Children made up a substantial segment of the literate public that emerged during the Arab nahḍah period. Of these, an apparent minority applied skills they acquired in school to reading for pleasure or satisfying juvenile curiosity. This study explores the novel practice of Arab youth leisure-time reading as reported in retrospective memories and autobiographies. It reveals that during the nahḍah’s early decades, the inventory of Arabic readings fit for children was strikingly limited—unlike the multitude of books that were available to adults—a reality that forced curious boys and girls from different classes to make do with adult books for their after-school reading. This article examines cultural factors for that scarcity (primarily the status of children in society) and economic ones (e.g., publishers’ business concerns) and considers its implications. Probing a seemingly marginal section of a wider scene, it sheds light on hitherto neglected facets of the Arab transition from widespread illiteracy to extensive literacy at this point in history.
In an epoch of revival of the historical novel, Arabic literature tries to provide its own response to the construction of al-tārīkh al-badīl, namely “alternative history” or, also, allohistory which, as a literary genre, was originally a branch of science fiction. By proposing the idea of a counter-narration, the search for historical alternatives becomes a matter of great importance and responsibility. What happens if the writer tries to construct an alternative point of view, a counter-narration in which “History” is transformed into an almost fictional story? Far from an act of betrayal, this can be interpreted as a restoration of iltizām whenever the narrative potential, or the “if” contained within the narrative, comes true. This article aims to present works where the authors wonder: “What would have happened if…?” This question opens space for literary alternatives to mainstream or official historical narratives.
The relationship between poetry and the poet’s life is complex, and reading a poem for biographical material can become a problematic exercise that constrains a poem’s interpretative possibilities. When writing about ʿUmar ibn Abī Rabīʿah (d. 93AH/712AD or 103/721), biographers and historians have shown a marked ambivalence in this regard. In early anecdotal narratives about his life and romantic adventures, events appear to derive their source material from episodes found in his poetry, whereas in later biographies of the poet, the poems tend to be understood as depicting emotional and symbolic truths, even if the events described did not actually happen. In either method of writing about ʿUmar’s life, the biographer finds the poet’s life story and persona to be filled with contradictions that are difficult to resolve. The embedding of poetry into anecdotes that narrate the poet’s life (in the form of events or emotional truths) resembles the tafsīr of the Qur’an through the Prophetic sīrah, in which Qur’anic verses are explained through the cementing of the text’s open-ended hermeneutic possibilities into fixed events and contexts. This article examines this relationship as a textual practice evolving through different biographies of the poet, and argues that the relationship points to a way of reading that presupposes a measure of extra-textual reality in the text, even where such a presupposition constructs an impossible biographical narrative replete with contradictions.
The ghazal chapters of Muḥammad b. Dāwūd al-Iṣbahānī’s poetry anthology Kitāb al-Zahrah include 109 brief poems attributed to baʿḍ ahl hādhā al-ʿaṣr (a Man of Our Times). Ibn Dāwūd has conventionally been assumed to be the author of these poems. The “Man of Our Times” poems stand out among ‘Abbāsid ghazal because of their focus on justice, their appeals to reason, and their depiction of brotherly friendship (ikhā’) imbued with passionate love (hawā). Moreover, their repurposing of motifs from the poetic canon, such as the lover’s desert wanderings and nature’s lamentation in sympathy with him, adds to their tone of erudition. This gives the impression that the relationship they describe is an intense friendship between educated men of similar age. As with other early ʿAbbāsid bodies of ghazal, the poems can be categorized according to rhetorical function. For the “Man of Our Times” poems, these subcategories are 1) personal messages, 2) aphorisms, 3) petitions for justice, 4) alienation narratives, and 5) urban narratives.
At the end of the nineteenth century, Najīb al-Ḥaddād adapted two dramas by Victor Hugo for The Egyptian Patriotic Troupe. Al-Ḥaddād rewrote Hugo’s Hernani as Ḥamdān, transferring the story from the Spanish court of 1519 to Andalucía under ‘Abd al-Raḥmān II. Les Burgraves became Tha’rāt al-‘arab (Revenge of the Arabs), and transformed from a play about Barbarossa and the Holy Roman Empire into a play about a pre-Islamic Lakhmid king’s struggle to restore unified Arab rule in the Arabian peninsula. I argue that Al-Ḥaddād’s adaptations anachronistically placed modern ideas in the Arab past—characterizing shūrā as the election of leaders, using sha‘b to mean a sovereign people, and calling for Arab cultural unity and revival. Al-Ḥaddād’s adaptations transformed the nationalism of Hugo’s drama into calls for Arab solidarity. In producing these plays, The Egyptian Patriotic Troupe embodied an Arab past overlaid with modern communal identities.