Cultural Mobility in Near Eastern Literatures

Report: Summer Academy, August 29 - September 8, 2004 in Cooperation with the Swedish Institute in Alexandria

"Literature and Borders. Delimitations. Transgressions"

1. General Remarks

The ninth international summer academy of the Working Group Modernity and Islam was organized in cooperation with the Swedish Institute in Alexandria on the theme "Literature and Borders. Delimitations. Transgressions". It was funded by the Riksbankens Jubileumsfond and took place from August 29 - September 8, 2004 at the Swedish Institute in Alexandria, Egypt. The academy was held in the context of the project "Cultural Mobility in Near Eastern Literatures" and was directed by Dr. Friederike Pannewick (Free University of Berlin).

2. Academic Report

The Summer Academy's approach was interdisciplinary, including the philologies of the different regions concerned, literary criticism, comparative literature, cultural studies, and cultural history. The phenomena under study were as much historical as contemporary. The Academy was meant as a forum to give doctoral and postdoctoral scholars the opportunity to present their current research in an interdisciplinary and transregional context. To facilitate cross-disciplinary discussions, the Summer Academy consisted not only of project presentations in small groups (8 participants + 2 tutors who stayed within this group during the academy), but also of topically defined discussion groups that took a more general view. These discussion groups dealt with the issues of national vs. world literature, myths and memoria, mapping identities, subalternity, whiteness and gender, orientalism and various cultural theories. The debate themes, as much as the project presentation's, subjects all belonged to three main fields: a) conjectures about world literature in East and West, North and South, b) mobility in space and language (mainly focusing on exile, expulsion, language & power relations, and gender), and c) mobility of aesthetic capital.
"I increasingly see that poetry is a common possession of humanity and that it emerges everywhere and at all times in hundreds of people. (...) National literature has little to say now; the epoch of Weltliteratur is dawning, and everyone must now do what he can to accelerate this epoch." (Goethe, Talk with Eckermann, 1827) The specific focus of the Summer Academy consisted in drawing attention to the question of the degree to which Goethe's conception has meanwhile - 172 years after his death - been realized. Worldwide migration and expanding communication has led to a global literary scene in which authors in different regions of the world are quite well informed about the literary life in other parts of the globe. Translations, newspapers, magazines, and the Internet as well as international festivals, personal encounters and travels provide authors with some insight into international tendencies of contemporary art. But this exchange among literati from different regions of the world does not happen under the conditions Goethe once imagined. Hence, the academy aimed to ask how this conception of world literature has to be modified, revised, or even problematized vis-à-vis colonial power relations and phenomena like forced mobility in political persecution, population transfer, and ethnic and religious marginalization.
These rather problematic issues were raised in the opening lecture by Reinhart Meyer-Kalkus (German Studies, University of Potsdam) on "World Literature Beyond Goethe", who traced the conception of world literature back to the European period of Romanticism, when this term was forged and the foundation of the development of different national literatures all over Europe was laid. In the following plenary discussion, it was asked to what extent these developments and literary terms might also be applied outside their European place of origin, and if yes, which place might then have factors like political power relations, economic conditions or geo-political constellations. It became clear, right from the beginning, that the notion of world literature was highly disputed and somehow controversial among the academy's participants. Some of those working in the field of postcolonial studies equate world literature with the poetic norms and forms of reception in Western literatures and thus reject it.
As a response to this problematic, the Lebanese novelist, journalist, and literary critic Elias Khoury (Beirut) reported how the conditions of literary production in the Arab world have changed during the last three decades. He pointed to the new centers of Arabic literary life, namely Paris, London, and New York and to the growing linguistic hegemony of the English language. During the following discussion, the problematic issue of "pre-translation" was controversially debated: Can it truly be said (as has been put forward by Jenine Abboushi) that Arabic contemporary authors tend to "pre-translate" their issues for an implied European audience, because they are "forced to write for the West", and to explicate for "Western" readers what would otherwise be common cultural knowledge among Arabs?
Another aspect of conditions of literary reception was pointed out by Stefan Jonsson (Stockholm), who underscored that publishers in London and New York plan international bestsellers and promote them on a global scale and that authors in turn accept these rules of the play - no matter whether they are in Beirut or Haiti - if they want to be read outside their countries of origin.
The project presentations of Andrea Polaschegg (HU Berlin), Mirjam Schneider (Univ. Tübingen), and Nirvana Tanoukhi (Stanford) highlighted the methodological challenges resulting from the complex of Western perspectives, interpretations, and expropriations of the Orient, known since Edward Said's contributions as Orientalism, e.g. by using examples of a "mytho-poetics" in literary Orient journeys in German and French Orientalism of the 19th and 20th centuries. In his lecture, Sabry Hafez (SOAS, London) drew attention to the other side of the coin: the Arabs' perspective on Europe. He pointed to the intense Occidentalism on the Arab side, which up to now is mostly overlooked in the West. He traced Arab interest in the West to the Islamic high culture of the Middle Ages, following it through the boom of translations in the 19th and the beginning of the 20th century, to modern novels in the second half of the 20th century in which erotic encounters between Arab intellectuals and European women were a popular and frequent subject. Trajectories of cultural knowledge and literary themes moving between Russia, France, and Turkey at the end of the 19th century were described in the project presentation by Asli Niyazioglu (Istanbul/Berlin), who showed how the ideas of Russian nihilism passed via the French fin de siècle literature to Turkish literary circles.
"Writing between two worlds" was the main issue of several other project presentations: Lital Levy (UC Berkeley) analyzed intersections between modern Hebrew and Arabic literature and culture by presenting Jewish authors who lived in Egypt and Iraq between 1870 and 1950 . Several of them wrote in Arabic, some even being leading pioneers in the Arabic Enlightenment movement, an-nahda. By pointing out these facts, Lévy aimed to revise long-held beliefs about modern Jewish culture as an exclusively European construct. On the other hand, her paper added a new dimension to scholarship on the nahda by focusing on Jewish contributions to the development of contemporary Arabic literature. Tiziana Carlino (Univ. Naples) introduced the concept of the Levant as a Mediterranean synthesis in the work of the Cairo-born Israeli writer Jacqueline Kahanoff (1917-1979), who spoke only (basic) oral Arabic and published her books in English. Influenced by Camus and other Western intellectuals and by her cultural experience in Paris and the U.S., she ended up proposing the "Levantine" synthesis as an alternative and hybrid cultural identity, bearing a potential to reconcile the most different issues - such as Middle-Eastern culture, Hebrew religious and non-religious cultural components, rationalism, a European idea of progress, and Western philosophy. Andreas Pflitsch (FU Berlin) demonstrated how contemporary Lebanese literature is also moving between Levantine tradition, national identity, and transnationality. Using examples of Caribbean novels, Stefan Jonsson and Ottmar Ette (Univ. Potsdam) showed the essential features of a "literature without a fixed abode" that knows nothing more than islands and fractal relationships. To be at home nowhere - geographically as much as culturally -is the main experience of this literature on the move.
To these aspects of cultural mobility, Michael Allan (UC Berkeley) added the question of the role of literature in mediating the relationship between languages and political community. He undertakes a comparative analysis of bilingualism in Algeria and Quebec, focusing on the relation between language politics and secularity, while Armando Vargas (UC Berkeley), analyzes the impact of migration on literature, using the example of Arabic Mahjar literature in Brazil. In the project presentation's debates, the question was repeatedly raised of the extent to which authors of Middle Eastern descent living in Europe and also writing in European languages tend to meet the European reader's expectations by "self-orientalization". Manar Omar (Cairo University) deals with this question extensively in her project; she analyzes aspects of the exotic and the aesthetic in novels, poetry, and fairy tales written by contemporary German authors of Arab descent like Rafik Schami, Jussuf Naoum, and Adel Karachouli.
One of the issues that are most controversially debated in Europe is the relationship between Islam and gender. Amy Motlagh (Princeton) introduced the question of gender in Persian exile literature, whereas Caroline E. Kelley (Oxford) depicted the representation of women in the Algerian Revolution. The paper of Souad Eddouada (Univ. Rabat) added the aspect of violence to the debate on bilingualism (French-Arabic). He analyzed how the Francophone Algerian author Assia Djebar reflects in her novel "Le Blanc de l'Algérie" (1995) on the reproduction of colonial violence by the post independence Algerian nation-state. The political issues of violence and the choice of language were also the focus in the presentations by Ipek Azime Celik (NYU), who dealt with Kurdish and Palestinian epics in discursive resistance, and by Asli Igsiz (Univ. of Michigan), whose study concentrates on tendencies to rewrite history and the politics of genre as much as collective memory in literary texts dealing with compulsory Greek-Turkish population exchange. These issues of forced mobility were related to conceptions of minority speech and the narrative perspective of a "post-colonizer" in the contribution made by Ines Kappert (Berlin), who analyzed the novels of the South African author John M Coetzee as a paradigmatic example of the literary exploration of how global culture weaves its way into the respective national history and socio-political situation - and vice versa.
Whereas these projects ask about literary reflections on forced mobility, another project in the academy was concerned rather with the opposite situation, namely with forced immobility. Randa Khalaf Abou-bakr (Cairo Univ.) presented her comparative study of literary works of imprisoned authors in Egypt, Nigeria, and South Africa, trying to develop a comparative poetics of prison poetry that draws on a multi-dimensional theoretical framework, encompassing postcolonial theory and cultural theory in addition to theories of African and Arabic literatures and cultures. This innovative essay to establish links between the Arab and the Sub-Saharan African traditions touched in some aspects upon the issue of self-descriptions in transcultural perspectives put forward by other participants: Özkan Ezli (Univ. Bielefeld) argued that autobiographies might not be read as the expression of an author's sovereignty over his life and as a report on/testimony to an individual coherence of sense, but as cultural forms of description: as cultural autobiographies, so to speak. Based on this assumption, his aim is to undertake a transcultural comparison between autobiographical writings by German, Turkish, and Arabic authors, in order to demonstrate the similarities and differences in how they handle the phenomenon of the description of the self and the description of environment in autobiographies in diverse culture- and speech areas. Based on concepts of theory by Foucault and Bourdieu, Walid El Khachab (Montreal) disagreed with this approach, putting forward his own daring theory of modern subjectivity: He presented his approach to studying the agency of subjectivity in its relationship to transcendence in or through the prism of medieval and modern Sufi literature. The originality of El Khachab's study lies in considering this basically pantheistic relationship in three interconnected spheres: literature, cinema, and the epistemology of politics. The questions of how "Neo-Sufism" forms a response to political and civilizational crises and how it relates to other more conspicuous politico-cultural movements were raised more than once in the academy. James Howarth (SOAS, London) argued that a close reading of modern Arabic poetry and thought dealing with esoteric elements (reviving Sufi concepts, philosophical trends, and historical figures) would provide us with deeper insight into the three-way relationship between literature, Sufism, and politics. In his presentation, he asked how spirituality and modernism interact in a literature born in or alongside the contexts of Arab nationalism, the Palestine question, the effects of the Cold War and Communism, Islamism, globalization, and the capitalist hegemony of the West.
In different contexts during the academy, the question arose whether the old systems of reference - to a nation, ethnicity or tradition -really became meaningless or still kept some of their former importance. This question of reference to tradition was tackled in the lecture by Angelika Neuwirth (FU Berlin), who traced the quite popular Arabic literary motif of Majnun and Layla back to classical Arabic literature. By demonstrating the different refigurations of this topos in modern Arabic literature in Egypt, Palestine, Israel, and Lebanon in the 1950s, she pointed to the symbolical link between the inner exile of the hopelessly loving Majnun and the political exile of today's Palestinians, in whose poetry this symbolic figure is especially popular.
This case study gave rise to more general reflections, transposing the debate from the synchronic to the diachronic level: what is the importance of past and tradition in processes of cultural mobility? Sayed Abdallah (American University Cairo) showed in the example of the reception of the French "poème en prose" in Arabic poetry around 1960 how controversial the appropriation of this new mixed genre was. Only through recourse to other aspects of tradition could this innovation survive in the poetry of Arabic authors like Adonis or Darwish. In the following debate, it became clear that such an entanglement of present and past, currency and transmission, modernity and tradition seems indeed to be one of the basic principles without which processes of cultural mobility cannot be described adequately.

The summer academy provided participants with the opportunity to present and discuss their research reports as work -in progress, with an emphasis on methodological problems and unresolved issues. The Academy's objective in providing an impetus toward interdisciplinary research for the participants' further academic career and in bringing about a conceptual and methodological cross-pollination between academic disciplines and different area studies was met. Many of the questions raised above can fruitfully be applied to other literary phenomena than the ones that originally inspired them. It is hoped that various research projects of the participants (most of whom were at the level of preparing a Ph.D. thesis) will draw on this pool of concepts and perspectives.
During the summer academy as well as in the final debate, the gap between those working on a more theoretical level and those who work closer to the literary text itself was picked out as a central theme. Some participants stressed the need for more textual analysis and interpretation, whereas the others pointed to the need to reflect more on the most recent theoretical approaches in American Comparative Literature. It was frequently asked whether the aim of Comparative Studies was to develop new theories out of the "literary material" or, on the contrary, to use already existing theoretical approaches to better understand the literary text. Another hotly debated issue was the level of political engagement in literary studies. In the finale debate, the attempt was made to address this conflict between different disciplinary approaches to literary subjects, but quite a few questions were still left open to debate.
The following subjects were listed by participants for follow-up, future conferences, and spin-off topics:
"Mobility: The other side of movement... forced migrations, instability, and the 'merits of fixity"; social fields of literary production; identity; minority culture in the US and Europe; 3rd-world intellectuals within and outside the West; comparative approaches to South Asia, Sub-Saharan Africa, and Latin America; and intermediality (literature and film).
Participants expressed a general desire to keep in contact with one another and therefore suggested the establishment of an e-mail list-server of the group (H-net Cultural Mobility), which is already being planned. Also, participants ought to be kept abreast of further activities of the Working Group Modernity and Islam related to the topic of the Summer Academy.

3. Participants

  • Dr. Randa Abou-bakr (Cairo University), Song of the Caged Bard: The Poetics of Prison Poetry in Egypt, Nigeria and South Africa (1960-2000)

  • Sayyid Abdallah Ali (Cairo University), The Prose Poem Across Cultures. The Arabic Prose Poem: Western Genre and Arabic Poetic Traditions

  • Michael Allan (University of California, Berkeley), Language as Grounds of Political Community; Language Choice; Film Impact on Language Politics

  • Tiziana Carlino (Università degli Studi di Napoli), Pesa be-mizaryym: The Levant as Mediterranean Synthesis in Jacqueline Kahanoff

  • Ipek Azime Celik (New York University), Language as Land - Kurdish and Palestinian Epics in Discursive Resistance

  • Souad Eddouada (Mohammed V University, Rabat), The Epistemology of Violence in Assia Djebar's Le Blanc de L'Algerie

  • Dr. Iman Al-Ghafari (Tishreen University, Lattakia, Syria), Sexualities as Empowerment: Arab Women Writers' Representations of the Female Body

  • Dr. Ziad Elmarsafy (New York University), The Enlightenment Qur'an

  • Professor Dr. Ottmar Ette (Universität Potsdam), A Fractal Geometry of Culture. Reflections about Islands in the Caribbean

  • Özkan Ezli (Albert-Ludwigs-Universität Freiburg), Transgression, Autobiography and World Literature

  • Professor Sabry Hafez (SOAS London), Literature and Borders: the Arabs Perception of Europe

  • James Howarth (SOAS London), 'Neo-Sufism' in Modern Arabic Poetry and Thought

  • Asli Igsiz (University of Michigan), Fragments of Home-land, Narratives of Return: Rewriting History, Politics of Genre and Collective Memory in Compulsory Greek-Turkish Population Exchange

  • Stefan Jonsson (Stockholm), Civilized and Barbarian: The Establishment and Transgression of Borders in Contemporary Global Narratives

  • Ines Kappert (Universität Hamburg), Novels of John M. Coetzee and the Position of the Postcolonizer

  • Caroline E. Kelley (University of Oxford), Representation of Women in the Algerian Revolution (1954-1962)

  • Dr. Walid El Khachab (Concordia University, Canada), Sufism and Modern Subjectivity

  • Elias Khoury (Beirut), World Literature and Translation

  • Lital Levy (University of California, Berkeley), Modes of Enlightenment: Jewish Writers in Egypt and Iraq, 1870-1950

  • Nabila Marzouk Ahmed (Cairo University), Nagib Mahfouz and Lawrence Durell: The Alexandria Quartet and Miramar

  • Professor Reinhart Meyer-Kalkus (Universität Potsdam), Worldliterature -beyond Goethe

  • Amy Motlagh (Princeton University), Women and Exile

  • Professor Dr. Angelika Neuwirth (Freie Universität Berlin), Emblems of Exile: Majnun and Layla in Egypt, Palestine, Israel and Lebanon

  • Dr. Asli Niyazioglu (Oxford University), Between two Worlds: Writing Life Stories in the late Nineteenth Century Ottoman Society

  • Manar Omar (Cairo University), The Exotic and the Aesthetic in the Contemporary German Literature by Writers of Arab Descent

  • Friederike Pannewick (Freie Universität Berlin)

  • Andreas Pflitsch (Freie Universität Berlin), Contemporary Lebanese Literature between National Identity, Levantine Tradition and Transnationality

  • Andrea Polaschegg (Humboldt-Universität zu Berlin), German Orientalism in the Early Nineteenth Century

  • Mirjam Schneider (Universität Tübingen), The Mytho-poetics of the Literary Orient-journey

  • Nirvana Tanoukhi (Stanford University), The Scale of World Literature: Travelers and Epistles

  • Armando Vargas (Middlebury College), Migration and Literature : Mahjar Literature in Brazil

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