Al-Ahram Weekly Online   17 - 23 June 2010
Issue No. 1003
Published in Cairo by AL-AHRAM established in 1875

Tell all

Nader Habib introduces one of the Arabic language's guardian angels

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Gamal Hammad

It takes only a few minutes of conversation with Gamal Hammad to fall in love with the Arabic language. He is an affable, light-hearted man, and the way he criticises Arabic curricula at public schools or explains how he was driven to do what he does by the claim of foreign Arabists (widely adopted by Arabs themselves) that the literary canon does not include narrative but only poetry, facilitates understanding of complex topics in a uniquely easy way. Hammad is a scholar with many interests and a man of the media, but it is his love of Arabic that yielded his most interesting work. He is not only a linguist, literary critic and historian, but also a man with a vision.

He is currently studying English "narratology" in order to bring more complex techniques to the thesis expressed in his best known book: "Forms of Narrative in the Arabic Prose Legacy". "Through my studies I am trying to prove that the Arabic canon has storytelling as well as poetry and philosophy, but also that it has history and novels and the full range of the humanities. While the canonical critics do mention narrative, paying attention to the short story-like form of the maqamah, for example, they never actually study the narrative structure of the texts, the way storytelling functions within them. What I do, which I think is more or less a new trend, is to take a form like the proverb for example, and analyse the way it operates across literary forms and discourses, and its functions."

One interesting concept is that of the khabar, which is also contemporary word for "piece or item of news". The presence throughout the canon of the verb yukhbir (meaning, originally, to tell or convey information), Hammad believes, is sufficient indication of how centrally rooted the notion of telling is to the way the language operates. Hammad spoke at length of the story form in the Quran, how protagonists are formed and how dramatic complexes emerge when one hero comes in contact with another. "The Quran stresses epistemology, which is why we see so much overlap centred on narrative." The trick of his book, he implies, is to implement the rigorous methodology of Western academic institutions with an Arab spirit. He feels that being an insider to the culture and literature of Arabs is indispensable to studying narrative in the Arabic canon.

"Those who have dealt with the Arab legacy have tended to treat it from the standpoint of either a lover or a hater, but this is not a scientific approach. There is no room for emotion when we attempt to be objective about dealing with our heritage. It may be impossible to ignore the methods and approaches of Western criticism, but the critic must be extremely eclectic in order to reflect his own standpoint. Most Western theories, I believe, have equivalents or counterpoints within the Arabic canon itself. Deconstruction or the postmodern: all is available in our own legacy once you have the eyes to see it. As early as AD 900, literary theory in the Arabic-speaking world had travelled almost as far as it has now in the West. The principal issue with Arabic learning is lack of rigour, which we can adopt from the West, together with specialisation."

Hammad is currently planning out the second volume of his book. It includes new ideas about the notion of interlocution: how conversation as basic discourse can be loaded with narrative simply by virtue of the way the language operates. "It is a form of analysis of the rich forms of the Arab legacy," he explains, "and to some extent recognising the way it travelled into Western traditions of literature: how Arab stories of highwaymen evolved into detective fiction." Volume Two will also include studies of The One Thousand and One Nights, how they emerged in Egypt in the Ayyubid era and the specifically narrative structure that enables them to bring together so many different literary forms and kinds of writing. "This is," Hammad insists, "the beginning of the novel in Arabic." In addition, Hammad will discuss stories that feature animals in place of people.

Hammad spends time discussing the place of heritage in our lives with reference to the media, his forte. "The Arab media is in dire need of a code of honour," he says. "The future of the nation depends on the effective renewal of media discourse." He cites numerous examples of folklore and heritage that have no place in the contemporary Arab media, urging that they should be brought closer to the surface of consciousness. Studying the language is but one small step on a huge journey towards a cultural national self-awareness of which the Arab world can benefit greatly.

Hammad quotes the great ninth-century author Al-Jahiz as saying that "meanings are on the road, known by those who are near as well as those are far". This, he insists, is the state to which we should aspire to returning.

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