Can Arabs be part of the French?

"Me and my city"

The Arabs, the autobiography and the hometowns of the authors
by Susanne Enderwitz

At the end of the 19th century, the Nahda emerged in Egypt, a movement that can be translated as "Renaissance" and emphasizes "support within one's own" - also in literature. The Egyptian novel, which draws heavily on the autobiographical experience of its authors, has developed particularly rapidly since then. Compared to Western autobiographies, one characteristic trait of Arab autobiographies is particularly pronounced: the author's identification with his hometown. The close connection between autobiography and city biography makes Egyptian novels first-rate contemporary sources.

A dictum in Islamic studies says that the biography is the actual form of Arabic-Islamic historiography. Indeed, biography plays a role in historiography that cannot be overestimated, but it differs from our modern understanding of biography. Mostly it is a hagiography or a scholar's biography, the focus of which is the performance of a person, while his personal and above all private circumstances remain in the dark. Biography and autobiography in the modern, individual or even individualistic sense are a development of the 19th and 20th centuries and are closely related to the development of the modern novel. It is therefore advisable to first take a look at the conditions under which modern Arabic literature was created.

The year 1798 is considered a turning point in Arab and Islamic history, the date on which modernity first broke into Egypt. It was a break in literally. In that year Napoleon undertook a campaign to Egypt with an army of around 40,000 men, which led him from Alexandria via the Battle of the Pyramids to Cairo. The Mamluks, the rulers of Egypt at that time, were driven back as far as Upper Egypt. The Egyptian adventure of the French was to be short-lived, however, as the British forced the French to withdraw as early as 1801 because they saw their access to India endangered. For the Europeans, however, the French expedition was a great success. Napoleon brought about a thousand civilians with him in his entourage, painters and poets, botanists and zoologists, geometers and engineers, from whose work the Description de l’Egypte emerged. It is a monumental work that was primarily intended to take stock of ancient Egyptian antiquities, but also contains a meticulous record of the flora and fauna of Egypt.

The Napoleonic expedition opened Egypt to Europe, but conversely, an interest in Europe also developed in Egypt. Mohammed Ali, the first modern ruler of Egypt, who put an end to the Mamluk rule in 1811 and founded the dynasty of the Egyptian khedives or viceroys, sent study missions to Paris. He was primarily interested in the military, engineering and mechanical engineering. But it was fortunate that the spiritual advisor to the first of these study missions (1826-31), Sheikh Rifa’a Tahtawi, had an open eye for French civil society. He was interested in politics, the legal system, science, art and everyday life. After his return he published a report on his time in Paris, which was to become the model for most of the later European reports by Arab travelers. He also founded a translation school that systematically devoted itself to the development of European-language literature of a technical and, to a lesser extent, literary nature.

During the 19th century, European capital found its way into Egypt, which had both positive and negative effects on the country. On the one hand, the need for English textile production promoted the export of cotton and thus an increase in the standard of living, which, in addition to the royal family, benefited a new urban middle class. On the other hand, the country fell into national debt and eventually national bankruptcy, which culminated in the British occupation (1882). However, the dovetailing of Egypt with Europe, which found its most visible expression in the opening of the Suez Canal (1869), also set in motion a dynamization of Egyptian culture. Newspapers and magazines were founded which found an interested reading public in the middle class mentioned and negotiated national questions that had never been asked before. Where was Egypt's identity or soul based? What is Pharaonic, Arabic, Islamic, Mediterranean, modern? And what did that mean in detail? Did Egypt stand alone as a nation, or did it belong to the Arabs who, with Islam, made it part of a culture that reached far into Asia? And vice versa: Was Egypt a genuine part of the Mediterranean, possibly already under the Pharaohs, who, like the Greeks, were at the cradle of Europe? The dispute over such questions led to the development of numerous political parties and currents in the last third of the 19th and first third of the 20th century and proved to be particularly fruitful for the emergence of modern literature.

The first Egyptian novel

During this period of about fifty years, the Nahda was created, a word that is often translated as "Renaissance" and describes a movement that, in addition to Egypt, also included the Levant and North Africa. In any case, the expression applies to that part of the movement that sought “support in one's own life” (Walter Braune) and campaigned for its revitalization in order to make Egypt (Lebanon, Tunisia, etc.) compatible for the 20th century. After the first translations from European languages, mainly editions of Arabic classics and adaptations of European literary genres were created. Poetry, which had been the Arab literary genre par excellence over the centuries, played first fiddle into the 20th century, but by the end of the 19th century short stories, drama and novels were given the opportunity to perform. The first Egyptian novel, Zainab by Muhammad Haikal (born 1889), a romantic depiction of Egyptian country life, was published in 1914-15. However, it did not find a wider reading public until the re-edition of 1925/6, at the same time as the first publication of Taha Husain's (born 1889) Childhood Days, a critical examination of rural Egypt.

Identification with the hometown

With the publication of the childhood days the way was clear for the novel, and in the following seventy years the Arabic novel in general and the Egyptian novel in particular went through a rapid development, which engaged him from social realism via the socially critical littérature to a "new sensitivity" in the present. And not only the form, but also the subject of the novel changed. The country novel became a city novel that no longer described Egypt, either eternal or backward, depending on your point of view. The city novel, for which the name Nagib Machfus (born 1911) stands with his Cairo novels and especially the Cairo trilogy from the years 1956/7, what much more about the clash of traditional and modern ways of life and the unstoppable dynamization of the traditional as well sector too.

From the beginning, the Egyptian novel, like the Arabic novel as a whole, drew heavily on the autobiographical experiences of its authors. This is not surprising when you consider that it originated in countries where political censorship is still in effect today, and in a culture that regards personal confessions as dishonorable. Fiction offered a welcome way out for both. On the one hand, social and political criticism could be hidden behind an "invented" act, and on the other hand, private and intimate things could be transposed to the same "invented" level. While the first circumstance claims to be valid up to our day and led to Arab literature being burdened with a social responsibility that one can no longer even imagine in the West, the loosening of social control, at least in the cities, resulted in that the autobiography gradually began to detach itself from the novel and became a literary genre in its own right. Since the sixties of the 20th century, there has been an increasing number of autobiographies by authors who placed the focus on the childhood and adolescence of their authors and thus clearly differed from the impersonal memoirs of politicians or cultural officials who were concerned with contemporary witnesses.

Taken as a whole, the Arab autobiography of the past fifty years has one trait that is particularly pronounced in comparison with the Western autobiography: the autobiographer's identification with his hometown. Even the Tunisian Albert Memmi (born 1920), who published Die Salzsäule in French in 1953, devotes himself intensively in this first book to his shaping by the Jewish quarter of Tunis. This literary autobiography, however, is also a document of transgression. Memmi describes the narrowness of the ghetto, the poverty of the parental home, the sultriness of the festive ceremonies and then his breakout from this traditional milieu, which first led him to a grammar school in Tunis, then to the University of Algiers and finally to the Sorbonne in Paris. He did not acquire a new home anywhere, but remained a wanderer between the worlds of Jews, Arabs and French. Regardless or even in reverse of the title, which alludes to Lot's wife in the Bible and thus to the motif or the prohibition of looking back, Memmi published the autobiographical novel Die Fremde only two years later. The reintegration of the hero into the tradition of his Jewish family in Tunis fails, mainly because he has made the stranger part of his life in the form of his French Catholic wife. But it is a good reason for breaking away from tradition, apparently even more so in life than in the novel. In the novel, the hero and his wife Marie decide to get a divorce, while in life Memmi and his wife Marie agreed to go on living together, but in Paris and not in Tunis.

While Memmis Salt Pillar was even more inspired by the European Bildungsroman than by the Arabic literary tradition, the relationship between the various influences was reversed in the following decades. The long-term success of the Arab Renaissance made itself felt, because the Arab tradition did not flow unnoticed into the new literary genres, but was consciously taken up and implemented. This tradition offered several points of contact for the identification of an author with his city. “City poetry” goes back to the Arab-Islamic Middle Ages; The city has always played an important role in the context of poetic genres such as praise, insulting or mourning poetry.

Elegies on cities

Poems of praise for cities like Jerusalem, Damascus, Cairo and other cities, primarily centers of Islamic learning, were the rule rather than the exception. The abuse of cities, on the other hand, could have a quasi-official character if it saw itself as a contribution to the rivalry between cultural centers within the empire, but it also appears in fragments of casual or impromptu poetry. In the warlike centuries of the Middle Ages, elegies on cities were also written when a city was damaged or destroyed by enemy attack, as happened several times during the Spanish Reconquista, among others.

However, it is not the poetry alone, but also the historiography, geography and biography that give us a sense of how strongly the people of the Arab-Islamic Middle Ages felt themselves to be connected to a specific locality. The stay in a cultural center and thus with a patron, but above all the bond with the family or the clan and the tribe, created local or regional affiliations that still exist today inside and outside of literature. For this conservatism, the fact that the nation is a young phenomenon in the Arab world, that the national borders often go back to the arbitrary settlements of the European colonial powers and that the Arab regimes of the 20th century rarely invited people to identify with the state played a role in this conservatism.

Alexandria: a city and its cultural memory

If the poetry and prose of the Middle Ages also provided the pattern for local patriotism, a number of other reasons were required for this pattern to take effect in modern literature. One such reason was, in terms of literature, intertextuality, but on closer inspection of the motive for it came directly from politics. Edward Kharrat (born 1926), who used saffron earth to present childhood and youth memories from Alexandria in 1986, which he expressly wants to be understood as an alternative to Lawrence Durrell's Alexandria Quartet (1957-60), is one such case. Durrell's Alexandria, especially in the first volume Justine, takes place in colonial Egypt, is written from the perspective of an Englishman and its staff is largely drawn from the circles of foreigners. Nessim, Justine's husband, is an exception as an Egyptian, but he is also an exception among the Egyptians because he is a Copt, a banker and a large landowner. Kharrat, on the other hand, who is familiar with the literary as well as the social and political internal perspective, and his family took the locals as models for his literature and intended to contribute to the decolonization of the minds in East and West.

Alexandria is particularly interesting for the question of the autobiography as a city biography, because it produced so many different cultural memories from the outset. Kharrat is not the only native Alexandrian who claims the city for himself. André Aciman (born 1951) describes in Back then in Alexandria from 1994 the story of his Jewish family, who surrendered to Nasser’s nationalism towards the end of the 1950s and chose American exile. Similar to Harry Tzalas (born 1936), who, in Farewell to Alexandria of 2000, processed memories of the Greek community whose gradual dissolution in the mid-1950s led his family into exile in Brazil. The homelessness of the cosmopolitan that pervades all these books is part of the Alexandrian roots. It builds a bridge to Trieste, which is on the other side of the Mediterranean for comparison because it can look back on a similarly cosmopolitan past, experienced a similar decline and stimulated a similarly rich literature of remembrance. Only Alexandria has not yet made it to the star of a new kind of detective novel. This is different with the Trieste thrillers by Veit Heinichen, who like Donna Leon with her Venice thrillers is a newcomer and constructs his cases from the interplay of past splendor, secluded location and the Italian / Eastern European mafia. Alexandria has no mafia structures and Egypt is too preoccupied with its problems to encourage foreigners to move into the country. A corresponding milieu can be found more in the memories of Mohamed Choukri (born 1935) of the Moroccan city of Tangier (The Bare Bread and Time of Mistakes), which in the fifties and sixties was an Eldorado for fortune seekers, smugglers and "pop "- Was literary and has recently been on the upswing again.

Back to the question of the close connection between autobiography and urban biography in Arabic literature. Tradition undoubtedly plays a role here, but it also falls on fertile ground. Arab cities are diverse and, in addition to their own Arab-Islamic tradition, often also show traces of earlier (Roman, Greek) settlement as well as later (Ottoman) rule and colonial (British, French) past. It is a recent phenomenon that these historical layers are being rigorously removed in the age of globalization in order to make room for an urban reorganization. For Beirut, where the civil war also crushed the old town, there are numerous examples of literary forensic evidence as an immediate reaction. But that also applies to other Arab cities. The Lebanese sociologist Khalid Ziyadeh (born 1951) had exactly such a survey of Tripoli in the fifties and sixties in mind when he published his childhood and youth memories Friday, Sunday in 1994. This connection of the individual with the collective memory is further promoted by a reluctance within Arab culture to focus too much on the individual and especially on individualism. For a modern writer who no longer sees his father family at the center of his life and does not see himself as part of a clan or a clientele, identifying with his city also offers protection from the danger of being branded as egomaniac or escapist by his reading audience to become. All this, the literary tradition, the historical interest and the modern group identity taken together, makes the Arab autobiography, also and especially as a city biography in the sense of the title, a contemporary source of the first order.

Susanne Enderwitz is professor for Arabic studies in the seminar for languages ​​and cultures of the Middle East. Before that, she taught Islamic studies at the Free University of Berlin and spent several research stays in Cairo, Paris and Jerusalem. Her main research focus is classical and modern Arabic literature.

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