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Arab Wests: Maghrib, Europe and the Americas in the Modern Literary Imagination  

Ahmed Idrissi Alami

“Arab Wests” is defined by long and complex processes of mobility, cultural exchanges, and imperial encounters in the Western Mediterranean and across the Atlantic in the early modern period. Two novels, Granada: A Trilogy (1994) by Radwa Ashour and The Moor’s Account by Laila Lalami (2014), reimagine Arab culture in early modern literary imagination across multiple geographies in the Western Mediterranean and the New World. The two narratives reflect significant aspects of the importance of the late 15th to early 16th centuries to the development of Arab culture in the early modern world—a historically unique time that coincides with advancing global capitalism and its constitutive relations and derivative effects such as slavery, dispossession, conquest, and territorial expansion in North Africa and the Spanish conquest of the New World. This period saw major transformations in trade routes, shifting the center of exchange to the transatlantic sphere and making Iberia an important hub for launching early modern global capitalism. All these new shifts in politics and material economies indicate that the center of action, previously located farther east, would soon be displaced to the Ibero-Maghreb and the Atlantic. Within this purview, the analytical trope of “Arab Wests” offers a site to reimagine the Western Mediterranean cultures and polities as interactive gravitational coordinates in the rapidly changing power balance in the early modern age. The Arab communities and cultures of the regions of al-Maghrib and al-Andalus have been configured and represented in these two novels in relation to each other as well as through their connections to the New World in the early modern period. Given that the history of Spain is intricately connected to and dependent on that of the Arab Muslims in Iberia, the so-called Moors, these narratives highlight the continuities and iterations of the colonial politics of conquest, exile, and dispossession between the three geographical locations of al-Maghrib, al-Andalus, and the New World. They also challenge the narrow view and understanding of early modern Atlantic world history and its Eurocentric models of analysis and interpretation. The interconnected model of early modern history demonstrates how Arab Muslim cultural history in the Western Mediterranean is not only relevant to understanding the major socio-cultural and political transformations in North Africa and Iberia at that time but is also an integral and significant player in imagining and rewriting the “frontier” and the account of the emerging global Atlantic history in which Africa, Europe, and the Americas are linked through diverse forms of exchanges as well as conflicts. Ashour’s and Lalami’s texts, which draw on a rich and diverse repertoire of Arabic conventions of writing and storytelling, put “Arab West” historical fiction within a transatlantic network of narratives through their rhetorical content and textual dynamics, which also resonate with 21st-century issues such as racial identity politics, global Arab diasporic identity, and transnational forms of belonging. Despite the historical remoteness of the context of these fictions, the narratives are animated by an immediacy that corresponds and speaks to our modern sensibilities, especially the global realities that emerged post-9/11, the increasing awareness of systemic racism, and the call for more engaging and rigorous revisionist readings of imperial histories as well as more ethical representations of our interconnected past legacies.