The Image of Arabs in Modern Persian Literature

By Hanaway, William L. | The Middle East Journal, Spring 1998 | Go to article overview

The Image of Arabs in Modern Persian Literature


Hanaway, William L., The Middle East Journal


The Image of Arabs in Modern Persian Literature, by Joya Blondel Saad. Lanham, MD and New York: University Press of America, 1996. ix + 136 pages. Index to p. 139. $39.50 cloth; $28.50 paper.

All peoples have certain stereotyped prejudices about others different from them in language, religion, skin color or in some other way. Persians are no exception. Anyone familiar with premodern Persian literature would be aware of its frequently expressed negative images of nonPersians surrounding the Persian world: Central Asian Turks, Africans (particularly those from Zanzibar), inhabitants of the Indian subcontinent, European peoples, and Jews. Arabs, from the time of Ferdowsi (d. 1020 or 1025), are thought of as uncivilized, barbarous, lizard-eaters, and drinkers of camel's milk. These prejudicial opinions moderated somewhat in the 20th century, are the focus of xenophobic feelings in literature and popular lore, and seem to have coalesced around Arabs, Jews and Turks. Thus the "image" of Arabs in modern Persian literature has ample precedent.

How should one frame a discussion of this "image" in a book that claims to deal with it in a literary and social context? Saad has dug out a considerable number of passages expressing an opinion of Arabs, and the question is: What should one do with the data once it is excavated? One much-discussed framework is that of "identity," national as well as personal. Identity is a complicated question, and there is little agreement on its source, components and limits. Probably the simplest approach to the matter, the one taken by this book, is to define the Self in terms of an Other. In implementing this strategy, Saad provides an introductory chapter which deals with self-definition, literature and Iranian nationalism. Then follow chapters on men's writing (five authors), women's writing (three authors), a chapter on Jalal Al-e Ahmad and a short conclusion. As a popular work on the subject, this book might make the grade, but, as a scholarly contribution to the study of either literature or society, it has severe limitations.

It is easy enough to read through modern fiction and poetry, record derogatory references to Arabs, attribute them to "racism," and assume that you have done justice to the subject. Surely, though, the implied audience for this book would expect a more sophisticated treatment of both the literary and the social problems involved. More extensive background research, for example, could have added depth and subtlety to the conceptualization of the problem and the use made of the evidence. The work claims to be a literary study, but one misses any reference to works on racism in fiction, or in literature in general. …

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