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  • Fictive Mode, 'Journey to the West', and Transformation of Space:'Ali Mubarak's Discourses of Modernization
  • Wen-Chin Ouyang (bio)

The imagination has a history, as yet unwritten, and it has a geography, as yet only dimly seen. History and geography are inextricable disciplines. They have different shelves in the Library, and different offices at the University, but they cannot get along for a minute without consulting the other. Geography is the wife of history, as space is the wife of time.

Guy Davenport1

I begin my exploration of 'Ali Mubarak (1823/4–1893) and the discourses on modernization 'performed' in his only attempt at fiction, 'Alam al-Din (The Sign of Religion, 1882), with a quote from Guy Davenport because it elegantly sums up a key theoretical principle underpinning any discussion of cultural transformation and, more particularly, of modernization. Locating 'Ali Mubarak and his only fictional work at the juncture of the transformation from the 'traditional' to the 'modern' in the recent history of Arab culture and of Arabic narrative, I find Davenport's pronouncement tantalizingly appropriate. He not only places the stakes of history and geography in one another, but simultaneously opens up the imagination to the combined forces of time and space that stand behind these two distinct yet related disciplines.

The idea is of course hardly new that time and space form an inseparable twosome framing the ways in which we take stock, think, and articulate our views of the world, as well as how individuals, communities and events are related to this world. What Davenport says of 'imagination' – that even though it is 'metaphoric', 'like all things in time', it 'is also rooted in a ground, a geography'2 – has been a familiar, if not dominant 'motif' or 'trope' in an array of 'histories', of science, [End Page 331] thought, critical thought, art, literature, and culture. Breakthroughs are often explained as premised on the transformation of what Mikhail Bakhtin has called a 'chronotope', that is a particular conception of our time-space continuum. Many such transformations or, perhaps more appropriately, reconfigurations of this time-space continuum open up new vistas for an alternative vision of the world, modes of being or actions to be taken in response to, or maintenance of, the newly 'imagined' existence.

Modernity, whether defined as a general state of being in time and timely, or as a transformed European way of life belonging to a specific historical era that developed out of the Enlightenment grounded in a technologized material culture, is no stranger to the 'chronotope' treatment. It is typically subject to the kind of explanation accorded to major cultural transformations in the past, such as the European Renaissance or the Enlightenment, namely that they too are, in part or in full, born out of a transformation of the hitherto familiar notion of the time-space continuum. Writing in general and literature in particular – as cultural artifacts subject to the various and on occasion competing forces of change – are often seen as both product and producer of a new 'chronotope'. They internalize and externalize not only the reconfigured 'chronotope' but also the processes of the reconfiguration; in fact, they take part in the politics of this reconfiguration. 'Modern' texts, literary or otherwise, must, in a sense, necessarily, unavoidably, even wilfully partake in the politics of 'modernity', driving the processes of 'modernization' and defining the 'modern'. In doing so, they reveal the complex and intricate ways in which imagination interacts with reality. While geography and history exert influence on the workings of the imagination, the imagination in turn reshapes space and time and restructures the very foundations of their relationship.

Viewed from an Arabic perspective, the Egyptian writer 'Ali Mubarak's oeuvre in general and his work 'Alam al-Din in particular seem to embody the very principle underpinning imagination's relationship to geography and history that Davenport speaks of. In their internalization of the discourses of change, of 'modernization', current in nineteenth-century Europe and Egypt, they create a space where precisely this kind of dialogue, debate, and negotiation about what is modern can take place. Their role in Egyptian politics of 'modernization' is of course premised on the colonial...


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pp. 331-358
Launched on MUSE
Open Access
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Archived 2009
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