The Circuitous Path of Renewal
The Invention of Modern Arabic Literature During the First World War
It was to be a decisive evening in the history of modern Arabic literature. In late April 1920 Abd al-Masih Haddad invited a group of Syrian-Lebanese authors to meet at 51, West 10th Street in New York. The meeting led to the birth of al-Rabita al-qalamiyya [the Pen League], an association of writers whose members were to be highly influential in the renewal of Arabic prose. Haddad (1881–1950), originally from Homs in Syria, was the editor of the magazine al Sa'ih [The Tourist]. There had already been a private meeting at his house the previous week, during which a discussion ensued about the state of contemporary Arabic literature. How, they asked themselves at this informal gathering, could Syrian authors in New York help to awaken Arabic literature from its stupor – this 'swamp of stagnation and imitation', as Mikhail Naimy (1889–1988), one of those who attended meeting, later described it – and 'revive it, so that it could become a driving force in building the Arab nations'?
Empires and nations
The meeting in New York was partly a response to the huge upheavals that had taken place since 1914 and the start of World War One, and which had permanently changed the world order. The empires of the Habsburgs, the Romanovs and the Ottomans, which until then had determined people's fates from central Europe right across the eastern Mediterranean and all the way into Asia, were now history. The American president Woodrow Wilson had made peoples' right to self-determination the new guiding principle of international politics with his Fourteen Point Programme, which he presented in early 1918. From now on nations, not dynasties, should be invested with the power of state. It was on this basis that the League of Nations was founded in 1920. The Arab migrants in New York had left their homelands before the First World War because of the paralysing political situation in the late Ottoman Empire, as well as for economic reasons. By the end of the war, that world no longer existed.
At this time, Arab literary figures in America were trying to find their place in the world and reviving discussion about the responsibility of literature against the backdrop of changing national self-comprehension. What kind of future did the countries of the eastern Mediterranean have to look forward to? And what role should literature play in this? The impulses for the renewal of Arabic literature that emerged from this debate were indebted not only to the influence of American culture, but also to a broad current of influences from Russia. Two important Arabic literary magazines had been founded in New York in 1912 and 1913: al-Sa'ih, and al-Funun [The Arts]. Their editors, the aforementioned Abd al-Masih Haddad, and Nasib Arida (1887–1940), were graduates of a Russian teacher training school in Nazareth, as was Mikhail Naimy.
From Lebanon to America via Palestine and Russia
Mikhail Naimy (or Nuayma) was born in the Lebanese village of Baskinta in 1889. There he initially attended a very humble school that had been established at the instigation of Greek Orthodox notables. The situation improved considerably in 1899 when Russia's Imperial Orthodox Palestine Society opened a school in Baskinta. Naimy spent three years there before he was selected to continue his education at the aforementioned Palestine Society's teachers' training school in Nazareth. In December 1902, aged thirteen, Naimy left home on a mule and rode all the way to Beirut. From there he travelled by boat to Haifa, then on to Nazareth by donkey.
Classes at the Russian school and at the college in Nazareth were in Arabic and Russian, and in this way Naimy discovered world literature. 'The more my knowledge of Russian improved,' he recalled in his autobiography, Sab'un [Seventy], 'the greater my enthusiasm for reading. While still in Nazareth I read several novels by Jules Verne in Russian translation. I also read a number of short stories by Chekhov and Tolstoy, as well as the whole Dostoevsky's Crime and Punishment.' He left Nazareth in 1906 and went to study at a theological seminary in the town of Poltova, in modern-day Ukraine. A whole new world opened up to the young man from Lebanon. Naimy became well and truly familiar with Russian culture, got to know Russian folk music and folk dance, and dedicated himself to literature in particular. He wrote his first poems, and kept a diary in Russian.
A Russian-influenced view of the world
In Poltova, Naimy was heavily influenced by Michail Lermontov (1814–41), whose romantic love of Nature, Platonic notion of the soul, and especially his criticism of social injustice all appealed to the young student. The socio-critical aspect of Lermontov's poetry was something he could relate to conditions in his Lebanese homeland. The depiction of feudalism, corrupt state bureaucrats and church dignitaries in nineteenth-century Russian literature opened his eyes to his own society with all its similar problems. This fate was contrasted with an ideal, utopian world of 'simplicity, truth and beauty', which Naimy discovered in Leo Tolstoy (1818–1910). Tolstoy's anti-clericalism in particular, and his uncompromising differentiation between the true Christ and what he saw as the corrupt church, were what Naimy found most convincing, because he was familiar with a similar situation at home in Lebanon. 'An inner rebellion against the church and its dry dogmas,' Naimy later wrote in a letter to the Russian Arabist Ignaz Krakovsky, 'had me seeking sanctuary in Tolstoy's late works.'
Naimy found answers in the Russian authors not only to the religious question but also to the question of his own cultural identity. He would have been familiar with the lively debates about Russian identit, between East and West that were conducted by Westernisers and Slavophiles throughout the whole of the nineteenth century. Petr Chaadaev (1793–1856) had complained in his Philosophical Letters that Russia belonged to none of the great civilisations and was a part neither of the East nor of the West. Naimy came to Russia as a representative of an Oriental culture whose self-confidence had waned dramatically in recent decades as it acquired a growing sense of inferiority with regard to the West. If the Russians had succeeded in overcoming the situation lamented by Chaadaev and becoming an independent, civilised nation, the Arabs too, with their great tradition, must have ways of overcoming their current weakness. Naimy's experience of the Slavophiles' conviction of their own superiority to the West and its culture explains his confident stance in the essays of cultural criticism he later wrote in America and Lebanon.
Alongside the socio-critical aspects of Russian literature and the cultural-philosophical enquiry of the Slavophiles, the approach of Vissarion Belinsky (1811–48), the most important Russian literary critic of his age, also had a lasting influence on Naimy. Belinsky had emphasised the role of literature in society. As a cultural journalist and critic in the tradition of Chaadaev, he wrote in a letter to Konstantin Aksakov, 'What should our life look like? Where is it, and what is it about? We are so many individuals outside a society, because Russia is not a society. We lead a life that is neither political nor religious, neither scientific nor literary. Boredom, apathy, disappointment, fruitless striving – that is our life.' Belinsky called for a discrete Russian literature: 'What we need is an enlightenment, created by our own efforts, cultivated on our own native soil. We have no literature of our own! But the seed of the future is ripening today, and one day we will have a literature of our own, and then we will be Europe's rivals and not her imitators.'
Belinsky's primary concern was the renunciation of an idealistic appreciation of art and a reorientation towards realistic literature. Towards the end of his life he linked his pessimistic basic attitude to the hope he saw in literature. 'Despite the Tartar censorship,' he wrote in a letter to Nikolai Gogol in 1847, 'only literature shows signs of life and progressive movement.' Such ideas must have felt very familiar to Naimy, in the light of the discussion about the renewal of Arabic literature in the context of the nahda, the modern renaissance-movement of the Arabs. He wrote in his Russian diary: 'We still lack a literature in the true sense of the word. Nothing of what we produce can seriously be described as a discrete literature.' Later, in his literary-critical essays, Naimy campaigned for the liberation of Arabic literature from the formalistic shackles of neo-classicism. The essays he wrote on literature between 1914 and 1922, which were collected and published in 1923 under the title al-Ghirbal [The Sieve], are regarded as the first independent Arabic literary criticism of the modern age.
From Seattle to New York
After breaking off his studies in Poltova, Naimy returned to Lebanon in 1911. However, within a few months he set off again, this time for Seattle in the United States, where one of his brothers lived. There, the following year, he chanced upon an article by Khalil Gibran, whom he had not yet encountered; and later, again by chance, on a copy of the magazine al-Funun. A little while later, when a Lebanese friend gave him a copy of Gibran's Broken Wings [al-Ajniha al-mutakassira], he contacted Nasib Arida. Shortly afterwards, al-Funun published Naimy's first article, entitled 'The Dawn of Hope After a Night of Despair', in which he expressed his negative opinion of contemporary Arabic literature as a whole and analysed Gibran's influence upon it. He summed this up by declaring that Gibran was 'the first authentic voice of our Arab compatriots in exile', and that his work represented 'the beginning of a new dawn in Arabic literature'.
Gibran as unintentional reformer
In this historical configuration, Gibran became, almost unintentionally, a pioneer of modernist Arabic literature. His early volumes of stories are characterised by the use of simple, almost plain language. Their sentimental tone and, in particular, the two-dimensionality of the characters, who are seldom endowed with individual characteristics and often serve merely as mouthpieces for the author's socio-critical and religio-philosophical reflections, are significant weaknesses in these stories. Furthermore, instead of a developing storyline they usually contain only conflictual constellations with no internal dynamic, which are brought to a moralising conclusion with few surprises en route. However, what today looks like a weakness was at the time an important stage in the development of modern Arabic prose, which was just starting to test itself. Gibran's knowledge of Arabic was insufficient for him to write in poetic style of the day, which was extremely artificial and orientated towards the great classical tradition. Instead, his simple vocabulary and unaffected syntax were perceived as part of the effort to move beyond the strictly-regulated forms and language of classical and classicistic Arabic poetry – still the prevailing style – in order to establish a modern Arabic narrative. In this respect, Gibran's limited linguistic capabilities were in keeping with Naimy's programme of renewal after the Russian literary model. Literary history was being written: no less a personage than Adonis later regarded Gibran's work as the beginning of modern Arabic poetry.
According to Naimy's nephew and biographer, Nadeem Naimy, the writer made his own contribution to the renaissance he had called for, creating authentic Arab stories in his collection Kan ma kan [Once Upon a Time], written in 1914. 'The first mature Arabic narrative style emerged,' his biographer writes, 'when in 1914 a student of nineteenth-century Russian realism stepped onto the stage.'
The world of yesterday
Over the course of the First World War, the Arab authors in their American exile witnessed the demise of their once-familiar world. Not only did the Ottoman Empire fall, Tsarist Russia too was no more. Naimy could not relate to the Soviet Union. When he travelled there in 1956, for the first – and only – time, on the invitation of the Soviet Union of Writers, he found nothing left of 'his' Russia. The following year he wrote Ab'ad min Musku wa-min Washintun [Beyond Moscow and Washington], in which, against the backdrop of the Cold War, he distanced himself from both the socialist East and the capitalist West. Since his return to Lebanon in the early 1930s he had become increasingly critical of America, developing a confident 'vision of the East' schooled in the argumentations of Russian Slavophilia.
Khalil Gibran, on the other hand, developed his vision of the East while still living in America. From the distance of exile he lapsed into nostalgic idealisation of his Lebanese homeland: 'Sacred valley, Oriental solitude, thousand-year-old cedars, green fir trees, foaming rivers, inaccessible grottoes': this is how his biographer Jean-Pierre Dahdah described the 'context in which Gibran spent his youth, and it is also the basic vocabulary of his works.' In a text published in al-Funun in 1913, Gibran reduced his political identity to a concise formula: he was proud to be Lebanese, he was proud not to be Ottoman, he had a beautiful homeland and belonged to a nation with a glorious past, but he had no state that sheltered him. Thus he was Oriental in his customs, Syrian in his longings, and Lebanese in his emotions. He made no comment on the profound political changes in the eastern Mediterranean over the course of the collapse of the Ottoman Empire, and he remained sceptical about both Lebanese and Syrian nationalism. When he spoke of his nation, he meant the Arab nation, which he comprehended above all as a linguistic community and cultural nation. He refused to take sides, either politically or ideologically, and maintained his idealised view of Lebanon. 'You have your Lebanon, and I have mine,' he wrote in 1920, in one of his most frequently-quoted essays. 'You have your Lebanon and her problems; I have my Lebanon and her beauty. You have your Lebanon with all her prejudices and struggles, and I have my Lebanon with all her dreams and securities.' His often eulogistic idealisation of the nature of Lebanese people makes him more regional writer than national author.
Forming the circle
After his Gibran article in 1913 Naimy wrote regularly for al-Funun, and in 1916 he moved to New York, where the circle came together. When the Arab-American literary society ar-Rabita al-qalamiya was founded in 1920, Gibran became president and Naimy secretary of the society. In this capacity Naimy was responsible for writing its literary manifesto, which states – in a clear echo of Belinsky – that the new movement made it its task 'to lift Arabic literature from the quagmire of stagnation and imitation, and to infuse a new life into its veins so as to make of it an active force in the building of Arab nations … The tendency to keep our language and literature within the narrow bounds of aping the ancients in form and substance is a most pernicious tendency.' They were now looking ahead to a future that, while uncertain, was one towards which they were proceeding with optimism. The modern literary era could now begin.
teaches Modern Arab Literature at the Free University of Berlin.
Translated by Charlotte Collins
Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
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