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Proxidistant Reading: Toward a Critical Pedagogy of the Nahdah in U.S. Comparative Literary Studies

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AbstractCourses that teach modern Arabic literature, particularly those that address students of comparative literature or other non-specialists, often focus on relatively recent exemplars of the canon. Most engage texts that hail from the mid- to late twentieth century—a period in which the fate of “new” narrative genres (for example, the novel) is well established—rather than those that evoke a time when the boundaries between “tradition” and “modernity” were in flux. Yet a critical pedagogy of the nineteenth- and early-twentieth-century Arab “renaissance” (Nahdah) could bring modern Arabic literature more squarely into the fold of empire and postcolonial studies, critical translation theory, and the resurgent fields of world and comparative literature. This essay reflects on both the theoretical importance and the practical experience of teaching the dynamics of early Arab literary modernity to non-specialist audiences—both undergraduate and graduate—in comparative literature. Two problems emerge in this context: first, the self-Orientalism of Nahdah texts, which often uphold a thesis of post-Ottoman “decline” and post-European “awakening” and thus reinforce Orientalist views of Arab-Islamic culture in a post-9/11 era of anti-Arab and Islamophobic sentiment; second, a relative dearth (to date) of high-quality, in-print, and affordable English translations. Conjoining comparatist methods of “close” and “distant” reading, I propose a twofold praxis of proxidistant reading to address these problems of world, time, and access: a praxis that connects modern Arabic literature to modern Western and world literatures in ways that assume neither easy equivalence nor absolute non-relation between adab and literature, one modern and another, and the modifiers Arabic, Western, and world. First, while Nahdah intellectuals reengineered the Arab-Islamic idea of adab—once coterminous with knowledge itself—to translate the modern Western idea of literature, premodern adab and its modern Arabic “nemesis” share more than Nahdah ideology concedes: both can be narrowly “literary” or radically transdisciplinary, belletristic or “lowbrow,” formal ( fushā) or dialectal (āmmiyyah). Thus I suggest that we read Nahdah texts as testimonies to the discontinuous continuity—or continuity in death—of premodernity and modernity, “Wests” and “Easts,” interrogating conceptions of world and time that exaggerate either the proximity or the distance of literary-cultural epistemes, genres, and modes of expression across these postulated divides. Second, I propose that we read translations of Nahdah “literature” both up close to and afar from original texts and from the imagined purview of the “literary.” To impart a prismatic vision of the Nahdah to students who must rely on limited English translations, I suggest peri-literary approaches—“time-travel” to the Nahdah through secondary sources on the period, as well as through primary sources (e.g., novels) set in the era yet composed in later periods—and para-literary readings that place the many forms that Nahdah “literature” actually took (historical, sociopolitical, scientific, popular) alongside those that fit its belletristic theoretical mold. By teaching an earlier “modern” than the “modern Arabic literature” comparatists typically teach and by comparing the Nahdah with similar “renaissances” elsewhere in the non-Western world, I argue, we can help students understand Arabic-speaking cultures not as objects of global modernity but as complex subjects thereof—and develop a complementary (or contestatory) vision of the rise of world and comparative literatures usually imputed to nineteenth-century Europe. Such a pedagogy, I suggest, might de-Orientalize U.S. studies of Arabic literature.

Affiliations: 1: University of Minnesota, URL:


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