Academic journal article Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics

The Aesthetics of Difference: History and Representations of Otherness in Al-Nubi and Wahat Al-Ghurub

Academic journal article Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics

The Aesthetics of Difference: History and Representations of Otherness in Al-Nubi and Wahat Al-Ghurub

Article excerpt

This article examines Idris 'Ali's al-Nubi (2001) and Baha' Tahir's Wahat al-ghurub (2006) and their significant novelistic undertakings of Nubian and Amazigh experiences in Egypt, respectively. Departing from the ethnically confined and linguistically monolithic picture of the nation-state, both novels shift their creative concern toward the marginal communities of Nubia and Siwa, whose cultures, languages, and histories are often overlooked due to dominant cultural discourses and reductive historical narratives. The article demonstrates how the novels are deeply historical and suggests we can only understand the implicit inequalities of contemporary Egyptian society by looking to the past.

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The new millennium has witnessed the appearance of novels that exhibit a new consciousness and a critical sensibility towards difference and the complexity of the Egyptian population amidst its political, socio-economic, and cultural instabilities. Examples of these novels include Idris 'Ali's al-Nubi, 2001 (The Nubian), Baha' Tahir's Wahat al-ghurub, 2006 (Sunset Oasis, 2009), Yusuf Zaydan's 'Azazil, 2009 (Azazeel, 2012), Mu'taz Futayha's Akhir yahud al-iskandariyya, 2007 (The Last Jews of Alexandria), Hassan Nur's Dawwamat al-shamal, 2007 (Northern Whirlpools), Khairi Shalabi's Istasiyya, 2009, and Ashraf al-Khamaysi's Manafi al-rabb, 2012 (God's Exiles). They, as part of an emerging tendency in contemporary novelistic production, depart from the confined and relatively monolithic picture of the nation-state and shift their concern toward the cultural experiences of individuals from the ethnically and religiously marginal communities whose histories and languages are often overlooked due to dominant cultural discourses and reductive historical narratives. This new trend is firmly taking root in the Arabic literary tradition since some of these novels have been acknowledged for their aesthetic and literary ingenuity through the prestigious International Prize for Arabic Fiction; Tahir's Wahat al-ghurub and Zaydan's 'Azazil won the prize in two consecutive years, 2008 and 2009.

Renowned critics of contemporary Arabic literature such as Sabry Hafez ("The New Egyptian Novel"), Richard Jacquemond ("The Shifting Limits"), and Sarnia Mehrez (Egypt's Culture Wars) intensely examine the social, cultural, and political conditions that permeate the novelistic production in Egypt. Reflecting on the immanent struggle between Egyptian fiction writers, the state, and the conservative society at large, their studies closely observe the nuances within modern and contemporary Egyptian novels, and use historically reflexive methods to interpret them. Hafez identifies a plethora of recent novels written by a group of young Egyptian novelists whom he calls the "1990s generation." He

describes the antagonisms with which these novels were met both by the state and the literary establishment, even though they demonstrate shared and distinct formal features that separate them from realist and modernist works. (1) Hafez also observes how these "young writers were accused of poor education, nihilism, loss of direction, lack of interest in public issues and obsessive concentration on the body; of stylistic poverty, weak grammar, inadequate narrative skills and sheer incomprehensibility" (49). He refutes this institutional position toward this "new wave" of novels and, instead, draws critics' attention to the correlation between these works' formal features and the urban transformations Cairo has undergone since the 1970s. As sketched by Hafez, the Egyptian poor responds to the neglect of the state and its insufficient housing provisions by taking "the matter into their own hands" (47) and developing what is known as al-mudun al-'ashwa'iyya or the "sprawling slums of Cairo" (50), just as the "1990s generation" adopts common narrative features that reflect their existential crises within an "irrational, duplicitous reality" (49). …

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