Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

ASMA (1873): The Early Arabic Novel as a Social Compass

Academic journal article Studies in the Novel

ASMA (1873): The Early Arabic Novel as a Social Compass

Article excerpt

The emergence of the modern Arabic novel dates back to the nineteenth century, yet until the 1950s, poetry remained the leading Arabic literary genre (Snir 68-69). During this period, the novel was perceived as a lower or non-canonical genre. Only in the second half of the twentieth century did prose writing, especially novels, become the leading genre. Nevertheless, early examples of this genre had already appeared in the 1870s in the writings of Salim al-Bustani (1846-1884): one of the leading nineteenth-century Arab intellectuals, al-Bustani published serialized novels in his family-owned periodical al-Jinan (The Gardens) and is often considered to be the "father of the modern Arabic novel" (Moosa 183). Al-Jinan was not only the first pan-Arabic publication, but it was also the first magazine to devote space and attention to original narrative fiction; in addition to al-Bustani, later authors such as Nu'man 'Abduh al-Qasatili (1854-1920) also published his novels in this periodical. (1) In the past, Salim al-Bustani and his work did not garner much scholarly attention although the place he holds in modern Arabic literature is akin to that of Fielding and Richardson in English literature; his novels were disregarded (as in the studies by Allen and El-Enany), were not studied in depth, or were only mentioned in passing (Hafez 111), and at times were even derisively dismissed (Najm 41-77; al-Sa'afin 13-126; Yaghi 23-24).

This lack of interest was due both to textual and extra-textual reasons. The novels' didactic tone, twisting sentimental plots, unsophisticated narrative, and minimal character development fostered the perception that these novels were mere "amusements" (fukahat) and fell short of the stricter rules of the later modern novel. In addition, unlike the works of other early novelists, al-Bustani's novels were never reissued in book form; hence they remain unavailable to readers without access to a research library. In recent years, however, a handful of contemporary scholars (i.e., Bawardi and Zachs, Moosa, Sheehi, and Zachs) have begun to reexamine works of al-Bustani and re-evaluate his role in the emergence of the modern Arabic novel. They claim that his popular and influential novels set the pattern for years to come, contributing to the emergence, the development, and the form of the modern Arabic novel. In this article, we examine Asma (1873) one of al-Bustani's early novels, which has not previously been analyzed in detail. Building on the new appraisal of his work, we highlight his contribution to the development of the Arabic novel and illustrate how he undertook the deliberation of serious contemporary social issues, mainly the challenges facing a society undergoing rapid modernization. A reevaluation of al-Bustani's work will enable scholars to reenvision the Arabic novel's formative period in more innovative ways.

In his study of early English novels, J. Paul Hunter argues that the novels of this period have been ignored by contemporary readers and less systematically studied by scholars not only because of their closeness to popular literature and responsiveness to historic tastes but also because of a "pervasive modern resistance to their insistent didacticism" (225). A similar argument may well be made regarding the early Arabic novel; and while we agree with such an assessment, we also contend that one of the main reasons the novels of al-Bustani have suffered a similar fate is that they are closely attuned to the "horizon of expectations" of his original reading audience. In his explanation of his term the "horizon of expectations," Hans Robert Jauss argues that

   [a] literary work, even when it appears to be new, does not present
   itself as something absolutely new in an informational vacuum, but
   predisposes its audience to a very specific kind of reception by
   announcements, overt and covert signals, familiar characteristics,
   or implicit allusions. … 
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