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In June 2011 Roger Allen retired from his position as the Sascha Jane Patterson Harvie Professor of Social Thought and Comparative Ethics in the School of Arts & Sciences at the University of Pennsylvania, the Ivy-League institution founded by Benjamin Franklin in 1740 in Philadelphia. He served as Professor of Arabic and Comparative Literature in the Department of Near Eastern Languages & Civilizations for 43 years. From 2005-11 he served as Chair of the Department. In 2008 he was elected President-elect of the Middle East Studies Association of North America (MESA) and served as the association’s president in the year 2009-2010.
He obtained his doctoral degree in modern Arabic literature from Oxford University in 1968, the first student to obtain a doctoral degree in that field at Oxford, under the supervision of Dr. M.M. Badawi. The topic of the dissertation was a study (and English translation) of Muhammad al-Muwaylihi’s renowned narrative, Hadith `Isa ibn Hisham (`Isa Ibn Hisham’s Tale); it was later published in book form as A Period of Time (1st [microfiche] edition, 1974; 2nd edition 1992). Roger Allen has retained a life-long interest in the writings of the Al-Muwaylihi family, and in 1998 he was asked by Professor Gaber Asfour, Director-General of the Supreme Council for Culture in Egypt, to prepare an edition of the complete works of Muhammad al-Muwaylihi (2002), and later of his father, Ibrahim al-Muwaylihi (2007), for publication in a series of “complete works.”
In 1968 Roger Allen emigrated from his native-city of Bristol in England to the United States and took a position in Arabic language and literature at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. This position is actually the oldest professorial post in Arabic (as a separate language in its own right) in the United States, dating back to 1788. At the university he has taught many generations of students, now including some of the most distinguished members of the younger generation of specialists in Arabic literature. He has also been very involved in the improvement of methods of teaching the Arabic language in American universities and colleges.
He has written a textbook (Let’s Learn Arabic [with Adel Allouche], 1986-88) and from 1986 till 2002 conducted many workshops on language teaching in the USA, Europe, and the Arab world, as the national proficiency trainer in Arabic for the American Council for the Teaching of Foreign Languages (ACTFL).
In the late 1960s Roger Allen began to concentrate his research on modern Arabic fiction. He began by translating a collection of short stories by Naguib Mahfouz, God’s World (1973, in conjunction with Akef Abadir), that being the collection mentioned in the published citation of the Nobel Literature Prize Committee in 1988 (Roger Allen was centrally involved in the nomination process itself – see the article “Arabic Literature and the Nobel Prize,” in World Literature Today – “A Nobel Symposium”, Winter 1988). He has also translated into English Mahfouz’s Autumn Quail (1985), Mirrors (1st edition, 1977; 2nd edition 1999),Karnak Café (2007), Khan al-Khalili (2008) and One Hour Left (2010). He has also published many individual studies of works by Mahfouz. In addition to the fiction of Mahfouz, he has also translated (and worked closely with) Jabra Ibrahim Jabra (The Ship, and In Search of Walid Masoud, both translated in conjunction with Adnan Haydar), Yusuf Idris (the collection of stories, In the Eye of the Beholder and also a volume of studies Critical Perspectives on Yusuf Idris), Abd al-Rahman Munif (Endings), May Telmissany (Dunyazad – short-listed for the 2001 UK Independent Foreign Fiction Prize), Bensalem Himmich (The Polymath, 2004, and The Theocrat 2005), Ahmad al-Tawfiq Abu Musa (Women Neighbors, 2006) and Hanan al-Shaykh (The Locust and the Bird, 2009).
In 1978 Roger Allen delivered at the University of Manchester in England a series of lectures on the Arabic novel that were subsequently published as a book in 1982, The Arabic Novel: an historical and critical introduction (1st edition 1982, Arabic edition, 1986; 2nd edition 1995, 2nd Arabic edition 1998). This book has been widely used throughout the world as an introduction to the novel genre in the Arab world, and it is also used at several Arab-world universities. Beyond this book-length study, he has also prepared a very large number of individual articles on modern Arabic fiction, novels, novellas, and short-stories,that have appeared in journals, festschrifts, and conference volumes (and in both English and Arabic). In 1988 Cambridge University Press consulted with Roger Allen about the future of the series of volumes,The Cambridge History of Arabic Literature, after the initial volume had been heavily criticized. As a result of discussions, the principles used in organizing the series were significantly altered. In particular, Roger Allen himself became the editor of the volume in that series, The Post-Classical Period (2006), on Arabic culture’s most problematic era, that between (approximately) 1150 and 1850, a huge period of time about which not only is little known but also “critical” verdicts are colored by the application of questionable esthetic principles. In the same year, Cambridge University Press posed him the ultimate challenge: to write a one-volume study of the Arabic literary tradition as a whole. The work on this volume took five years, and appeared in full form as The Arabic Literary Heritage in 1998 (and in abbreviated paperback form in 2000, as Introduction to Arabic Literature; an Arabic version of the smaller version was published in Cairo asMuqaddima li-al-adab al-`Arabi in 2003). This work has been extremely well received, and many scholars now regard it as the standard work in the field.
Roger Allen has served as an editor of several journals, including the Journal of Arabic Literature, Literature East and West, and Al-`Arabiyya, and was Arabic editor of the series of encyclopedia volumes, World Literature in the 20th Century (New York, Ungar). For the same press (Ungar Publications) he produced a large English anthology of critical writings in Arabic on modern Arabic literature, Modern Arabic Literature(Library of Literary Criticism, 1987). He is currently Executive-Editor (with Professor Van Gelder of Oxford University and Professor Michael Beard of the University of North Dakota) of Middle Eastern Literatures. He is also series editor of a set of four volumes devoted to Arabic literary biography (one of which has been published by the Dictionary of Literary Biography and the other three of which will be published by Harrassowitz, Wiesbaden, Germany).
Between 2008 and 2009, his former students participated with the editors of three of the journals with which Roger Allen has been associated—Middle Eastern Literatures, Al-`Arabiyya, and the Journal of Arabic Literature—in the publication of a series of literary studies and translations in the form of a three-part festschrift. Roger Allen has maintained close contacts with litterateurs in the Arab world. He has been a frequent visitor to Cairo and the conferences of Al-Maglis al-A`la li-al-Thaqafa, and he has also been involved in the activities of the University of Tunis at Manouba (PhD supervision) and a number of universities in Morocco, including those of Muhammad V in Rabat, Fez, Oujda, Casablanca, Muhammadiyya, and Kenitra.
His research interests have focused on a number of issues within the broader field of Arabic literature: the problems of evaluation of literary works within the complexities of a post-colonial situation; the urgent need to rewrite the literary history of most regions of the Arab world to reflect new understandings concerning the relative significance of different cultural trends; and the status of the fictional genres in the Arab world in the new era of alternative means of publication and indeed new “media”.
Above all, it continues to be Roger Allen’s hope to maintain and increase the kinds of academic, scholarly, and personal contact between Western specialists and Arab writers and critics, that being the most important development to have occurred during the course of his now 43-year long career. Roger Allen’s avocations focus primarily on music. He plays both piano and organ, and for 26 years (1974-2000) was organist-choirmaster of St. Mary’s Church, Hamilton Village, the Episcopal parish on the University of Pennsylvania campus.
In the Middle East context, he serves on the Diocese of Pennsylvania’s Middle East Study group and has given many lectures to parishes throughout the Delaware Valley region on matters relating to the contemporary Middle East and to historical and current relationships between the three monotheistic faiths that originated in the Middle East region.
In 2012 he won the Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation for his translation of A Muslim Suicide by Bensalem Himmich.
A new edition of What Isa Ibn Hisham told us, or a period of time edited and translated by Roger Allen was published by NYU Press in 2015.
He is a contributing editor of Banipal and a trustee of the Banipal Trust for Arab Literature.