Fénelon’s Gods, al-Ṭahṭāwī’s Jinn

Trans-Mediterranean Fictionalities

In: Philological Encounters
Shaden M. Tageldin University of Minnesota

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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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