Book

On the art of Arab story telling:

For a very long time, the Arabs have complacently considered themselves to be a people of poets, indeed, the people of poets. Poetry was the record of their lofty deeds, their claim to glory, their secret garden, their diwān (divan), in the several meanings suggested by the term. But since the first centuries of the Hijra, Arabic poetry has been judged untranslatable. All poetry is, to be sure, resistant to translation, but in the case of the Arabs the problem has presented itself in an atmosphere of rivalry, of declared or covert conflict with other cultures. Partisans of Greek philosophy and advocates of Persian wisdom (the latter being oriented mainly according to rules of governance and questions of etiquette) readily acknowledged the marvelous nature of Arabic poetry but observed that because it could not be translated, it was of some benefit only to those who understood Arabic. By contrast—they would add with a degree of perfidy and a trace of bad faith—the discourse that was philosophical and sapiential could be easily conveyed and thus be of profit to everyone. So we have on the one hand seclusion within oneself and particularism and on the other hand an opening up to others and universalism. Since that time, the status of Arabic poetry has scarcely changed. Europeans have neglected it, judging the tale to be the Arabs’ principal contribution. Is it by mere chance that Cervantes attributed the authorship of Don Quixote to an Arab, Sidi Ahmed Benengeli? In his study on the origin of the novel, Pierre-Daniel Huet [1630–1721] pays considerable attention to the Arabs, stressing the fact that they are experts “in the art of agreeable lying” (1971, 57). Antoine Galland [1646–1715], for his part, mentions that A Thousand and One Nights “shows to what degree the Arabs have surpassed other nations in this kind of composition” and “that in this genre we have not, up till now, seen anything so beautiful in any language” (1965, 1:21). It is significant that Galland did not find it expedient to translate the poems scattered throughout the Nights, “poems which, it is true, have their own beauty in Arabic, but which the French can scarcely enjoy” (1:320). This is not without ironic consequences: the Arabs considered themselves the masters of the poem, and yet here we find them raised, without their even knowing it, to the rank of the best storytellers in the world! They would realize this, against all expectations, only around the middle of the nineteenth century, when they would take note of the extraordinary success of the Nights, which had been translated from Galland’s edition into all the European languages. Having adopted the novel, the short story, and drama—forms that had by and large not been known to them before then—they set about renewing their literature. To bolster and legitimize this movement, they were led, in the footsteps of the “Orientalists,” to reconsider their literary tradition. In the latter analysis, everyone benefitted from this recuperation, reinterpretation, and revalorization of the corpus of ancient narratives. Arabic literature, resurrected thanks to the “experience of the foreign” [l’épreuve de l’étranger], has been inseparable from European literature ever since. But the convergence is necessarily based on a certain selectivity: for the most part, one tends to set apart and laud xiii those Arab tales that have some kind of rapport with this or that European work. [On the one hand,] when a text does not betray such a rapport, it is neglected and doomed to splendid isolation: that is what happened to al-Jāhiz’s Kitāb al-bukhala’ (Book of Misers) despite the fact that it is a crowning work of narrative art, simply because one could not link it to Molière’s L’Avare or to Balzac’s Eugénie Grandet. On the other hand, works that are judged to have had a more or less pronounced influence on European literature have enjoyed a favorable press and are praised to the skies. That was the fate of Kalila and Dimna, linked to the fables of La Fontaine; the Maqāmāt (Assemblies) by al-Hamadhānī and al-Harīrī, linked to the picaresque novel; al-Ma‘arrī’s Risālat al-ghufrān (Epistle of forgiveness), linked to The Divine Comedy; Ibn Tufayl’s Hayy ibn Yaqzān, the predecessor of Robinson Crusoe; and…

– Arabs and the Art of Storytelling: A Strange Familiarity by Abdelfattah Kilito published in 2014.

Image: An artisan merchant in the Casbah, Algiers, Algeria.

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