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Notations on the Evolution of an Arab and Arab American Media, and Arab Literature
For Participants of the
By Ray Hanania
Table of Contents
Middle East Publications and Notations:*
Modern-day Palestinian Media*
American Arab Newspapers/Historical*
American Arab Newspapers/Contemporary*
Arab World Literature*
Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir *
Syed Sheikh bin Ahmad Al-Hady *
Yûsuf Idrîs *
Imru al-Qays *
Jubrân Khalîl Jubrân *
Naguib Mahfouz *
Abu al-Tayyib Ahmad Ibn al-Husayn Mutanabbî*
History of Arab World literature*
II PRE-ISLAMIC LITERATURE*
III MEDIEVAL ARABIC LITERATURE*
A Koran and Hadith *
B Adab and Maqama *
C Other Medieval Genres*
IV MODERN ARABIC LITERATURE*
V CONTEMPORARY ARABIC LITERATURE*
The Middle East had a healthy crop of newspapers around the turn of the century and expanding through the 1900s. Many of these newspapers were located or published in the major Arab capitols, such as Beirut, Cairo, Damascus and in Jerusalem.
Ottoman Sultan Hamid II forced many of the Arab writers and publishers to flee to the safety of other countries, including to Egypt where the so-called nahda (cultural, educational and linguistic revival of Arab writing and thought) between 1878 and 1917. In fact, during a purged of Arab nationalism between 1915-1916, the Ottoman’s hanged 31 prominent Arabs, of which 16 were journalists.
Most newspapers in Palestine were handicapped by poor frequency, publishing once, twice and sometimes three times a week. They were under constant scrutiny by the Ottoman and later British authorities. It was difficult to distribute them beyond the municipality where they were published, although several were mailed to Arab expatriates in foreign countries. And, few had circulation runs greater than 1,500, with Al-Quds published by Jiryis (Jurji) Hanania beginning in September 1908, being the largest circulation. Some did reach a circulation of about 2,000.
In many cases, the contents of newspapers were read out loud to groups of Arabs by the literate, in social circles, mainly of men.
Many publishers lamented the high rate of illiteracy in Palestine, and that only "hundreds of Arabs" actually paid for the newspapers. Hanania often lamented in his early editions in 1908 that it was difficult for a publisher to make a living through newspaper subscriptions and through his small independent book publishing company.
In fact, the editor of al-Munadi (Muhammad al-Maghribi) may have began a still argued debate over popular literature versus academic literature, with the latter presuming arrogance because of its meticulously researched, though sometimes boring and unread, dissertations.
Ironically, the "frivolous" publications are the very ones that enjoy the greatest influence over populations, as demonstrated by circulation statistics of modern newspapers and magazines in today’s society. This may portend what has been an apparent absence of political and social humor in Arab society.
The presence of newspapers is important, at least as concerns the status of Palestine. Editors and publishers, including Al-Quds, constantly referred to Palestine as "our country," in the years 1909 and 1913 suggesting the presence of a real Palestinian nationalism independent of a reaction of the impending threat of Zionism and Jewish immigration into the country.
Similarly, newspapers have evolved in the countries where Arabs have immigrated, most reflecting problems originating in their homelands, and most focused on politics abroad and some stories and features of local events and concerns. This includes the United States where Arab newspapers rose in conjunction with the arrival and growth of Arab American communities, warrens and enclaves in Chicago, Detroit, Los Angeles, Toledo and New York to name only a few.
This work is an incomplete work in progress that is continually updated and annotated. As information is obtained, it will be added to future editions.
Please use this as a resource to help you pursue further information on Arab World and Arab American professional literature. The information provided here is gleaned from several sources, the most significant of which is "Palestinian Identity: The Construction of Modern National Consciouesness" by Professor Rashid Khalidi, Columbia University Press, 1997, among other published works. This is a compilation of some of the information published about the various publications in the Arab media and academic research that is available in either online resources or in print. If you find a notation that is inaccurate or contested, please let me know and will will do our best to update it.
Al-Ahram newspaper, edited by Dawud Barakat. Daily newspaper distributed in Cairo, Egypt. Founded in 1889. Had a press run of over 5,000. Identified often with French Middle East policy.
Al-Barq newspaper, edited by Bishara al-Khuri, who later became the first president of Lebanon.
Bayt al-Maqdis newspaper, Jerusalem. Published by Bandali Mushawar.
Al-Dustur newspaper, Jerusalem. Published by Khalil Sakakini and Jamil al-Khalidi.
Filastin newspaper, Jaffa. Published by Isa al-Isa and Yusef al-Isa. First published in January, 1911. Christians, they often wrote about the struggle to free the Orthdox Church from the domination of the Greek higher clergy.
Al-Haqiqa daily newspaper, published in Cairo by Kamal ‘Abbas.
Al-Hawadeth biweekly newspaper, edited by Lutfallah Khlat in Tripoli
Al-Hilal periodical, Jiryes (Jurji) Zeydan, publisher, periodical founded in Cairo in 1892.
Publications exist through the 1920s.
Al-Himara newspaper. Humorous and whimsical publication denounced by other newspaper publishers as "frivolous."
Al-Ittihad al-Uthmani, edited in Beirut by Shaykh Ahmed Hassan Tabbara. Daily newspaper. Tabbara’s paper had been closed down by the Ottomans in May, 1913. Tabbara participated in the First Arab Congress held in Paris in June 1913 and was subsequently hanged by the Ottomans.
Al-Iqbal daily newspaper published in Beirut by ‘Abd al-Basit al-Unsi.
Al-Iqfam newspaper, published by Muhammad al-Shanti.
Al-Jawa’ib periodical, Ahmad Faris Shidyq, publisher, periodical founded in Istanbul in 1860.
Tended to be religious in nature.
Jinan periodical, Butrus Bustani, publisher, periodical founded in Beirut in 1870.
Al-Karmil newspaper, Najib Nassar, newspaper published in Haifa
Owned a small press and published books. First published in December 1908. The most anti-Zionist of the newspapers in Palestine.
Lisan al-Hal, published by Khalil Sarkis, a Christian, in Beirut. Founded in 1877. Considered the largest circulation newspaper of any of its contemporaries in the Ottoman territories.
Al-Manar periodical, al-Sayyid Rashid Rida, publisher, periodical founded in Cairo in 1897.
Tended to be religious in nature.
Al-Mufid newspaper, edited by ‘Abd al-Ghani al’Uraisi and Fuad Hantas, newspaper published in Beirut. It was the house organ and official mouthpiece of the Arab Nationalist secret society, al-Fatat. Al’Uraisi was hanged by the Ottomans in 1915-1916 by the Ottomans for his nationalist activities.
Al-Munadi newspaper, Jerusalem. Published by Sa’id Jarallah. Muhammad al-Maghribi, editor.
Al-Muqattam newspaper, published Ya’qub Sarrut, Fairs Nimr and Bishara Taqla, distributed in Cairo and founded in 1876 and maintained an identification with the British policy in Palestine. Had a circulation of over 5,000. Daily newspaper. Maintained a Egyptian Jewish correspondent in Jerusalem, Nisim Malul, who was fluent in Arabic and who published two short-lived newspapers in Cairo himself, Al-Nasr in Alexandria in 1903 and al-Salam in Cairo in 1910 and republished in Jaffa in 1920. Malul worked for the Palestine office of the Zionist Organization in Jaffa.
Al-Muqtabas periodical, Muhammad Kurd ‘Ali and his brother Ahmad Kurd ‘Ali. A periodical founded in Cairo in 1906 (which later moved to Damascus). Ahmad represented Damascus in the Ottoman Parliament (1911-1912) in Istanbul.
Kurd ‘Ali also owned a small press and published books.
Al-Muqtabas newspaper, newspaper published in Damascus.
Al-Muqtataf periodical, Ya’qub Sarruf and Faris Nimr, publishers, Cairo, periodical founded 1877 (publications exist through 1920s).
Al-Nafa’is al-Asriyya periodical, Khalil Baydas, publisher, founded in Jerusalm (early 20th century) also published small books in Jerusalem.
Al-Nafir newspaper, published by Illiya Zakka, a Christian, around the 1920s. Mr. Zakka, according to relatives, has been falsely accused of having ties to some early Zionist financiers. The family members insist he was dedicated to the Palestinian cause.
Al-Quds newspaper , Jiryes (Jurji) Hanania, publisher, founded in Jerusalem in 1908 after several years of publishing books on a small press. Al-Quds had the largest circulation of the Jerusalem newspapers, about 1,500 in 1914, with many going to Arabs living abroad.
Al-Quds al-Sharif/ Quds Serif, apparently an official Muslim newspaper published in Jerusalem around the turn of the 20th Century. Published in Arabic and Turkish.
Al-Sabah newspaper (that succeeded Suriyya al-Janubiyya newspaper), Muhammad Kamil al-Budayri (cousin of Suriyya’s publisher Muhammad Hassan al-Budayri) Located adjacent to the Haram al-Sharif, Jerusalem, which today publishers al-Maktaba al-Budayriyya.
Also published books.
Al-Sha’b newspaper, 1910.
Suriyya al-Janubiyya newspaper, Muhammad Hassan al-Budayri, post war (1917), shortlived newspaper in Jerusalem.
Tarablus al-Sham newspaper, Muhammad Kamil al-Buhayri, published in Tripoli.
Published articles by leading salafi thinkers, Owned a small press and published books.
Israel prohibited the publication of any Palestinian newspapers outside of the borders of Jerusalem. The main newspaper was Al-Quds. They were heavily censored by the Israelis.
Today, there is also Biladi/The Jerusalem Times. Published by Hanna Siniora in Jerusalem. Biladi is the daily Arabic language paper and The Jerusalem Times is published in English, weekly and distributed on Fridays, with a national paid circulation.
Since the foundation of the Palestinian National Authority, Palestinian owned newspapers continue to be censored and journalists are harassed and imprisoned by the PNA mainly for publishing criticism of the PNA or its president, Yasir Arafat. This despite the adoption of the Press Laws in 1995 which guarantee freedom of press and opinion, and no taxes on printing or publishing of newspapers.
On the other hand, while the Palestinian newspapers do suffer at the hands of the PNA, most are controlled by political organizations and serve as mouthpieces for political groups or organizations. None are considered "independent" in the true sense of professional journalism, despite having some high quality content and insightful reporting.
Al-Hoda newspaper, published by Naoum Mokarzel and founded in 1898. Arabic language newspaper spanning more than 60 years. Maronite Lebanese American.
The Middle Eastern Voice, published by Ray Hanania. January 1976 through November 1978. English language monthly, between 12 and 24 pages, covering social and political events and issues in the Chicago area. Writers included Tobia Hashem, Mimi al-Khatib, Said Malley, Ghada Talhami, and Malek Rihani. It was printed by the Bilalian News printing house on Chicago;s South Side, the leading Black Muslim newspaper. Several American owned newspaper publishers and printing establishments refused to publish it.
(Since The Middle Eastern Voice was owned and published by the author, there is a complete history of its existence.)
Advertising rates varied but averaged about $65 for a 6th of a page. An ad for a downtown Chicago restaurant and lounge that featured belly dancing resulted in its being banned by several Muslim businesses, although it was widely distributed mainly among the Muslim community and was associated with the Arab American Congress for Palestine.
Hanania later went on to become a Chicago political journalist, winning numerous awards working for the Daily Southtown Economist Newspapers (1976-1985) and the Chicago Sun-Times (1985-1992).
Al-Sahkra newspaper, published in the United States by a Maronite Lebanese American.
The Syrian World newspaper, published by Salloum Mokarzel, the brother of Al-Hoda publisher Naoum Mokarzel. English language newspaper. Maronite Lebanese American.
The ACTION Newspaper, published by Dr. Mohammad T. Medhi, New York (1970-1993?)
The Arab Star Newspapers, published in Texas by Aziz Shihab, a former reporter and journalist working for the Dallas Morning News.
Al-Bostaan biweekly, Arabic language newspaper, published in Chicago by Ghassan Barakat (1984-present).
The Beirut Times, published in Los Angeles.
The News Circle Magazine, published by Joseph Haiek.
(A complete listing is on the Internet at www.hanania.com)
Abdullah bin Abdul Kadir (1796-1854), Malayan writer, the first to break with traditional Malay literary style by describing the events of his own life in colloquial language. His most important work, the autobiographical novel Hikayat Abdullah (Abdullah's Story), was written between 1840 and 1843 and published in 1849. It is realistic, lively, and critical, marking a change from the style of court literature and employing many proverbial Malay sayings in its passages of moralizing on human weaknesses.
Born in Melaka in 1798 of Arab and Tamil descent, Abdullah began his writing career by understudying his father as a copyist and petition-writer. He earned the informal title munshi (teacher) by teaching Malay to Indian soldiers and then to British and American missionaries. Abdullah also worked as an interpreter and Malay scribe to Sir Stamford Raffles, the founder of Singapore, of whom he was a great admirer.
Beginning in 1815 Abdullah was involved in a translation of the Christian Gospels into Malay and, after 1835, in the printing of this translation. He also translated Hindu fables. Another of his works, Kisah Pelayaran Abdullah (The Tale of Abdullah's Voyage), was completed between 1838 and 1839 and describes a trip from Singapore to Melaka.
In 1854 Abdullah died suddenly in Jiddah, Saudi Arabia, while on a Muslim pilgrimage to Mecca (his diary of the journey was later published). Although he remained a loyal Muslim throughout his life, his readiness to accept the standards of Western literature made some Malayan nationalists skeptical of his work. In the 1920s, however, his writings became an inspiration for modern Malay literature.
Syed Sheikh bin Ahmad Al-Hady (1867-1934), Malay journalist and novelist, author of the first novel in the Malay language and other works concerned with the relationship of cultural and religious values to modern society. Syed Sheikh was born in Malacca, (now Melaka), Malaysia, and studied in Arabia and Egypt. In Singapore he rose to intellectual prominence as cofounder of Al-Imam (The Leader, 1906-1908), the first Islamic reform journal in south-east Asia. He was also the founder of the Jelutong Press, a center for Malay-language publishing, and of Arabic schools in both Singapore and Malacca. His educational reform efforts in Malacca were complemented by efforts to eradicate corrupt religious practices.
Syed Sheikh's literary career in the island port city of Penang, off the northwest coast of Malaysia, in the 1920s is notable for the publication of Hikayat Faridah Hanum (The Story of Faridah Hanum, 1925). An adaptation of an Egyptian novel, this love story was the first novel to appear in Malay. It examined a number of issues relevant to ideas of Islamic reform and also to the Malaya people of the period, such as the emancipation and education of women, premarital codes of conduct, and patriotism. Puteri Nur al-'Ain (Princess Nur al-'Ain, 1929) echoed these concerns. Syed Sheikh's columns in his periodicals Al-Ikhwan (The Brotherhood, 1926-1931) and Saudara (brother, sister, cousin, any collateral relative, or close friend of one's own generation, 1928-1941) examined social questions in a more polemical fashion. His other translations included the first detective stories published in Malay, such as Cherita Rokambul, which he translated from French to Arabic between 1928 and 1934.
Idrîs, Yûsuf (1927-1991), Egyptian writer, generally acknowledged by literary critics as a master of the short-story genre in Arabic. His feeling for the plight of the common man and the tensions of the moment seem instinctive, and he was gifted with unusual powers of imagination and language.
Idrîs grew up in the Nile Delta and trained as a physician at Cairo University. His profound familiarity with the poorer quarters of Cairo and its inhabitants provided him with abundant material for numerous short stories written in the 1950s and 1960s. His earliest collection, Arkhas layâlî (1954), provides wonderful examples of his genius for the vignette, affording insights into rural life and the motivations of its poorer inhabitants. During the 1960s Idrîs explored aspects of political oppression in the more symbolic collections Lughat al-ây-ây (Language of Screams, 1965) and Bayt min lahm (House of Flesh, 1971). English-language collections of his stories include The Cheapest Nights (1978), In the Eye of the Beholder (1978), and Rings of Burnished Brass (1984).
Idrîs also contributed to other literary genres. Of his novels the most successful is al-Haram (1959; translated as The Sinners, 1984). Set in a rural area at harvest time, it recounts the tensions that arise in a village when a dead baby is discovered. Suspicion initially focuses on migrant workers, but eventually the mother’s tragic act reflects tensions among native inhabitants. Idrîs was also a major contributor to Egyptian drama during the 1950s and 1960s. His play Al-Farâfîr (1964; translated as The Farfours in Modern Egyptian Drama, 1974, and as Flipflap and His Master in Arabic Writing Today: The Drama, 1977) is a farcical exploration of the roles of master and servant. The landmark play attempts to combine modern Western notions of drama with a search for an authentic Arab theatrical mode.
Imru al-Qays (?-540?), Arab poet, author of the most famous of seven poems long prized as outstanding examples of the Arabian Peninsula’s poetic tradition before the rise of Islam in the 7th century. This collection of poems, known as the Mu‘allaqât, served as the linguistic precedent for the language of the Koran, the sacred scripture of Islam. For this reason, the poems have come to assume a canonical status—the works by which all others are judged—within the Arabic literary tradition.
The poems of pre-Islamic Arab authors were transmitted orally and first written down long after their original composition. As a result, little is known about Imru al-Qays, though it is believed that he was a prince of the Kindah tribe. Many stories relate to his life and tell about his wreaking vengeance against the Banû Asad tribe for his father’s murder, his winning ways with women, and his death at the hands of Byzantine emperor Justinian, who is alleged to have sent him a gift of a poisoned cloak.
Imru al-Qays’s poem celebrates tribal values. It extols the virtues of the community by juxtaposing the comfort and security of human company with the daily realities of danger in the solitude of the desert. The poem begins with a mixture of presence and absence, of sadness and nostalgia. The opening line, "Halt, my two companions, and let us weep," is well-known to every educated Arab. A series of episodes follows in which the poet recounts his attempts to woo women, culminating in a famous image of the poet and his lover sneaking away at night from the tribal encampment. The mood changes as the poet describes the features of absence and loneliness using images of night and a howling wolf. Excitement and action mount again as the poet writes about his horse and its abilities during the hunt. The poem closes with a remarkable depiction of the desert landscape following a flash flood, and drowned animals and blossoming fauna comment on both the fleeting nature and the continuity of life.
Jubrân, Jubrân Khalîl (1883-1931), Lebanese American writer whose name is often spelled Kahlil Gibran, the leader of a school of Arab American writers known as al-Râbitḥat al-qalamiyyah (The Bond of the Pen). These writers contributed to the development of a romantic school in modern Arabic poetry that emphasized the role of imagination and emotion and the power of nature. The Prophet (1923), which Jubrân wrote in English, is a collection of aphorisms (concise sayings) and philosophical musings that has proved popular among young adult readers for generations.
Born into a Christian family in the village of Bsharrî in Lebanon, Jubrân emigrated to the United States in 1894 and settled initially in Boston. In 1897 he went back to Lebanon to go to school. After several trips in each direction, he returned to Boston in 1903, a year in which he lost his sister, brother, and mother to tuberculosis. The young Lebanese émigré was helped by a number of prominent Bostonians, most notably Mary Haskell, a schoolteacher who became his major benefactor. In 1912 Jubrân moved to New York City, and it was there that he published some of his most famous works and exerted an enormous influence on fellow Arab intellectuals and poets in exile. Jubrân was a devoted nurturer of his own poetic persona, which makes it difficult to sort through the details of his career, but the extent of his influence was clearly profound.
Among Jubrân’s writings in Arabic is an early collection of highly moralistic stories, ‘Arâ’is al-murûj (1906; translated as Nymphs of the Valley, 1948), which concentrates on oppressive practices often associated with the institution of marriage and on the corruption of the clergy. Two later collections of tales are partially autobiographical: al-Arwâḥ al-mutamarridah (1908; Spirits Rebellious, 1946) and al-Ajniḥah al-mutakassirah (1912; TheBroken Wings, 1957). His prose and poetic writings in Arabic have a tone that today seems somewhat sentimental, and they reflect the cadences (rhythmic sequences) of a then-recent translation of the Bible into Arabic. His use of imagery and choice of words and phrases is a clear reaction against a less personal, more formal style that was much favored in the Arab world at the time.
Mahfouz, Naguib (1911?- ), Egyptian author, the first Arab writer to win the Nobel Prize in literature. Born in Cairo, Mahfouz was educated at the Egyptian University (now Cairo University). The youngest of seven children of a lower-rank civil servant, he acquired a sound knowledge of both medieval and modern Arabic literature while still in high school. As a philosophy student at the university, he contributed articles to professional journals. To improve his English, he translated James Baikie's Ancient Egypt (1912) into Arabic (published 1932).
After graduating, Mahfouz turned to writing fiction. More than 80 of his short stories were published in the following six years. His collection Hams al-junun (A Whisper of Madness) appeared in 1938. While employed at Egypt's Ministry of Religious Affairs from 1939 to 1954, Mahfouz wrote three volumes of a planned series of 40 historical novels set in ancient Egypt. He then abandoned the project, however, and after World War II (1939-1945) he turned to writing novels of social realism. In his works of the next several years, Mahfouz examined Egyptian society and people. At the same time, he began to write screenplays for the Egyptian motion-picture industry.
In the changed political climate following the overthrow of Egypt's monarchy in 1952, Mahfouz's al-Thulathiyya (The Cairo Trilogy, 1956-1957), an extended three-volume consideration of Egyptian life in the first half of the 20th century, became an immediate and enduring success. Having written al-Thulathiyya in the early 1950s (some time passed between the work's writing and its publication), Mahfouz did not write again for publication until 1959, when his novel Awlad haratina (Children of Gebelawi, 1981) was published.
The novel contemplates humanity's use of religion in its continual search for meaning. In this work, as in many of his later books, Mahfouz used a combination of realism and symbolism to great effect. Later in his career Mahfouz also experimented with the stream-of-consciousness technique. His other books include al-Liss wa al-kilab (1961; The Thief and the Dogs, 1984), al-Tariq (1964; The Search, 1987), Tharthara fawq al-Nil (Chatter on the Nile, 1966), Miramar (1967; translated, 1978), Hubb taht al-matar (Love in the Rain, 1973), Hadrat al-muhtaram (1975; Respected Sir, 1986), Afrah al-qubba (1981; Wedding Song, 1984), and Qushtumur (1988). In 1988 Mahfouz was awarded the Nobel Prize in literature.
Mahfouz's works, especially Awlad haratina, have occasionally produced controversy in Egypt because of their treatment of religion. In 1994 he was stabbed by an assailant who objected to the use of elements of Islam in his books.
Mutanabbî, Abu al-ayyib Aḥmad Ibn al-Ḥusayn (915-965), Arab poet, the most famous poet of the classical tradition of Arabic literature. He is best known by the name al-Mutanabbî, meaning "he who claims to be a prophet."
He received this name after claiming in his youth that he was a prophet and composing a text imitating the sacred Islamic scripture, the Koran. Al-Mutanabbî brought the art of panegyric (poem of praise) to its highest levels in Arabic poetry, using hyperbole (extravagant exaggeration) to extol the virtues of his patrons.
His career demonstrates the elevated status that masters of the poetic arts could achieve at an Islamic court, especially during the 10th century when Islamic rule was largely decentralized. Many smaller centers of power had arisen, providing more opportunities for artists and writers to achieve renown.
Al-Mutanabbî was born in Al Kûfah, Iraq, and lived for a time among the Bedouins (nomadic Arabs). For several years he wrote for Sayf al-Dawlah, the ruler of the city of Aleppo (Ḩalab) in Syria. When al-Mutanabbî decided that Sayf al-Dawlah did not appreciate his talents sufficiently, he moved to Egypt. There he wrote in praise of Kâfûr, the regent of the country, such lines as, "Whether I wish it or not, the ethics of Kâfûr dictate to me and I write."
When Kâfûr also fell short in his monetary rewards, the poet once again departed. Al-Mutanabbî then subjected Kâfûr to some of the most insulting lampooning in the whole of Arabic poetry, writing, "Before I met this eunuch, I had assumed that the head was the seat of reason."
Al-Mutanabbî’s poetry was the topic of intense critical debate during his lifetime and in the years after because his career coincided with a significant change in Arabic poetic sensibility—a change that encouraged a greater elaboration in the language of imagery. Al-Mutanabbî’s intimate acquaintance with the classical tradition of Arabic poetry in combination with his own natural gifts make his poems models of this new, high classical style: They are remarkable in their imaginative use of metaphor and ornate language, yet they adhere to strict poetic rules concerning rhyme and meter.
Of all Arab poets, he had the greatest gift for expressions that provided quotations for centuries: "I am a rich man, but my wealth consists only of promises," and "The worst of countries is one where there is no friend; the worst thing that can happen to man is the taint of dishonor." Al-Mutanabbî was killed by thieves as he traveled yet again from one court to another.
Arabic Literature, literature written in the Arabic language, from the 6th century to the present. This literature has its roots in seminomadic societies on the Arabian Peninsula. Its spread is linked to the rise of Islam in the 7th and 8th centuries. The influence of the Arabic language and Arabic culture eventually expanded with Islam throughout the Middle East, as far east as Afghanistan and as far west as Spain and northern Africa’s Atlantic coast. Arabic literature today crosses geographical and national boundaries and includes numerous genres.
Major historical events have played a pivotal role in the development of Arabic literature. The Arab-Islamic conquests of the 7th and 8th centuries created a vast multinational empire in which scholars and writers flourished. The literature created within this empire surpasses in scope and sophistication the literature of medieval Europe.
The influence of the West on Arabic literature and culture started at the end of the 18th century with France’s invasion of Egypt. The revival of Islam around the world in the late 20th century also has had an enormous effect on Arabic literature, both secular and religious. Writers today often draw upon early Arabic texts and conventions for inspiration, perpetuating the vibrant, self-aware tradition of Arabic literature.
Arabic literature began before Islam in a period called the Jahilyya. This literature of a partly Bedouin (nomadic) society was dominated by poetry, and the poet often acted as the oracle of his tribe. A major poetic form of this time was the qasida, or ode. It required the poet to sustain the same rhyme and meter throughout the entire poem, which ran anywhere from 25 to 100 lines. The poet was supposedly moved to compose his poem by the sight of animal droppings, which signaled an abandoned encampment. Ibn Qutayba, a famous critic and writer of the 9th century, tied the creation of the ode to the remnants of a camp. The poet could describe his loves, his camel, his adventures, all in an ode with a highly formal structure. The qasida remains a favored form in Arabic literature to this day.
Legend has it that the Mu’allaqât (meaning "the suspended ones"), the seven greatest qasidas from the pre-Islamic period, were hung upside down from the Kaaba, a structure in Mecca that became the holiest site of Islam. The legendary male poets of this period include Imru al-Qays, Tarafa, and Labid.
It is not only the poetry of male poets that comes down to us, however. Al-Khansa', a prominent pre-Islamic poet, became famous for elegies for her dead brothers, Sakhr and Mu'awiya, both of whom met violent ends. The genre in which al-Khansa' wrote, the ritha' (poetic elegy), was often used by women, usually to mourn the death of a brother or a father.
The Koran (or Qur’an), the holy book of Islam, was revealed to the Arabian Prophet Muhammad, through the intervention of the angel Gabriel, during the 7th century. It heralded not only a new religious civilization but a sophisticated literary culture as well. The Koran is considered by Muslims to be the direct word of God, and as such is deemed perfect both from a literary and a religious point of view.
The Koranic chapters, or suras, are organized not in chronological order of revelation but in order of length, from the longest to the shortest, except for the opening sura. The chapters can be divided into Meccan or Medinan according to the city (Mecca or Medina) in which they were revealed. The Meccan chapters, shorter and punchier, are more often exhortations and calls to religion with appropriate reminders, for example, about the Day of Judgment. The Medinan chapters, on the other hand, tend to be devoted more to legal and ritual matters and are often directed to the conduct of affairs within the Muslim community.
The Koran was revealed in rhymed prose. Its power emanates not only from the incantatory rhythms of its language but also from its vivid imagery. Chapters such as the one relating the story of the biblical Joseph are memorable as well for the symmetry and beauty of the tales they tell. Joseph becomes an ideal of male beauty in Islam, and his fateful encounter with Pharaoh's wife was later transformed into a mystical allegory.
The life of the Prophet Muhammad also generated its own literary sources, primary among which is the hadith. The hadiths were a collection of the Prophet's sayings and actions, transmitted through a chain of authorities said to go back to Muhammad himself. The two most famous collections of hadiths are those of al-Bukhari and Muslim in the 9th century. These works provide a wealth of information covering all aspects of a Muslim's life, from prayer to personal, social, and business conduct.
The Arabic language and the art of using it effectively became codified during the medieval period. Arab grammarians and literary scholars devoted themselves to analysis of the language and writing of the Koran, which was considered inimitable (matchless), as well as the language of Arabic poetry. Medieval grammarians and philologists (scholars of language and literature) developed systems of grammar, linguistics, and poetic rhetoric (principles and rules of composition). Two of the scholars who made important contributions to this study were al-Jurjani in the 11th century and al-Sakkaki in the 12th century.
Among medieval Arabic prose works, the adab tradition holds pride of place. This genre combined anecdotal prose with other elements, including Koranic verses, hadith, and poetry. Adab works were designed to be both educational and entertaining. A major subject in adab collections was literary character types, such as misers, uninvited guests, intelligent people, and madmen. Adab encyclopedias could cover an enormous range of topics and often filled many volumes. The organization of these multivolume works reflected the medieval Muslim social order, beginning with rulers and ending with women and the socially marginal.
The leading lights of medieval adab include al-Jahiz, Ibn Qutayba, and Ibn Abd Rabbihi. Al-Jahiz, a 9th-century scholar of wide-ranging knowledge, is considered the greatest stylist of Arabic prose and of the adab genre. His Kitab al-Bukhala’ (Book of Misers), a collection of entertaining stories that feature greedy characters, is a classic. Stories from it still appear in children's magazines from Syria to North Africa.
A literary cousin of the adab tradition was the maqama (plural maqamat), also an original medieval Arabic literary form. Normally translated as "assemblies," the maqamat are supposedly the invention of 10th-century writer Badi' al-Zaman al-Hamadhani. His assemblies are literary gems written in rhymed prose but including poetry. The hero of the maqama is a clever rogue whose exploits are presented by a narrator whose path keeps crossing that of the rogue hero. Eloquence and verbal mastery are among the chief tools of the rogue’s trade, as he attempts to outwit his listeners and gain from them. Al-Hariri, who died in the 12th century, also wrote in this genre, though his creations are more rhetorically fanciful than earlier maqamat. Some scholars have linked the classical Arabic maqama to the later Spanish picaresque novel.
The work of medieval Arabic literature best known today is Alf layla wa-layla (translated as The Thousand and One Nights or Arabian Nights). Now a literary classic throughout the world, The Thousand and One Nights did not enjoy the esteem of medieval Arabic literary scholars, who favored the stylistically more challenging and erudite adab works and maqamat. Yet the Nights, like the maqamat, was closely related to adab literature. The Nights is composed of enframed stories—that is, stories told within a story. The Nights was not composed all at once. It contains layers added at different times and stories that came from different parts of the Islamic world and from India. Hence, no single definitive text of the Nights exists, and some versions include tales not found in other versions. The stories of the Nights tell of sexuality in its various forms, murder, adventure, and fantasy—a winning formula to this day.
Among the most famous medieval Arabic poets were the innovator Abu Tammam and the conservative al-Buhturi, both of the 9th century. The fame of these two is perhaps only overshadowed by that of the 10th-century poet al-Mutannabî, the macho poet of medieval Arabic literature. Yet not all poets felt the urge to follow in the same literary footsteps. Abu Nuwas, who died in the early 9th century, had no qualms about mocking the erotic prologue of the qasida by addressing the first verses of one of his famous poems to a tavern. Other important poets of the medieval period were active in Andalucía, including Ibn Zaydun in the 11th century and Ibn Khafaja in the 12th. The complex and hybrid world of Islamic Spain also gave birth to a poetic form, the muwashshahat, which mixed Arabic and local linguistic elements. These poems could be set to music and can be heard even today in the Arab world.
The majority of medieval Islamic scholars and intellectuals—whose lives are documented in biographical collections known as tabaqat—were familiar with an astonishingly diverse range of topics. One example of a multitalented individual is 12th-century Andalusian physician and philosopher Ibn Tufayl. He wrote an allegory titled Hayy ibn Yaqzan (Alive Son of Awake) about a child who grows up alone on a desert island and discovers truth purely through the use of reason. This allegory transcends its own time and continues to resurface in children's literature.
Scholars have long held that Arabic culture declined in the 15th and 16th centuries. Yet this time can also be viewed as a shift in the types of textual creation rather than as a decline. Prose had already flourished in a different guise in the 14th century. Ibn Batuta of North Africa, for example, recounted his travels and adventures throughout the Islamic world. The 14th-century historian Ibn Khaldun, also from North Africa, produced one of the most significant works on the philosophy of history. This work, the Muqaddamah, is the introductory volume to his monumental Kitab al-Ibar (Universal History). Works written by the 15th-century scholar Jalal al-Din al-Suyuti range from the theological to the literary and include an anthology of poetry by women. Other writers of the late medieval period whose names are familiar to 20th-century Arab readers include the 17th-century satirist al-Shirbini and the 18th-century mystical writer al-Nabulusi, whose book of dream interpretation still delights readers.
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), 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). Yûsuf Idrîs 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 pharoahs.
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 letters.
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 pre-modern 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 printings.
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 culture.
Khalidi, Rashid, Palestinian Identity: The Construction of Modern National Consciousness, New York, Columbia University Press, 1997
Suleiman, Michael W., "The Mokarzels’ Contributions to the Arabic-Speaking Community in the United States," Arab Studies Quarterly, Vol. 21, No. 2, Spring 1999. Pp 71-83
Kramer, Tania, "The Palestinian Media: An Interim Report," The Jerusalem Times Newspaper, May 7, 1999. Pp 8-9