Book Reviews: Deserted writers

Reading the Thousand and None Nights

The Modern Arabic Short Story: Shahrazad Returns
Mohammad Shaheen
Palgrave Macmillian, 2nd Edition, 2003
Night 602

“None of them [the thousand and one nights] is as disturbing as that of night 602, a bit of magic among the nights. On that strange night, the king hears his own story from the queen’s [Scheherazade’s] lips. He hears the beginning of the story, which includes all others, and also-monstrously-itself... Were the queen to persist, the immobile king would forever listen to the truncated story of the thousand and one nights, now infinite and circular,” writes Jorge Luis Borges, perhaps the greatest reader of The Thousand and One Nights, in his essay When Fiction Lives in Fiction.

Being then more gullible, only superficially initiated into the labyrinths of Borges, I went for my edition of the Nights and flipped to night 602. The amazing nesting detailed by Borges was not there. Night 602 is mainly the story of a king’s son and an imprisoned woman, a typical Nights story, not quite the filler material that makes up most of the 600s, but certainly not a story which traffics in infinity. The digression in his essay was one of Borges’ elaborate, erudite ficciones. I have since become a less, or more, responsible reader.

Why mention this intellectual prank here, a prank formulated to fun on lesser readers than Borges? Because night 602 as imagined by Borges is as elusive as a modern Arabic literature. While its academic proponents seek night 1002, or the eighth voyage of Sinbad on the 1002nd night, unfortunate Arab writers are deserted in sweltering daylight.

There’s a concomitant to Borges’ fictional night: If on the 602nd night Scheherezade would be infinitely telling and retelling the 601 previous nights, posterity would be much poorer. We would have gained the horror of repetition, but we would have lost the other 399 nights that we had been promised. The queen would never have gotten to them.

Sinbad on Trial

The novel arrived like Napoleon in the Arab world, and the results of the mutual discovery have been noted, if not read, especially the novels of Egyptian Naguib Mahfouz. The short story is a different expedition. The Arab world didn’t know what to make of the Western short story. The genre staked out ideational territory uncomfortably near the traditional tale’s encampment. Henry James, Franz Kafka and Rudyard Kipling were pitched atop al-Tanukhi’s 10th century masterpiece Faraj ba’d al-Shidda [Relief after Distress]. (The Arab story-telling world has had little sense of modernity, no sense of history: Fiction from the 10th century, generally regarded as the greatest epoch of Arabic letters, is relevant in the 20th; Kipling and al-Tanukhi are read in the same way. Tellingly, there are no superlatives in classical Arabic; hence formulations like “the book of books.” Egalitarian grammar is inextricably linked to a historical perspective.)

There are obvious differences between the two disciplines of story-telling and story-writing, aesthetic and practical differences: The tale is preoccupied with morality; it exists in a two-dimensional world. The story may occupy itself with morality, but three-dimensionally: symbolism enters, moral forces must fight with involving action and detail for space within the sentences. The tale details the adventures and exploits of archetypes (the king’s son) whereas the short story is concerned with character. The tale is inherently unreal. The short story does not have to be unreal. The tale is interested in ornamented language and prescriptive tropes (Oh, King!) and the short story’s language must hold dialogue with plot. Modern Arabic writers included in this anthology are modern in the sense of not being modern, of having been pushed by their inheritance into a Joseph’s pit. They have surrendered themselves to European models and in doing so have attempted the most provincial technique of literature: hybridization, a psychological portrayal of Sinbad the Sailor.

Take this example from Mustafa al-Masnâwî’s ‘Abd Allah Samsa in Wâqwâq Island, which inverts Kafka’s dreamlike horror of The Metamorphosis and demands that it stand, on two legs now, in reality: “When ‘Abd Allah Samsa woke from sleep one morning, after a disturbing dream, he found that he had not been transformed into an amazing insect, but that a thought had been imported into his head.” As Wâqwâq Island, a place where the borders are not exterior, on the edges, but interior, was once the famed destination of Sinbad, then Samsa himself is Sinbad, but a Sinbad without a vessel, and eventually a Sinbad without a voyage. Samsa, as an Arab liberal and dissident, is tortured and eventually executed at the hands of the temporal Wâqwâq’s extremist regime for the voice inside his head, for his own inwardly directed free-speech. Al-Masnâwî required Kafka’s first draft to express the terrible situation because he wanted to imbue a fantasy with a reality; he wanted to parley the nightmare into waking and the impetus behind the appropriation is more affecting than the appropriation itself.

The Opposite of Scheherazade

Both folktales and dissident literatures have moral imperatives; arguably, so do propagandist literatures. That is the source of their flaws, their two-dimensionality. However, folktales deal with timeless morality, whereas dissident works deal with a more ephemeral kind. As a sympathetic reader, one can appreciate most of the stories in this anthology as dramatized reactions against oppressive politics. But a political agenda does not translate into entertainment; in most instances, the opposite is true. Most of these writers are in the inverse predicament of Scheherazade; whereas she would be murdered if she stopped telling stories, these writers would be murdered, or at least interrogated and threatened, if they told one at all.

So the story-tellers become story-writers: the orphan’s cow of Mahműd Shuqair is an orphan’s cow (which is slaughtered), and it represents the position of the artist in Arabic society; the season of drought of Akram Haniyyah is a season of drought, and it represents the season of intellectual and spiritual drought; the oil slick of Sulayman Shaţţi is an oil slick, and it represents the slowly destructive forces of extremist politics. As in all dissident literature, the symbols mustn’t be too obscure-it’s a message they’re setting down, not a story for story’s sake. There is a strong Semitic tradition of suspecting invention (invention being reserved for God only), and the obvious recycling of themes, and the presentation of fictional stories as true to enhance their stature, has been long practiced, and has become expected and almost necessary (as the Koran, al-Kitab, the book of books, is largely comprised of more imaginative rewrites of the Torah). In the 10th century, Ibn al-Nadim, who referred to fiction as asmar [evening stories] to stress its idle function, wrote this in his Fihrist [Index]:

“The first people to collect stories, devoting books to them and safeguarding them in libraries... were the early Persians. Then the Ashkanian kings, the third dynasty of Persian monarchs, took notice of this [literature]. The Sasanian kings in their time adding to it and extending it. The Arabs translated it into the Arabic language and then, when masters of literary style and eloquence became interested, they refined and elaborated it, composing what was similar to it in content.”

The last clause is the most telling and the further translation of this practice into the forms of Western literature nearly always fails; the attempt marks the writers as neither Arabic nor modern.

In his occasionally superfluous introductory essay, Shaheen, Professor of English at the University of Jordan, in the most Westernized of Arab states, drills for himself an apt metaphor for this paradoxical situation of Arabic writers: Aladin’s lamp without oil, the oil having twofold meaning - literary impulse without substance, and literary substance without readership or support (most of these stories were written for the drawer or for publication in foreign journals). His metaphor denies Aladdin’s lamp any jinns, any wish-fulfilling magical properties. It’s simply a lamp, rubbed of any shine, that won’t light. And so these writers write in darkness, through Borges’ limitless night 602. Readers should hope for an end to this infinity (which when invoked is admirable, but when demonstrated is less so). Only after this end may any renewal of Arabic literature truly begin.

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