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10-08-2015, 23:03


As in other areas of Asia and Africa, the encounter with the West in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries stimulated a cultural renaissance in the Middle East. Muslim authors translated Western works into Arabic and Persian and began to experiment with new literary forms. The advent of modern newspapers and magazines eliminated the traditional differences between the oral and written languages. The resulting fused language included colloquial speech, borrowed Western words, and ancient words resurrected from indigenous languages. The new literature dealt with a number of new themes. The rise in national consciousness stimulated interest in historical traditions. Writers also switched from religious to secular themes and addressed the problems of this world and the means of rectifying them. Furthermore, literature was no longer the exclusive domain of the elite but was increasingly written for the broader mass of the population. Iran has produced one of the most prominent national literatures in the contemporary Middle East. Since World War II, Iranian literature has been hampered somewhat by political considerations, since it has been expected to serve first the Pahlavi monarchy and more recently the Islamic Republic. Nevertheless, Iranian writers are among the most prolific in the region and often write in prose, which has finally been accepted as the equal of poetry. Perhaps the most outstanding Iranian author of the twentieth century was short-story writer Sadeq Hedayat. Hedayat was obsessed with the frailty and absurdity of life and wrote with compassion about the problems of ordinary human beings. Frustrated and disillusioned at the government’s suppression of individual liberties, he committed suicide in 1951. Like Japan’s Mishima Yukio, Hedayat later became a cult figure among his country’s youth. Despite the male-oriented nature of Iranian society, many of the new writers were women. Since the revolution, the chador, or veiled garment, has become the central metaphor in Iranian women’s writing. Advocates praise the veil as the last bastion of defense against Western cultural imperialism. Behind the veil, the Islamic woman can breathe freely, unpolluted by foreign exploitation and moral corruption. They see the veil as the courageous woman’s weapon against Western efforts to dominate the Iranian soul. Other Iranian women, however, consider the veil a “mobile prison” or an oppressive anachronism from the Dark Ages. A few use the pen as a weapon in a crusade to liberate their sisters and enable them to make their own choices. As one writer, Sousan Azadi, expressed it, “As I pulled the chador over me, I felt a heaviness descending over me. I was hidden and in hiding. There was nothing visible left of Sousan Azadi.” 3 Like Iran, Egypt in the twentieth century has experienced a flowering of literature accelerated by the establishment of the Egyptian republic in the early 1950s. The most illustrious contemporary Egyptian writer is Naguib Mahfouz (b. 1911), who won the Nobel Prize in literature in 1988. His Cairo Trilogy, published in 1952, chronicles three generations of a merchant family in Cairo during the tumultuous years between the two world wars. Mahfouz is particularly adept at blending panoramic historical events with the intimate lives of ordinary human beings with great compassion and energy. Unlike many other modern writers, his message is essentially optimistic and reflects his hope that religion and science can work together for the overall betterment of humankind. No women writer has played a more active role in exposing the physical and psychological grievances of Egyptian women than Nawal el-Saadawi (b. 1931). For decades, she has battled against the injustices of religious fundamentalism and a male-dominated society—even enduring imprisonment for promoting her cause. In Two Women in One (1985), el-Saadawi follows the struggle of a young university student as she rebels against the life her father has programmed for her, striking out instead on an unchartered independent destiny. The emergence of a modern Turkish literature can be traced to the establishment of the republic in 1923. The most popular contemporary writer is Orhan Pamuk (b. 1952), whose novels attempt to capture Turkey’s unique blend of cultures. “I am living in a culture,” he writes, “where the clash of East and West, or the harmony of East and West, is the lifestyle. That is Turkey.”4 In his novel The Black Book (1994), Pamuk resuscitates Istanbul’s past from the multitude of Byzantine, Ottoman, and republican artifacts strewn in the muddy depths of the Bosporus. Although Israeli literature arises from a totally different tradition from that of its neighbors, it shares with them certain contemporary characteristics and a concern for ordinary human beings. Early writers identified with the aspirations of the new nation, trying to find a sense of order in the new reality, voicing terrors from the past and hope for the future. Some contemporary Israeli authors, however, have refused to serve as promoters for Zionism and are speaking out on sensitive national issues. The internationally renowned novelist Amos Oz (b. 1939), for example, is a vocal supporter of peace with the Palestinians. Oz is a member of Peace Now and the author of a political tract titled Israel, Palestine, and Peace. In an interview, Oz accused both Ariel Sharon and Yasir Arafat of being “immovable, handcuffed to the past and to each other.” 5 With the Arabs feeling victimized by colonialism and the Jews by Nazi Germany, each side believes that it alone is the rightful proprietor of ancient Palestine. For Oz, the only solution is compromise, which, however unsatisfactory for both sides, is preferable to mutual self-destruction. Like literature, the art of the modern Middle East has been profoundly influenced by its exposure to Western culture. Reflecting their hopes for the new nation, Israeli painters sought to bring to life the sentiments of pioneers arriving in a promised land. Many attempted to capture the longing for community expressed in the Israeli commune, or kibbutz. Others searched for the roots of Israeli culture in the history of the Jewish people or in the horrors of the Holocaust. The experience of the Holocaust has attracted particular attention from sculptors, who work in wood and metal as well as stone. The popular music of the contemporary Middle East has also been strongly influenced by that of the modern West, but to different degrees in different countries. In Israel, many contemporary young rock stars voice lyrics as irreverent toward the traditions of their elders as those of Europe and the United States do. One idol of many Israeli young people, rock star Aviv Ghefen, declares himself to be “a person of no values,” and his music carries a shock value that attacks the country’s political and social shibboleths with abandon. The rock music popular among Palestinians, on the other hand, makes greater use of Arab musical motifs and is closely tied to a political message. One recent recording, “The Song of the Engineer,” lauds Yehia Ayash, a Palestinian accused of manufacturing many of the explosive devices used in terrorist attacks on Israeli citizens. The lyrics have their own shock value: “Spread the flame of revolution. Your explosive will wipe the enemy out, like a volcano, a torch, a banner.” When one Palestinian rock leader from the Gaza Strip was asked why his group employed a musical style that originated in the West, he explained, “For us, this is a tool like any other. Young people in Gaza like our music, they listen to us, they buy our cassettes, and so they spread our message.”