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The Arabic novel: a history and a guide
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 08 - 06 - 2006

Even those familiar with the history of the Arabic novel cannot fail to learn from Kadhim Jihad Hassan's comprehensive new survey, writes David Tresilian
Kadhim Jihad Hassan, Le Roman arabe 1834 -- 2004 (The Arabic Novel). Paris: Actes sud, 2006. pp395
While there are many good one-volume histories of Arabic literature, writes Kadhim Jihad Hassan in the introduction to his Le Roman arabe 1834 -- 2004, there are few, if any, comprehensive one-volume histories of the Arabic novel designed for the general reader.
In his new book he seeks to remedy this situation, producing a history of the genre from its origins in the early 19th century to the present. Hassan comments that the novel has, from uncertain beginnings, proven to be of decisive importance in Arab literary culture and that it is today "undergoing a kind of inflation". In presenting its history, he offers a clearly written account of trends and authors across the Arab world, and though he does not assume any prior knowledge of Arabic literature on the part of his readers it is hard to believe that even those familiar with this material will not gain from reading Hassan's treatment.
Hassan, an Iraqi-born French academic teaching at the Institut national des langues et civilisations orientales in Paris, begins with a consideration of the Arab nahda, or awakening, in the 19th century. He explains how the intellectual developments of the time emerged both from a re-assessment of the Arab cultural and literary heritage and from the absorption of new ideas from Europe, this dual determination giving rise to characteristic works of the period, such as Hadith Isa Ibn Hisham (Sayings of Isa Ibn Hisham) by Mohamed Al-Muwaylihi, published in serial form from 1898 and in book form in 1907, which experiment with narrative forms and introduce new kinds of content.
Authors such as Farah Antun (1874--1922), Jurji Zaydan (1861--1914) and Mustafa Lutfi Al-Manfaluti (1876--1924) are given sections of their own in the book's historical survey, passing the contributions of each under review, with Hassan pausing to consider Zeinab by Mohamed Hussein Haykal (1888--1956) in more detail. This novel, published in 1914, has often been seen as "the first true Arabic novel", and Hassan well describes its combination of romantic protest against social pressures, derived, he believes, from Rousseau, and its introduction of broader social concerns into prose fiction, including issues of class structure and village life.
Hassan also sees Zeinab as introducing formal innovations, particularly in the language of the novel and in narrative style. The last decades of the 19th century saw an explosion of journalism, Cairo in particular emerging as a producer of print material of every kind, including the newspaper Al-Ahram and magazines such as Al-Hilal. These new publications demanded new kinds of content, and their readers, like readers everywhere, were avid for fiction that fed the imagination and did so in a digestible way: European novelists, such as Dickens, had specialised in providing a mixture of history, sentiment and social criticism for the burgeoning magazines and feuilletons of the time, and late 19th-century Arab readers looked for something similar in the developing Arabic novel and short story.
Zeinab, writes Hassan, owes its charm and reputation to its romantic individualism and its supple use of language. Haykal, he writes, "took a daring step in using Egyptian dialect for the dialogue" in his novel, showing how "emotion is not separated from expression" and borrowing from the simplified structures and vocabulary of the print culture of his time, achievements that were built upon by later writers, including Naguib Mahfouz.
The latter, as befits his status as a writer who "represents in himself the entire development of the Arabic novel," gets detailed consideration here. Indeed, Hassan writes in his chapter on Mahfouz that owing to his long career, impressive productivity and ceaseless experiment he has succeeded in "rooting the novel in the Arabic language," firmly introducing it into the culture and both "enriching that culture and radicalising its connection with reality."
"The vertiginous diversity of techniques, themes, characters and styles that Mahfouz has used in his works bears witness to this cultural enrichment," Hassan writes. "Regarding the novel's connection with reality, one can point to the fact that all Mahfouz's works have a social dimension and a critical character. Whether allegorical, mythical or even fantastic, his novels always return to political preoccupations and are founded on an authentic humanism. Indeed, this novelist, who has never been a member of any political party, can appear to be the most critical, most radical and most subversive of all Arab writers."
Hassan divides his treatment of the mid to late 20th- century Arabic novel by country, devoting chapters to the Egyptian, Syrian, Iraqi, Palestinian and Lebanese novel, before examining "some particular cases" (Sudanese, Kurdish and Tuareg), summarising the situation of the novel in Jordan, Yemen and the Gulf, and describing developments in the "Maghreb novel" in a long final chapter. He employs a life-and-works approach to the authors considered and sets their works against the social and historical background of the countries concerned.
Among the most successful examples of this technique is Hassan's chapter on the Egyptian novel, entitled "companions and inheritors of Mahfouz", in which he deftly summarises the contributions made by novelists of a senior generation, such as Yehia Haqqi, Abdel-Rahman Al-Sharqawi and Youssef Idris, before describing the desire among Egyptian writers of the 1960s and later to "break with the classical novel, whether naturalist or social realist in style" and experiment with new forms in which not only "new kinds of writing, narrative and literary space" are introduced, but also "a new type of reader, one who is now a participant in the creative act and also a part of the story."
Writers considered here include Mohamed El-Bisatie, Baha Taher, Ibrahim Aslan, Edwar Al-Kharrat, Sonallah Ibrahim, Gamal Al-Ghitani, Ibrahim Abdel-Meguid and Nabil Naoum, among others. Women writers, among them Latifa Al-Zayat, Nawal Al-Saadawi and Radwa Ashour, are picked out for special consideration. Following his procedure elsewhere, Hassan gives a short account of each, pointing to features of major works. Since his book takes in developments in the Arabic novel until 2004, as its title indicates, some of the works discussed have only recently appeared in Arabic.
Hassan is generally neutral in his critical judgments, though sometimes he allows himself an evaluative comment. He gives the impression of being a scrupulous guide, neither puffing up nor playing down reputations.
Elsewhere in the book, the sections on the Iraqi, Palestinian and Lebanese novel are of special interest. In each case national experience has been disproportionately affected by war, exile and often appalling suffering, and this is reflected in fiction. For Iraq, special emphasis is given to the work of Gha'ib Tu'mah Farman (1927--1990), "the Iraqi Mahfouz", whose writings explore Iraqi historical experience, and Hassan presents the bleak components of that experience in novels dealing with prison, such as those by Fadil Al-'Azzawi (b. 1938), war, in novels by Janan Jasim Hillawi (b. 1956), and exile, such as in the writings of the many Iraqi writers and intellectuals who have been forced to live their lives abroad.
The Palestinian novel, Hassan writes, has a special vocation, since it has had "to create a country in words" for a people long without a state of their own. Ghassan Kanafani gets due treatment here, particularly for his exploration of the often cruel realities of Palestinian lives, as does Emile Habibi, a rather different kind of Palestinian writer. Palestinian women's experience is reflected in the works of Sahar Khalifa (b. 1940), and Hassan brings his story up to date with a consideration of life in the refugee camps in the work of Yahya Yakhlif (b. 1944), in exile, and in the occupied territories, as in the work of Ibrahim Nasrallah (b. 1948).
Hassan's treatment of the Lebanese novel is dominated by the civil war, and he comments that there is "a clean break" between pre-war writing, commonly dealing with ideas of individual freedom or the quest for authenticity, and that of the war itself and its aftermath, which has seen "no form of certitude stand up to the challenge of reality". Narrative, he writes, becomes fragmented in these novels in the face of a reality that seems to have lost any clear meaning: "the main character of nearly all these novels... himself executioner and victim, giver and receiver of violence, has nothing to offer but the sorry spectacle of his own dislocation".
The writings of Hanan Al-Shaykh, Elias Khoury, Hassan Daoud and Hoda Barakat, among others, are discussed, Hassan suggesting that during the civil war and in its aftermath the Lebanese novel has had to "reinvent reality", examining the nature of language, narrative, and collective and individual memory in so doing. "If they cannot be re- assembled and repaired," he writes, "showing the limits of classical catharsis, the breakages that human beings have suffered are at least captured [in these novels] in all their depth and diamond-like splintering".
Perhaps Hassan is less successful in his treatment of novels written in Morocco, Algeria and Tunisia, putting these together in a long final chapter on the Maghreb. Among the writers discussed are Al-Tahir Wattar and Ahlam Mustaghanimi in Algeria, Mohamed Shoukri, Abdullah Laroui and Mohamed Berrada in Morocco, and Al-Bashir Khrayyif and Mahmoud Al-Mis'adi in Tunisia. While the content is always informative, it is nevertheless strange to read the literary history of these three countries, or a substantial part of it, presented without reference to the francophone novel or to literary culture in French.
For Hassan, the Arabic novel seems necessarily to be written in Arabic, but clinging tightly to this definition has meant that important novelists in the Maghreb who did not and do not write in Arabic have been excluded from consideration, which is a pity because of the distortions this can introduce. Hassan's presentation gives the impression that the novel in Arabic in the Maghreb has closer connections with the Arabic novel tout court than it does with literary culture in French in the same region, or, indeed with literary culture in Berber. While this may be true, it is probably not something that can be decided in advance as a matter of simple demarcation, and there may be connections between the work of francophone Maghreb writers and their Arabic- speaking compatriots that would repay investigation.
Regarding Hassan's division of material, sometimes state borders are an unreliable guide, Jabra Ibrahim Jabra, who lived and worked in Iraq, coming under Palestine, where he was born, for example, and Abdel-Rahman Munif coming under Saudi Arabia, where he was born but did not live. Hassan gives highly-charged pages to them both. Ibrahim Al-Kuni is excluded from the section on the Libyan novel despite his nationality and classified as a Tuareg writer instead: writing in a "pure, slightly archaic and very classical Arabic... Ibrahim Al-Kuni's vocation as a Tuareg writer consists in transcribing the mythology of his people, excavating their traditions and giving them expression through Arabic."
Finally, Hassan summarises features of the history he has discussed, pointing to the Arabic novel's reading and re- reading of history, its socio-cultural focus, its representation of various spaces and different experiences and its wealth of narrative styles and experiments with language. His book ends with a useful index and listing of works discussed, giving the equivalent French translations where available.
Informative, unpretentious and clearly organised, Le Roman arabe is as much a catalogue as a history, and as much a guide to the terrain as a kind of compendium of critical notices. As such it is both a welcome history of the Arabic novel and a useful work of reference.


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