The Period of Maturity
Socio-political background during the maturity:
The novel, according to Philippe Sollers, is “la maniere don’t cette societe se parle.” 57 During the last five decades the societies within the Arab world have witnessed changes on a wide scale in both their political and economic way of life. This period has seen a tremendous expansion within the field of the Arabic novel. It is the purpose of this chapter to trace the developments and experiments which have taken place by examining themes and technique used by novelists writing since the outset of the Second World War. It is useful here to give a brief summary of some of the major events and trends in the Arab world against the background of which this outpouring of fiction will be viewed.
To the West the mention of the Arab World has traditionally invoked images of the camel and men wearing the Kaffiyyah and headband. To these stereotypical images has surely been added in recent decades that of the oil well. The discovery of oil in the Arab World has of course had an immense impact on the recent history of the region and has caused a radical shift in the balance of influence within the area itself and of economic power within the world as a whole. Abdul Rahman Munif (b. 1933), the Saudi novelist asserts in an interview that, “as a sphere and topic, oil may help uncover some novelistic aspects in our contemporary life in the Arab world.” 58 It should be noted that Munif’s academic training was a petroleum economist; he may thus be not a little part ipris. Indeed, during the 1980s he has followed up on this somewhat coy opinion by penning the Arab world’s largest novelistic project to date, the quintet of novels, Mudun almilh. In his novel al-Bahth an Walid Masud, (In Search of Walid Masud, 1978), Jabra Ibrahim Jabra provides us with a historical frame of reference on this point from which to view the extent of the changes which have occurred. Ibrahim al-Hajj Nawfal, one of the narrators in the novel, comments on his career as a businessman in Iraq and points out to his audience that he had been writing about economics at a time when “the demand that Iraq have a twenty-percent share in the revenues of the British Petroleum Company was regarded as a nationalist demand which would prove enormously difficult to achieve and would require both perseverance and determination”. 60 To a world that has become accustomed not only to a different approach towards the Middle East region, its various nations state’s and their alignments, but also to the significance of oil as a commodity and an economic weapon, the changes that have occurred in the period under consideration here are indeed striking.
These current realities are part of the larger and longer process, namely the complex web of relationships between the cultures of East and West, itself the subject of a whole series of novels. A comparison of al-Tayyib Salih’s novel, Mawsim al-Hijra ila al-Shamal (1967; Season of Migration of the North, 1969) with earlier works in which Arabs give their impressions of Europeans provides another illustration of the changing nature of the relationship between the cultures of the Middle East and the West.
The Arab world “rediscovered” Europe during the 19th century. The interest of Europe in the Arab world took a rather more pragmatic from as France and Britain occupied, or otherwise participated in the governmental process of various countries in the region. A natural reaction to this was the formation of a number of nationalist movements whose aspirations, whether totally local or pan-Arab, were dashed by the mandate agreements which followed the First World War. The apparent success of the “Arab Revolt”, even if they were often viewed by English readers through the distorting lens of T. E. Lawrence’s narrative, had raised among the Arab nations considerable hopes for independence when the fighting was over. With the publication of the Balfour Declaration of 1917, declaring that a homeland for the Jewish people was a goal of the British government, the basis was created for a continuing series of misunderstanding and deception over the future of Palestine. Hopes for the Middle East were crushed as the French and British announced their agreement to divide the former Ottoman dominions into a series of “protectorates”: France undertook the administration of the Maghrib, Lebanon and Syria; the British became the mandate power in Palestine and Transjordan. These arrangements were duly rectified by the newly established League of Nations in July 1922, along with a declaration of a strictly limited independence for Egypt and Iraq. Against such a background of foiled political aspirations, it is hardly surprising there were wide- scale revolts aimed at the colonial power in both Egypt (1919) and Iraq (1920), but they were soon quashed. Both these events have often been used by litterateurs writing in all genres as a symbol of resistance to foreign domination in any form and of the expression of the popular will.
Within such a scenario of political expediency and broken promises, the relationship between the Arab nations and the Western powers (British and Finance) during the interwar period was, not unnaturally, one of suspicion and distrust. In Palestine the British found themselves bogged down in a political quagmire largely of their own devising; what few attempts were made to reconcile the unreconcilable only succeeded in antagonizing both the indigenous Palestinian and the increasing number of Zionist immigrants. On the political front, Egypt and Syria were granted a modicum of independence: in the Arabian Peninsula the Saudi family was allowed to consolidate its control; in 1943 an agreement between Sunnis and Maronites in Lebanon led to the foundation of a Lebanese state, one that was based on a tragically fragile balance as the events of the last decade have shown all too clearly. However, for the majority of nations in the Arab world, the limited nature of the political gains during this period was abruptly underlined by the actions of the occupying powers at the outset of the Second World War. Whatever gestures of “independence” may have been granted were now abruptly swept aside as the armies of the Axis powers and the Allies fought their way across North Africa, thus involving a large segment of the Arab world directly in the conflict and other parts through overt military occupation.
The Second World War and its consequence led to a transformation in the patterns of Western influence and hegemony in the Middle East. While the Arab nations may have shared in the international sense of relief that global conflict was at an end, their feelings were also somewhat more sanguine; the memory of the way expectations would so easily be dashed in such circumstances was too fresh. Along with renewed hopes for independence there as continuing resentment towards not only the colonial powers but also many of the ancient regimes with their entrenched and often corrupt power structures. This was a volatile political and social mixture as a number of uprising and political assassinations during the immediate post war period can demonstrate. Jacques Barque quite rightly terms the moment “a decisive juncture in contemporary Arab history…… the assassination of an Egyptian prime minister bore witness to the rise of extremism, the founding of the Baath Party and the ‘free officers’ conspiracy signalled the summons to new political horizons.”61
The conduct of the Great Power during the war had convinced even the most dogged pursuers of local national interest of the need to unite efforts and forces. The urgings of a number of advocates of Arab nationalism (such as Questantin Zurayq, Edmond Rabath, Sati al-Husri) were now to bear fruit in the establishment in Cairo of the Arab League in March 1945. 62 The choice of the Egyptian capital as the site for the league’s headquarters not only acknowledge Cairo’s central geographical position in the Arab world but also symbolized a role for Egypt which Abd al-Nasir was to pursue with vigor in the next decade.
Hisham Sharabi is of the opinion, in retrospect, that from the outset “the League fell far short of the hopes and aspiration of the most Arab nationalists.” 63In any case the newly created body was presented within a year or so with a major crisis, one which again involved the Western powers, namely the establishment of the state of Israel. In November 1947 a “partition plan” for Palestine was published. In April 1948 many inhabitants of the Palestinian village of Dayr Yasin were massacred by Zionists, an event which prompted many families to leave the region. In May, the state of Israel was proclaimed, marking the first of many subsequent conflicts between Arabs and Israelis. The period which we are considering is punctuated with unfortunate regularity by conflict between the Arab nations and Zionist state. The years 1948, 1956, 1967, 1973, and 1982 are important events in the history of modern Arab world. The plight of the Palestinian people continues to be one of the major focuses of Arab nationalist; in Abd Allah Laroui’s words, it is “the Arab problem per excellence”. 64
In the decades that followed the conclusion of the Second World War, the majority of countries within the Arab world went through a period of considerable turmoil and transformation, both political and social. With the emergence of two “super powers,” the United States and the Soviet Union, alignments, both international and local, were adjusted and in many case completely transformed. 65 The 1950s witnessed a number of revolutions in the Arab world, 1952 in Egypt and 1958 in Iraq and the Sudan. The long-sought goal of independence was granted to several nations: Sudan, Tunisia, and Morocco in 1956, Kuwait in 1961, and, after protected vicious civil conflict beginning in 1954, Algeria in 1962, as where conflicts between different people have proved more difficult to resolve; those involving the Kurds in Iraq and the people of the Southern part of the Sudan continue to pre-occupy the rules of those countries. There were attempts at bringing the idea and ideal of Arab unity to fruition: one which was implemented between Egypt and Syria – the United Arab Republic, 1958 – 1961; and another attempt to include Iraq in the Republic which was never brought to full fruition. The Egyptian Revolution and its charismatic leader, Jamal Abd al-Nasir, took the lead in forging new alliances which directly confronted the interests of Britain, the former occupying power. The arms deal with the Czechs in 1955, the military and political fiasco surrounding the tripartite attack on Suez in 1956 followed by the withdrawal of British and French forces from the region and the nationalization of Suez Canal, the beginnings of the movement of non-aligned nations; these were heady days indeed.
With all this movement and sense of dynamism, it is hardly surprising that this was also a period of intense discussion of the role of literature and the writer in society. 66 The decade of the 1950s witnessed the fierce argument over the issues of commitment. The foundation of the literary periodical al-Adab in 1953 was and has remained the most obvious symbol of the development in these decades of a movement whose base are well summarized in the quotation from Raif al-Khuri to the effect that “the Arab writer is committed, particularly in this period of Arab national revival, to producing works with a conscious and deliberate political meaning.” 67 As will be shown, the novel, “as the model by which society conceives of itself, the discourse in and through which it articulates the world,” 68 has been one of the primary areas of such activity and of critical commentary on it.
And yet amid all the dynamism there was also profound doubts about the direction in which the Arab world was heading and the means which were used to get it there. Litterateurs are not slow to express their views along these lines, often at considerable cost to their own well-being. Poems were written which expressed varying degrees of dissatisfaction and disgust with the state of Arab society; one thinks of Qabbani’s “Khubz wa-hashish wa qamar” (Bread, Hashish and moonlight, 1965), Aduni’s “Marthiyyat al-ayyam alhadirah” (Elegy for the present days, 1958), and Khalil Hawi’s “al-A’zar ‘am 1962” (Lazarus 1962, 1965). In the same novel from which we have already cited an extract, Jabra Ibrahim Jabra once again provides us with a clear expression of views on this subject. Parenthetically, I might point out that Jabra’s prediction for setting the multinarrator technique serve to make his novels a gold mine of views on a whole variety of subjects connected with life in the modern Arab world. In the current instance, we are dealing with the main character of this novel, Wali Mas’ud, the Palestinian who emerges from a period in an Israeli prison during which he has been tortured. In an unforgettable passage he describes the darker side of Arab society at this time:
“I saw my homeland for which I had been prepared to go through the very tortures of Hell itself applying those very same tortures to anyone who fell into the hands of the people in authority. From the Arab Gulf to the Atlantic Ocean I heard a cry, I heard weeping and the sound of sticks and plastic houses. Capitals and casbas, the valleys below; men in neat civilian suits walking to and fro like a thousand shuttles on a thousand looms, hauling off to the centres of darkness by the tens and hundreds.” 69
The almost sneering use of ‘Abd al-Naseer’s ringing phrase of Arab unity, “from the Arab Gulf to the Atlantic Ocean,” draws attention to the grim side of the life of intellectuals in many countries of the Arab world at this time. Naguib Mahfouz’s novel, al-Karnak (1974), made into a high exploitative film during the heyday of President Sadat’s regime, is just one of many fictional works that portray just how grim such a life could be; 70 others include Munif’s Sharq al-Mutawassit (East of the Mediterranean, 1977; A l’est de la Mediterranee, 1985), Sanaullah
Ibrahim’s Tilka al-Raihah (1966; The Smell of it), and the quartet of novels by the Kuwaiti writer Ismail Fahd Ismail, set in Iraq.
The 1960s emerge then as a decade when the different revolutionary regimes in the Arab world moved from the initial flush of success, which independence and its aftermath had brought, towards a process of formulating some of the ideological principles in which the revolution had been or was to be based, and of putting such principles into practice. This process almost inevitably led to a number of challenges, particularly from those whose view of revolution in general and of the particular revolution in question was different from that of the authorities. The challenges which took written from were of varying degrees of frankness. As many novelists have observed. The copious use of symbolism at this time was not merely an artistic phenomenon but a matter of strict practicality. The more explicit writers could be handled with considerable severity, as Sabri Hafiz notes. 71 The attitude of intellectuals to the governmental structure in Egypt, and their sense of alienation, is portrayed with brilliant clarity in Mahfouz’s novel, Thartharah fawq al-Nil (Chatter on the Nile, 1966; Adrift on the Nile, 1993), a work which clearly antagonized the Egyptian authorities at the highest level and almost led to his incarceration. 72
The June War of 1967 has clearly been a defining moment in the modern history of the Arab nations. The Arabic term used to describe it is al-naksah, meaning, “set back” (in itself, a typically creative use of the language’s own potential for verbal puns, the earlier 1948 War was termed al-nakbah, “the disaster”). But as a large number of anguished studies of the event and its implications were to point out, it was in fact a devastatingly terminal blow to the pretensions carefully nurtured by the political sector during the early years of independence and revolution; in the words of Faruq Abd al-Qadir, an Egyptian critic of drama, it was “a total defeat of regimes, institutions, structures, ideas, and leaders.” 73 Halim Barakat is both a sociologist and novelist, and his novel, ‘Awdat al-tair ila al-bahr (the return of the Flying Dutchman to the sea, 1969; Days of Dust, 1974) manages to identify some of the major sources of the anger and resentment that were to follow. For the Arabs this was a war with no heroes; where the battle for control of the air was concerned – and that was crucial – it was over much too quickly. What made the impact even worse and the anger more intense was that the Arab world was being told by its leaders until the very last moment that it was on its way to a glorious victory. In the view of many, these events provided an all-too-graphic illustration of the kinds of problems to which intellectuals and litterateurs had been addressing themselves, in necessarily guarded and often symbolic terms, throughout the earlier years of the decade and before. Now, however, the carefully crafted images of political leaderships and the visions of a wonderful future based on notions of equality and justice were shown to be cruel distortions of the realities of the Arab world; the extent of the disease was shown to be so great that there was no longer a question of suppressing overt discussion of its many ramifications. What ensured has been characterized by Abdallah Larui as a “moral crisis” which “culminated in a period of anguished self-criticism, is a searching reappraisal of postwar Arab culture and political practice.” 74
The consequences of this conflict remain contributing factors to the course of strategic and political events in the region. In general, regimes survived. In Jordan, King Husayn found his country overwhelmed by an influx of Palestinian refugees from the West Bank. This Post-1967 period witnesses a turn by Palestinian groups towards more direct means of influencing policy, most notably in the appearance of the Fidaiyyin. By 1970 the tensions between the political priorities of the Jordanian government and those of the Palestinians had reached a breaking point, and in a period of brutal fighting, termed “Black September” by the Palestinians, the freedom fighter were driven out of Jordan and into Lebanon and Syria. In the intervening period the relationship between Jordan and the Palestinians has oscillated between enmity and cooperation, as political alliances have swung this way and that, but in 1993 Amman, Jordan’s capital, teems with Palestinians; the number had been increased by a further influx resulting from the expulsion of Palestinians of Kuwait in the wake of the Gulf War of 1990. As the other nations of the Arab world face their own problems and priorities, the fate of the Palestinians-punctured with dreadful regularity by such barbaric acts as the Tell al-Zatar and Sabrah-Shatilah mass acres in Beirut – is to remain without a homeland, condemned to one or another kind of exile; in the words of the Palestinian poet, Tawfique Sayigh (1923-1971):
Without it there is no entry
And you don’t carry it
Therefore no entry. 75
In Egypt, the regime of Jamal Abd al-Naseer, for so long the admired political figurehead of the Arab world, also survived, but the crushing nature of the 1967 defeat, and his attempts at reconciling differences between groups and nations in such a situation fraught with recrimination and frustration, proved overwhelming, and he died in September 1970. His successor, Anwar al-Sadat, was essentially an unknown quantity on the international scene. The Israeli capture of Sinai served as a continuing affront to Egyptian honour, a situation that led to a lengthy confrontation and stalemate at the Suez Canal during the early 1970s. Al-Sadat, however, give the appearance of concentrating much of his attention on the domestic agenda. Certain civil liberties that had been generally lacking during the 1960s were restored under the most careful controlled circumstances, including the right of speaking (and writing) “absolutely frankly,” all within limits of appropriateness determined by the government. The most of the books written of the time were violently anti Naseer (including Tawfiq al-Hakim’s Awdat al-Way) made it clear that a change in political priorities and alignments was under way. As if to underline that direction, al-Sadat announced his policy of infitah, opening up Egyptian markets to both local and international capitalism. The major result of that policy has been to widen still further the gap between the wealthy and poor of the country, a theme that has not surprisingly, spawned a very large amount of fictional writing.
As these social transformations were in progress, the confrontation at the Suez Canal continued. The pressure for action mounted, and in October 1973 al-Sadat responded: the “crossing” of the Suez Canal caught the Israeli forces by surprise, and, even though the Arab Armies were eventually driven back, the cracking of the “Bar Lev Line” was a substantial psychological boost for al-Sadat, even though its impact elsewhere in the region was minimal; Berque terms the event a “semi success.” 76 In 1977 al-Sadat undertook another bold initiative when he agreed to travel to Jerusalem and addressed the Israeli Knesset. This was followed by a peace agreement between the two countries and, in March 1979, the singing of the Camp David accords in Washington. However, well these events may have played on the world stage, the assassination of al-Sadat in 1981 by members of a popular Islamic group in his own country and the almost empty streets in Cairo on the day of his funeral were potent reminders of the extent to which he had lost touch with political realities of Egypt and the region as a whole. In 1974 Abdullah Laroui had suggested that the post–1967 period was to be characterized by “an increasingly pronounced polarization of forces.” 77 The recent history of Egypt and its relationship with other Arab states provides just one illustration of how accurate his comment was to be.
1979 witnessed another transforming event in the recent history of the Middle East: the ouster of the Shah of Iran and his replacement by a conservative Shi’ite religious leadership headed by Ayatullah Khomeini. It is obviously impossible to explore here all the ramifications of the Iranian revolution, but the impetus that it has given to Shi’ite communities and to the revival of Islam as a potent political force throughout and in Iraq and the Gulf States may serve as examples. The construction for the Lebanese state, drafted in the early 1940s, had been based on a delicate balance between the different communities – Maronite Christian, Orthodox Christian, Sunny Muslim, Shi’ite Muslim, Druse, and others. This balance, insofar that it ever existed in fact, had been completely disrupted by a number of factors: among them, differential birthrates, patterns of emigration, and the influx of Palestinian refugees. Outbreaks of communal strife had occurred previously, but in 1975 a full-scale civil-war erupted. Since the groupings of forces involved not only political but religious affiliations, the conflict was able to transform and renew itself throughout the 1980s, involving differing configurations and alliances both local and international. The emergence of the Shi’ite community in the south of Lebanon, the region that lies directly to the north of Israel, and the vigorous support that the community continues to receive from Iran, have been major factors in the course of recent Lebanese history. Hanan al-Shaykh’s novel, Hikayat Zahrah, 1980 (The Story of Zahra, 1986) is set among the community, both in Beirut and in the south, and it serves as just one of a whole series of works that recount the agony of a society in the process of treating itself apart. And yet, throughout all this, Beirut has managed to remain a major centre for book publication and intellectual life in general. It is such resilience that will be needed in large quantities as the various communities attempt to turn an uneasy peace into a new version of the open and prosperous nation that Lebanon previously presented to the outside world.
The complexities of the Gulf region reside in no small measure in the presence of significance communities of Shi’ite Muslims in Iraq and the areas of Gulf States (including Saudi Arabia) that face the Arabian Gulf. The fact that the majority of the world’s proven oil reserves lie under precisely this particular region has, of course, not been lost on the leaders of the nations of the western world as they have become ever more dependant on such sources of supply. 78 The exact size of these Shi’ite communities constitutes the kind of information that the rulers of the countries concerned prefer not to release; Iraq certainly has a Shi’ite majority. As the proselytizing activities of the Iranian revolution expanded across the Gulf, it was clearly in the interest of Saudi Arabia and the other oil-rich states of the southern Gulf and Iraq engage in a war with Iran that would help to curve the increasing amount of political agitation that was occurring within the Shi’ite communities. The Iran-Iraq war of the 1980 was immensely costly in terms of human lives and military hardware. It was when Kuwait in order to achieve a number of political goals: to fulfill Iraq’s long-standing claim to the territory, to punish Kuwait for its oil-pricing policies, and – a well-tried ploy – to distract attention from his own domestic difficulties. The result of Iraq’s invasion was the Gulf War, involving yet another incursion by western forces into the region, the destruction of most of Iraq’s social infrastructure and the emergence in the aftermath of the conflict of a number of potentially interesting new alignments, not the least of which is the possibility of peace agreements between Israel and its various neighbours.
While these have been some of the most prominent political events in recent decades, the Arab world has also witnessed a series of apparently never-ending conflicts in regions that are less in the limelight of publicity: in the south of the Sudan, an ongoing conflict between the Muslim ruling forces of the northern part of the country and the people of the south; in former Spanish Sahara, a conflict between Polisario forces supposed by Algeria and Moroccan Army: in the state of Libya, a continuing involvement in internal affairs of Chad to the south; and in Iraq (along with Iran and Turkey) the struggle of the Kurdish peoples for independence and a separate homeland.
Conflict, then has been a continuing feature of the recent history of the Middle East region a contemporary reflection perhaps of a reality that has scored this strategically (and now economically) important area for centuries. Conflict is also a major theme of many works of modern Arabic fiction, hardly surprising in view of the events described above on the societies of the nations involved. Alongside of the international, national and communal conflicts involving weapons of destruction, there have also been conflicts of politics and ideology. 79 As noted above, the 1967 defeat led to a complete re-examination of priorities from every point of view. Two terms occur frequently in publications of the 1973: turath (heritage) and asalah (authentically to one’s historical roots). A whole series of distinguished Arab intellectuals devoted themselves to a complete revision of ideas concerning the relationship of the Arab present to the past and the implication for the future. 80 A brief listing of such intellectuals would include Abdallah Laroui (from whom we have already quoted), Sadiq al-Azm, Hasan Hanafi, Muhammed Abid al-Jabiri, Husayn Muruwwah, and Tayyib Tizzini. 81A further significant factor in many Arab societies has been the emergence of the women’s voice, expressing the desire for profound changes in attitude, behaviour and opportunity, and doing so with particular effectiveness in the realm of fiction. 82
While these intellectual currents have formed the backdrop to much debate about principles in the Arab world during the last two decades, it is clearly the revival of Islam as a popular religious phenomenon that continues to be a predominant feature of most of the countries of the region; indeed it would appear that the process is rapidly expanding and intensifying. Adopting to different local situations, the leaders of these movements have been extremely successful in exploiting a number of social factors to their own advantage: most importantly the availability of the Islamic heritage as a newly contemporary way of combating the general intellectual and moral malaise of the community; the diminish role of socialism as a guiding ideology and the resulting secularist tendencies; and resentments over the influence of Western values and the crass consumerism and inflation that they engender. These are, of course, just a few of the many factors governing the emergence of a powerful force in the contemporary Arab world, one that will clearly continue to play a major role in the social and intellectual life of Arab countries.
This brief survey of events and trends in the Middle-East since the Second World War cannot possibly do more than scratch the surface of an enormous topic to which some critics in other disciplines have devoted many times. However, this backdrop, however sketchy, will, I hope, make it possible to turn now to an analysis of the way in which literatures have chosen to create fictional worlds that will comment on and reflect some of these realities and ideas.
The Decades of Realism:
The political events and social transformation that have just been described from the backdrop to fictional writing in the Arab world during the course of the last fifty years. Bearing in mind the push towards independence and, from the 1950s, the development of national and pan Arab identities and social contracts, it is hardly surprising that the majority of novelists chose to engage political and social realities in the most obviously available fictional mode, that of realism. Before we investigate the means by which this large-scale project was implemented and the success of Arab authors in doing so, we should pause briefly to consider two other fictional modes which had previously enjoyed much popularity.