Tradition and experiment in Arabic letters

Tradition and experiment in Arabic letters

Abdellatif Laabi

Tradition and experiment in Arabic letters

THE world audience reached by Arab literature has not always been commensurate with the importance and originality of an ancient literary tradition that is still very much alive.

This literature is still widely regarded as a domain for scholars and those who are, for a variety of reasons, “lovers’ of the Arab world. In other words, although it is acknowledged to have a prestigious past, it is not so often recognized as forming part of the contemporary literary scene.

The Unesco Programme for the Translation of Literary Works can make a big contribution to re-establishing the dialogue. Making national literatures known in major world languages is perhaps one of the soundest ways of building bridges between different cultural regions and communicating specific visions of the world to humanity as a whole.

In quantitative terms at least, Unesco’s achievements with regard to Arab thought and literature are somewhat modest. Some forty works have been translated from Arabic into English, French, German and Spanish, since the programme was launched in the early 1950s.

But this effort has been concentrated on the great masterpieces of Arab literature, and it has speeded up considerably since the late 1970s.

Although initially priority was given to the classical heritage and to its undisputed masterpieces, modern and even avant-garde literature has since been included. Thus the catalogue of the Unesco Collection of Representative Works enables the interested reader to travel widely in the realms of Arab literature.

First, a tour in the strict geographical sense, with the “Travels of Ibn Batutah'(1) and “The Configuration of the Earth’ by Ibn Hauqal(2). These travellers’ accounts are far from being of merely technical interest. In the Arab tradition, they are part of a special literary genre, the Rihla (itinerary or journey) in which the explorer also displays his literary, historical and philosophical culture.

Next, a historical tour with Ibn Khaldun’s Muqaddimah (“Discourse on the History of the Universe’)(3). This is an essential work whose contribution to contemporary historical and sociological thought on both sides of the Mediterranean has not yet been exhausted. Thanks to the Muqadimmah, a work of universal scope, a breakthrough was made in the Arab and Maghreb context in reinterpreting history with the aid of an appropriate methodology.

A tour in the realm of pure thought with the philosophical works of Al Farabi(4), Ibn Rushd (Averroes)(5), Ibn Sina (Avicenna)(6) and Al-Ghazali(7)–thinkers nourished on Greek philosophy, synthesists who transformed the socalled age of the “Arab miracle’ into an era of light which continued to shine until the time of the Western Renaissance.

And finally, in the strictly literary field, in the works of the classical period, the most outstanding of which is undoubtedly “The Book of Misers’ by Al Gahiz(8). The Arab La Bruyere, although even more witty, this man of encyclopaedic culture died under an avalanche of the books that packed his library. It was through Al Gahiz that Arab prose received its letters of nobility–no mean achievement in view of the prestige and supremacy of poetry in Arab literature, from its origins until our own day. The Maqamat (“Assemblies’) of Al-Hariri(9), which have been translated into German, played a comparable role. They include elements of the novel form which were highly appreciated during the classical period but which are not exploited to any great extent by contemporary Arab writers.

But however great its prestige, this classical literature should not eclipse twentieth-century Arab literature. New literary genres have been developed, especially in the novel, but poetry has also evolved, gradually breaking away from the constraints imposed by the rigid forms of the qacida (poem).

It is perhaps in the Arab novel, which is no more than fifty years old, that the signs of change are most evident. For the Arab writer, the novel is still an unexplored continent and one would like to see Unesco extend its efforts beyond the translation of a handful of works by Tawfiq al Hakim(10), Yusuf Idris(11) and Taha Hussein(12). The works of such writers as Najib Mahfuz and Tayeb Salih fully deserve to be as well known as those, for example, of the great Latin American novelists.

There is a similar gap where pre-Islamic and classical Arabic poetry is concerned. But the special attention given to modern poetry, with translations of the works of Adonis(13), Badr Shaker As-Sayyab(14) and Mahmud Darwish(15), is a cause for satisfaction. These count amongst the founders of a school of Arabic poetry that is rooted in the heritage but is also open to contemporary poetical experiment.

Photo: Ibn Khaldun, born in Tunis in 1332, spent much of his life in north Africa and Andalusia, and died in Cairo in 1406. His major work, a universal history of the Arabs, the Persians and the Berbers, is preceded by the Muqaddimah (an introduction to history), a French translation of which was published in the Collection in 1967 under the title Discours sur I’Histoire Universelle. Above, page of a velum manuscript dating from 1733 of the Muqaddimah, in which Ibn Khaldun sets forth a theory on the evolution of human societies which was far ahead of his time. A philosopher of history, Ibn Khaldun was also a a precursor of modern sociology.

Photo: The maqama (“assembly’) was a literary genre favoured by the high society of Baghdad in the 10th century. Its form is that of a sketch in rhyming prose in which modes of behaviour are caricatured in racy, eloquently told anecdotes. Al-Hariri (1054-1122), the master of the genre, wrote fifty outstanding maqamat in which he described the adventures of a vagabond, Abu Zayd. These stories have been published in the Unesco Collection in German under the title Die Verwandlungen des Abu Seid von Serug (1966). Right, a Persian caravanserai depicted in an illustration from a manuscript of the maqamat in the Bibliotheque Nationale, Paris.

Photo: Al-Ghazali (1058-1111) was one of the greatest philosophers of Islam. Convinced that it was impossible to achieve certainty by reason alone, he wrote a celebrated treatise, Tahafut al-falasifa (The Incoherence of the Philosophers), to refute the certainties of the philosophers of his time. His work was in its turn attacked by Ibn Rushd (Averroes) in his Tahafut al-tahafut (The Incoherence of the Incoherence), which has been translated into English in the Unesco Collection (1954). Several of Al-Ghazali’s works have been published in the Collection in English, French and Spanish, including the mystical autobiography he wrote shortly before his death, Erreur et Delivrance (“Error and Deliverance’) published in French in 1959. Above, the first page of a 13th-century Persian manuscript of a work by Al-Ghazali, “The Way to Happiness’, which illustrated a poster designed by Ali Sarmadi for a Round Table devoted to Al-Ghazali held under Unesco auspices in Paris on 9 and 10 December 1985.

Photo: Taha Hussein (1889-1973) was one of the leading figures of the modern movement in Egyptian literature. The author of poems, short stories and many essays on political and social themes, he wrote an autobiography Al-Ayyam (Eng. trans., part i, An Egyptian Childhood, 1932, and part ii, The Stream of Days, 1943) which was the first contemporary Arabic literary work to win acclaim in the West. Throughout his life he sought to reconcile the exigencies of classical Arabic literature and Western cultural values. Extracts from his writings have been published in the Unesco Collection in French under the title Au-dela du Nil (1977, “Beyond the Nile’). Above, photo portrait of Taha Hussein appeared on the cover of Mudhakkirat, a volume of memoirs he published in 1967.


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