Mary Layoun, Travels of a Genre: The Modern Novel and Ideology (Princeton, 1990).
Issa Boullata, Trends and Issues in Contemporary Arab Thought (SUNY, 1990).
Since the first European armies and colonial administrators arrived in Africa and Asia, debates have raged in the once colonized parts of the world between advocates of “traditionalism” and those of “modernity.” In the Arab world, this debate has formed a major part of the backdrop for cultural production since the French invasion of Egypt in 1798. Its far-ranging scope demonstrates the cultural nature of all social activity. Positions in this cultural debate are necessarily ideological positions, bound up with the systems of politics and economics that have operated in the Arab world for more than a century.
The debate has been played out among multiple and varied lines of confrontation, rather than along a single rigid axis, and it has helped to shape the whole process of modernization in the Arab world. It has led to a series of inescapable dilemmas, and to what Abdallah Laroui has characterized as the double alienation of contemporary Arab intellectuals both from classical Arab culture and from the modern culture of Europe and the West. When the debate was resumed with great energy in the 1960s, many of the previous assumptions and rigid binarisms of the nahda (the Arab cultural renaissance of the nineteenth century) came under close scrutiny, not only by Arab critics and social theorists, but also by novelists and poets such as al-Tayyib Salih, Ghassan Kanafani, Adonis and Naguib Mahfouz.
Unfortunately, very little of this energy has filtered into discussions in the United States of Arab literature and culture, when they are discussed at all. The recent appearance of Issa Boullata’s Trends and Issues in Contemporary Arab Thought, and Mary Layoun’s Travels of a Genre: The Modern Novel and Ideology, is therefore a welcome event.
Boullata’s work is a broad overview of some recent issues in Arab social theory. Since it addresses a topic that has received so little attention here, it is necessarily limited by its own ambition, which is to throw open a whole field for future discussion and criticism. It not only covers recent versions of the debate between “modernity” and “traditionalism,” but also sketches out some of the positions in wider discussions of culture and society, with chapters addressing the modern representation of the classical cultural and religious heritage, various Arab economic theories of dependency and an important chapter on recent developments in Arab feminism. But because so many of the cultural themes that Boullata discusses play such an enormous role in modern Arabic literature, his book’s chief shortcoming is that (except in part of the chapter on women) it contains almost no discussion of the great variety of literary production in the Arab world. Considering the scope of his project, this may have been unavoidable. More significant is the lack of synthesis in his approach to the topics under discussion, which are laid out one after the other, topic by topic and author by author, with a few words of criticism after each section. Although Boullata covers other people’s criticisms of the simplistic assumptions which were so prevalent in the nahda, he often has recourse to the very same assumptions himself. When, for instance, he proposes the consideration of “the fact of intellectual backwardness in the Arab world and its strong relation to other kinds of historically caused societal backwardness,” we are nowhere led to believe that this assumption of “backwardness” is itself an important part of the topic under discussion and should be questioned. Boullata also relies at times on such ambiguous categories as “the Arab mind,” “the Arab man,” “the Arab woman” and “the Arab personality.”
Mary Layoun, by contrast, is thoroughly self-reflexive about her own work in Travels of a Genre. Part of her book’s strength lies in the fact that it simultaneously addresses issues in three literary traditions (Greek, Japanese and Arabic), and their interplay with modern Western European colonialism. Her discussion of two Arab authors (the Egyptian Yahya Haqqi and the Palestinian Ghassan Kanafani) is therefore placed not only in the context of Arab culture, but also in the global context of imperialism. Layoun forcefully argues that a literary genre is a site of struggle and conflict, and in examining the implantation of the modern European novel in the Greek, Japanese and Arabic traditions, she explores the narrative genres that preceded the arrival of the novel. She argues that these, since they form the ground for resistance encountered by the novel, endure today in the tropes which now characterize a modern Greek, Japanese or Arabic novel, so that the novel can be seen as yet another “advanced technology” which has been modified through its application outside Western Europe and the United States.
Travels of a Genre thus points to the novel as a key site in the conflict between “tradition” and “modernity” in Arabic culture. Through her examination of individual novels, Layoun examines larger social and cultural issues. In the chapter on Haqqi’s Qindil Umm Hashim (Umm Hashim’s Lamp), for instance, she discusses the social spectrum in Egypt through the prism formed by Haqqi’s novella. Similarly, for Layoun, Kanafani’s Rijal fi al-Shams (Men in the Sun) offers a crystallization of major movements and positions in contemporary Arab (and particularly Palestinian) culture and society.
Travels of a Genre therefore maps out some of the contested terrain of post-colonial cultural production in the Arab world (as well as in Greece and Japan — with their very different experiences of European imperialism). In the process it explores some of the ideological positions and pitfalls which mark this terrain. In particular, it exposes the ideological role of the great debate between “modernity” and “traditionalism” and its false oppositions between the “old” and “new” ways of life, “native” and “Western” cultures and values, “backward” and “advanced” societies, and even “the East” and “the West.” The great importance of a writer like Kanafani (and many others whose work Layoun does not mention) is that he is able to break down these old and worn-out oppositions, which for too long have blocked the development of new ways of seeing the post-colonial world.