ʿ⁠Abdullāh al-ʿ⁠Arwī’s ʾAwrāq: sīrat Idrīs al-dhihniyyah and the Aesthetics-Politics Dialectic

In: Journal of Arabic Literature
Anouar El Younssi Oxford College of Emory University Oxford, GA USA

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This article discusses the politics of form in ʿ⁠Abdullāh al-ʿ⁠Arwī’s 1989 ʾAwrāq: sīrat Idrīs al-dhihniyyah (Papers: Idrīs’s Intellectual Biography), an important contribution to Moroccan experimental literature in the postcolonial era. Together with Muḥammad Barrādah’s 1987 novel Luʿbat al-nisyān (The Game of Forgetting, 1996), Awrāq consolidated the experimental turn in the Moroccan literary scene, aiding thereby its ascent to the mainstream. ʾAwrāq is a two-layered text, presenting the reader with, first, a stack of papers of various sorts belonging to the diseased protagonist Idrīs, and second, the commentaries on this archive by the narrator and Shuʿ⁠ayb. The book constantly oscillates between these two layers, attempting in the process to shake the dominant realist form and its underlying European point of reference. ʾAwrāq’s search for its best form parallels Idrīs’s quest to restore, or be reconciled to, his identity in the context of France and Europe’s colonial project and its legacy. The text’s experimentalism is thus strategically harnessed to wrestle, within the diegesis, with various political and sociocultural challenges facing Morocco, and the Arab/Arabo-Amazigh world more broadly, in the postcolonial era—including the colossal task of reconciling the Islamic heritage (al-turāth) with hegemonic Western discourses of modernity.


This article discusses the politics of form in ʿ⁠Abdullāh al-ʿ⁠Arwī’s 1989 ʾAwrāq: sīrat Idrīs al-dhihniyyah (Papers: Idrīs’s Intellectual Biography), an important contribution to Moroccan experimental literature in the postcolonial era. Together with Muḥammad Barrādah’s 1987 novel Luʿbat al-nisyān (The Game of Forgetting, 1996), Awrāq consolidated the experimental turn in the Moroccan literary scene, aiding thereby its ascent to the mainstream. ʾAwrāq is a two-layered text, presenting the reader with, first, a stack of papers of various sorts belonging to the diseased protagonist Idrīs, and second, the commentaries on this archive by the narrator and Shuʿ⁠ayb. The book constantly oscillates between these two layers, attempting in the process to shake the dominant realist form and its underlying European point of reference. ʾAwrāq’s search for its best form parallels Idrīs’s quest to restore, or be reconciled to, his identity in the context of France and Europe’s colonial project and its legacy. The text’s experimentalism is thus strategically harnessed to wrestle, within the diegesis, with various political and sociocultural challenges facing Morocco, and the Arab/Arabo-Amazigh world more broadly, in the postcolonial era—including the colossal task of reconciling the Islamic heritage (al-turāth) with hegemonic Western discourses of modernity.

Introduction: ʾAwrāq and the Consolidation of Moroccan Experimental Literature

ʿ⁠Abdullāh al-ʿ⁠Arwī’s ʾAwrāq: sīrat Idrīs al-dhihniyyah1 (Papers: Idrīs’s Intellectual Biography) is a book that, upon its publication in 1989, garnered critical acclaim and generated a great deal of discussion in literary and academic circles in Morocco and beyond. ʾAwrāq distinguishes itself from other novelistic texts in Morocco by virtue of its “profound experimentation” and its attempt to achieve “a unique and authentic artistic reconciliation between form and content.”2 It was touted as a major contribution to a nascent literary strand that Moroccan littérateurs have baptized al-tajrīb (experimentation). As a literary phenomenon, al-tajrīb heralded a new phase in Arabophone Moroccan literary history by arguably laying the ground for a different vision of literature in postcolonial Morocco. As a literary movement, al-tajrīb tends to overstep the “traditional” model of Moroccan novelist ʿ⁠Abdulkarīm Ghallāb (1919–2017), which was inspired by the formidable oeuvre of Egyptian Nobel Laureate Najīb Maḥfūẓ3 (1911–2006). In short, the practitioners of al-tajrīb tend to discard narrative linearity and verisimilitude; they do not place much emphasis on figural time and place or on characterization. Following Moroccan novelist-critic Muḥammad Barrādah, al-tajrīb maintains an interactive relationship between the writing and the novelistic world, “a relationship of interpretation, vision, and recreation,” rather than “cloning and mimesis” of lived experience.4 Figural depictions of plausible worldly coordinates are less important in these experimental texts marked by the formal, structural, and linguistic invocation of new subject positions and their immediate political exigency. Alongside Barrādah’s 1987 novel Luʿbat al-nisyān5 and a few other texts, al-ʿ⁠Arwī’s ʾAwrāq consolidated al-tajrīb, aiding its ascent to mainstream literary writing. Historically speaking, I situate al-tajrīb within the periodization framework proposed by Moroccan critic Saʿīd Yaqṭīn, who argues that the Arabic novel consists of two major epochs, one starting in the late nineteenth century and ending in the middle of the twentieth, and the other beginning in the 1960s and continuing to the present.6 Whereas the former is one of “foundation and evolution,” the latter is characterized by “renewal and experimentation.”7 Al-ʿ⁠Arwī’s ʾAwrāq is a text that treads perfectly in this sphere of renewal and experimentation.

Al-ʿ⁠Arwī (b. 1933–) is a leading intellectual in Morocco and the Arabic-speaking world. He belongs to a small group of Arab intellectuals who, in addition to their primary area of expertise (“philosophy, history, sociology, political science,” etc.), are invested in literature and the arts in their efforts to “analyze and theorize the issues and the historical, structural transformations” that have been taking place in Arab societies.8 Al-ʿ⁠Arwī has made a strong return to the public arena in the last several years, following the historic events of the so-called Arab Spring.9 His preeminence as a leading Arab intellectual was cemented in 2017, when the Sheikh Zayed Book Award named him “Cultural Personality of the Year.”10 Indeed, al-ʿ⁠Arwī has been on the vanguard in his treatment of questions of historiography, sociology, culture, politics, and the arts in relation to the Arabic-speaking world as it deals with the challenges of modernity. He ascribes this general predicament to Arabs’ complicated relationship with al-turāth (heritage). That is, Arabs have not sufficiently comprehended and critiqued their heritage and, therefore, remain deprived of the requisite tools to erect a real renaissance (nahḍah). Al-ʿ⁠Arwī thus advocates for a strict historicist doctrine that informs several of his critical volumes,11 where he has sought to lay the foundation of a solid Arab project of modernity. As I will discuss, ʾAwrāq, while a literary piece, is part of this historical revaluation endeavor.

Although his critical studies overshadow his literary contributions, al-ʿ⁠Arwī was a key figure in the transformations that took place in Moroccan literary activity in the decades following national independence in 1956. Some critics see his first literary piece, al-Ghurbah12 (1971, The Estrangement), as having exerted a tremendous impact on the trajectory of the postcolonial Moroccan novel.13 Central to al-ʿ⁠Arwī’s conception of literature is what Moroccan critic ʿ⁠Abdulʿ⁠alī Būṭayyib has termed al-tajrīb al-waẓīfī (functional experimentation):14 the contention that al-tajrīb should serve a particular purpose rather than being experimental solely for experimentation’s sake. Al-Tajrīb, in al-ʿ⁠Arwī’s view, is more than a formalist exercise but should constitute a way of expressing or consolidating one’s vision of the world. Indeed, al-ʿ⁠Arwī has expressed reservation towards the pre-1967 Maḥfūẓian realist model.15 Realism, al-ʿ⁠Arwī points out, is a literary mode that is continuous with—and peculiar to—European history and, therefore, is not conducive to “the subject” within the Moroccan/Arab/Arabo-Amazigh framework. Writers would have to surpass the realist form and seek a new configuration that would best reflect Moroccan/Arab/Arabo-Amazigh exigencies in the socio-political sphere. Yet this is not a wholesale rejection of European thought. On the contrary, al-ʿ⁠Arwī calls for a fruitful and critical engagement with Europe and the West. As I will elaborate, Idrīs (ʾAwrāq’s protagonist) constantly wrestles with European literature, philosophy, and thought, especially after he leaves Morocco for Paris, introducing the reader to such significant figures as Marcel Proust, Honoré de Balzac, Gustave Flaubert, and Hermann Hesse.

In this essay, I argue that ʾAwrāq blurs artistic critique (aesthetics) and ideological critique (politics) through its formal design, the myriad debates between the two characters of Shuʿ⁠ayb and the Narrator,16 and the protagonist Idrīs’s quest for the much-prized al-mawḍūʿ (the subject) in his literary attempts. As I will discuss, the key notion of al-mawḍūʿ stands in opposition to that of al-mawṣūf, i.e., what is being described or the mundane details of everyday life rendered in a literary work. Al-mawṣūf, in the literary lexicon of al-ʿ⁠Arwī, entails the attempt to provide a (quasi)photographic rendering of everyday occurrences. It is also loosely akin to the notion of content. Yet even while diagnosing a problem (i.e., crisis at the individual and collective levels), ʾAwrāq also proposes a remedy that is presented implicitly through the performative acts of debating, critiquing, assessing, and reassessing carried out by the three main characters—Idrīs, Shuʿ⁠ayb, and the Narrator. This remedy is anchored in the notion of critical sensibility. In other words, only through engaging critically with their history, culture, religion, heritage, and so forth could Idrīs, Shuʿ⁠ayb, and the Narrator—and by extension Arab/Arabo-Amazigh societies—find resolutions to the immense challenges facing them in the latter half of the twentieth century. I put forward that critical sensibility is a remedy of this putative crisis, building upon Moroccan critic Muḥammad al-Dāhī’s general proposition that ʾAwrāq contains both ideological and artistic critique. Here, I highlight how ʾAwrāq intersects with al-ʿ⁠Arwī’s non-fiction, especially al-ʾIdyūlūjyāh al-ʿ⁠arabiyyah al-muʿ⁠āṣirah. In so doing, I situate this literary text within the Moroccan author’s general intellectual project that entails a radical overhaul and restructuring of contemporary Arab/Arabo-Amazigh thought and discourse.

Section One of this article examines the politics of formal subversion in ʾAwrāq while zooming in on the text’s two-dimensional critique, the ideological and the artistic. Here I discuss how formal deformation is an artistic technique that underlines the book’s cultural and socio-political anxieties. Section Two delves into the protagonist Idrīs’s literary attempts and his goal of transcending al-mawṣūf (the described) in order to reach al-mawḍūʿ (the subject). Section Three examines the links between the search for al-mawḍūʿ and the notion of crisis besetting Morocco and the larger Arabic-speaking world in the postcolonial era. The discussion in this section shows how al-ʿ⁠Arwī’s call for a radical restructuring of Arab literary expression echoes his endeavors, as a historian and cultural critic, to reassess Arab-Muslim history and heritage. Such a reassessment would lead to a rebuilding of Arab subjectivity, which would then yield true creativity at various levels, the literary included. Thus, the realist novel—a vestige of European colonialism—remains unsuitable for the Arab/Arabo-Amazigh writer. As Barrādah reminds us, the literary world of al-ʿ⁠Arwī relies on “a fragmented construction from within which scenes, contemplations, and impressions burst forth—ones that carry us to the depths of a Moroccan society scattered between a past marked by a Sufi and Salafi frame of reference and an ambiguous present in search of a modernity lacking the conditions of coming to existence.”17 Barrādah continues in these words:

الشكل الروائي الواقعي، مثلا، قد تبلور في شروط اجتماعية أوروبية معروفة، وعندما نقتبسه في غياب الشروط نفسها في المجتمعات العربية، فإن ذلك يجعل الشكل المقتبس غير موافق ولا ملائم لموضوعه. من ثم يقترح العروي تجريب الشكل المتشظي لأنه الأنسب والأقدر على أن ينقل صورة المجتمعات العربية المجزأة، المتداخلة الفئات والطبقات، والفاقدة لنماذج ملموسة من “السيرورة”[…]التي يستوحيها الواقعيون.

Realist form in the novel, for example, took shape within well-known social conditions in Europe, and when we adopt it in the absence of such conditions in Arab societies, the result is that this adopted form turns out to be unsuitable and inappropriate for its subject [matter]. Therefore, al-Arwī proposes experimenting with a fragmented form, since it is the most suitable and capable of capturing the fragmentation in Arab societies along with its overlapping groups and classes, societies that lack concrete examples of [the notion of] “the process” […], which realist [writers] seek.18

For al-ʿ⁠Arwī, aesthetics and politics always intersect, and Arab literary expression is an important window through which one could glimpse the vicissitudes of contemporary Arab/Arabo-Amazigh societies. In highlighting how ʾAwrāq sought inspiration from Arab literary heritage (al-turāth) while engaging in a serious conversation with, and interrogation of, both Arab-Muslim traditions and Western thought (including Western literary forms), I seek to foreground the book’s significance for Arabic literary studies and postcolonial studies.

ʾAwrāq and the Subversion of Form

How do we go about categorizing al-ʿ⁠Arwī’s book? Should we take the title and subtitle at face value and view the book as an “intellectual biography” of a real person named Idrīs? What does an “intellectual biography” mean in the first place, and to what extent is it similar to, or different from, a biography or autobiography? To give a brief summary of the text, ʾAwrāq opens with the death of Idrīs at the age of forty. The stack of papers he has left behind chronicles his life experiences and movements between various Moroccan cities before his departure for France to pursue his university studies and subsequent return to his home country. Excerpts from Idrīs’s archive permeate the entire book and show his commentaries on a host of issues—political, social, cultural, religious, philosophical, artistic, literary, and historical. The ideas gleaned from these thirty-eight excerpts reveal Idrīs’s intellectual, psychological, and emotional evolution, and form the core subject of discussion and debate between two additional key characters in the book, the Narrator (al-rāwī) and Shuʿ⁠ayb. The book concludes with a final debate regarding Idrīs’s experiments with literary writing, with the Narrator and Shuʿ⁠ayb standing on opposite sides with regard to whether the protagonist (Idrīs) succeeded or failed in his endeavors to go past al-mawṣūf (the described) and capture al-mawdūʿ (the subject).

Some critics have sought to shed light on the unorthodox genre of al-sīrah al-dhihniyyah that appears in the subtitle of al-ʿ⁠Arwī’s text. In his essay Shiʿriyyat al-sīrah al-dhihniyyah (The Poetics of the Intellectual Auto-/Biography), Moroccan critic Muḥammad al-Dāhī, for instance, contends that al-sīrah al-dhihniyyah is “a literary genre” (jins ʾadabī) with specific features “characterizing certain texts—old or new, local or universal—that have not been studied as forming one category.”19 He adds that this genre subdivides into an intellectual biography20 and an intellectual autobiography.21 Elaborating on the latter, al-Dāhī writes:

يعمل الكاتب في سيرته الذهنية على استرجاع أطوار حياته الفكرية والثقافية مبينا ما قطعه من مراحل، وما اعترضته من عراقيل ومصاعب، وما عاشه من ترددات وتقلبات واضطرابات، وما متحه من الروافد الثقافية والتيارات الفكرية و الأيديولوجية المتباينة.

In his intellectual autobiography, the writer recalls the phases of his intellectual and cultural life, outlining the stages he has gone through, the obstacles and difficulties he has faced, the hesitations, vicissitudes, and tribulations he has lived, and the contrastive cultural streams as well as the intellectual and ideological currents he has drawn from.22

Al-Dāhī proceeds to provide a long list of works that fall under the category of “intellectual autobiography.” Examples include, besides al-ʿ⁠Arwī’s ʾAwrāq, al-Munqidh min al-ḍalāl (Deliverance from Error) by the medievalist Muslim scholar Abū Ḥāmid al-Ghazālī (b. 1058–d. 1111 CE); Sijn al-ʿumr (The Prison of Life) by Tawfīq al-Ḥakīm; Les Mots (The Words, 1963) by Jean-Paul Sartre; and Voyage to a Beginning (1969) by Colin Wilson.23

Al-Dāhī’s observations show that al-sīrah al-dhihniyyah’s center of gravity lies in its exploration of its main characters’ navigation of conflicting thoughts and clashing intellectual and ideological doctrines. In other words, texts associated with this genre highlight the sense of tension and/or alienation experienced by the characters they present as they undertake a journey of intellectual evolution and transformation. Interestingly, al-Dāhī’s definition of “intellectual autobiography” echoes some of al-ʿ⁠Arwī’s remarks in his introduction to ʾAwrāq:

عندما خامرتني فكرة وصف الجو الثقافي الذي عاش فيه الجيل الذي أنتمي إليه وجدت نفسي أمام عمل نصف منجز. كان لا مفر لي من ان آخذ ادريس رمزا لذلك الجيل.

When the idea of describing the cultural [or intellectual] scene in which my generation lived, I found myself facing a work that was half-done. I had no choice but to take Idrīs as a symbol of that generation.24

Al-ʿ⁠Arwī hints here at the likelihood of ʾAwrāq being “an intellectual journey” undertaken by the main character Idrīs.25 The book’s intellectual sensitivity, in addition to its constant oscillation between narration and commentary, is in line with its endeavor towards formal deformation, a penchant that foregrounds ʾAwrāq’s cultural and socio-political anxieties.

Thus, the aesthetics-politics relation undergirding al-tajrīb is key in any attempts to discern experimentation’s raison d’être. The subversion of narrative forms turns out to be pivotal for laying the ground to the emergence or flourishing of a new type of “subject” (al-mawḍūʿ) and a renewed subjectivity. The reader gets a glimpse of one facet of this subversion in al-ʿ⁠Arwī’s introduction to ʾAwrāq:

قول الراوي قول من؟ قول شعيب قول من؟ ايهما قول المؤلف؟

للقارئ ان يفصل. له الحق ان يختزل الكِتاب في أوراق ادريس فقط ويستقل بالكلمة دون الراوي وشعيب … له الحق أن يرفض التمييز بين مؤلِف كتاب “أوراق” وادريس كاتب أوراق والراوي جامعها ومرتبها وشعيب المعلق عليها وصاحب الكلمة الأخيرة في تأويلها.

إذا قرر أن يحكم على الجميع حكما واحدا فلاضير ان أجاب على السؤال التالي: ما غرض المؤلف من هذه التعددية، من “انعكاس الصورة في مرايا متقابلة” …

احدى نتائج الإكثار من الوسائط التضييق على الناقد. لم يعد في وسعه أن يكتفي بالتحليلات المضمونية أو الشكلية … لأنها مضمَّنَة في النص نفسه. فهو مدعو إلى الذهاب إلى الأبعد والأعمق، وربما الأبسط.

الأبسط هو فتح الطريق إلى الإستمتاع.

Whose saying is the Narrator’s? Whose saying is Shuʿ⁠ayb’s? Which of the two is the author’s?

It is up to the reader to judge. He has the right to reduce the book to Idrīs’s papers only, and to have a say independently of the Narrator and Shuʿ⁠ayb … He has the right to reject the distinction between the author of the book ʾAwrāq and Idrīs (who wrote these papers) and the Narrator (who collected and organized them) and Shuʿ⁠ayb (who commented on them.) If [the reader] decided to cast one judgment on them all, it would be fitting to raise this question: What is the author’s goal behind this multiplicity, this mise en abîme …?

One of the outcomes of multiplying intermediaries is to constrict the critic. He can no longer limit his inquiry to analyses of content or form … because these are included in the text itself. He is invited to go further and deeper, and perhaps [opt for] the simpler.

The simpler [option] is to open the way to pleasure.26

With the al-mawḍūʿ-al-mawṣūf binary in mind, the word qawl (saying) in the above-cited passage is indicative. A “saying” is, in a way, related to the notion of authority and stands in opposition to kalām (speech), for instance. Al-ʿ⁠Arwī seeks to unsettle the idea of authoritative narration/narrator by resorting to narrative multiplicity shrouded in the evocative strategy of mise en abîme, undermining thereby any one-sided authority claims in ʾAwrāq. Al-ʿ⁠Arwī deforms realist form in two different, but related, ways. Firstly, in presenting a cast of narrators (Idrīs, the Narrator, and Shuʿ⁠ayb), he destabilizes the notion of a reliable omniscient narrator. Having a multitude of narrative voices contributes to breaking any one-dimensional truth claims and brings to light the idea that a viewpoint is more thought-provoking and more appealing than a saying. Secondly, the use of mise en abîme consolidates this penchant for deforming by shattering and blurring narrative subjectivities in hopes of creating (re)new(ed) ones conducive to the resurrection of a new “subject” and a new worldview. In the quote cited above, al-ʿ⁠Arwī in fact alludes to mise en abîme being a vital device in the book’s narrative play: he suggests that the three main characters could be interpreted as mirroring one another and ultimately forming one single personality, which in turn potentially mirrors the person ʿ⁠Abdullāh al-ʿ⁠Arwī, the real author, who, like Idrīs, resided and studied in France while Morocco was still under French colonial rule.27 Hence, “narrative multiplicity,” in the context of autobiographical writing, emerges as a subversive form of writing the self.

It is no coincidence that mise en abîme permeates the entirety of ʾAwrāq, and, through the reflexive structure of mirroring, it serves as the mechanism and the figure of both the loss of subjectivity and the opening up of a (re)new(ed) subjectivity in search of (a) particular subject(s). In other words, mise en abîme figures as both the eradication of and the condition for an act of creation. The historical framework that informs ʾAwrāq is, first, the French colonial enterprise that rendered Morocco and other parts of the Arabic-speaking world subjugated to foreign rule in the twentieth century and, second, the first few decades of Morocco’s postcolonial era. The shock of French colonization, combined with the experiences of being a Moroccan university student in the Parisian metropole, left quite a toll on the protagonist Idrīs’s subjectivity.

Just as Idrīs wrestles with his identity vis-à-vis his new place of residence (Paris) and the European philosophical tradition he now studies, ʾAwrāq wrestles with its ideal form. The term “intellectual biography” in ʾAwrāq: sīrat Idrīs al-dhihniyyah (Papers: Idrīs’s Intellectual Biography) alerts the reader to the formal and political threads running through the book. This seemingly unorthodox nomenclature (“intellectual biography”) is in line with the aspiration to forge or excavate al-mawḍūʿ. In this respect, the politics of form intersects with the book’s ideological bent: its endeavors to forge new literary configurations to grapple with questions of culture, politics, and identity in Morocco’s postcolonial era. The bearing of form on thought is here brought into sharp focus. For al-ʿ⁠Arwī , how we write literature is vital and indispensable in constructing new horizons to treat critically the challenges facing a collective, say the Moroccan nation(state) or Arab/Arabo-Amazigh civilization. The question then persists: What kind of book is ʾAwrāq? What/Who is its subject? Although the book cover does not include a generic label, the subtitle “Idrīs’s Intellectual Biography” (sīrat Idrīs al-dhihniyyah) is indeed revealing. The book’s experimental impulse is foreshadowed in its very title and subtitle: whereas the title evokes an archive left by the main character Idrīs—who we understand is deceased—comprised of a stack of various papers (journals, commentaries, letters, fictional stories, articles, etc.) currently in Shuʿ⁠ayb’s possession, the subtitle alludes to the arrangement and rendition of this archive into a(n) (intellectual) biography of Idrīs undertaken by the Narrator (al-rāwī). Juxtaposing the two, the title ʾAwrāq (Papers) appears to be an objective designation of Idrīs’s documents, while the subtitle sīrat Idrīs al-dhihniyyah (Idrīs’s Intellectual Biography) could be seen as more of a subjective assessment of these documents by the Narrator and Shuʿ⁠ayb. The book’s quest for its best form—for its “subject”—could in the final analysis be excavated from the fault lines of this Idrīsian archive and the countless debates between the Narrator and Shuʿ⁠ayb over its meaning and significance.

Interestingly, the way Idrīs is represented in ʾAwrāq betrays al-ʿ⁠Arwī’s attempts to formulate a new mode of subjectivity, one notable feature of which is the notion of critical sensibility. This key attribute features quite prominently in the Idrīsian archive as well as in the commentaries provided by the Narrator and Shuʿ⁠ayb. Moroccan critic al-ʾAmīn al-ʿUmrānī notes that the structure of ʾAwrāq includes two entities: first, “the narrative” (al-sard)—i.e., the papers of Idrīs—and, second, “the meta-narrative” (mā warāʾa al-sard)—i.e., the commentaries, debates, and dialogues between the Narrator and Shuʿ⁠ayb in relation to the papers.28 Al-ʿUmrānī adds that Idrīs’s papers fall under “creative and critical prose” (al-sard al-ʾibdāʿī wa-l-naqdī), whereas the Narrator’s and Shuʿ⁠ayb’s portions of the narrative (i.e., their commentaries on the papers) could be seen as “scientific, critical prose” (al-sard al-naqdī al-ʿilmī).29 In a similar vein, al-Dāhī asserts that in ʾAwrāq, al-ʿ⁠Arwī combines “modernist writing” (kitābah ḥadāthiyyah) marked by unstable or malleable generic contours and “deceptive characterization” (khudaʿ al-tashkhīṣ) with a technique from the ancient Arab heritage, one that first presents the body of the text and then provides critique and commentary.30 Admitting his indebtedness to this heritage, al-ʿ⁠Arwī states:

فهذا العمل … هو ككتاب الصولي، هو بمثابة كتاب نقدي أو دراسة نقدية على النص. النص هو أوراق إدريس، ثم هناك دراسة نقدية لا يقوم بها شخص بل شخصان.

This work [i.e., ʾAwrāq] … resembles al-Ṣūlī’s book, for it could be considered as a critical book or a critical study of a text. The text is Idrīs’s papers, and then there is a critical study undertaken by two persons instead of one.31

The title of the work referenced by al-ʿ⁠Arwī above is al-ʾAwrāq (The Papers), composed by the medievalist scholar Abū Bakr al-Ṣūlī (d. 946 CE). In this multi-volume text, al-Ṣūlī, among other things, compiles and critiques the work of several Arab poets from the Abbasid period—including Abū Nuwās, Abū Tammām, Ibn al-Rūmī, and al-Buḥturī.32 This important medieval work preserves as well as analyzes the writing of both well-known and less-known Arab poets. It represents a major contribution to Arabic letters.

Al-ʿ⁠Arwī not only adopts, albeit loosely, the formal design of al-Ṣūlī’s book, but adapts its title as well. In so doing, he meaningfully incorporates al-turāth and thereby opens his book up to a deeper conversation with the literary and cultural heritage of the Arabs. ʾAwrāq thus demonstrates a strategic investment in al-turāth as it attempts to innovate and give specificity to Moroccan novelistic writing. The two texts share a significant commonality, namely their critical bedrock. In a section entitled “al-Naqd wa naqd al-naqd” (Criticism and the Criticism of Criticism), al-Dāhī asserts that, as “a critical, imaginative experiment,” al-ʿ⁠Arwī’s ʾAwrāq generates “a critical consciousness”33 before adding that it weaves together two types of criticism, ideological34 and artistic.35 This critical impulse in ʾAwrāq manifests in Idrīs’s critical papers reacting to a host of issues—including “historiography, religion, politics, and society” both in the colonial and postcolonial periods36 and to the writings of “Sartre, Nietzsche, Descartes, and Marx”37—in addition to Narrator’s and Shuʿ⁠ayb’s critiquing Idrīs’s critique.38

In chapter three of ʾAwrāq, titled “al-Waṭan” (The Nation), we see this two-dimensional critique at work. We are given an excerpt from Idrīs’s journals, which recounts a conversation between five people praising the morning sermon delivered by an imam on ʿīd al-fiṭr. This sermon includes a story or legend that describes the execution of a Sufi martyr in the Middle Ages.39 Reacting to this exchange, Idrīs writes:

أستمع وأقول في نفسي: … شعب يعيش على إرث ثلاثة عشر قرنا لم يتغير منه شيئا … ما نسمع اليوم قيل وأعيد آلاف المرات لا في المغرب فقط بل ما وراء النهر والبحر والجبال الشاهقات. نفس الحكايات، نفس العبارات، نفس الحكم يتسامر بها الطلاب في صحون المدارس والمتجولون في مسالك المقابر. حضارة محنطة … الخطأ أننا تصرفنا ولا زلنا نتصرف وكلنا ثقة أن حضارتنا تمثل المطلق …. هنا سبب سباتنا الطويل.

I listen and say to myself: … A people living on the absolutely unchanged, thirteen-century-old heritage…. What we hear today was said and repeated thousands of times, not only in Morocco but also beyond the river, the sea, and the tall mountains. The same stories, the same expressions, the same adages that students in school halls and walkers in the tracks of cemeteries recount. A mummified civilization…. The mistake is that we behaved and still behave, with full confidence, as if our [Arab-Muslim] civilization represented the absolute … This is the reason behind our long lethargy.40

Idrīs dates this excerpt to July 14, 1953, indicating that this incident took place during the colonial era—just three years before Morocco gained its political independence from France and Spain. The Narrator and Shuʿ⁠ayb then embark on a discussion of this excerpt. Their exchange proceeds as follows—with the Narrator speaking first:

  • لم يسجل أن القصة رواية شعبية لما جرى للحلّاج.

  • ربما كان يجهل ذلك.

  • هل لأبيه دور في هذا النقاش؟

  • لا أظن، الحوار بين عمه الأمي وأصدقائه … كان كلام إدريس مع أبيه يجري على مستوى آخر…

  • قوله ان الحضارة الإسلامية خصوصية غير مقبول.

  • لا يقول الدعوة الإسلامية غير عامة بل ان الحضارة التي أنشأها المسلمون خاضعة بالضرورة لظروف خصوصية. إلا أن المسلمون يجهلون هذه الحقيقة فيظنون أن لا حاجة للتغيير …

  • كلام يحتمل تأويلات أخرى. . والتأويل لا حد له.

  • [Idrīs] didn’t indicate that this story was a popular narrative regarding what happened to al-Ḥallāj.

  • Perhaps he didn’t know that.

  • Did his father play any role in this conversation?

  • I don’t think so. This conversation was between his illiterate uncle and his friends … Idrīs would talk to his father on a different level …

  • His assertion that Muslim civilization is particular is unacceptable.

  • He doesn’t say that the Islamic message is not universal, but rather that the civilization that Muslims established is by necessity subject to particular circumstances; however, Muslims are ignorant of this fact, and therefore they believe that there is no need for change …

  • This point lends itself to different interpretations. And there is no limit to the act of interpreting.41

The Narrator’s and Shuʿ⁠ayb’s respective commentaries on this fragment shed more light on the context engulfing Idrīs’s pronouncements while also clarifying certain vague references in the excerpt. But more importantly, they demonstrate the notion of “critical sensibility” that informs ʾAwrāq. Whereas the excerpt shows Idrīs’s spontaneous critical engagement with, and interrogation of, his Arab-Muslim tradition, the Narrator and Shuʿ⁠ayb’s discussion of Idrīs’s comments provide another critical layer that puts these comments under scrutiny. Through this performative act of a two-dimensional critique, al-ʿ⁠Arwī shows that there is no limit to the critical spirit. Just as Idrīs’s critique of his people and their heritage is portrayed as being legitimate, so are the Narrator’s and Shuʿ⁠ayb’s respective critiques thereof. One might even argue that the critical spirit emerges as another protagonist in ʾAwrāq, one that animates the fault lines between the Idrīsian archive and the Narrator’s and Shuʿ⁠ayb’s endeavors to unpack and make sense of it.

Al-Dāhī elaborates on the literary vision driving the inclusion of a two-dimensional critique in ʾAwrāq. He notes that the difference between “criticism” (embodied in Idrīs’s papers) and “the criticism of criticism” (expressed in the commentaries by the Narrator and Shuʿ⁠ayb) “is that the former interacts with the incidents spontaneously … whereas the latter treats Idrīs’s critique after [enough] temporal distance has been achieved, making it possible to look at the incidents and the topics being critiqued … objectively.”42 This shows how the narrative structure of ʾAwrāq allows for a twofold, differentiated criticism to take place. Seen from this angle, the book’s formal design appears to be in harmony with its ideological leanings. By presenting a multi-layered critique, al-ʿ⁠Arwī seeks to consolidate a critical sensibility in the reader and in society at large, and in the process pushes for the ultimate prize: the emergence of a new subject and a (re)new(ed) Moroccan/Arab/Arabo-Amazigh subjectivity.

By grounding his experimental writing and its formal deformations in the idea of criticism, al-ʿ⁠Arwī outlines one important route leading to “the subject,” one that entails the reshaping of Moroccan and Arab/Arabo-Amazigh consciousness in a way that critically engages questions related to history, culture, and politics. Indeed, in La Crise des intellectuels arabes: traditionalisme ou historicisme? (1974), written in French and translated into English as The Crisis of the Arab Intellectual: Traditionalism or Historicism? (1976), al-ʿ⁠Arwī makes a similar case. He writes that “the concept of history—a concept playing a capital role in ‘modern’ thought—is in fact peripheral to all the ideologies that have dominated the Arab world till now.”43 Al-ʿ⁠Arwī advocates for a critical reevaluation of Arabs’ understanding of their history or histories as a necessary first step in any effort to improve the putative dire conditions of Arab/Arabo-Amazigh societies. In fact, the three narrators in ʾAwrāq (Idrīs, Shuʿ⁠ayb, and the Narrator) are discursively performing this role of critical reassessment and reevaluation of socio-political issues. The French colonial rule in Morocco and the challenges facing the country in the years and decades following political independence in 1956 represent two of the most critical of such issues. ʾAwrāq takes these up at various junctures, giving them much depth and highlighting Idrīs’s emotional and intellectual responses thereto. ʾAwrāq is not only enmeshed in ideological critique—one that is implicit in the Idrīsian archive and is made more explicit in Shuʿ⁠ayb and the Narrator’s debates over this archive—but also ventures into artistic critique, linking in the process questions of form with the realm of the political. In other words, aesthetics and politics are closely interwoven in the book and feed off of each other.

Between al-Mawḍūʿ and al-Mawṣūf: Idrīs’s Pursuit of the Secret(s) to the Literary Wor(l)d

تساءل إدريس: ماذا أفعل بتجربتي؟ كيف أؤطرها، أقطّعها، أرتّبها، ألوّنها، أعدّلها؟ التجربة المعيشة هي الملتقط، هي الموصوف، ليست الموضوع. ليست الغاية …

ازدرى الموصوف، المضمون بكل معانيه، أكان من الطبيعة أو من التاريخ، ثم بعد حين ازدرى الصناعة، المعمار والزخرفة والتجميل. قال: ليس الأسلوب تصفيف الكلمات، الأسلوب هو الهالة المحيطة بالكلمات… الأسلوب هو الصدى التي تتركه وراءها المفردات والمقاطع بعد أن تقرأ وتنسى.

التجربة، المعمار، الزينة، لاشئ من ذلك هو الموضوع، هو الغرض. لابد من البحث، خلف هذه الأمور، عن عبارة تخصّ الوجدان، تخص لون الموصوف. الوجدان حركة واللون حركة والنغمة حركة، لنوحّد تلك الحركات الثلاث، ذلك هو الهدف.

Idrīs wondered: What am I to do with my experience? How can I frame, divide, arrange, color, and organize it? Lived experience is what is collected, what is described; it is not the subject, not the goal …

He despised what is being described, content in all its meanings, be it from nature or from history. And after a while he despised the craft: the architecture, ornamentation, and beautification. He says: Style is not arranging words; style is the aura surrounding them … Style is indeed the echo that words and passages leave behind after they have been read and forgotten.

Experience, architecture, decoration, none of this is the subject [or] the goal. It is necessary to look behind these things for an expression peculiar to the emotion, to the color of what is being described. The emotion is a movement, the color is a movement, and the tone is a movement; let us unite these three movements: that is the goal.44

Inquiry into literary writing—including the discussion of the form-content binary and the dialectic of al-mawḍūʿ and al-mawṣūf—is a critical facet of ʾAwrāq’s different narrative layers. Literary inquiry also figures as a key preoccupation of Idrīs, whose ultimate goal as an aspiring writer is to go beyond the details of his daily life and capture “the subject,” the ultimate prize. In so doing, Idrīs seeks to follow in the footsteps of French author Marcel Proust, who is presented as a model for the protagonist—as I will discuss below. Yet the question poses itself: What does Idrīs mean exactly by “the subject” in the context of ʾAwrāq? The above-cited passage offers a few clues: “the aura surrounding the words,” “the echo,” “an expression peculiar to the emotion,” “the color,” and “the tone.” These qualities, which supposedly should pave the way to “the subject,” appear to occupy an area outside of a work’s content and architectural design. In other words, “the subject” cannot be pinned solely to how a literary work is written or to what it is saying; content and form do not by themselves guarantee that the work yields “the subject.” As we learn from the quote above, Idrīs despises content in all its manifestations, whether historical or nature-based, and derides the literary craft in the sense of “architecture, ornamentation, and beautification.” To reach “the subject,” it is incumbent upon one to dig deeper and search behind and beyond both one’s personal and/or collective life experiences (content or al-mawṣūf) and the architectural design of a piece of writing (structure or form); one must strive for that expression that is “peculiar to the emotion, to the color of the described.” In fact, one must search for the magic that ignites the literary wor(l)d. Still, what is this magical impress that makes a work of literature shine, captivate, and leave an echo behind? How can one arrive at it? How did Idrīs, as an aspiring author, go about attempting, first, to grasp this magical impress and, second, cultivate its ethos in his writing endeavors? Did his efforts ultimately end in failure or success?

Idrīs feels contempt for form and content only in so far as they are devoid of that third element (“the aura,” “the echo,” “the color”) that gives the writing a touch of “magic.” That is to say, form and content are not necessarily negative entities, but are rather indispensable to any work of literature. Indeed, France and Proust would play a critical role in the evolution of Idrīs’s literary sensibilities and his pursuit of literature’s magical impress. In chapter eight of ʾAwrāq—aptly entitled “al-dhawq” (Taste)—the reader finds out that “Idrīs’s taste was indeed formed in France’s capital,”45 when he started frequenting movie theatres:

في الوقت الذي كان إدريس يمر بتجارب عاطفية مختلفة تتعلق بالوطنية، بالثورة الاجتماعية، بالحب بالعزلة كان يفكر، رغما عنه أحيانا، في الشكل الملائم لكل تجربة، بل في الشكل الذي يوحد في مجال الوعي عواطف متعددة. عبر السيناريو تحقق لديه مفهوم السيرورية، عبر التقطيع مفهوم الإيقاع، عبر الحوار مفهوم اللغة الوصفية، عبر الديكور مفهوم الهيكل، الخ. كان يعلم أن آلته هي الكلمة وأنها محدودة التعبير إذا قورنت بالصورة الشمسية، لكن نتيجة هذه التساؤلات فهم أن اللفظ قد يتحول إلى لبنة، إلى نغمة، إلى لوينة.

At a time when Idrīs was going through different emotional experiences having to do with nationalism, social revolution, love, and solitude, he was thinking—despite himself sometimes—about the suitable form for each experience, rather about the form that unites, in the realm of consciousness, various emotions. Through screenplay he understood the concept of procedure/process, through collage rhythm, through dialogue descriptive prose, through décor structure, etc. He knew that his [only] instrument was the word, whose expressive potential was limited if compared with the photograph. As a result of these contemplations, he came to understand that the utterance could turn into a brick, a melody, a color.46

Idrīs’s attachment to and fascination with the cinematic art expands dramatically while in Paris and plays a major role in how he envisions the art of literary writing. It is inside the dark movie theatres that his awareness of “form” and “expression” increases.47 He learns more about the arts of “the epic, the tragedy, the song, the drama, the novel, etc.” from the writings of movie critics, namely “Georges Sadoul, André Bazin, Henri Agel—the heirs of René Clair and Elie Faure.”48 Idrīs’s immersion in the cinematic arts while residing in France opens up his literary horizons and leads him to envision that core quality of writing without which a literary work remains lacking in some fashion. Even more importantly, it prepares him to finally learn “the lesson of Proust.”49 It seems as though Idrīs does find in Proust that the literary word—or more precisely al-lafẓ (the utterance)—could metamorphose into “melody” (naghmah) and “color” (luwaynah).50 Elaborating on this point, the Narrator states:

فهم مغزى تلك السنوات العديدة التي قضاها بروست عاجزا عن الكتابة، ظانا أنه يبحث عن موضوع في حين أنه كان يبحث عن شكل ملائم، شكل شامل يجمع فيه، يتجاوز به أسلوب برجوت، بريق ألستير، نغمة فانتوي … شكل يشبه في آخر تحليل الفن السينمائي شمولية و اكتمالا.

[Idrīs] understood why Proust spent all those years unable to write, thinking he was searching for a content while he was [in fact] looking for the right form, a comprehensive form that synthesizes and bypasses Bergotte’s style, Elstir’s brilliance, Vinteuil’s melody … a form that resembles in the final analysis the cinematic art in its comprehensiveness and fullness.51

In reading Proust, Idrīs discovers that oftentimes one’s quest for a particular content is no other than the search for a suitable form, a discovery that would enhance his literary sensibility. It follows then that as long as (aspiring) writers lay their hands on that third element (“the aura,” “the echo,” “the color,” “the melody,” etc.) the distinction between, and the barrier separating, what we normally call form and content fades away. Idrīs realizes that what is fascinating about Proust’s genius is that his À la recherche du temps perdu has managed not only to bring together, but also to transcend, the three arts of literary writing (Bergotte), painting (Elstir), and music (Vinteuil). Ultimately, he maintains that Proust, with only the power of the word at his disposal, succeeds in molding a literary product as comprehensive and whole as the cinematic artefact. In so doing, Proust brings about “a separation between the world of literature and the world of [cinematic] art,” and thwarts the efforts of the biggest film directors “who tried in vain to turn his long piece into a convincing film.”52 In other words, the work that Proust produces is seen as superior to cinema, and the literary wor(l)d that he manages to construct turns out to be more forceful than the visual world crafted by film directors. In À la recherche du temps perdu, form and content reach complete harmony, and the magic of the literary word is resurrected. As Barrādah has noted, Proust represents one of a few outstanding writers—alongside Dostoevsky and Tolstoy—whose oeuvre managed to capture the collective imagination and thus arrive at “the subject” (al-mawdūʿ).53 Whereas Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, each in his own way, grappled with Russia’s position vis-à-vis Europe in the nineteenth century as well as its complicated relationship with its own heritage, Proust probed the relationship between the ruling aristocracy and the middle class, the group that handled administrative and cultural matters.54 Thus, in À la recherche du temps perdu “the subject” is the contentious “issue of the transfer of power from one (social) class to another.”55 Proust’s masterpiece is grounded in a general framework that speaks to, and invokes, the collective imaginary and captures its emotion.

ʾAwrāq’s entanglement with the West is a key dimension of its “subject” or search therefor. Idrīs’s life journey shows the various tensions resulting from his encounters with Europe, which would reach their height during Morocco’s struggle for independence from France and Spain in the early 1950s while Idrīs was residing and studying in Paris. These events, culminating in France’s forcing the Moroccan sultan Mohamed V into exile in Madagascar in 1954, created a sense of rupture in Idrīs. This kind of crisis besetting Idrīs and the Moroccan intelligentsia during the colonial period would not cease after Morocco gained its political independence in 1956. The search for the “subject,” a vital component of ʾAwrāq, could be seen as an allegory of the idea of loss or crisis of the Moroccan/Arab intellectual in the postcolonial period, an outcome of a double intellectual and psychological development between two distinct poles: Morocco and France, or East and West. From this vantage point, ʾAwrāq appears to critique the figure of the Moroccan/Arab/Arabo-Amazigh intellectual while also engaging in self-criticism.56 In that way, it follows the same general framework as, say, Jabrā Ibrāhīm Jabrā’s 1978 novel al-Baḥth ʿ⁠an Walīd Masʿūd (In Search of Walid Masoud)—a text that examines and critiques how Arab intellectuals handled crises in the Arab world, including the loss of Palestine to the Zionist project aided and enabled by the West’s colonial enterprise in the Middle East. ʾAwrāq is also in conversation with al-Ṭayyib Ṣāliḥ’s 1966 classic Mawsim al-hijrah ilā al-shamāl (Season of Migration to the North,) a postcolonial novel that, among other things, responds to the shock of European colonialism and modernity. The question of identity vis-à-vis Europe, a key thematic in Ṣāliḥ’s novel, seems to constantly preoccupy ʾAwrāq’s protagonist Idrīs, and hence presents itself as a core aspect of the text and arguably the entirety of al-ʿ⁠Arwī’s work.

Through reading Proust’s work while also being consumed by the cinematic arts, Idrīs becomes obsessed with the novel. Yet he does not seek to write any novel; rather, in the footsteps of Proust, he aspires to create a novel with “an echo” and “an aura,”57 a novel where form is in synch with content. He thinks that if he were to construct a novel centered around “sentimental education,” the literary world he would devise might end up being limited to a specific “time and place” and his endeavors would lack “the magic” that pulls the reader into the writing, “the echo that titillates the emotions days after the novelistic work has been read.”58 That is, he would not be able to go past al-mawṣūf, the mundane details of everyday life, and the magic, the aura, the color, and the echo of the literary wor(l)d would be missing.

What exactly is this magic, this third element that makes a novel stand out and seduce? Reflecting on this query, Idrīs takes us back to the realm of cinema, specifically as photographic music. While pondering the significance of this “external” audio-aural component to the “internal” visual element of a film, Idrīs draws an important conclusion. He becomes convinced that within the novel, the melodic aura “could only be generated from a sentiment that is synonymous with the emotion of al-ḥanīn (nostalgia),”59 one that is intricately tied to the collective and what al-ʿ⁠Arwī calls the “general framework” (ʾiṭār ʿ⁠ām).60 Elsewhere in ʾAwrāq, we learn that Idrīs’s only obsession becomes “the pursuit of the time of the novel, not its style or its language or its content,” what Idrīs calls “its form or accompanying melody,” which then leads him to “the concept of al-ḥanīn.”61 Nostalgia is thus the color and the melodic aura through which magic gushes into the veins of a literary piece. It is the impress that elevates a work of literature to the heights of literary genius and perfection.

Needless to say, a literary piece’s ability to stir and awaken the emotions is indispensable in al-ʿ⁠Arwī’s conception of great literature. It is no surprise that the Moroccan author—who published several critical studies in French, including L’Idéologie arabe contemporaine—was intentional in penning all of his literary work in his mother tongue, Arabic. This allows for a more intimate engagement with the literary wor(l)d and brings forth the peculiarity of the collective it belongs to. The author of ʾAwrāq has confessed that the amount of “joy” or “bliss” (al-taladhudh) he derives from writing in Arabic far surpasses any enjoyment he experiences while writing in French.62 The emotional layer of the literary craft becomes vital, and, following al-ʿArwī himself, the protagonist Idrīs makes a conscious decision to take Arabic as his literary medium while chasing the emotion of nostalgia and centering it in his nascent literary experiments.

Importantly, the notion of failure emerges as a key device in Idrīs’s literary endeavors. Following the Narrator, Idrīs is incapable of “capturing the accompanying melody and this inability revived all his past failures.”63 The Narrator adds that Idrīs initially thought of “al-ʾiḥbāṭ” (disappointment) as “one of the components of al-mawṣūf,” as pertaining to his everyday life and that of his social milieu, but afterwards “it turned in his mind into a personal failure, into an artistic way to unite form and content.”64 This is a remarkable twist in Idrīs’s literary trajectory. He turns something negative (failure or disappointment) into a positive value, a literary tool through which he could strike harmony between form and content, thereby getting closer to his ultimate goal of imbuing his writings with that melodic aura and echo. This unsettles the entire premise of Idrīs’s literary writings being dismissed by the Narrator as failed endeavors. After all, the reader is only given access to a fraction of Idrīs’s stack of papers, not the entire archive. Having said that, we must reconsider the Narrator’s disparaging assessment of Idrīs’s literary journey. In this regard, an interesting development in Idrīs’s trajectory takes place; after his obsession with Proust subsides, he opens up to another Western figure, Hermann Hesse:

هذا التجاذب بين النغمة التي يصبو إليها إدريس وما تتطلبه من اعتزال، هو الذي ينمي في ذهنه الوعي بحتمية الفشل. فينفتح فكره من جديد لدرس هرمان هسّه … أصبح إدريس يلتذ بفكرة، بكلمة، بشعور الإخفاق. جعل من الإخفاق قيمة أخلاقية يتعوذ بها من رتابة الحياة اليومية.

This affinity between the melody that Idrīs strives for and the isolation it necessitates has made the awareness of the inevitability of failure grow in his mind. And so his thinking opened up to the lesson of Hermann Hesse … Idrīs started to relish the idea, the word, and the emotion of failure. He turned failure into an ethical value in which he sought refuge from the monotony of everyday life.65

According to al-ʿUmrānī, “failure” in the general context of al-ʿ⁠Arwī’s and Hesse’s respective philosophies “is a positive concept,”66 for it offers useful lessons in life and enriches the intellectual and emotional aspects of one’s personality regardless of external judgement. Al-ʿUmrānī then poses the crucial question vis-à-vis “Idrīs’s existential, intellectual, and artistic experience”: Did he fail or succeed?67 At the very end of ʾAwrāq, we witness a heated debate between Shuʿ⁠ayb and the Narrator. Shuʿ⁠ayb, who has kept “a low profile” throughout the book compared to the dominating presence of the Narrator, declares in such a defiant tone:

تقول: أخفق بشهادته هو. أقول: انتصر بشهادة من هو أعلى من ذاته في ذاته … كلما قلت أنت السخط فهمت أنا المحبة. كلما قلت الثورة فهمت الوفاء، كلما قلت الغضب فهمت الولاء.

You say: He failed according to his own testimony. I say: He triumphed according to the testimony of he who is higher than himself within himself … Whenever you say rage, I understand love. Whenever you say revolt, I understand loyalty. Whenever you say anger, I understand devotion.68

At the conclusion of the book, Shuʿ⁠ayb and the Narrator stand on opposite sides. Shuʿ⁠ayb comes to Idrīs’s defense, arguing for his ultimate success. He corroborates his position by referring to the testimony of “he who is higher than himself within himself,” a vague and confusing statement. Here, the mise en abîme motif could provide an answer, inconclusive as it might be. This character/person that attests to Idrīs’s victory and seems to play the role of his double, or rather his super ego, is no other than Shuʿ⁠ayb himself. As I mentioned at the outset, the trope of mirroring and the reduplication of images it presupposes are at the heart of ʾAwrāq.

The mise en abîme thus unsettles not just the characters themselves but the book’s overall meaning, bringing to the fore al-ʿ⁠Arwī’s vision of literary experimentation in the context of Moroccan and Arabic literatures. ʾAwrāq is a work that blurs the boundaries between fiction and criticism, destabilizes the notion of genre, and showcases al-ʿ⁠Arwī’s experimental inclinations. It is a text that, to borrow Muḥammad Amanṣūr’s words, has contributed to moving Moroccan novelistic writing from “spontaneous experimentalism” (al-tajrīb al-tilqāʾī) to “an experimentalism that is conscious of its strategies” (al-tajrīb al-wāʿī bi ʾistrātījiyātih).69 Foundational to the book’s experimental impulse, mise en abîme is a well-crafted technique that showcases the workings of “al-tajrīb al-waẓīfī” (functional experimentalism) and sheds light on al-ʿ⁠Arwī’s literary vision.

The Search for al-Mawdūʿ: An Allegory for the State of Crisis

That al-ʾiḥbāṭ (disappointment) and al-fashal (failure)—in the literary economy of al-ʿ⁠Arwī—could be harnessed as tools capable of revealing al-mawḍūʿ speaks to the Moroccan author’s conception of literature in a postcolonial nation facing tremendous challenges and crises. Thus, the search for “the subject”—or rather a (re)new(ed) subject(ivity)—through a new mode of literary writing presents itself as a remedy of the state of crisis. From this angle, the politics of form and the notion of crisis become intricately interrelated. By performing this discursive act of formal deformation, al-ʿ⁠Arwī aids the emergence of a new discourse that complements his status as a prominent historian and cultural critic forging a (re)new(ed) critical consciousness in postcolonial Moroccan and Arab/Arabo-Amazigh terrains. Further, this discourse partakes in the spirit of modernity by both comprehending and interrogating its history before proceeding to formulate its future.

Indeed, al-ʿ⁠Arwī’s literary oeuvre, including ʾAwrāq, partakes in his general intellectual project that grapples with Arab/Arabo-Amazigh historiography and its bearing on the future of Arab/Arabo-Amazigh societies. Notably, the last chapter of ʾAwrāq and the segment that follows—respectively titled “al-Taʿbīr” (Expression/Writing) and “al-Taʾbīn” (Commemoration)—thematically intersect with a large portion of al-ʿ⁠Arwī’s seminal work, al-ʾIdyūlūjyāh al-ʿ⁠arabiyyah al-muʿ⁠āṣirah, particularly its last chapter, “al-ʿ⁠Arab wa al-Taʿbīr ʿ⁠an al-Dhāt” (Arabs and Writing about the Self); a vital link between ʾAwrāq and al-ʾIdyūlūjyāh is the treatment of the binary between al-mawdūʿ and al-mawṣūf. While handling this binary in al-ʾIdyūlūjyāh, al-ʿ⁠Arwī includes a footnote in which he asks the reader to refer to page 240 of the 1989 edition of ʾAwrāq.70 At this juncture in ʾAwrāq, Idrīs, in his quest to become a writer, derides al-mawṣūf—or the details of his daily life—and pursues al-mawḍūʿ.71 As stated earlier, ʾAwrāq is ambiguous on whether Idrīs ultimately succeeds or fails to resurrect “the subject” in his literary experiments, and the reader is left wondering whether this outcome caused his premature death. This highlights the gravity of Idrīs’s literary undertakings as far as “al-taʿbīr” (expression) is concerned and further shows that the way al-ʿ⁠Arwī chooses to conclude ʾAwrāq and al-ʾIdyūlūjyāh is by no means arbitrary.

The thematic connection between ʾAwrāq and al-ʾIdyūlūjyāh illuminates the debates over the subject or loss thereof and helps us parse out al-ʿ⁠Arwī’s broader literary vision. The two texts could be seen as mirroring one another. In emphasizing the al-mawḍūʿ-al-mawṣūf dialectic, ʾAwrāq and al-ʾIdyūlūjyāh respectively show how questions of literary form apply to the social milieu, corroborating in the process the aesthetics-politics relation that informs Moroccan and Arab literary experimentalism. As the following passage from al-ʾIdyūlūjyāh demonstrates, the search for al-mawḍūʿ involves adopting a strict critical approach in interrogating the self and the collective:

قد يكون موضوعنا هو بالضبط ضياع الموضوع، لكن في ظروف خاصة بنا، ولا يكون إبداع بدون تخصيص. وقد يكون شأنا آخر أكثر إيجابية. كل الأبواب إذن أمامنا، لكن لا تنفتح أية واحدة منها إلا لمن سلك طريق النقد الصارم …

والبحث عن الموضوع أليس وجها من البحث عن الذات، محور هذا الكتاب؟

Our subject could exactly be loss of the subject, albeit in circumstances peculiar to us [Arabs/Arabo-Amazigh]—and there is no creativity without specificity. And it could be another thing, a more positive one. All doors, therefore, are before us, but none would open unless we pursued rigid criticism …

And isn’t the search for the subject another facet of the search for the self, the core issue of this book?72

This passage clarifies, albeit negatively, the key notion of al-mawḍūʿ while connecting it to the terrain of identity and its attendant challenges in the postcolonial era; al-mawḍūʿ thus emerges as an entity having been lost due to the vicissitudes of Europe’s colonial subjugation of Morocco/the Arabo-Amazigh peoples. And yet the passage proceeds to delineate an indispensable component of Moroccan/Arabic literary writing post-Independence—i.e., rigid criticism—by means of which al-mawḍūʿ could be recuperated. Departing from al-ʿ⁠Arwī’s remarks above, I argue that the idea of “loss of the subject”—an allegory for loss of the self or identity—is the nucleus that drives the various discursive layers of ʾAwrāq, including the discourses of the deceased Idrīs as contained in his stack of papers as well as the commentaries of and debates between the Narrator and Shuʿ⁠ayb regarding this Idrīsian archive. Idrīs’s struggles with what place he occupies in society, both during French-Spanish colonial presence in Morocco (1912–1956) and during the first two decades of independence, are transferred to his literary experiments. His existential, intellectual, and emotional journeys are strongly echoed in his papers—not only in his literary attempts but also in his letters, journals, commentaries, etc. Hence, writing becomes a site that carries both the negative and positive aspects of Idrīs’s life journey. On one hand, the act of writing assists the protagonist in diagnosing his presumed loss of the subject, but on the other, it creates a space for him to forge a new kind of subject(ivity).

As underscored above, a key imperative proposed by al-ʿ⁠Arwī in this endeavor of resurrecting a (re)new(ed) subject(ivity) is the strict adoption of “rigid criticism,” one that involves a profound, honest, critical investigation and interrogation of Moroccan/Arab/Arabo-Amazigh history and heritage. Building on this idea, I want to propose that ʾAwrāq revolves around three central, interrelated themes: first, the search for al-mawḍūʿ, second, the exploration of the self, and third, the pursuit of a critical sensibility. Whereas the first two diagnose an ailment, the last prescribes a cure, ideological as it might be. That is, only through the application of “rigid criticism” in relation to their history and politico-cultural traditions could Idrīs, Shuʿ⁠ayb, and the Narrator—and the larger Arab/Arabo-Amazigh nation(s) of which they are representative—find answers to the enormous challenges they face post-Independence. Just as the Narrator and Shuʿ⁠ayb endeavor to resurrect the personality of Idrīs from within his stack of papers, ʾAwrāq embarks on an unrelenting quest to resurrect its best form, one that entails the act of deforming, disrupting, and unsettling generic boundaries.

Fittingly, Idrīs becomes a figure of speech that both elucidates and embodies the sense of loss or crisis besetting the Arab/Arabo-Amazigh people(s) in the twentieth century, a group with whom al-ʿ⁠Arwī strongly identifies. In fact, al-ʿ⁠Arwī’s idea of “loss of the subject” could be the very subject of the Arab/Arabo-Amazigh nation(s). In a 1996 interview, al-ʿ⁠Arwī reiterates this point when commenting on ʾAwrāq:

إذن أضع مقابل ما أسميه خبر الآحاد: الموضوع، أي على الكاتب أن يوظف هذه الأخبار الآحاد لهدف … ولذلك في “أوراق”، أعطيت سلسلة من الحكايات التي يمكن أن تحكى ويحكيها من أراد، لكن إذا حكيت، فقط، ماذا نفعل بها، حتى ولو تعاملنا فيها مع اللغة بكيفية من الكيفيات، إذا لم ندمجها في إطار عام هو الذي أسميه الموضوع أو البحث عن الموضوع.

So I place the subject in opposition to what I call separate news. That is, the writer ought to employ this separate news for a purpose … Thus, in ʾAwrāq, I provided a chain of stories that could be narrated by anyone, but if they are only narrated, what are we to do with them—even if we molded their language in a particular manner—if we did not integrate them in a general framework, which is what I call the subject or the search for the subject?73

Thus, to attain validity, literary writing must go beyond questions of content and its attendant linguistic manipulation and be part of “a general framework” that articulates the deeper concerns and challenges of a social group and/or a historical era. As Barrādah puts it, ʾAwrāq is closer to “a comprehensive novel that does not suffice with [recounting] stories and incidents but rather formulates queries about existence, the relationship with family, identity, love, and life experience in general.”74 It is a book that might be read both as “a metaphoric articulation of the questions corresponding to the impactful civilizational transformations” unfolding in the twentieth century75 and as an analysis of their bearing on Arab/Arabo-Amazigh societies. ʾAwrāq gives the author a bigger margin of freedom for a personalized exploration of political, historical, socio-cultural, and ideological issues. Unlike the essay, the novel allows for “a psychological experience” (tajribah nafsāniyyah) leading to some sort of “discovery” (al-’istikshāf).76 Hence, while wrestling with the image of Arab/Arabo-Amazigh societies as lagging behind their Western counterparts, ʾAwrāq promises a more intimate and personalized engagement of said issues. This way, the book further illuminates the trepidations of an entire generation of Moroccans/Arabs/Arabo-Amazigh as they handled the shock of colonialism and the challenge of dealing with a more powerful, more advanced Europe. From this vantage point, ʾAwrāq could be construed as another articulation of the same core questions treated in al-ʾIdyūlūjyāh. And for the time being, the text’s generic identity would remain as unresolved as the crises besetting the Arab/Arabo-Amazigh world. In the final analysis, however, one has to concede that, through ʾAwrāq, al-ʿ⁠Arwī bends and blends numerous genres in order to unsettle and blur generic distinctions and make a broader commentary on Moroccan and Arab/Arabo-Amazigh histories and ideologies and their bearing on the arena of “writing” (al-taʿbīr). In probing the al-mawḍūʿ-al-mawṣūf binary and its entanglement with European ideas in such a way that involves formal deformations, ʾAwrāq asserts its relevance to the socio-political milieu in Morocco and the Arab/Arabo-Amazigh world as well as to the field of Arabic literary studies.


ʿ⁠Abdullāh al-ʿ⁠Arwī, ʾAwrāq: sīrat Idrīs al-dhihniyyah (Casablanca: al-Markaz al-Thaqāfī al-ʿ⁠Arabī, 1996, 1989). This book was first published in 1989 and went through a number of editions. It was translated into French as Les carnets d’Idris (Casablanca: Centre Culturel Arabe, 2007). Thus far, it has not been translated into English. Throughout this article, I will refer to the book as ʾAwrāq. Unless indicated otherwise, all translations from the Arabic are mine. Al-ʿ⁠Arwī has published several books in French, and his Latinized name is rendered as Abdallah Laroui.


Al-ʾAmīn al-ʿUmrānī, al-Riwāyah al-maghribiyyah: bayna quyūd al-taʾaththur wa mughāmarāt al-tajrīb (The Moroccan Novel: Between the Constraints of Influence and the Adventure of Experimentalism) (Tangier: Matbaʿ⁠at al-Tupress, 2003), 354.


Gonzalo Fernández Parrilla stresses that Ghallāb is “the Moroccan debtor of Maḥfūẓ,” adding that the Moroccan author’s 1966 novel Dafannā al-Māḍī (We Have Buried the Past, 2016) is “a literary work that for decades was considered a model … a type of novel where ideology was too present.” See: Parrilla, “Breaking the Canon: Zafzaf, Laroui and the Moroccan Novel,” 3–13, 9, Moroccan novelist-critic Aḥmad al-Madīnī considers Maḥfūẓ as “the father of the Arabic novel.” See: Taḥawwulāt al-nawʿ fī al-riwāyah al-ʿ⁠arabiyyah: bayna maghrib wa mashriq (Genre Transformations in the Arabic Novel: Between West and East) (Rabat: Dar al-Amān, 2012), 131.


Muḥammad Barrādah, al-Riwāyah al-ʿ⁠arabiyyah wa rihān al-tajdīd (The Arabic Novel and the Challenge of Renewal) (Dubai: Dār al-Ṣadā, 2011), 68.


Muḥammad Barrādah, Luʿbat al-nisyān (Rabat: Dār al-Amān, 2005). See also Mohamed Berrada, The Game of Forgetting, trans. Issa J. Boullata (Austin: University of Texas at Austin Press, 1996).


Saʿīd Yaqṭīn, Qaḍāyā al-riwāyah al-ʿ⁠arabiyyah al-jadīdah: al-wujūd wa-l-ḥudūd (The issues of the new Arabic novel: existence and frontiers) (Cairo: Ru’ya, 2010), 24.




Muḥammad Barrādah, “ʿ⁠Abdullāh al-ʿ⁠Arwī musāʾilan al-riwāyah wa munaẓẓiran lahā,” (ʿ⁠Abdullāh al-ʿ⁠Arwī Interrogating and Theorizing the Novel) in ʿ⁠Abdullāh al-ʿ⁠Arwī: min al-tārīkh ʾilā al-ḥub (ʿ⁠Abdullāh al-ʿ⁠Arwī: From History to Love), ed. Muḥammad al-Dāhī (Doha: Wizārat al-Thaqāfah, 2013), 7.


In 2014, al-ʿ⁠Arwī sat for an interview with Moroccan magazine Zamān and discussed the ongoing political and social developments in Morocco and the Maghreb region following the “Arab Spring” protests and uprisings. See ʿ⁠Abdullāh al-ʿ⁠Arwī, “Inkār al-thaqāfah al-gharbiyyah laysa fī ḥad dhātihi thaqāfah,” interview by Muṣṭafā Buʿzīz, al-Maʿṭī Munjib, and Sulaymān Binshīkh, Zamān (June 2014):


“Sheikh Zayed Book Award Names Abdallah Laroui ‘Cultural Personality of the Year,’” Media Center, Sheikh Zayed Book Award, April 5, 2017, accessed July 28, 2022,


See, for instance, al-ʾIdyūlūjyāh al-ʿ⁠arabiyyah al-muʿ⁠āṣirah (1967, Contemporary Arab Ideology), al-ʿ⁠Arab wa-l-fikr al-tārīkhī (1973, Arabs and Historical Thought), Mafhūm al-ʾidyūlūjyāh (1980, The Concept of Ideology), Mafhūm al-dawlah (1981, The Concept of the State), Mafhūm al-ḥurriyyah (1981, The Concept of Freedom), Mafhūm al-tārīkh (1992, The Concept of History), and Mafhūm al-ʿ⁠aql (1996, The Concept of Reason).


ʿ⁠Abdullāh al-ʿ⁠Arwī, al-Ghurbah (Casablanca: al-Markaz al-Thaqāfī al-ʿ⁠Arabī, 2000, 1971). In addition to al-Ghurbah, al-ʿ⁠Arwī has written the following novels in Arabic: al-Yatīm (1978, The Orphan), al-Farīq (1986, The Team), Ghīlah (1998, The Assassination), and al-ʾAfah (2006, The Affliction).


Parrilla contends that al-ʿ⁠Arwī’s al-Ghurbah was a text that inaugurated “formal experimentation” in the Moroccan novel. See: “Breaking the Canon,” 9.


ʿ⁠Abdulʿ⁠alī Būṭayyib, al-Riwāyah al-Maghribiyyah mina al-taʾsīs ʿilā al-tajrīb (The Moroccan Novel: From Foundation to Experimentation) (Meknes: Meknes University Press, 2010), 40.


In his later “novels” Ghīlah (1998) and al-ʾAfah (2006), al-ʿ⁠Arwī experimented with the detective and science fiction genres respectively. Al-ʿ⁠Arwī admits that his goal of writing the novel was primarily experimental. See: Muḥammad al-Dāhī, ed., Abdullāh al-ʿ⁠Arwī: min al-tārīkh ʾilā al-ḥub (ʿ⁠Abdullāh al-ʿ⁠Arwī: From History to Love) (Doha: Wizārat al-Thaqāfah, 2013), 64.


The Narrator (al-rāwī) is capitalized throughout this article since it refers to a character in the book ʾAwrāq.


Barrādah, “ʿ⁠Abdullāh al-ʿ⁠Arwī musāʾilan al-riwāyah,” 19.


Ibid., 9–10.


Muḥammad al-Dāhī, Shiʿriyyat al-sīrah al-dhihniyyah (The Poetics of the Intellectual (Auto)Biography), (Cairo: Ruʾyah, 2008), 18.




Ibid., 20.




Ibid., 20–21. In the Moroccan context, critics have continued to debate a panoply of works that seem to oscillate between the spheres of the autobiography and the novel. One critic sees autobiographical writing to have passed through three important “moments,” each corresponding to a key text; the first concerns Thāmī Lwazzānī’s al-Zāwiya (1942), the second ʿ⁠Abdelmajīd Binjilūn’s Fī al-ṭufūla (1949), and the third Muḥammad Shukrī’s al-Khubz al-ḥāfī (1972, 1982). Other significant texts that approximate the autobiography genre include Ghallāb’s Sabʿ⁠at ʾAbwāb (1965), Muḥammad ʿ⁠Azīz Laḥbābī’s Jīl al-Dhamaʾ (1967), Laylā ʾAbūzayd’s Rujūʿ ʾilā al-ṭufūla (1993), and others. Al-ʿ⁠Arwī’s ʾAwrāq seems to differ from the above-cited texts by virtue of its highly experimental design, yet its mixing of autobiographical and fictional elements draws it closer to the Moroccan tradition of autobiographical writing.


Al-ʿ⁠Arwī, ʾAwrāq, 5.


Ibid., 6.


Al-ʿ⁠Arwī, ʾAwrāq, 7. To be faithful to the Arabic original, I opted for the masculine third person pronoun (“he”) to refer to “the reader” and “the critic” in the quote.


See: Barrādah, “ʿ⁠Abdullāh al-ʿ⁠Arwī musāʾilan al-riwāyah,” 6.


Al-ʿUmrānī, al-Riwāyah al-maghribiyyah, 338.




Al-Dāhī, Shiʿriyyat, 150.


Al-ʿ⁠Arwī, quoted in ibid., 157.


See Muḥammad Bin Yaḥyā al-Ṣūlī, Kitāb al-ʾAwrāq (Cairo: Maṭbaʿ⁠at al-Ṣāwī, 1934). The editing and printing of this volume was undertaken by James Heyworth-Dunne, a student of British historian H. A. R. Gibb.


Al-Dāhī, Shiʿriyyat, 173.


Ibid., 174.


Ibid., 177.


Ibid., 174.


Ibid., 175.


Ibid., 174.


Al-ʿ⁠Arwī, ʾAwrāq, 47.




Ibid., 48.


Al-Dāhī, Shiʿriyyat, 174.


Abdallah Laroui, The Crisis of the Arab Intellectual: Traditionalism or Historicism? (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976), viii.


Al-ʿ⁠Arwī, ʾAwrāq, 235, emphasis added.


Ibid., 172.


Ibid., 173–174.


Ibid., 173.




Ibid., 174.




Ibid., emphasis added. In the Arabic original, this passage appears with an endnote numbered 101, in which al-ʿ⁠Arwī explains that in Proust’s À la recherche du temps perdu the writer Bergotte is based on the real person Anatole France, the painter Elstir on Claude Monet, and the musician Vinteuil on Charles-Camille Saint-Saëns. See: ʾAwrāq, 251 for endnote.


Ibid., 174.


Barrādah, “ʿ⁠Abdullāh al-ʿ⁠Arwī musāʾilan al-riwāyah,” 12.




Al-ʿ⁠Arwī, ʾAwrāq, 174.


In 2016, al-ʿ⁠Arwī published a book entitled ʾIstibānah (which could be translated as “questioning/interrogating” or “clarifying”), consisting of 111 questions pertaining to history, politics, cultural production, and spanning a long period of Moroccan history, from the 1930s to the postcolonial era. He directs these questions at himself and then provides answers. See: ʾIstibānah (Casablanca: al-Markaz al-Thaqāfī li-l-Kitāb wa-l-Nashr, 2016).


Al-ʿ⁠Arwī, ʾAwrāq, 236.






Qtd. in al-Dāhī, ʿ⁠Abdullāh al-ʿ⁠Arwī: min al-tārīkh, 41.


Ibid., 211.


Al-Dāhī, ʿ⁠Abdullāh al-ʿ⁠Arwī: min al-tārīkh, 35.


Al-ʿ⁠Arwī, ʾAwrāq, 236.


Ibid., 237; emphasis added.


Al-ʿ⁠Arwī, ʾAwrāq, 215; emphasis added.


Al-ʿUmrānī, al-Riwāyah al-maghribiyyah, 351.


Ibid., 352.


Al-ʿ⁠Arwī, ʾAwrāq, 242–243.


Muḥammad Amanṣūr, Kharāʾiṭ al-tajrīb al-riwāʾī (Topographies of Novelistic Experimentation) (Fez: Anfoprant, 1999), 25.


Al-ʿ⁠Arwī, Al-ʾIdyūlūjyāh, 21. I should note that in the 1996 edition of ʾAwrāq I am using for this article, the referenced page is 235, in which Idrīs also enquires about al-mawḍūʿ and al-mawṣūf.


Al-ʿ⁠Arwī, ʾAwrāq, 235.


Al-ʿ⁠Arwī, al-ʾIdyūlūjyāh, 22.


Qtd. in al-Dāhī, ʿ⁠Abdullāh al-ʿ⁠Arwī: min al-tārīkh, 41.


Barrādah, “ʿ⁠Abdullāh al-ʿ⁠Arwī musāʾilan al-riwāyah,” 21.




Al-Dāhī, ʿ⁠Abdullāh al-ʿ⁠Arwī: min al-tārīkh, 36.

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