Historian Marie Grace Brown speaks to Leila Abouleila about her new novel, River Spirit.
With the increasing presence of sub-Saharan African migrants in North Africa over the past decade, public discussions of race and prejudice are losing their taboo. Moroccan writers are encouraging a broader awareness of structural racism by including more Black characters in their novels and by depicting them as complex individuals struggling against inequality.
With the increasing presence of sub-Saharan African migrants in North Africa over the past decade, public discussions of race and prejudice are losing their taboo. Moroccan writers are encouraging a broader awareness of structural racism by including more Black characters in their novels and by depicting them as complex individuals struggling against inequality. This article is from the forthcoming MER issue 298 “Maghreb From the Margins.”
A close reading of a literary journal’s table of contents in colonized Palestine reveals a vibrant culture of resistance and renewal in the midst of destruction and dispossession.
For the past 25 years, every evening around sunset, an elderly man could be seen gingerly crossing the Boulevard Pasteur, Tangier’s busy main thoroughfare. Shuffling toward the Grand Poste, he would walk slowly down the pavement to Café Maravillosa. Regulars would stand up to shake his hand. “Marhba, Si Juan.” Waiters would greet him, “Ja’izat Nobel dyalna, our own Nobel laureate,” and set him up at a table with a pot of green tea. For the next two hours, a steady rotation of old acquaintances, students and tourists would stop by to chat or take a photo. Before his death on June 4, 2017, Juan Goytisolo, the acclaimed Spanish novelist, was the last of his breed, the lone survivor of the American and European writers who settled in Tangier in the post-war years, constructing the myth of the northern Moroccan port as a literary and epicurean capital.
In the 1950s, the People’s Republic of China began to host a small community of Arab scholars and journalists, recruited mostly through “revolutionary” channels like the FLN, the PLO, and the Iraqi and Sudanese Communist Parties. These experts were brought to China with the explicit purpose of editing and translating texts, as well as providing Arabic-language instruction at Chinese media, propaganda and educational institutions. This select group included a number of writers and intellectuals, such as Kadhim al-Samawi, Hanna Mina, Sheikh Jalal al-Hanafi and Hadi al-‘Alawi, the last of whom left the deepest mark on twentieth-century Arab intellectual life.
East Asia’s relationship with the Middle East today is based mainly on economics and is devoid of grand political projects of solidarity and intellectual dialogue. Countries such as China, Japan and Korea present the Middle East with a model of neoliberal economic development. At the same time, the redemptive transformation of East Asia from a Western-dominated region to a globally powerful one offers a trajectory of development diverging from the Middle East, which struggles with political turbulence, regime crises and regional wars both cold and hot.
For those fortunate enough to find a bit of time to read books not directly related to work over spring break or the summer, MERIP solicited recommendations from editors and contributors. Reading is often part of daily professional work, even a form of drudgery. Instead, we asked for titles that would be enjoyable as well as edifying, so the responses tend toward fiction or works with strong narrative voices.
Sinan Antoon, Ya Maryam (Beirut/Baghdad: Dar al-Jamal, 2012).
The Arab uprisings have brought major challenges, as well as unprecedented opportunities, to the culture industries. According to a flurry of celebratory news articles from the spring of 2011 onward, protest art is proliferating in the region, from graffiti in Egypt to hip-hop in Morocco to massive photographic displays and political cartoons gone viral in Tunisia. These articles then adopt a predictably ominous tone to express the concern that resurgent Islamist forces represent a danger to arts and culture writ large.
On January 7, under a clear chill sky, the monthly culture festival al-Fann Midan (Art Is a Square) took place in Cairo’s ‘Abdin plaza. In the sunny esplanade facing the shuttered former royal palace, spectators cheered a succession of musical acts, took in a display of cartoons and caricatures, and wandered from tables selling homemade jewelry to others handing out the literature of the Revolutionary Socialists or the centrist Islamist party al-Wasat. The drama troupe Masrah al-Maqhurin (Theater of the Oppressed) put on a series of skits requiring audience participation. In the first, a daughter left the family house against her father’s will, and with her mother’s connivance, to attend a birthday party. She was caught and reported by her brother, and then beaten by her father. In the participatory iterations that followed, a young woman from the audience chose to play the brother and, to much laughter, told the sister: “I won’t tell Dad I saw you in the street if you don’t tell him I was at the café.” Another audience member played the mother, working arduously but in vain to convince the father to allow the girl out of the house under her brother’s supervision. Interestingly, no one in the audience chose to incarnate — and change the behavior of — the authoritarian and violent father.
In August 2006, a 27-year old pharmacist started blogging anonymously about her futile hunt for a husband in Mahalla al-Kubra, an industrial city 60 miles north of Cairo in the Nile Delta. Steeped in satirical humor, the blog of this “wannabe bride” turned into a powerful critique of everything that is wrong with how middle-class Egyptians meet and marry. The author poked fun at every aspect of arranged marriage — from the split-second decisions couples are expected to make after hour-long meetings about their lifetime compatibility to the meddling relatives and nosy neighbors who introduce them to each other. She joked about her desperation to marry in a society that stigmatizes single women over the age of 30. She ridiculed bachelors for their unrealistic expectations and inflated self-images while sympathizing with the exorbitant financial demands placed on would-be husbands. Thirty suitors and four years later, the pharmacist remains proudly single at 32, refusing to settle for just any man.
Yaron Peleg, Israeli Culture Between the Two Intifadas: A Brief Romance (Austin, TX: University of Texas Press, 2008).
“We are so racially profiled now, as a group,” the Arab-American comedian Dean Obeidallah says in his routine, “that I heard a correspondent on CNN not too long ago say the expression, ‘Arabs are the new blacks.’ That Arabs are the new blacks.” Obeidallah continues:
Air-conditioned transportation in Tehran is notoriously difficult to find. For pampered visitors such as the cultural anthropologists and documentary filmmakers from New York and Los Angeles who seem to converge on the Iranian capital every summer, a cool taxi ride to the northern parts of town recalls something of the charmed life they left behind in the United States, a life some refer to offhandedly as “the grid.”
Rosemary O’Brien, ed. Gertrude Bell: The Arabian Diaries, 1913-1914 (Syracuse, NY: Syracuse University Press, 2000).
Nuha al-Radi, Baghdad Diaries (London: Saqi Books, 1998).
Paul Rich, ed. Arab War Lords and Iraqi Star Gazers: Gertrude Bell’s The Arab of Mesopotamia (Lincoln, NE: Authors Choice Press, 2001).
What impresses one is the will to ignore and reduce the Arabs that still exists in many departments of Western culture, and the unacceptable defeatism among some Arabs that a resurgent religion and indiscriminate hostility are the only answers.
— Edward Said (1990)