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Volume 16, Number 6November/December 1965

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The Long Strides

Change! Grow! Battle cries of Arab writers today…

Written by Mikhail Naimy

Properly evaluated, modern Arab literature could be taken as a measure of the recuperative powers, the resourcefulness and the vitality of the entire Arab world. Arab writers, it would seem, are trying to do in a few years what it took the Western world a century to do.

The key phrase here, however, is 'properly evaluated.' To appreciate the long strides forward that Arab writers have taken, it is essential, first, to look into the background of literature in the Middle East and to examine the problems faced by those early writers who saw the need for change and tried to bring it about.

Just at the practical level, for example, the problems faced by many early writers seemed insurmountable. Arab writers able to produce works of value were unable to find publishers and had to pay for the printing themselves—which was primitive and inevitably required an accompanying list of errata—and then peddle the books in person from bookstore to bookstore, lucky if the shopkeeper would take five copies on consignment and even luckier if the shopkeeper ever settled the account. Readers, furthermore, were rare and what few there were preferred Western writers to Arab writers. There were no public libraries and few private ones.

But the real problem for Arab writers was the almost exclusive commitment of Arabic literature to poetry. Until comparatively recent times, in fact, the history of Arabic literature is a history of poetry. Prose, even the most artistically executed prose, always occupied a secondary place; the drama, the novel, the short story and the critical essay, in the modern sense, were virtually unknown, and the only specimens of good prose occur in the edicts and other pronouncements of the early califs and in the writings of a few masters such as al-Jahiz and Ibn al-Muqaffa'.

Arabic is a rich, accurate and pliant language, a language capable of expressing infinite shades of thought and emotion, a language, in short, that possibly more than any other, lends itself to poetry. Early in history, however, there developed—possibly because of the very pliancy of the language—a strict, difficult prosody that prescribed that any single poem, no matter how long, must have one rhyme from beginning to end without repeating the same word twice. By its very nature, of course, this prosody precluded the possibility of creating epics and narratives and so almost from the start such poems were restricted to certain manageable forms—elegies, eulogies, self-praise, praise of one's tribe—with content and imagery drawn, naturally, from the experiences and observations of the poet: the battles and feuds of his tribe, the camels and horses tribesmen owned, the swords and spears they used to win their victories, and the oases to which they led their flocks. Curiously, and unfortunately, Arab poets never really went beyond such subjects and poetry lapsed into stagnation and sterility. It wasn't until the 19th century, with Napoleon's foray into Egypt, the coming of Western missionaries and the appearance of more printing presses, particularly in Lebanon, that the Arab world finally began to stir from its intellectual lethargy. Later, as the controls of the decaying Ottoman relaxed, schools and newspapers made timid appearances. Some Lebanese intellectuals, who, chafing under the Ottoman rule, had fled to Egypt, founded newspapers and magazines.

By the beginning of the present century, it was obvious that something tangible was happening in the Arabic-speaking world. It was felt in all fields, social, political, literary and artistic—a realization that the Arab world was falling behind. In 1913, for instance, I wrote a critical essay bemoaning the somnolence and apishness of Arab literature in a world so wide-awake and so intensely active. It was the first expression of the work of a society in New York called Arrabita that would later produce writers like Kahlil Gibran and Ameen Rihani. In the same period, gifted scholars from Arab countries, who studied at institutions of higher learning in the West, soon became aware of the poverty and lethargy of their own literature and of its pressing need for enrichment and invigoration—a sort of blood transfusion from the richer and more vigorous literature of the West.

New voices were to be heard in Egypt too. Like our group in New York, they were the voices of iconoclasts—men like Taha Hussain, al-'Akkad and al-Mazini—who challenged ancient traditions and authorities, ridiculed many idols, and called for new forms and ideas. Literature, they said, so long divorced from life, must be rewedded to life. It must be stimulated and reoriented. The harsh rules of prosody must be relaxed and forms alien to ancient Arabic literature—the short story, the novel, the drama, the epic and the criticism essay—must be introduced.

No such battle is ever really over, of course, but since then there have been changes of a surprising magnitude. The short story, for example, today leads the present literary field. Many worthwhile stories have been written in Egypt, Lebanon, Syria and Iraq, which, properly translated, could be read with profit in any tongue, and Arab writers, especially the younger generation, no longer confine themselves to such models as Chekhov and de Maupassant, but experiment with Freudian motifs, existentialist ideas, and even vulgarity. What is true of the short story is also true of the novel, except that here progress has been much slower. Only a few novels so far have appeared that can stand a comparison with similar products in the West. Western masters of the novel, however,—English, American, Russian, German, Scandinavian and French—are very widely read throughout the Arab world, either in their native tongue or in translation, and there's little doubt that the novel is solidly entrenched as a literary form, and but awaits an Arab champion.

As for drama, progress has also been slow, but there have been changes. The ancient Arabs never had anything even remotely resembling a theater and with the advent of Islam, and its ban on women appearing in the company of men, there was no chance for a dramatic tradition to develop. Furthermore, the drama faces some difficulties peculiar to the Arab world. One is the almost unbridgeable gulf between spoken and written Arabic. Literary Arabic is actually the only language common to all Arab writers and the only language which can be read and understood by the educated in any Arab country. Yet to write for the theater in pure literary Arabic is to distort reality, for no one speaks it. On the other hand, spoken Arabic varies so much from country to country that it may not be understood. Furthermore, the use of colloquial Arabic undermines the prestige and usefulness of the literary language, which is the only medium of expression uniting all the Arab lands.

One of the major battle fronts is in the field of poetry itself, where an amazing variety of forces is at work. The old Arab classics still have their numerous and stubborn followers. French Parnassians and English Victorians are still around. America's Walt Whitman, the rambling giant of Leaves of Grass, also has his admirers and emulators, as do the Symbolists and Surrealists. In the last few years the imaginations of a number of young bards have been stirred by men such as T.S. Eliot and, to a lesser degree, Ezra Pound, and Rainer Maria Rilke. Those poets found a quick response in Iraq and their enthusiastic admirers in Lebanon helped to found a very presentable quarterly called Shi'r (poetry) and began to gather once a week to air their views on their own works and on what is, or is not, good poetry. The magazine reproduced not only the original contributions of the group but also published translations from various European and American poets of the same trend. Among this group were poets who liquidated not only the rules of classical prosody but did away with meter and rhyme and preached what they called the "Prose Poem." A similar movement with a similar magazine was started later in Cairo. To the great regret of the devotees of the "new" poetry and their friends, Shi'r discontinued publication after five years.

Just how far literature has come can be seen in Beirut where, today, there are no less than 40 publishing concerns, some of which are modern and efficient and able to turn out books the equal of anything in the West. In schools Arab writers have taken their place in the study of literature and students seeking higher scholastic degrees are choosing modern Arab authors for their dissertations. Private libraries are growing and the concept of public libraries has been introduced both in schools and municipalities. Whereas it was once rare that editions of any book exceeded 1,000 copies, editions of 3,000 copies are now no longer uncommon. And five years ago in Beirut a society called the "Book Friends' Society" began, each year, to set aside a week which it calls "Book Week." During that week, press, radio and TV are asked to do their share in extolling the virtues of books and in whetting the readers' appetites for them. The week terminates in a grand dinner at which $10,000 in prizes are distributed to the authors of the best books published during the year. The first prize—$1,500—is donated by the Lebanese Ministry of Education and presented by the Prime Minister himself.

Outside the Arab world, of course, the impact of modern Arab literature has been limited, and yet, considering the output, the number of works translated is not negligible. Translations have appeared in more than one European country of certain works of some Egyptian authors like Taha Hussain, Tawfic al-Hakim, Mahmud Taymur and Naguib Mahfuz. All of Gibran's Arabic works have appeared in English translation. Anthologies of modern Arab verse and short stories were published in Russian, French and English. In my own case a collection of my Arabic poems was translated into Spanish and published in Madrid several years ago and some of my stories have been brought out in Russian and Ukrainian. My Book of Mirdad, written in English and published first in Beirut, then in Bombay, India, and later in London, has been translated into Dutch and published in the Netherlands. A Portuguese translation of it is about to appear in Sao Paulo, Brazil.

The yardstick by which progress is measured, however, can never be merely quantity. It must be quality carefully weighed against the circumstances that produced it. By this test advances in Arab literature are not only remarkable but provide a sound basis for the hopes of its practitioners and advocates that in the near future it will become a valuable contributor to the treasury of world culture.

Mikhail Naimy, a Lebanese writer known for his biographical study of his intimate friend Kahlil Gibran, studied and lived in Russia, the United States and France and has been an important figure in Arab literature for many years.

This article appeared on pages 26-27 of the November/December 1965 print edition of Saudi Aramco World.


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