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Martin Paul Eve

Professor of Literature, Technology and Publishing at Birkbeck, University of London

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This post forms part of my ‘aspects of the novel’ collection. Please do note that these entries, which may appear basic, are simply my own notes on the subject. They implicitly or explicitly describe a canon not of my own making or choosing and replicate this from various sources. The original encyclopaedia articles are far more comprehensive, nuanced and worth consulting. I am especially conscious, in this article, of the danger of causing offense by grossly simplifying national literary histories.

In the Mashreq regions of Bahrain, Egypt, Iraq, Jordan, Kuwait, Lebanon, Oman, Palestine, Qatar, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, the United Arab Emirates and Yemen, poetry has traditionally been the oldest/preeminent genre of aesthetic writing. Other forms of writing, such as the qissa (story), hikaya (tale), usturah (myth), khurafah (fable), and sirah (saga) were popular, but far less prestigious than poetry.

One of the earliest Arabic narratives was Kalila wa Dimna, which is a Persian translation of the Sanskrit Panchatantra, a set of “beast fables”, by Ibn al-Muqaffa’. That said, the best known work of Arabic fiction is Kitab alf layla wa layla (or the Book of the Thousand and One Nights), sometimes mistranslated as The Arabian Nights.

The context for the emergence of the Arabic novel, according to Waïl S. Hassan (p. 59), is postcolonial. For instance, the entertainment, social commentary, and moral instruction genre of maqama – using rhymed prose – was used in the nineteenth century to recuperate national heritages in the face of anti-Ottoman discourse. Nasif al-Yaziji and Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq are two examples of such practices. Meanwhile, works such as Muhammad al-Muwailihi’s Hadith ‘Isa Ibn Hisham (1898–1902, The Tale of ‘Isa Ibn Hisham) is a satire about Western corruption and moral turpitude.

The novel emerges in Arabic cultures with rough/loose translations of European novels. For example, Rifa’ah Rafi’ al-Tahtawi, translated François Fénelon’s Les Aventures de Télémaque (1699, The Adventures of Telemachus) in 1867. Bishara Shadid’s translated Alexandre Dumas’s Le Comte de Monte Cristo (1844–45, The Count of Monte Cristo) in 1871. And Muhammad ‘Uthman Jalal created an Arabic version of Bernardin de Saint-Pierre’s Paul et Virginie (1788) in 1872. In the 1870s, Yusuf Sarkis and Salim al-Bustani popularized historical romance through translations.

The first Arab woman to write a novel was ‘A’ishah Taymur, who wrote Nata’ij al-ahwal fi al-aqwal wa al-af ‘al (1887–88, The Results of Speech and Action). Alice al-Bustani and Zaynab Fawwaz were also active novelists in the 1890s.

A commonly held, but apparently historically contested view, is that the Arabic novel really properly starts in 1913 with the Egyptian writer Muhammad Husayn Haykal’s Zaynab. This text focuses on contemporary conditions in a prose style that broke away from the rhyming style of maqama and with a unified plot. Novels of this “early” period tend to focus on the relationships between the Arab world and Europe. For instance, Tawfiq al-Hakim’s ‘Usfur min al-sharq (1938, A Bird from the East) and Yahya Haqqi’s Qindil Umm Hashim (1944, A Saint’s Lamp) both depict Egyptian students travelling to Europe (Paris and London) to study. While they are overseas, they fall in love, which is used as an opportunity to explore cultural interrelations. Similar patterns emerge in Suhayl Idris’s Al-hayy al-latini (1953, The Latin Quarter) and the Sudanese Tayeb Salih’s Mawsim al-hijra ila al-shamal (1966, Season of Migration to the North).

Perhaps the most famous Arabic author is Naguib Mahfouz (or Najib Mahfuz) who wrote more than forty novels over a seven-decade period and won the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1988. His work ranges from the realist Zuqaq al-midaqq (1947, Midaq Alley) and The Cairo Trilogy to a later more experimental phase. The Nobel Prize citation controversially mentioned his novel Awlad Haritna (1959, translated as Children of Gebelawi and Children of the Alley), which allegorized various Qur’anic stories, leading to a fatwa being levelled against the writer. As a result, he was attacked by a young militant in 1992 and struggled to write thereafter.

The diversity of novels from this region is extreme and Hassan gives an excellent reading list/starting point on pages 62-63 of his chapter. However, common themes include the Arab-Israeli conflict(s), the Lebanese civil war, and gender relations in Arabic nations.

The only thing left to note is that various hybrid identities, such as Arabic-American fiction, are often excluded from such discussions of Arabic literature. Yet the Lebanese author Ameen Rihani’s The Book of Khalid (1911) could be described as the first Arab-American novel, demonstrating a long tradition of hyphenated identity that goes back over a century. Anglophone Arab novelists include the Palestinians Jabra Ibrahim Jabra, and Yasmin Zahran; Mikhai’l Nu’aymah, Nabil Saleh, and Rabih Alameddine from Lebanon; the Jordanian Fadia Faqir; from Egypt: Waugih Ghali, Ahdaf Soueif, and Samia Serageldine; from Sudan: Jamal Mahjoub and Leila Aboulela; the Libyan Hisham Matar; the Tunisian Sabiha al-Khemir, and the Moroccans Anouar Majid and Laila Lalami. Arab-American and Arab-Canadian novelists include Diana Abu-Jaber, Kathryn Abdul-Baki, Saad Elkhadem, Rawi Hage, D. H. Melhem, Frances Noble, Laila Halaby, and Mohja Kahf.

Further reading:

  • Allen, Roger, Arabic Novel: An Historical and Critical Introduction (Syracuse, N.Y: Syracuse University Press, 1982)
  • Caiani, Fabio, Contemporary Arab Fiction: Innovation from Rama to Yalu (New York, NY: Routledge, 2007)
  • Hassan, Waïl S., ‘Arabic Novels’, in The Encyclopedia of the Novel, ed. by Peter Melville Logan, Olakunle George, Susan Hegeman, and Efraín Kristal (Malden, MA: Wiley-Blackwell, 2011), pp. 57–65
  • Meyer, Stefan G., The Experimental Arabic Novel: Postcolonial Literary Modernism in the Levant (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 2000)
  • Omri, Mohamed-Salah, ‘Local Narrative Form and Constructions of the Arabic Novel’, NOVEL: A Forum on Fiction, 41.2/3 (2008), 244–63
  • Zeidan, Joseph T., Arab Women Novelists: The Formative Years and Beyond (Albany, NY: State University of New York Press, 1995)