The Geography of Identity
This study treats the masterpiece Sīrat madīna: Ammān fī ’l-arbaīnāt (1994; translated into English as Story of a City: A Childhood in Amman, 1996) by Abd al-Rahmān Munīf. I read it through its unconventional and original formal and aesthetic choices in which the story of the city and the protagonist are narrated relationally in terms of each other. The goal of the present study is to deconstruct its multifaceted relational strategies, pinpointing the formal choices and thematic proclivities which situate the autobiographical subject in a particular social, cultural, temporal and historic sphere, and in constant tension with these same elements. It also pinpoints the text’s paradoxically obverse tendency to dissociate and distance the autobiographical subject by way of formal narrative techniques and content, ostensibly favoring the city as the focus of the text over the “self” of the protagonist. Under the surface, the autobiographical subject is constantly present, and is discursively constituted through the historical, cultural and communal accounts of the city. Finally, this study reveals that in Sīrat madīna, both the porousness of geographical boundaries as well as the traversing of personal boundaries are expressed through metaphors and accounts of death.
Key words: Abd al-Rahman Munif, relational autobiography, modern Arabic literature, Arabic autobiography, diaspora autobiography, exile literature
This study treats the masterpiece Sīrat madīna: Ammān fī ’l-arbaʿīnāt (1994; translated into English as Story of a City: A Childhood in Amman, 1996) by celebrated novelist Abd al-Rahmān Munīf (1933-2004). 1 Munīf’s personal affiliations with places outside of Amman are expressed, paradoxically, by this text whose ostensible focus is Amman. The implied timeframe of the narrative encompasses the protagonist’s childhood through age nineteen, when he migrates from his native Amman. Sīrat madīna is unfolded through the narrative perception of a child, as filtered through the cognizance of an adult writer who organizes and structures the child’s observations. Yet, significantly, this text is portrayed as the sīra—life or biography—of a city, although its third-person narration sticks firmly with the consciousness of the “child” witness whose personal experience of the city guides these chronicles. This raises the question of how to approach this text, which seems to merge the biography of a place with autobiography (inasmuch as it unfolds the story of the narrator-author-self), or, inversely, to submerge the autobiographical subject in the annals of a city. I suggest reading it as unusual approach to relational life writing, characterized by unconventional and original formal and aesthetic choices in which the story of the city and the protagonist are narrated relationally in terms of each other.2 This entangling of self in his environment can be seen in light of Munīf’s broader tendency in his writings, as encapsulated by Susanne Enderwitz: “he was less interested in the inner life of the individual than in the inner life of the society this individual lived in ;”3 Munīf’s writings indicate a preoccupation with how a community thinks and acts, more so than a focus on a single individual.
Sīrat madīna’s depictions of Amman as multicultural and cosmopolitan not only portray the atmosphere and geography in which the young protagonist grows up, but also embody the foundations of the protagonist’s own complex identity. As this study shows, Amman is portrayed in constant reference to other places, and conversely, those other places actually penetrate Amman through its communities of immigrants and exiles, through its multitude of accents, religions, and customs, and through memories of distant locales, such that Amman as a singular, clearly defined entity is obscured in its pluralities of identification. The protagonist himself is narrated as an amalgam of t he city, and hence this text not only unfolds his—and the city’s—chronological development, but the multicultural construction of Amman as a reflection and expression of his own personal identity. This is crucial for understanding this piece of self -writing, and for understanding this text as self-writing. the narrative perception of a child, as filtered through the cognizance of an adult writer who organizes and structures the child’s observations. Yet, significantly, this text is portrayed as the sīra—life or biography—of a city, although its third-person narration sticks firmly with the consciousness of the “child” witness whose personal experience of the city guides these chronicles. This raises the question of how to approach this text, which seems to merge the biography of a place with autobiography (inasmuch as it unfolds the story of the narrator-author-self), or, inversely, to submerge the autobiographical subject in the annals of a city. I suggest reading it as unusual approach to relational life writing, characterized by unconventional and original formal and aesthetic choices in which the story of the city and the protagonist are narrated relationally in terms of each other.2 This entangling of self in his environment can be seen in light of Munīf’s broader tendency in his writings, as encapsulated by Susanne Enderwitz: “he was less interested in the inner life of the individual than in the inner life of the society this individual lived in ;”3 Munīf’s writings indicate a preoccupation with how a community thinks and acts, more so than a focus on a single individual.
The goal of the present study is to deconstruct the multifaceted relational strategies of Sīrat madīna, pinpointing the formal choices and thematic proclivities which situate the autobiographical subject in a particular social, cultural, temporal and historic sphere, and in constant tension with these same elements. It also pinpoints the text’s paradoxically obverse tendency to dissociate and distance the autobiographical subject by way of formal narrative techniques and content, ostensibly favoring the city as the focus of the text over the “self” of the protagonist.4 Yet, as this study shows, under the surface, the autobiographical subject is constantly present, and is discursively constituted through the historical, cultural and communal accounts of the city. I argue that personal identity is embedded in that of the city, and is narratologically constituted through it. This study also reveals that in Sīrat madīna, both the porousness of geographical boundaries as well as the traversing of personal boundaries are expressed through metaphors and accounts of death.
Articulating the Autobiographical Subject through a Geographical “Other”
Theories positing the relational dimension of autobiography emphasize the dynamics of intersubjectivity in autobiographical texts. Critical works on the theory of relational autobiography tend to be dominated by a focus on the relation between the autobiographical subject and other individuals, especially one favored other person.5 Such theories foreground relationality both thematically and by investigating how they inculcate dialogic relationships into the narrative strategy of the text. Along this vein, autobiography scholar
Paul Eakin emphasizes narratives “constructed through the story told of and by someone else” in which the text contains not only the autobiography of the self “but the biography and the autobiography of the other.”6 This same focus tends to dominate the autobiographical texts themselves through texts which are written in relation to a “proximate other,” that is, in relation to another person, to one degree or another, whether they participate i n writing the text, or whose voices penetrate the text through the anfractuosity of the narrative strategy. 7 Eakin notes that this is “the most common form of the relational life” in which the self’s story is “viewed through the lens of its relation with some key other person.”8 Indeed, Sīrat madīna is also marked by such relational terms, as the text is infused with the voice of the protagonist’s grandmother, and the protagonist is represented through his continual interaction with her. However, this is secondary to the primary “proximate other” of the text, namely the geographical-cultural entity of Amman itself.
Eakin acknowledges two manifestations of the “relational dimension” in autobiographical texts, and applies this label
to those autobiographies that feature the decisive impact on the autobiographer of either (1) an entire social environment (a particular kind of family, or a community and its social institutions—schools, churches, and so forth) or (2) key other individuals, usually family members, especially parents.9
The relational dimension of Sīrat madīna is anomalous in that it does not adhere to such an either-or division, but rather features both “an entire social environment,” namely Amman in the 1940’s, alongside “key other individuals,” namely, the protagonist’s grandmother whose voice and point of view are invariably inculcated into the text. As such, it “expands the structures and forms through which personal experience may be narratologically enacted”10 by generating the protagonist’s personal story through a composite of the components of the broader community in which he grows up, whether geographical, historical, social or cultural. This impregnable association is stronger here than in other relational Arabic autobiographies to the extent that the individual autobiographical voice is consumed by its association with Amman. Film critic Hamid Naficy points out with regard to autobiographical films, also applicable here, that
[E]xilic autobiographical films are not concerned solely with the self and with the individual. Rather they tend simultaneously to highlight elements on which group affiliation or division are based, such as race, gender, class, ethnicity, nationality, religiosity, and political belief.11
Such cinema, he argues, is therefore highly social at the same time that it is intensely personal.12
Sīrat madīna embodies these characteristics of exilic autobiography. Despite its focus on a single place, it recounts a dialectic, exilic existence inherited from the protagonist’s forebears, and which contribute to the paradoxical sense that Amman is both exile and home, or exile at home, stemming from the awareness that his familial roots lie elsewhere, and from the fact that the author writes of his native city from the physical and temporal distance of exile. This generates a sense of “double alienation,” as has been discussed with regard to the writings of Samīr Naqqāsh.13 It is productive in this context also to mention the concept of “alienated nearness” in which “a daily lived distance dims the gaze.”14 This is narratively reinforced by the protagonist’s departure from Amman at the end of the text, which asserts the exilic foundations of self which arises out of this autobiography, a self on the cusp of a life of exilic wanderings, and which situates the gaze upon Amman as distant and exilic, hence “alienated nearness.” Ironically, despite its focus on a geographical place, this text ultimately resists monologic national affiliation, by constructing place—and here also the self—as unstable, ever-changing composites of multiple affiliations. There is a tension in this text between “reclaiming” a connection with place and leaving it, symbolically rejecting national affiliation with place,15 and the complex interplay between continuity and discontinuity which characterizes the diasporic subject.
Sīrat madīna is punctuated by discontinuities of identity and encodes tensions of locational ambivalence and diversity, of exile, diaspora and transnationalism, rather than specificity, despite its focus on a singular place. Munīf inherited his father’s Saudi citizenship but was born and brought up in Amman. Because his father died several years after his birth, his affinity with Saudi Arabia was in name only, and the intentions of returning there faded. It nevertheless complicates an unmitigated identity with a single location. His transcultural identity was further entrenched by his Iraqi mother and grandmother. In Sīrat madīna, Amman is shaped as an agglomeration of liminalities, reflecting the inscription of hybridity, interstices, and otherness within the protagonist’s own identity.
The strong, nearly indissoluble, association between self-identity and geographical cultural positioning—relationality taken to its exilic extreme in this text—is further asserted by the textual strategy of obscuring the presence of the protagonist both as a character in the text and in the narrative strategies of voice and text. Not only is the autobiographical voice (“I”) itself distanced through third-person narration, but the protagonist himself is largely absent, fused into broader communal and geographical entities, such that his own individual presence cannot always be discerned. This defamiliarizing technique, exemplified and discussed below, adds immediacy to the relational proclivity of the subject, which can be descried from its milieu only with difficulty, when scrutinized through relational strategies. This study treats the implications of contextualizing the autobiographical subject narratologically so intricately within geographical and cultural structures, with special emphasis on liminal configurations and the diasporic, multicultural identity such a positioning fosters.
First Person Oblique
The purpose of this section is to expose Sīrat madīna’s inscriptions of individual identity, the “first voice” of an autobiographical text, to appropriate anthropologist Michael M. J. Fischer’s typology of autobiographical voices.16 He distinguishes between the first voice which represents the “processes of identity formation”; the second voice which comprises the various “cross-historical and cross-cultural others” which resonate in the text through double-voicing; and the third voice which comprises the text’s “multiple perspectival positioning.”17 Usually the first voice is that which is most unambiguously foregrounded in an autobiographical text, but in the case of Sīrat madīna, this voice, and indeed, the first person protagonist himself, needs to be unearthed. To this end, this section first treats how the voice and character of the protagonist are obscured in the text, and then how the protagonist can nevertheless be located and revealed.
Before investigating this text’s relational configurations, that is, the text’s relation to various “others,” the oblique nature of the self in this text must necessarily be noted. This is because the autobiographical subject is embedded in a web of “others,” and hence its very obscurity is a product of the text’s marked relationality. First of all, there is no first-person voice in the text. The child-protagonist, who represents the autobiographical narrator during his childhood years, is unnamed and disembodied. The tone of the text reflects an attempt to eclipse both his personal feelings and his voice to a great extent. References to the protagonist of these textual memories are generally relayed in a distant, impersonal tenor.
This is executed not only through voice but by minimizing reportage of intimate details, and by conveying personal anecdotes in a detached manner. The autobiographical subject is referred to alternately as “al-ṭifl,” “al-ṣaghīr,” (both recalling the designation “al-ṣabī” in Ṭāhā Ḥusayn’s monumental al-Ayyām, 1929), as well as “al-ḥafīd” (the grandson) in relation to the grandmother, and, towards the end of the text, “al-ṭālib” (the student). He is also implicated through third person verbs without a specific designation, for example: “it still echoes in one’s memory.”18 He is also further insinuated as one of a group of children, “alawlād,” “al-aṭfāl”19 and “al-ṣighār”.20 In most cases, from the context, it is inferred that this refers to the boy-protagonist in association with his siblings,21 although, it also is used to refer to the boy-protagonist in association with his friends or compatriots. For example, “as the children went home” refers to the protagonist and his siblings, and a more general statement about “children” in Amman during the period at hand refers to children in ge neral, including the protagonist. An example of this is the anecdote at the end of the first chapter in which he describes a “dervish” who uses his powers to practice medicine and discover the identity of thieves.23 One day, as he conducts the rituals necessary for divining the identity of the thieves, “children (al-ṣighār) peeked in on him,”24 and when the dervish becomes aware of their presence this greatly annoys him. This anecdote exemplifies the “pact,” to borrow Lejeune’s term with regard to autobiography,25 which is valid for this text, namely, that “the children” implies the personal view of the narrator, establishing his role as witness.26 Although the term “the children” downplays the individuality of the protagonist by fusing his presence into the collective “children,” this tactic nevertheless— ironically—lends a personal quality to the text.
The narrative strategy of employing the third-person voice in an autobiographical text is employed in other prominent Arabic texts, most prominent among them al-Ayyām by Ṭāhā Ḥusayn, with which Munīf was surely acquainted.27 Narrating an autobiographical text in the third-person voice in itself is not sufficient to throw the reader off of the autobiographical trail. The autobiographical sense of such texts lies in the chronological unfolding of seminal developments in the life of the writer which molded his identity, albeit not in the first-person voice. In such texts, the third-person voice is employed as a narrative strategy, but this notwithstanding, their autobiographical nature is evidently manifest. The third person voice is more of a narrative ruse or stratagem employed for a variety of effects, but it obscures neither the autobiographical intent of the text, nor the foregrounding of the autobiographical subject. In Ḥannā Abū Ḥannā’s autobiographical trilogy, this device in fact becomes noticeably clumsy in the second and third volumes when the text describes encounters between the fictionalized narrator “Mīkhāīl” and well-known people.28 Similarly, in Ṭāhā Ḥusayn’s al-Ayyām, it is interesting to note that the translator into English of the third volume took the liberty of making the narrator “speak with the pronoun ‘I’ ”.29 This exemplifies that for Abū Ḥannā and Ṭāhā Ḥusayn, this narrative technique does not entail much more than a “switching” of voices, which informs the distancing, among other repercussions of this technique.30 In Sīrat madīna, the third-person voice conspicuously evokes the perspective of the autobiographical subject, from a distanced perspective of a writer describing his younger “self,” and with the caveat that this “self” is usually located in a group of other children, not individually. A repercussion of this technique in this text (as has also been argued for the use of the technique in Ṭāhā Ḥusayn’s al-Ayyām) 31 is that it causes the individual self to appear representative of a whole generation. At times, however, in this text, the third-person voice seems no more than a mask for an extremely personal self-narrative. This is the case when the narrative recounts the wording of the song “I am Coffee” which “the child” learns in his first year of primary school: “Over fifty years have passed since that song was learned, but its echo still reverberates…”32 This wording is so personal, and links the third-person protagonist to the writer-self so unequivocally as to render the third-person voice maladroit and inappropriate, a risk this narrative strategy can entail. It is in such passages that the autobiographical self is most conspicuously revealed.
Narrative point-of-view, whether first- or third-person, is not an indicator of the autobiographical caliber of a text. Inversely, novels often employ the first-person voice to express that of an imagined character. Moreover, first-person narration in a work of non-fiction, even a personal one, is not always an indicator of autobiographical text. An example of such a phenomenon is Baṣrayāthā: ṣūrat madīna (1993) by the Iraqi writer Muḥammad Khuḍayyir. This text, recounted in the first-person voice, relates the author’s personal reflections and musings on his beloved city of Basra. It comprises a range of reflections, including personal memories, local tales, and historical anecdotes. There is no single protagonist in this text in which each chapter reads like a discrete essay on various aspects of Basra, its history and characteristics. Although it unabashedly represents the author’s personal point of view in first-person voice, the focus is exclusively on the city from a variety of perspectives and not on a protagonist’s personal change and development, nor does the text comprise any continuous period of the narrator’s life. Contrasting Sīrat madīna with Baṣrayāthā serves to bring out the focus of Munīf’s Sīrat madīna on the boy-protagonist’s “history of becoming,” to cite Nancy K. Miller’s propitious delineation of autobiography.33 She avers that autobiography is “how you pass on the story that you think expresses you,”34 and, as I argue in this study, by what means Munīf casts the development of his personal identity within the social, cultural and geographic setting of his childhood. Whereas Baṣrayāthā is personal, but not autobiographical, Munīf’s text unfolds the narrative through the perspective of a protagonist who matures over the course of the chronological continuum of the text. Munīf could have chosen to avoid mention of intimate details of his child-self in this text other than the context in which he grew up; the text would then comprise a personal perspective, but would not comprise a personal history of the author himself. It should be noted that pages 395-406 of the eighteenth chapter of Sīrat madīna provide a more detached rendering of the chronicles of Amman, including excerpts from two medieval travel accounts and six modern travel accounts which invoke Amman. The detached point of view stands out from the rest of the text, but it turns back into the personal testimonial point of view, and the chapter continues through page 430 with the first -person voice paradoxically present and obscured, as it is throughout the rest of the text, with the testimonial presence of “the children” punctuating the descriptions of Amman.
The text’s autobiographical nature is obfuscated by its ostensible, stated focus on the city of Amman, as the element which propels the narrative. The first sentence of the introduction states: “This book conveys the story of a city, namely Amman (sīra li-madīnahiya Ammān), and it is not an autobiography of its author ( wa-laysa sīra dhātiyya li-kātibihi), who neither denies nor affirms the autobiographical nature of al-Ayyām;35 Ibrāhīm al-Māzinī, in Ibrāhīm al-kātib (1931) bequeaths his protagonist with his own name and profession, but professes to be the opposite of him; Muḥammad Shukrī’s al-Khubz al-ḥāfī (1982) selfidentifies as a novelistic autobiography (sīra dhātiyya riwāʾiyya); and Idwār al-Kharrāṭ who categorically denies that his Turābuhā zaʿfarān (1986) is autobiographical in the first sentence, highlighting the role of “artifice” therein.36 Writing on fiction in Arabic autobiography, Susanne Enderwitz suggests reading the latter disclaimer as “an offer for a fictional pact.”37 She suggests that this text is:
perhaps the first Eastern Arabic autobiographical example for the postmodern proclamation of the ‘death of a subject’. Seen on a larger scale, however, it fits well into a general trend within autobiographical literature over the past thirty years, which consists in constantly widening the gap with biographical literature by the means of fictionalization.38
This exemplifies the spectrum of possibilities in a text self-described as a not- an autobiography. This is helpful in stressing the point that in Sīrat madīna, what is at stake in its disavowal is not fictionalization of the text per se, but rather, the dissolution of the subject, one facet of the fictionalization of autobiographies.
In Sīrat madīna, the author eschews categorizing his text as an auto biography in the same breath as he asserts that it is a “biography” of a city incorporating autobiographical elements.39 This statement is followed by additional controversions with regard to genre. The introduction states that it is also not a novel, being as it is not a work of the imagination (“li-anna ’l-khayāl fīhi mawjūd”),40 and despite employing novelistic techniques.
In contemplating Munīf’s disavowal of the autobiographical genre of his text, I wonder whether he would have maintained this assertion were he aware of the possibilities opened up by theories of relational autobiography. For his stated focus, Munīf chooses place over self, despite the fact that the content and form of the text both point to a constant association between both. The theories underlying the concept of “relational autobiography” help unravel the tension and connection between these two elements.
The figure of the protagonist is obfuscated not only by the third-person narrative voice, but also by the text’s generally impersonal, disinterested tone which deflects the emphasis away from the protagonist and decenters his presence. This tone is manifest in the fact that the text eschews noting personal biographical details from the life of the protagonist; and circumvents overt expressions of his personal feelings. This tone distinguishes it from such a text as Ṭāhā Ḥusayn’s al-Ayyām, which, although also narrated in the third -person voice, expresses the life story of the autobiographical subject in a subjective, personal, and pathos-filled narrative. In contrast, in Sīrat madīna, the protagonist dissolves into the background or into a collective—of siblings, children, or the city inhabitants in general (“ahl Ammān”).41 The very first sentence of the text foregrounds the paradox of the objective and subjective point of view characteristic of the text. On the one hand, the text itself, as well as the town-city it describes, spawns from the memory of the protagonist. On the other hand, the protagonist is referred to through synecdoche, as assumed possessor of the “memory” containing the recollections which vivify Amman. This implied protagonist in whose memory resides “the first image of the town-city of Amman” coalesces textually into the bevy of children: “Before that day, the boundaries of the town, as the children (aṭfāl) perceived them…”42 Shortly thereafter, the protagonist-child is singled out for the first time, but only inasmuch as he finds a friend and then merges into the dual frame of reference: “When the street emptied of people, and silence prevailed, the child (al-ṣaghīr) found no one his age other than Muādh Shuqayr…” This narrative strategy of weaving the autobiographical protagonist in and out of individual and collective identity, simultaneously muted and asserted, characterizes his narrative presence throughout. He is at once the eyes, ears, and memory of the narrative and yet distanced through both narrative content and strategy.
This enigma of subjectivity is compounded by the dispassionate narration of personal details. For example, the text never unambiguously indicates the configuration of the protagonist’s family. The protagonist has implied siblings: from context it emerges that “the children” refers alternately to children in Amman in general, to the protagonist’s group of friends, or to the protagonist amongst his siblings. Only in the sixth chapter is there a passing reference to “the three brothers.”43
A case in point exemplifying the detached and dispassionate narration of the protagonist’s personal history—which, paradoxically, reveals the protagonist—is the account of the protagonist’s father’s death. This is related in a chapter whose general theme is death, as “The revelation of Amman the city-the people (al-madīna–al-bashar) took place through the shock of death. The child (al-ṭifl) would later look back and wonder about those who had ‘passed on’ (dhahabū)…”44 The theme of death includes a depiction of a professional mourner; funeral processions; graveyards and cemeteries; avoiding death; and deaths of specific people, including classmates, a notable, and also the protagonist ’s father. Remarkably, this is couched in the tone in which the other deaths are reported:
A few last words about the shock of death, which has not disappeared from memory. Its beginning resembles a dream, and blends with other things, 45 including: disbelief; suddenly being plunged into a green forest; the inability to be happy or to play. When the children (al-ṣighār) return from that compulsory outing, they discover that their father has died and has been buried in their absence, and when they start to cry, they are again whisked away to the house of one of the relatives in order to stay for a few days… It became the first connection to personal death…46
This depiction is jarring. On the one hand, it reveals the personal experience of the protagonist. On the other hand, it embeds this intimate anecdote within a sequence of death related anecdotes. This is the only place where the text mentions that the protagonist grows up without a father, and, ironically, “confirms” that the text is narrated not only from a subjective perspective, but from a subjective personal one, that of the orphaned protagonist. If, as it asserts, it is the first connection to “personal death,” then the reader is wont to ask:
“personal” for whom? The personal minutae in the narrative form a puzzle which must be pieced together. As this excerpt shows, the personal is embedded in the collective, and yet it constitutes the perspective from which the collective is perceived. This excerpt evokes a reaction similar to Enderwitz’s with regard to a passage in Yūsuf Haykal’s Ayyām al-ṣibā(Days of Youth, 1988) which describes how the author nearly drowned in a disinterested, distant first-person voice. Of this, she writes that the “the monologue of the drowning boy, thoroughly rational and uttered in high-standard Arabic, adds an intriguingly ‘unreal’ or even ‘imaginary’ flavor to the scene.”47
Locating the autobiographical subject
Although obfuscated and obscured, the autobiographical protagonist is nevertheless the central axis around which the text pivots. The story of the city is refracted through subjective experience, and conversely, the identity of the autobiographical subject is articulated through the city chronicles. In spite of foregrounding the collective over the self, personal emerges out of the collective as the following shows: “Another sudden death Amman remembers in disbelief was the death of Mājid al-Udwān…”48 Amman itself personified, employed as synecdoche for the people of Amman—perhaps—or, in the end, speaking perhaps only for himself, as a referent back to the adult writer-self looking back and remembering.
Yet, this text is more than a chronicle of Amman from a personal perspective, but also comprises the coming-of-age of the autobiographical subject. In other words, his is not a static position from which he describes change occurring around him, but rather, the text encompasses the ontogenesis of the autobiographical subject. His growth is elicited by the following trajectory: the first two chapters invoke the protagonist’s earliest memories. The text then treats his schooling, narrated in chronological order according to the protagonist’s progression from one Quran school to another (chapter 3), to the government primary school (chapter 4), to secondary school (chapter 13), and finally to the Scientific College (chapters 14 and 17). The narrative thrust is impelled by the protagonist’s chronological development. Chapters five through twelve are organized topically, but with a chronological undercurrent: The fact that they are couched between the protagonist’s moves from primary school to secondary school imputes them into the sphere of his primary school experiences.
In Sīrat madīna, identity is constructed rhetorically in terms of relation to geographical location and cultural context. Critic Nancy K. Miller’s statement (in a footnote), that the other “provides the map of the self”49 certainly applies to this text. In this case, the map in question is not merely metaphorical, but has actual geographic implications, as setting plays the role of primary object of relation. By “Amman,” the text implicates an intricate conglomeration of spatial with social aspects, including institutions, but also illuminating characteristics of an entire community by describing its individual members, and major events it endures, and the cultural transformations it undergoes in the period coeval with the subject’s childhood. The geographical and spatial elements of the city constitute a background for its social, institutional, and historical vicissitudes.
The first chapter epitomizes that Amman unfolds textually through the boy protagonist’s perspective, which delimits the textual boundaries of the city. In turn, the cadences of Amman define the realm of his childhood experience, and corresponding identity formation. The boundaries of the city are determined through the protagonist’s perception of them, and the reverse is also true, namely that the protagonist is conjured up in as much as he is a catalyst for the memories of the city. This is exemplified in the following lines: “Before that day, the boundaries of the town, as the children ( aṭfāl) perceived them, had not extended beyond the neighborhoods in which they lived. If they had crossed them, it was only to go to nearby places, accompanied by adults. Life before that day had been ordinary and slow, as if the world (ālam) had begun and ended within each neighborhood,50 or at its boundaries…”51 The world of the city takes shape through the child’s awareness of it:
This was the first time he became aware of the length and breadth of the neighborhood, both in terms of a [geographical] place and in terms of its people (bashar). [He became aware] that it extended beyond the house of Abū Shām and Ḥ ājja Anīsa, and the houses on that bend parallel to Fayṣal Street. [He also became aware that] they were separated from Baghdad by distance and accent, but at the same time, it was also extremely close. That, then, was the first real discovery of the city, which happened to coincide and collide with death! 52
These paragraphs show that Amman’s contours are contrived through the protagonist’s burgeoning awareness, and construed in relation to his evolving perspective. Thus Amman metamorphoses as his geographical awareness broadens. In fact, the map of the Middle East is subjective, molded by the protagonist’s vacillating perspective, according to which Amman and Baghdad are either distant or contiguous.53 The Ammani community’s unexpected interest in the death of King Ghāzī of Baghdad alters the child’s perception of the distance between Amman and Baghdad, causing him to realize that Baghdad is relevant not only to his family, and thus that it is “closer” to Amman than he had previously imagined.
These paragraphs recall the initial chapter of Ṭāhā Ḥusayn’s al-Ayyām, which Sīrat madīna invokes through its peculiarities of style and content.54 There, too, the boundaries of the protagonist’s world are conjured through the protean perspective of a child’s mindset further confounded by the passage of time. Both texts reject absolute geographical boundaries, evoking instead the shifting boundaries of the protagonist’s world, and establishing his milieu in relation to his perception of it. The blindness of the protagonist of al-Ayyām can be assigned metaphorically to that of Sīrat madīna as an expression of the subjectivity of perception, 55 which blinds one to an objective geographical reality.56 The perception of geography in Sīrat madīna undergoes multiple transformations over the course of the text. An important example of this can be found in the references to World War I which joins Amman to a broader international conglomeration of geographical points; and also to the references to Palestine in chapter seventeen, which, through emotional identification at the time of the 1948 war, becomes “closer” to Amman.
By melding the protagonist’s personal development into the chronicle of Amman, the protagonist is emplaced within the narrative’s social, geographic and geopolitical locations. The protagonist of Sīrat madīna becomes a narratively “situated self”57 who identifies both through and against the environment depicted in the text. This intermingling of self and milieu reveals the narrator’s quest for origins. He reconstructs his childhood world, as an account of his own identity. Ironically, these chronicles communicate and expose the inner world of the obscured, dissolved subject, the “evolvement of his nature” (takwīn al-ṭab) in the words of Arab litterateur Tawfīq al-Ḥakīm, 58 whose own Sijn al-umr (The Prison of Life) can be read in terms of a relational autobiography in which his focus is explaining what he has inherited from others, portraying himself as a prisoner of this inheritance.59
Although “the city” is the proclaimed focus of the text, the city issues from the consciousness of the protagonist. This stated focus comprises an aspect of the text’s narrative strategy, and I read it as an example of what critic Susanna Egan calls “convoluted self reflection,”60 for which she proffers The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas (1933) by Gertrude Stein as prototypical. In Stein’s autobiography, the stated focus of the text is Toklas, and in the case of Sīrat madīna, it is the city. Such declarations are a textual artifice through whose agency the actual autobiographical subject emanates. Like The Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Sīrat madīna is also concerned with “authenticating the process of discovery and re-cognition. These autobiographies, in other words, do not reflect life so much as they reflect (upon) their own processes of making meaning of life.”61 The narrative strategy of Sīrat madīna refracts the story of the autobiographical self through the chronicles of a city in order to articulate the communal process of self-making, thereby creating, in the words of critic Rocio G. Davis, an “itinerary of subjectivity.” This narrative strategy also reveals the multiplicity at the base of the protagonis t’s identity. Sīrat madīna’s challenge to the notion of the individual as prime subject illustrates Munīf’s conception of the first-person in autobiography, as according to Eakin, the self is “truly plural in its origins and subsequent formation” as it addresses “the extent to which the self is defined by –and lives in terms of—its relation with others.”63 The protagonist is narrated through his interaction with others, fused into the pulsating vividness of life in Amman, and is thus indistinct and inscrutable. Noted critic of Arabic literature Sabry Hafez epitomizes the continual interaction (al-tafāʿul al-mustamirr) between self and its contexts (siyāqāt) in autobiography, both of which are subject to evolve.64 The metamorphosis of a place, Hafez asserts, can be channeled to reflect personal change, and the boundaries of identity can expressed in terms of the boundaries of a particular place and context through the manipulation of narrative technique.
Subjective experience is, in fact, what vivifies the city. The growth and change of the “witness” through whose eyes the city is rendered creates a focal point of attention not only on the story of the city but also on the story of the storyteller. In this sense, this text can be viewed as incorporating, in Eakin’s terms, “the story of a story,” and the autobiographical subject can be revealed in terms of “a proximate other” proposed by Eakin; or perhaps, this should be posed as an open-ended question: is the city the “proximate other” of the autobiographical protagonist, or is the autobiographical protagonist the “proximate other” of the city? The difficulty in answering this question underscores the multiplicity of readings which the text engenders.
Negotiating Personal and Geographical Boundaries through Death
Feminist critic Leigh Gilmore underscores the positioning of a self in relation to a particular milieu:
Every autobiography is … an assembly of theories … of personal identity and one’s relation to a family, a region, a nation; and of citizenship and a politics of represent ativeness (and exclusion). How to situate the self within these theories is the task of autobiography which entails the larger organizational question of how selves and milieus ought to be understood in relation to each other.65
In the same textual breath, Gilmore notes the seeming opposite, “the autobiographical self who is cut off from others, even as it stands for them… Once separated conceptually from a nation, a family, a place, and a branching set of contingencies, how does the individual recognize this disestablished self?” 66 These questions articulate both the spectrum and limits of relationality in self-writing, in other words, that tension inherent in self-identifying relationally, while at the same time delimiting oneself from that same relational focus. Sīrat madīna is haunted by such a tension through its dual tendencies to accentuate the affinities between the autobiographical “self” and its milieu, on the one hand, and, on the other, to delimit boundaries separating self from its geographical and cultural environment. In other words, the autobiographical self here constantly defines and re-defines the quality and degree of its relation to its surroundings. The protagonist conceives of himself through the city and against it, and is therefore an example of the “contradictory discourses” which characterize autobiographies in general, and ethnic autobiographies in particular.67