Intertextuality in Modern Arabic Literature Since 1967

image-medium Intertextuality in Modern Arabic Literature Since 1967, edited by Luc Deheuvels, Barbara Michalak-Pikulska and Paul Starkey, gathers together twelve papers  which examine the “past in the present.”

As Roger Allen points out in the first essay, Intertextualtiy and Retrospect: Arabic fiction’s relationship with its past, this is something of a paradox – both focusing on a time-period designated by its afterness and studying intertextuality which involves retrospect.

Intertextuality “aims to identify and then explore the creative tensions between present and past that are an intrinsic part of the reading of any text.” In this context,

the date of 1967 moves beyond the merely exclusive delineation of a time period to become…one of those historical watersheds that not only divide one historical period from another but also call radically into question the very principles by which literary historical periods and thereby the relationships between present and past, are established in the first place.

In Albert Hourani’s A History of the Arab Peoples the chapter on post-1967 has the title “A Disturbance of Spirits.” Fiction produced at the time reflected this disturbance, as in Halim Barakat‘s Awdat al tair ila albahr (عودة الطائر الى البحر  Return of the Bird/Flying Dutchman to the Sea, 1969). For some reason, the title was first translated as Days of Dust.

I’ve always been struck by his other novel Six Days (Sitat Ayam, 1961) which

is prophetically named for a real war yet to come in 1967; as such, it became a prelude to the later novel Days of Dust (‘Awdat al-Ta’ir ila al-Bahr, 1969), which unfolds the existential drama of the June War of 1967.

Allen also mentions Mahfouz’s series of “shocking short stories” after 1967, Tahta al-mizalla (تحت المظلة Under the umbrella 1969). And he goes on to name thinkers/writers whose contrubitions led to the “re-examiantion and even redefinition of Arab culture” such as, who are analysed by Issa J Boullata in Trends and Issues in Contemporary Arab Thought.

Allen recounts the traditional account of the development of the Arab novel from Muwaylili’s Hadith Isa Ibn Hisham (1898) and up to Haykal, al Hakim, al Mazini, culminating in Mahfouz.

Allen suggests this account ignores the complexities of intertextuality which moves across cultures, pointing out that when Mahfouz was awarded the Novel Award in 1988 he was often termed, in Eurocentric fashion, “the Balzac (or Zola or Dickens) of Cairo” – a “severe chronological disjuncture.” This illustrates for Allen the way later works were ignored in favor of the kind of European family saga popular in 19th and early 20th century Europe.

The zeitgeist of the 1970s is captured in two novels which have “a totally different attitude towards and utilization fo the relationship of present to past.”

The timing of their publication is “representative of an emerging new and different approach to the heritage of the past and…a renewed interest in the relationship between history and narrative in the pre-modern era.”

Habibi’s long title with its word-play calls to mind the “saj-laden titles” of earlier traditions of Arabic writing while Ghitani’s novel links present and past as it embeds pastiches of historical texts (transtextuality) citing Ibn Iyas‘s history of Egypt in the 16th century as well as replications of historical accounts, created by Ghitani. The replication of the Ottoman capture of Cairo in 1956 is used for “a trenchant analysis of Egyptian society in the wake of the June War of 1967”.

Allen goes onto identify heirs of Ghitani and Habibi, as he points out that censorship fosters a readership attuned to reading between the lines and:

the revival and exploitation of history, its genres and textual strategies – what Harold Bloom refers to as “the family archive” should be a principal resort in such a political context is hardly surprising.

He then analyses two writers and their use of the past, the two writers being:

  • Ben Salim Himmish,  mentioning both Majnun al Hukm (Power-Mad 1990), Al Alama (The Polymath 1997)
  • Rachid Abu Jadra’s novel Marakat al Zuqaq (Struggle in the Straits 1986). A paper by Allen on the novel and its French/Arabic versions, “Translation Translated.”

In the second paper, The Narrative of the Ship: al-Mu’aqqit, Mahfuz, and Jabra, Richard van Leeuwen looks at the sea and seafaring in three texts

  • Ahl al safina by Muhammad al-Mu’aqqit (1934)
  • Tharthara fawq al-Nil by Naguib Mahfouz (1966)
  • al-Safina by Jabra Ibrahim Jabra (1969)

In the third paper, Intertextuality Gone Awry? The Mysterious (Dis)appearance of Tradition in the Arabic Novel Wen-chin Ouyoung examines the Iraqi novel The Seventh Day of Creation asking: “Does intertextuality give the Arabic novel authenticity or rather lead it astray?”

that the past…haunts the present has become almost a cliche in contemporary Arabic literary and cultural discourse. The persistent presence of the past in the present makes it impossible for the present to progress towards the future. This arrested development of the present in the shadow of the past has come to represent the impasse that Arab intellectuals have reached with regard to modernity and the modernisation of their history, culture and literature. The stumbling block, as perceived by Arab intellectuals, is the form of political authority in place, a hegemonic force that stifles progress of any kind. In fact, the past is a foreign country under current social, political and cultural circumstances. History itself has become elusive…precisely because it is ephemeral, the past has become the object of desire – in fact an obsession in Arabic writing today.

This is manifested in the intertextuality which pervades the present Arabic literary landscape, from al-Muwayhili and al-Shidyaq onwards, to the extent that there is a term for it, what Mahmud Tarshud terms madrasat tawzif al-turath fi alriwaya al-arabiya (the school of employing heritage in the Arabic novel).

Intertextuality with pre-modern Arabic literary texts…has been a staple feature of modern Arabic fiction whether in the form of drama, short story, or novel, since the onset of what is termed the modern period in the history of Arabic literature.

Al-Ghitani’s success led to the flourishing of intertextuality, with Mahfouz also turning from the realism of nationalism to rewriting premodern Arabic literary texts, in Layali alf layla (The Nights of a Thousand Nights 1982) and Rihlat Ibn Fattuma (The Journey of Ibn Fattuma 1983).

This is explained as a symptom of the search for identity in the post-colonial context. The Arabic novel which developed its form from the West, derives authenticity from heritage, and the storytelling tradition in particular. Through this engagement, continuity is established with the past which offers a distinct identity from the Western novel.

Paradoxically, the Arabic novel always seems to straddle the two poles of its perceived origins: the West and the past. The quest for identity is necessarily a two-fold journey, one outward bound, and the other inward.

Intertextuality is used to “access and assess” tradition, but this assumes that tradition is constructed around an identifiable set of texts and Ouyoung argues “in the past decade, in the 1990s, novels fully mired in intertextuality have made this assumption a central inquiry.”

Ouyang examines the the triangular relationship of authenticity, originaltiy and tradition and asks “what are the implications of the disappearance or disfiguration of tradition in an assessment of narrative strategies – intertextuality – in the Arabic novel?”

Originality in the Arabic novel…seems predicated on authenticty, on knowledge of and rootedness in the past, which is impossible, followed by transcending this very past, which becomes uncertain.

But the most important part of the paper for me was the discussion of nationalism and the shift identified between earlier post-independence writing and psot-1967 writing, arguing that the idea that the past is knowable and tradition tangible is seen in post-independence novels such as Jamal al Ghitani but:

This however is no longer true of the novels by al Rikabi, and writers who came to be formed ideologically and intellectually by the disastrous consequences of the 1967 war…the 1967 defeat is seen as a symptom of the failure of both modernisation and the nation-statel this two fold failure seems to have undermined nationalist confidence. In post national writings – writing suspicious and subversive of the nationalist agenda – the positivist knowledge of both the past and tradition becomes subject to interrogation.

The paper refers to writers such as Ilyas Khouri and Abd Al Jawad Khayri, arguing that their reconstruction of the past echoes Jurj Tarabishi’s scepticism in his 1993 work Madbahat al turath fi althaqafa alarabiya almuasira (The Slaughter of Heritage in Contemporary Arab Thought).

In their zeal to reconstruct their so-called cultural heritage, the Arabs have only distorted, disfigured and butchered this heritage. Does this explain the failures of the nation-state, for what would be its fate in the dis)appearance of the heritage perceived as the basis of its legitimacy? What form does the Arabic novel take in the postnational predicament?

Stephen Guth looks at Leila Aboulela’s The Translator as an “anti-Mawsim” novel with its one single rather presumptious quote from Season of Migration to the North.

Ulrike Stehli-Werbeck’s essay Transformations of the Thousand and One Nights looks at Zakariyya Tamir‘s Shahriyar wa-Shahrazad and Muhammad Jibril’s Zahrat al-Sabah and their echoes of the magic of Alf-layla u layla, in a world where Shahriyar prefers watching football matches to listening to stories, threatening to kill Shahrazad if she doesn’t stop speaking: “So Shahrazad was frightened and fell silent like every Arab man and Arab woman.”

Intertextual and Intratextual Processes in al-Malik huwa al-malik by Sa’d Allah Wannus by Rosella Dorigo analyses the intertextual features fo Wannus’ play by comparing it with Marun al-Naqqash‘s play Abu al Hasan al Muhgafal aw Harun al-Rashin.

Then Robin C. Ostle writes on Edwar al-Kharrat From Intertext to Mixed Media which argues that

al-Kharrat’s intertextual strategies has the effect of pushing his writing to the very limits of the medium, to the extent that the writer comes close to a deliberate confusion of the arts.

I was interested to read this, given the new book Arab Cultural Studies: Mapping the Field. There was an elaboration of “auto-intertextuality” and some reflection on verbal collage and art at the end.

Paul Starkey has an essay on Kharrat also, on Stones of Bobello, autobiopgraphical reminiscences growing up in the Egyptian Delta in 1930s and 40s, with many anachronies, and intertextual weaving in of pre-Islamic references, texts which examine the interplay between Coptic and Islamic traditions, and a setting which is pre-Islamic and pre-Christian.

Finally Gail Ramsay and Barbara Michalak-Pikulska look at intertextuality in the modern literature of the Gulf, Ramsay with a focus on gender issues, and Michalak-Pikulska on the changes in value systems, both refering to legends and fairy tales and their incorporation in modern literature.

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