Arab Literature Politics and Nothing But?

By Al-Nakib, Mai | World Literature Today, January/February 2016 | Go to article overview

Arab Literature Politics and Nothing But?


Al-Nakib, Mai, World Literature Today


After a recent book reading in a European city, an American friend in attendance said to me afterward, "You know, it's too bad you had to field so many questions about politics in the Middle East and so few about your fiction." This event was not unusual. It followed a similar pattern to others I've done in Western cities. Post-reading queries tend to focus on women's lack of rights in the Arab region, religious fundamentalism, living under dictatorships, censorship and freedom of expression, and the implications of various regional wars rather than on questions about literary aesthetics. I suspect this has something to do with the fact that I am an Arab writer.

There is, I think, a general expectation in the West that Arab writers are political animals and that all Arab literature is thus, by default, political. These assumptions likely stem from the even more general perception of the Arab world as an endless tangle of political divisions and shifting political loyalties that follow an inscrutable logic. In short, the Arab world is viewed as a place of politics and nothing but. It makes sense, therefore, that Western readers of literature by Arab writers would focus on the political aspects of their work, would turn to such books as a way to decipher the seemingly indecipherable, and, if the chance should arise, would ask the writers directly about their take on what, in a completely different register, Zorba the Greek describes as "the full catastrophe."

I understand this earnest desire of Western readers of Arab literature to try to comprehend the unknown, fear-inducing, politically overwhelming Middle East. I respect their questions and normally enjoy the ensuing discussion. Still, I'm always left feeling that this inevitable exchange between me and keen audience members elides something important, that it might be symptomatic of what Salman Rushdie has described as a "ghetto mentality."

Generalizations tend to be flattening, leaving out the nuances and incongruous specificities that enrich understanding. Generalizations often become dichotomizing: if group A (Arab writers) is defined by one characteristic alone (political), this is usually in contrast with group B (Western writers), defined by its opposite (nonpolitical or more than merely political). Judgment is only a short step away from such essentializing oppositions.

In his landmark essay "'Commonwealth Literature' Does Not Exist," Salman Rushdie argues against the usefulness of the generalizing category of "Commonwealth literature." To Rushdie, lumping together far-flung writers because they happen to come from countries once colonized by Great Britain is both patronizing and detrimental. It is patronizing because it excludes writers like Mulk Raj Anand, Anita Desai, Chinua Achebe, even Rushdie himself from being considered within the parameters of the more exclusive (and decidedly white) category of English literature. It is detrimental because it obscures the fact that other more interesting and important affiliations exist between writers than whether or not they belong to the Commonwealth of Nations. Without the obfuscating lens of "Commonwealth literature," Rushdie states, "we could discuss literature in terms of its real groupings, which may well be national, which may well be linguistic, but which may also be international, and based on imaginative affinities." Within the academy, Rushdie's wish, expressed in 1983, has, to some extent, materialized. "Commonwealth literature" does not exist, not in the way it did in the early 1980s. However, outside the academy, I would say that the "ghetto mentality" Rushdie believed was produced by the "phantom category" of "Commonwealth literature" continues to exist as an effect of other phantom categories, one of which is the category of "Arab literature."

To describe "Arab literature" as a phantom category is not to suggest that Arab literature does not exist or that it should not exist. …

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