MESA Banner
Rediscovering the Arabic Novel

Session XII-13, 2022 Annual Meeting

On Sunday, December 4 at 11:00 am

Panel Description
  • A monster stitched of victims’ joints is endowed with life; he roams the streets of Baghdad City seeking revenge and claiming justice. As these pieces blister and reject the hosted body, his urge to kill more to replace the decomposed lax joints escalates. The ‘Whatsitsname’ with his vindictive nature fed by grudge, is a metaphor for any national project predicated upon coercive cohesion. My argument in this paper is that, like this monster in Ahmed Saadawi’s Frankenstein in Baghdad (2018), the nation itself is stumbling, struggling to gain its balance and existence as a united country that comprises all religions, ethnicities, minorities..etc. The failure of the character in the novel represents the failure of the nation outside the narrative border to be united and reconciled. As such, this novel, exemplifying a sprouting array of narratives in the region, refutes the ‘imagined political community’ of Arab nationalism and displays an awakening to the internal fragmentation in the region. If fiction is tied in this way with a symbiotic relation to reality, its subtlety goes beyond criticising reality to suggesting the pressing need for adaptation and change. Since the deformed monster is seen to stand for the failure of the nation, a key aspect of this paper is to invite rethinking the limitation of the nation both as a concept and as terminology that can enunciate ethnoreligious and cultural diversity. Accordingly, this paper invites relying on literature to provide the field of literary studies, if not also other fields of humanities, with a concept that is more commensurate with the literature of fragmented nations. Drawing on this background, I have coined a term to describe such a torn-up nation: DeformNation, and subsequently, such literature of national disparity: DeformNational literature. The purpose of this term is to create an integrative structure with a function, specific characteristics, and methodology. I will start with underscoring scholarly critiques on the original concept of nation and nationalism in European and non-European scholarship (Smith [1971 &1998]; Gellner [1983]; Anderson [2006]; Kedourie [2012]; Tagore [1917]) that is constituent of Arab nationalism (Mufti [1996]; Tibi [1997]; Makiya [1998]) before delineating the new term, its trajectory in postcolonial studies (Bhabha [1990]; Hall [2017]; Gagiano [2019]), the kind of literature it subsumes and an empirical concise analysis of Sadaawi’s novel. The term would enhance rethinking the multilayered complexities of postcolonial nation-states, and by extension, rethinking postcolonial literary studies.
  • In Wāhat al-ghurūb, Bahā’ Taher (2007) draws the contours of Egyptian race-consciousness using fiction, history, archeology, and biography. Centering the experience of Mahmūd Abdel Zahir, a stand-in character for Mahmoud Azmi––the District Commissioner at the Oasis––Taher explores the “circles of oppression” in the Siwa oasis, as a “colonized periphery” of nineteenth-century Egypt and Azmi’s connection to the ruinous event at the temple of Umm Ubaydah in 1897. Using Azmi’s first name, status, experience, and historical context at the close of the century as a scaffold, Taher constructs an imagined Egyptian subjectivity and masculinity informed by forces of change at the time. The novel grapples with racism in paradoxical ways manifesting in multiple triangulations where Mahmūd’s positionality constantly shifts between center and periphery. The impending presence of intertwining ailments of the nineteenth century: slavery, colonialism, and colonialism by proxy alongside a linear Egyptian anti-colonial nationalist movement illuminate the latter’s dualism on the question of liberation and autonomy. It shines a light on Egyptians’ undiagnosed “double consciousness.” The Egyptian nationalists’ (secular and/or religious) adoption of a repudiated European despotism and an applicable European culture binary falsely created an Egyptian affinity with whiteness, latching on to its roots in Egyptian consciousness as a result of the interlocking legacies of conquest and colonization by foreign forces and systems of governance. Failing to recognize white supremacy, its associates, agents, and victims easily leads to failing in constructing political and religious liberation ideas, theologies, vocabulary, and discourse that can correctly and justly speak to the particular grievances of the oppressed. Wāhat al-ghurūb is a novel pregnant with those tensions, awkward silences, and flawed harmonies and dissonances. Wāhat al-ghurūb offers itself, not as an antidote or a counter-amnesia, but as an awakening from a long Egyptian slumber regarding the question of slavery and the position of Black Africans in Egyptian imagination. It complicates Egyptians’ relationship with themselves, with those who are “othered” under the Egyptian gaze, and those who “other” Egyptians under their Black or White gaze. This article aims to present Egyptian race-consciousness through the triangulated encounters which constantly center and decenter Mahmūd and depict him as a liminal subject. This article examines the ways in which Mahmūd’s “double-consciousness” is rendered as he navigates multiple binaries as colonized-colonizer, master-slave, religious-unreligious, Egyptian-non-Egyptian.
  • A great deal of scholarly work has been done to demonstrate the dominance of the paradigm of commitment [al-iltizām] in Arabic literature of the 1950s and 1960s, to determine the elements of this ideological complex, and to track its historical mutation in relation to French cultural influence and the conflict with Israel. Relatively little work, however, has been done to explain the influence of this paradigm on the forms of Arabic literature and specifically those of the novel. This paper studies two Lebanese novels from the 1950s, both of which engage the logic, mood, and philosophical referents of existentialism, out of which commitment is generally understood to emerge. In particular, I focus on the narrative representation of the present, which is integral to both the existentialist thematics of decision and self-realization as well as the anticolonial insistence on revolutionary action now. In these novels, the present isn’t merely a topic of reflection; rather, the urgency of the moment is transposed into the fundaments of a new literary style. I have selected two novels that bear representative value during this period in the metabolization of Sartrean commitment. Suhayl Idris’s Al-Ḥayy al-Lātīnī [The Latin Quarter, 1953] details the experiences of a Lebanese man whose misadventures in France undo him as both a character and narrator. Idris registers the present time of commitment in the forms of plenitude that characterize a life reconciled to its homeland, to which the narrator returns in the final pages. Since the price to be paid for this reconciliation with the nation is the exclusion of meaningful relationships with women, I turn to fellow Lebanese writer Layla Ba’albaki’s Anā Aḥyā [I Am Alive, 1958] to substantiate an alternative imagination of commitment. Whereas Idris’s protagonist finds commitment in an almost mystical communion with fellow male nationalists, Ba’albaki’s narrator finds her voice by withdrawing from constraining relations with men and affirming her existence in the presence of herself. Both novels pioneer new paths for the Arabic novel, taking the present-time of commitment as the rationale for literary forms that sharply differ from their predecessors. Both offer a thick, phenomenological account of living in the present. But they differ in their assessment of what possibilities the present affords and so in their formal representation of living presently.
  • In his novel The Committee, Sonallah Ibrahim dramatizes the transition from Egypt’s industrializing economy under Nasser to the open-door economic policies of Sadat. Yet rather than focusing on the political stakes of these policies, Ibrahim offers a view from the perspective of the consumer. This involves a dual emplotment: on the one hand the consumer is presented as an individual whose desires are cultivated or manipulated to motivate her forms of participation in the market. On the other hand, market systems operate on a collective scale to coerce consumers, manufacture their wants, and exploit political opportunities to expand their own frontiers. Ibrahim explores these mechanisms on the level of the multinational corporation that seeks to limit its own liability while externalizing costs, many of which Egyptian consumers are made to bear. Coca-cola is emblematic in the novel for the way desire has both social and individual functions. For example, the narrator finds himself compulsively drinking the soda despite understanding the critical role the corporation had in creating conditions of scarcity for potable water in the country. My paper explores Ibrahim’s satirical critique of the financial imperialism of the US in Egypt in the 1970’s, putting it into conversation with Marxist political economists like Samir Amin. Ultimately, Ibrahim suggests that personal and national forms of sovereignty are always limited by the mechanisms and growing influence of global finance. This paper is part of a larger project considering the historical impact of financialization on the Global South.
  • This paper argues that Bahaa Taher’s Sunset Oasis (2006) employs a Sufi approach in its evaluation of the Egyptian national project and the European genre of the bildungsroman as a universal education narrative. Taher employs the Sufi concepts of journey and dreams as a familiar, local, religious epistemology through which to explore the stunted personal and political growth of the middle-aged protagonist Mahmoud Abd el Zahir. Focusing on Mahmoud's struggle to come to terms with his betrayal of the 1881-1882 ‘Urabi Revolution, Sunset Oasis begins in 1902, twenty years into the British occupation and moves between the late nineteenth century and the early years of the twentieth century. As Mahmoud assumes his new position as the new Chief of police in Siwa, an oasis in Egypt’s Western Desert close to the Libyan border, he reflects on his failures. His political betrayal, seen in his decision to denounce the revolution and its leader in order to escape the government’s retribution, has followed on the heels of a personal betrayal. Mahmoud has rejected his Sudanese concubine, Neꜥma, whom he loves and who leaves him upon realizing that he regards her as no more than a commodity and a symbol of Egypt’s mastery over Sudan. His failure with Neꜥma is repeated in Siwa when he fails to protect Maleeka, a young Siwan widow who comes to his house seeking his wife’s friendship. Mahmoud has three dreams that mark his progression on the path of self-examination. By prodding him to confront his personal and political disloyalty, they open up a space for critiquing the racial and patriarchal structures upon which Egyptian identity rests. At the same time, they pinpoint Egyptians’ own incrimination in exclusionary ideologies. To evoke both Sufi dream terminology and bildungsroman narrative, Maleeka and Ni‘ma – the two marginalized women whom Mahmoud wrongs irreparably – alternately figure as his guides/mentors who reveal to him the truth about himself and, in the process, insert minority women’s histories in the national narrative. It is these enlightening dreams that push Mahmoud towards his final act of suicide or self-martyrdom. Mahmoud blows up an ancient Egyptian temple as a call for a fresh start and a new form where defining the Self is not contingent on marginalizing the Other. By destroying all cultural signifiers and the concomitant histories, hierarchies, and fixed power structures that they generate, he creates a blank slate where the margin does not exist.