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Form and History in Modern Arabic Poetics  

Huda Fakhreddine

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

Postcolonial Avant-Garde Fiction  

Adam Spanos

Postcolonial novelists face a difficult double bind. On one hand, they are expected to produce fiction that accurately represents the political and social circumstances of the nations to which they belong. Yet realism came to them as an inheritance of imperial rule, and as such it served as a tool for organizing colonial understandings of time, social relations, and interior experience. On the other hand, experiments in novelistic form that would break with the tenets of realism are often understood as frivolous capitulations to Western fashions or as bitter attacks on cherished traditional aesthetics. For if literary experiments are conducted with the intention of transforming popular tastes, they may very well be taken as analogues of the imperial civilizing mission, which claims to be justified in forcing cultural transformations on colonized populations by virtue of their purported indolence and backwardness. Evidently there is no position that a postcolonial writer can adopt that does not involve some kind of complicity with imperial interests or mimicry of its aesthetic forms. Yet the postcolonial avant-garde can be defined by its refusal of the binary choice between colonial-national and metropolitan-imperial imperatives. Its aesthetic innovations are defined by the intention of challenging not simply the realities created by empires but the very social imaginary, often uncritically adopted by colonial or postcolonial populations, on which the imperial project rests. Writers working in this tendency develop non-, pseudo-, or para-mimetic narratives to force readers to entertain the possibility of realities existing outside the terms of the real as this has been prescribed by dominant agencies, including imperial ones; alternatively, they turn their prose to ends other than representation in order to demonstrate the embeddedness of ordinary language in imperial discourses and to indicate other possible usages of a shared tongue. Magical realism, most influentially and spectacularly, began as a challenge to the disenchanted and positivist nature of the Western gaze: writers like Alejo Carpentier, Gabriel García Márquez, and Ben Okri reveal the everyday power of forces not recognized by modern secular reason. Other writers, like Samuel Beckett and Clarice Lispector, disclose the relation between realist literary representation and the very order of rationality that consigns heterogeneous or dissident elements to the status of madness. Postcolonial avant-garde fiction is thus distinguished intellectually from realist writing by its assault on the presuppositions or unconscious preconditions of imperial domination as these have been taken up among colonized populations. Insofar as imperialism, in its liberal varieties at least, works through an epistemological register to transform the ways in which colonized populations think, avant-garde artists must direct their polemical energies against both foreign and domestic audiences simultaneously. The obscurity and difficulty of postcolonial avant-garde fiction is thus the result not only of the novel narrative and descriptive strategies it employs but also of the tenuous and often untenable situation of the avant-garde writer in the postcolony, a gadfly to all implied readers. The formal innovations developed by postcolonial avant-garde writers are vast, but all serve the project of offering new modes of perception that cannot be contained by either imperial or nationalist worldviews. In this sense the avant-garde is a democratizing agency, opposing consensual fictions and opening up multiple possible avenues for experiencing and responding to the problems and potentials of postcolonial existence.

Article

The Arabic Novel: New Roots, New Routes  

Elizabeth Holt

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.