what is Modern Arabic literature?
The expression 'Modern Arabic Literature', which forms the subject of this survey, is a slightly problematic one, none of the three words that go to make up the phrase being quite as self-explanatory as they might at first appear. Before commencing our account of the topic, a brief word on definitions will therefore be in order, in order to define the scope of the work.
First, 'modern'. By 'modern', I refer, generally speaking, to literature written after the Middle East and North Africa had begun to be exposed to large-scale Western and European influence towards the end of the eighteenth and beginning of the nineteenth century AD. This process, which has been extensively discussed both in Arabic and in Western languages, was both a cumulative and a complex one. For practical purposes, 1798 (the date of Napoleon's invasion of Egypt) has often been taken as a starting point for this chain of developments, but though the date has merit as a convenient anchor-point (and I shall use it as such), it has less relevance for other parts of the Arab world, some of which remained remote from European influence, both from a social and a literary point of view, until way into the twentieth century, while a few (Lebanon is the obvious case in point) had enjoyed extensive, if selected, contacts with Europe for centuries before the emperor's French army set foot on Egyptian soil. As we shall see in the pages that follow, the pace of literary development (like social and political development) in the Middle East has been far from uniform, and rigid cut-off dates, though convenient, can be frequently misleading. In any event, as the following pages will again show, though much 'modern' Arabic literature does indeed show signs of influence by, or borrowing from, the Western tradition, any attempt to understand the development of modern literature without some appreciation of the classical Arabic heritage is unlikely to be productive.
Let us turn, then, from 'modern' to 'Arabic'. At first, this term appears less problematic: 'Arabic' literature must surely be 'literature written in Arabic', and this definition will indeed serve well for the vast majority of the material we are dealing with. But the political history of the Middle East over the last two centuries having been marked by an at times aggressive