Arab Journals Provide Rich But Neglected Sources for Study of Arab World

By Nezar Andary

There seems to be an almost surreal gap between the realities in the Arab world and the lectures, books, and conferences concerning Arabs, Islam, and the Orient that are produced in the West. For too long, Western scholars have been ignoring the types of dialogue occurring in the context of contemporary Arab cultural phenomena such as plays, journals, cinema, and intellectual discourse. This neglect of primary Arab sources affects the whole field of Arab studies, or as it is called in some places Oriental Studies. Courses are not as accurate, texts continue to be Orientalist, and conferences continue to confine the knowledge within narrow and arbitrary boundaries.

Despite many positive changes in how the Arab world is taught and reported by Westerners, unfortunately any American or European interested in the Arab world is still offered a plate of archaic static images and extremely selective information. To some extent, this is merely a reflection of the imbalance of power in the world-the same imbalance of power referred to by author and cultural critic Edward Said. In his book Orientalism, he asserts that the "Arab and Islamic world remains a second-power in terms of the production of culture, knowledge, and scholarship. Here one must be completely realistic about using the terminology of power politics to describe the situation that obtains. No Arab or Islamic scholar can afford to ignore what goes on in scholarly journals, institutes, and universities in the United States and Europe: the converse is not true. For example, there is not a major journal of Arab studies published in the Arab world today, just as there is no Arab educational institution capable of challenging places like Oxford, Harvard, or UCLA in the study of the Arab world, much less in any non-Oriental subject matter."

In Orientalism, Said's main quandary was how we can study other cultures. Though Said is correct in his analysis of inequality and power, with one point he is somewhat mistaken - there are major journals in the Arab world. One cannot dismiss the wide variety of journals that contain articles about post modernism to Islam in China to a Salvador Dali exhibition in Moscow. Maybe the production of the journals in the West is more successful and sophisticated, maybe even more democratic, but who is to judge the journals' value? Perhaps we should appreciate these certain journals that do not equate the efficient production of institutions with prestigious Orientalist histories. The diverse information and images from these journals must be made more available in the United States and Europe not only for Western scholars to have more sources, but also for present realities to be more closely reflected in their scholarship. Furthermore, undergraduates, graduate students in all disciplines, and people interested in the Arab world, should be more aware of the dialogues that enterprises like Orientalism or Arabic Studies programs have excluded. The study of other cultures will never reach perfection, but we must continue to make it more pluralistic. For these reasons, I have chosen to highlight some journals and important articles that they published last year. (While I am sure that many intellectuals studying the Middle East are familiar with some of these journals, I still believe more effort could be taken up to be more inclusive.)

There are numerous current writers discussing new ideas concerning issues like democracy, Islam, feminism, or nationalism. Here, I do not mean scholars who reside in the West and are well published in English or French; rather, I speak of the many scholars, writers and artists who remain unknown. For example, while most information about Iraq this year has been about sanctions, no Western academic journal has covered what has been happening recently culturally both in Iraq and among Iraqis in exile. While articles have been written about Iraq, a surreal gap between the lives of Iraqis all over the Arab world and what is written still remains.

In Syria last year, I had the opportunity to watch the production of an Iraqi play (about prison, dictatorship, and the Gulf War) written by the famous Arab poet Mudhafar al-Nawab. This play, Al-Arabana, and others produced this year have caused heated discussions in journals published in the region. It is unlikely, however this play will ever be discussed among literary scholars, graduates students, or people generally interested in the Arab world living in the United States. I cringe when I start remembering the voices of specialists, professors, and even friends discussing the Arab world with the authority of deficient and biased knowledge systems.

Journals like al-Naqid (which folded last years), al-Adab, and Mawaqif are available in university libraries in the United States. A few scholars have given them attention in their research, but if one was to read through a series of Western journals concerning the Arab world, we would find the sources relied on to have come mainly from European languages. Why is it that a journal likeal-Nahj will discuss Chomsky's latest articles, but one rarely finds a journal in the United States discussing an Arab thinker living in the Arab world writing in Arabic? How can an aspiring Arab film critic in the West not read a review of Syrian cinema in al-Mada?

One might quickly say it is because of the language difference, but scholars, writers, and intellectuals who write about the Arab world would be committing a grave mistake if they did not attempt to include more primary sources in their work. John Esposito, a scholar who has written extensively about Islam and Fundamentalism, rarely consults articles written about Islam from contemporary periodical sources in Arabic in his written works. While his scholarship is quite lucid and exhausts secondary sources, how can his recent book, The Islamic Threat: Myth or Reality, be assembled with such a veneer of authority? How many scholars of Medieval Islam are actually consulting what Arab writers discuss in the articles about turath ?

The problems of how to study other cultures cannot be confronted as long as certain voices are ignored. Stopping at most kiosks in Damascus or Beirut, one can find over fifty magazines and journals. My review will try to focus on journals or magazines which are either widely read or have a specific focus. Obviously, this survey will not cover many important journals available in Egypt and North Africa. The journals I chose for this short discussion are selected on the basis that they have something new to offer. This is a review to inspire other students to unearth more journals and more primary sources. My aim is to start filling in a gap and to encourage scholars and people interested in the Arab world to pay more attention to more contemporary voices. By no means it is a comprehensive study of all journals and magazines. For each journal, I am not giving a comprehensive and historical review, but instead a focus on what has recently been written. This is an urge for inclusion.

 

Al Naqid

The monthly journal Al-Naqid [The Critic] was part of the world of Arabic journals that published in exile for over seven years, and was discontinued a year ago. Like many journals in the Arab world, it was managed under the auspices of a publishing house, Riad al-Rayess Ltd. This publishing company remains one of the most respected in the Arab world. While criticized sometimes as a mouthpiece for writers who were publish ed by Riad al-Rayess Ltd, al-Naqid was respected and read by many in the region. Based in London and Beirut, the journal allowed a wide spectrum of Arab intellectuals, poets, and artists to be heard even if some countries censor their work. Every month in Syria, I found many debates among intellectuals and students centered around literature from this journal. With a wide variety of articles, poetry, short stories, and book reviews, the journal was quite extensive. Each issue featured the work an Arab visual artist on the cover and many issues are dedicated to one important topic.

What distinguished al-Naqid from many other journals was its availability. Some journals published in London or Paris never reach the Arab world and many other fledgling literary and political journals have ceased publication because of financial problems. The sub-title of al-Naqid was a "monthly concerned with the creativity of the writer and freedom of writing." The journal seemingly had no blatant political slant. In the last seven years a diverse range of voices had appeared on its pages-from the well-known Marxists Sadiq Jalalal Al-Azm and Nawal al-Saadawi to writers advocating a return to Islam. While notable Arab secular scholars known in the West like Aziz al-Azmeh, Fawaz Traboulsi, or Kamal Abu Deeb published their work in al-Naqid, there were still many others who contributed impressive articles or poetry, and yet remain unknown outside the Arab world.

Poetry pervades almost all Arab cultural magazines. Even daily newspapers like Al Hayat will always have a column of poetry. This substantial part of any cultural journal has introduced me to a whole spectrum of new writers. For instance, in an edition of al-Naqid, there was a section of Libyan poetry. Just because political embargoes exist, it does not mean that cultural embargoes must exist, too. A reading of these Libyan writers transforms impressions of Libya as a terrorist or rogue state into something more humane. Qadhafi is recognized as not being the only Libyan. Hence, if this poetry could some how be made available, whether in texts or in classrooms, then the power inequalities discussed by Said could be more quickly diminished.

The May issue (1995) of al-Naqid was dedicated to Sadiq al-Nayhum, who passed away in December 1994. Born in Libya, he was an influential intellectual who had been published in Arabic for over twenty years and has yet to be translated or even mentioned in Western languages. He wrote a series of articles for the journal over the last four years. Riad al-Rayess published his last three and most popular books: The Voice of the People: Crisis of Counterfeit Culture, Thoughts on Islam: Who Stole the Mosque andWhat Happened to Friday, Islam Versus Islam: Islamic Law on Paper. Most of the chapters in these books first appeared as articles in al-Naqid. Each book also includes responses from readers and counter-responses from the author, all of which appeared in the journal. This makes each book rich with diverse debate.

Sadiq al-Nayhum's contributions to al-Naqid have generated much debate all over the Arab world. His main concerns were how to rewrite Arab history and confront the malaise-stricken Arab world. His battle was against authoritarianism, Islamic religious leaders, and feudalism. Like Fatima Mernissi, Nayhum wanted to reform Islam by criticizing the years of historical mistakes that were established by many different powers such as religious clergy or the state. Ironically, interest in Nayhum began after his books were banned.

Al-Adab

Al-Adab is one of the oldest literary journals in the Arab world; it was established forty-three years ago. While it has been cited as a source by many scholars in the United States, it is, in my opinion, not cited enough. Like al-Naqid, al-Adab is owned by a publishing house, although its focus is almost exclusively literary. One of last year's issues (April/May) featured important topics like the literary legacy of the late Jabra Ibrahim Jabra, the prolific Palestinian novelist, poet, essayists, and translator who had an important presence in Arab culture over the last forty years. One issue at the end 1994 was dedicated to Iraqi writers. This issue ran the gamut, from plays to poetry to short stories all written by new Iraqi writers living under siege in their own country.

For the last nine months, al-Adab has featured the growing debate over cultural normalization with Israel. The subject concerns one of the Arab world's most famous poets: Adonis. Adonis was expelled in January 27, 1995 from the Union of Arab Writers because he had met with Israeli intellectuals in 1993 at a UNESCO conference in Grenada, Spain. His statements at this conference produced much controversy. Al-Adab published an article in September 1994 that offers a systematic critique of Adonis's arguments. Although the article goes to an extreme, showing strong nationalist sentiments, it nevertheless offers rational discussion on how Adonis' arguments are flawed in terms of the direct relationship of power to culture and economics. Adonis then wrote in the next month's edition an article defending his meeting with Israeli intellectuals because he believes Arab intellectuals must not be afraid of confronting Israelis. He has been arguing that the self (Arabs) must understand the other (Israel) in order to understand itself. Arab culture, he believes, has nothing to fear from cultural normalization with Israel.

Al-Adab's two editions on the expulsion of Adonis and the response by Adonis preoccupied the Arab cultural scene for some time. But only a fragment of this debate made it to the Western press. The New York Timespublished an article about his expulsion in March 7, 1995. The article in theTimes, however, would lead the reader to believe that the whole issue was polarized. The case for freedom of expression is an obvious one here. Most Arab intellectuals and students agreed that Adonis was wrongly punished. As I read the numerous articles from al-Adab and also from over ten other Arabic journals and magazines, I realized from the start that the responses were diverse and that there were more than two sides to the Adonis question.

 

Al-Mada

Al-Mada is perhaps the newest cultural journal. Published in Damascus, its owner is the same as al-Nahj's (discussed later). The first issue came out in 1993 promising to offer an extensive analysis of Arab culture. Sa'adi Yusif, the editor, a former Iraqi Communist Party member, and a renown poet, asserts in the editorial introduction of the journal that al-Mada will strive to offer democracy to culture-a democracy that has not existed since "Napoleon arrived with his canons and printers." In each magazine, I have noticed biases. For instance, al-Mada has a proclivity to always present Iraqi writers in the creative writing sections. No journal or magazine is ever expected to be objective. This journal, in relation to the others mentioned is the most comprehensive in the sense that there is substantive discussion about film, visual art, photography and theater.

Each issue always begins with two black and white photographs of scenes from the Arab world - e.g. scenes of children of war, of an old man reading a newspaper in a closed market, or the local city restaurant that just serves beans. The two main photographers, Qatiba al-Janabi and Mahmud Diab produce photographs that tell stories. These photos are tangible and contemporary examples that an undergraduate class on the Arab world would benefit from. Al-Mada would clearly be an asset to art critics, as apart from the photography, there is always one or two reviews of a specific artist or a specific exhibit, like Salvador Dali in Moscow. People would be closer to understanding other cultures if contemporary art was part of their interpretive processes.

Al-Hadaf

Al-Hadaf, a weekly publication published by the People's Front for the Liberation of Palestine (PFLP), is in fact both a political and cultural magazine. Ghassan Kanafani, the famous Palestinian writer/activist, was a writer and chief editor for this magazine before he was assassinated in a Beirut suburb in 1972. Reading this magazine, one is introduced to an oppositional stance to the recent agreements between the PLO and Israel. While the political analysis is quite what would be expected of a political magazine, there is an impressive cultural department. Faisal Darraj, a well-known cultural critic, has been one main contributor to the cultural pages every week. He has been a prolific writer, with his contributions covering a wide span of publications like al-Nahjand al-Adab.

In the April 23,1995 issue, Darraj reviews Edward Said's Culture and Imperialism (Knopf, 1994), offering a strong critique of Said's methodology. During the last two years, two magazines have had sections dedicated to the writings of Edward Said: al-Adab (July 1994) and al-Jadid (Fall 1994). Darraj, along with scholars like Sadik Jalal al-Azm, criticizes Said from a Marxist viewpoint. Darraj, for example, labels Culture and Imperialism as a study belonging to a hegemonic European and American culture. He continues by saying the book is "narrowly elitist," embracing the "the end of history" thesis, and a part of a phenomena called postmodernism. Darraj's analysis, in large part, suffers from serious shortcomings. Even a quick skimming of Said's latest work will prove that he remains quite distanced from enigmatic and elitist discourses like postmodernism. What is most bothersome about the review is that Darraj fails to mention such important figures in the book like the oppositional and post-colonial figures Franz Fanon, Aime Cesaire or C.L.R. James.

Al-Hadaf's cultural section offers important reviews of Egyptian film maker, Yusif Shahine's latest work, The Emigrant, and the most famous Palestinian poet, Mahmoud Darwish's latest book of poetry, Why Did You Leave the Horse Alone? Shahine's film created a controversy as it was banned in Egypt because the Prophet Joseph was represented and representation of Prophets by picture or film is against Islamic jurisprudence. Darwish's latest poetry has been highly acclaimed by critics because of the way he like no other can mix images of memory, history, religion, and politics. The discussion in both reviews is quite useful in helping understand the dynamics of each creative work.

Al-Nahj

Al-Nahj is a quarterly review published by the Center For Socialist Research and Studies in the Arab World in Damascus. For many years before 1991 al-Nahj was the voice of Arab Marxists and Communist Party members. After a three year hiatus, it resumed publication in the fall of 1994 asserting a desire to voice the views of the Arab left. The collapse of the Soviet Union destroyed the cohesion of many leftist movements throughout the whole Third World. Socialism and Marxism as ideologies, however, are far from coming either to an end or being irrelevant; al-Nahj provides clear proof of their persistent presence in the post Cold War era. The board of editors is comprised of many well-known leftist and Marxist intellectuals from the Arab world. Famous Marxist economist Samir Amin is on the board and has also written articles. Based in Damascus, the journal mainly discusses political, economic, and philosophical subjects. Unlike al-Naqid, it is not a cultural journal, but a journal of political thought. The journal is quite dense, promising its readers to have more than 300 pages in each edition. Al-Nahj, as well as many other Arab journals, translate articles from Western sources. Here we have another example of obvious power inequalities. How many times do we see academic journals, including ones that cover the Middle East, translating articles written originally in Arabic?

Consider, for example, the first edition published after its three year hiatus. It consists of three sections that examined Arab-Israeli relations, the question of Palestine and Arab culture. The contributors to this issue of al-Nahj included well-known critics not published in English or French such as Hadi al-'Alawi, Faisal Darraj, and Mohammed Kamal al-Khatib. In the same issue, the famous Syrian filmmaker, Mohammed Malas, contributes a quite original article that pessimistically paints a picture of a lost generation of Arabs who grew up during an age of conflict with Israel. As peace becomes a reality, his generation will be marginally loitering around the official streets of the Arab world, while younger generations will endure the torrents of information from "New York and London" raining down by satellite on Arab cities like Damascus, Amman, and Cairo.

The Spring 1995 issue has a long article written by the editors reviewing Noam Chomsky's works such as Deterring Democracy and Manufactured Consent. Again, I find myself asking whether leftist journals in the United States or Europe include famous Arab oppositional thinkers akin to Noam Chomsky? The journal smartly points out the pitfalls of arbitrarily aiming to become part of the hegemonic Western systems of economy and management. Even Syria is beginning to show overt signs of following the leader. The intellectual Leftist community in Syria is, for the most part, just as hesitant about signing any agreement with Israel as President Asad is, but their reasons have more to do with a realization that new addictive brands of consumeristic capitalism will wipe away all traces of socialism.

The Spring issue included an important article by a philosophy professor at Damascus University who is also on al Nahj's editorial board: Tayeb al-Tazini. A Marxist in his orientation, he is most famous for writing about Arab Heritage (turath) in his book From Heritage to Revolution. The article entitled "Al-Jabiri and the Destruction of Arab Thought" is a critique of a Moroccan scholar, Mohammed 'Abed al-Jabiri, who might be considered the Allen Bloom of the Arab world. In countering the central arguments of al-Jabiri's Creation of the Arabic Mind, Tazini first points out that al-Jabiri asserts that the West with its roots in ancient Greece is the center of knowledge in the world, correspondingly denying the existence of anything called Arabic thought. In contrast to al-Jabiri, Tazini in almost all of his studies strives to give Arab thought its own place.

Tazini's theory of the dialectic of the internal (Arab world) and External (everything else) claims that interaction and influence of both internal and external forces drives culture. He maintains culture will always be a mix of influence while retaining certain characteristics. Tazini is not committing the Orientalist fault of proposing that there is an essential Arab or Islamic mind, but he does not want to refute specific cultures because they are necessarily mixed. Al-Jabiri, for instance, makes a claim that all Arab philosophy is simply a copy of Greek philosophy or he claims that all of the big philosophers of the early Islamic era were not of Arabic origin. Tazini criticizes such thinking because philosophers with Persian backgrounds like Ibn Rusd have been an active part of the Arab cultural domain. Arabism for Tazini is not a phenomena connected to blood. The rest of the article takes issue with al-Jabiri's Euro-centric theories. Tazini's work emphasizes transcending the dialectic of East-West that many thinkers seem to be attracted to.

Al-Tariq

Al-Tariq was established in 1941 by a prominent Lebanese leftist, Antoun Tabeth. Through the years, it has been one of the main voices for the Arab Marxists, and more specifically the Lebanese Communist Party. A monthly, and later bi-monthly, one finds this journal always including articles running the gamut from politics to literature. A recent issue was dedicated to Syrian playwright Sa'adallah Wannous. Currently, he is considered by many the premier playwright in the Arabic speaking world. He was chosen by UNESCO to write this year's statement for International Theater Day. He is widely translated throughout Europe. Only one translation exists in the United States and it is in an anthology. The section reviews his life's works and contains many critical writers. Fortunately, Al-Jadid magazine (USA) has recently published articles about his work. Another section is dedicated to the future of the Arab left. Al-Tariq is similar to al-Nahj, yet in many issues it includes short stories and poetry. Many creative writers from the Arab world are beginning their careers in this journal. The profuse amount of short story writing in the Arab world offers rich for ground for literary and cultural studies.

Studies of Arabic literature have in my opinion become quite static in recent years. Most articles published in the Western journals include few citations from Arabic journals; and whenever they do, the names of the journals are often not new. Most specialists in the field want to stick to convenient authors. Rarely have I seen any focus on writers who have not been translated. Scholars want to publish what sells, but Arabic literature does not sell. So who has the power to control information on the Arab world? Critics can make a difference in how people see the Arab world.

The importance of reading Arabic journals not only opens doors of knowledge for those interested in the study of the Arab world, but it makes the study more pluralistic. I regret not being able to include many other relevant journals. This essay must be more developed in the future. The dilemma of diversifying our research exists for scholars and readers in all areas of knowledge. The endeavor of studying other cultures or even our own (if one exists) will never attain any kernels of truth, but scholarship must strive to continue peeling off the layers of knowledge by using diversified resources. The paucity of work on contemporary Arab culture in the United States makes it necessary for new interventions. Being more aware of Arabic journals is only one suggestion.

Nezar Andary is a contributor to Al Jadid magazine and a graduate student at U.C.L.A.

This article appeared in Vol.2 , No. 12 ( October 1996).

Copyright © 1995 by Al Jadid


Powered by Creativva ©