Margaret Obank reviews: The Arab Renaissance: A Bilingual Anthology of the Nahda Edited by Tarek El-Ariss

MLA (MLA Texts and Translations Series),
September 2018. ISBN: 9781603293037. Pbk, 448pp, US$22/ £11.51.

Crossing space and time


To the ordinary reader, reading Arabic literature in translation today, the title The Arab Renaissance might be a little perplexing. What Renaissance? and when? The Nahda period covers roughly a hundred years, ending almost 100 years ago. The Nahda, or “awakening”, was a time of burgeoning Arab cultural and political modernity with projects that flowed through all parts of society and politics, literature, culture, press and journals, publishing, education, with an ideal of knowledge, secularism, and reform of language, based on the western Enlightenment.
Tarek El-Ariss, editor of The Arab Renaissance, has assembled a bilingual treasure trove of texts and profiles of Nahda literary and cultural figures, that have been researched, introduced and translated by a brilliant cohort of 25 Arabists from many universities and produced for the Modern Language Association of America. It expands on Stephen Sheehi’s important work Foundations of Modern Arab Identity (University Press of Florida, 2004), taking on wider social and international cognizance. It is a fascinating and humbling compendium of the cultural and literary knowledge of our forefathers that it would be impossible to assemble oneself in one’s lifetime.

Tarek El-Ariss

El-Ariss argues that the Nahda or Renaissance, as an environment to usher in modernity and progress in social practice, has never stopped. His Introduction sets the context of the 19th century Nahda by describing both the historical events that helped create it and the conclusions scholars and historians came to which directed them to the narrative that “the path to Arab modernity” was by borrowing from Europe, thereby entrenching the acceptance of a “clear binary between tradition and modernity, between East and West”. That binary and its concomitant view of the Nahda as a clearly defined historical period has hitherto been the basis for analysing the Arab relation to the rest of the world.
El-Ariss argues that that view of the Nahda narrative is limited and restricted, and neglects the role of literature and other parts of the world. Instead the Nahda narrative is “a dynamic process, complex and multifaceted, crossing space and time”. It is never-ending, based on “encounter and a transnational mind-set linking Arabs to Western Europe but also to Russia, India and beyond”.
Divided into seven parts the anthology brings to life for the first time, with both English translations and the Arabic originals,excerpts from lectures, newspaper articles, novels and literary works of 29 writers, philosophers, publishers, journalists and educators. It opens with central defining texts under the heading “What is the Renaissance?”, moving on to sections on Language & Civilisation, Transnational Connections, Theories of Literature, Novels and Novellas, Poetic Expressions and Political Modernity.
“What is the Renaissance?” starts with an excerpt from the lecture by Butrus al-Bustani (1819-83) on “The Culture of the Arabs”. Founder of the first secular school in the Arab world, translator of the Bible into Arabic and compiler of a comprehensive Arabic dictionary, among many other achievements, al-Bustani would have been a popular speaker on YouTube today, championing libraries and the necessity of acquiring culture, blind-siding ignorance and hoping “that the slender crescent of culture born in the mid-nineteenth century will grow to a full moon”.
Others in Part 1 include the Iraqi educator, writer and intellectual Fahim al-Mudarris (1873-1904) and Egyptian journalist and public intellectual Salama Musa (1887-1958), who could have been writing today, when he writes: “Borrowing among cultures fertilizes them, as if a living body were breeding with a different living body – producing new breeds and then, through evolution, new species.”
Part 2, Language and Civilisation, begins with Jirmanus Farhat, a polymath grammarian, lexicographer, Maronite Archbishop of Aleppo and prolific translator (1670-1732), whose grammar was republished at least five times in the late 19th century, including by Butrus al-Bustani himself, who described it as “one of the simplest to use, easiest to understand, most beneficial, and best organised of books on morphology and syntax”. Then there is Ya’qub Sannu (1839-1912), a playwright from an Italian Jewish Egyptian family who established the country’s first Arabic theatre company, performing in colloquial Egyptian, and founded a satirical newspaper.
Abdullah al-Nadim (1845-96), an Egyptian writer and editor of several reformist journals writing on education, is followed by Hassan al-Attar (1766-1835), also from Cairo, who was a veritable polymath (as many of the Nahda writers seem to be) – writer, teacher, editor, rector of Al-Azhar University and compiler of 50 works of grammar, rhetoric, literature and many other subjects – and an excerpt from his imaginative and satirical “Maqama of the French”. And there is Ali Mubarak (1823-93), known for his 1,500 page fictional travelogue, ‘Alam al-Din, that some say is the first Egyptian novel (published in Alexandria in 1882) which creates a dialogue of its time between European orientalists (French and English) and local Egyptians.
Part 3, Transnational Connections, expands on the cultural encounter with Europe and Russia, showing that Nahda writers saw themselves as part of an international conversation, with the first writer Esther Moyal from Beirut, a Jewish intellectual and prolific translator of European literature into Arabic, who advocated a shared home in Palestine for Jews, Muslims and Christians. Her letter, published in al-Hilal cultural magazine was the magazine’s first signed contribution by a woman.
The weekly newspaper Thamarat al-Funun (Fruits of the Arts), based in Beirut, and published 1875–1910 showed in its articles on local and global affairs the development of Beirut into a major cultural centre. Other writers include Islamic jurist and reformer (and later Egyptian grand mufti) Muhammad ‘Abduh who travelled widely after being exiled from Egypt for his political views, and Mikhail Naimy (1889-1988), the cosmopolitan modernising polymath who wrote in Arabic, English and Russian in a number of genres.
Part 4, “Theories of Literature” includes texts by Farah Antun (1875-1949), writer, journalist, novelist, playwright and translator who was committed to “social progressive ideals, in particular secularism” and founded his own journal al-Jami’a (The Unifier) in which his novel (The New Jerusalem) was serialised in 1904. The Preface to the novel, translated for this anthology, describes the importance of “aesthetic sensibility” as the “primary component of all great books”, and has a passage on writing a historical novel that is utterly relevant to today. Following him is the notable Palestinian literary figure Khalil Baydas (1875-1949), founder of the literary journal al-Nafa’is (Treasures) and translator of Russian fiction and history into Arabic. This section ends with Tunisian polymath Zin al-‘Abdin al-Sanusi (1899-1965), who like many Nahda figures, was committed to political, social and cultural reform, secular modernity and a socially committed national Arabic literature.

Part 5, Novels and Novellas, begins with an examination of the two journals al-Jinan and al-Zahra of Butrus al-Bustani and his son Salim, that challenged and rethought society’s norms. It also includes texts by three women authors Adelaide al-Bustani, the pioneering biographer Zaynab Fawwaz and novelist and educator Labiba Hashim, and by Mahmoud Ahmed al-Sayyid, notable as the first significant Iraqi novelist.
Part 6, Poetic Expressions, introduces works by three Egyptian poets: a premier poet of the Nahda and “Poet of the Nile” Hafez Ibrahim, the neo-classical “poet of the Renaissance” and “founder of modern Arabic poetry” Mahmud Sami al-Barudi, and the writer, poet and social commentator ‘Aisha Taymur – showing how Nahda writers concerned themselves deeply with what was currently going on in society, in particular the British occupation, and felt a duty to intervene and promote social improvement, social justice and education.
The final Part 7, Political Modernity, considers the question of freedom in personal expression with critiques of censorship, despotism and patriarchy as reflected by the works of five major Nahda figures: pioneering educational and political reformer from Beirut Abd al-Qadir al-Qabbani, legendary news entrepreneur, journalist and publisher Salim Sarkis, writer, journalist and activist Abd al-Rahman al-Kawakibi, pioneer in women’s rights for freedom – especially from the veil, Nazira Zeineddine, and the polymath writer, essayist, poet, critic, and founder of an important literary salon Mayy Ziyade.
Such an inspirational anthology! This assemblage of authors who rose to the challenge presented by history, were citizens of the world by nature, enthusiastically open to new knowledge and inventions, to progress, to languages and cultures. They employed their polymathic talents and skills to modernize their societies, develop their aesthetic sensitivities, and to reach for social justice, education and rights. They are certainly examples to follow.