Palace of Desire
The Beginning and the End
Children of Gebelawi
The Thief and the Dogs
Adrift on the Nile
The Journey of Ibn Fattouma
When Napoleon Bonaparte invaded Egypt in 1798, the slumbers of the Arab Near East were rudely broken. First Egypt and then the whole of the region was forced to turn away from Turkey and toward Europe. A body of secular European ideas—those that had inspired the French Revolution—broke through the barrier separating Islam from the West, setting off a crisis which has not to this day been resolved.
Even before 1798 the Islamic world had a place in the field of Western scholarship and myth that Edward Said has called Orientalism: knowledge of Islam, true and false, as an armature of power. Islam, on the other hand, knew (and cared to know) little about the West. It had nothing to show that could be called Occidentalism, a view of the West through the eyes of Eastern arts and sciences. In the century and a half that followed, a variety of Western concepts and institutions identified as crucial to the modern outlook were taken over in Islamic countries. Much of the unsettledness of the region today results from a failure to find ways of domesticating such essentially secular concepts as democracy, liberalism, and socialism.
The underlying question is whether a culture can become modern without internalizing the genealogy of modernity, that is, without living through the epistemological revolution, in all its implications, out of which Western science grew. “The new outlook [in the Islamic world] is modern in a way, but it is a mutilated outlook,” writes the critic Daryush Shayegan. Modern perspectives and institutions have been absorbed, but only in a “truncated” way. Internally the Islamic world is still “trailing behind modernity.” Octavio Paz makes a comparable diagnosis of the woes of Latin America: Latin American democracies continue to falter because they have taken over democratic forms without the “critical and modern intellectual current” out of which Western democracy grew.
One of the forms the Islamic world imported from the West has been the novel. As a storytelling genre, the novel, particularly the realist novel, comes with heavy intellectual baggage. Originating from a satire on medieval romance (Don Quixote), it concerns itself not with exemplary lives but with individual strivings and individual destiny. Toward tradition it is hostile: it values originality, self-generation. It follows the mode of the scientific case study or the law brief rather than the hearthside fairy tale. It prides itself on a language bereft of ornament, on the steady, prosaic observation and recording of detail. It is just the kind of vehicle one would expect Europe’s merchant bourgeoisie to invent in order to celebrate its own ideals and achievements.
The first Western-style novels in Arabic appeared a century ago. The genre has particularly flourished in Egypt, with its comparatively durable civil society and firm sense of national identity. There the great middleman has been Naguib Mahfouz, born in 1911 and crowned with the Nobel Prize in 1988. Though Mahfouz may receive less attention in Arab letters today than he did in the 1950s …