ARAB-199 The Arab Novel
Spring for 2017-2018
Since the late nineteenth century, Arab writers have experimented broadly and at times radically with the form of the novel. Yet, the very emergence of this literary form in the modern Arab context begs many questions. To begin with, there is the old question about whether the Arabic novel was imported wholesale from the West, or whether it emerged organically in conversation with indigenous forms. We might pose this old question more bluntly: Was the Arabic novel an instance of colonial-era borrowing or, worse, a cultural artifact imposed by Western cultural hegemony? Certainly, many early experiments with the novel borrowed directly from European models, just as others drew self-consciously upon older Arabic narrative fiction forms, whether from the realm of the popular (like the Thousand and One Nights), or from that of the elite (like the maqama). At the same time, in recent years, as Arab authors have begun to write in European languages, these connections have become increasingly complex.
The apparent tension and even conflict between the novel and religious orthodoxy in the modern Arab world is one of the central questions we will explore in this course. Other related questions we will address are: the effective ability of the novel to critique political oppression; the role novels play in the articulation of human rights norms; the limits of the novel’s significance in illiterate (and post-literate) societies; the novel as a supplement to official history; the novel in conversation with other mass media, especially film. Throughout, we will also ask what it means to be a writer in the modern Arab world. Most of all, however, we will be reading some of the greatest landmarks of the modern and contemporary Arabic novel in translation.
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