Christian Junge: On Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq and ‘Exposing Words’

On exposing words and reading the life and times of (the great) Ahmed Faris al-Shidyaq:

By Tugrul Mende

Yāqūt, dahnağ, and zibriğ are words describing certain types of jewels. In Leg Over Leg, or, The Pigeon in the Tree, The Fāriyāq What Manner of Creature Might He Be by Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq (1805/1806-1887), you find more than 600 words sectioned into five categories concerning the materialistic desires associated with women. These categories of lists describing elements in the life of the protagonist Fāriyāq and his wife are a way to criticize social and cultural conditions of the 19th century Nahda period. In al-Shidyaq’s book, there are various word lists focusing on gender, female lust, and the use of language. While the work has lexicographic tendencies, it tells much about the ways in which people thought and talked about certain words, in contrast to the classical Arabic period before the Nahda. Al-Shidyaq’s work could be read as a lexicon, but it is much more complex and diverse than that.

Christian Junge’s Die Entblößung der Wörter: as-Šidyaqs literarische Listen als Kultur- und Gesellschaftskritik im 19. Jahrhundert (2019, Wiesbaden: Reichert Verlag) looks at words and language usage in the 19th-century Nahda period. By examining Leg over Leg, Junge places himself in a new generation of scholars who are reexamining key figures of this pivotal phase. In this study, Junge delves into this work’s linguistic and literary complexity by concentrating on key themes.

There is no complete translation of this text available in German, although Junge has translated parts of it in his study. Translations have been made into French and English. The first complete translation was made into French in 1991 by René R. Khawam (1917-2004), but Junge acknowledges in particular the 2014 English translation by Humphrey Davies, for its completeness and complexity. Junge translates many parts of the work for his study, but doesn’t shy from using the English edition, which he sometimes consults in his study. The work of Edward Said (1935-2003) also found a special place in Junge’s study in an effort to emphasize the role of philology and language and to justify the need to study al-Shidyaq’s work through this perspective. In Humanism and Democratic Criticism, Said writes: “words are not passive markers or signifiers, standing in unassumingly for a higher reality; they are, instead, an integral formative part of the reality itself.” Indeed, Junge’s work is part of the expansion and opening up of philological studies.

Using literary studies and cultural studies as a basis for understanding Leg over Leg, Junge explains in seven chapters why the literary lists included in this work are so important for understanding the context and time in which al-Shidyaq lived. Departing from his theoretical and methodical framework to understand al-Shidyaq’s work, Junge explains how he thinks these literary lists should be read.

How to read al-Shidyaq’s life

Junge describes al-Shidyaq as a key influencer who writes for the Arabic-reading audience from Europe, Istanbul, Malta, and elsewhere, occupying a special position both because of his writing and because of his life experiences. Junge describes al-Shidyaq as an Arab-European Mahgar who belonged to the cadre of Syrian-Lebanese intellectuals without being at the center. Al-Shidyaq wrote for an Arabic-language audience while being detached from them for a long period of time. He was an outsider and insider at the same time, writing about key fundamental issues concerning the debates central for the Nahda. Describing him as an “excentric expert,” Junge shows that al-Shidyaq’s life is filled by the desire to understand language, and, at the same time to understand, his own personal religion, having converted multiple times.

While being sometimes an outsider inside the Nahda environment, he is an expert on the subjects and a key figure for this period. Junge delves deep into the complex and diverse life of al-Shidyaq, and how hard it was for him to make a decent living in Europe. Yet with the right contacts, he was able to advertise Leg over Legto a broad audience of Arabic-language readers. Leg over Leg was popular among Nahdawi scholars and contemporary researchers alike.

What does it mean to ‘expose words’?

In 1995, Fawwaz Tarabulusi and Aziz al-Azma published a Shidyaq Anthology in which they wrote about different themes that revolve around this key figure. They speak about the author exposing or stripping the language without specifying exactly what they mean by this. In this essay, Junge expands on the term, and creates his own understanding by not only using the language, but concentrating on words, and on what it means to “expose words.” He consults works by Wen-Chin Ouyang, Jeffrey Sacks, Tarek el-Ariss, Nadia Bou Ali, and others as he examines the current research on the work and life of al-Shidyaq. “Exposing Words” is a method by which to think about words and languages, and their connection to the specific context in which they are presented.

Riqqa, diqqam, taswiya, and iswadda, are words from al-Shidyaq’s list that describe erotic elements of women. This list comes from the question asked by the husband, about how female lust can be bigger than male lust. Al-Fariyaqa’s word-oriented arguments demonstrate that women have the right to the same desires as men. By this reading, Junge concludes that:

“al-Fāriyāqīya fordert, so kann man weiterdenken, das Recht auf eine weibliche Teilhabe an den Lüsten, also nicht nur an der geschlechtlichen Lust, sondern auch der gesellschaftlichen und kulturellen Lust – und damit eben auch an der sprachlichen Lust. Weibliche Emanzipation bedeutet hier nicht nur weibliche Teilhabe am Wissen, sondern auch an den Lüsten. Die Frau tritt hier als Subjekt der Lust in Erscheinung.”(S.193)

In short, Junge writes that al-Fāriyāqīya demands the right to a woman’s participation in lust, which means not only sexual desire, but also social and cultural desires — and thus also linguistic pleasures. Women’s emancipation here means not only women’s participation in knowledge, but also in lust. Woman here are not the object of pleasure, but its subject.

By “exposing words,” Christian Junge reads the work as a larger critique. He particularly focuses on three key issues: gender, pleasure, and language. Language in particular was a core issue in al-Shidyaq’s oeuvre. The unique aspect of Junge’s study is how he reads these literary lists as a form of critique and as a way of understanding the living context of their author. The book tries to explain the world through these lists and comments on them by using specific terms. Using the lens of language and, in particular, the literary lists, Junge thus examines how Leg over Leg discusses the role of women, gender, lust, and language in order to present a socio-cultural critique of his time. This process of “exposing words” doesn’t rely on only one method or theory, but rather is a mixture of many. By going back to Viktor Sklovskij (1893-1984), Junge locates three core characteristics of these literary lists, which are: irony, contrast, and exaggeration.

One of the main characters in the work is the wife of the protagonist Fariyaq: al-Fariyaqiya. She embodies the debate on the “new woman” during this era. Listing words that describe how al-Fariyqiya behaves, and what tropes can be attributed to her, is a way to criticize male behavior. The longest list has about 1000 words, which describe the positive sides of women. Christian Junge explains that:

“Die langen Listen zielen in dieserLogik nicht auf einen übersteigerten Materialismus, sondern auf eine überfeine Wahrnehmungsfähigkeit der Frau. Die Frau ist zu einer Perzeptionsvielfalt und Gedankenschärfe fähig, die den Mann oft überfordern und die dadurch die Frau zu einer unverzichtbaren kritischen Instanz machen: Die Frau erfasst Dinge, die der Mann nicht erfassen kann.” (S.128).

Basically, the long lists aren’t meant to focus on women’s materialistic desires, but rather on how women were thinking differently from men, and how women often grasped things that men could not comprehend.

A New Way of Researching Leg over Leg

There are studies on Leg over Leg in many European languages, as well as in Turkish, in Chinese, and beyond. Its popularity remains strong in the academic world and also in the Anglophone literary world, since the release of the English translation by Humphrey Davies. While there are a lot of studies on al-Shidyaq’s work in English, there are only a few in German. Junge’s study, which is based on his dissertation, is a much-needed look at Shidyaq’s linguistic skills as a way of opening onto the work’s social, cultural, and political aspects. By exposing words, Junge is able to make it easier for the reader to approach the complexity of Leg over Legand to understand how words and language were used in the 19thcentury Nahda.

You can read the whole work at the publisher’s website.

Tugrul Mende holds an M.A. in Arabic Studies from the University of Leipzig. He is based in Berlin as an project coordinator and independent researcher.