The First Great Arabic Novel

J. Paul Getty Trust
Théodore Géricault: The Giaour, circa 1822–1823

Published in Paris in 1855, Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq’s Leg Over Leg is often called the first novel written in Arabic. It does not read at all like Little Dorrit, whose first installment was published the same year, and certainly not like Madame Bovary, published two years later, but “novel” is as good a word as any to describe it. What else should we call a fiction with chapters of rhyming prose, countless dirty jokes and digressions, an elegy for a donkey, long lists of rare words for genitalia, perfumes, and games played by children, all hung on the frame of a travelogue to Egypt, Malta, England, and France? Al-Shidyaq knew that he was up to something new. He called his book “an innovation singular beyond compare.”

Born to a Christian family in an Ottoman province of modern-day Lebanon, al-Shidyaq could not have published Leg Over Leg in his homeland, mostly because of what he had to say about religion. The Arabic word bid‘, or “innovation,” which he uses many times to describe his novel, means both “literary novelty” and “heresy.” Al-Shidyaq guessed what the reaction to his work would be. The novel’s first pages imagine its author caught in a crowd of howling priests, who accuse him of blasphemy and demand that the book be burned. In response, al-Shidyaq spends several pages listing euphemisms for “vagina,” taken from a medieval Arabic dictionary: “the sprayer,” “the gripper,” “the large floppy one,” etc. This is followed by lists for “penis” (“the falcon’s stand,” “the big spider,” “the little man”), the anus (“the toothless one,” “the catapult,” “the whistler”), and intercourse (“to stick the kohl-stick in her kohl pot”).

In the long view, of course, none of this was entirely new. Classical Arabic poetry has a genre called sukhf, dedicated to sexual obscenity and scatology, whose heresies are hard to match. “I entered the prayer niche of her asshole,” sings the tenth-century poet Ibn al-Hajjaj, “and went cross-eyed from the smell of saffron.”1 Al-Shidyaq knew this tradition well. In Leg Over Leg—a punning title that suggests amorous entwinement, among other things—he compares the work of al-Hajjaj to the obscene writings of Laurence Sterne and John Cleland, whom he considers even more licentious. So al-Shidyaq’s innovations are not creations out of nothing, but reminders of what was already there, like rare words in an old dictionary.

Al-Shidyaq meant for these reminders to be more than titillating. His aim was to show up the provincialism and prudishness of his contemporaries when measured against the past—a past richly alive in the Arabic language itself. Elsewhere in the novel, he lists the names of dozens of idols worshiped by pre-Islamic tribes. These idols were destroyed by the early Muslim conquerors, who wanted to erase all traces of the old cults. But they couldn’t erase the names.…

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