Image of Studying Modern Arabic Literature: Mustafa Badawi, Scholar and Critic
Margaret Obank


Studying Modern Arabic Literature: Mustafa Badawi, Scholar and Critic

Edited by Roger Allen  & Robin Ostle

Edinburgh University Press, UK, 2015, ISBN: 978-0-7486-9662-8, hbk, 230pp, £70.00


A fresh and exciting invitation


It seems an unlikely story that the teaching of modern Arabic literature only really started just over 50 years ago. But when Mustafa Badawi was taken on as a lecturer at the University of Oxford he made a decision that was to change forever the teaching in university Arabic departments, that is, to bring 20th-century Arab authors onto the curriculum for the first time.

This volume of biographical and academic essays, edited by Robin Ostle and Roger Allen, two of Badawi’s first students, now both retired, celebrates the invaluable work of Mustafa Badawi in singlehandedly establishing the teaching of modern Arabic literature in the UK and the USA – indeed he is regarded as the “father of the study of modern Arabic literature”. Robin Ostle sets the scene of Alexandria in the late 19th and early 20th centuries, the cosmopolitan city where Badawi was born in 1925 into a family of six sisters. As a university student there, he was able to thrive on the “bookshops, bars, theatres, cinemas, exhibitions and concerts” that made Alexandria the hub it was.  An interview with Badawi by his former student Prof Abdul-Nabi Isstaif reveals that, at an early age, Badawi started writing  a short story and poems and developed a passion for reading – popular novels, books on Arabic heritage, and poetry. The works of Taha Hussein, in particular, were a major influence on him, liberating him from “traditional hidebound thought”. Fellow Egyptian and Professor Emeritus at SOAS, London, Sabri Hafez recounts how his first visit to the UK to attend the first conference on modern Arabic literature, was arranged with Badawi’s help.

Badawi studied English Literature in Alexandria and the UK, completing a doctorate on Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and translating important texts of literary criticism into Arabic, such as I A Richards’ Principles of Literary Criticism. He taught in the English department of the University of Alexandria, his “attitudes towards literature and criticism” being defined there in Alexandria before he travelled to England. He and his peers all felt “deeply that literature must have a message and that the writer had to be fully aware of his or her responsibility towards society which suffers from the problems of poverty, ignorance and disease”.

Derek Hopwood, Emeritus Fellow of St Anthony’s College, Oxford, relates how Mustafa Badawi’s wide-ranging interest in “all forms of literature”, and “his comprehensive writings in English on the history of Arabic literature”, united a German orientalist Georg Jacob with himself and Mustafa Badawi through the shadow plays of Ibn Daniyal (1248–1310), and led to Badawi’s translations into Arabic of the British poet Philip Larkin.

The second part of the “Festschrift” focuses on Badawi’s academic legacy, with contributions by Mohamed Mahmoud, Hilary Kilpatrick, Roger Allen, Marilyn Booth, Miriam Cooke, Paul Starkey, Abdul-Nabi Isstaif and Elisabeth Kendall. Roger Allen brings up to date and elucidates his long interest in and study of Muhammad al-Muwaylihi’s narrative Hadith ‘Isa ibn Hisham, begun as an undergraduate, under Badawi’s tutelage, studying for his finals. His DPhil thesis of 1968 on the text that eventually became a book A Period of Time (1992) included time in Cairo studying the archives of the Muwaylihi family’s newspaper Misbah al-Sharq, which serialised the travel accounts before being published in various book editions. Roger Allen traces the development of these texts that are now “an important early monument to modern Arabic narrative”.

In honour of Mutstafa Badawi, Marilyn Booth, now Khaled bin Abdullah Al Saud Professor of the Study of the Contemporary Arab World at the University of Oxford, returns to and expands on the topic of a dissertation she worked on as a student directed by Badawi and Albert Hourani – the works of Mahmoud Bayram al-Tunisi (1893-1961) in writings published in Al-Shabab newspaper 1921–2.

Miriam Cooke recalls that in the 1950s two of Mustafa Badawi’s later doctoral students left Iraq for Israel – Sasson Somekh and David Semah. In “Jewish Arabs in the Israeli Asylum: A Literary Reflection”, she writes how the two “held on to their mother tongue” of Arabic and studied for their PhDs under Badawi. She goes on to examine how other Jewish Arab intellectuals from Iraq and other countries fared in the Israeli state.

Paul Starkey, Emeritus Professor of Arabic at the University of Durham, writes about Youssef Rakha’s innovative Kitab al-Tughra (Book of the Sultan’s Seal), which came out very soon after Cairo’s mass protests in January-February 2011, and his translation of it into English. He describes in detail the work’s “formidable proportions”, its “grounding in the medieval tradition” and its “complex structure”, which gave “more than a touch of al-Shidyaq to Rakha’s work”. Wondering what Badawi would be made of it, Starkey concludes that both men have in common “an ability to use Arabic and English with almost equal fluency, and to navigate the literary traditions of the two languages with almost equal ease”.

Abdul-Nabi Isstaif considers a topical “Comparative Approach to Arabic Literature”, looking at the connections of Arabic literature and its “unique experience of encounter with the literatures of the world”, making a plea for comprehensive reassessment. Elisabeth Kendall rounds off the volume with an investigation, entitled “Does Literature Matter”, into the links between literature and politics in today’s Egypt, looking at the ways each informed the other, as well as the role of writers as “guardians of the nation” over the last few years. Lack of space prohibits a fuller review, but suffice to say that Mustafa Badawi’s legacy has been to open up an ever expanding range and depth of study of contemporary Arabic literature.


Published in Banipal 53 - The Short Stories of Zakaria Tamer   

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