What Does It Matter If ‘Leg Over Leg’ Is the ‘First Arabic Novel’?

There was a moment during Saturday’s Library of Arabic Literature (LAL) workshop in Oxford that could’ve been called the “Humphrey Davies & Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq fan club” moment:

Leg_over_leg34Al-Shidyaq was swooned over — in an academic sort of way — for writing the pre-modern-post-modern, genre-bending, gender-bending Leg Over Leg (1855), while Humphrey Davies got his accolades for bringing the book’s insight and exuberance into page-rocking English, with French-English translator Richard Sieburth comparing Davies’ wordwork to Byron’s with its “jolting, jovial quality.”

But a question that nettled, and was returned to, was whether Leg over Leg should be considered the “first Arabic novel,” or whether it should be called a “novel” at all.

Robyn Creswell, who discussed Leg over Leg during his brief presentation, decidedly called it a novel, while also drawing attention to Abdelfattah Kilito’s essay on the benefits and detriments to calling Leg over Leg the “first” Arabic novel. Although Kilito was in the audience, he didn’t join the discussion.

Creswell suggested that Leg over Leg made for a “much more productive model” than for instance Muhammad Husayn Haykal’s Zaynab (1914), often referred to the first novel, or “first authentic novel,” in Arabic. Zaynab as a first, Creswell said, leads us “to much less interesting places.”

“Calling it [Leg over Leg] a novel could be a useful intervention.”

Sieburth, an essayist, scholar, and award-winning French-English translator, asked, in his talk,  “Are we going to call this a novel or not?”

In his own Shidyaqan wordsmithery, Sieburth noted that the author “himself talks about how he cobbled it together, he pieced it together, it’s a kind of collage, assemblage, it’s incessantly plural, has elements of travelogues in it, there’s an Odyssean trajectory to it.”

“I think the crucial thing here is that the autobiography tends to move more in the direction of what Michel Beaujour calls the autoportrait. The organization of this text is not narrative but topical.” And “to the extent that it is topically oriented, it goes much more in this direction towards autoportrait.”

But, Sieburth later added, “every moment [is] being superceded by a sort of poeticization.” So, for a researcher interested in the nineteenth century, Sieburth said, the work begins to look very much like a prose poem. He added later, during the discussion, that “you could get rid of the question of its whole novel-ness by going in that direction [of the prose poem].”

From the audience, Egyptian scholar-translator Ferial Ghazoul said that Radwa Ashour had referred to Leg over Leg as the first novel in Arabic.

Davies himself professed being less than interested in the question: “I don’t quite understand why it’s so important to put a label on it.”

Al-Shidyaq, Davies noted, would not likely have embraced the idea of having written a novel, as he “satirizes the Western novel. He says that a woman, leaving her house at ten o’clock in the morning, with the rain coming down hard, and returning two hours later with her little dog is a matter of immense interest to you. And this [story of the woman and her dog] clearly comes from a novel which he has read.”

“This was a man who wanted to write a book, and he wanted to write it the way he wanted to write it,” Davies said. “He may have had all sorts of unconscious models in his mind, but this was an enterprise that was not trammeled by what it should be and what it should be called.”

While a book with no genre might not seem like a satisfying answer, the anxiety over a “first” Arabic novel feels a bit like the “first woman world leader” or “first African-American to XXX,” which simultaneously establishes the backwardness of the group in question. It was once important to establish Zaynab as the first Arabic novel for particular national-identity-building reasons, as Elliott Colla outlines, and now the more recent trend is to establish that the “Arabic novel” came earlier than Zaynab.

An 1835 translation of Robinson Crusoe, courtesy of Dan Lowe.
An 1835 translation of Robinson Crusoe, courtesy of Dan Lowe. (British Library, 14586. a. 9.)

Pushing it backwards is certainly true, as Colla and others demonstrate, but at times also feels like an intervention to establish that the Arabs were “modern” much sooner than Westerners think, for the fact that they were producing novels much sooner than we’d thought. Yet “Arabs came late to the novel” is a criticism full of sound and fury but signifying nothing.

Although it’s wonderful and fruitful — not to mention fun! — to excavate nineteenth century Arabic translations, adaptations, and novelistic productions, as Samah Selim has done and is doing, it is a strange thing to insist on any particular genre as a proof of being more or less advanced.

Moreover, several people noted during Saturday’s LAL workshop that the place where the novel has gone more closely echoes earlier Arab narrative traditions. Leg over Leg may not have be a tale of a woman and her dog, but, in our current manner of defining a novel, al-Shidyaq’s peripateticism fits in just fine. The Best Translated Book Award shortlisted it as a novel, and I doubt the judges lost any sleep over their decision to call it a “novel.”

Perhaps a more interesting intervention in Western thinking about Arabic literature were Marina Warner’s observations near the end of the day, that dovetailed with earlier comments by comparativist and translation theorist Matthew Reynolds and Arabic-English translator Marilyn Booth.

Warner, who convened the workshop along with LAL General Editor Philip Kennedy, noted that she’s been reading for the Man Booker International with fellow judge Wen-chin Ouyang, “so we’ve been reading huge amounts of novels. And I sense that the so-called definition of the novel has really shifted, and it’s shifted in ways that reflect the kinds of modes of literature that we’ve been hearing about today. The essay. The anecdote. … The aphoristic.”

Warner said that the great German author W.G. Sebald had changed how we think about and write fiction, noting that there are “now rather embedded ways of using fiction to think.”

“And I think fiction really has become more of a tool of thinking. It casts this retrospective light onto the Arabic modes of narrating. They come back into focus because they are related now, they have an affinity now with these new methods.”

So rather than searching for the “first Arabic novel,” as though it were a site when Arabs finally joined the civilized world in doing proper literature, we might just as easily look for instance of the first English instance of another form, to be named later, pioneered by Arab prose writers. (Or we might, as Davies seems to suggest, be less obsessed with category.)

Leg over Leg in Europe

There is no doubt that, as Davies mentioned, al-Shidyaq was well aware of trends in Western novels and was similarly alert to what was going on in Europe. Sieburth had some wonderful discussion of Leg over Leg’s travels around the continent.

“There are pages on England that sound almost like Engels on Manchester and the working class, published in 1845, so we’re around the same time,” Sieburth said, adding that al-Shidyaq’s descriptions of Paris are such that “I would use [them] in a ‘representations of Paris in literature’ course.”

“There are bits of social history here, and discussions of, for example, the specificities of French latrines that I haven’t found in Hugo or Balzac or the British travelers.”

Shidyaq’s work is indeed different from other nineteenth century works, or other literary works in general, Sieburth said: “Rarely have I read a work that is this profoundly corporeal, that is founded in the body of language. Its vocalizations, its sound structures. A body whose verbal flesh and blood and shit and sperm and farts and belches are physically inscribed on the page in a form of lists and lexicographical riffs.”

If you want Leg over Leg (and why wouldn’t you), and you don’t need the facing-page Arabic, do wait until the paperbacks come out. It’s not long now.

More on some of Davies’ translational decisions when I’ve typed up more of the recordings.


  1. Fascinating stuff and great write-up. Look forward to reading more!

    1. Thanks Tom. Yes, there were many enjoyable talks, and I’m still hoping to steal Michael Cooperson’s slides off him.

  2. Great coverage, look forward to reading more on this workshop, especially Kilito’s presentation.

  3. Thanks Marcia! Makes it almost bearable not to’ve been there . . .

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