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Biography 23.1 (2000) 242-244

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Robin Ostle, Ed de Moor, and Stefan Wild, eds. Writing the Self: Auto-biographical Writing in Modern Arabic Literature. London: Saqi, 1998. 342 pp. ISBN 0-86356-727-4, $55.00.

Writing the Self is a rich and varied collection that brings together the proceedings of the second Meeting of European Teachers of Arabic Literature (EMTAR), held in St. John's College, Oxford, April 5-9, 1995, though strangely this is nowhere recognized in the published volume. This work consists of two introductory pieces--one by the Egyptian novelist Edwar Kharrat, and the second by Robin Ostle--followed by twenty-four chapters by European and Arab scholars. As with any collected proceedings, the contributions are uneven. What are we to make of "chapters" of only two pages set among others that are twenty pages in length? In the case of the present volume, however, the overall quality of the scholarship is quite high, making this a worthwhile read for specialists in Arabic literature and [End Page 242] scholars of autobiography alike. If, as many scholars have noted, the study of autobiography has made only a belated entry into the field of Western literary criticism, this is even more the case in the Arab world. For this reason, many of the chapters in this volume are truly ground-breaking, and the work as a whole is certainly the most detailed, broad-ranging study of modern Arabic autobiography to date.

The editors have grouped the collected papers under three headings. The first is entitled "Voyages of Self-Definition," since several of the nineteenth-century Arabic texts which most closely approximate the Western concept of autobiography were motivated in part by the authors' travels in Europe. While some of these writers retained the form of the classical Arabic travel account, others developed wildly idiosyncratic literary responses to the cultural circumstances of the nineteenth century, creating texts that simply defy classification as either Arabic or Western genres. The chapters in this section will provide non-Arabists with an excellent introduction to these fascinating literary encounters with the West, including accounts by two Egyptian travelers to the World Exhibitions in Paris; the intriguing autobiography cum "Critique of the Relations between the Sexes" by the Lebanese Christian writer Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq; and the memoirs of the Jewish "father of Egyptian theater," Ya'qüb Sanü'. Sadly, many of the cited Arabic passages are left untranslated, though the pieces should on the whole still be accessible to non-specialists.

The next sixteen chapters are given the heading "Autobiography from Theory to Practice." They range from detailed analyses of individual texts, to comparative essays treating topics such as the portrayal of childhood, the narrative starting points of autobiographies, and prison narratives. One real contribution of this volume is to give a sense of the breadth of the modern Arabic autobiographical tradition. These essays deal with texts and authors --male and female--from Morocco, Algeria, Egypt, Palestine, Lebanon, Syria, and Iraq. The combined bibliographical information in the notes to these chapters is likewise a very significant contribution. The essays also present texts that cover the full spectrum of memoirs, diaries, autobiographical novels, and autobiographies, to use Western nomenclature.

The final section, "The Female Voice," includes three chapters specifically focused on women's writings, though references are made throughout the book to the most famous Arab women autobiographers, such as Fadwa Tüqan, Nawal Sa'dawï, Huda Sha'rawï, Latïfa al-Zayyat, and Bint al-Shati'. One of the themes raised here concerns the boundaries between novels with strongly autobiographical characteristics and works that openly proclaim themselves to be autobiographies. Here, as throughout the volume, the [End Page 243] focus is on autobiographical texts with high literary aspirations. The more direct autobiographical works, such as that of Fatima Rose al-Yüsuf, the famous actress and later founder and publisher of Egypt's most prominent critical political journal, are nearly ignored, as are the memoirs of other prominent political and social figures. (Is there a reason not to deal with the autobiographies...


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