The Contemporary Arabic Novel as Social History: Urban Decadence, Politics and Women in Naguib Mahfouz's Fiction

By Kehinde, Ayo | Studies in the Humanities, June-December 2003 | Go to article overview

The Contemporary Arabic Novel as Social History: Urban Decadence, Politics and Women in Naguib Mahfouz's Fiction


Kehinde, Ayo, Studies in the Humanities


The Arabic novel, like any other regional version, is a product of the unfolding socio-political events in its enabling society. It has continued to undergo different stages of metamorphosis depending, of course, on the generation of writers and the prevailing circumstances but with defining recurring motifs whose permanent imprint remains largely in the consciousness of the writers. Arabic fiction has always been largely located in the domain of social realism as a counter discourse. It may not be an exaggeration, therefore, to claim that all works of art signify the relationship between the individual and his/her society. If this is a legitimate assertion by contemporary literary critics, then the contemporary Arabic novel deserves the right of inclusion. The re-evaluation of Arabic fiction is accountable by the fact that the distinction between history and fiction has become in contemporary period as "blurring as it was in the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries" (Maciulewicz 387). Historians, literary critics and novelists alike draw attention to parallels between literature and sociohistorical issues. Hayden White argues that:

   literary discourse may differ from historical discourse by
   virtue of primary referents, conceived as imaginary rather
   than real events, but the two kinds of discourse are more
   similar than different since both operate language in such
   a way that any distinction between their discursive form and
   their interpretative content remains impossible. (6)

The foregoing view is very relevant to contemporary Arabic fiction, which constantly signifies societal problems like disillusionment, alienation, dissociation and frustration. As a predominantly realist art, the contemporary Arabic fiction emphasizes the mimetic and didactic, and it is therefore socially and politically oriented. Dissonance, injustice, inequality and dehumanization by the industrial and capitalist system on the one hand and neocolonialism, poverty, sexism, political intolerance and corruption on the other, form the subject matter of the novel. This claim corroborates that of Huma Ibrahim who opines that the contemporary postcolonial novel reflects the socio-political realities of the modern era in which the sole objects of criticism ate the indigenous technocrats, cadres and government officials who exploit the masses they had promised to uplift (85).

Indeed, the creative artist plays a prominent role in society, and that his art is to a large extent functional has been the postcolonial concept of art. Except for some forms of formalism and structuralism, which try to prove that literature has an autonomous existence independent of historical and social realities, it is widely accepted by critics that each work of art finds inspiration in the socio-political realities in which the author finds himself (Bamikunle 73). Even, separation of the literary and the historical is now being challenged in postmodern theory and art; the focus is now more on what the two modes of writing have in common than how they differ (Hutcheon 107).

Based on the foregoing theoretical framework and background, the aim of this paper is to investigate the phenomena of urban decadence, politics and women in three representative novels of one of Arab/world novelists, the Nobel Laureate, Naguib Mahfouz. The selected novels are Midaq Alley, Children of Gebelawi and Miramar. This is not a random selection of texts, but it is informed by an attempt to give the article a focus; they are considered to be good samples of his novels of direct social and political commentary. The selected novels are socially realistic in the mode of Balzac, Galsworthy and Zola. Any exegesis of the issues involved in this discussion must perforce be from the sociological standpoint. This explains the choice of this approach in the analysis of the texts. The contemporary Arabic novel, like other postcolonial novels, can be described as a historiographic metafiction, a contemporary variety of the historical novel. …

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