Twenty-first-century Middle Eastern (primarily Arabic, Persian, and Turkish) literature encompasses a rich variety of genres, whose maturation has profited from internal and external influences upon this literature over the past fourteen centuries. Modern Arabic literature addresses the full range of human experience, often through a realist approach that employs the Arabic language in ways ranging from the most formal to the most colloquial. While Turkish and Persian literatures have both followed individual trajectories since the modern period, they too evince a similar range with respect to genre and employment of language.
Although today these three literatures appear as discrete entities, they share a long early religious, cultural, and political history. While pre-Islamic Persian and Turkish literatures would prove influential when taken up by writers in the first few centuries after Islam, pre-Islamic Arabic literature provided the first literary model. Pre-Islamic Arabic literature is characterized by the mucfallaqat (ca. mid 500s-early 600s ce), a collection of poems from the Arabian Peninsula renowned for their beauty. These poems are odes to the sorrows oflost love, using such tropes as abandoned campsites to evoke memories of a beloved. That of Imru al-Qays (c. mid-500s), perhaps the best known, begins: ”come, let us cry from the remembrance of a love and a home.” Although poetic themes have changed over the centuries, the ode (qasida) has enjoyed continuing popularity through the twentieth century.
Poetry remained the dominant literary form during the “classical” period of the Abbasid (750-1258), with romantic praise of a beloved, whether male or female, the most common theme. A folk literature also emerged, involving heroic or adventure narratives; A Thousand and One Nights is the most renowned example. This collection of stories, of which ”Ali Baba and the Forty Thieves” and “Aladdin” are perhaps the best known to Western readers, began to take shape around the year 1000. It drew together stories with roots in India, Persia, and the Arab world. Meanwhile, prose matured as a literary form, a development attributed to the Persian bureaucrats employed by the Abbasid court. Authors like Ibn Muqaffa (died ca. 760) and al-Jahiz (776-868/9) brought Persian narrative forms, stylistics, themes, and subject matter into the world of classical Arabic literature.
With the political fragmentation of the Muslim world in the 1200s, cultural contributions from Persia, India, western Asia, and North Africa intensified, entering the literature primarily through Sufi figures like the eminent Persian poet Hafiz (ca. 1352-1389). For the Levant and the Persian Gulf—the heart of the Arab world—the emerging Ottoman Empire provided the most significant influence. The Ottoman Empire aided the development of Arabic literature by, like the earlier Islamic empires, serving as a bridge joining peoples and cultures across its great geographic expanse.
Napoleon Bonaparte’s (1769-1821) invasion of Egypt in 1798, often described as the beginning of the modern era, also marked the shift from domestic to external literary traditions as dominant influences on Middle Eastern literature. The introduction of European colonial regimes, coupled with the modernizing efforts of the Ottoman state, opened the region to European political, economic, and cultural influences on a much broader scale than in any previous historical moment. Whether in the form of European themes or genres, the incorporation of European words or the adoption of European languages wholesale, or literary responses to the new reality of colonial regimes, European influences on Middle Eastern literature began appearing toward the end of the century.
The most notable effect of European influence was the emergence of the novel as a primary literary genre of modern Arabic literature. Imported European novels first appeared in the mid-nineteenth century. By the late nineteenth century, the genre had attracted an upper-and upper-middle-class following. The reputed “first” Middle Eastern novel, Muhammad Hussein Heykal’s (1890-1956) Zaynab, was published in 1913 and was followed by numerous novels published in Ottoman Turkish and Arabic.
The other characteristic genre of modern Arabic literature, the short story, also emerged in this period. Drawing upon the hakawati (story-telling) tradition found in folk literature, the modern short story has been employed to offer social and political commentary on the difficulties faced by ordinary citizens—particularly those in urban areas. Finally, the early and mid-twentieth century saw the blossoming of memoirs and autobiographic literature, which blended elements of the tarjuma (a type of formalized curriculum vitae often used to summarize the life achievements of eminent men), the literary inheritance of the sira (the narrative of the life of the Prophet Muhammad), and the more personal elements of naturalistic nineteenth-century poetry into autobiographic and memoir genre traditions.
Drama and poetry were also affected by nineteenth-and twentieth-century European literary movements.
Absurdist and existential dramatic styles have aided works whose political critiques needed to be safely cloaked in abstraction. On the other hand, an often gritty realism has enabled the production of a rich collection of novels and short stories, whose narratives are steeped in the daily lives of ordinary people. In poetry, the introduction of free verse style, breaking the tight conventions of the traditional forms, has spurred the emergence of new themes: the dramas of ordinary life, emotional responses to the loss of Palestine, and other topics grounded in the personal experience of the author rather than conventional rhetoric found in earlier eras.
A list of modern Middle Eastern literature must begin with the Egyptian author Naguib Mahfouz (Najib Mahfudh, b. 1911), who has exercised a peerless influence over twentieth-century Arabic literature. His best-known works include the Cairo trilogy (Palace Walk, Palace of Desire, Sugar Street), published from 1956 to 1957, and Children of the Alley (1959). A similarly eminent figure is Jordanian Abdelrahman (Abd al-Rahman) Munif (19332004), whose Cities of Salt (1984), an epic portrayal of the changes brought to a desert community by the advent of oil drilling there, was rewarded for its authenticity with bans in several countries.
The Palestinian short-story author Ghassan Kanafani (1936-1972) wrote a number of pieces that demonstrate the richness of the genre, of which ”Men in the Sun” (1963) is the most widely known. Egyptian author Nawal el Saadawi (b. 1930) is best known in the United States for her activist writing on the oppression of women in the Arab world; within the region she is also known as a novelist, whose works, including Woman at Point Zero (1975), often treat similar themes.
Some of the most well-known writers of contemporary Middle Eastern literature write in other languages: Palestinian novelist Anton Shammas (b. 1951) and emerging writer Sayed Kashua (Qashu’, b. 1975) both write in Hebrew; Algerian author Assia Djebar (b. 1936) and Persian graphic writer Marjane Satrapi (b. 1969) write in French.
Poetry continues to play a significant role in modern Middle Eastern literature. The twentieth century was a time of great evolution in poetic styles, from the mysticism of the Lebanese-born writer Gibran Khalil Gibran (1883-1931) to the gentle experiments with form and expression made by Egyptian author Ahmad Shawqi (1868-1932), the Palestinian poet Ibrahim Tuqan (1905-1941), and others in the interwar period. The best known figures of the later twentieth century have been those who have turned their mastery of language and rhythm to explore new poetic forms while expressing often sharply critical political and social commentary.
The Palestinian poet Mahmud Darwish (b. 1942) remains one of the most active voices in contemporary Arabic poetry; Memory for Forgetfulness (1982) is perhaps his most famous diwan (collection of poetry). The Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani (1923-1998), known for his often frosty relations with his own and other state governments, wrote political poetry in the guise of romance and quasi-erotic pieces. His works are often misrecog-nized as the latter in the West; translated collections of his poems often bear misleading references to love in their titles.
In addition to fiction, the genre of memoirs has proven particularly rich in the later twentieth and early twenty-first century. The best known and most frequently cited is eminent mid-century Egyptian author Taha Hussein’s (1889-1973) autobiography, The Days (1929-1955), which follows the course of his life in three parts. Most other memoirs, however, focus on the author’s childhood. In the late-twentieth century the genre began opening to women, following the publication of Moroccan writer Fatima Mernissi’s (b. 1940) Dreams of Trespass (1994). (The childhood memoir of Turkish feminist and intellectual Halide Edib Adivar [1884-1964], House with Wisteria, was published in the mid-1900s.) Well-known Palestinian poet Fadwa Tuqan (1917-2003; A Mountainous Journey, 1985), Syrian author Siham Tergeman (Daughter of Damascus, 1994), and Moroccan short-story writer Leila Abouzeid (b. 1950; Return to Childhood, 1993) and others have published memoirs.