Does the Arab Novel Require a Different Sort of Criticism?

The new literary criticism is...

Fakhri Saleh—former IPAF and Mahfouz Medal judge and current al-Hayat  columnist—has a short piece in this week’s Qantara arguing that Arabic literature requires a different, de-Orientalized sort of literary criticism.

Saleh makes the very easy point that Naguib Mahfouz (for instance) is not the Arabic “Balzac, nor a Galsworthy or an Emile Zola, or even a Thomas Mann.” Instead he likens Mahfouz to al-Jahiz.

But this is not a different sort of literary criticism; it’s just a brushing-off of silly dust-jacket equivalencies. As M.A. Orthofer notes over at The Complete Review, none of the aforementioned Western authors had Mahfouz’s range. And yes, you never do hear that “Honoré de Balzac is the French Mahfouz.”

Saleh goes on to state:

The Arabic novel is not an imitation of the European novel. It lived in the shadow of the genre that flourished in sixteenth-century Europe, but it has its own history and development. Even the term riwaya, an equivalent of the term novel, does not have the same denotation. It means ‘narration’, ‘telling’, and it has a very direct relation to tale-telling in Arabic literary tradition.

It’s a good jumping-off point, but then Saleh does not really jump. He dips a toe into Emile Habibi’s The Pessoptimist, which he says draws on Quranic and other traditions, and another toe into Gamal al-Ghitani’s Zayni Barakat. But he doesn’t explore further. He doesn’t even follow up on the differences between riwaya and novel (new, interesting, shocking).

How do these differing traditions create different sets of contemporary cultural markers? How do they engender a different way of saying which works are “great” and which are not? How do they open up different spaces for criticism, different ways in which we can learn who we are through literature?


  1. Clearly this reading is a direct attack on Edward Said’s reading of Arabic Literature. I do not know if I like this tone because it does not account for the style and just reads a ‘genre’ category as a simple act of telling. Also, when trying to make Arabic literature palatable to an English audience do you saddle them with a name like Jahiz who is completely alienating?! First get an audience interested in the literature, then start throwing around literary references that are possibly of worth. If this essay is simply for an Arab speaking audience than fine: but the proof of this telling would only reflect an antiquated ‘indigeneity’ to Mahfouz not a worldly status.

  2. oh, dear. i’m sure the original piece is interesting, but i stopped reading after “From then on, the term gained currency in the study of national literatures translated into the main European languages, i.e. English, French, German and Spanish.”

    for starters, maybe someone would explain to mr. fakhri saleh, that there is no such thing as a “main european language”. or main anything language.

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