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Abstract

Courses that teach modern Arabic literature, particularly those that address students of comparative literature or other non-specialists, often focus on relatively recent exemplars of the canon. Most engage texts that hail from the mid- to late twentieth century—a period in which the fate of “new” narrative genres (for example, the novel) is well established—rather than those that evoke a time when the boundaries between “tradition” and “modernity” were in flux. Yet a critical pedagogy of the nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Arab “renaissance” (nahḍah) could bring modern Arabic literature more squarely into the fold of empire and postcolonial studies, critical translation theory, and the resurgent fields of world and comparative literature. This essay reflects on both the theoretical importance and the practical experience of teaching the dynamics of early Arab literary modernity to non-specialist audiences—both undergraduate and graduate—in comparative literature. Two problems emerge in this context: first, the self-Orientalism of nahḍah texts, which often uphold a thesis of post-Ottoman “decline” and post-European “awakening” and thus reinforce Orientalist views of Arab-Islamic culture in a post-9/11 era of anti-Arab and Islamophobic sentiment; second, a relative dearth (to date) of high-quality, in-print, and affordable English translations. Conjoining comparatist methods of “close” and “distant” reading, I propose a twofold praxis of proxidistant reading to address these problems of world, time, and access: a praxis that connects modern Arabic literature to modern Western and world literatures in ways that assume neither easy equivalence nor absolute non-relation between adab and literature, one modern and another, and the modifiers Arabic, Western, and world. First, while nahḍah intellectuals reengineered the Arab-Islamic idea of adab—once coterminous with knowledge itself—to translate the modern Western idea of literature, premodern adab and its modern Arabic “nemesis” share more than nahḍah ideology concedes: both can be narrowly “literary” or radically transdisciplinary, belletristic or “lowbrow,” formal ( fuṣḥā) or dialectal (ʿāmmiyyah). Thus I suggest that we read nahḍah texts as testimonies to the discontinuous continuity—or continuity in death—of premodernity and modernity, “Wests” and “Easts,” interrogating conceptions of world and time that exaggerate either the proximity or the distance of literary-cultural epistemes, genres, and modes of expression across these postulated divides. Second, I propose that we read translations of nahḍah “literature” both up close to and afar from original texts and from the imagined purview of the “literary.” To impart a prismatic vision of the nahḍah to students who must rely on limited English translations, I suggest peri-literary approaches—“time-travel” to the nahḍah through secondary sources on the period, as well as through primary sources (e.g., novels) set in the era yet composed in later periods—and para-literary readings that place the many forms that nahḍah “literature” actually took (historical, sociopolitical, scientific, popular) alongside those that fit its belletristic theoretical mold. By teaching an earlier “modern” than the “modern Arabic literature” comparatists typically teach and by comparing the nahḍah with similar “renaissances” elsewhere in the non-Western world, I argue, we can help students understand Arabic-speaking cultures not as objects of global modernity but as complex subjects thereof—and develop a complementary (or contestatory) vision of the rise of world and comparative literatures usually imputed to nineteenth-century Europe. Such a pedagogy, I suggest, might de-Orientalize U.S. studies of Arabic literature.

In: Journal of Arabic Literature

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?

In: Philological Encounters

Abstract

This essay traces the problem of world literature in key writings by the Egyptian scientist and littérateur Aḥmad Zakī Abū Shādī. Abū Shādī’s early nod to world literature (1908–1909) intimates the challenge of making literary particularity heard in the homogenizing harmonies of a world dominated by English. That problem persists in his account of a 1926 meeting with the Bengali polymath Rabindranath Tagore and in an essay of 1928 inspired by that meeting: one of the first manifestos of al-adab al-ʿālamī (world literature) in Arabic, predating the 1936 appearance of al-adab al-muqāran (comparative literature). While Abū Shādī lauds Tagore’s refusal to compare literatures East and West and insistence on the spiritual unity of all literatures, his struggles to articulate a world in which harmony is not an alibi for hierarchy suggest that neither comparative literature nor its would-be leveler – world literature – can shed the haunting specter of inequality.

In: World Literature and Postcolonial Studies

Abstract

This essay traces the problem of world literature in key writings by the Egyptian scientist and littérateur Aḥmad Zakī Abū Shādī. Abū Shādī’s early nod to world literature (1908–1909) intimates the challenge of making literary particularity heard in the homogenizing harmonies of a world dominated by English. That problem persists in his account of a 1926 meeting with the Bengali polymath Rabindranath Tagore and in an essay of 1928 inspired by that meeting: one of the first manifestos of al-adab al-ʿālamī (world literature) in Arabic, predating the 1936 appearance of al-adab al-muqāran (comparative literature). While Abū Shādī lauds Tagore’s refusal to compare literatures East and West and insistence on the spiritual unity of all literatures, his struggles to articulate a world in which harmony is not an alibi for hierarchy suggest that neither comparative literature nor its would-be leveler – world literature – can shed the haunting specter of inequality.

In: Journal of World Literature