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Default The "Canon" of Modern Arabic Literature?

The "Canon" of Modern Arabic Literature?

The Canon: two words that, with their self-conscious capitals, imply the existence of a fixed literature. The Canon assumes a literature considered to be important in a certain culture. The term has the air of existence without contingency and inviolability. Before embarking on our actual subject, a discussion of modern Arabic literature, it is useful to dwell on the implications of a canon.

Literary works are allowed into a canon for several reasons. A reason can, for instance, be that these works have contributed to the formation of the mentality of a culture. We should not deny the significance of these literary products and pay due attention to them, but there is a danger in doing this. Once a work is part of the canon we often see that reading it becomes an almost obligatory and mechanical habit. The consequences are that canonization tends to produce readers who cannot read independently and that canonical works sometimes maintain their status because of this phenomenon.

As we want to highlight certain aspects of the development of modern Arabic literature and discuss some of its canonical authors, the question arises, how can we do this without endangering a deeper establishment of a fixed canon? How can we prevent feeding the reader descriptive words with prescriptive power?

We have several devices to our disposal to describe and, at the same time, question the canon of modern Arabic literature. An important device is an awareness that we are dealing with a collection of literature that is formed and which is changeable. To illustrate the feasibility of the canon we will, furthermore, have a quick look at the representation of modern Arabic literature in non-Arab countries.

Although most scholars describing the development of modern Arabic literature take as their starting point the 18th century, we will for our present purposes jump into the 20th century and begin there. We see that modern Arabic literature is characterized by two main forces: the revival of the heritage of the past and the influence of the West. Political events had a major impact on the process, resulting in regional differences in the literary development. A consequence was that Egypt and Syro-Lebanon occupied a central position in this field. For our discussion let us subdivide literature in the three “classical” genres: poetry, fiction, and drama.

In the area of poetry one can distinguish different schools. The neoclassical school, in which the rules of metrification and rhyme are observed, is, for instance, represented by Ahmad Shawqi, who is also known as the “prince of poets.” Neoclassical Iraqi poets like Jamil Az-Zahawi and Ma`ruf Ar-Rassafi were popular because of their condemnation of foreign domination. Khalil Mutran, a writer in the neoclassical style, also advocated the unity of the poem and the expression of personal feelings in the verses.

These two elements were forerunners of the romantic developments in poetry which would be stimulated by the so-called Mahjar school, the group of Arabs who migrated to America. An important member of this group and the leader of the Bond of the Pen was Gibran Khalil Gibran. Through journals like Al-Sa’ih (The Traveler), the poetry and ideas of this group found their way to the Middle East and this way interaction with the Middle Eastern literature came about.

A name that should also be mentioned in relation with romanticism is Sa`id `Aql. In the verses of this symbolist poet, beauty was revered and his symbolic language influenced poets from the following generation. His detachment from life and his views on the purpose of poetry, however, provoked a discussion about the role of the poet and the degree of commitment to society.

Another important change we see in this period concerns the form. Today few poets still compose in the traditional way. The majority write verses of varying length in free or blank verse, tha is, with or without rhyme and meter. The prose poem is again another kind of poetry that is composed by poets like Adunis and Jabra Ibrahim Jabra.

With regard to fiction we already stumble over differences of opinion from the beginning. On the one hand we have a group of mainly Western scholars who hold that the novel first appeared in Arabic literature in the 20th century under influence of Western literature. Other scholars argue that the Arabic literature has a long tradition of storytelling, examples of which are the epic folk romances of `Antara and of Sayf ibn Dhi Yazan, The Hilali cycles of chivalric romance, The Thousand and One Nights, Ibn Tufayl’s philosophical romance Hayy ibn Yaqzan, Al-Ma`arri’s Epistle of Forgiveness, and a selection of other works. It is true that Arabic literature does have a narrative tradition, like most cultures, but it cannot be denied that the Arabic novel has developed to the present form under influence of Western literature.

One of the first contributions to this genre in the 20th century was Zaynab, written by Muhammad Husayn Haykal. The next two decades witnessed a refinement of the novelistic technique with writers like Al-Mazini, Mahmud Taymur, and Taha Husayn.

Another type of fiction, the short story, also developed in the same century. In this genre one sees character portraits and sketches of situations which remind of the European fiction. Contributors to the short story include Mahmud Taymur and Yahya Haqqi.

The master of Arabic fiction who cannot go unmentioned is, of course, Naguib Mahfuz. This writer played a central role in the development of the genre. He first started writing historical novels, but soon changed his course and focused on the present. As a result Arabic literature was enriched with a series of social-realist novels in which the novelistic techniques are well-developed. Other writers who addressed the problems of their society are Yusuf Idris and `Abdur-Rahman Al-Sharqawi. Ghassan Kanaffani, `Abd As-Salaam Al-`Ujayli, Hanna Mina, Gha’ib Tu`ma Farman are some of the writers whose artistic talent should also be noted.

At present, fiction occupies a prominent position within Arabic literature, especially when one compares it to poetry, which used to be the favorite among the Arabs. Writers of this generation include Isma`il Fahd Isma`il, `Abdur-Rahman Munif, and Zakariyya Tamir.

As with fiction, there is a difference of opinion whether drama is a traditional Arab medium. Some argue that drama was known to the Arabs of old as we see in, for instance, a Shiite “passion play” called Ta`ziya. Other writers, like Yusuf Idris, hold the opinion that the way in which Arabic drama has developed confirms that it was derived almost entirely from Europe. As a consequence, it would be “foreign” to the Arab experience.

Continuing a development that started in the 19th century, writers concentrated on intellectual drama. An important figure in this field has been Tawfiq Al-Hakim, who has written more than 60 plays in which he used, among others, the Qur’an, The Thousand and One Nights, and Greek myths as a source of inspiration to discuss philosophical ideas. Drama has also become a powerful weapon to propagate political and social ideas and, therefore, it often attracts the negative interest of the government.

[By Assia Moutahhir
Assia Moutahhir holds a degree in Arabic language from the University of Leiden, the Netherlands, and is currently studying English language and literature. She wrote her thesis about the image of women in Andalusian poetry. You can reach her at

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