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Reading the Plot: The Psychology and Poetics of Pārānūyā in Yūsuf Rakhā’s Kitāb al-ṭughrā

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Paranoia, it might be said, is the emotive accomplice of exilic estrangement. This article investigates the psychological and literary dimensions of conspiracist paranoia—radical suspicion that reduces history to the intentions of a global “conspiracy” (muʾāmarah)—in Yūsuf Rakhā’s Kitāb al-ṭughrā: gharāʾib al-tārīkh fī madīnat al-mirrīkh (2011; The Book of the Sultan’s Seal: Strange Incidents from History in the City of Mars, 2015). While this interpretive style has often been recognized as the specific byproduct of the climate of fear and suspicion engendered by authoritarian nationalist regimes in the 1950s and 1960s, its dramatic recurrence in Rakhā’s post-millennial, proto-revolutionary novel requires a closer reading of its multiple sources and functions. Through dialogue with psychoanalytic and literary studies of paranoia and conspiracy theory, I argue that the delusional complex of Kitāb al-ṭughrā’s Muṣṭafā al-Shurbagī can be understood, in part, as the crisis of an ideal of masculinist agency that the protagonist shares with many others. In addition, the novel performs a special “poetics of paranoia,” which not only foregrounds the artistic pleasures inherent in the practice, but also engages in a creative and critical intertextual relationship—or parody—with famous paranoiacs in Arabic and American literature and public culture. This article also aims to address the current dearth of scholarship on paranoia in Arabic literature, and suggests avenues for future research.

Affiliations: 1: Rutgers University


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