A Brief Introduction to Modern Arabic Literature – A Review

A Brief Introduction to Modern Arabic Literature truly is a brief introduction, but for anyone who is unacquainted with modern Arabic Literature, this book is a good introduction. The book covers literature from the 20th century and primarily from the eastern part of the Arabic speaking world. The book focuses heavily on Egypt followed by Lebanon and Palestine, while other countries such as Saudi Arabia, Iraq and Syria rate an occasional mention.

The book traces the development of modern Arabic literature from the early 20th century, finding its first exemplar in Taha Hussein in Egypt. What makes the literature modern is its break from Arabic poetry, which was the primary form of literature, towards prose based, in part, on western models. The early works, especially in Egypt, were concerned with defining what the new Arab states would be like and what is the role of tradition and western influence. Usually these works were written in a realistic manner. Illustrating that point, the book focuses on the works of Mahfouz and shows how his earlier works fit that model.

Latter as disappointment and dissolution came to the Arab world, it too was reflected in the literature. Authors like Al-ghitani began to use more post modern (although in his case he goes to much earlier times for source material) approaches to describe the problems besetting the countries of the authors, such as the the power of the west, the despotism of Arab regimes, and an uncertainty about the future.

Each author he covers, with the exception of Mahfouz, receives about a page or two of coverage. A Brief Introduction sticks to works, primarily novels and short fiction, available in English and originally written in Arabic. This approach leaves out authors such as Assia Djebar, who writes in French, and doesn’t examine the breath of a writers work which would be useful to non Arabic speakers. However, in reading the book a reader will find a great list of books to read, if the reader can find them.

While A Brief Introduction is a useful introduction its brevity makes for some choppy sections and the inclusion of poetry, a subject in itself, seems forced and might have been left for a different book. That said, his descriptions of the books he does write about make for a good guide and should arouse one’s curiosity.