Al-Ahram Weekly Online   8 - 14 June 2006
Issue No. 798
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Power of the imaginary

Ferial J Ghazoul on a Paris conference that focused on the ability of the Arabic novel to resist hegemonic discourse

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From left: head-piece to a chapter of The Arabian Nights' Entertainment, translated by Edward William Lane; the chamber of four columns. Illustrations, from the designs of William Harvey, reproduced from volumes 2 & 3 of the 1912 edition of The Arabian Nights' Entertainment (London: Chatto and Windus)

Hosted by INALCO (Institut national des langues et civilisations orientales) and UNESCO, a conference on the power of the imaginary and the Arabic novel took place in Paris 22-24 May. Organised by the Moroccan scholars Mohamed Berrada and Aboubakr Chraibi, the fifty-some participants drawn from different Arab countries discussed the modalities in which the Arabic novel has contributed to dismantling hegemonic discourse. The conference explored the resistance of the novel to institutional streamlining and its oppositional stance to dominance. Writers and critics, established and emerging scholars, contributed to passionate discussions on taboos in the Arab world and the way novels articulate the unspeakable -- in its political, religious, and sexual dimensions.

The conference raised pertinent questions rather than providing answers to what it set out to investigate: the power and authority of the novel. The power of poetry and its ability to trigger responses in its audience is well attested in modern Arab history. Verse lines of a classicist such as Mohamed Mahdi Al-Jawahiri, or a populist such as Ahmed Fouad Negm, can mobilise the masses and are often recited in demonstrations and political rallies. The impact of the novel on collective consciousness has not, however, been systematically studied. Reading a novel is a solitary act and a speculative exercise and thus it does not lend itself to collective and immediate action. Yet, as we all know, novels shape our view of the world as much as our worldly experience. But to explore the issue systematically one has to approach it from the point of view of the sociology of literature, reception aesthetics, and cultural studies. One reads Mahfouz or Munif not only to be entertained but also to be instructed. This constituted one of the main debates in the conference: should we treat the novel in terms of pleasure production or knowledge production? The Lebanese novelist Rashid Al-Daif held out for the pleasure principle while the paper of the Palestinian critic Faisal Darraj emphasised the epistemological dimension of reading fiction.

Entrusted with the theme of the manifestation of the sexual and the erotic in the Arabic novel, I wondered in my paper about the reasons behind the rise of censorship on sexual discourse in Arab society given it was a common motif in both Arabic literature (the writing of Al-Jahiz and the Arabian Nights for example) and in the works of religious ulema (scholars). The Perfumed Garden of Al-Nafzawi and The Ring of the Dove of Ibn Hazm are prime examples of the religious preoccupation with the field of eros. Unlike medieval Christianity, where the body was seen as polluted and evil by definition, medieval Islam did not have the puritanical impulse that led to monasticism. Yet at one point the discourse on sexuality became forbidden in our society; and despite the official censor's claim that such discourse goes against the grain of our traditions, the examination of our legacy reveals otherwise. Is this contemporary prudence about sexual matters a Victorian attitude imported along with the colonial invasion? Or is it related to the rise of the middle class? And if so, why should the middle class among all classes be so allergic to issues of sex?

In the opening speech of the conference, Berrada explained the presuppositions of the encounter, namely, that the imaginary runs against the dominant order. It re-constitutes relations of things, revealing new possibilities, thus demolishing the notion that what is present is inevitable. The power of the imaginary comes from the fact that it cannot be confiscated or repressed. It has the ability to penetrate and question. It subverts and doubts and thus it creates a dialogical relation -- to use Bakhtin's term -- with the centre. It stands for opposition but because it is fictional and not tangible, it can survive the control of the system. In that sense, the novel is not only about the present but also articulates the silences of history: it questions and re-interprets the past. A panel was devoted to the representation of history in which the Algerian novelist Ouassini Laredj spoke, referring to Arabic and European novels. The most interesting aspect of what he said relates to his own work -- a sequel to the Arabian Nights in which he makes Dunyazad speak for six more nights in his Al-Layla Al-Sabi'a Ba'd Al-Alf (The Thousand and Seventh Night). For him, the novel does not re-write history but raises issues related to history. It is worth remarking that the first panel in the conference was also about the Thousand and One Nights, with the paper of Chraibi (on religion in the Nights ), as if the Arabic novel is acknowledging its precursor in the discourse of Shahrazad.

Rather than devoting sessions on "Women's Writing" or "Emerging Creativity" -- standard rubrics which reinforce separation between women's and men's writing and younger and older creativity, the conference organisers rightly chose instead to have sessions on patriarchy in the novel. This made more sense as a heading since it does not isolate women's writing in a literary harem; and instead of speaking of emerging novelists, the conference opted for a session on the anti-novel. Though in his lucid presentation of the subject, Mountasir Al-Qaffash spoke at length of his young colleagues of the pen and their contribution to the development of the Arabic novel, he by no means concentrated exclusively on age but rather the new writing in the 1980s and 1990s, which included Sonallah Ibrahim and Youssef Al-Qa'id as well as Nora Amin and Mustafa Dhikri. The common -- and by now clichéd classification -- of literary output based on age confuses more than it clarifies. We all know that a poet as ancient as Catullus or Abu Nuwas can speak to us and to our times more than our contemporaries. The ongoing literary wars between genders and generations in Arabic criticism are useless. The conference managed to avoid the pitfalls of such pigeon-holing even though it did not deal enough with the notion of the power of the imaginary, and specifically the empowering role of the novel.

In the short and effective commentary of Syrian novelist and literary journalist Khalil Suwailih on Al-Qaffash's paper, he wondered if the novel has any real power -- thus doubting the primary pre-supposition of the conference. His point was that contemporary writing, or the anti- novel if you wish, is captivated by the freedom of vagabondage. It makes use of the fragmented moment and seeks to be part of it. Suwailih pointed to the new writing's kinship with the Arabic prose poem. He summed up this type of writing as an enormous mural painting on a leaning wall. Hearing him, I was more struck by the parallelism of such fiction with installation art -- both of which seek the momentary rather than the eternal.

The Egyptian critic Sabry Hafez, in his thorough paper, handled both men's and women's fiction and how it dismantled patriarchal values by undermining the image of the father or by displacing him. One of the most striking discoveries for me, drawn from this paper, was that the Arabic novel from its inception in the early twentieth century -- in the hands of Mohamed Al-Muwaylihi, Mohamed Hussein Haykal, and Ibrahim Al-Mazini -- embodied critiques of traditional and patriarchal hierarchies albeit figuratively.

One of the most inspiring and thought provoking talks was that of Lebanese novelist Hoda Barakat. As a respondent to a paper by the Iraqi Kadhim Jihad Hassan on the image of despotism and repression in the Arabic novel, she rejected the focus on the ruler as the embodiment and symbol of despotism and pointed to other locations of despotic and repressive practices. She named the more elusive ways of repressing and controlling that go beyond political subjugation and detention. Barakat pointed to two unrecognised faces of despotism -- that of capital and of gender. The most dangerous repression then is that which pervades every aspect of society. It is easier and more comforting to condemn a dictator and denounce political detention than to explore the imperceptible ways in which repression is disseminated without our awareness of its hidden power. Barakat admitted the difficulty of conceptualising the myriad modes of repression underlying our daily life, nurtured by the market economy and gendered hierarchy, which she attempted to portray it in her most recent novel, Sayyidi Wa Habibi (My Lord and My Love).

Finally, the question of literary history was left open as the debate on what constitutes literature remained unresolved. When discussing literary historiography should one take into consideration pulp literature, novels that became best sellers, or confine one's samples to high literature? Perhaps the Lebanese writer Elias Khoury's response to this question is the most pertinent: it is only by having a literature of supermarkets and airports that literature of distinction can be recognised. In other words, you need pulp literature as a foil to high literature.

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