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Published for The Neotrope Enterprise.     Publisher: Bengt Rooke.     January 2001. No. 21.


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Tetz Rooke

Department of Asian and African Languages,
Uppsala University

To me, death at the head of an army would have been easier than the troubles of later life.
For my life has been so prolonged that the revolving days have taken from me all the objects of pleasure (…) My energy has subsided and weakened, the joy of living has come to an end.

Thus complains the twelfth-century Syrian prince Usama ibn Munqidh about old age in his famous account of his life. Despite all the perils to which he had exposed himself, lion hunting and fighting crusaders, he had reached the unlikely age of ninety. Surely this was a miracle that had to be told for its lesson: the duration of the life of man is predetermined, so why be afraid of danger?

Usama’s reminiscences stand out as one of the great books of classical
Arabic literature thanks to its exciting events, personal tone and historical interest. “The author appears as a consummate story-teller who might qualify for a competitive prize in a modern school of journalism” his English translator Philip Hitti remarked in 1929 and subtitled the work “Memoirs”.
Yet the author himself did not know of this literary term. Instead Usama called his narrative “The Book of Learning by Example”, Kitab al-i‘tibar, when he dictated it in Damascus a few years before his death in 1188.

In the Arabic language the term “memoirs” (mudhakkirat) was not to appear until the end of the nineteenth century, probably as a loan translation from French. Its entrance in the lexicon is connected to the advent of modernity in the Arab world. It marks the emergence of new concepts of identity and a new role for literature.

The major difference between the medieval self as represented in an autobiographical book such as the one by Usama and the modern subject expressed in contemporary life-stories, is its unproblematic God-given nature.
To Usama society was static; he lived the same life that his father had and his sons would do after him. From birth to death the individual was inscribed in a stable social order with fixed roles. Belonging was absolute and unconditional.

In our age this stability has disappeared. Now individuals experience society around them as being in continuous change.
Their place in it is no longer given or granted – it can be altered and chosen.
Sons and daughters do not have to live as their parents did, indeed they cannot do it.
Technological development, the disruption of traditional modes of life, the spread of education, the impact of foreign cultures and languages, urbanization, emigration and other changes have created increased social mobility.

In all Arab countries people have found new opportunities to break loose from their original place in society, or have unwillingly been forced to abandon their roots.
A new freedom/necessity to choose who one wants to be has presented itself, but accompanied by a feeling of insecurity and anxiety about one’s true belonging. A modern problem has arisen, the problem of identity.

“Who am I? What do I want? What do I like? What do I hate? Why do I refuse to live like everybody else?”, the boy-hero in Days of my Childhood (3 vols. 1955, 1961, 1962) silently asks himself, laying awake in his bed worrying over the future.
His questions could be the questions of millions. In this particular case the voice of the adult author-narrator, the Egyptian novelist Ibrahim Abd al-Halim (1920-1986), answers in between the lines that fighting for socialism - understood as democracy, equality and justice - will solve the identity problem for his young self. Indeed, after the Second World War leftist ideology long provided a common identity for many Arab writers and intellectuals.
The 1950s and 1960s were still an age of optimism, and the autobiographical hero was still represented as an example to emulate, even if the knight’s armour had changed to the outfit of the freedom fighter and revolutionary.


Modern Arab writers mostly discover a different lesson in their lives than
Usama did: nothing is in fact predetermined. Both self and society seem to be shaped by human actions and will, not always for the better.
Neither life nor history develops as expected when one is young and optimistic. Since the 1970s disappointment has become a common note. When God is no longer in control, the timeless pain of ageing is aggravated by a sense of own responsibility, both for personal and political failures.

We disobeyed the orders of our fathers and pretended not to hear our imploring mothers. Without being fully aware of it we aimed at the overthrow of paternal power, the breaking of family shackles and deliverance from domestic values. We wished to exchange the individual life in the stagnant family environment that we grew up in for a life in the midst of society, wide and rich. So we followed the road of party work and we paid the price for our “meddling in politics” dearly (…) Now we, the members of that generation, are in our forties and fifties. Our lives lie behind us and our future has become our past. What did we achieve with our struggle?

This combined lamentation over lost youth and frustrated ambitions is taken from the Palestinian historian Hisham Sharabi’s autobiography Embers and Ashes (1978), which is in many respects typical.

Firstly, it is typical because of its critical approach to society. It questions the established order and values individual revolt and protest, in contrast to the classical norm of acquiescence and consent. Self-criticism is also part of this attitude; the author confesses personal mistakes and exposes some of the less flattering sides of his personality. His unheroic self is situated on the middle of the scale between the edifying moral example and the subversive anti-hero, which together are the three main types in the modern gallery of autobiographical characters.

Furthermore, the author sees his self as a function of history. When Sharabi writes about his childhood in Palestine – he was born in Jaffa in 1927 – his youth in the United States as s student, and his adventures in Lebanon as a political activist, he wants to show how socio-political factors formed him and influenced his life, but also how he himself was an agent in shaping the course of events. This too is a typical contemporary position, to acknowledge the secular powers of heritage and environment over divine fate and at the same time profess the ability of the individual to change the order of things on earth and make one’s own destiny.


Another typical aspect of Embers and Ashes is that part of the narrator’s identity problem has to do with exile. He cannot return to his homeland Palestine because it has become Israel.
He wants to settle in Lebanon, but the civil war prevents this. Working as a university professor in the United States he feels cut off from his origins.

Similar dilemmas meet in Arabic memoirs and autobiographies over and over again. Foreign dominance, political and economical, and local poverty have made a great number of Arabs seek education and job opportunities abroad. Wars and repression have added countless refugees to their numbers. And they all nurture a dream of one-day returning “home”.

But where is home?
Does it really exist except as a dream? Perhaps it is a bit like youth?
It is when it has disappeared and gone that you realize its full value.
And the more distant it seems, the more mythical it becomes.
Therefore the dream of youth and the dream of home often merge in modern Arabic autobiographical literature, producing beautiful imaginary landscapes inhabited by fantastic figures and full of marvellous events.

The geographic setting may be a cosmopolitan city such as Alexandria in the flights of fantasy of Edwar al-Kharrat (City of Saffron, 1989) or a remote rural district such as northern Syria in the poetic outbursts of Salim Barkat (The Iron Grasshopper, 1980), but the magical world that writers such as these create is not to be found on any topographical map.

To make the place (home) an extension of the self (youth) is also a strategy encountered in more straightforward historical narratives, because how could you describe the self except in relation to its environment? Thus the story of the city, of the village, of the quarter, or the house even, also functions as a story of the man or woman who wrote it.

This equation is particularly obvious in books about childhood. Perceived as a seminal time in life, childhood is a favourite subject for the modern Arab writer, whereas the classical writer hardly touched upon the subject.
But the descriptions are not necessarily nostalgic.

Even if the grass was always greener in childhood, the dark places were darker too, and injustice was deeper. Therefore the tales that are told are sometimes brutal and cruel, about children who were deprived of both bread and love and survived against all odds.

The most famous book of this kind is For Bread Alone (1980) by the Moroccan writer Mohamed Choukri. His harsh memories of starvation and slums are not unique, however, even if they are extreme in their nakedness and more shocking than most. The same story of “poor boy suffers but eventually makes good” repeats itself in the testimonies of other “survivors” from both East and West in the Arab world. To read them is chilling and reassuring at the same time; after all there is a happy end.

We are spared the more depressing failure stories. Those children who
perished never had the opportunity to write down their experiences. Their suffering can only be guessed. But to a certain extent the texts by the “survivors” help us to do that too.


When the Arab world entered the twentieth century it also entered modernity.
To the first generation of autobiographers the quest for identity was a quest for a rational, coherent and unified self. The modern subject was configured as the sovereign individual.
The paradigm was the self-made man (later the self-made woman).
The implicit theoretical foundation was Darwin, empiricism and positivism. The typical life-story followed the romantic plot: adventure – victory – reward.
This structure governs, for example, the modern classic par excellence of Arabic autobiography, The Days (3 vols. 1929, 1939, 1967) by Taha Husayn.

In this story it is blindness rather than poverty that is both the handicap that the boy-hero has to overcome and his adventure.
His journey takes him from the Koran school in the village to Cairo where he battles the conservative sheikhs of the Azhar university.

Finally he receives due recognition for his superior intelligence and is admitted into the higher circles of society.

I suspect that the great success of The Days, and the appeal of many later books of its kind that continue to be written, have to do with their use of this archetypal plot, the successful quest.
It is a quest for identity, for name and fame, that expresses the readers’ secret wishes to rise above their origins and win recognition in society.

It corresponds to the story of David’s victory over Goliath, and the readers’ sympathy of course is with the underdog.
Later generations devised a more sociological concept of the self.
The independence of the individual was relative and his trajectory affected by socio-political events largely beyond his control.

Personal identity was formed in the interaction between self and society, negotiated between an inner core, “the real me”, and the outside world. This sociological concept was supported by psychology; Marx and Freud formed an alliance.

The family was conceived of as a society in miniature and upbringing as another form of social coercion.
The idea of a virgin self, of an original, unspoilt, but unified “I” still prevailed.

The mission of the writer was to demonstrate how this original self had been destroyed by the authoritarian society/the patriarchal family, or, perhaps, saved from it through the efforts and brave struggle of the individual.
Hisham Sharabi’s aforementioned autobiography gives a good example of this type of self-understanding.

Today, at the advent of the twenty-first century, Arab society has entered a new phase, a “post-modern” phase, that has brought with it different experiences and narratives.

In literary texts such as those by Raouf Musaad Basta (The Ostrich Egg, 1994) or Rashid al-Daif (Dear Mr Kawabata, 1995) we meet autobiographical subjects that are composed not of a single but of several identities; the self is not one but many, sometimes contradictory.

Identity is no longer experienced as simple and stable over time, from childhood to old age, but as complex and shifting. The new self is a fragmented self in continuous transformation, unpredictably and irrationally moving between a multitude of choices. It is a man-made configuration of nebulous character.

To express this split identity al-Daif introduces his own double as an independent character in Dear Mr Kawabata, and Radwa Ahshour uses the same device in her recent autobiographical work The Phantoms (1999). The shattering of the unified subject has been accompanied by increasingly blurred boundaries between fact and fiction in literature as “reality” has become equally problematic as “self”.

But the need to tell a story about oneself still remains, for cognitive reasons if nothing else – the human mind make sense of the world through story-telling.
And as long as it does, autobiographical writing has a future. What the narratives of tomorrow will look like we do not know.
Certainly they will not function as a simple mirror, because words never do. Both writers and readers know that the “I” of the beheld is ultimately in the eye of the beholder.


It has been suggested that autobiography is an art often practised by marginalized groups to express their protest against their subordinate position in society.
Writing autobiography is an act of empowerment; visualizing your self is
also to expose the suppression and define a way out.
This interpretation also applies to modern Arabic literature, where the writers have tended to describe their life, their childhood in particular, as a liberation struggle.

The quest for identity is also a quest for freedom.
To the obstacles of blindness and poverty we may in this connection add
the “fault” in patriarchal society of being a woman.
There is a fairly long tradition, beginning in the 1930s, of women’s memoirs in Egypt where feminist organizations and a feminist press developed early.

But today the same tradition exists in most national literatures.
Women’s liberation has been the red thread throughout these texts, which show how growing up as a girl was different. However, it is a liberation that is argued for both in Islamic and secular terms, with Koranic verses as well as Marxist slogans, something that demonstrates that women’s identities are as negotiable as men’s.

And is this not exactly what autobiography is, a negotiation?
The autobiographer negotiates a meaning with life.
His or her identity is not given in advance; it is created in the act of writing the self. Therefore young or middle-aged writers practise the empowering art just as intensely as old.
Everybody has a past to interpret, a present to face, and a future to build – in people’s memories if nowhere else.


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