The Arabic Novel in Non-Western Eyes

Anthologies of "world literature" have often used the term to market a largely Western canon. But isn't western literature still implicitly regarded as the measure of all things? And are we not overlooking other literary values out of sheer ignorance? By Fakhri Saleh

By Fakhri Saleh

It was Johann Wolfgang von Goethe who introduced the concept of Weltliteratur in 1827, to describe the growing availability of texts from other nations – including Sanskrit and Islamic epic poetry – to European readers. From then on, the term gained currency in the study of national literatures translated into the main European languages, i.e. English, French, German and Spanish. The fragility and ambiguity of the term is a result of its Eurocentric, myopic vision of the national literatures produced by other, non-European peoples of the world.

Even David Damrosch's redefinition of the term world literature in his What is World Literature? does not distantiate the term from its point of departure. Damrosch uses the term as a category of literary production, publication and circulation, rather than using it as an evaluation. Nevertheless, he is still very close to Goethe's uses of the term.

There is an insistence on the quality of cosmopolitan character of literatures produced by different nations, a search for the common features. Without the hidden agenda of comparability to European, and more broadly to western, literatures the concept of world literature loses its ground, becoming a kind of commodity of the global era. The semi-Orientalist judging of other literatures is a heritage that the concept carries with it.

A from of "internal Orientalism"

Ahmad Faris Shidyaq (photo: private)
The author of the first Arab novel and a kind of Arab Rabelais: the Lebanese writer and traveller Ahmad Faris Shidyaq (1804–1887)

​​In the study of the emergence of the Arabic novel as a genre at the beginning of the second half of the nineteenth century, both western and Arab critics and literary historians have stressed the European impact and point of departure.

In a form of internal Orientalism, an assimilation of the ideas and conceptual elements of Orientalism, Arab critics have seen the narrative works produced by their fellow writers as a continuation of the European narrative tradition. They have missed the real quality, and internal complexity of the tradition of narration in Arabic literature. The case of the Arabic novel could be a living example of how to deconstruct the concept of world literature as seen through western eyes, or by westernized minds.

The emergence of the Arabic novel during the nineteenth century was strongly influenced by the hierarchy of literary genres in the Arabic literary tradition. The first Arab novelists digressed from the norms of the European novel, restructuring the genre by making their new texts very similar to the traditions of Arabic prose. The Palestinian Khaleel Baidas (1875–1925) translated many European classics, especially Russian novels and short stories, redefining the plot by adding lines of Arabic poetry from the pre-Islamic, Umayyad and Abbasid eras. In translating the works of say Tolstoy, or Pushkin, or Turgenev, he hinders the flow of the narrative by inserting lines of Arabic poetry.

Rich Arabic literary tradition

What Baidas aspires to do is to conform to the norms of Arabic literary tradition. The novel, as a European tradition, was not known to Arab readers at that time, and what Baidas really did was to make the form closer to the tradition known to Arabs for centuries.

Ahmad Faris Shidyaq (1804–1887), a Lebanese writer who lived in Damascus, Paris, London, Istanbul, Cairo and Tunis, contributed to the translation of the Bible into Arabic. Born to a Maronite family, Shidyaq became a Protestant and later converted to Islam. His travels, fleeing from his country under the threats of the governors of Mount Lebanon during the Ottoman rule of the Arab world, and his prolific career as a journalist, poet, critic, linguist, lexicographer, translator and educator, enriched his literary works. Arab literary critics and historians now consider them cornerstones of modern Arabic literature.

Shidyaq published his widely known and acclaimed Al-Saq ala al-Saq fim a huwa al-faryaq during his stay in Paris in 1855. Some consider this book the first Arabic novel. It was compared to the works of Rabelais; it displays the capacities of Arabic language through writing a kind of autobiography in the third person, a novel of education and a travel narrative. The hero of Shidyaq's work, Faryaq, a contraction of Faris and Shidyaq, leaves Lebanon for Egypt where he settles for a while before visiting Damascus and Tunis. The novel ends as he is about to embark for Turkey.

Echoes of Dante's "Divine Comedy"

The maqamat</em> was a story collection from the 9th century of 400 episodic stories, roughly 52 of which have survived. Its influence on modern Arabic prose is still felt today. Pictured: Illustration of Al-Hamadhani's maqamat</em>


The style of Al-Saq ala al-Saq fim a huwa al-faryaq is similar to that of the maqama in Arab literary heritage, and the character of the wanderer is a reminiscent of both al-Hamadhani's and al-Hrariri's characters in their maqamat (plural of maqama). The maqama, a classical Arabic literary genre, developed in the tenth century out of a cluster of Arabic prose genres which basically comprised all of the education and learning of court circles.

The maqamat were usually composed in collections of short independent narrations written in ornamental rhymed prose (saj') with verse insertions which shared a common plot-scheme and two constant protagonists: the narrator and the hero. In each narration a vagrant and mendicant, but also a man of letters and eloquence, appears in a certain public place (a market, a mosque, a cemetery, a public bath, a travelling caravan, etc.) in different guises, and tricks people into giving him money by manipulating their feelings and beliefs.

Abdelfattah Kilito, an outstanding Moroccan scholar and literary critic who writes in French, sees the work of Shidyaq as reminiscent of Laurence Sterne's Tristram Shandy. Taking into consideration Shidyaq's intention to imitate the form of the maqama, his work is a continuation of Arabic literary tradition. It hybridizes the European form by using the maqama, influenced by Al-Hamadhani (tenth century) and Al-Hrariri (eleventh century), two Arab prose writers who invented the form and pushed Arabic story-telling a step forward.

The same influence of maqama could be found in the works of al-Muwaylihi (1858–1930), especially in his Isa Ibn Hisham Tale (1907). Al-Muwaylihi relies heavily on the maqama form, even borrowing the name of his narrator "Isa Ibn Hisham" from al-Hamadhani's maqamat.

Genuine history and development

The first Arab novelists felt that the novel could not be ingrained in Arabic modern culture without being attached to the deeply rooted Arabic tradition. This literary tradition, which includes poetry, anecdotes, chivalric tales, Arabic sayings, stories of the prophets, and on top of that Kalila Wa dimna by Ibn al-Muqaffa and the Thousand and One Nights, is the real source of early Arabic novels. These texts and forms could be considered prehistoric novelistic genres, in the Bakhtinian sense, which constitute the influences that shaped the form in later years.

The Arabic novel is not an imitation of the European novel. It lived in the shadow of the genre that flourished in sixteenth-century Europe, but it has its own history and development. Even the term riwaya, an equivalent of the term novel, does not have the same denotation. It means 'narration', 'telling', and it has a very direct relation to tale-telling in Arabic literary tradition.

Naguib Mahfouz (photo: AP)
Not just an epigone of Balcaz and the European modernists: According to Fakhri Saleh, Nobel Prize-winner Naguib Mahfouz is firmly rooted in Arabic tradition

​​When Naguib Mahfouz (1911–2006) won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988, European and American commentators described him as the Balzac of the Arabic novel, referring mainly to his Cairo Trilogy. But Mahfouz is not a Balzac, nor a Galsworthy or an Emile Zola, or even a Thomas Mann. Mahfouz is rooted in Arabic tradition, and his style, even in his realistic works, fuses the subtleties of the Arabic language with influences of the European genre. That makes him more drawn to the Arabic prose of Al-Jahiz (781–868).

Al-Jahiz, who wrote about 360 books in his long career, is considered the bridge between Arabic tradition, turath , and modern Arabic writing. His highly crafted style of narration and techniques of description are emulated by modern Arab writers, Naguib Mahfouz included. To call Mahfouz a Balzacian is a limitation and a reduction of his work.

In novels other than the Cairo Trilogy, i.e. The Children of Gebelawi (1959), The Harafish (1977), Arabian Nights and Days (1981) and The Journey of Ibn Fattouma (1983), Mahfouz uses storytelling threads reminiscent of the Thousand and One Nights, Ibn Battuta's Travels, the stories of the prophets, and other prehistoric novelistic forms in the Arabic tradition.

Hybridization of texts

There are, of course, other contemporary Arab novelists who revolutionized the form, by going back to Arabic traditions in prose and poetry. Although some literary historians consider the banishing of poetry from novelistic texts a kind of modernization of Arabic literature and a developmental stage in the life the genre, creative Arabic novelists such as the Palestinian Emile Habibi (1922–1996) infused the novel with a multitude of quotations, including poetry, and the use of pastiche.

Gamal el-Ghitany (photo: DW)
Creating novels that revolutionize the form: the Egyptian writer Gamal el-Ghitany

​​Habibi, in his magnum opus The Pessoptimist, first published in 1972, borrowed from a wide array of Arabic texts, quotations from the Koran, Muhammad's sayings, poetry lines from the tradition, al-Jahiz's writings, maqama, and other classic Arabic texts. This hybridization of the text makes the work of Habibi one of the masters of Arabic literature in the twentieth century. His other works are a continuation of drawing on classical Arabic heritage and folklore to create a hybrid form that gives his open texts a multiplicity of meanings.

The literature that is considered original and moving is not that which imitates the western tradition, but it is the literature that makes an amalgam of Arabic tradition and the European form of the novel. In that direction, the work of the Egyptian Gamal el-Ghitany, who follows in the footsteps of Arab historians in the Mamluk era, moves to create novels that revolutionize the form. In his Zayni Barakat (1974), he uses the language of Ibn Iyas, who wrote the history of the overthrow of the Mamluks by the Ottomans in Egypt in the fifteenth century.

Transforming the concept of world literature

In Ibn Iyas's texts the chronicles of the period are recorded with little or no regard for literary effect; his account of the Mamluk defeats at the hands of the Ottomans has authenticity and directness.

Al-Ghitany recreated the style in a way that depicts the subtleties of the language without sacrificing the elements of the novelistic form. This masterpiece could be read as a dissection of the contemporary despots' lives, and is an anecdote of the past as well.

Zayni Barakat is a real and genuine development of the form in world literature. Like Emile Habibi's The Pessomptimist, it shifted the development of the Arabic novel and redefined the meaning of drawing elements from the heritage and using the European genre of the novel. In that sense, the concept of world literature has to be transformed, breaking the western bars that imprisoned literatures produced by other nations from east to west.

Fakhri Saleh

© 2011

Editor: Lewis Gropp/