre-modern and modern scholarship, Classical Arabic poetry is most often understood against the background of biography or literary-history. In my new research, I put forward a media history of Arabic poetry in order to understand more fully and empirically how the history of Arabic poetry as a social text and language artform intersected with media technologies and informed their development. The aesthetics of Arabic poetry is influenced by the collecting passions of its early systematizers and we can trace the resilience of this aesthetic drive over the genre’s history. We can also identify an epistemological resonance to this collecting passion in the long and dynamic history of performance archiving in Classical Arabic and its vibrant commentary culture.
  • Samuel England
    My paper contends with the surge of translations that Arabic writers and performing artists produced of premodern quatrain poetry from the Persian tradition. I focus upon the years 1920-60. The popularity enjoyed by the ruba‘i (“quatrain” serving as its imperfect English label) is not well accounted for by most major studies of Arabic popular culture. That is because Arabs’ interest in premodern Persian fits uncomfortably with the major political trends of the first half of the twentieth century, namely colonialism and the Arab national independence movements. Persophilia usually emerges as a side-note in our curricular intellectual histories of the Mandate Era. But in this paper I show how the translation movement provides us with a voluminous, and revealing, narrative of national discourse, spanning colonialism and political independence. Omar Khayyam (1048-1131) became widely known to the Arab bourgeoisie in the 1920s through major translation efforts. Ahmad Rami of Egypt and the Iraqi poet Ahmad al-Najafi serve as complementary, competitive figures in World Literature. Rami, well known as a collector of manuscripts in addition to a composer of poetry, stressed the scholarly bona fides of his Khayyam research. Al-Najafi took pride in having translated the largest number of the quatrains, and winning high acclaim from his Persian contemporaries. My study argues that such contentious poetics receded by the 1950s, as political independence and mass media became the organizing principles of official culture. Recording artists took on the ruba‘i, such that its literary status has been shaped, long-term, by its distribution and consumption as popular lyric. The great singer Umm Kulthum adapted Rami’s translations for musical performance, with profound effects upon the poet and the larger audience for poetry itself. Umm Kulthum’s unrivaled celebrity helped to make Rami’s texts near-synonymous with the very idea of the translated ruba‘iyyat. My paper on Persophilia and mass distribution of “foreign” cultural texts reaches its conclusion by examining Khayyam’s afterlives in popular music, stretching into the twenty-first century. Arabic Studies still needs to take on the challenge of understanding poetry across epochs, including the vital role of Persian-Arabic translation in the world of media which we currently inhabit.
  • Though widely acknowledged as the pioneering founder of the literary collective Jamaʿiyyat Apollo and its signal publication Apollo from 1932-1934, the incredibly prolific Egyptian Ahmad Zaki Abushady remains understudied. A bacteriologist trained in Egypt and the United Kingdom, Abushady was also a passionate scientist and apiarist; a devotee of the collectivist movement, he spearheaded publications for several agricultural and scientific associations in 1930s Egypt and served as the chair of Bacteriology at Alexandria University from 1941 until his departure for the U.S. in 1946. Abushady’s 1926 collection al-Shafaq al-Baki (Tearful Twilight) marks a crucial transition point in the history of modern Arabic poetry—a moment at which the public, collective, performative function of poetry was waning and its role as a private, published, written book-object or series of book-objects was on the rise. Still, Tearful Twilight has received little more than a brief gloss in articles and book chapters by major scholars of Abushady’s work and Arabic poetry more generally (Robin Ostle, M.M. Badawi, Shmuel Moreh). Swelling to over thirteen hundred pages, crammed not only with poems, but also with photographs, art prints, ekphrastic works, translations, and critical essays by Abushady and supporters of his literary mission, Tearful Twilight marks the end of an era in which, as the poet writes, “science, wisdom, and literature were separated from each other,” and heralds the beginning of a new era, in which “poetry… has become both the vast register that gathers all of these and the creed that declares their unity.” This paper examines how Abushady strives, throughout Tearful Twilight, to craft “unity” from pursuits as diverse as apiary science, bacteriology, Egyptian nationalism, and romantic love poetry. Through close readings of several poems, I argue that Abushady aimed to transform the landscape of Arabic poetry, “modernizing” it through a healthy injection of translated English works and critical concepts, on the one hand, and reviving its traditional function as the ur-diwan of the Arabs, on the other. Although this mission largely failed, its ambitious scope remains a crucial and neglected chapter in the history of Arabic modernism.