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Literature and Journalism: Recent trends in the Arab world

Hala G. Sami, Sunday 31 Dec 2017
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Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics, Issue 37, on “Literature and Journalism,” 2017, guest edited by Hala Halim.

The American University in Cairo’s Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics is a prestigious academic annual publication that addresses burgeoning and recent trends in Literature and Cultural Studies.

The journal, which has been regularly issued since 1980, includes works such as The Self and the Other (1983), Literature and Anthropology in Africa (1997), Wanderlust: Travel Literature of Egypt and the Middle East (2006), and World Literature: Perspectives and Debates (2014).

The volume is usually divided into two sections comprising research papers in Arabic and English. Occasionally, papers in French are also published.

The present volume, which covers Literature and Journalism, is dedicated to the memory of Barbara Harlow, who was a well-known scholar, critic and activist, particularly renowned for her seminal book Resistance Literature (1987). Harlow was a professor at AUC (1977 – 1983) and was also co-founder, co-editor and co-advisor of Alif.

In the present volume, journalism principally manifests itself as a springboard for avant-garde ideas, as well as stages new genres. The journalistic institution unfolds as a channel that resists the mainstream, hence the dedication to Barbara Harlow’s memory, as she wrote extensively on and substantially contributed to the field of resistance literature.

Despite the fact that the volume boasts research papers from various countries and diverse cultures from all over the world (e.g. U.S.A and Colombia), it is particularly remarkable for its informative panoramic scope which encompasses research papers by writers from several Arab countries.

They address the general topic of the volume as it was, and is being, experienced in the Arab world, particularly in countries such as Algeria, Egypt, Iraq, Lebanon, Palestine, Syria and Tunisia.

Many of the articles are concerned with the emergence of an array of new “written” forms that add to the list of genres deemed literary. Over and above the classical literary forms are autobiography, testimonies, translation, blogs and the literary interviews. These new forms herald the emergence of a new literary wave or the beginning of a writer’s career, which finds voice in the literary section of various cultural newspapers.

Among the outstanding contributors to the volume, and in the English section, is an article entitled “Intermediality and Cultural Journalism” by Hala Halim, the guest editor of the volume, who conducts an interview with Ahmed Morsi.

The poet and painter, who is originally from Alexandria, reminisces on the landmarks of the rich and productive years of his fruitful career. Prior to the interview transcript, Halim elaborates extensively on the historical and cultural background of this prominent artistic figure, who recounts how journalism has been substantial in its contribution to the reader’s knowledge of literature and the plastic arts.

Sabry Hafez offers a survey about the contribution of cultural journals to the development of Arabic Literature, with special emphasis on Egypt. The main focus of his article is cultural journalism, which paved the way for the circulation of new groundbreaking cultural ideas. Such journals allow for a cultural and literary forum, which allows writers and thinkers to discuss and elaborate on the emergence of new ideas in the field.

In a similar vein, Nancy Linthicum sheds light on the principal aspects of the literary productions of the Egyptian `Nineties Generation’ of writers.

The cultural newspaper Akhbar al-Adab (est. 1993) contributed to introducing such writers to a wide readership in both Egypt and the Arab world, particularly by way of the literary interview.  Hannah Scott Deuchar examines the semantic variations of the word “nahda” over a period of more than 50 years. Against a currently limiting retrogressive cultural discourse, Deuchar points out that the term used to be more inclusive when used in the literary press between 1850 and 1914.

Within the same context, Stephen Sheehi is concerned with presenting the Nahda writer and political activist Abdel-Rahman Al-Kawakbi’s active contribution to the Arab intellectual scene, which was made possible by a network of progressive journals and newspapers. His reflection on the Arab Muslim plight within the framework of “Ottoman Arab modernity,” allowed him to shift from political journalism to the more general field of “political science.”

The article by Adam Spanos is concerned with the Lebanese cultural and literary mid-20th century journal Al-Adab, the editors of which were keen on translating (i.e. transmitting) the views of the most prominent French figures of existentialism.

This process of “commitment” channelled such existentialist principles as “individualism”, “freedom of conscience,” as well as “presentism.”

Translation in such a context was meant to support the mobilisation against Western imperialism. When the Western advocates of existentialism, such as Jean-Paul Sartre and Albert Camus, manifested an ambivalent stance towards colonised Arab countries, the journal compromised its translation of their ideas and works.

Mahmoud Zidan’s article is equally significant in indicating the overlap of journalism and literature. He appropriates journalistic aspects in his literary writings, thus blurring the boundaries between both genres, as well as underlining their close association. This affinity is further explored by Francisco Rodriguez Sierra, who attempts a comparative study of both Gabriel Garcia Marquez and Rabee Jaber, as well as highlights the influence of journalism on their respective creative writings. 

In the Arabic section, Shereen Abouelnaga addresses the reception of the Lebanese writer Layla Baalbakki’s short story collection Safinat Hanan ila al-qamar (A Spaceship of Tenderness to the Moon). She indicates that the press could be a determining factor for the collection’s success or failure, either by commending or condemning the writer’s work. The latter is pitted against newspapers that carry different ideologies, which in turn could transform it into “a social document,” thus compromising its value as a work of art.

Hanin Hanafi explores the poetics of the blog as an emerging literary genre. The author highlights its hybrid nature, as it borrows from various other genres. Alexa Firat’s article examines the publication of Awraq, a journal issued by the Syrian Writers Association, which has re-emerged against the backdrop of the most recent Syrian revolution of 2011. The journal is a springboard for the Syrian intelligentsia to vent their revolutionary subaltern voice in the face of mainstream official discourse.

Samy Soliman Ahmed studies examples of the “abridged autobiography,” an autobiographical mode that was adopted between 1991 and 2006 in the Egyptian al-Hilal magazine.

Dina Heshmat explores the writings of a particular generation of Algerian novelists, born in the late 1960s and early 1970s, and who also happen to work as journalists. Once again, the author sheds light on the fact that literary writing blends into journalistic writing, as she examines the writing techniques of several writers of this particular generation.

In his testimony, Ezzat El-Kamhawi distinguishes between literature and journalism as possessing two different discourses despite their apparent similarity. In another testimony, however, Wadei Philistin, who reflects on his fruitful career as a journalist, editor, literary critic and translator, suggests that literature can be an alternative to the riskier journalistic vocation.

Alaaeldin Mahmoud compares the literary journals of Abdallah Al-Nadim and Yaaqub Sannu. The influence of journalism on literature renders the creative genre “uncanonical.”

Manal Al-Natour studies several emerging Syrian fictional and journalistic works. She focuses on models of maps in four works, which pave the way for a self-place, private-public dialogue. Such a production can be a potential to record “the memory of the revolution and Syrian identity formation.”

Drew Paul presents Qadita net, which is an alternative space on the internet for “a contemporary Palestinian journalistic outlet for literature and cultural critique.” The website derives its title from the name of a Palestinian village, which was deserted in 1948. The site becomes a channel for political activism, as it underscores pressing Palestinian political needs, as well as seeks to subvert taboos and air unconventional marginalised voices.

The volume, therefore, emphasises the fact that cultural/literary journalism allows many writers and intellectuals to vent their novel views, while confirming the blurred boundaries between two seemingly disparate disciplines.  

By and large, literature and journalism go hand in hand, thus paving the way for and continually contributing to the build-up of cultural development. Indeed, the volume accentuates journalism’s pivotal role in boosting and maintaining a dynamic cultural life worldwide.

Hala G. Sami is Associate Professor in the English Department, Cairo University

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