The Varied History of the Arabic Novel

Waïl Hassan, visiting professor of Literature at NYU Abu Dhabi, and editor of The Oxford Handbook of the Arabic Novel.

Literary scholars believe The Book of Khalid to be the first Arab-American novel. Published in 1911 and written by Ameen Rihani, an immigrant to New York from what is modern-day Lebanon, the book claims to be based on an ancient manuscript composed by the enigmatic Khalid, a mystic-like character who traveled to America and later returned to his homeland.

The manuscript is found in the National Library in Egypt and contains poetic images that synthesize the worlds of East and West: dervishes and stockbrokers dancing in a circle; a skyscraper in the form of a pyramid.

Waïl Hassan, visiting professor of Literature at NYU Abu Dhabi, also thinks in terms of synthesis when he considers the history of the Arabic novel: "One has to write these two different streams into the account, the European novelistic tradition and indigenous Arabic narrative forms," Hassan said.

But for many years, scholars viewed the Arabic novel simply as a derivative of its European cousin — mostly in English and French — which began to be translated into Arabic during the late 19th century.

During that period, the Nahda Movement encouraged the "modernization" of Arab society. Occurring in the context of European colonialism, these reforms focused on modernizing the military and political and administrative bureaucracies, but later expanded to the domains of culture and art.

"It is from this orientation that we have the notion of certain new genres like drama or the novel as things that the Arab world needed to acquire, not only because they offered interesting new creative possibilities, but also because unless Arabs adopted these forms, they would never catch up to the advanced nations," Hassan said.

"But, today, scholars see this argument as too simplistic and naïve."

Research in the field of Arabic literature has shown that though the novel was new to the region in the late 19th century, there were other narrative genres, themes, and techniques that Arab writers drew on from their own literary tradition.

Arab-Brazilian novelists are involved in debates about what it means to be a Brazilian, and Arab-American novelists consider what it means to be an American.

Waïl S. Hassan, NYUAD visiting professor of Literature

Once scholars acknowledged that the Arabic novel was not simply a revision of the European novel, the questions that academics addressed changed. "We now ask: In what ways did these two narrative traditions blend, and what is, ultimately the Arabic novel? If it is not just a copy of the European novel, how do we account for its specificity precisely because it is fed with indigenous narrative forms?"

Hassan is editor of The Oxford Handbook of the Arabic Novel, an ambitious compendium of essays that seeks to answer these and other questions. The book, which he hopes to be released in 2016, will map the history of the Arabic novel, not only in the 22 states of the Arab League, but also in the United States, Brazil, Argentina, United Kingdom, Canada, and other countries with large Arab immigrant populations.

"So insofar as these novels address different traditions of different countries, they are addressing different social predicaments, different patterns of integrations for these immigrants and their descendants, or different national ideologies," Hassan said. "Arab-Brazilian novelists are involved in debates about what it means to be a Brazilian, and Arab-American novelists consider what it means to be an American."

Hassan was surprised to learn just how distinct the novelistic tradition of each country covered in the anthology is. "Egypt is not Lebanon, even though these two countries are so related," he said. "The Gulf countries, even though the region seems relatively homogenous, it turns out that the novel in Kuwait has a different history from Bahrain, or from the UAE, or from Qatar."

At the same time that the novel is local and tied to its writer's cultural heritage and traditions, "the novel is also in many ways a transnational phenomenon," Hassan said. "There's nothing revolutionary about this insight, but I'm trying to understand just how this is reflected in the dynamics of the works of fiction, and all these larger networks that make their way into the fabric of the text."