Narrating the Self: Autobiography in the Arabic Tradition

After a five-year hiatus, more than 200 writers and critics participated in the Sixth Cairo Forum for the Arabic Novel earlier this month:

By Mona Elnamoury

Photo credit: Mona Elnamoury.
Photo credit: Mona Elnamoury.

One of the most interesting sessions I attended at the Sixth International Cairo Forum, which focused on “The Arabic Novel: The Shifts and Aesthetics of the Fictional Structure,” was Dr Samir Mundy’s presentation of the art of Arabic autobiography. Dr Mundy, a critic and professor of Modern Arabic Literature in the British University, is interested not only in tracing the first Arabic autobiographies, but in proving how wide the genre is.  Being an ever-widening one, it crosses different genres and eludes specific fixed characteristics — like an umbrella, it includes many genres underneath. It is a genre that can include fiction, non-fiction, philosophy, travel literature, drama, poetry, and more. Moreover, he draws attention to the fact that Arabic autobiography is a genre that existed before its revival in Europe at the hands of Rousseau, whose Confessions jump-started the art of Western autobiography.

The Arabic autobiography is influenced by the currently reserved nature of the culture. Consequently, it has often shied from the concept of “confessing.” Rather, it depends on hinting and ciphering. Interestingly, the strongest English source about Arabic autobiographies is called  “Interpreting The Self,” and signifies how far autobiographies are involved with translating the self to/into the world. To what extent this could be said of Arabic autobiographies is certainly controversial.[1]

The story, however, is a dominating element of any autobiography. Dr Mundy argues that, unlike the novel, the autobiographical work challenges all genres as it can contain most of them in the same narrative.  Though it is a relatively modern form of writing not only in the Arab world but in Europe as well, it proves to be very attractive and popular. There are early autobiographies that were characterized either by being partially disguised as travel literature like Rifa’a Al-tahtawi’s The Extraction of Gold or an Overview of Paris . Reading about it, I find that works of its kind involve revealing the self through its encounter with the Other, The West. These are not overt autobiographies but their narratives surely comes close to features identified as autobiographical.

Dr Mundy points out that there are other modern autobiographies that are stories of an “intellect,” such as Tawfiq al-Hakim’s The Flower of My Lifetime, Moustafa Sweef’s Diaries in the Private and Public Issue, and Taha Hussein’s The Days, which are selective in a Cartesian manner.  They depend on the surprises of turning points that are far from linear but challenge the chronological order of events and force the writer to use different narrative techniques.

Other autobiographies that show an intellectual and ethical vision of reality are selective in nature. They simply say: “Look where I began, and where did I end?” The final result is that they convey the message of achievement or the “I made it” cry. This type of autobiographical writings introduces an original concept, which is the division of a mind.  For instance, in Zaki Naguib Mahmoud’s autobiography, The Story of an Intellect, it looks like a philosophical dialogue between two parts of the same mind. Here, philosophy is part of the narrative, which further proves the wideness of the genre.

Listening to Dr Mundy’s presentation spurred my personal desire to read more about the genre and how it could be appreciated in the Arabic tradition. Apparently, the West has been reluctant to grapple with the fact that autobiographies have long existed in the Arabic tradition and has dealt with the concept of individuation in the autobiography as a purely Western invention. And though Mundy presents important examples of Arabic autobiographies from the nineteenth century like  Al-Sāq ‘alā al-sāq fī mā huwa l-Fariyāq (Leg over Leg), which is a satirical work on the war between sexes which also traces the writer’s life in a variety of styles, Interpreting the Self could trace much earlier examples before Ahmad Faris Al-Shidyaq. Some of them were inserted as introductions to books like Yāqūt al-Ḥamawī’s  Irshād al-arīb, in which he appended his autobiography to the end of his monumental biographical compendium.

The rather modern autobiographies, like Taha Hussein’s The Days, which is the bildungsroman of a blind child into a young man who “is not” himself, fulfills the elements of autobiography: The work is an intricate piece of fact and fiction.

How can literature be autobiography?

The outstanding novelist Salwa Bakr asked a question about how “literary” autobiographies are. Dr Mundy said he believes autobiographies to be literary works because they depend on the element of the “story” in their structures. Much like the oral autobiographies handed down from generation to generation are literary pieces of oral tradition because, again, they use the story element in their structure.

To conclude, Dr Mundy called on critics to read and appreciate Arabic autobiographies as works of their own and to seek new and fresh critical methods to see them. Based on the desire for privacy that surely influences Arabic autobiographies, and keeping in mind the particular nature of the Arabic tradition, Arabic autobiographies should be freshly reread. As for Arab women’s autobiographies, the research is still new and promising.

[1] Interpreting the Self: Autobiography in the Arabic Literary Tradition Edited by Dwight F. Reynolds. University of California Press Berkeley Los Angeles London.

Dr. Mona Elnamoury is a lecturer at the faculty of Arts, English Dept., Tanta University. She also teaches at the MSA in the faculty of Languages and Translation, and has translated Ursula LeGuin into Arabic and is part of the Seshat continous creative writing workshop and storytelling project. She also writes.


5 Must-read Memoirs (and Not-quite-memoirs)

Bahaa Taher wishes Cairo Novel Forum award had gone to younger writer