The dual canon of Arabic literature between Orientalism and the Arab Nahda discourse at the Fin de Siècle: sexuality, nationalism and the other

Alkabani, Feras (2019) The dual canon of Arabic literature between Orientalism and the Arab Nahda discourse at the Fin de Siècle: sexuality, nationalism and the other. In: Conceptions and Configurations of the Arabic Literary Canon, 17-19 June 2019, Columbia Global Center, Paris, France.

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Literature is often praised as the epitome of ‘high culture’ and a source of national pride; the relationship between literature and nationalism is far from straightforward, however. What is carefully curated and celebrated as the national literary canon, the ultimate and exclusive cultural achievement that marks the genius of one nation against another’s, is rarely selected objectively. Originality, aesthetic value and critical evaluation may be part of the process; however, the practice remains highly subjective, politicised and subject to change in time and place in relation to internal and external factors.

This paper examines the dual and paradoxical conception of the Arabic literary canon in Orientalist and Nahda (renaissance/revival) discourses in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries – an era of great change and closer mutual cultural awareness between Europe and the Arab world. Not only did the period witness the rise of anti-Ottoman Arab nationalism and a better understanding and appreciation of modern European ideas in the Arab world, but it also saw a proliferation in intercultural scholarship and literary translations: Arab scholars were sponsored to study in Europe and more Orientalists travelled East, thanks to European colonial expansion.

What Arabic literature had long signified to European scholars since Antoine Galland’s eighteenth-century translation of The Arabian Nights (mysticism, Romanticism and a platform to explore sexual taboos) was very different from how the nationalist-minded Nahda scholars wanted to reconfigure it as the hallmark of the rational ‘Golden Age’ of Arab civilisation. Sexuality became a site of contestation between certain Orientalists who praised Arab literary ‘frankness’ and an anxious class of Arab scholars who wanted to ‘cleans’ the Arabic literary canon and reconfigure it in line with modern, European standards of ‘respectability’ and ‘politeness’.

This paper presents the fin-de-siècle demise of the centuries-old genre of ghazal al-mudhakkar (male-love poetry) as an example of the Nahda’s major reconfiguration of the Arabic literary canon, which resulted in eradicating explicit depictions of sexuality and homoerotic desire, vis-à-vis the ironic proliferation in European translational scholarship that cemented the relationship between ‘illicit sexuality’ and the Arabic literary tradition at the time.

Item Type: Conference or Workshop Item (Paper)
Schools and Departments: School of English > Sussex Centre for Language Studies
Research Centres and Groups: The Middle East and North Africa Centre at Sussex
Depositing User: Feras Alkabani
Date Deposited: 12 Jul 2019 10:55
Last Modified: 12 Jul 2019 10:56

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