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Mideast: Modern Arab Literature Blooms In Adversity

  • Breffni O'Rourke

Prague, 1 October 1998 (RFE/RL) -- Birth and death. Between these two constants lies a span of life, in which order and chaos are inextricably interwoven. It has always been the role of the artist to interpret this contradiction, and to express mankind's yearning for a world where harmony overcomes discord.

Across the Arab world today, writers imbued with this spirit are laying bare issues in societies where the individual and his or her aspirations are often caught between inflexible governments, religious extremism and archaic traditions.

Through the first half of this century Cairo, that most cosmopolitan of Mideast cities, was the center of Arab literary endeavor and debate. A secondary focus was the Levant, including Lebanon and Syria. And although Cairo and Beirut still provide a broad creative impulse, there has been a blossoming of literature across the Arab world since the 1970s -- through Saudi Arabia, Bahrain, Yemen, Kuwait, and in North Africa, including Libya.

Writers like the Libyan Tuareg Ibrahim Al Kuni, whose prose is reminiscent of the magical realism of the modern Latin American authors, but which is saturated with the flavor of the desert. Or Saudi Arabia's Abdulrahman Munif, whose quintet of novels under the title "Cities of Salt" details the modern history of his country.

Why has this blossoming occurred in the last 25 years? Sabry Hafez, professor of modern Arab literature at the University of London, links it in part to the emergence of a wider reading public, as a result of education policies. He believes that the existence of readers paradoxically has led to the emergence of writers. And as modern standard Arabic is understood everywhere among Arabs, the new authors have access to people far beyond their own borders.

Hafez says the new writers share a recognition of their opportunities, and see themselves as having a responsibility to articulate the grievances of their people:

"They have a sense of role, of mission and this charges their literature with many interesting, almost combative ideas".

This in turn, brings them into conflict with political establishments. Some of them have endured prison terms, others have fallen from favor, many more have gone into exile outside their own countries, including both Al Kuni and Munif, and scores of Iraqi writers. Hafez says:

"They suffer, and they get exiled, and this perpetuates the conflict between the writer who has a dream for his nation, a dream of progress, of freedom, of justice, and the powers of darkness who are trying to perpetuate the status quo, or are trying to take the country back to the Middle Ages".

The modern movement is also giving voice to the previously mute -- such as women and those minorities whose tale was not heard before. Here the Lebanese woman novelist Huda Barakat springs to mind, as well as Kurdish, Coptic, Shi'ia and Tuareg writers.

Most of the writers share a common world view, a dark, but not entirely hopeless vision. Hafez again:

"A view of a frustrated individual whose ability to see far exceeds his ability to act, and therefore he can foresee things, but because of the despotic conditions in which he or she lives, is unable to fulfill his vision. Therefore it has this tragic sense which prevails in the literature as a result".

The currents of Islamic fundamentalism swirling through the Arab world at present have not had a major impact on the literature being produced. Despite moves in some quarters to encourage fundamentalist writers, none has achieved literary eminence.

Hafez says the legion of young writers determined to present their views of life as a rational order provides a source of hope that their desires will eventually be fulfilled.

As to the rest of the world, Arab writing has become more accessible to international readers since Egyptian Naguib Mafouz won the Nobel Literature Prize in 1988. That stimulated the translation of much modern Arab literature into foreign languages, particularly French and English.