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The Shape-Shifting Margin: Patterns of Change in Arabic Modernism Past Beirut

The Shape-Shifting Margin: Patterns of Change in Arabic Modernism Past Beirut


Vigorously combative at the turn of the 1960s, modernist culture in Beirut was nonetheless situated on the margin of both Western culture and the Arab cultural field. Despite its far-flown ambitions, modernism and the values it represented never reached the center of collective consciousness in terms of readership and impact on nonliterary spheres. And yet in longer historical perspective this margin can be seen as constitutive in unforeseen ways. Even after the decline of Beirut’s historical role, modernisms in various shapes and forms continued to proliferate in Arabic poetry, doing so in a much more thoroughly globalized cultural environment from the mid-1970s onward. The immense variety of transformations in relation to the Beiruti model defies stable notions of a literary core. Its full scope is thus well beyond the range of this essay. I will highlight only major directions of change.

My premise is that the relativity of center-periphery dualisms becomes apparent when intellectual centers are enshrined in transregional national literatures like Arabic and begin radiating outward to regional perimeters. The centrifugal motion of Arab modernism beyond Beirut will be traced, first, in the bumpy fates of errant individuals who were subject to vagaries of displacement, migration, experiential contraction and expansion. Second, it will be situated in territorial literary fields on the fringes of Arab cultural centers, where the terms by which poetry comes unshackled from politics are negotiated anew with every historical turn. Emerging from the folds of the antinational modernism in Beirut, some forms of poetic renewal entailed a deterritorialization of ḥadātha (meaning both “modernity” and “modernism”) lodged in the figurative suitcases of dislodged Arab writers. Others sprang from reterritorializing ḥadātha in new centers of cultural struggle particular to regional characters and nation-states.

These then are the suggested arcs: a trajectory of exile and a trajectory of domestic development. At its finest, the émigré mode escapes both the political pressures to which stay-home authors are subjected and the subtler traps of self-apotheosis in abstracted detachment. Exilic patterns of reading, writing, and imagining tend to elude the familiar logic of unequal cultural capital yet should not be idealized for that. The nonnational continuation of modernism produced at least one poet — the Iraqi Sargon Boulus (Sarkūn Būluṣ in proper MSA ­transliteration; 1944–2007) — whose work deserves to be read beyond the confining rubrics of uppercase Modernism. Boulus’s vagrant mutability should be read alongside an unclassifiable group of ­twentieth-century poets whose parameters of experience are elastic enough so as not to a priori exclude any form of historical life.

Responses rooted in state systems, in turn, seem at first enhanced by the solidification of domestic structures and try riding the crest of an institution-building wave. Yet in time, cultural agents, to their great disappointment, come to face diverse forms of what the Moroccan poet Mohammed Bennis[1] has called “crippled modernity.”[2] This impasse then calls for localized forms of self-examination and literary reconfiguration. I examine two cases from the edges of the Arab world’s cultural periphery — the Gulf and the Maghrib — that embody this process of reckoning. The reckoning involves increasing awareness of the problems unique to each state’s cultural arena in terms of its volume and quality of literary production, its position with respect to Euro-American culture, and its reliance on state institutions. It also gives rise to a constructive peripheral consciousness. To establish a modicum of intellectual freedom, writers seek to absorb, transform, or actively resist trends of Arabic writing coming from the literary metropoles in Cairo (for novelistic writing) and Beirut (for poetry). Each peripheral cultural field, in addition to developing its modes of global consciousness, also becomes a singular kaleidoscope of transnational Arabness.

The dialectic dynamics engendering this plurality is best captured by what Michael Walzer, postulating the universal dimension of nationalism, has loosely termed a reiterative process: an unending attempt at negotiating and renegotiating claims to universalism with specific shapes of cultural and experiential difference.[3] That this pattern of recurrence-in-difference is also the major shape taken by modern nationalisms should not come as a surprise. Poetry is, as T. S. Eliot has argued, the most stubbornly national art, and so it is in its insistent internationalism as well.[4] Relying on a similar model of repeated adaptations, Charles Taylor claims that “modern nationalist politics is a species of identity politics; indeed, it is the original species: national struggles are the site from which the model comes to be applied to feminism, to the struggle of cultural minorities”[5] — and to the struggle of instituting a champ littéraire, one might add. In the preface to his midcentury multilingual anthology Museum of Modern Poetry, the German poet Hans Magnus Enzensberger advocates, in the style of an impassioned manifesto, for a utopian idea of poetry’s world language as an interminable process or a centerless plurality:

The literary capital of the world could as well be Dublin as Alexandria; it is situated in Svendborg or Meudon, in Rutherford or Merano. An island off the Pacific coast of South America, a dacha in the Russian forest, a log cabin beside a Canadian lake are no less centrally situated than are the improbable London, Paris, or Lisbon dwellings to which writers like Eliot, Beckett or Pessoa have withdrawn. The arrogance of capitals has vanished along with the pejorative sense of the word “provinces.” Its opposite is no longer Paris but universality, its reverse and complement. The special quality, the dignity, of what is provincial is released from its reactionary inhibitions, from the pigheaded narrowness of the local museum, and assumes its rights; far from disappearing in the universality of a world language of poetry, it constitutes its vitality, just as the written language feeds off the spoken word of dialect. For the lingua franca of modern poetry is not to be thought of as vapid monotony, as a lyrical Esperanto. It speaks in many tongues. It does not mean standardization, or the lowest common denominator, but the reverse. It frees poetry from the narrowness inherent in all national literatures, but not in order to tear it from its provincial soil and plant it in the abstract. It cuts right across the old languages. As a concept it is valid in the same way as the language of the Bible, or technical language, is valid. It differs from this last because it does more than serve a useful purpose, because it not only owes its existence to the national literatures but revivifies them and unobtrusively changes them. Unlike the language of the Bible … it expounds no doctrine, except perhaps that it is no longer possible for any nation to sever its destiny from that of others.[6]

Even if there obtains an Ungleichzeitigkeit (nonsimultaneity) in the material conditions that allow this language to flourish, the omphalos of poetry can potentially be placed anywhere. What unites modern poetry as a lingua franca, in this vision, is its position, regardless of geopolitics, as a Grenzfall, a borderline case both too marginal to be reckoned with and, because of this marginality, relatively free of the capitalist utilitarian logic of profit or perish.[7] Whether sidelined by postcolonial politics, by more affluent literary means, or by the rich entertainment industry, modern poetry is perennially a stranger in its own land. To be a modern poet is by default a peripheral existence.

The imperative of undercutting stale modes of language — in political rhetoric, religious discourse, and conservative literary stylistics — remained paramount in Arab life long after the decline of Beirut. As the dust settled after the 1967 military defeat to Israel — widely regarded as indicative of the systemic failure of Arab liberationist modernity — the realization sunk in that the Pan-Arab project had ended its noble mission. Broadly conceived in opposition to Pan-Arabism but on par with its grand scale, poetic ḥadātha had to change its coordinates accordingly.

Beirut as Modernism’s Distribution Station

The rise of Arabic modernism as a poetic corpus and an intellectual stance in midcentury Beirut has been meticulously analyzed in Robyn Creswell’s City of Beginnings (2018), which offers a thick account of this modernism in its historical conjuncture. From 1955 until the beginning of the civil war (1975), Beirut lived in the collective imagination as a cosmopolitan crossroads, a mediator between East and West, and a gathering place sheltering disaffected Arab intellectuals from nationalist fires and repressive state rule.[8] The platform responsible for turning this cultural mélange into a node on the international map of modernism was the poetry magazine Shiʿr (Poetry, named after its American precursor) run by the Syro-Lebanese poets Adūnīs (1930– ) and Yūsuf al-Khāl (1917–87). Shiʿr effectively set the terms for poetic modernity as qualified by the adjectival force of “Arab” or “Arabic” with the paradox that this Arab-specific iteration of modernism was fashioned in negation of a more popular cast of modern Pan-Arab nationalism.

In analogous ways to other peripheral modernisms, Shiʿr refused to celebrate particularism and poeticize “local color.”[9] It turned away from sanctified norms in Arabic poetry and strove to synchronize it with an international standard of lyric finesse.[10] This vision was forged by a creative rewriting of both the Arabic classical tradition and Euro-American poetries. Major figures of the Euro-American canon were carefully selected to suit a controversial liberalist agenda and remolded as radical, transhistorical individuals unburdened by collective attachments. The limits of poetry were redefined by a variety of translational strategies dubbed by Creswell as naql (transfer, translatio): “a historical act of preservation, displacement, and ­transformation, … ­anthologization, elegiac inheritance, and genre appropriation as well as translations in the everyday sense of the word in English.”[11] Methods of literal translation and intense engagement with Western poetics gave rise to novel terms, genres, and modes of expression. An enduring stamp was put on the term qaṣīdat al-nathr (prose poem), which to this very day serves as (a heavily debated) common currency for free verse.

In its fervent internationalism, Shiʿr belonged to an international moment of late modernism globalized and formalized and often converging with midcentury Cold War liberalism.[12] Creswell notes that it is important not to confuse the behavior of this late modernism (and the liberal tradition with which it converged) in the metropolitan centers with its impact in the periphery. While in Europe and the United States modernism was gaining prestige as a classic and fattened with critical fodder, in the decolonized Arab world modernism went to work. It was weaponized in a cultural battle for artistic self-sufficiency and employed to construct a sphere of nonpartisan professionalism in a climate of unwavering demands for writers’ loyalty to national and ideological causes. “This helps explain,” writes Creswell, “why the tone of the Beiruti modernists is so often embattled and even shrill” in comparison to the “polished certitude” of its counterparts in the West.[13]

Since in the decolonized world the major liberal values were on the margins of collective consciousness, the carriers of a liberal viewpoint — individualism, pluralism, disengaged ­impartiality — were radicalized and allegorized by poetic discourse to critique cultural conservatism. Though professedly apolitical, the Shiʿr movement was extremely partisan in its adherence to an aesthetic program to match their intellectual enterprise. In the periphery, there were much higher stakes for whether modernism would achieve historical continuity. “Peripheral” is therefore a misnomer: though the Arab modernists were somewhat provincially eager to receive recognition from their Western counterparts (and were, alas, disappointed),[14] as per the familiar model of Pascale Casanova,[15] the value of the modernist sensibility was ultimately tested not by admission into the pantheons in the center but by its ability to be particularized and energized in a new site of struggle.

Trajectories of Exile: An Iraqi at the Foot of the Acropolis

Since a homegrown tradition was at their disposal, second-wave Arab modernists with no national base were partly relieved from the peripheral anxieties that conditioned the initial reception of the daunting names of Euro-American high modernism. They were free to practice selective and indirect patterns of engagement with the signature style of Shiʿr and its corpus of translations. The Jordanian poet Amjad Nāṣir (1955–2019), the Lebanese poet Wadīʿ Saʿāda (1948– ), and the Syrian poet Nūrī al-Jarrāḥ (1956– ) — all peripatetic writers coming on the heels of the Beiruti moment — were by the mid-1980s recognized as astute if low-key reformers of qaṣīdat al-nathr oriented toward a poetics of the small detail. Their canon of world poetry was formed by erratic patterns of autodidactic reading that led them off the high roads and into some side streets in global modernism. They especially took to the Greek poets Yannis Ritsos and Constantine Cafavy, both Arabized by the Iraqi émigré poet Saʿdī Yūsuf (1934– ), who worked from the English. Ritsos’s singular combination of mystery-laden minimalism and hard-nosed Marxism was the great discovery of this generation for Arab poetics, an instrument for attuning the modernist sensibility to life in exile.[16] However, this brand of consciously minor exilic poetry occasionally bore the marks of solitary individuals physically removed from Arabic-language communities and lacked the vigor of a human habitus.

Greece is a surprisingly central location for the post-Shiʿr émigré poets. In Sargon Boulus’s Life near the Acropolis (1988), Greece appears in its workaday existence as an offbeat porous country whose ancient luster has faded and given way to the modern plague of tourism. Like the Mediterranean Sea, which figures prominently in the book, Greece is an undefinable zone of passage between Europe, Asia, and Africa. Boulus occupies himself by walking through the streets of Athens and reliving his Iraqi past as involuntary memory activated in the embodied motion of his steps. The unvarnished portrait of Greece is a step toward regaining its lasting graces of water, light, street life, and human encounters. These are rediscovered as Boulus delves inward into his oceanic memory and fishes up poetic images laden with meaning: an Iraqi ex-prisoner as metonymic for the lostness of the 1960s, a colorful Kurdish country wedding, and a half-verse by the Abbasid poet Abū Tammām (796/807–50), enchanting in its indecision between striking beauty and moral depravity.[17]

In retrospect, Boulus appears to have become the major artistic compass for many of the displaced Arab poets who went beyond the content with which Shiʿr imbued ḥadātha. He hailed from a family of Assyrian Christians who settled in Habbaniyya, a makeshift town in the dead center of modern Iraq set up near a Royal Air Force base to shelter Assyrian refugees. In his teens, he moved up north to the oil city of Kirkuk, where he joined a circle of up-and-coming Iraqi writers who voraciously fed on books that the British officers left behind in their hasty departure. His literary ambition took him in the 1960s to Baghdad, where he was mentored by the Palestinian émigré writer Jabrā Ibrāhīm Jabrā (1920–94). Jabrā helped him get his first poems published in Shiʿr. With a sponge-like absorptive capacity, Boulus wolfed down American Beat poetry. He dreamed that Arabic writing — whose standard literary usage he found too purist and divorced from sensuality — would one day be able to speak with the rawness and indelicacy of Allen Ginsberg’s Howl. The possibility of making this happen rested on a belief that Arabic is a master-absorber possessing trace elements from the rich variety of Near Eastern languages and cultures. About the effort to impurify Arabic, Boulus says: “I want to make the language, which for me is the Arabic language, carry everything. I’m putting things from Robert Lowell, from [Cesare] Pavese, from César Vallejo. For the first time I’m indicating that this Arabic language can take anything from the world. That is the point really, the rest is just details.”[18]

Beirut was but a bridge for Boulus to cross over and leave behind. He traveled there to catch the tail end of the Shiʿr years in the late 1960s and was soon after granted a visa to travel to the United States in 1969. Thanks to assistance from the poet-artist Etel Adnan, he landed in San Francisco. Aside from rare journal appearances, his name nearly vanished from the Arab literary scene. He was, however, secretly hard at work: reading intensively, training his hand at wild rhapsodic poems in strange foreignized Arabic, and translating from world poetry via English. These experiments were done with no readership in mind yet eventually served as preparation for modeling a more personally accentuated, historically situated poetic experience.

The critical fact here is that his reemergence resulted from an accidental chain of events that took place in Athens, where he resided in the mid-1980s working for a translation institute. The Lebanese journalist Jād al-Ḥājj, Boulus’s friend and coworker, noticed that Sargon was casually leaving scraps of poems scattered about in his room. al-Ḥājj even managed to rescue some pieces from trouser pockets on their way to the washing machine. He contacted a small Athens-based Arab publisher, and the ephemeral scraps became Sargon’s first poetry collection, Arrival at Where City, published 1985.[19]

Arrival included a punchy political poem against tyranny (“Executioner”) that went viral in Baghdad, along with a poem (“Baudelaire’s Pains Have Arrived”) that Boulus later celebrated for its strange tonal mischief.[20] Yet for the most part, the collection was overloaded with the uncommunicative flamboyance of his experimental American years. The great leap in sensibility came with the poems directly stemming from Boulus’s Greek experience. In Life near the Acropolis (published in 1988 in Casablanca, a place to which I will soon return), his years of trial and error in isolation paid off as technical felicity met nonliterary life materials and personal memory. These poems were, for the greater part, prose poems not in the hermetically intellectualized mode codified by Shiʿr but exuberant tableaux vivants imbibing the prosaic in big gulps.[21] The free-ranging movement of these poems cast the Shiʿr corpus, with its awkwardly sterile and cagey modes of cultural appropriation, in an unflattering light. With few line breaks and a strong narrative thrust, the book’s typical sentence rushes forward in rapacious additive rhythms switching between dream, memory, erotic ebullience, and everyday experience in Athens and incorporating intertextual allusions to classical Arab poets, the Euro-American canon, and beyond.

The epigraph for the collection — “In a dark time / the eye begins to see” — is taken from a poem by Theodore Roethke, a savant’s reference to a minor American poet that singled out Boulus’s taste from the rote rehearsing of canonical modernists. This foreign line in translation is a covert programmatic declaration. Ordinary eyesight replaces clairvoyant vision (ruʾyā) as the epistemic category for poetic truth. In a dark (historical) time, poetry endeavors for earth-bound lucidity. It no longer floats in the abstract space of ḥadātha removed from the dark matters of human life. Here is a full translation of the volume’s titular poem, “Life near the Acropolis”:


   I now go alone in the way of a stern conversation with the man I was just a short while ago; I return to “as if,” return to “towards,” when I stared at length into the abyss

when, for the whole length of an evening, time refused to rescue me after I tied my vortex

to the peg of attentiveness because that’s what you’ve done to me in your mad love

I fold the vortex neatly from the sides like a handkerchief

   and with vague excuses leave the house in the evening

   pacing through Athens’ stone alleys with no defined purpose

   The streets are opaque, desolate in their expanse:

Lone seagulls drift on the flow of the emerald air as a warm seaport breeze wafts unknowingly and sounds the crackling of children’s kites

   caught in electric wires …

Until my hair is drenched in dew dripping from the shack clusters

spiraling upwards into the great belly of darkness

   underneath the Acropolis which I avoid by not climbing up

the cracked white marble stairs where the machine of archeological

ghost-cloning dwells to attract tourists and where every time a Greek god

turns over in his stony sleep, the breeze goes begging the leaves for an elegy; I would rather

listen to the plaintive rustling that comes mixed with the meowing sound of cats in heat

on the rooftops, before getting on the bus and heading back to our flat

where you still lie awake, waiting for me.[22]

The avoidance of the Parthenon is an act of defiant self-possession with respect to everything that the pantheon of gods represents to a poet from an Iraqi province. Nor is the subject of this poem the gods of Canaan and Phoenicia, the Near Eastern ur-civilization that the Beiruti modernists dug up to overcome their inferiority and pass into world literature.[23] The caressing Mediterranean breeze is the protagonist here, a correlative to the novel poetic intonation passionately pursued by the poet. The pursuit is after the unnoticed middle, the forsaken gods who get lost between immovable antique monuments and touristic trinkets. Framing the nightly stroll as an erotic itinerary of leave-taking and homecoming subtly alludes to Odysseus, Sindbad, and the spiritual journeys of the Andalusian Sufi poet Ibn ʿArabī. The syntax and breath units of this poem are generous and permeated with insatiable (male) desire as an intimation of infinity. The latter aspect is obliquely reminiscent of Walt Whitman’s and Allen Ginsberg’s American rhapsodies, which Boulus labored to inject into what he imagined to be the Arabic language’s nature as a supralingual omnivore.

Figuring as a proximate periphery to the Arab world, Greece gives a whiff of Mediterraneanism unspoiled by ideology.[24] Life at the foot of the Acropolis resists the fiction of upward ascent and dissolves binaries of high and low, vernacular culture and literary finesse. What Boulus discovers in Athens is the potential of personal memory and vivid narrative detail to put some flesh on the thrifty cerebralism of the Beiruti style. Toward the end of his life, Boulus produced translations from W. H. Auden and favorably reflected on the work of the Polish poet Czesław Miłosz.[25] The identification with these figures indicates that, as Edward Mendelson has argued about Auden,[26] Boulus was the first Arab poet to feel at home in the twentieth century, at home enough to dispense with the term ḥadātha as a credo. His versatile voice could confidently converse with anyone from Tu Fu to W. S. Merwin while respecting historical difference.[27] Compared with Boulus’s speaker, the ironically elliptical, quasi-mythical personas placed at the center of Adūnīs’s poetics seem to have no grip on the world in terms of history or empirical phenomena. The kind of sweeping claims made by the Beiruti vanguard to a major prophetic role and to Nietzschean self-creation have come to appear groundlessly inflated and are largely scaled down.[28]

Writing from beneath an Acropolis plagued by tourism has brought Arabic poetry more definitively to a place where poetic modernity is not abstractly conceptualized as “modernistic.” Indeed, something intrinsically pigeonholed and provincial is revealed in claiming the “-ism” of modernism. Modern life is here taken as liberating grounds for writing. It is a place of centerlessness both situated and global, revealing that an underbelly of periphery invariably dwells within the richest gold-clad symbol of the imperial center.

Trajectories of Domestic Development

Writing on the Margin: Mohammed Bennis’s Maghribī Passage into World Poetry

Life near the Acropolis was originally issued by the Casablanca-based Dār Tūbqāl, a publishing house established in 1985 to promote contemporary Moroccan literature and world culture. The poet Mohammed Bennis (1948– ) is the prominent name associated with this press and, by extension, with institutionalizing poetic modernism in Morocco. Bennis often refers to a Maghrib-specific tension between the local and the universal rooted in a peripheral consciousness with respect to the Arab Levant (Mashriq). This consciousness is double-faced: it looks, on the one hand, to the recent history of colonialism that left Morocco in a bilingual limbo between French and Arabic literacy and, on the other hand, to the long-standing contest for cultural primacy between the Mashriq and the Maghrib. In the latter case, asymmetric power works in the opposite way: East (Baghdad as the ancient imperial seat) is the metropole, and West (including al-­Andalus) is the periphery. Robert Young has astutely differentiated between provincial and postcolonial peripherality and highlighted Maghribī writing as one result of an exceedingly productive language anxiety owing to the presence of French, literary Arabic, dārija, and Tamazight.[29] For a formidable generation of decolonized Moroccan intellectuals, inside knowledge of currents of thinking in France affords an axis of supremacy vis-à-vis the Mashriq. Conversely, modern and classical Arabic literature and the Andalusian heritage figure as nourishing semilocal traditions with which the Maghrib can be weaned off the colonizing French.

Bennis made his poetic debut in 1969, receiving sanction from Adūnīs’s prestigious post-Shiʿr magazine Mawāqif. These credentials positioned him highly on the local level as a middleman of modernism promoting the future creation of a “new and truly patriotic and democratic Moroccan culture.”[30] For this reason, he joined the Moroccan Writers Union, established in 1973 as part of the official Arabizing policy of King Hassan II. Bennis’s first PhD thesis, supervised by Abdelkebir Khatibi and submitted in 1978 to the University of Rabat, analyzed contemporary Moroccan poetry as an act of ground-clearing for the future of Arabic literature in Morocco. As soon as the nationalist state agenda took over the union, Bennis started a literary ­periodical — Al-thaqāfa al-jadīda (New culture; 1978– ) — to promote his vision of Moroccan national culture and internationalist horizons. Within six years of its opening, this upscale magazine was banned during a state clampdown on freedom. By the time Bennis came to submit his second dissertation in 1988, the atmosphere of democratic openness in Morocco had gravely dampened. His second thesis is thus a massive four-volume encyclopedic work summarizing Arab modernism from the romantic age to the present.[31] Like Ibn Khaldūn’s Muqaddima, it is permeated by a sense of standing at the end of a historical era. After all, the Moroccan Writers Union was founded the very same year as the state’s internal intelligence agency, the Direction général de surveillance du térritoire. Bennis’s writings from the 1980s thus constantly waver between recognizing the importance of cultivating domestic literary production and the desire for an outside sphere of relation to curb parochialism: “kitāba in Morocco has to escape the narrow framework, travel far in its particularity, in its system of relations and difference.”[32]

This declaration is quoted from Bennis’s 1981 “Manifesto for Kitāba,” where he proposes kitāba, “writing,” as a keyword for a mode of triangulation between the Maghribī particular and Mashriqī and French universals: “While this manifesto aims to clarify the concept of kitāba, it also aspires to reveal a viewpoint that leans on Maghribī particularity. Should it be erased, there would be no viable rallying for a possible transformation of the poetic text in Morocco.”[33] Kitāba is clearly an Arabic transposition of the French genre-bending term écriture and closely corresponds to Roland Barthes’s notion of the plural “readerly” text.[34] How, then, is this proposed solution to the crisis of culture a negotiation of, rather than assimilation to, French trends? Moreover, in those very years Adūnīs, under the influence of Tel quel theories, had transitioned in Mawāqif from a discourse of ḥadātha to talk of al-kitāba al-jadīda (new writing).[35]

For Bennis, the singularity of Maghribī experience renders kitāba “native” as a category of betwixt and between. This has to do, first, with the firm premodern structures kitāba is mobilized to deconstruct, impediments that in Paris and Beirut have already been surpassed. Bennis suggests that until the 1970s Moroccan culture was by and large oral, with written works restricted to the religious sphere. Moroccan society, he states, is far from being through with the liberationist project for self-governed productivity and has been unusually susceptible to the force of mutaʿāliyāt: spheres of sublimity, rigid superstructures, political mythemes. He describes at length the dominance of a national (waṭanī) style of poetry — now co-opted by monolithic state discourse — that, since the times of colonial struggle, functions as mere historical witness to events and avoids deep introspection.[36] Maghribī culture is read along the lines of a postcolonial modernity in arrested development, fixated on colonial politics whose meanings have changed from being a bottom-up revolutionary sentiment to a top-down state imposition. A state of discontinuity with the rest of the Arab world is posited since Morocco had only recently hopped on the wagon of Arabic writing and its concomitant modernity. Discontinuity means that culture will continue to be the handmaiden of politics unless it reiterates on its own terms the dialectical process that started in midcentury Beirut. This premise justifies Bennis’s call for a bridging mode of writing, kitāba as a palimpsest of European and Arabic textual traditions.

Second, Morocco is characterized by a unique condition of bilingualism in a multifarious contact zone. This condition was consummately fictionalized in Abdelkebir Khatibi’s Amour bilingue (which Bennis translated into Arabic),[37] the literary expression for Khatibi’s intellectual project of awakening the maghāriba to their lived reality of taʿaddudiyyat al-wāḥid (­plurality-in-one).[38] This idea became typical of a whole generation of thinkers who grew wary of assuming universalism without attending to the Maghribī particulars. This universalist pretense provincialized Moroccan culture and polarized its dichotomies.[39] Being equally fluent in French and Arabic (and equally estranged from both) gave these authors an edge over radical thinkers like Adūnīs and Jacques Derrida, who because of a slant toward one cultural side, treat the other side as exotic to foreignize their major intellectual identity. Bennis, in contrast, lands on an open-ended strategy of musāʾala (questioning and doubt) aimed at all sides as the least problematic choice for the Maghribī modernist: a constant back-and-forth between trust and mistrust for the two hegemonic cultures as well as for claims of primacy for the local over the global and vice versa.

Bennis focalizes his concern over the Maghrib’s peripheral position through a figurative lens less geometric in form than textual and scriptural, even Talmudic. He speaks of the hegemony of a European and Mashriqī matn (main text) associated with the primacy of the past, the sacred text. The Maghribī hāmish (margin, gloss, footnote) — representing life needs, inescapability of interpretation, the contiguity of past and present — aspires to preserve the continued authority of this matn by breaking away from its overbearing weight.[40] Elsewhere he refers to Mashriqī modernism as a trace-text repeated by the Maghribī echo-text to describe a mode of textual migration (hijra) between the regions.[41] Echo for Bennis has a negative aural connotation of derivativeness overturned by khaṭṭ — both script and the art of calligraphy — a concept also meant to connote a sophisticated decentered textuality: “the search for the text’s new rhetoricity requires that speech and voice be violated by khaṭṭ. This khaṭṭ possesses the peculiar secret of turning common knowledge into poetry, an act of rooting kitāba in materiality and dialectics.”[42] Script thus acquires an autonomous metaphysical quality that releases it from its former role as auxiliary to spoken language.

The Maghrib had historically possessed a distinct tradition of Arabic orthography, and this historical difference is imagined to be the horizon for Maghribī writing. By means of calligraphic subtlety, the technology of writing and reading would be defamiliarized, and boundaries between East and West collapsed. This proposal suggests a liminal space between French disavowal of referentiality as logocentric and Islamic aniconic traditions. Bennis tested this theory in a 1979 contribution for Al-thaqāfa al-jadīda, where he had a poem artfully arranged by the gifted Moroccan calligrapher ʿAbd al-Wahhāb al-Būrī. The poem chosen for this exercise is ironically titled “Thus Spoke to Me the East,” thus reversing the hegemonic terms of the literate Mashriq versus the oral Maghrib.[43] By transcribing the fictive oral message from the East, the West deepens its self-­reflexive textuality.

The poem progressively departs from the conventional look of poetic texts and radically puts the onus on the reader to produce even a minimal literal understanding. The typographic complexity then allows Bennis to admit materials with local flavor. In agreement with Boulus’s aloofness with respect to the Acropolis, Bennis chooses Marrakesh as the ambivalent subject of Moroccan identity. A destination marketed as authentic and overrun by tourists, Marrakesh is a marker for the local deformities of modernity. The poem begins with a call for Marrakesh to recolonize itself and ends on a note of reprimand for the collusion of the global tourist industry with internal violators: the poor from the provinces who take over its alleyways to squeeze money out of foreigners. It ends with the lines: “In Marrakesh where / people are lust / possessed / by the shadow / of a folk / countryside.”[44] This ending is shaped in the form of an upside-down pyramid, indicating a downward movement into base profiteering rather than an upward ascent to the gods.

Three years after writing the manifesto, Bennis reflects that the document had a twofold purpose: coming to terms with the failures of Moroccan modernity and, at the same time, declaring Moroccan modernism to be the legitimate offspring of its Levantine precursor. This act of legitimation would “unite the space [of Arabic writing] as it asserts particularity and difference.”[45] As a peripheral field takes the leap into the universal (here imagined as contained within a single transnational literature), deficiencies are highlighted in the previous instantiation of universalism while reintegrating it into a more inclusive whole. It is the Maghribī experience that leads Bennis to repeatedly stress, contra Adūnīs, that modernisms come in the plural and that the Arab world cannot but be implicated in historical modernity and global interdependence. These external constraints must be submitted to an internally Arabic logic of modernity. In Bennis’s tone, there is a somber realism missing from Adūnīs’s conception of poetic modernity as an absolute civilizational value. In an interview, Bennis recognizes that modern poetry cannot alienate itself from Arab situated selfhood. Nor can it restore its major status in the collective imagination. Poetry is then bound to stay on the margin of both the Arab societies to which it belongs and the capitalist market logic. It is on this margin that history and the body, past and present, intersect.[46]

A Critical Extremist: ʿAbdallah al-Ghaddāmī’s Radical Anagogism (and Antagonism)

In 1983, Bennis was invited to contribute a piece for the inaugurating issue of the Manama-based journal Kalimat, a meeting point for a new wave of Bahraini experimental writers. Relating to the surge of new writing in the Gulf, his brief address identified a greater “intersection of times” in the trajectory of Arab modernism. The backdrop for the address is the 1982 Israeli bombing of Beirut. The new rupture underscored the need to continue the Beiruti legacy in the spatiotemporal receptacles of the more stable perimeter. The meeting of the remote ends of Arab East and West in Bahrain shows that, in its moment of transregional solidarity, the modernist path is shared by recognizing its limits. It no longer promotes illusory universalist transcendence but context-specific efforts cut down to the scale of Arab contingency. Bennis proposes ḥadātha as a plural category anchored in its historical conjunctures, a perennial musāʾala that calls for an unforeseeable multiplicity of unrepeatable responses.[47] The Gulf had answered this call by producing, in the last quarter century, seasoned poetic voices such as those of the Bahraini Qāsim Haddād (1948– ); the Omanis Muḥammad al-Ḥārthī (1962–2018) and Sayf al-Raḥbī (1956– ), whose literary journal Nizwā is among the finest in the Arab world; and the Saudis Fawziyya Abū Khālid (1955– ) — the major female voice of the prose poem in the Arabian Peninsula — and Aḥmad al-Mullā (1961– ).

Bennis is a temperate reformer who retains a reverent stance with respect to Shiʿr’s ḥadātha. A more controversial revisionist reading came, however, not from a poet, but from a Saudi literary thinker. An attack on modernism from Saudi Arabia would be predictable had it been conducted in the name of conservative orthodoxy. It was, however, ʿAbdallah al-Ghaddāmī (1946– ),[48] a wide-ranging Unayza-born Saudi-educated literary critic, who bafflingly opened a radical front against the Beiruti poetics, labeling it as culturally conservative and proving beyond doubt that Shiʿr, or Adūnīs at least, has reached the stature of an idol worth stoning. Here is al-Ghaddāmī in his 2000 Cultural Criticism on Adūnīs’s notion of modernity:

The title of Adūnīs’s book Time of Poetry bears a structural significance [dalāla nasaqiyya], as it ascribes this [poetic] attribute to time; it is not the time of reason nor the time of thought; nor is it the time for action and politics. It is the time of poetry to the extent that there is no modernity in the Arab world except in poetry, as Adūnīs says. There is no modernity in thought or economics or politics and society. Consequently, time belongs to poetry alone, or to the poet rather, the Patriarch Poet, Adūnīs himself, as is implied in Adūnīs’s statements in this book and in other works. Clearly, this is a reactionary regression to the time of the faḥl, the poet as a commanding alpha male, the poet as augur, the poem as magic. This is a return to the jāhilī, legendary foundation of the male patriarch, as well.[49]

Extreme and idiosyncratic, this reading is generally representative of a number of late twentieth-century poets who drew away from the ramifications of Adūnīs’s elusive rhetoric of revolt, refusal, and visionary knowledge. Within circles of second-wave Syrian poets living under the yoke of official Baathism, a pivotal transition took place to a poetics of the quotidian and understated: small people, unremarkable places, dull incidents in linear time. At least in part, this turn emerged from a dissatisfaction with the overly poeticized hermeticism of the Adūnīsian template and its unsettling correspondence with forms of authoritarian inscrutability.[50] “The space of the poetics of the quotidian,” writes the literary critic Jamāl Bārūt in the context of Syrian poetry,

in its many open-ended branch-offs doesn’t presume to establish a criterial center for the aesthetic or the poetic but rather comes into being on the margins of the dominant, the prescriptive, the absolute authorities. It transgresses their boundaries and deviates from them. The absolute metaphysical claims of the authoritative source are a sham. … The moment they collapse, then springs the prosaic, the everyday, placing us in a world of contingency not causality, a world of dispersal not unity, the world of the transient rather than the permanent. It is the vitality of life itself.[51]

Like Bārūt, al-Ghaddāmī exemplifies the central role of the cultural critic specializing in poetry in connecting the minor work of qaṣīdat al-nathr poets (overshadowed by state monopoly on culture) with the larger social and political orders.[52]

Al-Ghaddāmī’s metaliterary extremism reemploys the lexicon of poststructuralism to expose the aporias of corrupt hegemonic systems in which poetry occupies a place of pride. The militant reuse of poststructuralism can be construed as a homecoming: a recharge of its original intemperate spirit. The keywords in the text from Cultural Criticism are faḥl and nasaq, indicating al-Ghaddāmī’s method of tracing how poetic texts from pre-Islamic times to the present reproduce the patterns of traditionalism and patriarchy. Nasaq (pl. ansāq) is a polysemic word whose basic meaning is “a fixed structure,” a tightly knit grid impervious to dynamism. One of the nasaq’s cunning features is that it works subconsciously to perpetuate the culture’s fuḥūliyya, the abstract noun deriving from faḥl. Faḥl means “stud,” “stallion,” or “sire” and stands here for the potent Arab patriarchy, the binding directives of ubuwwa (fatherhood). It has become an idiomatic phrase in Arabic for masterful poets, an association devilishly exploited by al-Ghaddāmī to militate against untouchable classics like those of Abū Tammām and al-Mutanabbī (ca. 915–65) for their latent fuḥūlī logic. The maneuver is then performed on Adūnīs’s and Nizār Qabbāni’s claims to modernity. It is then extended to readers and auditors, who are said to be historically complicit in perpetuating the conventions of manspreading poetic selfhood. Al-Ghaddāmī’s practice fuses feminist social critique with a bulldozing antipoetic sensibility to show that poetic truth in the Arab world has too often rested on outrageous deformities covered up by rhetorical elegance. Adoration of poetry ratifies the male standards submerged within the text and perniciously slides into moral approval for backward beliefs. In a later book, al-Ghaddāmī recovers feminine modes of literary discourse as a vernacular cure for the incorrigible tadhkīr al-muʾannath (masculinization of the feminine) of the Arabic dīwān.[53]

Shaʿranat al-shakhṣiyya (the poetization of personality) is the name given to the process by which the nasaq recycles the pompous poetic self. The locution plays on the association of the neologism shaʿrana (poeticize) with sharʿana: to legitimize, legislate, grant sharʿiyya.[54] “Our problem with poetry of this kind,” he writes, “is that we surrender to its critical (and rhetorical) golden standard and refrain from examining its flaws. This standard forbids us from questioning the ideas of the poet and defines for us a field of vision only in what is ‘beautiful’ and rhetorically effective.”[55] The pressing task for the Arab critic is to find where poetic language undoes its own rhetoric of sublimity. Here al-Ghaddāmī’s project converges with the intellectual labor of Maghribī philosophers Abdallah Laroui (ʿAbdallah al-ʿArwi in MSA transliteration; 1933– ) and MuḥammadʿĀbid al-Jābirī (1935–2010), who articulated a rigorous and pervasive critique of Arab reason, epistemology, and political ideologies.[56]

This flamboyant extremeness should be read in a Saudi-specific register of disdain for the arrogance and complacency of sated establishments. Immoderation is then adequate in an intellectual world maddeningly unperturbed by cultural modernism. In his Story of Modernity in Saudi Arabia (2005), al-Ghaddāmī (again, extravagantly) relates his quixotic battles against an ultraconservative system that, faced with the challenges of modernity, has strategically chosen one of two options: steamroll and co-opt or mute, repress, and avoid. Al-Ghaddāmī does not deny that enormous historical changes, chiefly on the economic and material levels, have shaped contemporary Saudi Arabia; his claim is that the kingdom has cunningly accommodated modernity externally without touching the deep premodern roots of the Saudi lifeworld. The great oil boom that washed over the country in the 1970s and 1980s granted rulers and citizens alike a passage into a global standard of economic affluence and obviated the need for a large-scale cultural project of self-critique and intellectual productivity.[57] Al-Ghaddāmī’s adversarial mode of cultural criticism is intended to prove once and for all that, unlike construction projects, the type of modernization piloted by literature and metaliterary thought cannot be outsourced. It is essential in a modern world where, as Bennis claims, no nation can remain fixed, avoidant, unimplicated.

Deconstructionist tactics are thus repurposed for a critical need particular to khalījī culture: opposition to the overlapping pressures of Islamic literalism, theocratic moralism, and a narrow conception of turāth (Arabo-Islamic patrimony) that iron out folds of difference into a cover-all fabric of symmetric uniformity. Society, politics, and literature in Saudi Arabia are all taken as cultural “texts” defined by taskīn al-mutaḥarrikāt (“nullifying moving beings”; literally, “silencing of vowels”),[58] which al-Ghaddāmī mines for cracks in which the system’s contradictions collapse. He dissects these texts as both submerged within the Saudi psyche and outwardly performed in the public sphere: the mosques, the media, the universities, and the administrative norms of the monarchy. Against this backdrop, al-Ghaddāmī calls attention to muted values on the fringes — for which Saudi women stand as the prominent signifier[59] — and to previously rejected figures on the margins of the Saudi literary canon. His writing takes on not only antimodernist establishment figures but also faux modernizers and formalist critics invested in maintaining separation between literature and politics, a legacy traceable to Beiruti autonomism.[60]

His 1985 book of literary criticism, Sin and Atonement (Al-khaṭīʾa wa-l-takfīr), caused a maelstrom in the smug calmness of Saudi conservatism and ignited a controversy that fueled Friday sermons, televised talk shows, and departmental intrigue.[61] The book’s title needs to be unpacked since it is a minefield of scandals and mistranslations. First, it is an irreverently theological name for a study in modern poetry that cites Roland Barthes, Jacques Derrida, and Roman Jakobson (irreverent with respect to both Saudi Wahhabism and French secularism). The full title runs Sin and Atonement: From Structuralism to Tashrīḥiyya, with the English “deconstruction” parenthesized on the cover as a translation of tashrīḥiyya. The use of a postmodern concept in roman letters on a Saudi-printed book already invites trouble, and al-Ghaddāmī vividly recounts the stroke of luck he needed to have this book printed within the kingdom’s borders.[62] The word takfīr is laden here with its contrary semantic value of declaring someone to be an infidel (as in Hebrew, the Arabic root k-f-r may connote both repentance and unbelief). It thus anticipates the accusations that will be leveled against the author. The next bump is the adjective tashrīḥī with which al-­Ghaddāmī tags deconstruction, a conscious deviation from the more common translation tafkīkī. While tafkīk signifies taking apart, tashrīḥ suggests an anatomical dissection as in a postmortem. It also biologizes criticism to challenge the givenness of male hegemony. Substantiating this metaphor, the cover design of the Saudi book suspiciously resembles the first edition of Northrop Frye’s Anatomy of Criticism.

The divergence in terminology is telling of al-Ghaddāmī’s unorthodoxy: while deconstruction has remained resistant to the recentering of discourse as such, al-Ghaddāmī is both deconstructive and reconstructive. By his method, authority is refocused on composing an exquisite corpse from disparate author-fragments. These collagist assemblages consist not only of the author’s literary output but also of private correspondence, essays, and recorded interviews.[63] The inspiration is said to have come from Roland Barthes’s S/Z, but al-Ghaddāmī is not rewriting a Balzac, an enshrined literary classic: he restores to consciousness a forgotten pioneer of Saudi modernism — the philosopher and poet Ḥamza Shiḥāta (1911–72) — a voice, that is, whose authority needs to be propped up.

The sin and atonement motifs in the book’s title are posited as antithetical terms in the central dualism of Shiḥāta’s poetry. They suggest creative tensions revolving around mythic archetypes of male sexual fantasy, obsession, and frustration.[64] Viewed as an endemic complex in Saudi society, this dualism is rife with material for al-Ghaddāmī’s hermeneutics of suspicion. “The center of the literary universe,” writes Frye in Anatomy of Criticism, describing the anagogical mode of criticism, “is whatever poem we happen to be reading, as a microcosm of literature, a symbol of the total order of words — a monad.”[65] Placing Shiḥāta’s poetry at the center of his polemic as a master nasaq containing all aspects of life and language in the kingdom and in Arab culture, al-Ghaddāmī’s thought is imbued with the anagogic sensibility as defined by Frye. This sensibility is intimately linked with the religious worldviews against which he rails, a link borne out by the Quranic and Prophetic references cited to substantiate the antipoetic stance: “It is better for a man,” the Prophet is quoted as saying in a well-known hadith, “to stuff his insides with pus and be sickened by it than to fill his mind with poetry.”[66]

Al-Ghaddāmī’s theorizing combines a great variety of things and has been faulted for its overreach.[67] It transposes poststructuralist vocabulary to open up a gridlocked cultural establishment; unearths forgotten texts to build a modernist lineage; rethinks the parameters of Arabic modernism as too formalistic and male dominated; and points to Saudi-specific social problems: unproductivity, rampant materialism, the muted realities of women and foreign workers. The claim has been made that peripheral modernisms, because of their belatedness, telescope a dizzying number of intellectual and artistic movements. The Slovak literary theorist Dionýz Ďurišin has suggested a theory of “irregular, accelerated development” for literary systems in peripheral positions.[68] Al-Ghaddāmī’s version of deconstruction exemplifies this telescopic compression.

Formulated nearly synchronically with the massive translation of deconstruction into American academese, it arguably takes in stride more than the original theory’s trademark thinkers. In comparative literature departments, critical theory would devolve into yet another instance of a canon’s routinization and curation. Though honorifically titled duktūr (he is a tenured professor at King Saud University), al-Ghaddāmī pushes deconstruction out from academe to create constructive disarray in public discourse. Despite extensive international relations, exchange programs, elite schooling abroad, book fairs, and art exhibitions, the state system is still dominated by the orthodoxy of “divine politics.”[69] Given the steadfastness of the status quo, producing an epistemic disturbance is perceived as a collective social need. Even though al-Ghaddāmī professes postmodernism, his syncretic approach condenses multiple temporalities and intellectual trends. It is a heady amalgam of naqd (criticism), taḥdīth (modernization), and tanwīr (enlightenment).


Is there more to these case studies than rehashing the heterogeneity of the modernist phenomenon and enlarging our view to sample more of its differentiated manifestations? A tentative end point is that when the ideological muscle of modernism is relaxed, the reflex is not necessarily to move to a definable postmodern sensibility. What arises is an undefinable middle area of an open musāʾala with respect to large frameworks and attentiveness to the smaller units of language, time, and place. Poetry in this mode can recalibrate its soft-spoken ethereality, as Bennis’s poems have done, or be pulled toward the low mimetic out of exasperation with poeticized rhetoric, a strategy practiced by Boulus and theorized by al-Ghaddāmī.

Taking stock of trends in the field of global modernisms, the Slovenian scholar Marko Juvan cogently warns that repeated gestures of celebratory decentering of the core overlook “local sediments of the global symbolic struggle with (post) colonial and (post) imperial dependence.”[70] Formulated positively, when we attend to the specificity of the situated struggles for individuation and cultural agency on the periphery, we are more likely to reveal the sedimented power dynamics working within them. Though of certain global import, these struggles inexorably occur in distinct national frameworks, in terms of their temporalities and systems of signification, but invariably project universal imaginaries of all kinds.

Franco Moretti’s formula of “compromise between foreign form and local material” provides a valid starting point.[71] But it is all too thin once boundaries between foreign and homegrown writing traditions become blurred, as when qaṣīdat al-nathr is reshaped by processes beyond Beiruti translation strategies. Inverting the implicit hierarchy of Moretti’s theoretical model, Juvan states that “local perspective is the site where peripheral literary producers have to come to terms with their subjugation to the adopted foreign form as the aesthetic medium of ­economic-political dominance.”[72] But even this recognition is somewhat too hierarchically confining. When Sargon Boulus confidently writes as if standing on par with twentieth-century luminaries, the figurative slab of stone on which he stands — the code of modernism — is at the same time a museum piece no longer serviceable. Boulus passes onto a stage beyond anxieties about the ladder scales of power that inhere in the notions of center and periphery.

Almost synchronically with the dawning of the term “modernism” as common coinage, its modes of being on the periphery become not only underivative but superabundantly fermenting with literary and nonliterary meanings. Moreover, when modernity clashes with poetry, the terms of engagement are far from being determined by an imported technique. Manifold irreducible cultural and experiential differentials in the receiving situation play a dominant role in determining the ontology of the modern in the first place. The modernist matn is re-created in these sites as a kaleidoscopic hāmish of constitutive difference, just as the Talmudic gloss, out of legal exigencies of life, exegetically overrides the letter of the biblical text. To put traveling Arab modernism at our “center of the literary universe” is to reach for a microcosmic world of possible relations between literatures, between culture, society, and politics, and between centers and peripheries within the Arab world and outside it. end of article


  1. This form of the poet’s personal name, conforming to dialect pronunciation, is more commonly found in English and French than the standard MSA transliteration — Muḥammad Bannīs — which is applicable for academic reference and searches in library catalogs. ↩

  2. Muḥammad Bannīs, Al-ḥadātha al-maʿṭūba [Crippled modernity] (Casablanca: Dār Tūbqāl, 2004). ↩

  3. Michael Walzer, “Nation and Universe,” in The Tanner Lectures on Human Values XI (Salt Lake City: University of Utah Press, 1990), 507–56. For a similar argument advanced for literary studies and employing the universal versus particular dialectic on Marxist grounds, see Frederic Jameson, A Singular Modernity (New York: Verso, 2002), 182–83.  ↩

  4. T. S. Eliot, “The Social Function of Poetry,” in On Poetry and Poets (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2009), 8. ↩

  5. Charles Taylor, “Nationalism and Modernity,” in Dilemmas and Connections (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2010), 97.  ↩

  6. Hans Magnus Enzensberger, “The World Language of Modern Poetry,” in The Consciousness Industry: On Literature, Politics, and the Media (New York: Seabury, 1974), 54. For the German original, see Hans Magnus Enzensberger, Museum der modernen Poesie [Museum of modern poetry] (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1960), 8–19.  ↩

  7. Hans Magnus Enzensberger, “Meldungen vom lyrischen Betrieb: Drei Metaphrasen” [Notes from the business of lyricism: Three metaphrases], in Zickzack: Aufsätze [Zigzag: Essays] (Frankfurt am Main: Suhrkamp, 1999), 182–85. ↩

  8. Robyn Creswell, City of Beginnings: Poetic Modernism in Beirut (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2018), 21–24. ↩

  9. For interesting parallels, see J. L. Borges, “The Argentine Writer and Tradition,” in Labyrinths: Selected Stories and Other Writings, ed. D. A. Yates and J. E. Irby (New York: New Directions, 1962), 171–78; Y. H. Brenner, “Ha-zhaner ha-Erets Yisra’eli ve-’avizarehu” [The Land of Israel genre and its accouterments] (1911), in Project Ben-Yehuda, accessed June 11, 2020, ↩

  10. The 1961 Rome Symposium, which centered on modern Arabic poetry, was a high point in negotiating between Shiʿr’s internationalism and the core Western canon. See Creswell, City of Beginnings, 32–51. ↩

  11. Ibid., 14. ↩

  12. The seminal work presenting this concept is Marshall Berman’s All That Is Solid Melts into Air (New York: Simon and Schuster, 1982), which speaks of a transnational “modernism of underdevelopment.” For a concise summary of what this moment entails in the Beiruti conjuncture, see Creswell, City of Beginnings, 6–8, 10. ↩

  13. Creswell, City of Beginnings, 8. ↩

  14. See the outcomes of the Rome Symposium as described in ibid., 45–51. ↩

  15. See the section entitled “Small Literatures” in Pascale Casanova, The World Republic of Letters (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2004), 175–204. ↩

  16. On the “poetics of detail” promoted by this eclectic group and their indebtedness to versions of Ritsos, see Fakhrī Ṣāliḥ, Shiʿriyyat al-tafāṣīl: Āthār Ritsūs fī al-shiʿr al-ʿarabī al-muʿāṣir [The poetics of detail: Traces of Ritsos in contemporary Arabic poetry] (Beirut: Al-Muʾassasa al-ʿArabiyya, 1998), 101–24. Ṣāliḥ includes useful bibliography with the Arabic editions of the translations. ↩

  17. I will be referencing the 2008 edition published in Cologne. For the poems in question, see Sarkūn Būluṣ, Al-ḥayāt qurba al-Akrūbūl [Life near the Acropolis] (Cologne: Manshūrāt al-Jamal, 2008), 21–28, 34–38. ↩

  18. The quotation is taken from Boulus’s interview with Margaret Obank in Banipal 1 (February 1998): 8–18. Biographical details can be found there. For a self-narration of key life milestones, see Sargon Boulus and Safeta Obhodjas, Legenden und Staub [Legends and dust] (Münster: Lit-Verlag, 2002). ↩

  19. Sarkūn Būluṣ, Al-wuṣūl ilā Madīnat Ayna [Arrival at Where City] (Athens: Sāriq al-Nār, 1985). On the Athenian period in Boulus’s career, see Ṣalāḥ Fāʾiq’s article for Jadaliyya, accessed June 11, 2020,; and al-Ḥājj’s witness account in Jehat, accessed June 11, 2020, ↩

  20. For these poems, see Sarkūn Būluṣ, Al-wuṣūl ilā Madīnat Ayna (Cologne: Manshūrāt al-Jamal, 2003), 33–35, 121. ↩

  21. See Ḥusayn Bin Ḥamza, “Sarkūn Būluṣ: Al-nathr bi-juruʿāt kabīra” [Sargon Boulus: Prose in big gulps], Al-akhbar, October 11, 2007, accessed June 13, 2020, ↩

  22. Būluṣ, Al-ḥayāt qurba al-Akrūbūl, 59–60. All translations from the Arabic are my own unless otherwise noted. ↩

  23. For this argument see Creswell, City of Beginnings, 66. ↩

  24. In this respect, the Beiruti modernists ideologized the ancient Near East in a manner similar to the Canaanite nativism in Hebrew poetry. For this movement, see Hannan Hever, “Territoriyaliyut, kenaʿaniyut, ve-aherut be-sifrut milhemet ha-ʿatsmaʾut” [Territorialism, Canaanism, and otherness in Independence War literature], in Ha-sipur ve-ha-leʾom [Narrative and nation] (Tel Aviv: Resling, 2007), 175–209. ↩

  25. On Miłosz, see Sargon Boulus, “Ithaka Gave You the Journey,” Jehat (no date given), accessed June 12, 2020, For the Auden translations, see W. H. Auden, ­Qaṣāʾid mukhtāra [Selected poems] (Beirut: Manshūrāt al-Jamal, 2012). ↩

  26. “Auden was the first poet writing in English who felt at home in the twentieth century.” Edward Mendelson, ed., W. H. Auden: Selected Poems (London: Faber and Faber, 1979), ix. ↩

  27. On the dialogue between Boulus, Tu Fu, and other world poets, see Sinan Antoon, “Sargon Boulus and Tu Fu’s Ghost(s),” Journal of World Literature 2, no. 3 (2017): 297–319. ↩

  28. Much of what Adūnīs has claimed to have “created” was in fact — in line with standard modernist practices — translated and refashioned without acknowledging sources. For these acts of creative “thievery,” he later came under severe attack for being a provincial thinker and a downright plagiarist. See, e.g., ʿAbd al-Qādir al-Jannābī’s Risāla maftūḥa ilā Adūnīs [An open letter to Adūnīs] (Beirut: Dar al-Jadid, 1999), a venomous takedown of Adūnīs’s Surrealism and Sufism. See also Kāẓim Jihād’s highly tendentious Adūnīs muntaḥilan [Adūnīs the counterfeiter] (Cairo: Madbuli, 1993), which seeks to incriminate Adūnīs of being a serial plagiarist from the poetry of Saint-John Perse. ↩

  29. Robert J. C. Young, “World Literature and Language Anxiety,” in Approaches to World Literature (Berlin: Akademie Verlag, 2013), 27–38. ↩

  30. Taken from a 1979 address before the Moroccan Writers Union on the occasion of its sixth annual convention. See Muḥammad Bannīs, “Al-muʾtamar al-sādis li-(i)ttiḥād kuttāb al-Maghrib” [The sixth convention of the Moroccan Writers Union], Al-thaqāfa al-jadīda 12 (January 1979): 166–67. ↩

  31. Muḥammad Bannīs, Al-shiʿr al-ʿarabī al-ḥadīth: Bināyātuhu wa-ibdālātuhā [Modern Arabic poetry: Its structures and their transformations], 4 vols. (Casablanca: Toubqal, 1989–90).  ↩

  32. Muḥammad Bannīs, “Bayān al-kitāba” [A manifesto for kitāba] (1981), in Ḥadāthat al-suʾāl [Modernity in question] (Casablanca: Al-Markaz al-Thaqāfī al-ʿArabī, 1988), 17. ↩

  33. Ibid. ↩

  34. Roland Barthes, S/Z: An Essay (New York: Hill and Wang, 1974), 5–6. ↩

  35. Muḥammad Bannīs, “Li-musāʾalat al-ḥadātha” [Toward questioning modernity], Al-karmil 12 (April 1984): 57. ↩

  36. Bannīs, “Bayān al-kitāba,” 11–14 (on the poetry of historical witness), 19–20 (on the force of mutaʿāliyāt in the Maghrib). ↩

  37. For the Amour bilingue in English, see Abdelkebir Khatibi, Love in Two Languages, trans. Richard Howard (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1990). ↩

  38. See a key essay by that name in Bannīs, Ḥadāthat al-suʾāl, 43–64. For a recent summary of Khatibi’s intellectual project, see Khalid Lyamlahy, “The Professional Stranger: On Abdelkebir Khatibi’s ‘Plural Maghreb,’” LA Review of Books, December 3, 2019, accessed June 13, 2020, ↩

  39. Bannīs, H.adāthat al-suʾāl, 44–45. ↩

  40. This figure is at its starkest in the opening pages of Modernity in Question (Ḥadāthat al-suʾāl, 7–8), where Bennis discusses the rupture that led to the transfer of power from Beirut as center to the Moroccan periphery and, concurrently, to the reconstitution of ḥadātha as a “question.” See also Bennis’s reading of the hāmish (margin, gloss) as the vital active ingredient in modern Arab thought (ibid., 145–48). ↩

  41. Bannīs, Al-shiʿr al-ʿarabī al-ḥadīth, 3:198–202. ↩

  42. Bannīs, “Bayān al-kitāba,” 26. ↩

  43. Muḥammad Bannīs, “Hākadhā kallamanī al-sharq” [Thus spoke to me the East], Al-thaqāfa al-jadīda 12 (January 1979): 113–25. ↩

  44. Ibid., 125. ↩

  45. Bannīs, “Li-musāʾalat al-ḥadātha,” 57. ↩

  46. Camilo Gomez-Rivas, “Mohammed Bennis: Keeping the Language Alive,” Banipal 29 (Summer 2007): 113–24. ↩

  47. Muḥammad Bannīs, “Shayʾun ʿan taqāṭuʿ al-azmina” [Something on intersecting times], Kalimāt 1 (October 1983): 65–68. ↩

  48. ʿAbdallah al-Ghadhdhāmī in proper MSA transliteration. Changed in conformity with spoken pronunciation and for the sake of readers’ convenience. His last name is sometimes pronounced and transliterated as “al-Ghathami.” ↩

  49. ʿAbdallah Muḥammad al-Ghadhdhāmī, Al-naqd al-thaqāfī: Qirāʾa fī al-ansāq al-thaqāfiyya al-ʿarabiyya [Cultural criticism: A reading of Arab cultural systems] (Beirut: Al-Markaz al-Thaqāfī al-ʿArabī, 2005), 275. ↩

  50. See Daniel Behar, “The New Austerity in Syrian Poetry” (PhD diss., Harvard University, 2019). ↩

  51. Muḥammad Jamāl Bārūt, “Muqārabāt awwaliyya li-l-nathrī wa-l-yawmī” [Basic approaches to the prosaic and the everyday], Al-anṭūlūjiyā, September 24, 2017, accessed June 13, 2020, ↩

  52. In the context of Hebrew poetry, Benjamin Harshav played an analogous key role in giving coherence to the Likrat poets, the so-called State Generation. Harshav has eloquently argued for the heterogeneity of poetics included in the Western modernist canon, specifically the opposite directions of dense metaphorical symbolism (as in Adūnīs’s work) and a minimalism of concrete detail and direct seeing (as in Boulus and the Syrian poets). See Harshav, Omanut ha-shira [The art of poetry] (Jerusalem: Karmel, 2000), 147–51. ↩

  53. ʿAbdallah al-Ghadhdhāmī, Al-marʾa wa-l-lugha [Women and language] (Beirut: Al-Markaz al-Thaqāfī al-ʿArabī, 2006), 57–83. The connection with One Thousand and One Nights, Shahrazad, and the vernacular tradition is made explicit there. ↩

  54. The range of terms and claims covered in this paragraph all crop up in Al-naqd al-thaqāfī, 100–132. ↩

  55. Ibid., 262. ↩

  56. For the impact of these Moroccan thinkers on Arab intellectual life, see Bannīs, Ḥadāthat al-suʾāl, 43–64. For an explicit link between al-Ghadhdhāmī and al-Jābirī, see Idrīs Jabrī, “Fī taqāṭuʿ mashrūʿay al-Jābirī wa-l-Ghadhdhāmī” [On the intersection between al-Jābirī’s and al-Ghaddāmī’s projects], ʿAlāmāt fi al-naqd 58 (December 2005): 95–130. ↩

  57. His personal narration of the social changes following the oil boom encapsulates his critique. See ʿAbdallah al-Ghadhdhāmī, Ḥikāyat al-ḥadātha fī al-Mamlaka al-ʿArabiyya al-Saʿūdiyya [Story of modernity in the Saudi Arabian kingdom] (Beirut: Al-Markaz al-Thaqāfī al-ʿArabī, 2005), 149–73. ↩

  58. Ibid., 29–32. ↩

  59. Ibid., 133–42, where al-Ghaddāmī depicts, inter alia, the ceremonies of full-body veiling as Saudi girls reach puberty. ↩

  60. Ibid., 113–17. ↩

  61. ʿAbdallah al-Ghadhdhāmī, Al-khaṭīʾa wa-l-takfīr: Min al-bunyawiyya ilā al-tashrīḥiyya [Sin and atonement: From structuralism to deconstruction] (Jeddah: Al-Nādī al-Adabī al-Thaqāfī, 1985). For al-Ghaddāmī’s self-narration of the scandal’s unfolding and its aftermath, see Ḥikāyat al-ḥadātha, 175–288. ↩

  62. Al-Ghadhdhāmī, Ḥikāyat al-ḥadātha, 183–86. ↩

  63. Al-Ghaddāmī explains his method as “opposition by way of rebuilding.” See Al-khaṭīʾa wa-l-takfīr, 89–90. ↩

  64. The title of Shiḥāta’s signature essay (originally delivered as a seven-hour lecture) is Al-rujūlaʿimād al-khuluq al-fāḍil [Masculinity is the pillar of virtuous character]. It is available in full on the personal blog titled Mahsabbagh, September 22, 2012, accessed September 30, 2020, ↩

  65. Northrop Frye, Anatomy of Criticism (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1957), 121. ↩

  66. Saḥīḥ al-Bukhārī [Al-Bukhārī’s collection of authentic hadiths], ed. Muṣṭafā Dīb al-Baghā (Beirut: Ibn Kathīr, 1993), 5:2279. See also al-Ghadhdhāmī, Al-naqd al-thaqāfī, 95. ↩

  67. For a robust critique of al-Ghaddāmī’s overgeneralizations and single-mindedness, see Ḥasan al-Muṣṭafā, “Al-Ghadhdhāmī: Tahāfut al-naqd wa-qirāʾat al-tanmīṭ wa-l-qasr” [Al-Ghaddāmī: Critique repudiated, readings standardized and coerced], Nizwa 32 (October 2002): 81–90. ↩

  68. Mentioned in Marko Juvan, “Peripheral Modernism and the World-System: Slovenian Literature and Theory of the Nineteen-Sixties,” Slavica tergestina 23 (2019): 173. Ďurišin’s idea is, in turn, indebted to the Soviet-Bulgarian literary theorist Georgi Gachev. ↩

  69. Phrase borrowed from Madawi al-Rasheed, Muted Modernists: The Struggle over Divine Politics in Saudi Arabia (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015). ↩

  70. Juvan, “Peripheral Modernism and the World-System,” 173. ↩

  71. Franco Moretti, “Conjectures on World Literature,” in World Literature in Theory, ed. David Damrosch (Chichester, UK: Wiley-Blackwell, 2014), 163. ↩

  72. Juvan, “Peripheral Modernism and the World-System,” 182. ↩