Turn of the Century Arabic Romance Novels

This initially appeared on Raphael Cormack’s excellent blog, “On Paper“:

By Raphael Cormack

Recently, I have been looking at quite a lot at the early 20th century Arabic cultural production in New York. I recently translated a very short speculative-fiction story that satirises the prohibition movement in America. It first appeared in a New York based magazine called al-Akhlaq.

About a month ago I came across a 45-page novella called “Love in a Dream.”

It was published in New York in 1904 by the proprietor of the newspaper Kawkab America, Said Youssef Shuqair and circulated among the subscribers. As far as I am aware, it is now very hard to find as a book (but might be hiding among old issues of the newspaper in some libraries).

Shuqair claims that the tale was told to him, briefly, by some storytellers and that he subsequently turned it into a novella.

The plot follows the genre formulae that readers of late 19th and early 20th century romance novels will know well. It begins on a hot day in San Francisco and an 18-year-old-boy, Charlie, falls asleep on the beach in the shade of a rock. A girl comes to him in the dream and he falls in love. Later, he finds himself flying to her secluded castle on top of a mountain surrounded by rivers and lush gardens, as it she lived in paradise. He meets the girl and begs her to come back to the real world with him but she says she needs to ask her father’s permission and that he will probably refuse.

A few weeks later (after not having dreamt of her for a while) she miraculously sees the girl, in real life, playing on the beach with her friends. The reader discovers that the girl, Elizabeth, has (strangely) also been having dreams about him but that her domineering father rarely lets her out of the house.

When Charlie goes, with his parents, to ask for Elizabeth’s father’s permission to court her, he is refused. Elizabeth’s father is a wealthy San Francisco businessman and Charlie is from a poor family, so the match is not deemed suitable.

The story then follows the various trials and tribulations of their relationship. Charlie tries to send Elizabeth letters but they are accidentally delivered to Elizabeth’s friend, Lily, who is also in love with Charlie. Lily sends a letter to Charlie accepting the proposal (that he meant for Elizabeth) and Charlie has to explain the mistake. Lily is heartbroken.

Elizabeth’s father then tries to arrange a marriage for her with a wealthy Chicago magnate called William, whom Elizabeth detests.

The day is saved when Charlie’s father comes into a large fortune and, thus, becomes acceptable to Elizabeth’s father. William is rejected (and later commits suicide) and poor hapless Lily dies brokenhearted but everyone else lives happily ever after.

The story reminded me of another early 20th century Arabic novel I had read called The Girl from Egypt (Fatat Misr) by  Yaqoub Sarrouf. In this story a young British man sees a beautiful “Eastern” girl in a dream and resolves to marry her. He must scour the East looking for this mysterious girl and, during the trip, he spends a lot of time in Egypt marveling at how well-developed the country is.

Yaqoub Sarrouf also wrote another book called The Girl from Fayoum, which I assume also has romantic themes. The more you start to look for romance novels in the 19th and 20th century Arabic, the more you begin to find. In 1860 in Lebanon the newly established  “Syria Press” published translations of Fanny Reybaud’s Mademoiselle de Malepeire. It was among the first printed novels to be published in Arabic.

Although dismissed as frivolous, romantic literature offers a fascinating window into all kinds of social and cultural concerns that were being worked out through the fiction. Said Youssef Shuqair’s short novella is no exception.

The plot, like so much of the genre, carries an implicit critique of structures built around class and money. The main enemy of the story (embodied by Elizabeth’s father) is the societal rule which dictates that a rich woman cannot marry a poor man. This is what they must overcome.

I would also argue that, underneath this, the immigrant experience in America is also present in the story. A lot of the early 20th century Arabic literary and cultural production in America was an attempt by writers to figure out the new culture that they had arrived in and (in the case of journal owners) to explain it to their readers.

It is hard not to connect prominence of wealth in the plot, particularly embodied in Elizabeth’s father and in William, who is supposed to marry Elizabeth, to the huge importance of capital in early 20th century America. There is a particularly clear example of this at the end when Elizabeth’s father is talking to a friend of his about Charlie father and his new wealth.

Elizabeth’s father says that “[Charlie’s father] is without doubt one of the greatest of men.”

His friend responds that “He was great before he became rich. For money is no sign of a man’s industry, his hard work, his intelligence or the honour of his soul.”

But Elizabeth’s father is not so sure: “That’s as may be,” he says “but money is the only way that greatness is manifested. In this age, wealth is the highest glory.”

Despite the fact that, in this story, so much trouble has been caused by valuing someone’s money above the content of their character, Elizabeth’s father has not learned his lesson.

However, despite reservations about the materialism of America, this story also highlights the positives of the New World. Most of all, the freedom.

When Elizabeth’s father has changed his mind about forcing his daughter to marry William, he wonders how he will go back on the deal without losing face: “What will people say?” he asks his friend.

She responds: “What will they say about you?… They won’t say anything about you if your daughter does not love William. The best thing that this country has to be thankful for is the total freedom for a woman to get engaged to whomever she wants.”

All this is not to say that turn of the century romance novels are radical texts; they often reinforce the norms and rules that they raise. However, in the Arabic tradition, they offer exciting ways to examine social and cultural questions that are often hard to find. And they were also extremely popular.

Other people working on novels from the turn of the century who have influenced by thinking are Samah Selim (for Arabic novels) and Anna Girling (for Anglophone). See also this article by Elliot Colla.

Raphael Cormack is a PhD student at Edinburgh University working on 19th and 20th Century Egyptian Literature. He blogs at https://onpaper.blog.