The fifth session of “A Corpus Not a Canon: A Workshop on the Library of Arabic Literature,” a panel series hosted by Dame Marina Warner and LAL General Editor Philip Kennedy at All Souls College, Oxford, in April, focused on “LAL’s remit, ambition, and complexity.” Philip Kennedy and Richard Sieburth led a discussion that included Humphrey Davies, Marilyn Booth, Robyn Creswell, and Roger Allen. The books in focus were Leg over Leg, by Aḥmad Fāris al-Shidyāq, edited and translated by Humphrey Davies; and What ‘Isa ibn Hisham Told Us, or, A Period of Time, by Muḥammad al-Muwayliḥī, edited and translated by Roger Allen.
Because of the breadth of topics covered, this session write-up has been split into two parts. This is the second of the two.
‘Completeness’ and the corpus
One of the Library of Arabic Literature’s commitments is to “wholeness”: hence the completeness of Abū l-ʿAlāʾ al-Maʿarrī’s Epistle of Forgiveness, which had previously been translated only in part. But the LAL edition of What ‘Isa Told Us doesn’t just restore a complete version of the text. It adds back in material that its author had redacted.
“I’ve known all along that the process of preparing this book involved the author in a great deal of editing…the text which he published over a four-year period in the family newspaper,” Allen said. For instance, at the time al-Muwayliḥī began writing, the war in the Sudan was “the Number One issue,” Allen said. “We’re in the British occupation of Egypt, 1882 onwards, and the British army is in the Sudan and they’re in charge and the Egyptian army’s doing all the dirty work.”
Yet the four essays about the Sudanese war were removed from the printed version of What ‘Isa Told Us. “The word Sudan doesn’t appear…in the book.”
What ‘Isa Told Us shrank even more when its fourth edition was chosen as a school text in Egypt. To make it an appropriate exam text, the author edited it down even further.
“Well guess what?” Allen said. “It’s all back.”
“I am subverting, perhaps, the best intentions of the author,” Allen said. “Because the author went through and carefully edited his text, perhaps with the idea of…turning a series of newspaper articles into something that might lead you to believe it’s a contribution to the development of narrative genre, which would come after it.”
As to the restored material, Allen said, “The Arabic of it may be at least as important as the English, if not more so.”
The LAL thus has the potential to shift the discussion of the Arabic corpus in Arabic, although, as discussed in an earlier session, it still wasn’t clear exactly who was reading the LAL books.
What came first: the novel or the modern?
These two texts both sit near the end of the LAL remit, which encompasses Arabic texts written from the earliest uses of the language up to the early-twentieth-century nahda.
Al-Muwayliḥī’s was framed by Allen as a bridge between what came “before” and “after.” Al-Shidyāq, however, complicates our idea of time and modernity. As Davies noted, Leg over Leg represents “one of the most surprisingly modern sensibilities that I’ve come across in Arabic literature.” Booth added that “some of the things that we think of as modern actually have been around for a very long time, and I think Shidyāq really confronts us with that reminder—of gender-consciousness and genre-consciousness.”
Creswell decidedly called Leg over Leg the “modern” form of a novel, suggesting that Leg over Leg made for a “much more productive model” than for instance Muhammad Husayn Haykal’s Zaynab (1914), often referred to the first novel, or “first authentic novel,” in Arabic. Zaynab as a first, Creswell said, leads us “to much less interesting places.”
“Calling it [Leg over Leg] a novel could be a useful intervention.”
Sieburth also asked, during his presentation: “Are we going to call this a novel or not?”
Sieburth noted that the author “himself talks about how he cobbled it together, he pieced it together, it’s a kind of collage, assemblage, it’s incessantly plural, has elements of travelogues in it, there’s an Odyssean trajectory to it. … I think the crucial thing here is that the autobiography tends to move more in the direction of what Michel Beaujour calls the autoportrait. The organization of this text is not narrative but topical.” And “to the extent that it is topically oriented, it goes much more in this direction towards autoportrait.”
But, Sieburth later added, “every moment [is] being superceded by a sort of poeticization.” So, for a researcher interested in the nineteenth century, Sieburth said, the work begins to look very much like a prose poem. He added later, during the discussion, that “you could get rid of the question of its whole novel-ness by going in that direction [of the prose poem].”
Al-Shidyāq, Davies noted, would not likely have embraced the idea of having written a novel. After all, he “satirizes the Western novel. He says that a woman, leaving her house at ten o’clock in the morning, with the rain coming down hard, and returning two hours later with her little dog is a matter of immense interest to you. And this [story of the woman and her dog] clearly comes from a novel which he has read.”
Indeed, perhaps what Leg over Leg does best is break down the seeming forward “evolutionary” trajectory of narrative to novel. In any case, both texts help demonstrate the breadth of the LAL’s vision and the sorts of problems the Library is keen to tackle. And the ways in which, brick by brick, they can be tackled.
“One shouldn’t be too intimidated by some of these seeming problems,” Davies said.
—M. Lynx Qualey, Arabic Literature (in English)