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The Making of Modern Arabic Literature

Panel V-29, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Friday, November 3 at 1:30 pm

Panel Description
  • In the 19th century, scholars in North America and Europe greatly valued manuscripts as a crucial source of knowledge production and scholarly competition. Consequently, they scoured various regions of the Middle East in search of more sources to appropriate for their research. Notably, Louis Cheikho, a scholar who received training from both the "East" and the "West," took charge of the Bibliothèque Orientale in Beirut in 1880, a library associated with the Jesuit university, until his passing in 1927. Cheikho devoted himself to gathering manuscripts from the surrounding regions beyond Lebanon to create a similar institution to those he had seen in Europe. This paper aims to examine the intra-Eastern movement of manuscripts through archival research conducted at the University of Saint Joseph. By redrawing the history of the collections and Cheikho's efforts, it intends to complicate our understanding of the development of Oriental studies beyond the geographical confines of Europe and North America, moving beyond the simplistic notion of imitation. It is common to describe the movement of objects from the "East" to the "West" with terms such as appropriation, displacement, theft, and the like. However, given Cheikho's scholarly background and the library's location, the manuscripts held there allow for critical reflection on collecting as a practice and problematizing it, particularly when foreigners are not involved. Louis Cheikho's contributions to collecting manuscripts from the Middle East were of great importance, providing scholars with access to a wealth of knowledge to further their research. Manuscripts not only teach us about the communities that produced them but also about the individuals and institutions that dealt with them in the modern period. As a result, this paper argues that Cheikho's collecting activities were dictated by an anxiety to develop both religious and linguistic education and inscribed in conceptions of modernity. In particular, the Bibliothèque Orientale in Beirut offers a special insight into the study of manuscripts. Being an "Eastern" library with "Eastern" manuscripts, it allows for a reflection on questions of access, ownership, and cultural heritage. The manuscripts housed in this library provide a unique perspective on the transregional movement of manuscripts within the Eastern world. This insight emphasizes the need to explore this area beyond the conventional boundaries of Europe and North America, as it offers new and promising opportunities for understanding the historical and cultural significance of manuscripts.
  • This paper focuses on the novels of two writers who migrated from Mount Lebanon in Ottoman Syria to Egypt at the fin de siècle, the well-known historical novelist Jurji Zaydan and the idiosyncratic translator, novelist, and playwright Farah Antun. Both Zaydan and Antun brought into question the trope of Arab backwardness on which the British predicated their rule. In his novel al-Mamlūk al-Shārid [The Fugitive Mamluk, 1891], Zaydan affirmed the potentiality in belatedness—in being out of sync with the prevailing spirit of the age—through the central conceit of his novel, in which a member of the Mamluk regime survives his assassination by showing up late to an appointment with the founder of the dynasty that would replace it, Muhammad ‘Ali. But Zaydan tried to accommodate this insight with the logic of progressive rule by suggesting that historical antagonisms like those between the Mamluk and ‘Ali dynasties would be reconciled in duration. Taking recourse to an ending that resolved every outstanding issue and redeemed every loss, Zaydan made belatedness into a pretext for merely catching up. Farah Antun, meanwhile, affirmed Zaydan’s intuition that a single moment in time can be full of the residues of diverse historical eras while eschewing Zaydan’s attempt to realign these discrepant temporalities in a climactic gesture of unification. In his novel about the Islamic conquest of the Levant, Ūrūshalīm al-Jadīda, aw Fatḥ al-‘Arab Bayt al-Maqdis [The New Jerusalem, or the Arab Conquest of the Holy City, 1904], Antun made use of anachronistic historical chronicles, prophecy, analepses, and prolepses to demonstrate the heterogeneity of present time. Antun cast characters from each of the three major monotheistic religions in the role of witnesses to their communities’ messianic expectations. But because Jews, Christians, and Muslims—as well as the group of utopian socialists who are the protagonists of the story—have different sets of experiences and expectations, they are effectively desynchronized in the present. The novel’s melancholic and indeterminate ending suggests that the progress the British have promised cannot occur in the absence of a shared measure of historical time.
  • Languages possesses different tools for intensifying overtones of speech. Whereas the resulting effect is semantic, the devices used may be grammatical, phonological or lexical. Words can be motivated in three different ways: phonologically, morphologically and semantically. Phonological motivation, including onomatopoeia, sound symbolism, aesthetic effects and associated phenomena are part of the very fabric of classical poetry. Arabic is a non- concatenative language. To create words, it relies on the combination of radical consonantal roots that represent lexical meaning, with morphological patterns, which represent functional meaning. Through the manipulation of morphological patterns, Arabic creates morphologically related words denoting semantically related concepts and ideas. The modification of these roots by means of vowels gives a specification to the primary sounds by coloring them according to the conditions and the point of view that the word it is related to. The language used in Arabic poetry is, thus, made sonorant enough to reflect the poet’s psyche and emotional status through the intensification of speech overtones. Being translated into many Western languages, the overtones that characterize this poetry are not always in evidence. This research work adapts the assessment tools of optimality theory to investigate a corpus of fifteen French and English translations of a sample verse line from classical Arabic poetry. This verse line employs diverse tools to intensify the poet’s appeal: alliteration, assonance, affective lexical aspects and contrastive parallelism. Assessment in this paper is done diachronically and synchronically. The translations are assessed according to their chronological order, and they are compared to both the original text and to one another. This research project applies two constraints of optimality theory, namely faithfulness and consistency, to test how far this output-oriented linguistic theory may enrich the field of poetry translation quality assessment. Though enriching at multiple dimensions, this theory cannot be wholly adopted to assess the translatability of poetic overtones. The tenets that are made to question are the only-when-necessary tenet and the identity rather than difference tenet. The research concludes with the recommendation of adding a constraint from translational hermeneutics, namely the belief that interpretation is an on-going process.
  • This paper offers both an ethnographic and literary critical examination of the massive popularity of Sabahattin Ali’s Madonna in a Fur Coat (Kürk Mantolu Madonna, 1943) in Turkey today, especially among younger generations. Drawing on 30 months of ethnographic research in Istanbul, the paper argues that Ali’s novel (whose present popularity only began to develop some five decades after its original publication) has offered younger Turks a critique of, and a sense of consolation within, a contemporary reality that seems to have suppressed possibilities for self-realization and expression. In reading Madonna in a Fur Coat as a kind of anti-Bildungsroman (a reading reliant on a number of key studies of the Bildungsroman in both European and non-European contexts) the paper argues that the novel’s present popularity is tied to a prevalent sense that the possibility of Bildung (understood as a process of personal growth and self-realization within secular time) has been foreclosed in contemporary Turkey. This sense, held particularly by young, secular-liberal Turks, has intensified following the suppression of the Gezi Park protests in 2013, the intensifying authoritarianism of President Erdoğan after 2016’s coup attempt, and the deterioration of the Turkish economy. Such Turks today often feel that the desires they grew up with, and the ones they are encouraged to feel through a globalized, neoliberal, and social mediatized economy of desire and self-worth, are increasingly impossible to realize. Concurrently, expectations of Turkey’s future as increasingly prosperous, democratic, and European (the latter expectation reliant on a legacy of Orientalist distinction) have dissolved in the face of Erdoğan’s authoritarian turn and Brussel’s islamophobic intransigence in seriously considering Turkish entry into the EU. In this climate, Ali’s novel—written in a moment of radical social change following Atatürk’s relentless modernizing reforms—has become an important resource for young people trying to find their place in a world that seems to have no place for them. Drawing on both ethnography and literary criticism, this paper offers insights into the crises of contemporary Turkish society from the vantage of one immensely popular novel, whose story of love and loss among damaged people living in a profoundly damaged world has resonated with so many. The paper asks, furthermore, how (even within our highly digitized age) the reading of fiction can help make sense of the predicaments of the present, providing allegories of personal and national experience that allow for both consolation and critique.
  • The paper titled “Egyptian Neo/Noir: Death and Murder in Post-1967 Egyptian Cinema” analyzes the representation of crime, murder, and gender violence in three post-1967 Egyptian films and examines the ways they echo the political and historical changes that occurred in Egypt after the 1967 Arab military defeat. This defeat marked the end of Egypt's anti-colonial and socialist project, as well as its short-lived nationalized Egyptian Cinema industry, leading up to the emergence of new cinematic trends that challenged earlier conventions. Film noir represents a discourse (rather than a genre) that once communicated post-WWII pessimism. For that reason, this paper analyzes noir elements in three post-1967 Egyptian films as a post war discourse that prevailed across genres. Despite their different genres, the three films–Safah al-Nisa’ (The Women's Serial Killer, 1970) by Niyazi Mustapha, Al-Ikhtiyar (The Choice, 1970) by Youssef Chahine, and Tharthara Fawq al-Nil (Chitchat on the Nile, 1971) by Husayn Kamal–reflect a conscious use of noir aesthetics and politics that structure the narrative and communicate critiques of the political, intellectual, and social climate of the time. These films are also considered “neo” because they revisit the conventions of “old” films, mainly earlier commercial and social realist films, and communicate revisionist discourses. While film noir never managed to represent itself as an established genre in Egypt, this paper investigates noir sensibilities, male-centered perspectives, and representations of gender-based urban crimes that dominated the three films, all of which resemble American film noir. Through allegorical crime stories and gender representations, the films advance nationalist, political, realist, anti-colonial, and leftist critiques. By analyzing these neo/noir films in the context of Egyptian aesthetics and politics, this paper explores the criteria that make a genre or cinematic movement “new” and the (inter)textual relation between genres, their historical contexts, cultural climates, and political critique.
  • My talk will discuss historical and more recent attempts at collaborative poetic writing in Arabic literature. It will introduce a set of practical and theoretical concerns regarding the styles, forms, languages, and performative affect of collaborative poetics among Arab poets. First, I will analyze how collective composition works in the Arabic tradition and what historical circumstances give rise to it. I will frame this discussion within the framework of “poetry and the commons”, which refines our conception of how poetic language helps shape commonality and community. My initial research suggests that the commons created by Arabic poetry can be conceptualized as an imaginary ḥayyiz mussayaj (an enclosed space) or a cooperative of taḍāfur (tight braiding together, mutual assistance) that comes into existence to counteract the disintegration of al-ḥayyiz al-ʿām (public space) in Arab countries. It rejects the hostility between social groups by nurturing values of solidarity, affection, and shared initiative. To generate this alternative space, the construct of the solitary romantic artist is dismantled, and modes of writing that aspire for community-building effect take its place. In Arabic poetry, the turn towards collaboration has critical ramifications for the poem’s language and for reimagining the gaps between stylized expression and common life. The corpus I study starts from the 1947 surrealist poetry collection Siryāl and reaches the 2011 collage of Syrian poets titled Mundhir Maṣrī wa-Shurakāh (Mundhir Masri and Co.). Analyzing this body of works will give a fresh perspective on central notions in the intellectual history of the Arab 20th century such as iltizām and the “unmaking of the Arab intellectual” (Halabi), cultural authenticity (aṣāla) and modernity (ḥadātha), exile and postcolonial subjectivity. What can we learn about the literary and intellectual history of the Arab world from looking at the ways in which Arab artists collaborate and present the insights of their joint exploration of the collective psyche?