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Literature and Philosophy

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A website for K-12 educators featuring innovative resource on the culture, geography, history and religions of the Middle East, including essays, classroom activities, downloadable multimedia content and interactive Google Earth tours.


This section contains full-text readings from a variety of sources. Many of these texts have never been offered online before. They represent a range of scholarly views and interests, and are intended to offer a more in-depth view of selected topics covered in this module. Please be aware that these texts may not be reproduced in any way without the express permission of the original copyright holder, as indicated at the head of each reading.

The readings listed in grey are currently unavailable, as we work toward renewing copyright permission from the publishers.

Primary Texts

  • Excerpt from Aunt Safiyya and the Monastery
    Bahaa' Taher

    Born in 1935, Bahaa’ Taher is one of Egypt’s better known writers. He began his literary career in 1964, and has since published three novels and many short stories. Aunt Safiyya and the Monastery was published in 1991, but is set in an Egyptian village in the 1960s, a period of profound change in Egyptian history. It tells the story of a young Muslim man who has killed another man in self-defense. When the widow demands vengeance, he is given refuge in a Coptic monastery, thus evoking the theme of inter-communal relations in Egypt. Background on the Coptic community and its history can be found in the unit on Identity and Ethnicity. This accomplished and well-written novel can also be placed in the larger literary context by consulting the critical materials in this unit which deal with Arabic fiction, as well as the introduction to this novel by Barbara Romaine.

  • Aliyah Abdul-Salaam
    Poems from Angry Voices

    This anthology, compiled by Mohamed Metwalli, a poet, editor and translator who a founder and a current editor of Garad (Locusts) magazine and translated by Mohamed Enani, translator and Professor if English at Cairo University, compiles new poetry by Egyptian poets each of whom, as Enani notes in his introduction, "is rebelling against deeply entrenched customs--linguistic, metrical, formal or social." The poems included here are by Aliyah Abdul-Salaam, a woman poet who has challenged the staid morality of her society in her writing.

  • Four Poems
    Dunya Mikhail

    Dunya Mikhail (b. 1965) is an Iraqi-American poet known for her "subversive, innovative, and satirical poetry." She has published four collections of poetry, including Mazameer al-Ghiyab (1993; The psalms of absence), Alá washk al-musiqá (1997; Almost music), Yawmiyat mawjah kharija al-bahr / Diary of a Wave Outside the Sea (1999), and Al-Harb ta`malu bi-jid (2000; Eng. The War Works Hard, 2005). Mikhail is director of the Iraqi American Center, a community-based nonprofit humanitarian organization. These poems were translated from the Arabic by Elizabeth Ann Winslow.

  • Iraqi Poets in Western Exile
    Salih J Altoma et. al.

    Salih J. Altoma is Professor Emeritus of Arabic and Comparative Literature at Indiana University, Bloomington. This essay provides an overview of Iraqi poetry since the 1991 Gulf War. It is followed by a smapling of poetry from this period.

  • Selections from Contemporary Arabic Poetry
    Salma K. Jayyusi

    Poetry is regarded by many as the most important genre in Arabic literature, with a tradition that dates back to pre-Islamic times. In this anthology, the Palestinian poet, critic and translator Salma K. Jayyusi assembles poems by poets from throughout the Arab world, three of whom are included here: Morocco's Mohammad Bennis, Syria's Nizar Qabbani and Palestinian poets Salma Khadra Jayyusi and Mahmoud Darwish. Darwish's poetry, in particular, has inspired many other artists. Click here to see art work inspired by the poems or here to listen to the poetry set to music by Marcel Khalife. In the links section of this unit you can listen to Darwish reading his own poems, as well as links to other poets.

  • Beirut '75
    Ghada Samman

    This is the first chapter of Beirut '75 the first novel by Ghada Samman, a Lebanese novelist and publisher currently living in France. Samman studies English literature at Damascus university and at the American University in Beirut and is a prolific writer, having written more than two dozen books in various genres. It is set in the Lebanese capital on the eve of the the civil war that broke out in 1975. In it the five main characters of the novel are introduced in the course of a taxi ride they share from Damascus to Beirut. Each comes to Beirut for different reasons, but all are hopeful that the city will provide them with a news start. But, as the translator Nancy Roberts puts it in her introduction to the book, "the city to which these characters look for salvation is a place which is, itself in deed of redemption, for in it they encounter dehumanizing social, economic and political injustices which simply take different, and sometimes more subtle, forms that what they have witnessed previously. Though the narration in the novel is 3rd person, the Samman reveals a great deal about the characters perspectives on the events that spin on around them. Indeed, the novel ends straddling the world between the world of illusion and the gritty reality of Beirut as one of the characters descends into madness.

  • "My Elizabeth"
    Diana Abu-Jaber

    The short story "My Elizabeth" was written by Diana Abu-Jaber, writer-in-residence at Portland State University and the American-born daughter of Jordanian and Irish-American parents. "Estelle," whose original Arab name we never learn, is taken to Wyoming to live with her aunt when her immigrant father can no longer care for her. Her only other friend in this all-white world is Elizabeth, a Native American whose poverty and alienation are even deeper than her own, and whose resignation is the measure of Estelle's own efforts to accommodate and survive. The parallels with Willa Cather's "My Antonia" are apparent from the title onward, but the substitution of a Native American in the title role provides a different perspective on identity within American society. This story exemplifies the second view of Arab-American identity described in Lisa Suhair Majaj’s essay, an identity that is "intrinsically American and should be understood in relation to the American context and American frameworks of assimilation and multiculturalism. "

  • A Bird in My House
    Fakhri Kawar

    Fakhri Kawar (b. 1945) is a one of Jordan's most prolific writers. He has also been chair of the Jordanian Writers Association and secretary general of the Arab Writers Association. Thsi short story was translated by Omnia Amin.

  • The King Is the King (Al-Malik huwa 'l-Malik)
    Sa'dallah Wannus

    This 1977 play, by the Syrian playwright Sa’dallah Wannus, is a good example of 20th century Arabic drama. Wannus believed in getting the audience actively involved in theater, and wrote pieces that left the director considerable leeway in staging the play. To help you situate this play within the broader history of Arabic theater, you may wish to consult Roger Allen’s chapter on Drama from An Introduction to Arabic Literature and Deborah Folaron’s article on performance traditions in the Arab World.

  • Excerpt from The First Day of Eternity
    Ghania Hammadou

    Ghania Hammadou was born in 1953 on the outskirts of Algiers. She emigrated with her family to France at a young age, but returned to her native country to study journalism and rose to prominence in the field after her graduation. In 1993 she fled the country for France. The First Day of Eternity, originally written in French, is her first novel. It is set amidst the terrible violence that began in Algeria shortly after the 1992 cancellation of municipal elections Islamic parties were set to win. It is a powerful novel recounting the relationship between the narrator who, like the novelist herself, is forced to live in exile, and a theatrical director who has been brutally assassinated. Here the narrator reminisces about their life together yet apart, having to hide their relationship because they were not married and thus vulnerable to the harsh laws and social judgments of Algerian society. They did, however, find one place where the staff and patrons of the hotel sheltered them from the world. This passage describes that place, and the machinations they went through to stay together as long as possible on their return to the capital. The fate of the couple's dear freind Kader, at the end of this passage, foreshadows the chaos to come.

  • Freeways and Rest Houses: Toward and Arab Location on the American Cultural Map
    Khaled Mattawa

    Khaled Matawa is co-editor of Post-Gibran, from which this reading is taken. This essay is a free-wheeling, poetic investigation of the author's Arab-American identity.

  • "The Lower Organs of Beruit"
    Munir Akash

    The anthology, Post-Gibran published in 1999, seeks to “re-examine the field of contemporary Arab Writing in the United States, and the manifold ways in which Arabness and its system of values, attitudes, and manners define the ‘Arab-American’ world.” This poem by Munir Akash, one of the anthology's editors, is dedicated to the Palestinian writer Ghassan Kanafani. If you enjoy this writing and wish to find out more about work by Arab-Americans, you may wish to read “The Hyphenated Author: Emerging Genre of 'Arab-American Literature' Poses Questions of Definition, Ethnicity and Art” by Lisa Suhair Maja, or listen to the radio series “Six Arab American Poets” in which Barbara Nimri Aziz interviews six poets and has them read selections of their work.

  • Historical Dynamics of the Arab-Islamic Philosophy
    Mohammed 'Abed al-Jabri

    Born in 1936 in Morocco, Mohamed Abed Al-Jabri is one of the more important scholars of philosophy in the contemporary Arabis-speaking world. He has published several influential books on the Arab philosophical tradition. In "Historical Dynamics of the Arab-Islamic Philosophy” he examines some of the myths associated with Islamic philosophy and the transmission of the Greek tradition during Europe’s Middle Ages. These texts were translated from a French compilation of al-Jabri's works in consultation with the author.

  • The Present Shortcomings
    Mohammed 'Abed al-Jabri

    In “The Present Shortcomings,” Mohammed 'Abed al-Jabri critiques three major philosophical approaches to philosophy at work in the Arab World: the Fundamentalist approach, the Liberal Approach and the Marxist approach, demonstrating that none of these are appropriate to tackling the reality of the Arab World today. This text, originally published in Arabic, has been translated from the French in collaboration with the author.

  • Excerpt from The Angels' Genitalia
    Samir Naqqash

    "Samir Naqqash is one of the last, and certainly the most important Jewish writers in Israel to continue writing in Arabic. Born in Baghdad, Naqqash has lived in Tehran and Bombay. Novelist, short-story writer and playwright, he presently lives in Petah Tikva. A remarkably dense and innovative artist, Naqqash's life and ouevre attest to a steadfast act of resistance towards the Massive socialization process undergone in Isreal by Jews from the Arab World...(This) text is an excerpt from Naqqash's novel The Angels' Genitalia; the scene takes place in the consciousness of the narrator, in the space of a minute or two. As the narrator (a Jew from Baghdad traveling out of Tel Aviv) reaches in to present his ID card to an Israeli checkpoint guard who is convinced that this man might be an Arab, that is, a "terrorist", Naqqash relentlessly interrogates the arbitrary nature of power and offers a remarkably profound and far-ranging meditation on the absurdity of racism." -from the introduction by Ammiel Alcalay

  • Stereotypes Between East and West (in Arabic)
    Omar Kush

    In his essay “Stereotypes Between East and West,” Syrian intellectual Omar Kush explores the history of stereotypes that Westerners have of Easterners and vice versa. He links these distorted representations of to some key moments in the history of encounters between East/West. His focus is on the fields of anthropology, history and literature. From the Song of Roland to the Crusades and the Orientalist artists, he examines how easterners were portrayed in the Western imaginary. He also looks at the problematic of naming the “other” in the Muslim traditions and links it to eastern stereotypes of people of the “west.”

Criticism and Analysis

  • Naguib Mahfouz and the Situation of the Arabic Novel
    Naguib Mahfouz

    In this brief article Egyptian novelist Naguib Mahfouz discusses the situation of the novel in contemporary society, including its ability to compete with other modern distractions such as the Internet for our attention. The article is preceded by a brief biography of Mahfouz, the first Arab to win the Nobel prize in literature, and a bibliography of some of his major work. The article originally appeared in Alqafilah.

  • Poetry and Apolitical Culture
    Adonis ( Ali Ahmad Said )

    Adonis (Adunis) is the pen name of Syrian poet and critic Ali Ahmad Said, one of the most influential and internationally known figures in contemporary Arab letters. His ideas on modernity and tradition have impacted a whole generation of writers. This essay, a pondering of the situation of the poet writing in Arabic today, is a good example of this.

  • Drama
    Roger Allen

    This chapter by Roger Allen surveys the development of Egyptian drama from a literary perspective, i.e. the texts as published from their origins in Egypt and Egyptian theater in the world, but the essay touches on all of the countries of the Arab world in so far as the confines of such a short survey allow. For more on theater as performance and its role in Arab society, consult the article by Debbie Folaron.

  • Arabic Fiction Comes of Age
    Matti Moosa

    The book, by the historian Matti Moosa, traces the development of Arabic fiction from its origins through the modern period. This chapter focuses on the earlier half of the 20th century, roughly, between the death of the Lebanese novelist Jurji Zaydan to the beginning of the “Realist” aesthetic in the 1930s. Moosa contends that this period was marked by Western influence in which authors attempted to adapt the Arab reality to fit Western forms. Many examples are provided.

  • Women's Narrative in Modern Arabic Literature: A Typology
    Sabry Hafez

    This essay considers the development of women’s writing in Arabic by focusing on detailed analysis of three novels and the manner in which each is representative of a given type of writing, characterized by a particular attitude toward the condition of women in Arab society. The first is a “feminine phase of imitation” during which women began by writing in compliance with the established male norms; the second is the “feminist” phase in which women’s writing began to challenge these norms; the third is a “female” phase, which is a discourse of difference, in part a response to the feminist demands. The author acknowledges overlaps between the types, so it might be interesting to see where literature by women, such as the poems of Salma Jayussi and others from the supplemental reading list fit into the rubric. The extent to which this typology is relevant to literature from the Arab world but not written in Arabic can be explored by reading the text by Ghania Hammadou and other francophone writers.

  • Inscribing a Maghrebian Identity in French
    Farida Abu-Haidar

    The French colonial legacy left an indelible mark on the countries of the Maghreb, especially Algeria, but also Morocco and Tunisia. For a number of reasons too complex and varied to go into here, French remains a very important language of literary and intellectual production. In this essay the author explores the manner in which authors from this region use French to write texts that “inscribe a Maghrebian identity.” In their hands, French is transformed with new words, new styles, etc. Ghania Hammadou is one of of the writers who fit into this tradition.

  • The Hyphenated Author: Emerging Genre of 'Arab-American Literature' Poses Questions of Definition, Ethnicity and Art
    Lisa Suhair Majaj

    Whether or not their writing has always received the recognition it merits, literary texts written by Arab-Americans have been produced for more than a century, since significant numbers of immigrants from Arab lands first arrived on America’s shores. The question raised in this article is “whether there is such a thing as Arab-American literature - whether, that is, there is some ‘Arab-American’ essence defining and binding together individual texts as part of a larger whole.” What, if anything, do writers such as Khaled Mattawa, Munir Akash, Samuel Hazo, Salma Jayyusi, Mohja Kahf have in common? The author lays out both sides of the debate before taking the position that there is, indeed, a recognizable and emerging genre of Arab-American literature in this country. For much more on this topic, listen to the interview with Barbara Nimri Aziz.

  • Modern Arab Literature: The Allegory and the Absurd
    Akram Midani

    This article by the Egyptian critic Akram Midani, was published in 1964, a time of very exciting developments in Arabic theater. He discusses formal experiments in Arabic drama, including theater of the absurd and allegorical plays. Though published in 1977, Sa’dallah Wannus’s play The King is the King is an example of this kind of experimentation.

  • The Ethics of Cultural Representation: The Maghribi Novel in Translation
    Michael A. Toler

    In general, when we read literature in translation, we probably don’t give much thought to the translator. Yet the translator exerts considerable influence over the text, and what we are reading may or may not be an accurate reflection of the original author’s intent. This essay is an analysis of novels originally written in French or Arabic by Moroccan or Algerian authors; and the translations as they appeared in English. The discrepancies are often surprising.

  • Modern Arabic Literature and the West
    Jabra Jabra

    In this essay, Jabra I. Jabra, a poet, critic, novelist and artists in his own right, analyzes Arabic literature and its relation to the West in the 20th century (or at least up to the date of publication in 1971). He analyzes both the formidable literary and aesthetic impact of Western literary models and the impact of geo-political events such as the foundation of the state of Israel and subsequent wars, as well as the role of literature in forming the Arab identity. Though a bit dated, this essay nonetheless provides some interesting insight into the development of the Arabic literary tradition.

  • The Rebels, the Committed, and the Others
    Jabra Jabra

    A political role for the poet is not a new thing in the Arabic literary tradition, but particularly in the 20th century the intellectual has been expected to be actively engaged in society and politics. This essay, also by Jabra I. Jabra and originally published in 1967, emerges from a tumultuous time in the history of the Arab World and examines Arabic poetry of the time through the lens of political activism. Samples of free verse poetry are included at the end of the essay.

  • A View from the Other Side: The Political Theory of Sayyid Qutb
    Roxanne L. Euben

    Sayyid Qutb (1906-1966) was one of the most influential thinkers of the Islamist movement of the 20th century and a founding member of Egypt’s Muslim Brotherhood. Qutb spend the early part of his career as a bureaucrat in the Egyptian Ministry of Education, but in 1948 he traveled to the US to study the educational system. Disillusioned by the Western way of life, Qutb returned to join the Muslim Brotherhood and became involved in politics, ultimately spending time in prison for his ideas. Qutb was executed in 1966 after being found guilty of involvement in a plot to assassinate Egyptian President Gamal AbdelNasser. This article, from Enemy in the Mirror by Roxanne Euben (Political Science at Wellesley College), is an analysis of his writing, particularly his influences and ideas, including his application of the term Jahiliyya to modern day Muslim societies.

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