“Blame These Days, Don’t Blame Me!”: Rewriting Medieval Arabic in Maghrebi National Literature and Drama

In: Journal of Arabic Literature
Samuel England University of Wisconsin-Madison

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This article examines two crucial moments of literary adaptation in twentieth-century North Africa, when Classical Arabic prose takes on a central but rarely acknowledged position in emerging national arts. Maḥmūd al-Masʿadī and al-Ṭayyib al-Ṣiddīqī destabilize the accepted critical account of Arabic literature’s modernization. Whereas literary historians have argued that writers eschewed restrictive Classical forms and Arabized Western genres, al-Masʿadī and al-Ṣiddīqī directly apply Prophetic ḥadīth and humorous maqāmāt to the novel and drama. Their gesture toward medieval prose gives them an ethical master key, allowing them to engage pious Islamic discourse and shift abruptly to the disingenuous, pragmatic world of the maqāmāt. However, in the charged field of national literature, their maneuvers provide them substantially less comfort than they seek. Presenting their ambitious modern prose as Classical, they force a broad variety of genres into a single continuum of Arab-Islamic identity. Such a historiography requires that we parse the categories that al-Masʿadī and al-Ṣiddīqī conjoin, a challenge largely unmet amidst the accolades they have received over the past five decades. Al-Masʿadī and al-Ṣiddīqī deepen the anxiety of form that they assiduously attempt to relieve. The Arabic novel and drama, although portrayed in criticism as the iconoclast tools of modernity, drive these authors deep into torturous examinations of the literary past. Maghrebi literature exposes the enduring rifts between centuries-old narrative traditions and the urgent task of forming national canons during an era of political independence.

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