From the early days of the Nahda, or the flowering of Arabic belles lettres in the 19th century, Arab intellectuals, like their counterparts throughout the postcolonial world, have wrestled with the implications of engaging with Western philosophy and literature as their societies simultaneously attempt to emulate new social models while preserving traditional culture, and develop economically while resisting colonialism. Such tensions are still very much in evidence in the contemporary Arab press, scholarly publications, symposia, and conferences, as writers review and revise their understanding of modernity, modernization, and modernism. In the context of concern over encroaching forces of neo-colonialism and globalization, some Arab intellectuals today view Western critical theory with a degree of suspicion. Levels of engagement with or rejection of critical theories vary widely from country to country and from one circle of intellectuals to another.
Stefan Meyer foregrounds this debate in his new book on Arabic literary innovation, The Experimental Arabic Novel: Postcolonial Literary Modernism in the Levant. In the introduction Meyer writes:
The basic premise of this study is that it is inadequate and misleading to speak of modernism or postmodernism as we understand these concepts in the West and expect them to apply to Arabic literature. [End Page 303] Alternatively, however, it is possible to speak of distinct literary modernisms that have each evolved with a different set of characteristics, depending upon the nature of their historical antecedents. This offers us a way of speaking about the experimental Arabic novel and similar trends in postcolonial literature in a manner that allows us to both compare and contrast them meaningfully with Western literature .(1-2)
In this comprehensive study, Meyer both identifies local and contingent conditions of literary production, and provides references to literary and intellectual influences and parallel developments both in the West and in other post-colonial traditions. In particular Meyer attempts to classify and categorize experimental Arabic fiction along the axes of its relative engagements with aesthetics and politics within modernist and postmodernist literary traditions.
Meyer's analyses of works by twenty-four writers productive from the early 1960s through the end of the 20th century demonstrate an impressive familiarity with contemporary Arabic literature and culture. The broad scope of this study affords Meyer the perspective from which to discern patterns and parallel developments of narrative innovation over time and across national lines. Meyer offers extended reflections on works by writers such as Elias Khoury (Lebanon), Sonallah Ibrahim (Egypt), Abdelrahman Munif (Saudi Arabia/Syria), Salim Barakat (Syria), Ghada Samman (Lebanon), and Rashid al-Daif (Lebanon). The book is organized synchronically around notions of experimentation and innovation. Within the chapters, which are organized loosely around engagement with the "past," "present," and "future" respectively, the sub-chapters each explore a group of writers who share particular aesthetic ideologies or writing strategies.
This book has a great deal to offer, particularly at a time when Arab-Islamic cultures are coming under close scrutiny by the media and the public at large. In content as well as in style, this work is intended as much for non-specialists as for scholars of modern Arabic literature. Meyer makes an effort to cite works available in published English translation, and writes in clear, accessible prose. Meyer also provides historical, social, and political context for the reader to understand the environments in which these authors are writing, and to which they are responding. Among the significant watershed moments Meyer identifies in the development of literary modernism in the Levant are the 1948 Arab-Israeli war, the 1952 Egyptian Free Officer's Revolt, the defeat of Arab armies in the 1967 war, and the outbreak of the Lebanese Civil war in 1975. [End Page 304]
Throughout the book, Meyer struggles with the place of Egyptian writers in his narrative about Arabic literary innovation in the Levant, or Eastern Mediterranean. Literary activities in Beirut and Cairo drove the Nahda in the 19th century and these two metropolitan centers have continued to serve as intellectual centers and homes of important publishing...