Writing about Arab Literature ‘Non-Defensively’

Photo from the conference by Bassam Haddad. Swiped off Jadaliyya.

As I read Jadaliyya’s introduction to reportage about the “Teaching the Middle East” conference held at George Mason University this May,  I was particularly interested in the idea of shifting pedagogic and scholarly modes from “defensive” to “non-defensive.”

This resonated even more strongly as I read Laila Hourani’s introduction to the excellent 2010 collection Plays from the Arab World. At moments in her introduction, Hourani seemed to be shadow-boxing with an imaginary reader who found Arabs to be un-artistic, un-creative, violent, and boorish.

Hourani also touches briefly on the history of Arab theater, and has an  insightful comment at the end about the plays’ obsession with “waiting.” But in and among these lines of thought, and while discussing the many artistic and technical merits of the plays (I dare you not to enjoy Laila Soliman’s “Egyptian Products”), Hourani attempts to convince us that Arab men aren’t violent beasts. And, in trying to refute the absurd “violent beast” stereotype, I’m afraid that she may be implanting it more deeply.

Yes, we writers should smack down egregious stupidities when we see them. But taking a “non-defensive” posture when writing about Arabic literature would free us up to create stronger and more interesting lines of thought. And yes, it’s important that even we non-academic commoners not get trapped in arguments with imaginary men and women from Ignorancetown, U.S.A.

I believe I gleaned from American essayist and activist Jonathan Kozol that when we write, we create our audience. So, instead of shadow-boxing with the ignorant, we create smarter and more receptive readers by beginning from a non-defensive posture.

Check out: Jadaliyya’s notes about the conference at the source.


  1. Thanks for this post. It really resonates. I’ll be starting my dissertation (on Tayeb Salih’s fiction) next year, and intend to address a literate and sympathetic imaginary reader. 🙂

    I do understand the defensive posture, though. I’ve just finished reading two somewhat defensive books in a row: Bridget Connelly’s book on Sirat Bani Hilal, and a great book on Arabic autobiography edited by Dwight Reynolds. Connelly had to address the perception that “there is no Arab epic”; Reynolds & his colleagues had to deal with “there is no autobiography in the Arabic language.” Could they have breezed through by imagining engaged and interested readers?

  2. Sofia, Of course I don’t really have any answers. BUT I think Jonathan Kozol has an equally hard row to hoe in persuading Americans that their (our??) education system is unjust. He does so much of his work by believing in his reader. Perhaps bits and bobs need to be slipped in (let’s talk about the history of the Arab epic, and look at these fine autobiographies by Galal Amin) but tonally I think non-defensive works better.

  3. Yes, I agree. Not only because a defensive posture makes people suspect you actually ARE inferior, but because it wastes time.

    Btw, I’m in Nairobi. If I go up on the roof and wave, will you see me? lol

  4. Nairobi! Oh, sure, let’s meet for coffee…maybe in Khartoum?

Comments are closed.