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  • Modernism, Anxiety and the Ideology of Arab Vision
  • Stephen Sheehi (bio)

No . . . no . . . How could he surrender himself to this sort of logic? To do that would be to reject his reason and his science. Who is able to reject the civilization and progress of Europe? Who can deny the degradation of the East, its ignorance and its sickness? Hasn't history passed its irrefutable judgement? There is no way that we can disavow that we were a luxurious tree that for a time flowered and bore fruit. Then, unfortunately, the tree gradually slowed down and eventually produced nothing new.

—Yahya Haqqi, Qindil Umm Hashim


Unable to heal his beloved cousin's blindness, the protagonist of Qindil Umm Hashim (The Saint's Lamp) confronts his rationalism, atheism, and European medical training only to recognize the irrepressible power and superiority of faith and popular (read: Egyptian) cultural practices. Yahya Haqqi's nationalist novel is a tour de force for Arab Romanticism because it consciously articulates an anxiety derived from the early decades of Arab modernity; [End Page 72] namely the emergence of an individualized subject that displaced a projected, pre-modern unity of the "Oriental" self and socius. Arab Romanticism was a reaction to modernity's deterritorialization of Ottoman Arab society. During the 19th century, the Ottoman state undertook an autogenetic political and administrative reorganization called the Tanzimat.1 This Risorgimento's goal was to create an efficient "modern" state, replete with a secular legal code, and a liberalization of land tenure and the economy. The Tanzimat's effect was to generate a new political citizen, a desiring subject bifurcated between private and public spaces. Throughout the Empire, nascent bourgeois and petit-bourgeois classes and their organic intellectuals, to paraphrase Deleuze and Guattari further, "massively decoded" every form of pre-modern cultural and social practice as archaic and "backwards," from communalism to traditional modes of commodity production and exchange. In the Arab world, the Arab Renaissance (al-nahdah al-`arabiyah) was the necessary ideological component to modernization. The Arab Renaissance was an era of protean cultural and intellectual production that strove to build a modern Arab society and polity based on the preeminence of positivist, rationalist, and scientific thought in the service of the idiomatic "civilization and progress" (tamaddun wa taqaddum).2 In spirit, the mastery of these goals would enable the "peoples of the East" to withstand the imperialism of the West.

Arab Romanticism was a rejoinder to the ideological offensive of the Arab Renaissance. In the Romantic's eyes, the Renaissance resulted in a stripping away of everything noble and holy in "Eastern" society, trumpeting "the final triumph of rational materialism."3 As the dilemma of the doctor in Qindil Umm Hashim illustrates, Romanticism's rejection of rationalism, materialism, and scientificism was complicated in the Arab world by its own historical condition. If Arab Romanticism's obsession with "Man's" unity with nature was a reply to the indigenous bourgeois selfhood ushered in by al-nahdah then this selfhood's alienation was compounded further by the asymmetries of power endemic to the colonial condition. Arguably, Arab Romanticism appeared among Lebanese and Egyptian artists, intellectuals, and literati because the effects of the political, social, and economic ruptures of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries were most pronounced there. But also, cities such as Beirut and Cairo were the hubs for the ideological justification of these transformations—indeed for modernity itself.4 In Lebanon and Egypt, the movement was largely associated with "national literature" (al-adab al-qawmi) of the 1920s—a term coined by Muhammad Hussein Haykal, himself an early Egyptian Comtean turned Romantic.5 [End Page 73] Even before Romanticism's prevalence in Cairene and Beiruti nationalist circles, a handful of Arab émigrés were writing in the diasporic literary capital New York City. Eventually, they would form the influential al-Rabitah al-qalmiyah (The Pen League).6

This article examines how the epistemology of the Arab Renaissance is entrenched even within the works of Arab Romantics as represented by the most senior and prominent critic, activist and littérateur of al-Rabitah, Amin Rihani (Ameen Rihani).7 While Rihani will be discussed along with the most...


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