Softly rubbing Aladdin's lamp

Middle Eastern Literatures
October 25, 2002

In the mid-1990s, there was a clash between the editors of the Journal of Arabic Literature and its publisher Brill on policy matters. Brill went off with the title, to which it appointed new editors. The old editors founded a new journal, known for its first four volumes as Arabic and Middle Eastern Literatures but now more simply as Middle Eastern Literatures . This fairly reflects its aim to promote the academic study of all Middle Eastern literatures and also of literature written in French by those of North African origin.

Given the journal's original title, it is hardly surprising that articles on Arabic predominate (more than 40 in the first five volumes), but pieces on modern Hebrew appear regularly. Articles on Persian, Turkish and French works by authors of North African origin are less frequent.

Most issues contain at least one piece of translation, and normally there is a review section. Readers who want to make the most of the journal need significant language skills. Articles and reviews in English, French or German appear.

Criticism is more practical than theoretical, or, rather, theory is judiciously used. In one of the book reviews included in the journal, Muhammad Siddiq writes of the book he is reviewing: "This return to 'practical criticism' is a welcome antidote to the excessive, self-indulgent theorising that has vitiated much of Arabic literary studies in American academe in the last two decades. One execrable consequence of this vagary has been the virtual licensing of ignorance of both language and text in the name of one variety or another of trendy theory. In marked contrast, most of the contributions to this volume demonstrate thorough familiarity with the subject matter and the texts they discuss." For "volume" read "journal". There is a judicious amount of theory in the majority of articles, but the editors clearly expect contributors to have a definite focus on a text or a series of texts.

It is always useful to have translations from Middle Eastern languages, and, for the most part, those printed as separate items are to be welcomed. I particularly liked Roger Allen's translation of Lovers' Quarter by Najib Mahfouz, Musa Al-Halool's rendering of Nocturnes of an Insomniac Woman by Rachid Boujedra, and Pierre Larcher's French version of the Mu'allaqa of al-Harith ibn Hilliza . However, I question whether the Syrian playwright Wannus deserves two translations in successive volumes. It must also be said that some of the best translations occur within articles. Among these, Clive Holes's rendering of the Debate of Pearl-diving and Oil-wells , a dialectal poem from 1930s Bahrain, is outstanding.

Medievalists are well served. One issue is devoted to a series of well-written pieces on the era of the golden/brown-tongued al-Mutanabbi (915-965), the zenith of Abbasid poetry. There is also an unlinked series of articles on aspects of the maqamat , culminating in Naoya Katsumata's "The style of the maqama : Arabic, Persian Hebrew, Syriac", which at last puts into proper perspective the spread of the maqama genre to languages other than Arabic. Also important is Julia Bray's article, which examines the interrelationship of Abbasid narrative texts.

In what may loosely be called the field of epic there are a number of articles on the The Thousand and One Nights , the most interesting of which is Anja Haenisch's structuralist analysis of Aladdin and the Enchanted Lamp . This aims to provide corroboration for the view that the Aladdin story is of European origin, but the corpus has not been rubbed quite hard enough, and too few control samples are provided.

In a strong series of contributions on modern Arabic, there is a natural preponderance of articles on the novel and short story and on Palestine. Most of the Arab world is covered. Thus we have Debbie Cox's "Symbolism and allegory in the Algerian Arabic novel" and Catherine Cobham's "The long way back", on the work of the Iraqi novelist Fu'ad al-Takarli.

On Palestinian writing, I was particularly struck by the insights in Mahmud Ghanayim's "A magic journey" on the admission of Palestinian literature in Israel to the Arab world, Ibrahim Taha's "The Palestinians in Israel: towards a minority literature" and Sobhi Boustan's " Le personage de l'étranger dans la littérature Palestinienne ".

It is also disturbing to read Mona Takieddine Amyuni's "The Arab artist's role in society". The article reminds us how writers such as the Sudanese Tayib Salih and the Egyptian Nobel laureate Mahfouz have encountered growing hostility from their societies. Mahfouz has even had to disown one of his greatest novels, Awlad Haritna . Their situation is typical. The Arab world is a harsh place for any nonconformist intellectual or writer, in stark contrast to the honour in which pre-Islamic poets were held.

It may be that my lack of specialist knowledge leads me to think too highly of the articles on modern Hebrew, but they are all well written and encourage the reader to look further into their subjects. It is invidious to single any out, but I learnt a great deal from Dan Urian's "Mizrahi and Ashkenazi in the Israeli theatre", on encounter and division between Jews of Oriental and European origin; Leon Yudkin's "Fill that gap", on the minimalist writer Yoel Hoffmann; and Avraham Balaban's "Secularity and religiosity in contemporary Hebrew literature".

One other article deserves a mention - Jan Schmidt's "Poets and poetry in mid-17th century Istanbul". It is packed with insights into a period of Ottoman literature about which we know too little.

One striking omission is literary aspects of the Koran, which can claim to be the greatest Arabic literary work of all. This is, I suspect, due to a political or religious correctness that deters scholars from submitting such articles to literary journals.

I have always considered it a mark of a good journal if readers are attracted to, and gain from, articles that are not of immediate interest to them. Middle Eastern Literatures does that, and it deserves a readership well beyond specialists. Those interested in comparative literature cannot afford to overlook it, but it also has something for those who are interested in the most troubled region of our planet.

Alan Jones is professor of Arabic, University of Oxford.

Middle Eastern Literatures

Editor - Geert Jan van Gelder and Roger Allen Carfax
ISBN - ISSN 1475 262X
Publisher - www.tandf.co.uk/journals/
Price - Institutions £109.00, Individuals £33.00
Pages - (twice a year)

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