Arabic Canadian Literature: Overview and Preliminary Bibliography

By Dahab, F. Elizabeth | Canadian Ethnic Studies Journal, Summer 1999 | Go to article overview

Arabic Canadian Literature: Overview and Preliminary Bibliography


Dahab, F. Elizabeth, Canadian Ethnic Studies Journal


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Arabic-Canadian Writing originated in the early 1970s. First Generation Canadians of Arabic descent produced over 150 books and many more pieces in the form of contributions to literary magazines. This literary tradition covers writing styles ranging from the realist to the post-modernist. It is produced in French, English and Arabic, thereby fulfilling twice over the definition given by Deleuze and Guattari to minor literatures. (1) It bears the indelible mark of exile and can presently join ranks with "other solitudes" Canada has come to acknowledge, admit and embrace.

Arabic-Quebecois/Canadian Writing has so far failed to attract much academic interest. For instance, the 1988 "Literatures of Lesser Diffusion" conference, held at the University of Alberta, and the resultant proceedings of that conference which featured more than two dozen articles on the writings of various cultural minority groups, did not include anything on the topic except for a paper on Naim Kattan (see Rahimieli). To my knowledge, the paper I presented at the XIVth Congress of the International Comparative Literature Association (Edmonton, 1994) may have constituted the first time it was dealt with at a professional meeting. It is equally absent from the important collection entitled Other Solitudes (1990) published with the support of government agencies, notably the Department of The Secretary of State, and grouping literary extracts and interviews from eighteen representatives of Cultural Communities. Even the excellent book by Baha Abu-Laban, entitled An Olive Branch on the Family Tree; The Arabs in Canada (1980), though containing a wealth of information, does not deal with the literature of Canadians of Arabic origins. Moreover, a monograph on Arabic-Canadian writing has not yet made an appearance amongst the books commissioned in the 1980s by the Canadian Government on literatures of national minorities, including Hungarian (1987), Australian (1992), Asian (1988), Urdu (1988), Hispanic (1988), and Italian (1988), to mention but a handful. (2)

Given the above-mentioned facts, the aim of the present study is to illustrate some of the basic aspects of this literature, leaving it to further research I am undertaking to deal with the topic in more depth. To embark at this point on a complex analysis of the formal and artistic characteristics of Arabic-Canadian literature when some fundamental modalities of its existence remain largely unknown by scholars and the public would be premature. My purpose here is the preliminary archaeological work of finding and identifying; of classifying, surveying and accounting for a growing body of literary texts which fall under the rubric "Arabic-Canadian"; of addressing questions about the writers who produced these texts. My approach is a-normative: that of the researcher as opposed to the literary critic (Lambert, 1980:66). My standpoint is also influenced by Siegfried Schmidt's empirical view of literature and his formulation of the principles underlying the development of social systems. I am here mainly address ing components pertaining to two of the four major categories of literary institutions, namely production and reception.

There are about thirty-five Arabic-Canadian writers, of whom twenty-three have produced major works (one book or more). The rest are published in reviews and magazines. I suspect there are more yet to be discovered. Almost half (11) (3) of the major writers are Egyptian, the others come from Lebanon, Iraq, Algeria, Syria and Tunisia. They settled mostly in Quebec and Ontario, in that order. They are often trilingual. In addition to Arabic, the languages mastered amongst them are French, English, German, Armenian, Hebrew, and Italian. They have various religious backgrounds: Coptic-Orthodox, Catholic, Protestant, Muslim and Jewish. Many have multiple ethnic origins, some very distant, others more immediate. The Egyptian-Quebecois writer Anne-Marie Alonzo has distant Maltese, Palestinian and Syrian origins, and the Egyptian Antoine Naaman was of Syrio-Lebanese descent.

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