The Crisis of The Present

Literature in the Middle East and North Africa 1

Authored by: Anna Bernard

The Modernist World

Print publication date:  June  2015
Online publication date:  June  2015

Print ISBN: 9780415845038
eBook ISBN: 9781315778334
Adobe ISBN: 9781317696162


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The question of what modernity is and how writers should respond to it has been central to literary debates in the Middle East and North Africa (comprising the Mashriq, the Arabian Peninsula, and the Maghreb) 2 since at least the start of the nineteenth century. 3 Any discussion of modernism in this context must engage the history of modern literary production across the region, which is closely tied to the history of European imperialism, the demand for political and cultural autonomy at the national and regional levels, and the critique of the new state regimes after independence. In Arabic literature, two recent periods foreground the idea of the modern: the nahḍa (‘awakening’ or ‘renaissance’), most closely associated with literary production in Egypt and the Levant in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries; and the 1950s–1980s, marked by the shift from a literature of political commitment (iltizām) to a literature of post-independence disillusionment, each characterized by new forms of experimentation and innovation. In this second period, the notion of modernism (ḥadātha) becomes most crucial to Arab writers’ sense of their practice, especially in poetry, and in the major cultural centres of Cairo and Beirut. However, these specific post-colonial developments are also part of a longer engagement with the idea of literary modernity (again, ḥadātha), which has seemed especially urgent at particular historical junctures: during the late nineteenth century; after the First and Second World Wars; after the Israeli defeat of the Arab armies in 1967; and arguably, in the early twenty-first century, when the popular uprisings across the region seem to demand a new theorization of the relationship between literary and political action (El-Ariss 2013: 179–81). In what follows I emphasize poetry and the novel, which have been the dominant forms for modernist experimentation and position-taking, though related claims have also been made for the short story and drama. 4 I also refer to parallel developments in two of the region’s minor literary languages, French and Hebrew. This brief summary of a complex and contested literary history draws on the substantial body of English-language scholarship that seeks to account for it. Many of the literary texts mentioned are also available in English translation, giving readers without the region’s languages significant resources for further reading.

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