The African novel in Arabic

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As Muṣṭafā Sa'īd, the Sudanese arch-seducer of al-Ṭạyyib Ṣāliḥ’s 1966 novel Mawsim al-Hijra ilā al-Shamāl (translated as Season of Migration to the North), plots to lure and destroy the Englishwoman Isabella Seymour, Isabella pops a question that could as easily be asked of the African novel in Arabic: “‘Mā jinsuka? Hal anta afrīqiyyun am asyawiyyun?’” [“‘What race are you?’… ‘Are you African or Asian?’”]. Indeed, to speak of the African novel in Arabic is to raise eyebrows and questions, often interested, but just as often skeptical: What is “African” about Arabic? What is the African or the Arabic “novel”? And what is “Arabic” to Africa? It is, in short, to name a border genre, one that – like the persona of Muṣṭafā Sa'īd, who ends up describing himself as “mithla 'Uṭạyl, 'arabiyyun afrīqiyyun” (p. 42) [“like Othello, Arab-African” (p. 38)] – stands at formal, territorial, and ethnolinguistic angles to the African usually given the stamp of “authenticity.” The African novel in Arabic is eccentric to Africa, in part, because the genre is eccentric to Arabic: in its modern incarnation, it owes a few genes to the colonial influence of the Western European novel. Certainly Muṣṭafā Sa'īd’s reply to Isabella Seymour’s question reminds us that the histories, the geographies, and indeed the ideas of Europe and Africa impinge on one another – his reference to Othello alone bears witness to the profundity of the impact of European cultural imperialism on Arab-African subjectivity and self-writing.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Title of host publicationThe Cambridge Companion to: The African Novel
Subtitle of host publicationThe African Novel
EditorsAbiola Irele
Place of PublicationNew York
PublisherCambridge University Press
Number of pages18
ISBN (Electronic)9781139002608
ISBN (Print)9780521855600
StatePublished - Jan 1 2009


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