Modern Arabic Literature by keralaguest



In 1798 French general Napoleon Bonaparte and his army invaded Egypt. This event
heralded a new phase in Arabic literature. Western imperialism brought with it new
genres: the novel and the short story. More important, the subsequent emergence of
independent countries in the Middle East and North Africa meant that a multiplicity of
viewpoints populated the Arabic literary scene.

The literary scene began to come alive again in the 19th century, although many
writers continued to employ older genres. Lebanon’s Nasif al-Yaziji, for example,
composed maqamat in imitation of the medieval form. These maqamat served as a
model for literary experiments by early 20th-century prose writers such as
Muhammad al-Muwaylihi, Ahmad Shawqi, and Hafiz Ibrahim of Egypt. Shawqi and
Ibrahim are also famous for their neoclassical odes.

Arabic poets eventually cut loose from their classical moorings and looked to more
modern forms, such as free verse—poetry with no fixed rhyme or meter. Iraqi female
poet Nazik al-Mala'ika is most closely associated with the inception of the free-verse
movement in the 1940s and 1950s. Modern Arabic poetry is a complex genre,
including prose poems and forms that are experimental in varying degrees. Poets
such as Salah Abd al-Sabbur of Egypt, Adonis of Syria, and Mahmud Darwish of
Palestine have helped ensure that poetry remains an integral and living part of
modern Arabic literature.

The prose tradition as well underwent fundamental transformations in the modern
period. Drama developed as a literary form in its own right, rather than a form
derived from the maqama. The writer most often associated with contemporary
Arabic theater is Tawfiq al-Hakim of Egypt. In his play Shahrazad (1934; translated
1981), he recast the famous frame story of The Thousand and One Nights.

Autobiography also flourished anew in the 20th century. The genre received a major
stimulus from the three-volume al-Ayyam (The Days) by Egyptian social reformer
and intellectual, Taha Husayn. Published across four decades, from the 1920s to the
1960s, this passionate autobiography is a monument of modern Arabic prose and to
the conquest of a handicap—the author’s blindness. Taha Husayn’s account details a
dramatic life in both Europe and the Middle East. The autobiography is read by
school children in countries from Sudan to Syria and has been the subject of
television and motion-picture productions.

The first Arabic novel is generally considered to be Zaynab (1913; Zainab, 1989), by
Egyptian writer Muhammad Husayn Haykal. The novel, along with the short story,
continued to grow in importance throughout the 20th century. Egypt’s Naguib
Mahfouz, one of the best-known Arabic novelists of the 20th century, was awarded
the Nobel Prize for literature in 1988. His al-Thulathiyya (The Cairo Trilogy), which
chronicles the travails of an Egyptian family, won him critical acclaim and, according
to some, was the major contribution to his winning the Nobel Prize. The trilogy is
composed of Bayna al-Qasrayn (1956; Palace Walk, 1990), Qasr al-Shawq (1956;
Palace of Desire, 1991), and al-Sukkariyah (1957, Sugar Street, 1992). Yūsuf Idrīs
of Egypt has been the acknowledged master of the Arabic short story, with his
powerful narratives on sexuality and male-female roles.
Palestinian writer Emile Habiby is best known for his novel al-Waqa'i' al-Ghariba fi-
Ikhtifa' Sa'id Abi al-Nahs al-Mutasha'il (1974; The Secret Life of Saeed, the Ill-Fated
Pessoptimist, 1982). He uses humor and irony to describe the plight of Palestinians
living in Israel.

Habiby is one of a group of Arabic writers who have moved away from realism as a
literary mode. Many of them have drawn upon centuries-old literary traditions for
material. A prominent example is the novel al-Zayni Barakat (1974; translated
1988), by Jamal al-Ghitani, which employs 15th- and 16th-century texts to create a
postmodern narrative. The writer Yusuf al-Qa'id is another important figure. His
three-volume Shakawa al-Misri al-Fasih (The Complaints of the Eloquent Egyptian,
1981-1985) demonstrates that the textual tradition a writer mines can hark back a
few thousand years, to Egypt’s past under the pharaohs.

Women living in many countries have become a strong presence in modern Arabic
literature. Lebanese writer Hanan al-Shaykh’s powerful narratives about the
Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990) include Hikayat Zahra (1980; The Story of Zahra,
1986). Palestinian Fadwa Tuqan is known for her poetry and autobiography, notably
Rihla Sa'ba, Rihla Jabaliyya (1985; A Mountainous Journey: An Autobiography,
1990). Perhaps the most vocal and most prominent woman writer from the Arab
world today is feminist physician Nawal El Saadawi, whose uncompromising and
powerful prose has made her as many enemies as admirers. Her prison memoirs,
Mudhakkirati fi Sijn al-Nisa' (1984; Memoirs from the Women's Prison, 1986), are in
many ways a testimony to the interplay of politics and literature in modern Arabic


On the fast-changing contemporary scene, older literary figures such as Jamal al-
Ghitani and Yusuf al-Qa'id remain major players. Such events as the migration of
teachers and workers to oil-rich states on the Persian Gulf have given rise to more
adventurous texts dealing with the plight of the intellectual in a type of exile. An
eloquent example is the novel Barari al-Humma (1985; Prairies of Fever, 1993) by
Palestinian writer Ibrahim Nasr Allah. Today, Arab writers who live in exile—because
of political instability, repression, or other difficulties in their homeland—continue to
write works in Arabic that circulate both in the Arab world and in Arabic-speaking
communities outside the Middle East and North Africa.

As renewed Islamic religious fervor spreads across the Arab world, Arabic literature
has begun yet another process of adaptation. Religious-minded writers now compete
with the more secular intellectuals in such genres as poetry, the novel, and the short
story. At the same time, both religious and secular writers draw on much of the
same premodern Arabic literary tradition. Novels by physician and born-again Muslim
Mustafa Mahmud are best-sellers. The prison memoirs of female Muslim activist
Zaynab al-Ghazali, Ayyam min hayati (Days from My Life, 1977), have had many

The vitality of the Arabic literary tradition becomes visible as one walks the streets of
Middle Eastern and North African capitals and gazes in bookshop windows. At the
same time, bookstores of London, Paris, and other world capitals with large Arab
populations offer a similar experience. This diversity underscores the long and
powerful history of Arabic literature and demonstrates its continued role in world

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