The Arabic novel: a general introduction

By Megan Wang|December 1, 2018|Insight|

Paul Starkey provides an overview of some of the earliest Arabic novels, noting how political developments in the Arab world have acted as turning points in the region’s literary history

Although much imaginative prose writing can be found in Arabic literature of the medieval and pre-modern periods, it is not until the second half of the 19th century that we can speak of an ‘Arabic novel’ in the sense in which we usually understand the term. The rise of the form is associated with the movement of literary and cultural renewal known as the nahda, initially centred mainly in Egypt and Syria/Lebanon, which combined an attempt to rediscover the classical Arabic cultural and intellectual heritage with the importation of Western literary forms into the region for the first time. Much debate has taken place about what was the ‘first Arabic novel’, a strong contender for the title being a monumental work entitled Leg Over Leg by the Lebanese Faris al-Shidyaq, published in 1855. Al-Shidyaq’s work had no direct successors, however, and despite a number of other early attempts at novel writing, it is probably only with the series of some 23 historical novels produced by the Lebanese/Egyptian Jirji Zaydan between 1891 and 1914 (still widely read today) that the novel can be said to have moved into the mainstream of Arab cultural life.

Following Zaydan, a number of different strands quickly began to appear in the Arabic novel, as novel writing started to spread to other areas of the Arab world. A significant landmark was the publication in 1913 of Zaynab, by the Egyptian Muhammad Husayn Haykal, which combined a contemporary Egyptian setting with a romantic plot on Western lines, and which marked the beginning of a strong romantic strand. The increasing interest in the form is evidenced by the institution of a novel-writing competition in the early 1930s, which was won by Ibrahim al-Mazini with a work entitled Ibrahim the Writer: the semi-autobiographical nature of this work is apparent from its title, and this characteristic was shared by many novels of the first half of the 20th century.

The credit for introducing a truly ‘realistic’ trend into the Arab novel probably belongs to the Egyptian Tawfiq al-Hakim, whose rambling two-part novel entitled Return of the Spirit depicts the life of an Egyptian family during WWI. Novel writing also attracted other prominent intellectuals, including the Egyptian Taha Hussein, whose fictionalised autobiography The Days, the first part of which was published in 1926, remains among the best-loved publications of this early period. This realistic trend was continued by Naguib Mahfouz, the only Arab winner to date of the Nobel Prize for Literature (1988), whose Trilogy, first published in 1956-57, chronicles in loving detail the life of a lower-middle-class Egyptian family in the period between the two World Wars. Mahfouz’s career remains a unique one among Arab writers, not only in terms of its length and productivity (he continued to produce works of interest until well into his seventies) but also because his novels often seem to reflect changes in the prevailing literary mood in Egypt; towards the end of his life he developed an increasing appetite for experimentation, and his work (almost all of which is available in English translation) has exerted a considerable influence on subsequent generations of Arabic writers.

It has frequently been remarked that turning points in Arabic literary history have gone hand-in-hand with political developments, and the appearance of a new ‘social realist’ trend in the early 1950s – following the 1948 war in Palestine and the Egyptian Free Officers’ Revolution of 1952 – is a case in point. In 1953 the Lebanese author Suhayl Idris thrust into prominence the idea of ‘commitment’ (a term derived from Jean-Paul Sartre) and for a time this trend dominated writing throughout much of the Arab world. It is perhaps best exemplified by ‘Abd al-Rahman al-Sharqawi’s novel Egyptian Earth, first published in 1954 and later turned into a film by Youssef Chahine. The feeling of optimism induced by the Nasserist Revolution, however, was short-lived, and the mood of increasing disillusion sweeping through the region was brought to a head by the Arab defeat in the 1967 (‘Six Day’) war with Israel.

The previous year, 1966, had already seen the publication of the Sudanese Tayeb Salih’s Season of Migration to the North – a classic of ‘post-colonial’ writing that has been described as ‘the most important Arabic novel of the 20th century’ – and of the Egyptian Sonallah Ibrahim’s seminal novella That Smell. Of these two works, it is Ibrahim’s, with its distinctive ‘minimalist’ style, that is widely regarded as encapsulating the prevailing mood of disillusion, and the following years saw the emergence of a group of writers and poets – centred on, though not confined to, Egypt – who are commonly known as the ‘Generation of the Sixties’ and whose work reflects, directly or indirectly, both the shifting politics of the region and a search for new means of expression. This period is also notable for an increase in publications from parts of the Arab world with little previous tradition of novel writing in Arabic – not least in the countries of North Africa, where French rather than Arabic had been the language of choice of many imaginative writers until the 1950s or 1960s.

More recently, the novel in Arabic has seen the emergence of a new generation of talented authors, fuelled, at least in part, by the establishment of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF) in 2008, and by an associated increase in opportunities for translation into other languages. Its course has been heavily influenced by the so-called ‘Arab spring’ of 2010 onwards, as well as by the explosion in the use of social media as a vehicle for literary activity. As a result, alongside a continuation of novels in traditional form, new styles and directions are emerging (among which the ‘dystopic’ novel represents a particular trend), reflecting not only the turbulent state of the region today but also evolving attitudes to the Arabic language and traditional literary formats. Significantly, four IPAF winners to date have been drawn from the Arabian Peninsula, an area with no tradition of novel writing for most of the period under discussion.

Against this somewhat rosy picture of the state of the contemporary Arabic novel, we should remember that political and religious censorship continues to constrain publication in many parts of the region, and many writers are unable to publish their work in their own countries. Small readership numbers also mean that the financial rewards for both writers and publishers are limited, and few writers are able to make a living from literary activities alone. Despite their achievements, therefore, Arabic novelists continue to face major challenges.

Paul Starkey is Professor Emeritus at Durham University, a former Vice-President of BRISMES and Chair of the Banipal Trust for Arab Literature. He has translated many novels by contemporary Arab authors and won the 2015 Saif Ghobash Banipal Prize for Arabic Literary Translation for Youssef Rakha’s The Book of the Sultan’s Seal (Interlink, 2014). His translations include Mustafa Khalifa’s The Shell (Interlink, 2016), Mahdi Issa Saqr’s East Winds, West Winds (AUC Press, 2010), and Adania Shibli’s We Are All Equally Far From Love (Interlink, 2013). He has also published widely in the field of modern Arabic literature, particularly Egyptian literature. He is author of Sonallah Ibrahim: Rebel with a Pen (Edinburgh University Press, 2016), Modern Arabic Literature (2006), and From the Ivory Tower: A Critical Study of Tawfiq Hakim (Ithaca Press, 1987) and was co-editor with Julie Meisami of the Encyclopedia of Arabic Literature (Routledge, 1998)


This article appears in The Novel in the Arab World issue of The Middle East in London.

Starkey, Paul. ‘The Arabic novel: a general introduction’ The Middle East in London 15, no. 1 (December 2018–January 2019); 5-6.

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