Identity and Literature: Re-imagining the Past in Egypt, the Gulf and the West

I wrote this in response to the post “From Whence ‘Authentic’ Egyptian Literary Culture?” at:

http://arablit.wordpress.com/2012/02/28/gamal-al-ghitani-on-what-it-means-to-be-culturally-egyptian/#comment-7896

“It would be interesting to hear how novelist Gamal al-Ghitani might respond to Tamim al-Barghouti‘s recent points about the nature of authentic* Egyptian culture. Al-Barghouti, during his talk at the mid-February “Narrating the Arab Spring” conference, said that Pharaonic history, as it is currently understood, is not an organic part of Egyptian identity, but is rather an extension of colonialism.

This, he said, is because Egyptians’ current understanding of ancient history was dug up by the French and re-presented within the European colonial framework. Al-Ghitani, on the other hand, sees strong—although not particularly specific—linkages between the ancient and contemporary Egyptian cultures. His early and acclaimed novel Zayni Barakat (trans. Farouk Abdel Wahab) was set during the Mamluk period. But after writing this novel, he recently told Daily News Egypt’s Heba Elkayal, he ”began to extend my attention to Ancient Egyptian history, which I labeled as the era of continuity and discontinuity.”

The people “Demanding Freedom” bait the black bull that is the “Repressive Regime”, as Gilgamesh Once Killed the Bull of Heaven. Revolutionary graffiti, Bahrain, 2012. The “Dilmun Bull” figures prominently in the art and architecture of modern Bahrain

The Arab Literature post above raises some interesting questions about literature in general. As a Comparatist, I’d argue that in any culture the links between Modernity and the distant past tend to be ‘imagined’ (in Benedict Anderson’s sense) rather than real.

Beyond traces, what continuity is there between the cultures of Ancient Egypt and its Modern re-imaginings? Probably very little. But other periods of the Egyptian past fare worse, for example the Greaco-Roman and Byzantine periods. Perhaps because these periods are seen as somehow foreign or Western.

Does this mean that such re-imaginings in any way invalid? Not at all. One might as well ask how real (outside of the religious sphere, which is itself a re-imagining) are the links between contemporary Egyptian culture and early Islamic and pre-Islamic literatures of the Arabian peninsular.

How we imagine our connections with the remote past reflects in many ways how we imagine who we are in our present, and use literatures (some of them set in the past) to imagine our futures or alternative socio-political-cultural possibilities that might otherwise be unimaginable.

This doesn’t only apply to Egypt. What’s Westerness but a cultural re-imagining. While there might be some historical continuity between the Latinate Roman Empire, Medieval Europe, and modern European states, how ‘Western’ was ancient Greece?

Not ‘Western’ at all, I’d argue. Indeed the term would be meaningless projected back 2 or 3 thousand years. Isn’t the strong connection between the West of Modernity and Ancient Greece really just an imagining of the European Enlightenment period, based on a highly selective reading of history and texts?

That doesn’t make that imagining invalid, since it tells us a lot about how emerging modern Europe circa 1650-1800 saw itself. But it ignores continuities between Greece and the Middle East, the Indo-Persianate world, and, above all the Byzantine Empire and Byzantine-influenced cultures that if anything are as strong or stronger than the link with Greece through the West through Rome.

One could make the same argument with Modern English vs. Anglo-Saxon, or “Old English”. Is there continuity there? Although Old English is effectively a “foreign” language to those who know Modern English, I’d argue that there is continuity. The more you know about the English language and its history, the greater the continuity seems. Arab traditionalists make a similar argument about Classical Arabic and modern Arabic dialects. But I also accept that the evidence for their being a discontinuity, that English is English and so-called “Old English” is a different language, a different culture, is just as great. I had great fun exploring Old English with Arabic-speaking students.

Perhaps something similar applies to today’s Gulf states, with the strong imprint of the northern part of the Arabic-speaking world on the “official” cultures that are promoted through ministries of culture and information.

Aren’t these official cultures, as expressed in official literature, school and university curricula, official architecture in many ways an imposition of the more authentic cultures of the region, as expressed in its dialects, popular proverbs and poetry, place names, foods, clothing and (vanishing) vernacular architecture?

Don’t these living cultures present quite a different cultural reality than the rather dead and dry official ones? Cultures that show the cultural hybridity of the region, that reveal its status as a liminal zone where the Arabo-Semitic cultural continuum melds into the Indo-Persian one?

Working in a cross-cultural context in a part of the Middle East undergoing unprecedented social and cultural change I was aware that all the classes that I taught in English literature were in effect classes in comparative literature. Students’ reception of texts was of key importance here, as it raised my awareness of the ways in which literary texts are received and interpreted outside of the historical, social and cultural milieus in which they were produced.

This new awareness enabled me in turn to develop literature courses that were relevant to students’ learning needs, and which enabled students explore their own multi-faceted identities, and explore the cultures and identities of Others in a ways which was informed and empathetic, rooted in the uniqueness of their local experience, yet connected with the global.

This was an innovation in the GCC region context. The courses I inherited were based on an approach to Comparative Literature which was little more than an essentialist quest for origins, the official ideology what was part of the ‘hidden curriculum’ in Bahrain and the UAE assumed an Arabic origin for everything, and the written curricula provided this. What historical contextualization that existed was little more than an official apologia for the regimes’ historical claims to legitimacy. The official justification for studying English literature was that it enabled students to ‘improve their English’.

Little of this chimed with students’ actual reading of literary texts in English, or their expectations of what courses in English and Comparative Literature might teach them. In response to this I worked with colleagues and overseas consultants to develop courses that moved away from a search for origins to explore theme, structure and reception. Wherever possible I would use English and Arabic texts together, and use English to introduce students to texts from across time and geographical and cultural space. I put a new focus on students’ reading of texts, enabling them to make connections across literatures, and bring their insights into discussions of texts. This student-centred approach was highly innovative in an educational culture where students where lectured at as passive learners, and had been expected to memorise ‘right’ and ‘wrong’ answers to complex, highly nuanced questions.

This approach made me very much a learner in the context of my practice. Interacting with my students I facilitated cross-cultural discussion and debate in which we all of us were learners exploring new approaches and directions across literatures. This enabled us to explore together key questions in a far more open way than had previously been possible.

For example, “Has the Arabic-speaking world had an Enlightenment?” If it has, was it the largely derivative, largely Egyptian one of the late C19th and early C20th, or was the Arab Enlightenment the early Medieval Islamic rationalist movement of the C9th to C11th? If so, why were the social, cultural and scientific outcomes of this earlier Arab Enlightenment so different from the outcomes of the Enlightenment in the West? Or were they so different? To what extent can the observations of the Western Enlightenment on its Others be trusted? To what extent is the Western Enlightenment a retrospective construction, the meanings of which shift from the C19th to the C20th, from postmodernism to post-9/11?

We likewise explored Romanticism, nature and Industrialism in the light of the English Industrial Revolution’s 1750-1850 ‘Coal Age’, and then thought about the GCC region’s more recent energy-fuelled industrial revolution, its 1950-the present ‘Oil Age’. We discussed the transformations this has brought, the unprecedented material progress that lifted the region out of subsistence and into postmodern consumption, but at the price of environmental devastation. We thought about political upheaval as urbanization undermined traditional structures of kinship and patronage, thereby undermining the legitimacy of monarchical family rule. How similar was this to the historical context of the English Romantics? How could reading English Romantic together with more recent Arabic texts and contemporary GCC region art forms inform current debate in the region?

Anglo-Saxon texts were read together with slightly earlier pre-Islamic texts to explore common themes of the warrior ethos and tribal identity in fledgling states on the peripheries of the post-Roman world. Were the Anglo-Saxons and the pre-Islamic Arabs really so different to each other? What were the similarities and differences between the Christianization of the Anglo-Saxons, and the Islamicization of the Arabs. High Medieval Islamic and Christian mysticism were similarly explored, what does our re-imagining of these historically distant ties tell us about our present? Can it inform our readings of sacred texts?

Bahrain is home to some 10,000 Bronze Age burial mounds, and is imagined as the Dilmun of the Epic of Gilgamesh. A mythic understanding of this deep pre-Arab past is particularly important to the identity of Bahrain’s majority, yet economically and politically marginalized Shia community. Comparing scholarly and popular English editions of Gilgamesh we discussed the extent to which ancient texts in translation are ever fully ancient, and to what extent they are ancient themed creations of our present, connected to our hopes, aspirations, and expectations.

Students discovered that while the scholarly edition didn’t read well as literature, it was ‘honest’ in indicating the text’s numerous lacunae, the longer ones sometimes filled in with textual material across a 1,000 year time span. The 1958 popular edition, however, read seamlessly and projected a late Modernist literary aesthetic on the remote Bronze Age past. Developing students’ critical reading skills in this way was important in a context where the official flow of information was tightly controlled.

In the first semester 2008 I taught the 4th year undergraduate elective course Postcolonial Literature I selected as a reader Quinn and Baldwin’s 2007 Anthology of Colonial and Postcolonial Short Fiction, which is divided into regional sections, “The Caribbean”, “India/Pakistan”, and so forth. For project work, students were free to select short texts for reading and discussion, leading to a presentation and written assignment. To my surprise, the section “Ireland” was overwhelmingly the most popular for students, with texts like Frank O’Connor’s “Guests of the Nation” (1931) and Mary Beckett’s “Belfast Woman” (1980) stimulating heated discussion. One young woman, who was to become one of Bahrain’s most prominent pro-democracy activists, gave a presentation on why literary treatments of the Northern Ireland Troubles were relevant to Bahrain, raising my awareness of the civil rights dimension of the Bahrain pro-democracy movement a full three years before the popular uprising. After class, two young men, who would subsequently become active pro-regime vigilante activity, tried to warn me off of the subject. Never again would I perceive the teaching of Comparative Literature in Bahrain to be a politically “innocent” activity.

Bull’s head from Bronze Age Bahrain

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