A Do-it-yourself Course in Arabic Lit

Yesterday, tweeter @THerwees asked:

Giving myself a course on @ArabLit since I find my uni course selection wanting. Starting from Mu’allaqat => Aswani. Any recs?

Of course, my first response was that the scope was a bit on the broad side. Such a project might take a lifetime or two.

But of course I’m delighted that @THerwees wants to design her own Arabic literature course, particularly as she says her university doesn’t offer such a beast. A number of Arabic literature and Arabic-literature-in-translation course syllabi (and proposed syllabi) can be found online.

Indeed, you can find all sorts of specialized syllabi: an “Arabic 248” from Daniel Beaumont, for instance, focuses entirely on Alf Layla w Layla.

Now, following the syllabus of an unknown professor at a remote university might not be to your taste. You can also seek out the syllabi of well-known professors, such as translator and scholar Roger Allen, whose summer-seminar syllabus for “The Arabic Novel in Translation” can be found online. You could follow in the footsteps of Naguib Mahfouz’s Ramadan reading selections or you could read like Khairy Shalaby.

For a go at contemporary literature, I suggested that @THerwees could begin with some of the books on the Arab Writers Union’s “Top 105” list of best novels of the 20th century.  The first five—with the exception of Sonallah Ibrahim’s Honor—are all available in English as well as in Arabic.

You could use the National Institute for Technology and Liberal Education’s website on “teaching the Middle East,” which contains the (free) full texts of various plays, short stories, novel excerpts, criticism, and more from Arab authors. It’s billed as a K-12 educators’ tool, although frankly I see it as a more appropriate resource for the university or independent-adult student. 

You could also do a themed course:

On Tahrir-centered novels

Alexandria-themed novels—although of course you would want to append the Alexandria Quartet, by Lawrence Durrell

Novels that address Egypt’s sectarian issues

The best poetry collections of 2010

If you’re interested in the Mu’allaqat, take a line-by-line look at the poetry available through Princeton’s online Arabic poetry project.

For those interested in drama, Roger Allen and Salma Khadra Jayyusi’s Modern Arabic Drama and the 2010 Plays from the Arab World. Note that the MAD’s “The King is the King” by Sa’dallah Wannus, is available free online.

You could read Mahmoud Darwish’s three prose works, which are all now available in English translation. You could make up a course on prison literature, the contemporary short story, Sufi poetry, a course that compares ’60s generation novelists in Iraq and in Egypt, Islamists in Algerian vs. Egyptian literature, animals in Libyan lit, and so on.

Context and framework is another thing. For a focus on contemporary Egypt, I might suggest Dr. Samia Mehrez’s Egypt’s Culture Wars and Egyptian Writers Between History and Fiction, as well as Dr. Richard Jacquemond’s Conscience of the Nation. It wouldn’t hurt to poke around the website of Arab World Books.

But, since @THerwees wants to survey the whole landscape of Arabic literature, perhaps the most interesting and eclectic place to begin is with the lists of 13 journalists, writers, translators, academics, and publishers, each of whom chose “5 books to read before you die.”

Your do-it-yourself professor would also want you to attend literary events:

This fall in North America

In the UK

And beyond

As always: Your suggestions for a “do-it-yourself” Arabic literature course are welcome.

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One comment

  1. Roger Allen was my masters thesis adviser and, coincidentally, one of the questions on my comprehensive exam was something along the lines of selecting five authors of Arabic lit. to be presented/studied in an undergraduate world literature course. (I think it’s okay to share the question now as it was asked over 7 years ago? Here’s hoping.) Anyway, it was, of course, a really tough question to answer but ultimately I chose: al-Mutannabi, al-Hamadhani, Naguib Mahfouz (because, you kind of can’t leave him out), Yusuf Idris and Adunis. (Showing my modern literary preferences.) I am also a huge fan of al-Jahiz though, and can’t remember why I didn’t include him on the list. There are one or two good translations of his work out there so that’s useful as well.

    And, I honestly don’t mean to shill for Allen but his An Introduction to Arabic Literature is an easy to read, *brief* overview to Arabic lit.

    Anyway, as ever, an interesting post which got me thinking/reminiscing!

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