Biography 26.1 (2003) 140-143
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Collections of articles are notoriously difficult to review, because however much every essay may be concerned with the overall topic of the volume, each author still has his or her own perspective and approach to the subject. That is also true of this particular volume, whose authors approach the topic of interpreting and writing lives of Middle Eastern men and women from vastly different personal and disciplinary perspectives. That said, this is nevertheless an extremely interesting collection of essays, partly because of the authors' different perspectives and backgrounds. In fact, it is refreshing and stimulating to have a group of essays from Islamicists, historians, anthropologists, and novelists, for it does indeed make one think about the significance of autobiographical texts and biographical studies. It should be noted at the outset, though, that the demands of publishing have given this volume a typically exaggerated title. The book is largely about Arabs or Arabic-speaking individuals, and mainly but not entirely devoted to Egyptians, Syrians, and Palestinians. None of the authors discuss Iranians or Turks, Persian or Turkish texts.
In her Introduction, Professor Mary Ann Fay writes that one purpose of the work is to link the work of contemporary scholars "writing biographically or critically about biography to that of earlier generations of Arab historians for whom biography was the methodology of history" (1). She also usefully points out inter alia that the prevalence of Arabic biographical studies "exposes the Eurocentric nature of the postmodernist claims that the autonomous individual or subject is the creation of western humanism and the enlightenment" (2). If these essays had been compiled a year or two later, Professor Fay would have had time to cite Dwight Reynolds's recent edited work on Arabic autobiography Interpreting the Self: Autobiography in the Arabic Literary Tradition (U of California P, 2001), which documents the prevalence of Arabic autobiographical works in the precolonial era. As part of her introduction, Fay also confronts "the postmodernist/poststructuralist critique of the autonomist self" (2), but she does so only in passing, with the now common and really not terribly useful mention of Foucault. While Foucault's work has achieved almost canonical authority in the United States, the [End Page 140] highly debatable value of his work requires more discussion than it is given here. Nor do any of the contributors to this volume mention the French scholar in their essays. It would probably have been just as useful to discuss the so-called "Subaltern School." In any event, Fay concludes her introduction by observing that all the contributors emphasize the use of biography to understand history, and examine how biography constructs identity.
There are a number of ways to classify the essays in this volume without trying to describe them all in detail. One is to distinguish studies that describe and/or analyze a particular autobiographical or biographical work, whether traditional Islamic or European-influenced, from those that discuss methodological issues related to the genres of autobiography or biography. A reader not intimately familiar with the periods and regions discussed here will find nearly all of the descriptive/analytical pieces interesting for the specialized knowledge they provide about a particular person, time, and place. All of them are based on Arabic texts. These include Judith Tucker discussing the biography of the seventeenth century "Palestinian" Khayr al-Din al-Ramli as a moral religious exemplar; Osama Abi-Mershed analyzing the biographical dictionary of Muhammad ibn Maryam to illustrate the transmission of religious knowledge in sixteenth century North Africa; Steve Tamari's use of biographical and autobiographical texts to situate individuals within the international, Ottoman, and local worlds in eighteenth century Damascus; Marilyn Booth's demonstration of how Islamicists altered the nature of women's biographies in twentieth century Egypt; Mary Ann Fay's use of awqaf documents to illustrate the influence of women in...