Al-Ahram Weekly Online   26 June - 2 July 2008
Issue No. 903
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Whither Arab criticism?

Participants at the International Conference for Literary Criticism held recently in Cairo were unable to surmount the crisis confronting their discipline, reports Rania Khallaf

Organised by the Supreme Council for Culture (SCC), the International Conference for Literary Criticism, a three-day event held recently in Cairo, was taken up by discussion of problems of more than narrowly academic interest, including the definition of the literary text, ambiguity in modern Arabic poetry, methods of teaching the canonical Arabic criticism of the Middle Ages and cultural representation and perception.

The participants, most of them literature professors from Egypt and across the Arab world, also devoted conference panels to discussion of the influence of contemporary western literary theory on modern criticism in Arabic and the interaction between western and Arab cultures.

However, despite the promising nature of the subject matter, participation at the conference was disappointing. Of the 20 or so non-Egyptian Arab critics who had been invited to attend, only ten showed up, and no non-Arab critics had managed to make the trip to Cairo.

Under the circumstances, the conference's title of "international" was something of a mystery, since Egyptian critics far outnumbered their Arab counterparts and some of the latter appeared to prefer to spend their time in the Council's cafeteria rather than attend the conference sessions.

Nevertheless, according to El-Sayed Fadl, one of the organisers , this year's conference was only designed as the first in what will become an annual event. "The International Conference for Literary Criticism aims to place Arab criticism firmly on the international map," he said, "allowing it to take its proper place in a world that is rapidly changing."

In an attempt to understand the way in which classical Arabic criticism was transformed during the period of the Nahda into something like the discipline we see today, Samy Soliman, professor of criticism at Cairo University, gave a paper on the notion of literary genres in the later nineteenth century, a period he claimed saw a rearrangement of cultural priorities.

Until this time, Soliman said, Arabic literature had in the main consisted of poetry and work that prized rhetorical forms, but as a result of the encounter with the West that had begun to take place from at least the early nineteenth century onwards Arab writers had also begun to produce fiction and plays according to western literary models.

The period saw a change in the "literary system" in Soliman's view, and this reflected wider changes in thought. As far as criticism was concerned, three trends prevailed at the time -- traditional, revivalist, and a third trend that attempted a reconciliation between the two. For Soliman, only careful study of the transition made by Arabic literary criticism in this period will enable us to understand how a text such as the Thousand and One Nights was transformed from a marginal text read for entertainment to a work used as a basis for modern writing and experimentation.

Not all the contributions at the conference were historical in nature. In his paper, Fayez Aref El-Qara'an, professor of criticism at Al-Yarmouk University in Jordan, engaged in a detailed analysis of ambiguity and generic indeterminacy in the Arabic literary text, arguing that proper analysis of such effects called for the invention of a new critical lexicon.

However, El-Qara'an's style of formal analysis did not always go down well with some of the other participants, who criticised formal experimentation as leading to the death of criticism. According to Ahmed Darwish, the conference's president, "literary works that refer only to themselves and that employ codes or symbols that are hard to decode in order to claim a place for themselves as experimental rule out the possibility of constructive dialogue between the writer and the reader or critic."

Similarly, the poet Farouk Shousha, presiding over one of the conference's sessions, jokingly commented on one of the papers discussed, saying that it "required a kind of decoding machine to understand the author's aim and meaning."

"I am not against post-modernist writing, whether literary work or criticism," said Libyan critic Hilal El-Atry, "but indeterminacy is so much in vogue in the academic research carried out in Arab universities that some critics' works are even harder to understand than the original texts they are supposed to be commenting on. Who is supposed to decode all this? Our problem is the absence of a critical theory that is pertinent to the social and political changes taking place in the Arab world today."

El-Atry accused Arab critics of adopting "western theories that emanate from the social and cultural circumstances of the West and applying them mechanically to writing in Arabic." His intervention caused a stir among the participants, the use of the term "critical charlatanism" being particularly provocative to some, while appealing to others.

In another paper, delivered by Hilal El-Hagary of the Sultan Qabous University in Oman, light was shed on the genre of travel literature, which, El-Hagary claimed, was not sufficiently studied in the Arab world. "Critics usually relegate the study of travel writing to the disciplines of history or geography, the result being that we only have relatively unsophisticated studies of this material. And this is taking place at a time when many prestigious universities abroad are funding PhDs in travel writing."

The lack of serious study of travel writing in the Arab world came from the fact that whereas "there is a huge amount of writing by western Orientalists on the Middle East, very little travel writing has been produced, or is being produced, by the peoples of the region themselves."

Meanwhile Mohammed El-Talawy of Minya University in Egypt suggested a new form of literary theory that he called "information criticism," which could be carried out through the computer analysis of texts. This theory, El-Tahawy explained, was based on the examination of specific features of a given text, looking at the recurrence of specific words or phrases.

This type of investigation had been developed as an extension of traditional rhetoric, with a view to avoiding merely describing the style of literary texts and instead placing structures in the text under sustained investigation. This new tool available to modern literary critics would free criticism from the "cognitive constraints" that had plagued it up to the present, he said.

El-Talawy's presentation was met with a mixed response from those present, some participants accusing him of reducing texts to their bare components and of mimicking western theories.

To conclude the conference, a round table discussion entitled "Whither Arabic Literary Criticism?" was held in which the former head of the SCC, Gaber Asfour, launched a scathing attack on contemporary Arabic criticism.

"Arabic criticism today lacks methodology and focus," Asfour said, adding that "we should be aware of the magnitude of the crisis we face." The crisis in criticism was linked to the deterioration of many fields of intellectual endeavour in the Arab world, which now produces little in terms of knowledge, he said.

There was immediate reaction from the floor to Asfour's presentation, with critic Hussein Nassar disagreeing with Asfour in his description of Arab critics as "shadows either of older Arab critics or of modern European ones." Nevertheless, Nassar said, today's problems did have social dimensions.

"Arab societies have changed. We have lost common landmarks, as well as our enthusiasm as individuals. Deteriorating political and social circumstances have killed individual ambition, and this explains the lack of proper academic training in our universities."

In response, critic Mohammed Hamdy agreed that an important part of the crisis was the absence of a clear approach to the academic preparation of critics. Some professors "do not even read academic theses before discussing them," Hamdy claimed.

There were, however, some more optimistic responses to Asfour's intervention. According to Mohammed Abdel-Motaleb, "we tend always to complain: there have been claims that there is a crisis in academic research at almost every stage of our modern history. Taha Hussein himself claimed that there was a crisis during his own time."

"Perhaps being in a perpetual state of crisis is a positive thing," Abdel-Motaleb said, the "current crisis denoting how fertile and rich the present cultural situation is."

While young Arab critics now tend to copy modern western theories when developing their own work, the same criticism was made of Arab critics in the 1960s and 70s, he said.

In her intervention, Hoda Wasfi, professor of French Literature at Ain Shams University in Cairo and editor of the critical journal Fusul, agreed that "self-flagellation was not a good thing. There are many promising young researchers who are publishing research in reputable French periodicals."

In final comments made at the conference, Mahmoud Amin El-Alem, one of Egypt's most senior critics and an advocate of social realism in literature since the 1950s, said that today's crisis in literary criticism should be understood as a reflection of "the prevailing deterioration in value systems."

"The crisis in literary criticism is only one symptom in a more general crisis," El-Alem said, "that includes education, politics and the economy. Today, we are at one of the lowest points seen in modern Arab history."

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