In the edition of ‘Abassa, Rashid’s Sister (translated in English as The Caliph’s Sister) which I recently read there was a preface which records every mention of the alleged tale of Jafar and Abbassa in classical sources, and the first chapter recites a bare-bones history tale of the move to Iraq, the death of al-Saffah, coming to power of al-Mansur, the death of Abu Muslim (subject of another Zaydan novel), and the building of Baghad as a defensive city, before the real action begins.
I was amused/bemused by the footnotes throughout the story, which cite the sources of such “facts” as how much was paid for a certain gift, or the customs of playing of polo, or the dislike of one historical figure for another. The sources cited were wide-ranging, from Tarikh al-Tabari to Ibn al Athir’s Al Kamil fi al-Tarikh (The Complete History), to Al Masudi, and of course Isfahani’s Kitab al Aghani, (Book of Songs), also Ibn Khallikan, and Al-Atlidi.
So I returned to the Jurji Symposium at the Library of Congress, picking up some themes that I found in the novel, and in particular, Zaydan’s role in the nahda’s modernist construction of a golden age, and what its motivations were.
First, there is the point that the Nahda moved from an Arab culturist movement to a nationalist one, which saw the necessity for a strong state, and so was not seeking revolution: Jens Hanssen makes the point that here the analogy between the Nahda and what has been (or was in 2011) called the Arab Spring “limps.”
Hanssen being as he puts it a “bilad al-sham” (Levant) specialist, focuses on the fratricide in Mount Lebanon in 1860. He refers to Nasif al-Yaziji (1800-1871), who was one of the leading figures of the Nahda, referring to him as a classicalist, and making the point that traumatic event turned the classical literary appreciation club he was a member from interest in al Mutannabi and the Abbasids into a critical movement, and a multi-sectarian society pushing for independence from the Ottomans.
In Albert Hurani’s Arabic Thought in the liberal age, Hurani describes the Nahda intellectuals through generational shifts, with the first including Tahtawi, Khair al-Din al-Tunsi, and the second including Zaydan though not among the most important thinkers. Interesting to think that Ibrahim al Yasiji, Nasif’s son, lamented the newspaper Arabic (lughat al-jaraid) developed by Bustani, as having been dumbed down by Zaydan, producing a language which his practical but alienates from the rich canon of classical Arabic. Abassa is simply written, though it follows conventions of description familiar form classical texts, it is accessible, as the aim was. But this critique suggests that thinking of Zaydan as uncomplicatedly a classicist could be too simplistic. Moreover thinking of the Nahda as a nationalist movement, beginning some time in the 1840s, ignores the fact that it actually only became “self-aware” about 40 years later and that there were conflicts.
An aside: While looking at this I found an interesting MA thesis on the Nahda from the American University of Beirut called Performing the nahda: Science and Progress in the Nineteenth Century Muqtataf.
Another speaker then made the point that Zaydan found Orientalists useful in gathering and preserving texts the Nahdawis used, the point was that he wanted the Arab historians to step up and record their own history, although using Orientalists sources. Marwa Shakry made a similar point about borrowing in noting that Al-Hilal was an acculturated construction of history and classical language, a process of acculturation she links to Zaydan working as a translator for the British in Sudan, and going to England in 1886, which he recorded in a diary.
And so, Shakry says, Zaydan’s biographies of classical figures meant to construct the idea of golden age, such as Ibn Sina, Ibn Rushd, and Ibn Khaldun, were there in Al Hilal, but they were there alongside biographies of Hamurabi, Cyrus, and Mehmet Ali, so connecting the pre-Islamic with an Islamic past tied to a future movement, attaching Islam to Jahiliya to create a unique Arabo-Islamic antiquity brings together Islam with its own putative dark ages, and doing so through a chronology which constantly has Europe in mind.
Zaydan was attacked at various times for his pains, in particular as one speaker at the symposium noted, for exposing Arab chauvinism against the “dhimmi” and the “mawali” in the Ummayad age, and as another speaker pointed out for being a non-specialist in Islam (Taha Hussein was attacked for the same thing) , and then also there was the charge of using orientalism superficially or uncritically, creating a local orientalism, an Arabized orientalism. Roger Allen notes that some scholars have argued this use of orientalism to construct a classical age against which to denigrate the recent past could be termed “self-orientalization.”
The attacks are still coming, such as this blog post calling Zaidan a distorter of Islamic history.