Contemporary Arabic Literature ‘Is a Victim of Authoritarianism,’ And Yet…

This month over at Apogee, Jordanian author Hisham Bustani, Palestinian-American author Naomi Shihab Nye, and Palestinian-Canadian author-translator Thoraya El-Rayyes had a three-way conversation about commercialization, co-optation, experimentation, and what it means to write interesting literature:

apogee-logoThe relationship between the Arab writer and the Arab dictator is certainly grounds for much conversation. There is a story Iraqi poet and novelist Fadhil al-Azzawi likes to tell about his mother. In it, he tells her that he wants to be a poet, and she is gravely disappointed.

“We try to make you a man and work hard to secure your future, but you want to be a beggar.”

I replied: “A poet, not a beggar.”

She laughed at my naiveté: “And what is the real job of the Arab poets? Nothing but selling their praise poems, full of lies, to this sheikh or that governor, to this vizier or that king.”

I said: “I promise you I will not be like these people.”

Once pressed into allegiances with regimes, contemporary Arab writers are now pushed at not just by the rock of regime interests, but also by the hard places of literary commodification, “stardom,” and writing toward Western tastes.

To maintain his literary freedom, Bustani says he has stuck with the short-story form, which he suggests is more like poetry than the novel. As for most Arabic literary writing:

 The majority are usually lame, opportunistic, self-censored…therefore their ‘creative work’ lacks creativity, and like Thoraya explained, the majority are of the ‘annexed’ type: annexed to the regimes, or annexed to their ‘inferiority complex’ regarding ‘the west’.  But, I consider all of this as the objective condition for the rise of a ‘new’ writing: new techniques, new imagery, and new forms. A minority yes, but one that has the conditions to go on further and further.

El-Rayyes describes the Arabic literary scene as “a victim of authoritarianism. It isn’t much of an exaggeration to describe the Arab literary scene as something like an incestuous village run by the cultural henchmen of Arab regimes – dodgy money and politicized networks of nepotism.”

She points to Egyptian novelist Alaa al-Aswany’s unsavory sociopolitical ideas and the Jordanian Writers’ Association’s “cheerleading” for Bashar al-Assad. On the other hand, she says:

…you have a small minority of independent-minded writers who push literary boundaries by experimenting with language and literary form and by breaking social, religious and political taboos. There are flashes of brilliance in this kind of rebellious work that makes the rest of the bullshit seem insignificant.

Nye tied in the dominant role of the instant-gratification marketplace in shaping American writing, saying:

I have just been reading a series of interviews with American writers in which the question of “the marketplace” came up much too often for my tastes and left, in fact, a sense of great perplexity or sadness about people’s intentions or delusions. One writer felt obsessed with seeing his books “in airports.” That, for him, was proof of some sort of arrival or acceptance.

Although none of them felt that literary writing could have a direct political impact (only indirect), Bustani closed out the discussion by saying:

I am sorry about the passing away of Judith [Kitchen], but I’m sure her spirit lives on in writers like you, and many others who do not look at art as a profession or a generator of income, but consider it the project of their lives––a responsibility towards themselves and the universe around them.

Yes, I want to change the world!


  1. I’m shocked that you could slip in “Although none of them felt that literary writing could have a direct political impact…” not even as a sentence in it’s own right, but as a phrase. A phrase! Why? Why can’t literary writing have a direct political impact? Or do you now call the reframing of public sentiment, the humanizing of the dehumanized, and all that “direct political impact?” You can’t just drop this on us and move on. It’s not nice.

    1. Nora, I’m sorry, it is quite truncated, too-busy season.

      I felt all those things represented indirect impact. Of course all three had a feeling that it had *some* impact, otherwise why be involved? One might as well clean carpets or write for TV shows if one feels it has no impact at all.

  2. Quoting the dialogue, this is my perspective on literature and social change: “The literary author is not a prophet in the “savior” sense of the word. The savior can only be the revolt of the oppressed… Middle-class intellectuals will not lead the change, they will just pave the way; try to start the fire with the sparks of their mind, and push… Avant-garde literature/art is the prelude of change, sometimes the inspiration of change, sometimes a future agitation, other times a deeper analysis of the stagnant status quo. Sometimes it is the dream that needs to be pursued, the vision to be realized, the slap of awakening, the questioning, the critique. Sometimes it is the alternative history; the unspoken; the bypass of fear…”

  3. What a great conversation in apogee. So rich. So much to ponder. Thank you for finding and cataloguing all these treasures!

    1. 🙂 Just being lazy and borrowing someone else’s work, really!

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