Fictitious Capital: Silk, Cotton, and the Rise of the Arabic Novel

Fictitious Capital: Silk, Cotton, and the Rise of the Arabic Novel

Fictitious Capital: Silk, Cotton, and the Rise of the Arabic Novel

Fictitious Capital: Silk, Cotton, and the Rise of the Arabic Novel

Synopsis

The ups and downs of silk, cotton, and stocks syncopated with serialized novels in the late-nineteenth-century Arabic press: Time itself was changing. Novels of debt, dissimulation, and risk begin to appear in Arabic at a moment when France and Britain were unseating the Ottoman legacy in Beirut, Cairo, and beyond. Amid booms and crashes, serialized Arabic fiction and finance at once tell the other's story.

While scholars of Arabic often write of a Nahdah, a sense of renaissance, Fictitious Capital argues instead that we read the trope of Nahdah as Walter Benjamin might have, as "one of the monuments of the bourgeoisie that [are] already in ruins." Financial speculation engendered an anxious mixture of hope and fear formally expressed in the mingling of financial news and serialized novels in such Arabic journals as Al-Jinān, Al-Muqtataf, and Al-Hilāl. Holt recasts the historiography of the Nahdah, showing its sense of rise and renaissance to be a utopian, imperially mediated narrative of capital that encrypted its inevitable counterpart, capital flight.

Excerpt

This is a book about the history of the Arabic novel, but it will not be a tale so much of nation as of capital—finance capital in particular—in an age, much like our own, of speculation and empire; and while Fictitious Capital ends in Egypt, the history it charts does not begin there, but in Ottoman Syria. For a curiously long time, Egyptian lawyer Muḥammad Ḥusayn Haykal’s 1914 novel Zaynab marked the beginning of the Arabic novel. That narrative was consolidated in ʿAbd al-Muḥsin Ṭāhā Badr’s canon-forming Taṭawwur al-riwāyah alʿarabiyyah al-ḥadīthah fī Miṣr (1860–1938) (The development of the modern Arabic novel in Egypt, 1860–1938) at the moment, Elliott Colla reminds us, that Egypt was decolonizing under Nasser, an Egypt for Egyptians. Fictitious Capital reads from the extensive, disremembered archive of the early Arabic press, a prehistory of Zaynab, a time when the Arabic novel as a serialized form provided the narrative technology for imagining a new kind of future, one founded in the speculative habits of finance capital remaking Arab cities of the Eastern Mediterranean from at least 1860.

The novels serialized in Arabic at a moment so often heralded as one of Nahḍah, of rise and renaissance, limned in form and plot what Giovanni Arrighi reminds us is a “hidden abode”: the realm of finance, “the real home of capitalism.” “Hard to see because of the actual invisibility or the complexity of the activities that constitute it,” Arrighi writes, it is a realm of capital where profits are made off the “monetary illusions” of others. Fictitious Capital reads serialized Arabic novels in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries . . .

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