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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
  • 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.
  • Film noir represents a cinematic discourse (rather than a genre) that once dominated American Cinema and communicated post-WWII pessimism. As American Cinema and World Wars have a global echo, film noir elements traveled across the globe. While it never managed to represent itself as an established genre in Egypt, noir sensibilities first appeared in Egyptian films after Egypt’s political independence from British colonialism in 1952, thus a more hopeful time than the American war context. However, a more pessimistic “new wave” of noir films, or “neo-noir,” emerged after Egypt’s 1967 military defeat. This lecture analyzes film noir elements—e.g. urban crime, murder, and gender-based violence—in Egyptian Cinema and contrasts how they were first weaponized after independence and later after the defeat of the Third Worldist, anti-colonial, and socialist state. In this lecture, I examine noir aesthetics as a post-independence discourse in realist films, such as: Youssef Chahine’s Cairo Station (1958) and Kamal al-Shaykh’s adaptation of Naguib Mahfuz’s The Thief and the Dogs (1962). I then examine the same elements as a post-war discourse in post-1967 noir films from different genres Despite their different genres, these films reflect a conscious use of noir aesthetics and politics that communicate critiques of the political, intellectual, and social climate of their times. In addition to analyzing these films as “noir,” I also advance a reading of the films as “neo,” mainly for revisiting the conventions of “old” films and communicating revisionist discourses. By analyzing these neo/noir elements—as a discourse rather than a genre—in the context of Egyptian aesthetics and politics, this lecture explores the criteria that make a genre, a sub-genre, or a cinematic movement “new” and highlights the (inter)textual relation between genres, historical contexts, cultural climates, and political critique.