- Post-Colonial Perspectives on Literature and Nationalism in the Middle East
The issues of nation and national identity remain a key element in any study of the Middle East. With the recent focus on the linkages between literature and nation in other postcolonial contexts as well as in literary and cultural theory, a thorough study of the variety and complexity of the intersection of the two in this vast region could not have come sooner. Literature and Nation in the Middle East pulls together essays which vary in rigour, disciplinary concerns, and length. They range from a nuanced, theoretically informed and literary analysis of the complex case of Lebanon by Syrine C. Hout to a short and largely panoramic review of 'marginal' literatures in the Middle East by Peter Clark. There are pieces by social scientists with clearly no knowledge of the original languages and others who are thoroughly competent linguists (a comparison between Suleiman's essay on Nazik al-Mala'ika and Jeff Shalan's piece about the modern Egyptian novel, which ignores completely the original texts as well as any study of the issue written originally in Arabic, reveals the significant gap).
Suleiman's essay brings to light the connection between poetry and nationalism on the one hand and form and content on the other. It shows that al-Mala'ika was tightly associated with various discourses of nationalism in the Arab context (Iraqi republicanism, Pan-Arab Nasserism, Palestinian nationalism and spirituality and nationalism). The essay also advocates a sociology of literature, which takes account of the form. However, the essay limits itself to nationalist literature. And like all the other contributions to the volume, with the exception of Hout's treatment of Lebanese literature in exile, the essay does not deal with critiques of nationalism in literature. On the other side, Shalan's essay, while grounded in cultural history, treads safe ground by focusing on two well studied texts, Haykal's Zaynab and al-Hakim's Return of the Spirit, in English translation and the well-known context of Egypt in the 1920s and 1930s. Its findings therefore hardly add insight for the student of Arabic literature. This is not the case with 'Arabic Poetry, Nationalism and Social Change: Sudanese colonial and postcolonial perspectives' by Heather J. Sharky, which is one of the most illuminating chapters in the book. Other than studies of Tayeb Salih, who has become a canonical figure in post-colonial studies as a whole, Sudan has remained at the margins of research on the Arab world, except in political science and ethnography. This essay traces the impact of poetry on nationalism in the Sudan, making the valid argument that even outside Sudan 'in the early twentieth century, poetry was still the gold standard for verbal and intellectual skill, so that poetry – not the novel – was the nation's early proxy'(176). The complex situation of Sudan in terms of linguistic, ethnic, and religious diversity makes it a case in point for the study of how a particular discourse, a language and a literary genre emerge as dominant. It also shows the inherent constructive nature of national identity and the role literature plays in this process. [End Page 227]
The major axis of the book is Palestine and Israel. Nadia Yaqub looks into how Palestinians 'produce locality' in poetry duels at weddings by a process of naming and renaming the villages and places from which guests originate. On such occasions, she notes, no mention of Israeli names is made; not because the genre precludes it but as a result of deliberate exclusion from the context created by the duel. Such context invokes heroic Arab past and links it to a local present thus creating a sense of bond between the two, a space of belonging for the community and resistance against their position of marginality within Israeli society.
Turning his attention to how irony functions in Palestinian texts in an attempt to match Palestine with its map, so to speak, Ibrahim Muhawi detects three forms of reversal. For the poet...