Hope in the Most Unlikely Spaces: Thawra and the Contemporary Arabic Novel
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In the early to mid-twentieth century, many novelists in the Arab world championed Arab nationalism in their literary reflections on the social and political struggles of their countries, depicting these struggles primarily in terms of spatial binaries that pitted the Arab world against the West, even as they imported Western literary models of progress and modernity into their own work. The intense experience of national awakening that infused their writing often placed these authors at a literary disadvantage, for in their literature, all too often the depth and diversity of Arabic cultures and the complexity of socio-political struggles across the Arab world were undermined by restrictive spatial discourses that tended to focus only on particular versions of Arab history and on a seemingly unifying national predicament. Between the Arab defeat of 1967 and the present day, however, an increasing number of Arab authors have turned to less restrictive forms of spatial discourse in search of a language that might offer alternative narratives of hope beyond the predictable, and seemingly thwarted, trajectories of nationalism. This study traces the ways in which contemporary Arab authors from Egypt and the Sudan have endeavoured to re-think and re-define the Arab identity in ever-changing spaces where elements of the local and the global, the traditional and the modern, interact both competitively and harmoniously. I examine the spatial language and the tropes used in three Arabic novels, viewing them through the lens of thawra (revolution) in both its socio-political and artistic manifestations. Linking the manifestations of thawra in each text to different scenes of revolution in the Arab world today, in Chapter Two, I consider how, at a stage when the Sudan of the sixties was both still dealing with colonial withdrawal and struggling to establish itself as a nation-state, the geographical and textual landscapes of Tayeb Salih‟s Season of Migration to the North depict the ongoing dilemma of the Sudanese identity. In Chapter Three, I examine Alaa iii al-Aswany‟s The Yacoubian Building in the context of a socially diseased and politically corrupt Egypt of the nineties: social, political, modern, historical, local, and global elements intertwine in a dizzyingly complex spatial network of associations that sheds light on the complicated reasons behind today‟s Egyptian thawra. In Chapter Four, the final chapter, Gamal al-Ghitani‟s approach to his Egypt in Pyramid Texts drifts far away from Salih‟s anguished Sudan and al-Aswany‟s chaotic Cairo to a realm where thawra manifests itself artistically in a sophisticated spatial language that challenges all forms of spatial hegemony and, consequently, old and new forms of social, political, and cultural oppression in the Arab world.