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Article

Lara Harb

The Arabic language has a rich history of literary criticism and theory, starting from the 8th century ce up to the 21st century. This literary criticism and theory engages with a poetic tradition that dates back to pre-Islamic times. The inquiry into literary quality was motivated by an interest in evaluating poetry, a general concern with eloquent speech, whether in verse or prose, and by the desire to articulate the beauty of the Quran. The transmission of Aristotle’s Poetics into Arabic also spurred interest in the poetic, particularly in Arabic philosophy. The study of eloquence crystallized into a standardized science by the 13th century ce, with branches focusing on (1) the role of syntax in literary beauty (the science of meanings); (2) simile, metaphor, and metonymy (the science of elucidation); and (3) rhetorical figures (the science of rhetorical figures). The aesthetic developed in the early criticism of the 9th and 10th centuries was concerned with articulating the merits of an idealized classical style of pre-Islamic poetry, from which the “modern” poets of the early Abbasid period diverged. This classically oriented aesthetic was dominated by a concern with the truthfulness and naturalness of poetry, typical of the style of the “ancients,” on the one hand, and the limits of unrealistic imagery and affected artificiality, which characterized the more ornate modern Abbasid style, on the other. This binary outlook shifted after the 10th century, however, to an aesthetic of wonder. A theory of aesthetic experience began to develop, therefore, which was based on the ability of poetic language to evoke wonder in the recipient. As a result, wonder-enhancing characteristics such as strangeness, the unexpected, and the rare became essential components of aesthetic judgment. Moreover, the ability of language to make meaning manifest in ways that allow for an experience of discovery and hence wonder, became the foundation of aesthetic inquiry in post-10th century Arabic literary theory.

Article

Middle Eastern Jews showed great interests in the Nahḍah (Arabic for Renaissance), a term signifying numerous intellectual movements, which championed Arabic literary and cultural renewal during the 19th century and the interwar period. Middle Eastern Jewish thought and literature thus responded to, and were shaped by, a context where ideas about the need to reform social and religious practices and laws, and discourses about Arab history and civilization, circulated widely in urban public spheres in the Arab World. Jewish thinkers and scholars were attentive to these discourses and they incorporated them into their conversations about the status of Jews as Arabic speakers, imperial and national citizens, and modern subjects. Middle Eastern Jewish writers were likewise keen to experiment in new genres that the Nahḍah’s Arab writers explored, such as the short story, the novella and the novel, the newspaper’s article and editorial, and the historical essay. Some Jews identified as Arab Jews, while others thought of themselves more as members of the national communities that emerged in the Middle East after World War I. The influence of Arab culture on Jews is apparent not only in their Arabic publications, but also in their writings in Judeo-Arabic and Hebrew. Jewish adaptions and perceptions of Arab culture, history, and language, moreover, generated different ideological commitments. Some Jews, who occasionally called themselves Arab Jews, felt that their adaption of Arab culture obliged them to support Arab nationalism and object to Zionism. Others, however, especially the Palestinian Sephardim, felt that they could combine between their Arab culture and Zionism to change Zionism from within, and underscored their indigenous identity as part of Zionist claims for Palestine.

Article

The Arabic literary tradition is a long one, stretching back to undocumented beginnings in the Arabian Peninsula in the pre-Islamic (pre-7th century) era. The study of that heritage in Western academe began as a subset of the philological traditions of biblical and ancient Near Eastern scholarship, with their primary focus on the preparation of textual editions, compendia, dictionaries, and translations into European languages. In the specific context of studies devoted to the Arabic literary tradition, the study of the Qurʾān set the stage for the emergence of similar philological approaches to the variety of literary generic categories created within the increasingly widespread Arabic-speaking Islamic communities. The shift from the more philological approach to that of a more theoretically founded discipline of Arabic literature studies is a gradual one. Terry Eagleton notes (Literary Theory, 1983) that the discipline of literature studies—involving the interpretation of literary materials and their theorization—traces its beginnings to the early decades of the 20th century. In the case of the Arabic literary tradition, the shift can be traced to the second half of the same century, and as the result of a number of factors. In the Arabic-speaking regions themselves (in President Jamāl ʿAbd al-Nāṣir [Gamal Abdel Nasser] of Egypt’s terms, “from the [Atlantic] Ocean to the [Persian / Arabian] Gulf), changes in regimes led to the emergence of new political and social configurations, duly reflected in literary production. In the anglophone Western academic context, a consideration of the consequences of World War II led the governments of both the United States and Britain to establish commissions that led to the fostering of new approaches to the study of the regions of West Asia and North Africa and to the provision of funding for the creation of new centers and programs devoted to the modern period (however that was to be defined). Among the consequences of these new emphases was the need to offer instruction in the modern Arabic language and its dialects, thus providing students with skills that enabled them to avail themselves of opportunities to study at institutions in the Arabic-speaking world and to engage with Arab littérateurs and critics. The results of these various trends in Arabic literature studies during the second half of the 20th century and into the 21st, including the development of increasingly close affiliations with comparative literature studies, have shown themselves in a number of ways. As new centers of literary activity have emerged in different parts of the Arabic-speaking region (with the Gulf States as a primary example) and as Arab littérateurs have explored fresh genres and modes of expression (including media of a wide variety often expressed in colloquial dialect), so has literature scholarship set itself to apply new theoretical and critical approaches to the rapidly expanding publication sector. With the theorization of the discipline has come the need for a greater focus on individual genres, regions, and critical approaches and a concomitant move away from attempts to subsume “Arabic literature” under a single rubric. Such studies are not only opening up new avenues of inquiry, but are also demanding a re-examination of some of the principles and parameters governing the composition of Arabic literary history, both modern and premodern.

Article

Modern Arabic poetic forms developed in conversation with the rich Arabic poetic tradition, on one hand, and the Western literary traditions, primarily English and French, on the other. In light of the drastic social and political changes that swept the Arab world in the first half of the 20th century, Western influences often appear in the scholarship on the period to be more prevalent and operative in the rise of the modernist movement. Nevertheless, one of the fundamental forces that drove the movement from its early phases is its urgent preoccupation with the Arabic poetic heritage and its investment in forging a new relationship with the literary past. The history of poetic forms in the first half of the 20th century reveals much about the dynamics between margin and center, old and new, commitment and escapism, autochthonous and outside imperatives. Arabic poetry in the 20th century reflects the political and social upheavals in Arab life. The poetic forms which emerged between the late 1940s and early 1960s presented themselves as aesthetically and ideologically revolutionary. The modernist poets were committed to a project of change in the poem and beyond. Developments from the qas̩īdah of the late 19th century to the prose poem of the 1960s and the notion of writing (kitābah) after that suggest an increased loosening or abandoning of formal restrictions. However, the contending poetic proposals, from the most formal to the most experimental, all continue to coexist in the Arabic poetic landscape in the 21st century. The tensions and negotiations between them are what often lead to the most creative poetic breakthroughs.

Article

Among the many challenges facing Arabic literature in translation, the question of gender has historically been one of the most fraught, particularly as it presses upon Arab women writers. The persistence of Orientalist tropes such as the veil and the harem; the continual othering of the exotic and supposedly untranslatable East; the frequent lumping together of Arab, Muslim, and Middle Eastern identities; the slippage between memoir, or autobiography, and fiction; and the tendency to isolate gender issues from their political, historical, and social contexts—these are some of the many phenomena that scholars and translators have examined in the Western academy. Some issues, such as the burden of mimesis, the tendency to depoliticize the work of controversial authors, and the continual association of Arabic with the Qurʾān (and thereby with the untranslatable and the sacred), face all works of Arabic in their translation for the English-language marketplace. Other issues, such as the stereotyping of Arab women as either helpless victims, exceptional escapees, or deluded pawns of Arab patriarchy, in Mohja Kahf’s reading, affect Arab women’s writing (and literature featuring Arab women characters) with particular force. Many scholars have highlighted the division between the simplistic, flattening representations of Arab women writers offered in mainstream Western publishing and the more nuanced, literarily sensitive presentations in translated works published by small, specialist, and university presses. Pressing issues of genre are also at play: the desire among American publics for a sociological, ethnographic “glimpse behind the veil” of Middle Eastern society has created a preference for both documentary memoirs and mimetic–realist works of fiction that has drawn attention away from works of experimental prose and—most notably—from poetry. Whereas male poets such as the Palestinian Maḥmūd Darwīsh (Mahmoud Darwish) and the Syro-Lebanese Adūnīs (Adunis) have multiple discrete volumes in English translation, Arab women tend to be confined to the realm of anthologies, where one or two poems are meant to represent an entire life of variegated poetic creation, and where the emphasis on their personal identity (“Arab woman”) is highlighted above their role in a more complex literary, social, and historical world. Although several contemporary poets have managed to break from the anthology loop, early-21st-century works in translation suggest that the stereotype of the Muslim woman in need of “saving” has not yet gone away. Still, scholars and translators have also offered numerous strategies and tactics for “rewiring the circuits” that govern the representation of Arab women in the West.

Article

Orientalism in the Victorian era has origins in three aspects of 18th-century European and British culture: first, the fascination with The Arabian Nights (translated into French by Antoine Galland in 1704), which was one of the first works to have purveyed to Western Europe the image of the Orient as a place of wonders, wealth, mystery, intrigue, romance, and danger; second, the Romantic visions of the Orient as represented in the works of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Percy Bysshe Shelley, George Gordon, Lord Byron, and other Romantics as well as in Thomas Moore’s Lalla Rookh; and third, the domestication of opium addiction in Thomas de Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater. Victorian Orientalism was all pervasive: it is prominent in fiction by William Thackeray, the Brontë sisters, Charles Dickens, Wilkie Collins, Joseph Conrad, and Rudyard Kipling, but is also to be found in works by Benjamin Disraeli, George Eliot, Oscar Wilde, and Robert Louis Stevenson, among others. In poetry Edward Fitzgerald’s Rubaiyat is a key text, but many works by Alfred Tennyson and Robert Browning also show the influence of Orientalist tropes and ideas. In theater it is one of the constant strands of much popular drama and other forms of popular entertainment like panoramas and pageants, while travel writing from Charles Kingsley to Richard Burton, James Anthony Froude, and Mary Kingsley shows a wide variety of types of Orientalist figures and concepts, as do many works of both popular and children’s literature. Underlying and uniting all these diverse manifestations of Victorian Orientalism is the imperialist philosophy articulated by writers as different as Thomas Carlyle, John Stuart Mill, and Karl Marx, supported by writings of anthropologists and race theorists such as James Cowles Pritchard and Robert Knox. Toward the end of the Victorian era, the image of the opium addict and the Chinese opium den in the East End of London or in the Orient itself becomes a prominent trope in fiction by Dickens, Wilde, and Kipling, and can be seen to lead to the proliferation of Oriental villains in popular fiction of the early 20th century by such writers as M. P. Shiel, Guy Boothby, and Sax Rohmer, whose Dr. Fu Manchu becomes the archetypal version of such figures.

Article

The signal works of poetry that prominently feature racialized Blackness in early Arabic literature (c. ad 500–1250) include works composed by authors of Afro-Arab heritage as well as by Arab authors who satirized and panegyrized Black subjects. These poets include the pre-Islamic author ʿAntarah ibn Shaddād and the ʿAbbasid-era figures al-Mutanabbī and Ibn al-Rūmī, and thus reflect the shift, across an extensive timeline, from a local, Bedouin poetics to a self-styled cosmopolitan, courtly aesthetic characterized as muḥdath, or modernist. The works are situated not only within the changing conventions of genre, but also within an arc that traces the emergence of new race concepts and racialized social institutions in the transition from the pre-Islamic era to Islam and from the early conquests to ʿAbbasid imperialization. Critical instances of these works’ intertextual movements demonstrate how racial logic accretes in various Arab-Muslim textual traditions, showing how poetry intersects with popular epic as well as high literary geographical, ethnological, and commentarial corpuses. As verse moves across a myriad of later literary forms, its context-specific representations of racial difference are recontextualized and received in ways that contribute to a broader transregional and transtemporal discourse of racialized Blackness.

Article

In the mid-19th century, the Arabic novel emerged as a genre in Ottoman Syria and khedival Egypt. While this emergence has often been narrated as a story of the rise of nation-states and the diffusion of the European novel, the genre’s history and ongoing topography cannot be recovered without indexing the importance of Arabic storytelling and Islamic empire, ethics, and aesthetics to its roots. As the Arabic periodicals of Beirut and the Nile Valley, and soon Tunis and Baghdad, serialized and debated the rise of the novel form from the 19th century onward, historical, romantic, and translated novels found an avid readership throughout the Arab world and its diaspora. Metaphors of the garden confronted the maritime span of European empire in the 19th-century rise of the novel form in Arabic, and the novel’s path would continue to oscillate between the local and the global. British, French, Spanish, and Italian empire and direct colonial rule left a lasting imprint on the landscape of the region, and so too the investment of Cold War powers in its pipelines, oil wells, and cultural battlefields. Whether embracing socialist realism or avant-garde experimentation, the Arabic novel serves as an ongoing register of the stories that can be told in cities, villages, and nations throughout the region—from the committed novels interrogating the years of anticolonial national struggles and Arab nationalism in the 1950s and 1960s, through the ongoing history of war, surveillance, exile, occupation, and resource extraction that dictates the subsequent terrain of narration. The Arabic novel bears, too, an indelible mark left by translators of Arabic tales—from 1001 Nights to Girls of Riyadh—on the stories the region’s novelists tell.

Article

Although vernacular varieties of Arabic—the so-called dialects—have been used in oral performance genres for centuries, they have held a much more restricted presence in written literature, which has traditionally been regarded as the exclusive domain of classical or standard Arabic (al-ʿarabīyah al-fuṣḥá). In contrast with the vernacular Arabic literatures of Egypt, Morocco, and the Levant, those of Tunisia have been scantly regarded by scholars. The first significant corpus of written texts in the vernacular Arabic of Tunisia emerged in the late-19th century, in Hebrew characters. This “Judeo-Arabic” literature was born of the intersecting currents of the Haskalah or Jewish “Enlightenment,” the Arab Nahḍah or “Renaissance,” and French literary culture, as well as trans-Mediterranean networks of trade and print technology. Although a significant portion of Tunisian Judeo-Arabic literature consisted of translations and adaptations from Hebrew, classical Arabic, and French, it also included many original works, especially in journalism and poetry. This vernacular literature, however, would decline under the impact of French colonialism and Zionism, before ceasing entirely by the 1960s. Meanwhile, a separate, but not entirely disconnected, series of vernacular literary experiments began to take shape in Arabic script at the beginning of the 20th century. From 1908, the satirical press emerged as the most significant medium for the publication of vernacular texts, which proliferated in response to the cultural, linguistic, and political changes brought by French colonialism. Printed folklore collections would constitute a second major venture in the writing down of vernacular Arabic, and became a means by which both French colonial administrators and Tunisian intellectuals “imagined” the Tunisian “nation.” The vernacular written in Arabic script would eventually find its way into short stories, novels, comics, cultural and political journalism, and internet writing. The expansion of vernacular writings in the 21st century corresponds to increasing economic and political liberalization, the foundation of organizations for the promotion of the vernacular, and new opportunities for publishing both in print and online.