The Middle Eastern Novel Analysis


(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

The novel did not begin to take root in the Middle East until after World War I and did not develop into a serious genre until after World War II. Although Arabic, Kurdish, Persian, and Turkish literatures have a long and rich assortment of oral narrative forms, it seems that none of them has become a major narrative type in the way of the European novel. Lacking a native tradition of their own, Middle Eastern novelists thus turned to Western models for inspiration and guidance.

Prior to the outbreak of World War I, there was some contact between the West and the Middle East. Napoleon invaded Egypt in 1798; following the French withdrawal, the country’s ruler, Muhammad Ali, began to send missions to Italy and France to study military tactics and new weaponry. In 1882, the British occupied Egypt. However, nonmilitary contact with the West, including the sharing of literature, did not occur to any significant degree until after the region came under French and British domination following the collapse of the Ottoman Empire in 1923.

Many Western editors argue that the literatures of the Middle East are always about politics. This is indeed often the case. However, this should not be surprising. The Middle East has been a volatile region politically. The widely publicized Arab-Israeli conflict is only one of several conflicts in the Middle East. In addition, regional secularism and freedom of expression have faced ongoing challenges from orthodox Islam and undemocratic systems of government. Under these circumstances, it is difficult to imagine literature not entering political life.

The Egyptian novel

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Egypt has long been the region’s undisputed cultural capital. In 1927, Muhammad al-Muwayliḥ’s novel Fatra min al-zaman (1907; a period of time), better known as Ḥadth ’s ibn Hishm (the story of ’sa ibn Hishm), was adopted as a school text. Two years later, Muhammad Ḥusayn Haykal’s novel Zaynab, completed in 1911 and published in 1913, went into its second printing. These two literary events generated so much interest in the novel that in 1930 a competition in novel writing was announced. The winner was Ibrhm al-Mzin’s 1931 novel Ibrhm al-ktib (Ibrahim the Writer, 1976).

Muwayliḥ’s novel proved quite popular, largely because of the way it juxtaposed two very different ways of life—one Egyptian, the other European. Many Egyptians found it fascinating to read about the inventions and technological marvels displayed at the Great Paris Exhibition of 1899. The novel led to a new literary theme—the European visit—and it became the focus of many novels published during the 1940’s and 1950’s. This period included serious and prolonged debate about the advantages and disadvantages of contact with Europeans.

Even those novels without a European theme display the influence of the West. In Haykal’s novel, for example, Zaynab is prevented by tradition from marrying the man she loves. In Mzin’s novel, Shushu’s marriage cannot take place until after her older sister is married. Exposure to European ways turns both protagonists against tradition, which they see as confining and outdated. Forces of change—government bureaucracy, the justice system, and secularism—also lead to conflict in Yawmiyt na՚ib fi al-aryaf (1937; Maze of Justice, 1947), by Tawfiq al-Hakim (1898-1987).

These novelists played an important role in the development of the novel in the Middle East. However, the writer who contributed the most to the genre and who has been the most influential is Naguib Mahfouz (1911-2006). Born in Cairo and educated at King Fuad I (now Cairo) University, Mahfouz worked as a civil servant for a number of years; he did all his writing at night. His first novel, ՙAbath al-Aqdr (Khufu’s Wisdom, 2003), appeared in 1939, but it was his later novels that won...

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The question of Palestine

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Many Arab and Israeli novelists came into prominence after the creation of Israel as a nation in 1948. Arab novelists have focused mostly on the plight of the Palestinians and the ongoing Arab-Israeli conflict. Ghassn Kanafn (1936-1972), who was assassinated in Beirut, Lebanon, at the age of thirty-six, gained a wide readership after the publication of Rijl fil al-shams (1963; Men in the Sun, and Other Palestinian Stories, 1978) and M tabaqq lakum (1966; All That’s Left to You, 1990). Both focus on the horrendous difficulties that Palestinians face as they try to find a home. In the first book, three young men brave the scorching heat of the Jordanian desert trying to make it to the Kuwaiti border on foot, where a truck driver agrees to smuggle them into the country for an exorbitant fee. After a long delay, the driver manages to make the crossing with his hidden human cargo undetected. By the time he crosses the border, however, the men have all suffocated to death inside the water tank. The driver throws the bodies into a garbage dump. Out of this tragic event, Kanafn creates a tale that carries with it, from beginning to end, the pain of national dispossession and its consequences for ordinary people.

As another novel of dispossession, All That’s Left to You is the moving story of Hamid and Maryam, a brother and sister who are separated from each other and their mother. Hamid, on his way to Jordan in...

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Other Arab novelists

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

The appearance of Ṭayyib Ṣliḥ’s Mawsim al-hijra il al-shaml (1967; Season of Migration to the North, 1969) was a major literary event in the Middle East. Ṣliḥ (1929-2009), who was educated in London and worked for the British Broadcasting Corporation’s Arabic Service before joining the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization, created the first truly postcolonial Middle Eastern novel.

Told by two British-educated narrators, one unnamed and the other a father of three named Mustafa, the novel moves back and forth between a small village in the Sudan and a London slowly emerging from the devastation caused by World War I. Just like the author, Mustafa has been sent on a scholarship to London. As a student, he frequents the bars and clubs of the Chelsea and Hampstead districts, attends gatherings of the Bloomsbury Group, and develops a strong affinity for Shaw and other Fabian socialists. He marries an Englishwoman and acquires the nickname the Black Englishman. He earns a Ph.D. in economics from the world famous London School of Economics. As he becomes increasingly critical of capitalism and colonialism, however, Mustafa begins to refer to himself as “a lie” and sets out to erase it. He turns his back on everything English and European and returns to his native village, where he marries a local woman and begins farming. He seems to blend in easily.

Mustafa is attempting in this novel what postcolonial critics call the process of resistance and reconstruction: confronting the past in order to purge it of colonial influence and domination. However, this is an impossible task. On one hand, the English language has taken him further and further away from his roots. On the other hand, he declares war on hybridity at a time when the world is becoming increasingly hybridized. His suicide, as the other narrator makes clear, is meant to underline the futility of his undertaking. The novel seems to conclude that although hybridity might be painful, it should, as Chinua Achebe and Edward Said have said, be appropriated rather than discarded. In 2001, the Arab Literary Academy named Seasons of Migration...

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Israeli novelists

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Since its creation in 1948, Israel has produced many highly gifted novelists who explore in a variety of forms and techniques what it means to be Jewish in a land where identity and nationality are challenged. One of the most distinguished novelists is the Ukrainian-born Holocaust survivor Aharon Appelfeld (born 1932), a speaker of many languages who also writes in Hebrew. His early shorter works, ’Ashan (1962; smoke), Ba-gai ha-poreh (1963; in the fertile valley), and others, are in the collection In the Wilderness: Stories (1965); the stories feature a series of dream sequences involving his experience with the Holocaust. The novels feel allegorical; they are dark and philosophical, poetic, and...

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The rise of women novelists

(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

The late 1950’s saw the emergence of many women novelists in the Middle East, most famous among them Nawl al-Sa’dw (born 1931), Ḥann al-Shaykh (born 1945), and Ghdah al-Sammn (born 1942). These writers embraced the novel form to address a critical issue in the religiously, socially, and culturally conservative Middle East: women’s oppression.

Sa’dw, trained as a gynecologist, achieved fame through her many novels, short stories, plays, and critical essays that passionately crusaded for women’s rights. Her first novel, Mudhakkrt Tabbah (1958; Memoirs of a Woman Doctor, 1988), which has been translated into many languages, is the story of a girl who becomes a doctor, and who remains nameless...

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(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

In its early days, the Turkish novel, especially those of Ahmet Mithat (1844-1912), Halit Ziya Uǎakligil (1866-1945), and Peyami Safa (1899-1961), extolled the virtues of Turkish society while at the same time stressing the importance of Western knowledge for material success. Safa’s Fatih-Harbiye (1931) is a naturalistic portrayal of life in Fatih, an old Istanbul district where age-old traditions give men and women contrasting gender roles, and in Harbiye, a sprawling suburb of European-style homes and businesses where women work outside the home and do not have to cover their faces. Other early novelists, most notably Refik Halit Karay (1888-1965) and Reǎat Nuri Güntekin (1889-1956), found inspiration in the...

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(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

The novel had a promising start in Iraq, a country with a long, rich literary tradition. Mahmud Ahmad al-Sayyid (1904-1937) and Dh al-Nn Ayyb (1908-1996) began writing in the late 1930’s, and Ayyb’s 1939 Al-Duktr Ibrhm (Dr. Ibrahim), which deals with the moral bankruptcy of a Western-educated physician, became a best seller in Iraq. The establishment of Saddam Hussein’s dictatorship in 1968 dealt a heavy blow to the novel as the state incorporated all forms of artistic and literary production into its massive propaganda machine in support of the leader. The policy forced many to quit writing altogether, but some chose to collaborate with the state. Typical of such work is the massive Al-Ayyam al-tawila...

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(Survey of Novels and Novellas)

Allen, Roger. The Arabic Novel: An Historical and Critical Introduction. 2d ed. Syracuse, N.Y.: Syracuse University Press, 1995. Organized chronologically, this readable study examines the development of the Arabic novel into a serious literary genre after World War II. Provides detailed analyses of many novelists and their works.

Chertok, Haim. We Are All Close: Conversations with Israeli Writers. New York: Fordham University Press, 1989. Thorough and detailed discussion of themes, techniques, and ideological positions that have become the hallmark of such Israeli writers as David Grossman, Amos Oz, Abraham Yehoshua, and Aharon...

(The entire section is 522 words.)