Zuzana Kratka reviews

Le Roman Arabe (1834–2004) [The Arabic Novel]

by Kadhim Jihad Hassan

Actes Sud, Paris 2006,

pp400, ISBN 2742754598, €29


A Journey into the Arabic Novel

With his latest work, Le roman arabe [The Arabic Novel], published in April 2006, Kadhim Jihad Hassan guides us on a great journey through the history of the Arabic novel. He adopts an approach that is less concerned with literary criticism and more focused on the development of the narrative genre in Arabic literature since 1834, that is with Takhlis al-ibriz ila talkhis Bariz [A Paris Profile]* by Rifa’ah al-Tahtawi (d.1873). He also analyses the most important works, and offers an objective insight into his subject. This type of approach makes Le roman arabe accessible both to a larger, outside-the-university-campus readership and to the non-Arabic speaking general reader.

Kadhim Jihad Hassan is a highly respected poet, literary translator and academic, both in the Arab world and France. Born in southern Iraq in 1955, he has lived in Paris since 1976, teaching at the Sorbonne, and now at the National Institute for Oriental Languages and Civilisations there. He has translated, for instance, Arthur Rimbaud’s collected works, and works of Rainer Maria Rilke, Gilles Deleuze, Jacques Derrida, Jean Genet, Juan Goytisolo and Philippe Jaccottet into Arabic. He also accomplished, together with an introductory study, the acclaimed first free-verse translation into Arabic of Dante’s Divine Comedy (UNESCO, Paris, & Arab Institute for Research and Publishing, Beirut, 2003).

His style is clear and elegant, while the structure of Le roman arabe enables the reader to browse from page to page according to a geographical area, theme or period of time. It is divided into chapters, first according to defining moments in the history of the Arabic novel, which include the pioneer historical novels of Lebanese journalist and writer Jurji Zaydan (1861-1914) and a study of Mohammed Hussain Haykal’s Zeinab which many call the first real Arab novel.

Then Le roman arabe is arranged according to country, including novels from all over the Arab world – those by authors from countries with long and famous literary traditions, such as Egypt, mentioning here only a few, such as, of course, Naguib Mahfouz and Yusuf Idris, Abdel Rhahman al-Shawaqqi, Yahia Haqqi, and the later authors Gamal el-Ghitani, Mohamed el-Bisatie and Edwar al-Kharrat, as well as Latifa al-Zayat and Radwa Ashour. From Syria authors such as Halim Barakat, Hanna Mina, Haidar Haidar and Ulfat Idilbi; and from Lebanon, Rachid el-Daif, Hanan al-Shaykh, Elias Khoury, Hoda Barakat and Hassan Daoud.

And there are many novels mentioned from countries whose literature is less known (to me!) despite the number of prolific authors, such as Iraq (including Ghaeb Tu’mah Farman, Fuad al-Takarli, Fahdil al-Azzawi, Alia Mamduh, Selim Matar) and Palestine (including Ghassan Kana-fani, Sahar Khalifa, Emile Habiby, Jabra Ibrahim Jabra, Liana Badr, Yahya Yakhlif, Ibrahim Nasrallah).

And he has not forgotten authors from emerging literary scenes in the Arab world, either, in this way giving his readers an exciting opportunity to discover contemporary literary production in the Gulf countries, Yemen or Libya, about which most of us are still very much in the dark.

Le roman arabe is also a valuable contribution to the research in the French-speaking world as this is the first work published in French entirely dedicated to the Arabic novel. Of course, much has been written in Molière’s language about Arabic novels, but these essays have so far not exceeded more than a couple of chapters in works outlining Arabic literature in general, such as in A la Découverte de la Littérature Arabe, du VIe siècle à nos jours by Katia Zakharia and Heidi Toëlle (Flammarion, Paris 2003). Besides its privileged position within French research into Arabic literature, Le roman arabe is also the first book to delineate the major factors making up the development of the Arabic novel, and more importantly one which analyses the works in their wider historical and socio-political contexts, taking into consideration influences in authors’ lives that are important to the development of their themes and styles.

His talent at not only summarising the story, settings and message of a novel but also evoking the atmosphere and sensation a native Arabic speaker might feel when reading a novel in its original language – standard or colloquial Arabic – makes this book both interesting and entertaining for the general reader. Kadhim Jihad Hassan dedicates sometimes up to several pages on discussion of a single novel. For instance, his commentary on Taha Husayn’s Al-Ayyam [The Days] is exhaustive and includes biographical elements that influenced Taha Husayn’s work, such as his being blind or his studies at Cairo’s Al-Azhar University. He also explains how Taha Husayn wrote the narrative as if he was talking to his eldest daughter, and referred to himself as a third person, calling himself sahibuna (our friend), while referring to his wife as al-sawt al-‘adhab (the soft voice). By translating the meaning of key expressions used in the novels, Kadhim Jihad Hassan ensures that even readers with sporadic or no knowledge of Arabic can appreciate the quality of artistic expression in the original language.

Academic readers, on the other hand, can appreciate his references to literary theories that have not yet benefited from much international circulation, such as theories argued by French scholar Luc Deheuvels in relation to al-Din wal-‘ilm wal-mal aw al-mudun al-thalatha [Religion, Science and Money or Three Cities] by Farah Antun, or Qawarib Jabaliyyah [Mountain Boats] by Yemeni author Wajdi al-Ahdal. Finally, Le roman arabe contains an index of the works cited, with their original titles in Arabic as well as their meaning in French, and, if a novel has been translated, their published title in French. A separate index of authors mentioned is also included.

Le roman arabe has been acclaimed in reviews in France and the Arab world as an important contribution to widening understanding of the Arab literary heritage, and is praised for its meticulous and exemplary research.

As the author points out in his conclusion, Le roman arabe focuses exclusively on novels from the Arab world written in Arabic – du monde arabe et en langue arabe – which means the many works written in French or English by Arab authors are not within his remit. However, Kadhim Jihad Hassan has succeeded in writing the perfect guide to the Arab novel in Arabic. And to read this guide is to get to know the literary heritage of the Arab world as well as its newest literary trends.

* Takhlis al-ibriz ila talkhis Bariz by Rifa’ah al-Tahtawi is available in English as An Imam in Paris: Al-Tahtawi's Visit to France (1826-31) translated by Daniel Newman

NOTE: In Banipal’s 3-part feature on Iraqi authors, Banipal 17 included an article by Kadhim Jihad Hassan on Iraqi literature, and Banipal 19 his article on the pioneer modern Iraqi poet Badr Shakir al-Sayyab.

From Banipal 26 - Summer 2006

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