Tuesday,21 November, 2017
Current issue | Issue 1352, (13 - 19 July 2017)
Tuesday,21 November, 2017
Issue 1352, (13 - 19 July 2017)

Ahram Weekly

A discursive intersection

Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics, Issue 37, Cairo: AUC Press, 2017, pp.614

Literature and journalism make up the main theme of the new issue of the American University in Cairo’s bilingual annual journal Alif, published by the Department of English and Comparative Literature at the American University in Cairo and edited by its founder, the well-known Iraqi critic, translator and AUC literature professor Ferial J. Ghazoul.

According to the editorial, written by the issue’s guest editor Hala Halim — former cultural editor of Al-Ahram Weekly and current associate professor of comparative literature and Middle Eastern studies at New York University — the issue addresses the relation between literature and journalism in “a wide variety of Arabophone (the Mashriq and the Maghreb), Arab Francophone and Anglophone, African American, and Latin American contexts.” The contributors explore the literary in relation to a variety of journalistic genres in several forums of cultural journalism. 

The English section of Alif opens with an article by Sabry Hafez, professor emeritus of modern Arabic and comparative literature at the University of London (SOAS), “Cultural Journals and Modern Arabic Literature: A Historical Overview”. A panoramic piece, it explores the role of the cultural periodicals published starting from the 19th century to the present in introducing modern Arabic literature in Egypt, in the Mahjar (Arab communities outside the Arab world) as well as the Mashriq and Maghreb. According to Hafez, “When one speaks of cultural transition and literary schools or movements in Arabic literature, one is also speaking of literary journals, because journals were the organs that articulated the views of these schools and announced their existence to the reading public.”

Whether as a term or a concept, in a variety of applications the Arab Nahda, or renaissance, is the focus of several articles. These include “‘Nahḍa’: Mapping a Keyword in Cultural Discourse” by Hannah Scott Deuchar from New York University, which explores the diverse paths the term took throughout Arab history as it appeared in the press from 1850-1914. Deuchar demonstrates how, “throughout much of the Nahḍa era itself, the word “nahḍa” retained and developed meanings that diverge significantly from the connotations of secular, liberal, nationalist, Christian-led, Westernizing ‘renaissance’ dominant today”. However, in his article “Al-Kawakibi: From Political Journalism to a Political Science of the Liberal Arab Muslim”, Stephen Sheehi, Sultan Qaboos bin Said chair of Middle East Studies at the College of William and Mary, uses Abdel-Rahman Al-Kawakibi’s Tabaai al-istibdad (The Characteristics of Oppression) as an example of how Nahda writing dealt with the duality inherent in Ottoman Arab modernity.  

The Egyptian cultural journalism scene is examined by several articles including “The Cultural Newspaper Akhbar Al-Adab and the Making of Egypt’s ‘Nineties Generation’” by Nancy Linthicum from the University of Michigan. The article examines the role played in the 1990s by the weekly Akhbar Al-Adab in the making of narratives about Egypt’s 1990s generation of writers. The article examines the newspaper’s series of interviews with writers generally affiliated with this generation called Malamih Jil (or “Features of a Generation”). 

For his part professor Sami Suleiman Ahmed from Cairo University focuses on Al-Hilal magazine in his article “The Abridged Autobiography in Al-Hilal Magazine: Narrative Components and Cultural Functions”, which opens the Arabic section of Alif. The article discusses nine representative samples of this form published in Al-Hilal between 1991 and 2006. 

Sherine Abul-Naga, literary critic and professor of English and comparative literature at Cairo University, explores the relationship between the literary field and journalistic reception governed by specific ideological trends in her article “Journalistic Reception of Layla Baalbakki’s Literary Discourse”. The article reviews the banning of the 1964 short story collection Safinat hanan ila al-qamar (A Spaceship of Tenderness to the Moon) and its author Layla Baalbakki’s subsequent trial, all instigated by a brief condemnatory comment in the Egyptian magazine Sabah Al-Kheir

On the other hand Hanin Hanafi examines in her article “Literary Blogs, Towards a New Genre: The Case of Baghdad Burning” a new literary genre enabled by communication technology. 

The cultural press in the Maghreb and the Mashriq is part of several wide-ranging articles, some of which take an in-depth look at certain examples in one or more countries. In her article “Printed Matter(s): Critical Histories and Perspectives on Tunisian Cultural Journals”, Hoda Al-Shakry from Pennsylvania State University argues that Tunisian cultural journals of the mid-20th century “complicate teleological narratives of decolonisation, nationalism, and acculturation within cultural histories of the Middle East and North Africa”. She highlights three Arabic cultural journals published in Tunisia: “Al-Alam Al-Adabī (The Literary World, 1930-1936), Al-Mabāḥith (Investigations, 19381947), and Al-Fikr (Contemplation, 1955-1986)”. 

Another example, from Algeria, is demonstrated by Dina Heshmat from the American University in Cairo in her article “Writing Contemporary Algeria between Literature and Journalism”. The article deals with writings by a generation of Algerian novelists working as journalists who were born in the late 1960s and early 1970s. Heshmat analyses aspects of continuity between literary and journalistic writing by novelist and journalist Kamel Dawoud, author of Meursault contre-enquête (2013), and how the narrative functions as a dark depiction of contemporary Algeria, thus adding a documentary element to its aesthetic value.

The Beirut-based Al-Adab is discussed in “Mediating Iltizām: The Discourse on Translation in the Early Years of Al-Ādāb” by Adam Spanos from New York University. The article explores the journal’s decision to privilege translation as a means of establishing solidarity with justice-seekers globally and challenging imperialism, showing how tensions began to emerge in response to Camus’ and Sartre’ equivocations on Algeria and Palestine which brought the journal’s understanding of translation into question. 

On the other hand in “Re-formed Discourse: Awrāq, Journal of the Syrian Writers’ Association”, Alexa Firat from Temple University examines the re-emergence of the Syrian Writers’ Association (SWA) in 2012 and the publication of its journal Awraq within the context of the Syrian revolution. The article proposes that the material published in Awraq creates the critical and intellectual groundwork for a post-Assad Syria in which questions such as citizenship and history, let alone documentation, representation and identity loom large. 

In her article “Intersections in Emerging Syrian Fiction with Journalism”, Manal Al-Natour from West Virginia University examines the interface between fiction and journalism in such works as Samar Yazbek’s “Bawwabat ard Al-‘adam (The Crossing); ‘Abdallah Maksur’s Ayyam fi Baba Amr (Days in Baba Amr) and ‘Aaid ila Halab (Returning to Aleppo); ‘Adnan Farzat’s Kan Al-Raais Sadiqi (The President Was My Friend); and Ibtisam Tirisi’s Mudun Al-yamam (Cities of Doves)”. The article invites a reflection on the role of such work in documenting the revolution and in Syrian identity formation.

Drew Paul from the University of Tennessee focuses on the website Qadita.net as an example of a contemporary Palestinian journalistic outlet for literature and cultural critique in his article “From Political Party Press to ‘Disruption’ in Palestine: The Journalistic and Literary Website Qadita net”. The article explores the website’s acts of disruption shown in its treatment of issues related to the Palestinian struggle from within Israel. 

This issue of Alif includes three testimonies that emphasise the link between literature and journalism. One is by the prominent journalist and writer Wadie Philistin, “My Life Between Journalism and Literature”. In it the author reflects on up to 70 years working as a journalist, editor, literary critic and translator. The second is by the Egyptian writer and journalist Ezzat Al-Kamhawi, “Wrestling with the Tiger”. In it he reveals that, though it was his passion for literature that led him to pursue a career in journalism, he came to realise that journalism as a profession poses considerable threats to literature. The third testimony, “Journalist and Writer Anthony Shadid: Personal Testimony and Critical Insights”, is written by Nezar Andari from Zayed University in the UAE. It is a tribute to the late journalist and writer Anthony Shadid (1968-2012) which highlights his importance as a literary figure. Narrating a final conversation with Shadid and drawing on an interview with his editor George Hodgman, the article promotes an appreciation of creative nonfiction.  

The interview of the issue, “Intermediality and Cultural Journalism” is with the Egyptian poet and visual artist Ahmed Morsi by Hala Halim herself. In it Morsi talks about the significant spaces in his life and his choices in art and poetry. He addresses his experience in journalism, collaborative projects and censorship, as well as his return to writing poetry after a silence that began in the wake of the June 1967 defeat and lasted for three decades.


Reviewed by Nahed Nasr

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