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The historical predicament
Published in Al-Ahram Weekly on 03 - 03 - 2005

Rania Khallaf tries to make sense of the third Arab Novel Conference
The third round of the Supreme Council of Culture's much publicised and by now controversial biannual novel conference (26 February-2 March) invested the classically serene atmosphere of the Cairo Opera House with exciting activity. The inauguration session filled the 2,000-strong small hall to overflowing, and invitees queued up to be let into a ceremony that featured not only Minister of Culture Farouk Hosni and council chairman Gaber Asfour but Palestinian novelist Sahar Khalifa and Youssef El-Qaieed as the envoy of Nobel laureate Naguib Mahfouz, who composed a speech for the occasion in which he commended the conference's organisers and participants and urged the jury to give the award to "a novelist who deserves it irrespective of non-literary considerations". A lavish open-air buffet in the open-air theatre area later afforded novelists and critics from across the Arab world the rare opportunity to socialise.
A mere half-hour into the proceedings, however, the number of attendees was significantly reduced -- so much so that the hall looked empty. With the door open, people -- a typical feature of Culture Council gatherings, this -- kept flitting in and out through the proceedings, something that was to go on for the duration of the five-day event. Remarkably, such behaviour was not restricted to junior members of the audience but encompassed many established Egyptian novelists, who were seldom present when or where they were supposed to be. Few are included among the 200 names listed in the conference programme, but even those who were officially invited seemed to be enjoying the sun in the outdoor part of the council cafeteria rather than attending seminars; thus they could chat informally with their Arab friends and peers.
The theme of this round, which focussed on the late Abdel-Rahman Mounif as primary exemplar of the historical novel in Arabic, was the novel and history -- a notion that generated a range of stimulating questions from the definition of the historical novel to the credibility of the novelist as historian.
Syrian novelist Khalil Al-Nueimi opened the first session with a somewhat contentious statement to the effect that the purpose of the historical novel consists in exposing political repression of the past from a present perspective -- with the object of endorsing the "factual necessity" of critiquing history: "The principal aim of the novel is to criticise, so how can the novelist fail to question history? Why do we write at all, if we cannot stand in opposition to history? The modern Arabic novel can assimilate numerous registers of language and complex intellectual relations, so it is fully equipped to treat every aspect of human endeavour including history -- something that it should do in a systematic way, which necessitates a context of unconditional freedom. But in the Arab world, while resources are abundant, freedom is extremely scarce. This is why the vast majority of Arab novels now being written tend to be superficial, in the end..."
The Alexandrine experimentalist Edwar El- Kharrat responded by saying that "conveying the spirit of the age" is a principal function of the historical novel, which should never "use history merely as symbolic material for taking issue with current political events": "The question is whether the novelist can achieve a balance between the facts of the past and his own contemporary view."
In the same session the American Arabist Roger Allen identified Gamal El-Ghitani and Bensalem Hemeish as two novelists who effectively reflect the spirit of history. El-Ghitani, he began, "reforms the historical novel in order to level a severe critique at the period preceding the 1967 defeat", while in Al-Alamma (The Professor), "Hemeish manages to utilise modern writing techniques in creating a dialogue with a historical character, Ibn Khaldoun -- in order to question his character and identity. It's a novel I consider to be a good example of historical writing, an example to follow... In the postcolonial period, the historical novel became highly favoured in the so called Third World, with novelists feeling the need to reclaim a past they felt had been stolen by colonial powers, or rather, to put it simply, they wanted to rewrite national history."
Hemeish himself conceded the importance of the connection between the novel and history, in an interview with Al-Ahram Weekly : "This round's discussions force intellectuals to think about how the novel itself is history, how history in its turn is a novel narrated in a different manner. Hemeish finds the kind of writing he practised in Al-Alamma -- winner of the American University's Naguib Mahfouz Medal in 2002 -- to be among the most difficult in literature, since "scrutinising places, characters and events requires huge amounts of time and effort". Distinguishing between "the kind of (auto)biography written by most Arab novelists now" and the true historical novel, which "opens up new perspectives on history", he favours the latter by far, claiming that it is so difficult it cannot be written by any novelist -- a conjecture that explains its current scarcity, especially among a new generation focussed on their own (private) lives.
Such was the overriding topic of the round table discussions, too -- reiterated to the point of monotony -- is there a historical novel at all and, if so, how to define it? Thus the Lebanese critic Mohamed Dakroub: "The historical novel is the novelist's view to history. It's an attempt to reread the past from a contemporary point of view." The novel being an important resource for finding out about the past, "it is even more credible than what historian write." But "the novelist cannot be more honest than historians," so countered Egyptian novelist Ebada Kehela: "We should not forget that a novelist uses his imagination; he creates characters and incidents that never happened. The historian might be biased for one reason or another, but he writes what happened." Yet "attempts to define the historical novel lead to thinking about history itself", according to Moroccan critic Mohamed Al-Bahari: "So why can't we simply call it a symbolic novel?"
Others, like the Paris-based Yemini novelist Habib Aburrab Serouri (whose work employs the history of Yemen as a backdrop), thought "history in the novel" helps portray "a true picture of contemporary Yemen, for example, as opposed to the one promoted by the authorities", as he told the Weekly, "to preserve collective memory in the face of relentless change". Stefan Wedener, editor of the Goethe Institute's Arabic- English bimonthly Fikrun wa Fan, thought of history as a kind of ocean in which each generation dives anew, discovering its own approach to it, as he explained to the Weekly : "Nowadays in Germany there is no such thing as a historical novel -- the genre consumed itself in the mid- 1950s. I think every novel that takes a historical setting is a novel about our own time, about contemporary life. If you want to know something about history, then you go to history books. Maybe historians in the Arab world are biased in the interest of political authorities, but writing history remains the task of the historian, not the novelist."
"Most discussions have raised the question of whether or not there should be a historical novel," Allen told the Weekly, "whereas the title of the conference is the novel and history, not the historical novel per se. Both the novel and history are slippery things to define," he went on. "History is a record of what is past, while the novel is a constantly changing art. But to remain stuck on definitions is a complete waste of time. I mean I'm far less concerned with whether I'm reading a historical novel than with whether I'm reading a good novel -- and what I am learning from it..."
Have novels helped dispel stereotypes of the Arab in the West? "I think Naguib Mahfouz's Trilogy did, because it presents an accurate picture of a typical Egyptian family at a particular time. But I don't think foreign readers are interested in the history it contains, only in that picture of Middle Eastern society, about which they know very little... Bearing in mind the failure of politics to achieve an effective rapprochement, perhaps the role of clearing the Arabs' tarnished image will be played by translation -- not only of novels but of intellectual books in general. The problem is that there is a severe lack of translators from Arabic to English -- a job whose rewards are minimal in monetary terms. And what I find lacking in this area is the cooperation of Arab cultural bodies concerned with the exportation of Arabic literature to other cultures."
***
Of the ten speakers scheduled to be present on Monday's round table (on gender and narration in history), the last to be attended by the present writer, only three showed up -- sufficient reason for novelist Salwa Bakr to begin her speech by declaiming, "Such an attitude reflects the deterioration of our culture." The central discussion of the round table, she went on to say, "is the question of who makes history as opposed to who writes about it". Throughout the history of humanity, "women were the creators of life and the preservers of the human race, while men performed other roles... History is a man's achievement, why should women write about it? In the absence of active feminism, are female writers capable of generating new kinds of discourse? A new language that differs from the male language"... Bakr took issue with the failure of Arab critics to pay attention to the historical novel. Despite its abundance since the 19th-century writer Gregory Zidan, she said, "there is not one Arab critic who has taken the initiative to study the historical novel in Arabic." Annoyed to the point of fury, the image of Bakr on the podium provided an appropriate denouement to an event that, though well organised and potentially stimulating in itself, was testimony to the Arab intelligentsia's general lack of drive and persistent inability to transcend the most basic questions of definition.


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