In Trials of Arab Modernity, Tarek El-Ariss charts a groundbreaking approach to understanding the dynamics of cultural modernity in the Arab world. Both historical and literary in approach, this study moves from the early nineteenth century to the twenty-first, arguing that the modern must be understood as a mode of affect and of experience, however elusive and ambivalent this may be, rather than to continue to be seen as a largely temporal or as an ideological designation. [End Page 208] He argues that “decentering modernity as a fixed set of practices and ideas moves the debate away from the mechanics of Arab borrowing from the West”—the way by which modernity in the Arab world is more conventionally viewed (172). El-Ariss instead argues that “modernity takes shape in a series of trials, never realized or complete, arising from experiences of anxiety and disorientation, fascination and confusion. These spaces of fantasy and literary embodiment reposition the political by systematically undermining its ideological production and exposing its modes of physical and discursive violence” (173). El-Ariss’s book examines a number of canonical, as well as lesser-known, works of modern Arabic literature, studying them through a lens that brings to light their moments of affective excess, subjective instability, and ideological unsettledness, terming these as “trials” through which the modern becomes legible.
El-Ariss begins with three chapters, each chronologically offering highly original readings of fairly canonical texts drawn from the modern Arabic literary repertoire. He begins with a focus on Rifa’a Rafi’a al-Tahtawi’s influential travelogue on Paris: Takhlis al-ibriz fi talkhis Baris (1834; translated into English with the title An Imam in Paris, 2004). Tahtawi’s work has traditionally been the subject of studies in the transmission of European post-Enlightenment concepts, as well as for his descriptions of the institutional and political innovations of the French Republic. El-Ariss instead focuses on passages that have invited less interest, such as Tahtawi’s sensory descriptions of the sea voyage from Egypt, or his passage ruminating on the visual effect of seeing his own reflection in a mirror-filled cafe in Marseilles. Moving from these localized textual moments to broader questions concerning historical setting, El-Ariss locates the disorienting embodiments of an encounter with the modern through readings that often brilliantly unravel hidden depths to Tahtawi’s otherwise restrained prose.
El-Ariss then turns to the mid-nineteenth-century peripatetic Lebanese author, Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq, again looking at a work of travel writing and ethnography. Again, El-Ariss turns away from more conventional approaches to this author’s work by examining his travelogue Kashf al-mukhabba’ fi funun Uroba (Revealing the Hidden in European Civilization, 1863) with an eye turned towards the passages that convey the subject’s bodily experience of Europe—such as eating food or walking around the finance centers of London—as a key to understanding critical views on European claims to modernity. Shidyaq, perhaps more than any other figure of nineteenth-century Arabic literature, produced a richly satirical and transgressive mode of critiquing Europe’s understanding of its post-Enlightenment positions. El-Ariss’s analysis, and his keen interest in affect in Shidyaq’s work, contributes significantly to other recent innovative studies of this author.
Through these readings, El-Ariss remains focused on the role of affect in his chosen representational works. He notes that affect must “not be reduced to a discursive moment subsumed in a model of representation but rather engaged as something that is constantly going in and out of representation, text, and modes of embodiment” (8). For El-Ariss, the subsumption of modernity to ideological and political ends in the Arab world—specifically in the way that colonialism and the postcolonial nation have monopolized all claims of modernity—has impoverished scholarly understandings of Tahtawi and Shidyaq’s (among other cultural figures’) lived experiences of the modern. Returning to their texts with a new eye allows for a renewed engagement with aspects of the modern which push...