Critical Inquiry Critical Inquiry

Jens Hanssen reviews The Arabic Renaissance

Tarek El-Ariss​, The Arabic Renaissance: A Bilingual Anthology of the Nahda. New York: MLA Texts and Translations, 2019. 375 pp. 

Review by Jens Hanssen

14 August 2019

The anthology is a literary genre, at once pedagogical and political, which often functions as a salvage operation for national heritage. Monolingual literary anthologies build or rebuild national canons, multilingual and translated ones are often continentalist or internationalist countercanons. Anthologies of Arabic literature in translation both transgress existing nation-state boundaries and affirm the supranational history of Arabic culture. Most Arabic anthologies in English translation have introduced classical poetry or modern fiction, notably the monumental work of Salma Jayyusi, to break what Edward Said once called the Anglo-American “embargo on Arabic literature.” The bilingual anthology under review here is special because it focuses on short, critical texts. Not many readers of Critical Inquiry will be able to compare the English translations with the Arabic texts. But the mere presence of the Arabic script in the book encourages the reader to recognize that the universal ideas expressed in the texts spring from particular historical problem spaces.

In The Arabic Renaissance, editor Tarek El-Ariss and his team of translators offer English readership a programmatic introduction and 29 original Arabic texts from the Nahda period, or the “Arabic renaissance” from the late nineteenth- to the mid-twentieth centuries, including newspaper articles, poems, excerpts from lectures and books, as well as biographies of their male and female Arab authors. The Nahda produced committed anthologizers of classical Arabic literature and philosophy of their own. But it was also much more than a “canonizing machine,” and The Arabic Renaissance reflects the multiple fields of intervention in seven well-calibrated parts: the meanings of renaissance; language and civilization; theories of literature; engagements with European literature, including a virtually unknown correspondence between the leading Egyptian reformer Muhammad ‘Abduh and Leo Tolstoy; excerpts of early Arabic novels serialized in the press; as well as political concepts and topics like freedom and tyranny, censorship and un/veiling.

This bilingual anthology is an original undertaking. The only other anthology of its kind dates back to Ihsan ‘Abbas’s and Charles Issawi’s 1983 Modern Arabic Thought: Channels of the French Revolution to the Arab East, itself an edited translation of the antifascist Ra‘if Khuri’s Arabic anthology of 1943. The Arabic Renaissance anthology is also a timely intervention against the ongoing cultural pathologization of Arabs. On one extreme, Orientalists can still get published, by Princeton University Press no less, with books claiming that the Arab world was Lost in the Sacred and “stood still” on the spurious grounds that its modern language is the same as that of the Quran. In fact, as El-Ariss and his team’s selection of texts demonstrates, nineteenth-century Arab intellectuals launched the contested process in which today’s Modern Standard Arabic emerged in a complex interplay of revival, reform, and translation. The Nahda, then, constituted the Archimedean point on which claims to, and against, Arab modernity came to be staked diachronically and syncronically ever since. 

On the other academic extreme, the Nahda is charged––traduttore, trattore––with the crime of collusion with European colonialism. Allegedly intoxicated by the West, Arab intellectuals validated and ventriloquized epistemic Eurocentrism and "inauthentic" concepts like secularism and liberalism after Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt in 1798 when Arabs were violently torn from their organic connection to a better past. The Arabic Renaissance anthology affords the Nahda the rare occasion to speak back to presentist fixations. The meticulous translations will help discourage "flat readings" of Nahda texts as straightforward indicators of authorial intentions and to recognize the hermeneutical, often playful, literary dimensions of canonical, ephemeral, and counter-canonical works. Carefully curated for the nonspecialist and specialist alike, this book pays homage to the deeply self-reflexive intellectual origins of the long secular Arabic tradition.