Arab cultural circles have recently mourned the loss of the prominent Egyptian intellectual Latifa al-Zayyat, who died of cancer in Cairo on September 10, 1996. She was 73 years old. Her death came soon after she had received Egypt ’s highest State Prize for literature. While the state’s acknowledgment of her achievements was long overdue, al-Zayyat had much popular and collegial support throughout her often difficult life-journey.
Awarding Shirin Ebadi the Nobel Peace Prize this year is perhaps the greatest event, symbolically, in the history of this prize in all its fields, literary and scientific. It is the first time that an individual did not earn it merely as an acknowledgment for his/her work or creativity, however unique. Granting the award to a Muslim woman lifts this honor to something beyond--and more significant. It mandates a type of deep questioning of a culture in its entirety—of its values, relationships, human dimensions, horizons, and its roots.
In past wars and crises, Arab culture has become an issue, if not by inviting stereotypical characterizations, then in the debates and controversies among its most celebrated thinkers. During the war on Iraq, this was nowhere more apparent than in the Arab world, though still visible to a lesser extent in the United States, namely among Arab-American intellectuals and academics.
Certainly a majority of Arab intellectuals and journalists used to identify with a popular discourse devoid of any rationality; only a small number refused to believe the Iraqi regime's deception. That small group of Arab intellectuals developed a unique understanding, free from the strong emotional agitation which Saddam's regime used so effectively. One cannot deny that there are lessons to be learned from it concerning the condition of the Arab culture, especially those on the production end of the culture.
In 1978, while in his 20s, the young writer Sattar Jabr Naser caused a controversy in Baghdad with his book, "Reflections on the Book of Ali al-Wardi: Glimpses of the Modern History of Iraq." Naser denied that he was seeking fame by studying the flaws of his teacher, but insisted that he wanted to accomplish what his teacher could not. However, the destiny awaiting him was indifferent to his motives.
In recent years, we have seen the rise of a rich body of immigrant literatures, including many powerful works by Arab-American women who have set out to interrogate their own, often fragmented, identities. Unlike earlier generations of Arab-American writers, these women are consciously building bridges to other communities of color.
Arabic literature is perhaps one of very few literary traditions that have a distinct literary genre known as the "prison novel." This is not only because a great majority of writers have themselves lived the experience of arrest, imprisonment, and even torture, but also because the history of the contemporary Arab intellectual is one of constant struggle with the authorities.
My friend Inge phoned from San Francisco to ask me if she had to buy a chador in order to visit the magnificent mosques of Isfahan and Turkey. I said that for Turkey I did not think she would need to, but that for Isfahan I was not sure, though usually in Islamic countries Western women and Christian women in general weren't obliged to wear the veil. The conversation went on, and we ended up discussing "fundamentalists'" insistence on the mandatory veiling of Moslem women.
Spoken by more than 250 million individuals today, the Arabic language is the only language among the Semitic languages that has undergone a constant expansion for nearly three millennia. The last 150 years have been among the most decisive years in its evolution.