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Trials of Arab Modernity

Literary Affects and the New Political by Tarek El-Ariss

005 / 28 August 2013

Trials of Arab Modernity: Literary Affects and The New Political by Tarek El-Ariss is a sequence of seven chapters that connect Arabic literary texts from the 1800s to the present day. Through these examples he discusses and critiques the Arab experience in relation to modernity. He does not employ the expected models such as colonial discourse or Orientalism. Rather, the book traces a lineage of affects – emphasis here is on bodily experiences ­­– that are the outcome of the subject's or protagonist's encounter with modernity, while referencing contemporary philosophy and social theory. Focusing on the body as a site for transforming the master narrative of both European and Arab modernity, El-Ariss aims the spotlight at the affects of those encounters.


Season of Migration to the North, Tayeb Salih.
Season of Migration to the North, Tayeb Salih.

At the onset, he deconstructs the narrative of the Nahda – the Arab cultural renaissance – and shifts away from the established 'East-West' binary that oversimplifies complex realities so as to provide a rigorous reading of Arab modernity through the trials found in various forms of Arab literature. Most of the examples relate to Arab experiences abroad, with others taking place in Egypt, ranging from the beginning of the dissolution of the Ottoman Empire to the 'Arab Spring'. El-Ariss looks to Arabic literature and fiction to select the moments at which modernity is performed through specific trials. These experiences – sometimes mundane actions – become the platform on which to analyse run-ins with modernity. With a critical spirit, El-Ariss takes a pointed look at actual moments depicted in travelogues and fiction that describes, 'travellers and literary characters as they wander, run, take shelter, crouch, faint, panic, and go mad.'[1] These are encounters of mostly Arab men (with the exception of two female protagonists, one of whom is caught up in faking her identify to that of a Khaleeji princess).


With great tenacity and comparative analyses, El-Ariss tracks the symptoms that exemplify modernity through actions. He unearths the affects and physical conditions that are a result of specific events in the narratives he highlights: leaving home, disgust of food, disorientation, anxiety attacks, and confusion. The analysis begins with Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq and Rifa'a al-Tahtawi's travel chronicles from the nineteenth century. Moving forward in time, El-Ariss identifies modernity in moments of sexual subjectivities, anxieties, and madness by examining novels such as Season of Migration to the North (1966) by Tayeb Salih, Only in London (2000) by Hanan al-Shaykh, Hamdi Abu Golayyel's Thieves in Retirement (2002), and Ahmad Alaidy's Being Abbas el Abd (2003). In presenting a comparative study and close reading of these texts, Trials of Arab Modernity insists that modernity is performed through trials, events, and encounters: ahdath. El-Ariss explains:


Modernity is performed in acts of smuggling corpses at night, autopsy sessions, sexual experimentation between two teenage friends, and missing home cooking while abroad.[2]


Rifa'a Rafi' al-Tahtawi's and Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq's travelogues through Europe set the stage for the book. Here, El-Ariss deconstructs the notions of culture and civilisation. In looking at al-Shidyaq's travelogues, El-Ariss argues, 'al-Shidyaq's linguistic and literary modernization coincides with a radical unveiling (kashf) of the European experience and understanding of civilization in the nineteenth century.'[3] It is through 'performing modernity' that El-Ariss excavates the experiences, suppressed narratives, and casual encounters that do not appear in official narratives of Arab modernity. It requires reading al-Shidyaq's experiences to extract and reveal – kashf – the decay beneath the facade of civilisation.  El-Ariss shows how al-Shidyaq uncovers contradictions. He writes:


Deploying registers of anger, shame, mockery, capriciousness, shock, and disbelief, al-Shidyaq forces his reader to witness, attest, and feel revolted by what is frustrating and oppressing him. This interactive and postmodern writing serves to position Kashf in relation to other texts in the Arabic literary tradition and to those produced in the virtual age.[4]


The idea of performing modernity continues with the trauma encountered in Salih's Season of Migration to the North, where a fiction conjures the Arab-African encounter with European colonialism and World War I. Salih positions these histories on the same stage, calling attention to their intersections and interconnections. Through his two main protagonists, Salih takes his reader from Sudan to London and back, exposing the obsessions and fantasies of what an 'Eastern' or a 'Western' persona embodies. A young Sudanese man returns home after seven years abroad studying in Europe, to meet an older neighbor who also spent time in the west. A complex story of a student's memories and nostalgia for his home, drinking into the night and murder unfolds, intertwined with actual world events that impact the lives of both protagonists and the people they meet along the way. El-Ariss highlights how Salih's fiction delves into the relationship between Europe and North Africa – in this case, through the affairs that both protagonists engage in. He writes:


Salih's narrative deploys a postcolonial sensorium that leads the reader to expose the fantasmatic production of the East/West relation. ... The Sudan is reintroduced alongside Arab modernity's accidents, trials, and events that were also excluded, made absent (mughayyabin), or forced to disappear (makhfiyyin) in order for a specific master narrative of Arab modernity to maintain its coherence and linearity.[5]


This is an instance where El-Ariss emphasises his motives, making visible the narratives that exist outside the 'master narrative' of Arab modernity. These alter-narratives are crucial, even humanistic, in their approach to how modernity is encountered, how it is cast, unhinged and reformulated. 


James Atkinson, Frontispiece to Laili and Majnun, 1836.
James Atkinson, Frontispiece to Laili and Majnun, 1836.

Moving forward in time and further from the cultural and racial 'other', El-Ariss sets up the queer subject. Here, it is al-Shaykh and Abu Golayyel who introduce queer protagonists in 'fits of madness'. El-Ariss argues that these examples of Arab sexuality trouble the existing modalities of sexuality in western theory and western queer identifying terms. He also points out that in contemporary fiction, Arab queerness is often represented as mad-raving sexuality. He argues:


Majnun, the quintessential figure of the obsessive lover who is consumed by his desire in the Arabic tradition, reappears as a queer subject in contemporary fiction. In his modern role, he does drag, acts out, protests, and resists incarceration.[6]


El-Ariss's comparative reading that aligns Majnun with Majnun and Leila – an ancient Arabic love story eventually published by Persian poet Nizami Ganjavi in the twelfth century AD – in Only in London (2000), and Thieves in Retirement (2002), is put into play through Michel Foucault's Discipline and Punish (1975). Golayyel's tragic protagonist fights the politics of the society he lives in, thus exposing the brutalities of these institutions as they practice their force, and apply their violence to mind and body in the quest for reform.


In another example, Alaidy's Being Abbas el Abd offers a new – and perhaps most current – perspective on Arab modernity, as he challenges political regimes, established literary genres, and the signs and symbols of cultural awakening and development in contemporary Cairo. His protagonist demands that museums be turned into city pissoirs. He is revolted and insists that, in order to move on, the past must be destroyed, including the history books that conjure up the image of national identity based on Egypt's past and omit the growing social and political disrepair of the current time. Alaidy sets forth scenes of violence against these signs of cultural, educational, and social modernity.


El-Ariss explains how Alaidy's text uses and embodies the term 'hacking'. He writes:


Appropriated from techno-language and used as a verb in Alaidy's text, hacking functions as a mode of subversion that empowers a new generation of writers to expose moribund social and political systems through a new language and media.[7]


Being Abbas el Abd, Ahmad Alaidy.
Being Abbas el Abd, Ahmad Alaidy.

El-Ariss aligns this new mode of literary production with Egypt's – and the Middle East's – current political milieu. He commends these new modes of writing and explains how this is not a literature that is set apart from the political, but instead functions with and against the political, creating its own, new politics: 'This new generation, which has been overlooked or dismissed by critics and pundits as being apolitical, vulgar, and consumerist, has succeeded in mobilizing for a political revolution and a revolution in writing,'[8] he writes.


El-Ariss asserts that Alaidy's 'hacking', along with Al-Shidyaq's notion of kashf, '…are forms of unveiling of decay and exposing civilization's barbarism. Hacking and kashf reveal processes of ikhtifa, for example, of the "disappearing" and the veiling of the decay-the system's corruption and illegitimacy.'[9] Both writers expose what lies beneath the blanket of culture, tradition, and imagined modernity, with Kashf via Al-Shidyaq, and 'hacking' via Alaidy alluding to the brutishness of civilisation. Al-Shidyaq exposes this through his trials and experiences in the United Kingdom, specifically in his observing the unsanitary modes of food preservation, his disgust and illness from it. Meanwhile, Alaidy exposes this by way of 'deterritorializing the Arabic language and the political,'[10] as he uncovers the corruption embedded in his social and political environment.


In his final chapter 'Writing the New Political', El-Ariss asserts: 'the comparative analysis of contemporary fiction, Nahda, and diasporic and postcolonial texts serve to frame the social and political transformations associated with the Arab Spring.'[11] He shifts the importance from the scholarly text by emphasising the value of contemporary modes of writing, such as blogging, noting: 'The trials of Arab modernity, now more than ever, are in need of exploration at the level of affects and embodiment in Arab public squares and online.'[12] El-Ariss aims to reframe the importance of literature by underscoring the value of new modes of writing: blogging, play with language, and the literary which transforms the political. He writes:


Emerging from a space at the intersection of literature and pulp, the novel and the blog, new texts question the legitimacy of literary canons and challenge their ideological and political production.[13]


Discipline & Punish, Michel Foucault.
Discipline & Punish, Michel Foucault.

By activating the theories and texts of Adonis, Félix Guattari and Gilles Deleuze, Michel Foucault, and several others, El-Ariss supports his arguments as he maintains a dialogue with psychoanalysis, affect theory, and deconstruction, using the terms hadatha (modernity), kashf (revealing), and ikhtifa (disappearing), to engage with the language of the nineteenth century travel narratives with emergent Arabic literature in the virtual age. His tracing of a 'genealogy of affect', as El-Ariss frames it, produces a narrative that does not claim the role of master narrative, but makes the connections between Nahda and postcolonial discourse, while investing in the narratives of Arabic literature that open up the subjectivities and encounters that are either oppressed or dismissed by any master narrative. While revealing the intricate shifts in how modernity is experienced, imagined and embodied, El-Ariss's strategy agitates the normalised discourse on Arab modernity and sets the stage for a dismissed population of narrators to expand it via the performative excavation of encounters that take place on the stage of modernity.



[1] Tarek El-Ariss, 'Introduction: Debating Modernity', Trials of Arab Modernity: Literary Affects and the New Political, New York, Fordham University Press, 2013, p.3.

[2] Ibid., p.2.

[3] Ibid., p.55.

[4] Ibid., p.175.

[5] Ibid., p.16.

[6] Ibid. P.16.

[7] Ibid., pp.146-147.

[8] Ibid., p.149.

[9] Ibid., p.179.

[10] Ibid., p.144.

[11] Tarek El-Ariss, 'Introduction: Debating Modernity', Trials of Arab Modernity: Literary Affects and the New Political, New York, Fordham University Press, 2013, p.18.

[12] El-Ariss, 'Conclusion: Writing the New Political', Trials of Arab Modernity: Literary Affects and the New Political, p.180.

[13] El-Ariss, 'Hacking the Modern', Trials of Arab Modernity: Literary Affects and the New Political, p.151.

About the author

Fawz Kabra

Fawz Kabra is a writer and curator currently based in New York. She completed her MA at the Center for Curatorial Studies, Bard College (2013), and received her BFA in Studio Arts at Concordia University in Montreal (2004). She has worked with the Emirates Foundation, Abu Dhabi (2007), and continued on to curate public programs at the Cultural District, Abu Dhabi from 20082011. She co-curated the ongoing project, Brief Histories (Sharjah, UAE, 2011) exploring responsive practices to the rapidly shifting contexts and meanings in current global issues. Fawz worked with the Park Avenue Armory for WS: Paul McCarthy (2013).