Monday,19 November, 2018
Current issue | Issue 1364, (12 - 18 October 2017)
Monday,19 November, 2018
Issue 1364, (12 - 18 October 2017)

Ahram Weekly

Memories of struggle

Despite their number and importance, little work has been done on Arab autobiographies and memoirs and their contemporary adaptations in the Arab world, writes Tahia Abdel-Nasser

Memories of struggle
Memories of struggle

In her memoir Al-Sarkhah (The Scream), the late Egyptian writer and activist Radwa Ashour comments on her post-surgery isolation in Denmark and long-distance solidarity with the 2013 struggle in Egypt. She circles back from Al-Rihlah (The Journey), a 1983 memoir of her youth abroad, to her illness and travel in her posthumously published memoir. 

The Scream describes a trip to Denmark for medical treatment, and it is enmeshed with Ashour’s deep commitments in Egypt. Arab writers have often produced memoirs that evoke a struggle between deep commitment and solitude. Taha Hussein dictated an autobiographical novel in a small village in France. Mahmoud Darwish composed a memoir about the 1982 siege of Beirut in self-imposed solitude in his Paris study. Latifa Al-Zayyat began a memoir in the Al-Qanatir women’s prison in Egypt. In sum, Arab memoirs constitute a vast corpus and typify myriad forms. 

However, there are no monographs on Arab autobiography in Arabic, English or French. Little has been written on the rapidly growing field of Arab autobiography or the recent memoirs that have appeared in English and Arabic. What has been written does not treat these works as world literature. However, as a result of the proliferation of such memoirs, it is now urgent that more is known about the genre and its contemporary adaptations in the Arab world. It is important to see how autobiographical production has other sources beyond conventionally European ones. 

Arab authors have produced a vibrant autobiographical tradition that extends to pre-modern forms and encompasses a rich array of sources. Besides memoirs, autobiographies, and autobiographical novels, my own recent study, Literary Autobiography and Arab National Struggles, draws upon testimonies, diaries, journals and poetic autobiographies.

It traces the effects of anti-colonial and anti-imperialist struggles on Arab autobiographical production in Arabic, English and French. Autobiography has flourished at important historical moments in the Arab world in the 20th and 21st centuries, producing a canon that brings to light the ways in which anti-colonial struggles, the experience of independence and cultural interactions have helped produce a distinct literary tradition. 

The study focuses on the importance and adaptation of autobiography in the Arab world, examines other sources and offers new comparative work to rethink practices of scholarship on the genre. It offers a comparative study of autobiography that considers its affinities with other literatures in the Global South and rethinks the genre through new modes of inquiry as a global form.  

PREVALENCE OF MEMOIRS: Arabic literature contains many memoirs, and these have appeared in several languages. I have long been interested in the interconnections of such memoirs with the national struggles in which their authors were involved. Trained as a literary comparatist, I have also been interested in reading these Arabic, English and French-language works as part of world literature. 

I thus draw upon comparative tools to examine the kinships of Arabic literature with other literatures and why Arab writers have made such connections. A particular concern has been how these authors have rethought solitude through moments of struggle in their memoirs and autobiographies. One word recurs in these memoirs in the midst of otherwise eventful lives: “solitude.” It looms large in memoirs about occupation and anti-colonial struggle. It takes on a rich variety of meanings, reformulated in various turns of phrase. It means by turns seclusion and isolation, but also freedom and independence.

I have found that these writers have turned to solitude at moments of intense political commitment. It flourishes in memoirs where the solitude is deep and soulful: Taha Hussein’s “intolerable solitude” during his studies in Cairo; Mahmoud Darwish, for whom solitude was self-sufficiency and self-possession, something he nurtured and with which he formed an intimate friendship; Mourid Barghouti, a poet who leans towards solitude; Edward Said’s “paralysed solitude” at boarding school in the United States; and Radwa Ashour, for whom solitude meant isolation during her study abroad at an American university.

The sources of such memoirs are multifarious and reflect affinities with other literatures. Some works are rich in allusions to Latin American literature. Darwish, who composed a poem about his visit to the Chilean poet Pablo Neruda’s home on the Pacific, pays homage to his peer. Barghouti in his Wulidtu Hunakah, Wulidtu Huna (I Was Born There, I Was Born Here), also recalls Neruda. “I’d wonder at the ‘blooming good health’ of Pablo Neruda,” he writes, “as if a poet had to look wasted, half dead and pale.” 

Ashour, writing of her journey to the United States to study at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst, spoke of a “black-and-white photograph of Che Guevara riding a horse in the jungle, his face glowing like a star beneath his black beret” (in Michelle Hartman’s translation).

In her memoir Al-Rihlah: Ayyam Talibah Misriyyah fi Amrika (The Journey: An Egyptian Woman’s Student Days in America) about her study in the United States in the 1970s, Ashour tells the story of Third World struggles in the 1960s and 1970s. She chronicles her studies at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst in the W. E. B. Du Bois Department of Afro-American Studies from 1973 to 1975. The book also contains allusions to other Third World struggles in the early 1970s, including the 1973 coup in Chile against the democratically elected socialist president Salvador Allende. It tells of the writer’s life abroad and her solidarity with the struggles of the Arabs, Africans, African-Americans and Latin Americans.  

On her way to America, Ashour is careful to note that she is far from being besotted with the bright lights of imperialism. In her interest in African-American literature, there is another subtly outlined solidarity with Latin American struggles. The Journey traces the author’s commitment to Third World struggles and her solitude, translated as her firm independence and ambivalence about the United States.  

While in North America, Ashour notes the massacre of 5,000 people in the Chile Stadium where Chilean singer, poet and activist Victor Jara was murdered. At Yale University in New Haven, where she learns of the massacre, she roots for the Chilean Government of Popular Unity. “I cheer like one of the people of the Southern Cone pursued in the streets with batons and tear gas,” she says.

Writing of Jara’s poem about the 5,000 detainees in the stadium before the military junta led by Pinochet cut off his hands and killed him, Ashour exhibits her solidarity with Latin American struggles among her Arab and African solidarities in the United States. Her memoir makes clear these transcontinental connections and her affinity for Third World struggles in the 1970s. 

CONTEMPORARY MEMOIRS: A further Arab memoir that came out while the book was in press was Hisham Matar’s Pulitzer-Prize winning book The Return: Fathers, Sons, and the Land in Between. This 2016 memoir luminously recounts Matar’s search to discover the fate of his father who disappeared in revolutionary Libya in 2012. 

Another memoir that has appeared in Spanish and explores the effects of Arab migration to Latin America is Volverse Palestina (Becoming Palestine) by Lina Meruane. In this 2013 book, Meruane, a Chilean author of Palestinian origin, retraces her grandfather’s journey from Palestine to Latin America in a “borrowed return” to her father’s country of origin in order to discover the origins of her surname and in so doing coming into contact with Palestine under occupation. 

Each of these memoirs tells an unravelling story of transnational connections and intercultural exchange. And contemporary Arab autobiography is a growing field that has crossed into other languages and been shaped by encounters with world literature. These autobiographical works uncover the kinds of affinities and kinships between literatures that have inspired my book. 

I am now writing a new book on the connections between Latin America and the Arab world in the adaptation and circulation of literature. This project has long interested me, and it grew out of my study of Latin American and Arabic literature. The political ties between Latin America and the Arab world predate some of these interconnections, yet literary exchange now flourishes. Another project, developing out of the book on Latin America and the Arab world, examines literary and cultural ties between Palestine and Latin America.


The writer is an assistant professor of English and Comparative Literature at the American University in Cairo and author of Literary Autobiography and Arab National Struggles.

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