Fénelon’s Gods, al-Ṭahṭāwī’s Jinn

Trans-Mediterranean Fictionalities

In: Philological Encounters
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Reading Rifāʿa al-Ṭahṭāwī’s 1850s Arabic translation (published 1867) of François Fénelon’s Les Aventures de Télémaque with and against the realist impulses of nineteenth-century British and French literary comparatism, this essay posits al-Ṭahṭāwī’s translation as a transformational moment in the reception of the “European” literary tradition in the Arab-Islamic world. Arguing that the ancient Greek gods who populate Fénelon’s 1699 sequel to Homer’s Odyssey are analogous to Muslim jinn—spirits of smokeless fire understood to be real—al-Ṭahṭāwī rewrites as Islamized “truth” what Muslims long had dismissed as pagan “fiction,” thereby adroitly negotiating a crisis of comparison and mediating an epistemic sea change in modern Arabic fiction. Indeed, the “untrue” gods of the Greeks (and of French literature) turn not just real but historically referential: invoking the real-historical world of 1850s Egypt, al-Ṭahṭāwī’s translation exhorts an unjust Ottoman-Egyptian sovereign to heed lessons that Fénelon’s original once had addressed to French royalty. Catherine Gallagher has defined the fictionality specific to the modern European novel as neither pure deceit nor pure truth. How might al-Ṭahṭāwī’s rehabilitation of the mythological as the supernatural/historical “real”—and of the idolatrous as secular/sacred “truth”—invite us to rethink novelistic fictionality in trans-Mediterranean terms, across European and Arab-Islamic contexts?

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  • 1

    Joseph T. Reinaud, “De la gazette arabe et turque imprimée en Égypte,” Nouveau journal asiatique 8 (1831): 241, 247-49; quotations from 248, 249.

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  • 2

    Ibid., 248.

  • 3

    Hutcheson M. Posnett, Comparative Literature (London: Kegan Paul, Trench, and Co., 1886), 85; emphases mine.

  • 9

    See Catherine Gallagher, “The Rise of Fictionality,” in The Novel, ed. Franco Moretti (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2006), 1: 336-63; quotation from 340.

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  • 11

    Al-Ṭahṭāwī, “Muqaddimat al-Mutarjim,” 4. As Peter Gran observes, the Sudan had lost power to the Nile Delta in the wake of Mamlūk competition and French occupation. So too had Upper Egypt, where al-Ṭahṭāwī was born and first educated. Yet al-Ṭahṭāwī primitivizes the Sudan while reasserting the “civilization” of Upper Egypt. Indeed, Gran argues, his Takhlīṣ—itself a mirror for princes—invokes not just French but also Upper Egyptian republicanisms to uphold the right of peoples to overthrow oppressive rulers. See Peter Gran, “Al-Tahtawi’s Trip to Paris in Light of Recent Historical Analysis: Travel Literature or a Mirror for Princes?” in Mirror for the Muslim Prince: Islam and the Theory of Statecraft, ed. Mehrzad Boroujerdi (Syracuse, ny: Syracuse University Press, 2013), 190-217, esp. 193-97, 213-15, 217. Were we to reinterpret al-Ṭahṭāwī’s Mawāqiʿ in regionalist terms, we might say that it too affirms Upper Egyptian exemplarity via the looking-glass of France, its equal in political “civilization.”

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  • 15

    M. M. Bakhtin, “Epic and Novel: Toward a Methodology for the Study of the Novel,” in The Dialogic Imagination: Four Essays by M [ikhail]. M. Bakhtin, ed. Michael Holquist, trans. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1981), 3-40; quotation from 33.

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  • 17

    Al-Ṭahṭāwī, “Muqaddimat al-Mutarjim,” 24. See [Muḥammad ibn Mūsā ibn ʿĪsā] Kamāl al-Dīn al-Damīrī, “al-Siʿlāt,” in Kitāb Ḥayāt al-Ḥayawān al-Kubrā, ([Cairo]: Maṭbaʿat Muḥammad Shāhīn, 773 a.h. [1372]; 1278 a.h. [1861/1862]), 2:27-30; quotations from 2:27-28.

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  • 20

    Al-Ṭahṭāwī, “Muqaddimat al-Mutarjim,” 24. See al-Damīrī, “al-Siʿlāt,” 2:28, 2:30. See also [Muḥammad ibn Mūsā ibn ʿĪsā] Kamāl al-Dīn al-Damīrī, “al-Jinn,” in Kitāb Ḥayāt al-Ḥayawān al-Kubrā, ([Cairo]: Maṭbaʿat Muḥammad Shāhīn, 773 a.h. [1372]; 1278 a.h. [1861/1862]), 1:272-300.

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  • 22

    Al-Ṭahṭāwī, “Muqaddimat al-Mutarjim,” 25.

  • 23

    Ibid, 25, 26.

  • 24

    Ibid., 26-27.

  • 27

    Lukács, The Theory of the Novel, 87.

  • 28

    See Fulford, “Coleridge,” 213.

  • 29

    Al-Ṭahṭāwī, “Muqaddimat al-Mutarjim,” 23-24.

  • 30

    Ibid., 25.

  • 31

    Ibid., 29.

  • 33

    See Jocelyne Dakhlia, Lingua franca: Histoire d’une langue métisse en Méditerranée (Arles: Actes Sud, 2008), 27. See also Jocelyne Dakhlia, “Lingua Franca: A Non-Memory,” in Remembering Africa, ed. Elisabeth Mudimbe-Boyi (Portsmouth, nh: Heinemann, 2002), 234-44, esp. 235, 239.

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