The idea that Arabic language and literature embody and express a violence of sorts is not new. It goes back to Hollywood in the last century when screen villains in turbans were shown snarling at their victims with sadistic relish. This raises the vexed question as to whether speaking or writing Arabic is controversial today, especially in the US. The prejudice, if it exists, is based mostly on ideological reasons, which have nothing to do with the way the language is lived, used, and experienced in the world, but are fixated instead on terrorism to the exclusion of everything else. Moreover, to the Western student, Arabic may suggest an idea of almost mathematical abstraction, but in the Arab world, all is clarity, logic, and eloquence. In fact, Arabic is a living presence for it is the language of Al-Qur’an and therefore the origin and model of literary expression. Properly used, it is unmatched for precision. The language is also beautiful to contemplate when written, hence the enduring centrality of calligraphy in Arabic, an art of the highest complexity, ever closer to ornament and arabesque than to locution and discussion.
In the course of this monumental effort to grasp the situation and despite the many obstacles it faces–misrepresentation, censorship, lack of translation, exile, typecasting–Arabic literature has never been more vital. As “Humanities: What Humanities. . .” will show, the challenges of writing in Arabic today are daunting, to say the least. During the last quarter of a century–between the annexation of Lebanon by Israel in 1981 and the invasion of Iraq by the US in 2003–a single explosive development in Arabic literature made the experience of being Arab-in-the-West a metaphor that attracted major talents, changed the language, and galvanized imaginative writing throughout an Arab world badly in need of change. Suddenly, Arab writing became an indicator of a cultural shift; a shift that ushered in a final phase of reclaiming a voice previously unavailable to its practitioners (very much like the shift that has occurred over the past few decades for blacks, women, gays, and lesbians). This shift was welcomed with a violent rush of words that announced the arrival of a narrating voice whose signature traits have been a compulsive brilliance, an exuberant nastiness, and a take-no-prisoners humor edged in self-laceration. These traits never deserted the work of those years; rather, they were integral to the entire undertaking. The rupture can be located in the writings of Rabih Alameddine, Patricia Sarrafian Ward, Elias Khoury, Ghada Samman, Mai Ghoussoub, Hanan al-Shaykh, Hoda Barakat, Etel Adnan, Nada Awar Jarrar, Jad El-Hage, among others.
That we are allowed a limited access to the encounter between Arabic literature and its reception in the West is true. It is also true that writing in Arabic has become freighted with meaning, particularly in texts about peoples whose identity the texts repeatedly characterize as bound up with their supposed lack of even the most rudimentary rights. My intention (and method) is to strip away and look behind the stereotype in order to discover the naked truth about a language and/or literature that continues to be embargoed. The problem is not that there is no truth or that we are forever doomed to ignorance but that misrepresentation actually does much of the crucially important work of typecasting. It is in this sense that the following set of questions is well-nigh: How can we represent another culture, say, Arabic, without disfiguring it? Is at all possible to engage in encounters between “us” and “them” without falling prey to misunderstandings? Can the stereotype rest or will it always be impelled to further action? “Humanities. . .” will attempt an answer.
|Keywords:||Humanities, Arabic Culture and/or Literature, Embargo|
Professor & Rogers Fellow, Department of English, University of Nevada, Las Vegas, Las Vegas, Nevada, USA
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