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  • Introduction
  • Amal Amireh (bio) and Waïl S. Hassan (bio)

The theme of this special issue, "Arabic Literature Now: Between Area Studies and the New Comparatism," presented itself to us as a way to recognize both recent growth and the emergence of new directions in the field. In the United States, interest in modern Arabic literature began slowly and somewhat grudgingly following Naguib Mahfouz's winning of the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1988; as Edward Said famously reported, shortly before that event a prominent New York publisher declined to include any Arabic works in a list of world literature titles to be translated because Arabic was, in the publisher's view, "a controversial language." Since then, nearly all of Mahfouz's work, as well as that of dozens of contemporary Arab writers, have been translated into English. New academic fields such as women's studies and postcolonial studies, the multicultural curriculum, the interrogation of the canon and of traditional notions of world literature, and the reconfiguration of comparative literature beyond its formerly exclusive domain of European studies have also played an important role in generating interest in Arabic studies. More and more scholars of Arabic, for example, are now as likely to have been trained in comparative literature as in Middle East studies, the disciplinary home of Arabic until the mid-nineties. As a result, new theoretical approaches spearheaded in comparative literature have been making an impact on Arabic literary studies. The terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001, the "war on terror," and the "clash of civilizations" thesis breathed life into old stereotypes that demonize Arabs and Muslims but also spurred the expansion of Arabic language programs in American universities, aided in many cases by increased federal funding for scholarships and study abroad programs.

The call for papers for this issue invited scholars to reflect on these realities by way of answering questions such as: What is the status of Arabic [End Page 413] literary studies in the United States at this historical juncture? Has Arabic studies freed itself from the legacy of orientalism? What is the place of Arabic literature in the new articulations of comparative literature (from Gayatri Spivak's Death of a Discipline to Haun Saussy's Comparative Literature in an Age of Globalization) and of world literature (e.g. in the work of Franco Moretti, David Damrosch, Pascale Casanova)? What roles have postcolonial theory, feminist theory, translation theory, and reception theory played in such articulations? What are the points of contact between Arabic literature and the literatures of Asia, Africa, Europe, the Americas, and Australia? How do issues of gender, sexuality, war, nationalism, globalization, and human rights figure in Arabic literature today? What are the pedagogical implications and challenges of the current interest in Arabic literature and culture? The contributors have addressed an array of questions that illuminate various aspects of this complex topic.

In "One Comparative Literature? 'Birth' of a Discipline in FrenchEgyptian Translation, 1810-1834," ShadenTageldin proposes a new genealogy of the discipline that stretches back to the 1810s, decades earlier than the genesis stories proposed by Emily Apter, Haun Saussy, and Natalie Melas. Comparative literature, in Tageldin's account, "is born in (post) colonial translation." The impulse to compare sprang out of the imperial desire to establish the superiority of French both to Greco-Roman (the presumed origin) and to British (the imperial rival) literatures—a desire still discernible in Pascale Casanova's notion of a "république mondiale des lettres" centered around Paris. Tageldin points out that the discipline is often forgetful of its political investments in its rush to claim for itself global-democratic ideals. Such investments are all too clear in the case of French-Egyptian literary relations in the 1830s, the period in which the Arab nahda, or renaissance, began, spurred by the translational activities of Egyptian francophile intellectual Rifāʿa Rāfiʿ al-Ṭahṭāwī.

In "Disciplinary Divergences: Problematizing the Field of Arabic Literature," Mara Naaman engages some of the same theorizations referenced by Tageldin and shows how the question of world literature takes on a different hue when viewed from an Egyptian perspective. Not only that, but the field of Arabic literature itself, she argues, "suffers...


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pp. 413-416
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