Silent in First Person: Where is the Confessional Autobiography in Arab Literature?
Al Jadid Staff
From left to right, web-based images of Fadwa Tuqan, Louis Awad, and Muhammad Shukri, authors who published what some critics consider confessional autobiographies.

Confessions in autobiographies can achieve two things: they reveal all that the writers have concealed about their lives, or they serve to offend those around them in doing so. Some have used confessions to elevate their own characters, depicting their actions as courageous while recalling the wrongs done against them throughout their life. In Arab tradition, writers wish their readers to see them in a positive light, and readers look to autobiographies for ideal figures and role models for future generations, drawing on religious traditions and figures. Rather than touch on his misdeeds, the writer would instead share his accomplishments, highlighting only the positive parts, according to Ehab al-Najdi. The 2015 publication of the Egyptian Najdi’s “Literature of Confessions: Analytical Approaches from a Narrative Perspective” (Dar al-Maaref) examines the complex obstacles and scarcity of confessional writings in the Arab world. (For further reading on this topic, see Issa Boullata’s “A Thousand Years of Autobiography in Arabic,” published in Al Jadid, Vol. 7, No. 37, Fall 2001 at 

Najdi finds common ground with Philippe Lejeune, who asserts that autobiographies must be truthful accounts of the hidden aspects in one’s personal life and relationships with others in “Le Pacte Autobiographique.” However, Lejeune specifies that autobiographies may only be in narrative prose, whereas Najdi is open to various forms of writing – like poetry – as confessional pieces.

Made up of six chapters, along with an introduction and conclusion, “Literature of Confessions” asks the question: is Arab culture ready to receive open and uncensored confessions? Despite Najdi’s acceptance of multiple forms of confession writing, this genre is still considered taboo in the Arab world, for it runs contrary to Islamic religious norms. According to Najdi, as cited by Mamdouh Faraj al-Nabi in the London-based Al Arab newspaper, the dictionary definition of “confession” is an acknowledgment. However, in the Qur’an, confessions are associated with guilt and sin, requiring forgiveness and repentance, similarly to confessions in Catholicism. Also, revealing misdeeds to the public in writing is frowned upon in Arab culture; it is considered to be showing weakness in character. Confessional writing and autobiographies are also vastly different for women than they are for men. In a culture where women remain subordinate to men, Najdi finds that confessions can be used against them as a sign of further weakness. He suggests, then, that if men writing confessions is unacceptable, it is even more damaging for women.

One look at Muhammad Shukri’s confessions, “The Plain Bread” – which despite being a “fictional autobiography” and bypassing any cause for censorship was confiscated and banned in universities – reveals  an uncertain picture of the Arab world’s willingness to normalize confessions (for more on the censorship of Shukri’s “The Plain Bread,” see Al Jadid’s article published in Vol. 5, No. 26, Winter 1999 at Regardless, Nadji’s book offers an invaluable study based on scientific method in subjecting confessional writings to analysis, a unique subject overlooked by Arab scholars, according to Mamdouh Faraj al-Nabi in Al Arab newspaper.

This text is part of a work in progress to appear in the Arab Cultural Roundup Section of the forthcoming Al Jadid, Vol. 24, No. 78, 2020.

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