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Reviewed by:
  • Tradition and Modernity in Arabic Literature
  • Trevor Le Gassick
Issa J. Boullata and Terri De Young, eds. Tradition and Modernity in Arabic Literature. Fayetteville: U of Arkansas P, 1997. xvii + 278 pp.

This timely volume honors the memory of the late Professor Mounah A. Khouri (1918–1996), the poet and Lebanese-born scholar associated for many years with the University of California at Berkeley. The list of Khouri’s publications prepared by the coeditor, Terri De Young, demonstrates the prolific and multifaceted contributions he made both in original compositions and in commentaries on the works of others. In his introduction, the volume’s other editor, Issa J. Boullata, presents details of Khouri’s origins, upbringing, career and familial circumstances, and offers interpretations of some of the poet’s latest creations.

The thirteen articles that follow, the majority seemingly prepared for this volume initially planned as a festschrift in Khouri’s honor, demonstrate the widely divergent interests of the contributors, who are specialists in discretely different areas of the study of Arabic literature, both ancient and modern. The contributors include: Jabra Ibrahim Jabra, Antoine G. Karam, As’ad E. Khairallah, Terri De Young, Issa J. Boullata, Kamal Abu-Deeb, Sabah Ghandour, Roger Allen, Cornelis Nijland, Joseph Zeidan, Allen Douglas and Fedwa Malti-Douglas, Irfan Shahid, Julie Scott Meisami, and Omaima Abou-Bakr.

All these contributions are well written and researched, while differing greatly in their methodology, originality, and subject matter. Nine articles deal with aspects of Arabic poetry, one with the theater, one with film, and three with the novel. Although it might seem invidious to single out specific articles for comment, certain of the essays seem to deserve special emphasis for either their originality or the breadth of their interest to an English readership.

For example, I found Kamal Abu-Deeb’s “Conflicts, Oppositions, Negations—Modern Arabic Poetry and The Fragmentation of Self/Text” particularly well written and stimulating. At over thirty pages, this article is, moreover, the most lengthy and substantial contribution here. Originally published in large part in 1988 in a relatively obscure French publication, Abu-Deeb’s observations at that time seem to have been prescient regarding Arabic poetry over the past decade as well as keenly analytical of its state at that time.

Initially, Abu-Deeb reminds us of his earlier prediction that Arabic [End Page 476] poetry would develop in two contrasting directions: one broadly abstract and contemplative and the other narrowly and concretely reflecting the “image of the poet as an individual in the world.” He first centers his discussion on the brilliant Syrian poet Adunis, whose latest poems, in their striking use of paradox, conflict, and negation, illustrate the central point of Abu-Deeb’s essay. Audnis, he reminds us with memorable lyricism, “holds language in his fingers as a shaman’s or sorcerer’s magic pipe” and “distills the world, divine and human, into crystal-clear oppositional statements.”

From detailed textual commentary on Audnis, Abu-Deeb moves to discussion of Mahmud Darwish, from whose later poems he quotes effectively. He shows how tormented and fragmented the language of this poet, who had formerly expressed a “unison and harmony with the collective self,” had become. Further discussion of Darwish and other poets, including himself, leads Abu-Deeb to conclude that this fragmentation does not necessarily imply impoverishment, but a freeing of the poet’s self to a new emphasis on friendship, a rediscovery of the world around him, and a poetic expression devoid of bombast. ‘Abbs Baydun and Bassam Hajjar, and later Amjad Nasir, are poets in whom “the romantic agony is yielding its place to the sharp eye of the observer”. Further discussion of works by ‘Abdal-‘Aziz al-Maqalih and Sa’di Yusuf leads Abu-Deeb to a heartening conclusion—that if Arab poets resist the “winds of fragmentation,” the next century may well be one of great promise for Arabic poetry.

Similarly interesting is the delightful essay of Irfan Shahid, “The Last Days of Imru’ al-Qays: Anatolia.” It offers a far more cogent explanation than the Arabic commentaries do of the manner and place of the death of Imru’ al-Qays, the earliest prominent exponent of the...

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