Panel 7E

Transformation and Movement in the Literature of the Middle East

9.00 – 11.00
Chair: Paul Starkey, Durham University

The Shidyaqs: A Dysfunctional Maronite Family in Ninteenth Century Lebanon

Paul Starkey, Durham University (Emeritus Professor)

A notable feature of the Arab[ic] nahda [literary and cultural revival] as it manifested itself in nineteenth-century Lebanon was its concentration in a number of prominent Maronite families —the Bustanis, the Yazijis, etc. In a number of instances (most obviously, perhaps, the Bustanis), several members of a single family made significant, but separate, contributions to the cultural life of the region. In this respect, as in others, the course of the Lebanese nahda forms a contrast with that of the nahda’s other main centre, Egypt. This paper will explore the particularly interesting case of the Shidyaq family, three members of which — Faris [later Ahmad Faris], As‘ad, and Tannous — played a part in the intellectual life of the period, but whose lives and careers have tended to be discussed in isolation from each other: Faris as (among other things) a lexicographer and pioneer of the modern Arabic novel; As‘ad as a religious martyr, whose life was cut short with his untimely death; and Tannous as a relatively conventional historian of the prominent families of the region. The paper will argue that by reading the relevant sources relating to the various family members in juxtaposition with each other and with their own writings, it is possible to build up a picture of a complex set of family relationships that are not only fascinating in their own right, but also throw light on the wider social, religious and cultural tensions evident in the Lebanese nahda.

The Flux of a Mystical-Surrealist Trend through the Middle East and North Africa

Arturo Monaco, Sapienza, University of Rome

At the end of the 1930s, the French born surrealism crossed the Mediterranean Sea and was introduced in Egypt. In the next decades, surrealist springs appeared spontaneously in Lebanon, Syria and, later, Iraq. Not even North Africa was immune to the impact of surrealism. In each place intellectuals, poets and artists were to spread its principles. Throughout this journey in the region, surrealism has never remained isolated and completely anchored to its origins, but it has been transformed by the interaction with the local forms of literary, cultural and even religious expression. One of these forms is sufism and it is surprising that its interaction with surrealism took place even in contexts that were not related to each other.  This contribution is the first step towards a deeper understanding of this interaction. Early in the history of Western surrealism, a number of critics detached its connection with mysticism. This paper aims to be an introduction to the critical writings around the same phenomenon with reference to the Middle East and North Africa. The first evidences of an interest for the relationship between sufism and surrealism are in the magazine “Ši‘r”, specifically in ‘Isam Mahfuz’s and Rose Gurayyib’s contributions in the early 1960s. In the following years, other critics suggested the interconnection of the two trends, such as Ihsan ‘Abbas, Muhammad Gamal Barut, and chiefly Adunis, with his famous essay al-Sufiyyah wa’l-suryaiyyah, and Hédi Abdel-Jouad, who introduced the concept of soufialism with respect to the Algerian Habib Tengour.

Download Paper (Monaco)

Religious Intertextuality and Spiritual Journeys in Two Works by Abd al-Hakim Qasim

Christina Phillips, University of Exeter

This paper explores the conference’s theme of movement and migration in conjunction with religious intertextuality in two works by ‘Abd al-Hakim Qasim. The first, Al-Mahdi (1984), demonstrates the vulnerability of the migrant when its protagonist becomes a target of religious fundamentalism and spurious hospitality in his new home. I explore the negative effects of migration as presented in the text alongside its reimagining of Christ’s crucifixion as a comment on contemporary religious violence and the practice of scapegoating. I also draw on René Girard’s theory of mimetic rivalry leading to communal self-purification through sacrifice to elaborate on religious conflict in the story. The second text, Turaf min habar al-akhira (1981), portrays a journey into the afterlife as a means of social and religious critique. I explore the intertextual dialogue conducted with Islamic eschatology and Muslim oneiric tradition in the text, and reflect on how the author uses movement in literary time and space in this work and others to open up intellectual and critical possibilities.

Tracing the Movement of Blood Vengeance Poetry, from the Classical Arabic Poetic Tradition to the Present

Dena Fakhro, SOAS

Blood vengeance is a popular literary theme in classical Arabic poetry, particularly in elegies which lament a fallen hero, and in the poetic cycles of folkloric epics.  The poetic model for blood vengeance was established at least 1,500 years ago, and persists to the present day.  I argue that the blood vengeance ritual process is three-fold.  Firstly, this consists of poetic incitement to violence in retaliation for wounded tribal honour.  Secondly, a physical act of active blood-letting follows.  Thirdly, violence leads to rituals of triumph or defeat, which restore a sense of tribal identity.  I wish to focus upon the role that language plays in blood vengeance rituals and specifically, how the poetic speech act shapes memory and conditions behaviour.  More recently, modern jihadist movements provide a political backdrop for newer poems from across the Arab world, which contain the old blood vengeance message.  It is the purpose of this research to trace the migration of this message across time and space, through examination of a cross-section of Arabic poetry.  I do not suggest that violence is exclusive to the Arab world but rather, that vengeance is a recurrent literary theme, which may influence patterns of behaviour.  Poetry belongs to a series of rituals such that, a hymn of incitement to violence provides an imperative for a bloody act.  Furthermore, these rituals are legitimized by ancient myths which, not only ennoble blood lust but, are also perpetuated by their repetitions or reinterpreted over time.