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UNDERSTANDING ARAB SOCIETY THROUGH LITERATURE
STANFORD -- With novels and short stories focusing on such concerns as the oppression of women and divisions between socio- economic classes, Arabic literature reflects a complex society in all its complexity, says Khalil Barhoum, senior lecturer in linguistics and Arabic at Stanford.
Barhoum, who is teaching a year-long course on Arabic literature and culture, believes that too many Americans get their impressions of Arabs from cartoons, such as Aladdin, and made-for-TV movies featuring terrorists or billionaire oil sheiks.
Many of his students, he said, have told him that when they get the chance to travel to the Arab world, what they see there is very different from what they had perceived about that region from the mainstream Western mass media.
With that in mind, Barhoum has put together a class that introduces students to key forms of modern Arabic literature and helps provide a look at Arab society and culture.
Barhoum, who was born in Palestine and earned his undergraduate degree from the University of Jordan and his doctorate in linguistics at Georgetown, has taught Arabic language courses at Stanford since 1985. In addition, he has taught occasional classes on Arabic literature and Arabic calligraphy.
The reading list for his three-quarter course includes such prominent authors as Neguib Mahfouz, the Egyptian novelist who won the 1988 Nobel Prize for literature, and Egyptian feminist writer Nawal El- Saadawi.
Mahfouz's works examine issues ranging from the pervasive influence of religion on society to the political and economic repercussions of the 1952 revolution that brought Nasser to power.
El-Saadawi writes vividly about the trials of contemporary Egyptian women, Barhoum said, focusing on their lack of education and access to medical care, particularly in rural Egypt. The horror of female circumcision is a recurrent motif in her novels.
El-Saadawi's critical attitude toward the male-dominated social and political hierarchy in Egypt has made her a target, Barhoum said. She was jailed briefly when Sadat was in power and now an Islamic revivalist group in Egypt has placed her on a "hit" list. As a result, Barhoum said, El-Saadawi and her husband are living "temporarily" in the United States.
Although Egyptian writers and artists tend to dominate the literary and cultural scene in the Arab world, Barhoum said, his students also will read short stories and poetry by writers from Iraq, Lebanon, Libya, Morocco, Palestine, Saudi Arabia, Sudan, Syria, Tunisia and Yemen.
These geographically diverse authors grapple with many of the same themes dealt with by Egyptian writers, Barhoum said, including Arab nationalism, the influence of religion, political repression, social and psychological alienation, as well as socio-economic barriers separating urban and rural dwellers.
And, of course, said Barhoum, "Arabic literature is not all political." Much of the poetry is about love and sentimentality.
In the Arabic literary tradition, Barhoum said, poetry has always enjoyed a unique status.
"As far as the Arab is concerned, poetry is not just an art, it's the art," Barhoum said. "Perhaps that's why the Arabic word for poet, sha'ir, means 'one who feels.' "
It is important for students to understand the contrasts between Western and Arab authors in their uses of language as a vehicle to express feelings and emotions, Barhoum said.
In the West, Barhoum said, "we frequently hear people say 'Don't listen to him, he's just engaging in rhetoric.' It means he's lying or exaggerating, not to be taken seriously."
By contrast, Barhoum said, in Arab culture "rhetoric is considered part and parcel of a person's ability to express himself or herself eloquently. When someone is referred to as 'rhetorical,' it's far from insulting. It simply means the person is articulate, and that the way he expresses his emotions is quite appealing."
Arab statements emanating from the Middle East, especially during tense political situations, are often misunderstood and misinterpreted in the West, Barhoum said, "mainly because of a lack of appreciation for the cultural nuances implicit in the Arabic idiom or phrase used."
Barhoum's spring quarter course will focus on the Arab world as seen through travel literature. He will examine the works of Westerners who have written about the Middle East and Arab culture, and will juxtapose those works with the writings of Arabs about the Arab world and about their own experiences in the West.
His intention, said Barhoum, "is not to brand everything Westerners have written about the Arab world as stereotypical, negative or far-fetched, but to put some of these writings in their proper cultural, historical and political perspective, balancing them with the writings of Arabs about their own land, culture and people."
In other words, he said, "I feel that Arabs are the best interpreters of their own culture, views, thoughts and feelings. Once they've been given that opportunity, then enlightened judgment can be passed. Judgment should not be passed solely on the basis of foreign interpretations of Arabs and their culture. That is orientalism, pure and simple."
(Orientalism, as discussed by Edward Said in his book of that name, is the assumption that European identity and culture is superior to all other cultures.)
When his students complete the course, Barhoum said, he hopes they will become critical and analytical readers of the Arab world's cultural and political landscape, "instead of being easy targets for media sensationalism and manipulation."
The post-colonialist experience of peoples, whether in Asia, Africa or the Middle East, is strikingly similar, Barhoum said.
"When you place that in its proper historical and cultural context, you emerge with a better understanding of how dangerous it is to pigeonhole one ethnic group and stereotype it to death," he said.
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