BOOK REVIEW / Gulf between the Arabian knights: Modern Arabic literature ed. M M Badawi - Cambridge University Press pounds 75

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The Independent Culture
WITH THE publication of this volume, a monumental academic project is completed. The four tomes of the Cambridge History of Arabic Literature began in 1983 with a volume on pre- Islamic and early Islamic literature up to the middle of the eighth century, and is rounded off by the new one. The series places Arabic literature, for the first time in English, on a par with other world literatures, for which 'guides', 'companions' and other reference works are in ample supply.

The scope suggested by the title of the current volume is enormous in more than one way. Modern means not only the whole of the 20th century but also the beginnings of modernity to the middle of the 19th. Arabic, on the other hand, denotes the language of the geographic area extending from Morocco on the Atlantic Ocean to Iraq and the Gulf states in the east, while literature includes all the known literary genres: poetry, the novel, the short story, drama, the essay, with special chapters devoted to literary criticism, Arab women writers and verse composed in the many Arabic vernaculars. To each of these genres anything between one and three extended essays are devoted. Contributions are made by a variety of academics based on both sides of the Atlantic as well as in the Middle East.

The book begins with a four-page chronology of the historical events that form the broad background to the 'modern' period. The first two dates listed are 1787 and 1798, which mark, respectively, the death of Muhammad ibn Abd al-Wahhab, founder of the Wahhabi movement in Arabia, and the arrival of Bonaparte's campaign in Egypt. The symbolic power of these two events is inestimable. Wahhabism is a fundamentalist Islamic movement which until today has had tight control over the daily manifestations of social and cultural life in Saudi Arabia (it was partly through a historical alliance with the Wahhabis that the Saudi dynasty eventually gained control of Arabia earlier this century and since that time has allowed them to run society according to their terms, excpeting politics). Wahhabism, which has not been influential outside Arabia, epitomises the ultra-conservative, traditionalist, anti-modernist forces which have always resisted the movement of Arab societies towards secularism and modernisation.

Bonaparte's expedition represents the first dramatic encounter with Western modernity, an encounter which shook a cocooned and complacent medieval culture into the disconcerting realisation of the existence of a superior and more powerful 'other'. From that moment on things were never the same again, and although in this instance the French physically left within three years, the impact they made stayed. In addition it was only a matter of time before the entire Arab world fell victim to one European colonial power or another. A love-hate relationship between the Arab intelligentsia and the European model eventually established itself: the natural antagonism towards foreign occupation coupled with a fascination with the culture and technology behind it. There was a fairly early realisation that to emulate the West was also the way to rebuff it.

But the powers of tradition and conservatism have proven recalcitrant throughout. There has always been the argument that to adopt the values and lifestyle of the West was the shortest path to Hell, that a return to the fundamentals of the Arabo-Islamic culture was the only way out of the Arabs' current historical impasse - a call which has gathered fearful momentum during the last decade or so. It is against this constant tug-of-war between the forces of tradition and those of modernisation that Arab social and cultural life has evolved since the last century. Whereas politically, economically and socially the modernisation process has yet a long way to go in its battle with traditionalism (how long depends on which Arab country), insofar as literature is concerned, there is no doubt, as the current volume shows, that its triumph has been complete. Today, even in the politically and socially most conservative of Arab societies, the literature owes both its sensibility and artistic mould largely to modern Western origins.

The history of modern Arab letters is indeed proof that there is no such thing as indigenous purity in culture any more than in race. Fundamentally different as Arabic and European languages are, out of the intercourse between them were born whole new genres in Arabic. It has been argued that the first translations of the Arabian Nights into French and English early in the 18th century was influential in the development of the then young genre of the novel. Two centuries later, the Arabs were to claim back their debt. Rather than hark back to traditional narrative modes (largely episodic in structure) of their native literature, they were fascinated by the complex and versatile form of the European novel which they came to know either in the original or through an ever-growing translation movement. Within 50 years or so, Arab novelists were able to rush at a feverish pace through evolutionary stages that took their European mentors centuries to pass through. Today their work is increasingly translated and read all over the world and their efforts were accorded the international recognition they deserved when Naguib Mahfouz, Egypt's foremost novelist, was awarded the Nobel Prize in 1988.

What goes for fiction goes also for drama. Although simple native dramatic forms have existed in some Arab countries for centuries, it was under the influence of Moliere, and after a visit to Italy where he experienced Italian theatre and opera, that the Syrian Marun Naqqash produced in 1847, in his own house in Beirut, what has come to be accepted as the first Arab play. From those humble beginnings, the Arab theatre was later to gain momentum in Egypt and eventually achieve maturity at the hands of Tawfiq al-Hakim and other playwrights. Hakim in particular displayed an amazing technical versatility and cross-cultural mobility taking his themes and plot skeletons from Greek and Ancient Egyptian mythology, and from both the Bible and the Koran, while addressing a modern philosophic or social issue.

Even poetry, an art form that the Arabs had perfected as far back as the sixth century before the emergence of Islam and had brought to a high degree of sophistication during the heyday of Islamic civilisation, was not to escape the all-engulfing, Western-inspired spirit of modernisation. After attempts at reviving classical models late last century and during the first three decades of this one, it was first the influence of European romanticism and then of T S Eliot and the French symbolists that was to shape the sensibility and technique of the modern Arab poet.

But what have Arab writers done with all these vehicles of expression that they have borrowed from the West? The only brief answer possible is that they have made them their own. As they gained in self-confidence, they adapted them to their needs and grafted onto them new qualities, either dictated by their own artistic temperament, or by an experimental desire to blend them with corresponding indigenous forms. But whatever they did with form and technique, Arab writers remained committed to the vital political and social issues of their societies, issues emanating principally from the gulf between tradition and modernity that has yet to be crossed, political repression and economic hardship at home, and the historical conflict with the 'other' represented by Israel and the West.