The Crisis of History in Jabra’s Novels

Jabra+Ibrahim+Jabra

Jabra’s self-portrait

In an interview in 1990, Jabra Ibrahim Jabra commented on the need for “a change of vision…a new way of looking at things” in an Arab world “betrayed by thousands of years of decay” (Nasrawi). This sense of impasse has been a long-standing theme in Arab literary and cultural contexts, addressing what is seen as the arrested development of a region where, as Haideh Moghissi states, modernisation as distinct from modernity has occurred, “alter[ing] aspects of the urban economy but without fundamentally transforming social and political structures or relations and forms of cultural expression” (Moghissi 54). In the context of a contradictory contemporary reality, both stagnant and caught in a series of crises, Arab literary narratives have often dwelt simultaneously on the ephemeral unavailability of history and on the burdensome presence of the past. As one character in Jabra’s novel Hunters in A Narrow Street puts it: “We’re aware of its presence in our midst like a spirit that cannot be exorcised” (116).

In many of Jabra’s novels, which span the period between 1946 and 1992, the protagonists consistently interrogate the endemic political crises of the Arab world in terms of history. Jabra’s novels are full of socio-political discussions among writers, journalists and activists simultaneously looking back to an idealized past and dreaming of change and progress, facing what Abdallah Laroui called “the crisis of the Arab intellectual” in his book of that title published in 1976.  Laroui describes this crisis through what he defines as four periods in the modern Arab world:

  • Nahda: the Arab renaissance period from 1850 to 1914 which sought through translation to assimilate the achievements of modern European civilization;
  • the interwar period characterized by the development of thoughts which played a leading role in social movements, especially in nationalist movements;
  • the period of the Arab nationalist experiments with unionist ideologies;
  • the period of moral and political crisis after the defeat in the 1967 War.

The rewriting of history has been vital for each of these periods, from the split between traditionalists and the modernizing movement in the early 20th century to the balancing act between contacts with the West and the struggle to find indigenous modes of expression to inform the nature of the modern. As Sabry Hafez notes, novelists at the time of the Nahda turned to history not out of “sheer love for antiquity” but as “an endeavor to awaken the reader’s sense of national pride…and to provide them, by recalling past glories, with an inspiration and model in their search for a national identity” (qtd in Allen 25). With the Arabic novel having developed its form from the West, within the ideological framework set up by the nationalist discourse and the search for identity in the post-colonial context, it derived its authenticity from a notion of heritage and in particular from the storytelling tradition. As Wen-chin Ouyoung notes, “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” (Deheuvels et al, 47).

This two-fold journey continued to be important for the literature of political commitment (adab al-iltizam) during the 1950s and 1960s. However there was a gradual shift in particular following the failure of the promise of Nasserism and the 1967 war, which was regarded by many to be not only a military defeat but what Albert Hourani calls “a kind of moral judgment,” leading to a rise in self-criticism and disillusionment in literary works, marked, as sociologist and author Halim Barakat has noted, “by a search for the meanings and causes of the failure of the Arabs to confront the challenges facing them” (256). Barakat’s own novel on this period borrows from the Book of Genesis to express the effects of the six day war:

On the seventh day, he did not rest. Sadly his seventh day is not a single day. He has no idea how long into the future it will last…The Arab saw everything that he had made, and behold, it was very bad. For that reason he did not rest on the seventh day…the future is all he has (qtd in Allen 154).

This invocation is echoed in a story titled “The One Who Burnt the Ships” (“Al-Ladhi ’Ahraq al- Sofon,” 1970) where Syrian writer Zakaria Tamir describes the “eight days” of the Creation where on the eighth day God creates interrogators, police and prisons. This revision of the creation myth suggests the breakdown of faith in an epistemological, coherent narrative, a distrust in the correspondence between ‘the word’ and reality which is reflected in another of Tamir’s short stories, “The Enemies” (“Al Ada” 1978), in which “the Arabic language is given an award for heroism for downing so many planes and immobilizing so many tanks during the war” (Allen 155).

As Samira Aghacy has stated, the sense of crisis post-1967 has continued: “The post-1967 era has been punctuated with wars: the 1970 Black September War in Jordan, the 1973 Arab-Israeli war, the Civil War in Lebanon, the 1982 Israeli invasion of Lebanon, the first and second Palestinian intifadas, and the first and second Gulf wars.” To this list might be added the Algerian civil war from 1991 to 2002, the second Lebanon war in 2006, the two Gaza-related campaigns in 2009 and 2011, and most recently the uprisings since December 2010. In this environment, where as Lorenzo Casini puts it, it has not been “possible to project one’s existence towards any imaginable future,” Sabry Hafez has argued that a literature of a “closed horizon” has developed (Casini).

Many of Jabra’s novels depict this closed horizon in stark terms, representing a contemporary reality of perpetual crisis “caught in the web of power politics, oil politics, East and West politics” (Hunters 59). Hunters, which was originally written in English, is narrated by Jameel Farran, like Jabra a Christian Palestinian who travels to pre-revolutionary Baghdad to become an English teacher. The narrative is interwoven throughout with contrasts between the stagnant present and the putative Golden Age symbolized by Baghdad: “Baghdad had decayed…the structures of the Golden Age had fallen to dust centuries ago…the great city of the Abbasid empire…reduced to an ugly little place choked all about with shrubberies which only sheltered snakes and thieves” (36, 58). Throughout the novel there are criticisms of those who “wallow in antiquarianism” (80), from the disparaging “Look at our society. It’s so mature that it’s rotting. People around here are born grey” (66) to the sardonic “Centuries – that’s our conception of the primary unit of time!” At the same time, there is a contradictory attitude to history expressed by Imad who both laments the absence of the past, asking, “Tell me what poet today can equal Hafiz?” and the absence of the future, stating “we’ve never progressed, despite all this change in our way of life” (101).

This contradictory attitude defines many of the characters in Jabra’s novels, with the exception of figures such as Professor Braithwaite the Assyriologist who ”spoke about Tiglath Pileser II and Ashur Banipal as if they had been his pals: a gap of some three thousand years was certainly nothing to him” (86). Listening with interest to Brian Finch speak about Nineveh and Nimrud, Jameel’s Iraqi friend Husain comments, “We’re so obsessed with our present we don’t know a thing about our past.” Another friend, Adnan contradicts him: “We’re so obsessed with our past…we don’t know a thing about our present” (114). Yet, only a few pages later, when Finch comments on the ruins and villagers “quite unconscious of the forces that lie petrified in those grass covered mounds,” the apparent opposition between ignorance of and obsession with the past disappears in the “savage irony” of a juxtaposition which becomes an image of present decline:

You may be a good historian or a wonderful archaeologist, you may be able to tell us about all the kings of Sumer and Assyria…But to you…it is no more than an aesthetic adventure…You can enjoy it with equanimity and organize it into historical patterns…With your critical eye…you may observe the irony of such juxtapositions as peasants with gummy eyes sitting in the midst of their asses’ dung within sight of the great monuments of an empire they cannot understand. But to us the irony is savage (116).

In Jabra’s novel The Search for Walid Masoud (1978), this ignorance of the past is represented by Amer, who “lives for the present, for the present alone:”

…he refuses to look back at the past, to his country’s history. To him all history started with his grandfather, when he was fighting the Ottomans during the last years of the nineteenth century, then continued with the British occupation of Iraq, when his father distinguished himself as a national fighter, sustained by the dream that every time he was jailed or placed under house arrest his country came closer to the day of liberation. But liberation remained a dream. From the time Amer crossed over into his forties, he felt his immediate history had been severed from him, with a suddenness he never cared to justify (140).

Significantly, Amer is the only character in the novel who is not a writer, who tells the others they are butting heads with the Gods of Ignorance who will one day burn their books, and maybe burn them too on the piles of those books, while he continues building government buildings, the parliament – “phony or not, I don’t care” (179).

Nostalgia, as Michael Kammen writes, is often seen as “history without guilt. Heritage is something that suffuses us with pride rather than shame” (qtd in Boym xiv).  In Jabra’s novels however, the nostalgic view of history which sees the past as a reassuring bulwark against distressing change is consistently undercut by a “severing” from “the country’s history” which is an estrangement. Almost all of Jabra’s protagonists experience this as an aspect of ghurba, which might be translated as estrangement or exile, but which as Rogaia Abusharaf notes “means more than physical seperation” as “the physical state of being distant from one’s home and the psychological state of mental pressure are equated” (Abusharaf 129). It has often been noted that the word ghurba stems from the same root as ghurub, sunset and departure, as well as gharib, stranger, and in Jabra’s novels, it becomes the locus both of an estrangement from place and a sense of alienation from the past, as the narrators represent themselves as strangers displaced within their own societies, often through symbolic references to crows, ghurban, another word related to the same root.

This sense of estrangement is central in The Ship, which despite its title focuses on the importance of a sense of place, both historical and geographical. In an important scene, (where seagulls are described as ghurban al-bahr – the “crows of the sea”) Wadi refers to the plethora of place names in pre-modern Arabic poetry, in particular to the opening of the qasida of Imru’ al-Qais, and to the lines by Ubaid Ibn al-Abras which extend the tradition of atlal, the evocation of abandoned encampments, into a lament to the places of memory:

‘Malhoub is desolate, all its people gone

And Qutabiyah and Dhanub

And Rakis and Thuaylibat

And Dhatu Firqayn and Qalib

And Arda and Qafa Hibirrin…’

And when he could not think of any more place-names that rhymed to fill the second hemistich, he said; “No Arab soul is left of them there” (25).

Wadi, living in exile in Kuwait, believes that “Real alienation is alienation from a place, from roots. This is the crux. Land, land, that is everything” (82). At the end of the novel, he advises his friend Isam: “Your freedom will only be found in Baghdad. You will not find it in the foggy, illusory “there” in Europe or elsewhere. There’s the lapse into inanity: there’s the real defeat” (237).

This juxtaposition of estrangement from place and past is something Jabra addresses in his essay “Why Write in English?” where he writes “[c]ultures have always interacted but never to the detriment of a nation conscious of its own vital sources, of the complexity of its own identity” (qtd Suleiman 184). This seems to suggest that for Jabra the idea that hybridity is a priori condition of culture does not necessarily dislocate subjects from their geopolitical reality and history. Yet in his novels this sense of place is constantly under threat; despite Wadi’s exhortion to return to the land, the novel ends without a realized homecoming. Similarly in Hunters the bedouin Towfik al-Khalaf’s exhortations to return to the desert and the past which expresses his “faith in timelessness that rejected all chronology as the symptoms of a diseased civilization” (114) is consistently recognised as false and hypocritical, talking about “horse-back riding, when all the…sheikhs have taken to Cadillac driving” (180). It is this attitude that drives Adnan to reject the obsession with the past, and it is Adnan who emerges as the central figure in the narrative, as Jameel recognizes, “whatever frustration there is in him and whatever idealism…they are typical of fifty million Arabs” (146).

The problematizing of the past in Jabra’s novels explores a disjuncture in the representation of history in the Arabic novel, from the nurturing heritage represented in Tawfik al-Hakim’s The Return of the Spirit (1933) which depicts the 1919 revolution against the British occupation in terms of the awakening of an Egypt infused by the spirit of Pharoahs, to the burdensome history in Ahmed Alaidy’s Being Abbas el Abd (2006) where the eponymous Abbas exhorts the narrator to “burn your history books and forget your glorious dead civilization…destroy your Pharaonic history.” Abbas recognizes that:

Those who read history in the third world find it painful. They freed themselves from foreign occupation to fall into national occupation. And in about a third of the countries of the third world, you have to have a US passport to be treated like a citizen (21).

This painful reading of history in the third world, in which the ever-present past intensifies the contradictions of stagnation and crisis, might be seen as a form of what Nietzche described as “suffering from a consuming fever of history,” which demands that we “at least recognize that we are suffering from it,” implicitly posing the question of what follows from that recognition.

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