Negotiating Boundaries in Arabic Literature

In: Quaderni di Studi Arabi
Martina Censi Assistant Professor of Arabic Language and Literature, University of Bergamo Bergamo Italy

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We live in an age dominated by the proliferation of spatial, temporal, legal, economic, and ethical boundaries. We are both products and producers of the system of boundaries that surrounds us, and our existence acquires meaning through an incessant process of negotiating, transgressing, and shifting them. In return, our time is marked by the “culture of the boundless”, a particularly effective label to refer to the human tendency to unrestrained action on reality, while rejecting any sense of responsibility. In this regard, sociologist Donatella Pacelli states:

As some classical insights anticipate, there is a stringent relationship between a sense of limit, respect for human dignity and the legitimization of individual and collective behavior, and the real evil of modernity lies in having placed humanity in front of the boundless that eliminates, as it decontextualizes, all responsibility for action.1

If the presence of boundaries implies a necessary and virtuous process of negotiation and displacement, on the other hand, the culture of the boundless indicates the harmful human tendency to excess, to going beyond, which is manifested macroscopically in our relationship with the planet. It is no coincidence that the current geological era is called the Anthropocene, precisely to designate the destructive effects of human activity on the entire ecosystem, resulting from the uncontrolled exploitation of the planet’s resources without respecting their scarcity. But then, how can we change our perception of boundaries so that we put ourselves in a position of responsibility concerning our actions? Can literature help us in this regard?

This thematic dossier aims at providing some answers in this regard, through a corpus of Arabic literary texts ranging from pre-modern to contemporary, which articulate boundaries in multiple ways. From these various contributions, it emerges how the concept of boundary is polysemous and manifests itself heterogeneously in different historical eras and societies, being subjected to incessant negotiation and modification, with the aim of establishing order, separating, making sense, and tracing new belongings. It is an ambivalent concept that, on the one hand, indicates a barrier between two or more elements and, on the other hand, carries a transgressive potential that questions its steadiness and, consequently, its objectivity.

In a recent philosophical study on the concept of “border”, considered mainly in its territorial sense, Thomas Nail highlights that it is “a social process of division” not reducible to the power of states or even to an abstract line,2 and that movement is its intrinsic characteristic, definitively releasing it from the idea of stasis as a norm:

Borders are neither static nor given, but reproduced. As Nick Vaughan- Williams writes, “None of these borders is in any sense given but (re)produced through modes of affirmation and contestation and is, above all, lived. In other words, borders are not natural, neutral nor static but historically contingent, politically charged, dynamic phenomena that first and foremost involve people and their everyday lives.”3

After all, movement is by now considered to be a constitutive element of History, and the tradition of scholars who gave it theoretical primacy at the expense of stasis is increasingly consistent. In this regard, in a study on the figure of the migrant, Nail delves into the concept of “kinopolitics” precisely to suggest the need to rethink territorial, political, and social entities in terms of movement and no longer of stasis.4

Regarded as a “positive and continuous process of multiplication by division”, another peculiarity of the border is its “in-betweenness” which consists of being between two or more entities and, in a sense, exceeding them, escaping their authority:

[…] what is common to all these types of borders is the status of “between” […]. What remains problematic about border theory is that it is not strictly a territorial, political, juridical, or economic phenomenon but equally an aterritorial, apolitical, nonlegal, and noneconomic phenomenon at the same time. […] The border of a state has two sides. On one side the border touches (and is thus part of) one state, and on the other side the border touches (and is thus part of) the other. But the border is not only its sides that touch the two states; it is also a third thing: the thing in between the two sides that touch the states.5

The boundary, therefore, is an intermediate space, “between” the self and the environment, between being together and being apart, and it functions as a space of transition.6 It is also a broad term that embraces a wide range of signifiers – such as “the fence, the wall, the cell, the checkpoint, the frontier, the limit, the march, the boundary” – that refer to “distinct phenomena in social history”.7 However, due to its processual, moving, and historical character, the border, in this specific meaning, can be considered akin to the concept of boundary that we propose to investigate in this dossier and which does not concern only the organization of space but refers to a broader spectrum of social division processes such as that between genders, different ages of life, health and disease, between pure and impure, between substance use and abuse in different historical eras. It is a non-objective concept, laden with meanings that vary according to the context and the authorities that establish them and that invest the elements involved, conferring or denying identity: “Beyond the different perspectives of analysis, boundary, border, and frontier are words that meet, and, from a certain point of view, the boundary seems to represent the existential equivalent of material delimitations.”8

Boundaries concern the subject and the construction of individual and collective identities. Identity is a process that is achieved by crossing numerous boundaries, first and foremost those of belonging and group membership:

The continuous migration between different spheres of existence, not only between the public and the private but also within personal biography itself, configures a real “pluralism of identities” (stable, mutating, individualized, restructured, etc.) with fluid boundaries and uncertain outcomes.9

The constant trespassing between individual and collective identities makes the individual a sort of “homeless mind”,10 permanently in search of a new home. This phenomenon of pluralism of identities is particularly significant in Arab-Islamic societies, characterized by a transcultural set-up, and marked by complex and stratified systems of belonging. During history, various factors – such as revolutions, wars, migratory flows, and economic crises – are both cause and effect of the shifting of boundaries that organize not only space, but also individuals’ everyday life, their relations with each other, and that orient their imaginary. Belonging to a group depends on the acceptance and internalization of the boundaries that define its norms of behavior, aesthetic canons, relational modes, and ways of inhabiting and moving through space. At the same time, social practices lead to the shifting of boundaries and the emergence of new fields of belonging. As Michel de Certeau points out, individuals invent their everyday life through a series of practices, defined as “arts de faire”, tactics of resistance by which they reappropriate space and define their identity.11 Boundaries and groups are thus linked by a mutual relationship: boundaries shape groups and groups shape boundaries.

This relationship is analyzed in several studies dealing with the different ways of expressing emotions and how they are directly related to various forms of group membership and, more generally, to individual identity.12 As Gerben A. van Kleef and Agneta H. Fischer point out “Emotions have been proposed to play a role in the development and maintenance of interpersonal bonds, group cohesion and group identity”.13 The complex topic of emotions is thus directly related to the construction of collective identities: the group reinforces a sense of belonging through a shared style of manifesting emotions. Each group has specific styles of expressing emotions whose boundaries are established by social needs and expectations and are respected or transgressed according to circumstances.14

The theme of boundaries is also pivotal in several studies dealing with the shifting of territorial borders and practices of membership, especially after the outbreak of popular uprisings in Arab countries in 2011. One example is the special issue of the journal Geopolitics devoted to the topic of Bordering the Middle East, edited by Daniel Meier. The case studies in this thematic dossier provide some insights into how borders influence the construction of group identities and how identity politics at the local or national level contribute to redefining borders. The link between territorial boundaries and identity also informs studies concerned with changing urban spaces and metropolises, such as The Dialectics of Urban and Architectural Boundaries in the Middle East and the Mediterranean edited by Dinçer, Akdag, Kiris, Topçu. On the topic of boundaries, also a conference, entitled On the Boundaries of Here and Now, was recently held at Ca’ Foscari University Venice, in February 2021.

Boundaries are also central in studies about gender identities and the construction of sexualities in Middle Eastern societies.15 In this field, boundaries appear mainly in the dialectic between norm and transgression, as in Joseph Massad’s Desiring Arabs and Frédéric Lagrange’s Islam d’interdits, Islam de jouissance, or in the more recent Gender and Sexuality in Muslim Cultures, edited by Gul Ozyegin. The latter explores the construction of Muslim identities through the lens of gender and sexuality in Muslim-majority societies, involved in a process of profound destabilization leading to the necessary reconsideration of national, ethnic, and religious boundaries. Another recent study in this field is Sex and Desire in Muslim Cultures, edited by Aymon Kreil, Lucia Sorbera, and Serena Tolino, focusing on the negotiation of sexual norms and the construction of gender categories in Muslim societies from the Abbasid era to the present.

There are also essays not focusing exclusively on Arab societies which could offer stimulating insights if applied pointedly to area studies, such as Negotiating Boundaries? Identities, Sexualities, Diversities, edited by Clare Beckett, Owen Heathcote, and Marie Macey. Here the analysis revolves around the complexity and variety of boundaries related to ethnicity, identity, and sexuality in different areas of the globe. This interdisciplinary work touches on multiple fields, such as English Literature, Islamic and Middle Eastern Studies, Literary and Cultural Studies, Religious Studies, Social Anthropology, and Sociology, to explore processes of identity construction through boundary crossings, contested boundaries, oppressive boundaries, and creative, resistant boundaries.

As revealed by this partial and certainly not exhaustive state of the art, the concept of boundary is pivotal in several studies within the Social Sciences, Border Studies, and Gender Studies, to name a few, sometimes with a specific areal focus. However, we are not aware that specific studies have been devoted, up to now, to boundaries in Arabic literature. Studying the representation and performance of boundaries in literature is a way to explore a wide range of interdisciplinary issues such as, for example, the construction of masculinity and femininity between premodern fluidity and contemporary identity proliferation; aesthetic canons between boundaries and their transgression; the relationship between boundaries, illness and collectivity; substance use and abuse in different historical eras; religious boundaries and belonging; spatial boundaries and their transgression between public and private space, and territorial dimensions; emotions and their boundaries, i.e., the different ways of experiencing and manifesting emotions between needs and social expectations.

Performing Boundaries in Arabic Literature

This dossier aims to fit into this broad field of research to give a specific contribution to the domain of Arabic literature from the pre-modern era to the contemporary, by addressing some of the issues listed above. Our purpose is to draw attention to the literary modes of construction, deconstruction, and performance of boundaries. Literature is particularly effective in providing an alternative point of view because, as Carla Benedetti explains, it is part of those “unsupervised zones of thought and invention, which have been and still are in collision with the most established habits of the mind.”16 Because of its peculiar ability to resist disciplining discourses, literature is suitable for opening up beyond boundaries, “to shift our view of the world beyond the patterns of habitual realities, to awaken forgotten resources, expand our faculties and make present humanity carry out a true metamorphosis.”17

The essays of this dossier address the multiple manifestations of the theme of boundaries through a close reading of texts composed in different areas of the Arab world, from the Abbasid period to the present. The analyzed texts range from adab collections to genres of religious literature from the Ottoman period, the epistolary novel of the first half of the twentieth century, to contemporary poetry, short stories, and novels. The articles are oriented by a series of questions that interrogate how different literary genres provide representations of boundaries and of ways to experience and transgress them; the themes, characters, styles, and languages through which Arabic prose and poetry over the centuries have articulated boundaries; how literature constructs and deconstructs the mutual relationship between boundaries and identity and how boundaries have been literarily performed in order to affect the construction of socially recognized or marginalized groups and forms of belonging.

This path opens with the contribution of Stephan Milich who comes to address the relationship between literature and the Anthropocene, deconstructing multiple boundaries such as that between colonizer and colonized, identity and otherness, civilized and savage, and highlighting the performative role of the literary text in “stimulating a radical change in the ways of thinking that are leading the human species to catastrophe”.18 Milich analyzes the poem “Ḫuṭbat al-Hindī al-aḥmar – ma qabla al-aḫīra – amāma al-raǧul al-abyaḍ” (The “red Indian’s” penultimate speech to the white man, 1992) composed by Maḥmūd Darwīš (1941–2008) to critically commemorate the discovery of America. In this text, the Palestinian poet brings the (Native) American and Palestinian/Israeli contexts into dialogue and, through an idealization of the “savage”, embodied by the Native American, he questions the Western/European vision of modernity as progress, understood as limitless exploitation of the planet that is leading humanity to self-destruction. Central to the poem is a reflection on the violence of boundaries and borders imposed by the colonizer, a theme that also recurs in Tania al Saadi’s article, dedicated to the novel al-Mašṭūr: Sitt ṭarāʾiq ġayr šarʿiyya li-iǧtiyāz al-ḥudūd naḥwa Baġdād (The man ripped apart: six illegal ways to cross the borders to Baghdad, 2017) by the Iraqi Ḍiyāʾ Ǧbaylī (b. 1977). This work advances a complex representation of contemporary Iraqi identity through the crossing of multiple boundaries – a term that appears in the novel’s title – spatial, confessional, between life and death, between the natural and the supernatural. Boundaries are articulated firstly on a poetic level, through intertextuality with Italo Calvino’s novel Il visconte dimezzato (The cloven viscount, 1952), beyond borders of national literature. As in Calvino’s work, boundaries between the natural and the supernatural are also transgressed, through the story of the protagonist: an Iraqi man executed by two members of Dāʿiš who, not knowing his confession – whether Sunni or Shiite –, vertically cut him in two parts. The plot revolves around the desperate journey of the protagonist’s two halves in search of his lost identity, representing Iraq’s search for identity.

The connection between territory, religious affiliation, and identity is also the focus of Arianna Tondi’s contribution, which examines a corpus of texts from various genres of religious literature – such as the faḍāʾil, ṭabaqāt, manāqib, ziyāra – of Ottoman Egypt between the 16th and 19th centuries. The author dwells on reflections on territorial boundaries, showing how these are not defined exclusively according to a geographical criterion, but more importantly according to a religious criterion. Religion is called into play for identity purposes to reinforce the individual’s and the community’s bond with the territory and claim territorial superiority through a “transcendental emergence of the border.”19 The overlapping of territorial, religious, and identity boundaries is also addressed by Richard van Leeuwen, in his study devoted to the novel Ṭawq al-ḥamām (The dove’s necklace, 2012) by Saudi Raǧāʾ ʿĀlim (b. 1970). Here the spatial dimension appears primarily through the urban metamorphoses of Mecca. Van Leeuwen highlights the discursive and constructed nature of spaces and its relation to individual and collective identity, through the analysis of the multiple boundaries that organize the space of the holy city – between sacred and profane, licit and illicit, latent and manifest, the desert and the urban landscape, the local and the global, past and present, genders and social classes – and their subversion in the novel.

Besides being presented in the spatial dimension, boundaries are explored through the dialectic between norm and transgression in Danilo Marino’s contribution, devoted to a corpus of poetic compositions and anecdotes from the most comprehensive anthology of texts on hashish of the premodern Arabic tradition, Rāḥat al-arwāḥ fī al-ḥašīš wa-l-rāḥ by al-Badrī (d. 894/1488). Marino analyzes the literary theme of hashish intoxication as a transitional “space” in which boundaries between different dimensions and conditions – such as the rational and the irrational, the moral and the immoral, pleasure and suffering, health and sickness, aesthetic conventions and ugliness – blur, representing “in-betweenness”. The sphere of emotions and the relationship between the rational and irrational also emerge in Andrea Facchin’s article on the short story Ḫalīfa al-aqraʿ (Ḫalīfa “the scabby”, 1960) by Tunisian al-Bašīr Ḫurayyif (1917–1983). Focusing primarily on the analysis of the character, Facchin notes how his identity and social positioning are constructed and deconstructed through the dialectic between health and illness, where the boundaries between these two conditions are subverted: illness becomes a source of individual identity and group membership.

In conclusion, the contribution by Maria Elena Paniconi addresses the theme of social boundaries and their crossing through the practice of marriage, in early 20th century Egypt, in an unfinished text by Ṭāhā Ḥusayn (1889–1973): the epistolary novel Ḫiṭbat al-šayḫ (The šayḫ’s engagement), published only in 2017, which appears in this dossier translated into a European language for the first time. Paniconi illustrates the complex debate over marriage and the boundaries between genders and social classes that animates Egypt and, more broadly, the Arab world of the time, leaning on the full translation of the work, which is extremely significant as one of the earliest examples of the late nahḍa epistolary novel in Egypt. The epistles of five characters of different genders and social backgrounds, hinging on the theme of marriage, outline it as a means of overcoming social boundaries and creating new forms of belonging.

Crossing multiple boundaries – of literary genres, countries, historical and social backgrounds, and methodologies – the analyzed texts offer a varied overview of the transdisciplinary and complex nature of the topic. It is hoped that this dossier will provide some insights for further research on boundaries and their various expressions in the context of Arabic literature that we consider of strategic importance for a deep understanding of the dynamics underlying the changes in Arab societies throughout history.

This textual journey would not have been possible without its main actors: the authors of the essays. To them goes my sincerest gratitude for accepting the invitation and treading unknown and stimulating trails on a potentially “boundless” topic. The wealth of theoretical insights, the variety of methodological approaches, and the diversity of the analyzed texts contribute to charting an intriguing path of research on the topic of boundaries. None of this would have been possible without the trust and support of Antonella Ghersetti, who believed in the project and agreed to devote this space to the topic of boundaries in Arabic literature. A special thank you also to the editorial board of Quaderni di Studi Arabi for their commitment, willingness, and rigor with which they followed the work. Thanks, finally, to Adriano and Lea for helping me every day to go beyond my many boundaries.

Bibliographical References

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  • Benedetti, C., La letteratura ci salverà dall’estinzione?, Torino, Einaudi, 2021.

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Pacelli, Il senso del limite, p. 12. All translations from Italian are personal.


Nail, Theory of the Border, p. 14.


Ivi, p. 7.


Nail, The Figure of the Migrant, p. 34–51.


Nail, Theory, p. 2–3.


Pacelli, Il senso, p. 41.


Nail, The Figure, p. 2.


Pacelli, Il senso, p. 19.


Ivi, p. 60–61. What Pacelli asserts referring to contemporary times may also concern earlier historical eras.


Suggestive definition that is also the title of a study by Berger, Kellner, The Homeless Mind.


Certeau, L’Invention du quotidien, tome I, Arts de faire.


For a historical study about the relationship between emotions and collective identities in pre-modern times, see Rosenwein, Emotional Communities in the Early Middle Ages.


van Kleef, Fischer, “Emotional Collectives: How groups shape emotions and emotions shape groups”, p. 4–5.


The link between emotions and identity is also investigated in several area studies, such as Julia Bray’s “Toward an Abbasid History of Emotions: The Case of Slavery” which undertakes a historical analysis of emotions in Abbasid times through the specter of slavery. Also, with a focus on emotions in literature is Lale Behzadi’s study “Standardizing Emotions: Aspects of Classification and Arrangement in Tales with a Good Ending” which analyzes the link between classifying activities and manifestations of emotions in al-Tanūḫī’s collection al-Faraǧ baʿd al- šidda.


This field is characterized by a wide flourishing of studies that we do not aim to present here in an exhaustive manner.


Benedetti, La letteratura ci salverà dall’estinzione?, p. 21. I thank Maria Elena Paniconi for suggesting this stimulating reading.


Ivi, p. 23–24.


Ivi, p. 23.


Nail, Theory, p. 16.

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