Documenting Women Arab Novelists Leads To Re-Writing History

Mahmoud Saeed

Authors & Titles: Three Books Survey History of Lebanese Theater, Century of Arab Women Novelists, and a Guide to Arab Women Scholars

Khalida Said Documents Golden Period of Lebanese Theater

Lebanese Maroun al-Nakash (1817-55) was a genius playwright who was neither studied nor adequately appreciated during his lifetime. When the scholars of the Arab cultural renaissance failed to recognize him, al-Nakash was forgotten even though his work was intimately linked to the ideas of the renaissance. In particular, his play "The Miser" (1848) was a great musical piece that showed his familiarity with Moliére's "The Miser" (1668).

In "The Miser," al-Nakash used 90 popular musical rhythms from Lebanon and its surrounding region. The widespread illiteracy at the time made theater alien to the general population, but al-Nakash's genius was to combine familiar music with theater, forming a musical experiment that appealed to illiterate audiences. Al-Nakash drew on Italian, French and Lebanese traditions at the time, paving the way for an Arab cultural renaissance.

How did we learn about al-Nakash's achievements after a century and a half -- or about other pioneers in the history of Arab theater? We find the answers in Khalida Said's "Al-Harakat al-Masrahiyya fi Lubnan, Tajarab wa Afaq, 1960-1975" (The Arab Theater Movement in Lebanon, Experiments and Horizons,1960-1975), published in Beirut by the Theater Committee of Baalbek International Festivals, 1999, 718pp.

Said's contribution, writes Nabil al-Haffar in the London-based Al Wasat, "combines scientific methodology with field research." Said's research method is not the only defining characteristic of this book: addressing the lack of documentation during critical period of Lebanese theater is an equally admirable accomplishment. While critics concur on the central role Beirut played in the 1960s as a home of diverse theatrical experimentation, especially in consolidating the experimental identity of the modern Arab theater, this movement was not accompanied by criticism capable of studying the phenomenon and analyzing the changes it brought about, writes Abdu Wazzen in Al Hayat. The movement, Wazzen continues, lacked academic critics applying scientific and methodological criticism; instead the task of criticism was left to journalists who offered quick coverage rather than analysis.

When the author was commissioned to write this book by the officials in the Arab Theater, they set a condition that it should not exceed 250 pages, a condition they withdrew after they found the book a valuable and indispensable reference system. Most critics and specialists agree that this is one of the most important --and perhaps the most important -- reference book on the Lebanese theater movement. To compile this voluminous work (718 pages), Said went to great lengths to document the history of a movement that affected both the theater and the politics of Lebanon during a critical period of the country's history. Said interviewed 58 playwrights and theater specialists, amassing 280 hours of interviews on audiocassette.

Her research, which consumed five years, was innovative and modern as well as toilsome; Said'sbook was born out of many sources. First she searched for information about playwrights and looked for full or partial texts of their work. Then she formulated interview questions after a close reading of the texts. Wazzen explains that the search for these texts was an essential and difficult step, for most Lebanese playwrights left their works as mere performances, and they certainly did not record their experiments or the ideas they embraced and preached as pioneers. Despite the extensive time and effort spent on this project, Said's only regret seems to be missed opportunities to interview some playwrights who have left Lebanon or were unable to meet with her due to illness.

If interviews with playwrights, directors, and authors were the first source, the second was a her own experience. Said was an active part of the Lebanese cultural scene, making her familiar with and knowledgeable about both playwrights and works staged in Lebanon since the late 1950s.

Her third source consists of journalistic accounts, including different articles; news items; commentaries; interviews in Arabic, French, Armenian, and English; publications; as well as lectures, readings, and panels. The author explains that the theater was active in four languages: Arabic, English, French and Armenian. Said hopes to add any important evidence she might have missed to a second edition.

Books comprise her fourth source, whether they are about the Arab theater in general, local theater, political theater, or the theater of the absurd. Another source are the plays themselves, most of which remain unpublished; thus Said has summarized them. Finally, her research included a huge quantity of correspondence.

Said's research led her to conclude that the Lebanese theatrical movement grew out of ideas and did not emerge out of traditional popular customs as was the case in Europe. It was an urban production brought about by certain artistic families involved in writing and translation. The Lebanese theater matured after 1965, benefiting from the democratic atmosphere that existed at the time which enabled it to diversify and develop. According to Wazzen, she identifies two high points among two broad movements: the first has been labeled "renaissance," a period that started in late 19th century and continued until the 1920s, and he second "modernism." The theater was at the heart of the movement of ideas.

When Huda Ibrahim of the Oman-based Nazwa magazine asked the author about the discontinuity between the latter part of the renaissance and the late 1950s, Said said: "The retreat of the renaissance dream was accompanied by a retreat in the historical plays in particular, with the theater losing its educational discourse. Writing for theater, which was closely associated with literature at the time, could not stand up to the wave of realism. We also must not forget the role of political and economic factors, especially WW II and its aftermath. During that period, the art of cinema dominated the visual, fictional, and entertainment scene, supported by economic resources that overpowered theater. Theater would not return to the peak of its energy until it rediscovered its discourse and again met its social and cultural function in accord with the movement of Arab modernism."

Despite her focus on the golden era of the Lebanese theater during the 1960s, the author did not forget the elements of the beginning, especially the pioneering efforts of people like Maroun al-Nakash, the immigration of artists for Egypt, the impact of Baalbek's Festivals Committee, and the Group of Lebanese Theater founded by Antoine Multaqa and other pioneering artists.

The question of the theatrical text receives considerable attention from the author, for the text is not a problem confined to Lebanon but to the rest of the Arab world and the entire developing world. Despite the participation of the modernist figures in theatrical composition like Adonis, Onsi Al-Haj, Issam Mahfouz and others, there has been a continuing reliance on the translated or the "Lebanized" text.

Said defines 1965 as a turning point in the course of the Lebanese theater, when Lebanon witnessed the opening of three theaters: the theater of Al Ashrafiyyeh, Beirut Theater, and the National Theater. These openings coincided with a new law which decreed the establishment of a School of Fine Arts with a specialized theater division.

Wazzen describes the book as the first encyclopedic system which fills a vacuum left by a legacy of theatrical criticism. Relying on her insightful vision, education, and methodology, and her long experience in the field of literary criticism, the author sums up a crucial era of the history of Lebanese theater. Said confined herself to the task of laying a foundation, keeping a distance from the War Theater, leaving opportunities for other critics and scholars to take on the mission of continuing what she began.


Documenting Women Arab Novelists Leads To Re-Writing History

Yes, the Arab book market is flooded, and few books in this deluge merit note. A few new books deserve priority placement on readers' and libraries' book shelves.

Buthayna Shabaan's "Mi'aat 'Am Min al-Riwayat al-Nissa'yiat al-Arabiyya" (100 Years of the Arab Woman's Novel), published in Beirut by Dar Al-Adab in 1999, falls in this category. Shabaan is the author of several other works that explore themes regarding Arab women in the 20th century. Her work, "Women Talking About Themselves," was published by Women Press in London and Indiana University Press in the U.S. The author is a graduate of the University of Damascus Department of English Language; after she earned a doctorate from the University of York in Britain, Shabaan returned to Damascus and became a professor of comparative literature in the English department at her alma mater. Besides her academic career, she has been the editor of The Foreign Literature Magazine, published by the Union of Arab Writers.

Many Arab intellectuals consider the novel "Zeinab 1914" by Mohammed Hassan Haykal to be the first modern novel written in Arabic literature, but Buthayna Shaaban claims that another novel, "Husn Alawqab" (Best Results) by the Lebanese Zeinab Fawaz, is the first novel; it was published in Cairo by the Indian Press in 1899, predating "Zeinab" by almost 15 years.

Shabaan has found 13 other novels besides " Husn Alawqab " that appeared before "Zeinab." These novels include "Kalb Al-Rajul" (Man's Heart) by Labiba Hashem and "Hasna' Salunik" by Labiba Sawayya. The latter novel was serialized in the New York- based Al Huda newspaper, an early Arab American publication. Both of these novels preceded "Zeinab" and have as much literary and artistic merit as that "first" novel, and both were written by women.

"100 Years of the Arab Woman's Novel" reveals another fascinating "first" in the history of the Arab novel. Afifa Karam, another Lebanese novelist, wrote "Badia and Fouad," a work that not only advocated reform and development, but also tackled the relationship between the East and the West. Most critics credit Toufic al-Hakim's novel "A Bird From the East," which was published in the 1930s, with exploring this subject first, but "Badia and Fouad" preceded Toufic al-Hakim's contributions by four decades.This early novel narrates a love affair which took place aboard a ship sailing from Lebanon to the United States, and it examines women's concerns along with issues like modernity and identity.

Challenging male claims to exclusive writing on social and political issues, Shabaan finds women's approach to political and social issues as astute if not more so than men's work. The novels "I Live" by Laila Baalbaki and "Ayam Ma'hu" (Days With Him) by Collette Khoury tackle sensitive political issues. When women write on day-to-day concerns such as commerce, trade, and transportation, the value of their contribution has been downplayed when compared to hardcore political issues like the Balfour Declaration and the Partition of Palestine. Shabaan wonders if we had "become aware of these issues at the time we would not be in a better position today?" Should greater importance be attributed to political issues that are never resolved or to the establishment of a strong economic base in the Arab countries?

The author refutes the criticism that women authors write only on love and family, marriage and children. In the novels she studied, women authors express different social, political, and moral points of view. This dismissal of women's writings on the grounds that their topics are unimportant or superficial has made "feminist literature" or "women's literature" suspect, a short-sighted view that forgets that Arab women authors, as Shabaan explains, have concerned themselves with issues of society for a long time. As long ago as the Jahilyya era, women poets, although few in number, dealt with issues of war, peace, justice, human rights, and wealth distribution. In modern times, works such as Ghada Samman's "Laylat al-Milyar" (The Night of the One Billion), clearly show that Arab women's literature has made significant achievements and reached levels which surpass women's domestic concerns and pertain to the Arab nation and the world at large.

The book also highlights an early political consciousness by Arab women writers, accounting for their activism. Over the years they have taken their demands to the streets calling for the release of nationalist leaders and opposing colonialist schemes for dividing the Arab world. In 1928, for example, a Women's Arab Union convened -- the first of its kind and 19 years before the establishment of the Arab League.

Through the decades, Arab women's novels have changed their portrayal of a male-dominated society from man being the enemy, rival, and persecutor into a new paradigm wherein man is a victim like woman, blindly obeying traditions and centuries-old customs. Between 1960 and 1967, women writers emerged and offered a liberating and progressive vision, identifying several social and political ills which they warned would be causes of defeat unless those issues were attended to in time. Thus, women anticipated the 1967 disaster long before their male counterparts.

Unlike most resources, "100 Years of the Arab Woman's Novel" emphasizes the modern novels appearing in the late 80s and early 90s, novels which gradually gained great popularity among readers. These novels enabled women to break out of the barriers placed around their work, and their books became popular best-sellers like "The Memory of the Body" by Ahlam Mustaghnami. Other novels were translated into several languages, including "The Nation in the Eye" by the Palestinian Hamida Nana, "The Tale of Zahra" by the Lebanese Hanan Al-Shaikh, and "The Laughter of the Stone" by the Lebanese Huda Barakat, along with many others. Shabaan ranks the most important novelists and chooses Sahar Khalife as the most important Arab novelist in the second half of the 20th century, for her contributions paved the way for the form and context of the feminist progressive novel.

Shabaan has shared the story of how she came to write this book with interviewers. Shabaan's interest in women's novels goes back to her early graduate studies in Britain, she explained in an interview with Mai Munasa of the Beirut-based An Nahar. "During my studies in Britain, I always liked to read the literature of Western women, their novels and poetry. I used to wonder, from the perspective of my academic specialization, are there Arab women with equal courage and vision as their Western counterparts?"

"When I started researching women novelists ten years ago one critic cautioned me that there is no worse subject to study for there are no authors to examine other than Ghada Samman. All other works are insignificant, quite personal, and geared toward subjects of a failed romance," Shabaan told An Nahar. However, as she became involved in her research project, she found a well-developed and ever-growing world of Arab women's literature that was too much for one book. She discovered that it would be impossible for her to study all the women writers, for there were hundreds and some sources indicate as many as a thousand.

In her interview with Jihad Fadil in Al Hawadith magazine, Shabaan was quite open and detailed about the methodology she adopted in her research and the organization of her book . Her method utilized an inductive historical reading method; she attempted to read the novels of each period historically, politically, and socially, which required an accurate examination of the text and then relating its significance to the prevalent conditions of that given era. She emphasizedthat she did not want to impose any particular view on the text, but instead she "allowed the texts to lead" to the conclusions. Shabaan believes that most of the harm done to the Arab novel has been the result of applying pre-existing approaches and theories. "My mission was confined to discovering the text and then analyzing it." She also covered liberating women's journalism because most journalists were novelists, short story writers, or poets.

"Thus the reader will find that the first section offers a brief discussion of women poets in the pre-Islamic period and the period which immediately followed, to show how neglecting the role of women had appeared to some scholars as the natural thing to do," Shabaan told Al Hawadith.

The book's second section is devoted to the beginning of the Arab novel; the third to the women novelists between the 1920s and early 1950s; the fourth to novelists who faced women issues head-on throughout the 1950s, focusing on authors like Laila Baalbaki (1958) and Collette Khoury (1959); the fifth to works appearing between 1967 and 1980, when many novelists anticipated the 1967 setback; and the remaining four sections were devoted to war novels.

The most serious obstacle she faced during her research was how to sift through the large numbers of works and focus on those worthy of study. She chose two criteria: "first, my evaluation of the quality of the novel in artistic terms; second, the popularity of the novel among Arab readers."

Although pessimistic about the future of the Arab novel in the 21st century, the author of "100 Years of the Arab Woman's Novel" continues to call for correcting literary history; any analysis that overlooks these pioneering works remains distorted and incomplete "aim[ing] not only to marginalize women's contributions and cast doubt on their literary values, but also to distort the truth."

This book is a serious intellectual endeavor, the fruit of years of research and study of female literary and artistic productions in different Arab countries. That labor has culminated in a valuable social, political, and literary text that serves as a record of a whole century of Arab women's creativity.

Book Maps Arab Women Scholars in Social Sciences and Humanities

"Dalil al-Bahithaat al-Arabiyyat fi al-Uloum al-Insaniyya wa al-Ijtimaiyya" (Guide to Arab Women Researchers in the Social Sciences and Humanities) edited by Noha Bayoumi and published in Beirut and Casablanca by the Lebanese Women Researchers Group and the Arab Cultural Center, 1999.

Whenever I find a reference book I remember all the Arab historians who have excelled in writing reference books, documenting bits and pieces of information, especially about great authors and artists, classifying and identifying their works in detail. For example, Abu-Hayan al-Tawhidi, who was fond of statistics and comparisons, documented all 600 professional singers in Baghdad in the 11th century.

Although hundreds of years separate Abu-Hayan al-Tawhidi and today's information revolution, when I started reading "Guide to Arab Women Researchers" I found the tradition of documentation surviving against great odds.

This book answers an urgent and important question: Do Arabs have women researchers? Perhaps just as many Arabs as non-Arabs would ask this question. Undoubtedly, many are aware that Arab women scholars and researchers exist, but few know the specifics: their identities, numbers, the diversity of their specializations, or even how they can be located or contacted. This book promises to rectify this problem.

This reference is an elaborate database of more than 361 women researchers in the fields of literature, languages, economics, statistics, history, architecture, education, geography, demography, law, political science, public relations, psychology, psychiatry, natural sciences, environment, philosophy, the arts, and more. The editor, Noha Bayoumi, worked on the book with two other members of the Lebanese Bahithat Group, Fadia Hoteit and Maryam Ghandour. She explains that the book was born as a response to the lack of serious research and scholarship in the Arab world; the Meeting of Arab Women Researchers, organized by the Lebanese Women Researchers Group in July 1996, recommended writing this book to facilitate communication among themselves.

Compared with other Arab reference resources, "Guide to Arab Women Researchers in the Social Sciences and Humanities" adopts the latest up-to-date methods of documentation. One distinguishing feature is the method of alphabetizing the researchers' names. Unlike earlier references which followed a standard of first to last name, this book adopts the Western style by listing family name first.

No matter how prolific and well-known some researchers may be, they are all allocated an equal space of at least one page of the book. An additional index provides a list of the researchers according to their specialization. Because Arabic names are often misspelled when they are transliterated into English, the book lists names in Arabic and in English. The editor has avoided wasting space on unnecessary information. Instead, one reads about the institutions with which the scholar is associated, the type of work she does, the major subject in which she is a specialist, the highest degree earned, her published works, awards received, her major position held as well as secondary jobs, and languages commended. Perhaps most importantly, the book lists addresses, fax and telephone numbers, and e-mail addresses.

Much in this book would interest the reader, and I found the research interests these women scholars particularly fascinating. A case in point is the Egyptian researcher Samia Hassan El-Saaty, who wrote a book about the names of the Egyptians and their social meanings which I have often consulted while probing the roots of certain names.

However, the book does have some limitations. Most glaring is the omission of important women in the social sciences and humanities. I also noticed that a good number of quite accomplished women who may belong to an older generation are missing. Unless the book's emphasis is exclusively on contemporary scholarship, there is no excuse for such omissions. Of course, the editor explains that they sent questionnaires to everyone but not every form was returned, which would account for some of the gaps. The information provided on the authors is likewise uneven in some cases; one reason perhaps is that the researchers themselves may not have provided a complete resume. All in all, these limitations do not diminish the value of this work.

This article appeared in Al Jadid Magazine, Vol. 6, No. 33 (Fall 2000)

Copyright (c) 2000 by Al Jadid

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