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Encounter in the pursuit of meaning

Puzzling through the knot of the relationship between Arab intellectuals and Western thought On a rare sunny September day in the south west of England, a visit to the university bookstore left Rasheed El-Enany’s befuddled why his latest book was not on the shelves. A quick investigation revealed that “Arab Representations of the Occident: East-West …


Puzzling through the knot of the relationship between Arab intellectuals and Western thought

On a rare sunny September day in the south west of England, a visit to the university bookstore left Rasheed El-Enany’s befuddled why his latest book was not on the shelves. A quick investigation revealed that “Arab Representations of the Occident: East-West Encounters in Arabic Fiction, fresh off the press in April, had sold out and was being reprinted.

A pleasant surprise indeed for the professor of modern Arabic literature at the University of Exeter, who has spent the past years pondering how two centuries of Arab fictional and quasi-fictional writings have interacted with Western culture and values.

El-Enany’s own experience of exposure to the West, which he describes as smooth, sent him on an exploration in search of validation for his belief that “a culture that produced me and countless others like me cannot possibly be anti-Western.

Born in Cairo where he grew up, studied and taught English literature at Cairo University in the early ’70s, El-Enany’s preoccupation with the East-West traffic of ideas developed since his tender years when “there wasn’t one book or one article of theirs [Arab writers] in which there wasn’t some reference to a Western writer or a Western idea.

The Egyptian scholar’s move to Britain came by means of a scholarship to study linguistics in 1978. An everlasting love for the magic of the written word and its music persuaded him it was literature he coveted. Teaching Arabic while studying for his doctorate at Exeter in fact meant that settling in England came as a gradual decision, although one which he says he had “always wished to happen.

Much like Edward Said’s seminal “Orientalism, El-Enany’s study transcends the precincts of literary criticism and delves into the intertwining of culture, power, identity and the assertion of the Self versus the Other.

Partially a reverse of “Orientalism, the present book traces how Arab writers saw themselves and the Other as historical changes took place around them throughout pre-colonial, colonial and post-colonial phases. Unlike the conclusion of the late Palestinian writer though, that Western literary perceptions of the East were driven by a desire to appropriate it through colonialism, El-Enany’s endeavor seems to suggest a different story.

Encounter, fascination and receptiveness are the characteristics he associates with many Arab writers’ reactions when exposed to Western values. More than 50 authors examined over the span of 200 years have convinced him that whatever clash exists between Arab intellectuals and the West is not a conflict of worldviews. What confrontation exists is a collision of interests, of attempts of dominance and counter resistance. “I think that politics spoil everything because obviously there is a discrepancy between the political practices of the West and its system of values, explains El-Enany.

In that sense, ambivalence towards the West stems from the fact that modernity was historically introduced to the Arab world through the medium of the Other, through the overwhelming power of an invading colonial force and thus sometimes regarded with suspicion as an importation that threatens the very identity of the self; a situation still very much pertinent in the present age of American hegemony.

In his low-pitched voice gently expressing his thoughts in a reflective manner, he refutes the growing trend in today’s world equating East versus West with Islam versus West.

“I think the Renaissance basically turned religion into a relative value and I think we have not reached that stage till now in the Arab world . so we live in pre-Renaissance times . and because our pre-Renaissance values carry the rubric of Islam, then one way of putting it is: Islam is in conflict with the West.

Currently heading a leading institution in Britain, the director of the Institute of Arab and Islamic Studies at the University of Exeter is in a position to follow the implications of the increasing frictions of the East-West encounter as it unfolds in day-to-day life.

In tune with the intellectual writings exposed in his study, El-Enany describes students’ reaction to the Other as “either fascination and embracement or horror and rejection with more of the first than the second. Education in a diverse community are his and his institution’s means of reducing prejudice and thus a contribution to easing the tense schism prevailing nowadays in the United Kingdom as well as the Arab world.

Despite his literary, teaching and field observations pointing to a general attitude of Arab receptiveness to Western values, El-Enany is nevertheless left perplexed and pensive. If such was the attitude of Arab intellectuals, why have liberal values evaded society? Nor is he unaware of the increasing murkiness tainting the ability of the present intelligentsia to discern the distinction between politics and values.

A far cry from the attitude of their predecessors in the liberal age of the early 20th century, when colonialism did not stop them from embracing liberal Western values.

Neither does El-Enany’s perplexity stop at the level of intellectuals. Probing the rift between the generally receptive attitude of the intellectual class and the escalating anti-Western antagonism on the streets of the Arab world, an ironic chuckle comes with the response he offers:

“It would be a horrible conclusion to come to . but you see, if you go back to Naguib Mahfouz, here is an Arab intellectual who has advocated Western values in his writing throughout his life and the man in the street stabbed him in the neck for this very attitude.

It is no surprise that Mahfouz springs up in the conversation. “I feel empty, he said, looking at me before slightly tilting his head to the left. And in the guise of consolation, a hint of a sad smile appears on the half-bearded face, “but at 95, he did well, uh?

The sense of loss emanating from El-Enany on the day following the demise of the renowned Egyptian novelist, as he stood flipping through the obituaries in the British press, is nowhere more palpable than in the article he wrote for The Guardian one day later.

This elegy, casting a contemplative eye on the Nobel laureate’s life in parallel with his country’s socio-political evolution over the course of a century, conveys the writer’s disillusionment with the direction Egyptian society has taken in parting with liberal values, “which we find very pertinently in the late work of Naguib Mahfouz, says El-Enany.

“It was a great surprise and a great happiness that I discovered that there was in my own language such a great writer. Ever since that avid reader entered the mesmerizing world of Mahfouz in his early 20s, the strong affinity with the late writer, whom he always felt spoke for him, has steadily increased.

A doctorate on the Egyptian novelist in 1984, a multitude of articles, a translation of “Respected Sir and the first comprehensive study in English on the quasi entire oeuvre of the writer, mark his journey of engagement with the late novelist’s deepest thoughts.

“The Pursuit of Meaning, published in 1993, reflects the continuity of themes such as time, religion, death and fate, underlying the ensemble of Mahfouz’s work. It is this inherent classicism in Mahfouz that attracts El-Enany and singles out his study. Rather than focusing on the locality of the plots, the classification of literary form and its legacy, El-Enany’s book takes its reader on a different voyage.

A hitherto typical familiarity with a Mahfouzian novel is transformed into a comprehensive exploration of classical themes put into context with the consistency of thoughts of the novelist, from the earlier historical novel to the latest dream.

“I think that in writing that book and in pinning down the meaning in what he wrote, I was pinning down the meaning also of a lot of things for myself, especially the big questions of life, says the pursuer of meaning who never forgave himself for not being a creative writer.

As we
leave the office and walk down the hill in a now deserted campus, we’re back to the very Mahfouzian-Enanyan theme of al-sodfa or chance, as I listen to an enthusiastically chilling account of fate-and-man in a Mahfouz story.

Despite the pursuit of meaning, the journey does not come full circle. With the literary icon gone, his mystery is buried with him. Bewildered by the complete separateness between the cheerful outgoing personality of the late writer and the sorrow of the world intrinsically present in his work, El-Enany will never know what Mahfouz actually thought when he was by himself and sat alone to write.

Topics: Gamma Islamiya

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