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Intellectual Captivity

Literary Theory, World Literature, and the Ethics of Interpretation

Chen Bar-Itzhak


This essay concerns the unequal distribution of epistemic capital in the academic field of World Literature and calls for an epistemic shift: a broadening of our theoretical canon and the epistemologies through which we read and interpret world literature. First, this epistemic inequality is discussed through a sociological examination of the “world republic of literary theory,” addressing the limits of circulation of literary epistemologies. The current situation, it is argued, creates an “intellectual captivity,” the ethical and political implications of which are demonstrated through a close reading of the acts of reading world literature performed by scholars at the center of the field. A few possible solutions are then suggested, drawing on recent developments in anthropology, allowing for a redistribution of epistemic capital within the discipline of World Literature: awareness of positionality, reflexivity as method, promotion of marginal scholarship, and a focus on “points of interaction.”

Katrien Vanpee


This article examines the understudied political dynamics of the televised nabaṭī poetry competition Shāʿir al-Milyūn (“Million’s Poet”) to offer a new understanding of the program. Media coverage has focused on the participation of a single female participant, while scholars have assessed Shāʿir al-Milyūn as primarily an experiment in the wedding of local tradition to modern technology, overlooking the central and complex negotiations of ruler-ruled relationships taking place on the show’s stage. Shāʿir al-Milyūn’s political aspect becomes particularly apparent in the regular performances of waṭaniyyah verse, i.e. poetry for the waṭan or homeland. Reading a waṭaniyyah poem performed during the fifth season of Shāʿir al-Milyūn by Emirati poet Aḥmad bin Hayyāy al-Manṣūrī, I argue that Shāʿir al-Milyūn, rather than merely celebrating local poetic tradition, operates as a political technology that provides both poetry contestants and the show’s princely patron with opportunities to articulate and enact expectations of proper citizenship.

Hassanaly Ladha


This study examines the architectural lexicon (ṭalal, dār, rasm, bayt) of early Arabic poetry, interrogating the relation between built and linguistic form in the nasīb. I argue that the interpenetration of the aṭlāl and khayāl motifs and of other structural elements of the qaṣīdah allegorizes the fleeting and phantasmatic nature of all linguistic and material structures. In the early Arabic episteme, poetic forms materialize history, delineating realities even as they fall endlessly into ruin. The implied theories of language and knowledge may inflect our understanding of the entire tradition of Arabo-Islamic expression emerging from this literary milieu.

Samuel England


This article moves the poetic ijāzah from the periphery, where modern scholars have generally placed it, to a central position in Arabic poetry and mass media. The ijāzah was well developed before its adoption in the western Mediterranean, but Cordoban, Sevillian, and expatriate Sicilian poets distinguished the competitive improvised poem from corollary works in the Middle East, where it had first been invented. I argue that it is precisely the Andalusi innovations to the ijāzah’s formal development that have allowed traditional criticism to minimize its importance, against a larger trend of popular audiences appreciating performed ijāzahs, on stage and in mass media. Modern Arabic theatre and television have found enthusiastic audiences for the Andalusi poetic dialogue, a phenomenon that frames my Classical research. Media outlets, including those working closely with government officials, stage the ijāzah in ways that maximize its ideological value. As they use it to promote secularism and putatively benevolent dictatorship, propelling Andalusi literature into current Middle Eastern politics, we critics should seek to understand the dialogic form in its contemporary, insistently political phase of development.

Hanan Hammad


This article employs the fictional writings of the Egyptian author Iḥsān ‘Abd al-Quddūs (1919–1990) to analyze the textually tangled anxiety over women’s sexuality and rapid political and socioeconomic changes in postcolonial Egypt and the Arab-East. Arguably one of the most prolific writers in Arabic in the twentieth century, ‘Abd al-Quddūs has achieved wide readership, and producers have adapted his books to popular commercial films and TV shows. Breaking taboos on women’s sexual desires, ‘Abd al-Quddūs’s work has been influential in shaping the popular notion about lesbian love wherein frustration with the postcolonial realities—inscribed by the Arab-Israeli conflict, Oil Boom, and globalization—have become entangled with the fear of women’s mobility and liberation.

Pasquale Macaluso


Riḥlah bayna al-jibāl fi maʿāqil al-thāʾirīn was serialized in the Jaffa newspaper Al-Jāmiʿah al-Islāmiyyah towards the end of the 1936 Palestine revolt. Under the guise of a reportage by a Western journalist, the series successfully defied British censorship and published interviews with guerrilla commanders and rank-and-file rebels, and one of Fawzī al-Qāwuqjī’s communiqués. Following the main trend of literary reportage at that time, the author adopted a viewpoint focused on the rebels’ cause and emphasized the ability of the Arabs of Palestine to face the challenges of modernity. The narrator comments on the skills and virtues of rebel leaders and common people, rejecting the dehumanizing image that colonial officials and Western newspapers were making of them, and romantically depicting the nighttime Palestinian landscape. At the same time, the description of the insurgents’ organization projects the picture of an orderly society, equipped with the institutions and symbols that typically define modern states.

Kirsten Beck


Abū al-Faraj al-Iṣbahānī’s (d. 971) Kitāb al-Aghānī chapter on Majnūn Laylā (“Akhbār Majnūn Banī ʿĀmir wa nasabuh”) confronts its audience with unresolving divergent knowledge about Majnūn. We are left not only wondering about his name, his origin, and his mental state, but also his being—does he even exist? This paper examines the potential impact of Iṣbahānī’s selection and presentation of akhbār in this Aghānī chapter, making a case for a literary approach to Iṣbahānī’s text fitting with the medieval concept of adab. It asserts that the line of questions we are compelled to ask about Majnūn implicates us in his madness and the madness of the text, which disrupts and complicates that which appears most essential to his story.