Desire for the West, Desire for the Self:
National Love and the Colonial Encounter
in an Early Arabic Novel


Stephen Sheehi

University of Utah

Copyright © 1999 by Stephen Sheehi, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. Copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the author.

    For Edward Said [1]

    His friend replied, "The true reason for this decline is the import of Western customs (al-madaniyah al-gharbiyah) to the East, and the Easterners' imitation of every aspect of their society as if they were blindly following those who can see. This is not enlightened inquiry though!" "Oh how I wish that I could go, investigate, and see what is at the heart of Western civilization (al-madaniyah al-gharbiyah) inside and out!" exhorted the Pasha. Then 'Isa ibn Hisham concluded, "Don't worry, my Prince! You may arrive at your wish one day soon. Perhaps I can travel with you on a journey to the countries of the West so that we may harvest the fruits of their knowledge."
    --Muhammad Muwaylihi (335-36)

    Through the effects of speech, the subject always realizes himself more in the Other, but he is already pursuing there more than half of himself. He will simply find his desire ever more divided, pulverized, in the circumscribable metonymy of speech."
    --Jacques Lacan (188)

  1. During the nineteenth-century "Arab Renaissance" (al-nahdah al-`arabiyah), reformers, intellectuals, clerics, and literati were struggling to re-conceptualize Arab identity.. Their project led them to ask a number of questions. Who were the Arabs within historical and cultural continuua? Who were they politically vis-à-vis their elites, their minorities, and their masses? And, equally important, what was their position in an increasing and inequitable relationship with the West? Despite ideological, confessional, and regional differences, Arab intellectuals agreed that native Arabo-Islamic culture was in a state of "decay" (inhitat) and, consequently, in need of infusion of positivist knowledge. Most of these intellectuals agreed that cultural, social, moral, subjective and political rejuvenation could be accomplished by importing foreign (i.e. Western) knowledge and rationalist methodologies and/or reviving parallel methodologies inherent to the Arab Islamic tradition. [2]
  2. Post-colonial theorists such as Edward Said, Frantz Fanon, Aimé Césaire, and Octave Mannoni have shown us that the analytical binaries (e.g., civilization-decay) used for self-diagnosis are not objective representations transparently tranferable into projects for native reform, but are shaped by a teleology of Western "superiority." Consequently, much writing from the Arab Renaissance exhibits a tension between the need to maintain Arab cultural authenticity and the need to assimilate Western positivist knowledge and social principles in the pursuit of national "progress" (taqaddum). Before many of the more prominent reformist intellectuals would engage these questions, editor, author, and Lebanese social reformer Salim al-Bustani (1848-1882) wrote what could be called the first Arabic novel: al-Huyam fi jinan al-Sham (Love in a Damascene Garden). The story is about Suleiman Khalil, his friendship with a group of European travelers, and his subsequent tour of Syria in search of his beleaguered love, Wardah. Despite its literary flaws, the romance provides many of the stock paradigms, characteristic topoi, and narrative structures common to subsequent Arabic romance.
  3. This article examines how Salim al-Bustani attempts in al-Huyam to resolve the conflict between desire for "European knowledge" and the desire to preserve native authenticity. He does so by constructing a national love-object that represents the social and political criteria of "progress," while also embodying the cultural criteria of the Arab "nation" itself. However, a close exegesis of the text discloses the ambiguous effect of Arab reform discourse. That is, in the attempt to resolve the conflict created by an internalized Orientalism, images of the desired national love-object and fantasies of native closure become a transposition of the enlightened nineteenth-century Arab's desire for hisWestern counterpart.

  5. The protagonist, Suleiman Khalil, has returned from a long sojourn in Europe and has decided to tour Greater Syria, [3] whereupon he befriends a group of French tourists in Damascus. On route to the ruins of Palmyra, the group is attacked by a menacing band of Bedouins. During a debate on whether to fight or to pay a ransom for their freedom, Suleiman and his companions find time to discuss the importance of fidelity, freedom, and oppression. Junly, one of the two European women of the group, passionately refuses to succumb to extortion, saying "dear death is preferable to he who lives in oppression and slavery" (254). Monsieur Bellerose, the Western patriarch of the group, is apprehensive about fighting the Bedouin because he distrusts their native Arab guide. He states that
  6. [the group's native guide] will leave us when things get dangerous because the manners of Eastern peoples (sh`ub al-sharq) are unpredicable and cowardly. They fear disastrous events, calamities, and dismay because they have the natural disposition for apathy and laziness, and are used to oppression and slavery (dhall wa `ubudiyah) (254). [4]

  7. Bellerose's accusatory tone runs throughout the text and expresses many classic colonialist views of the West toward the native subject: Arabs are cowadly, lazy, apathetic, and passive. Earlier, Suleiman had beaten his local guide and an innkeeper after they attempted to cheat him. He explained that he had been compelled to teach them a lesson before they cheated a European and thereby badly represented the behavior of "Easterners" to the West. Bellerose's comments confirm Suleiman's understanding of Western prejudice towards Arabs, a prejudice that "judges us as savage and barbarians" (28).
  8. This antagonism is further demonstrated in the relationship between the hero and Dr. Boueff. Throughout the first half of the text, their discussions almost invariably center on Eastern backwardness and Western civilization; the Doctor presents disparaging analyses of Arab culture and society, while Suleiman offers explanations, apologies, defenses, or outright counter-attacks. Upon their first meeting, Suleiman confronts the Doctor, saying that
  9. European physicians come to the East to reside in it for a long time and, at the sunset of their lives, they return to their own country with much wealth. Now I say, "you (pl.), in this case, are the opportunists and we are those who are being taken-advantage of. We ask God to give success to those who have begun to learn this craft (medicine) so as to relieve us, first of all, from such arrogance, oppression, and opportunism. As for me, I prefer a death by a national treatment than to live by foreign medicine." (123)

  10. Suleiman attempts to turn the Hegelian table on Dr. Boueff by exposing the self-serving intent of European doctors. The hero makes it clear that if progress and the adoption of modern knowledge entail humiliation, Arabs can perhaps suffice without these gifts. Irony is redoubled in the passage immediately following Suleiman's criticism of the Doctor. Suleiman expresses hope that more native sons will learn medicine, and make the nation independent from foreign dependency. But for now, however, he confesses his desire to become a physician, saying "I am dependent on you to teach me [medicine] for a price" (123).
  11. The relationship between Suleiman and Dr. Boueff, and between Arabs and Europeans, cannot be one of unvarnished antagonism, just as it must not be one of blind admiration and mimesis. Therefore it takes the form of a begrudging apprenticeship. This situation is indisputably allegorical. While he is as intelligent as the Doctor, and more courageous, Suleiman is aware that the teacher-student relationship in which he participates necessarily places the Westerner in the authoritative position. In fact, Suleiman explicitly likens the pedagogical relationship to a father-son relationship (126). His insistence on a fee for Boueff's services, therefore, is one tactic to undercut this authority because it severs the Doctor's propriety over knowledge, thereby allowing it to be possessed with no unnecessary bonds of gratitude or debt.
  12. The struggle for ownership and mastery of scientific knowledge is seen throughout the text. For example, the protagonist carries on a jihad against the evils of smoking. The degree and passion with which Suleiman attacks the habit suggest his long-time concern for it as not only as a social but also as a medical issue. [5] Wardah too argues against the unhealthy habit when Suleiman first spies on her and her friends in the Damascus park (59). Similarly, Suleiman rebukes the Doctor who, as a man of medicine, should know the harm of smoking. A fine example of the dangers of blindly adopting European habits that are misrecognized as progress, the polemics against smoking's detrimental effects powerfully illustrate the serious consequences of cultural assimilation through mimicry. Therefore, the smoking controversy offers Suleiman an opportunity to stand out amongst his countrymen and an opportunity to confront Dr. Boueff on an issue about which the 'backwards' native holds the righteous social and scientific high-ground (122-23). [6] The incident also demonstrates Suleiman's competence in the health, educational, and social concerns essential to progress and reform discourse.
  13. Seizing the high ground allows Suleiman to establish credibility as a successful and autonomous Arab subject involved in an unequal power relationship. While his antagonism toward Dr. Boueff is superficially concealed by "mentorship," Suleiman finds himself apologizing for his campatriots in reply to relentless Wesstern indictments of Arab culture and social practices. For example, as an apprentice to the Doctor, Suleiman accompanies him on a call--coincidentally to the house of the heroine, Wardah, whose eye had been minorly injured by a twig. The Doctor compliments Suleiman for his appreciation of expediency after he had suggested a short cut to the patient's house. Boueff continues, however, to say that Suleiman's compatriots are ordinarily slow and inefficient. In concurrence, Suleiman responds that since he has lived in Europe, he knows the value of time. Yet, Salim-the-narrator offers a further explanation, one based on 'scientific theories' popular at the time. The cause of the Arabs' lethargy and slowness, Suleiman says, is the warm climate in which they live, whereas Westerners' brisk efficiency is attributed to Europe's cold climate (124). Caught between cultures, Al-Bustani's virtuous characters recognize European civility as the standard of reference for normative social behavior and development, but they simultaneously provide apologies and defenses for why Arab fall short of this standard.
  14. This is the predicament of the enlightened native Suleiman, who continually finds himself stranded between the captious remarks of his French friends and the unacceptable behavior of his country folk--an uncomfortable position that suggests that pre-existing class structures influence the reception of European cultural hegemony. For example, as the traveling party arrive in Palmyra, they pass by the village shaykh who, in welcoming them, rudely orders his wife to bring their guests water. His poor treatment of his wife causes Suleiman to reprimand him, saying "he who is generous to wife is generous to himself." He comments further that such ungenerous habits are learned from one's parents and passed on, impeding the inculcation of character and refinement in one's children. But he also notes in his lecture to the shaykh that the attitudes towards women in Syria have improved, particularly in cosmopolitan areas:
  15. I know many people of the East who are contemptuous of women but since I returned from the Europe (al-bilad al-afanjiyah) I have not heard of anything like this in Beirut, Damascus (al-Sham) or any other of the Syrian cities . . . (222).

    This statement reflects the centrality of womens' rights in Arab intellectuals' paradigms for local and national reform. Moreover, Suleiman affirms the dynamism of his own metropolitan cultural milieu, shoring up Arabs against his friends' accusations that progress and Arab culture are incompatible.

  16. Therefore, while Suleiman demonstrates an awareness of the prevalence of the oppression of native women, he also is conscious of the ever-present gaze of his European counterparts. After his non-Arabic-speaking Western companions ask about the discussion that he and the shaykh were having, he misrepresents the nature of the conversation: out of discretion and political expedience:
  17. I did not want to tell her (Junly) about that which demonstrates our backwardness in the realm of culture (`ala ta'khirina fil-adab) which is the fundamental foundation for society and the refinement of our age (tahdhib al-jil). So I preferred to lie in response. I said to her, "We were talking about some of the causes of refinement" (222).

  18. Despite his identification with "Western civilization" and cultural progress, Suleiman refuses to disclose the actual conversation to his European friends in fear of confirming their stereotypes and prejudices. Treatments of women's rights in al-Huyam clearly demonstrate that the enlightened Arab is struggling with the paradox of European "success" (najah) and indigenous failure. They highlight the conundrum of the reform project: it is a three-cornered wrestling match between the need to acquire a progressive "mind-set" (`aql), the need to recognize contemporary Arab shortcomings, and the self-awareness that Arabs are beholden to Europeans but also vulnerable to their insults.
  19. Yet, Salim-the-narrator's and Suleiman-the-hero's apologies and defenses seem less awkward or embarrassing than they might first appear. In al-Huyam, another tactic in struggling with Western propriety over positivist knowledge and progressive ideals is the undermining of European character itself. The novel thus avoids casting Europeans as the positive pole of a binary system that inevitably forces Arabs into negative positions, and its dramatic episodes allow Arabs to demonstrate the virtues that binary thinking would deny them. Suleiman, for instance, is compared to Dr. Boueff, who, while educated, is an unabashed coward. Despite Monsieur Bellerose's aforementioned fears that their Arab guide will abandon them, Suleiman and his native men distinguish themselves in the fight with the Bedouin. In contrast, Dr. Boueff presses the group to pay the ransom and avoid the conflict; he avoids the military aspects of the battle by attending to the wounded. The Doctor's explicit cowardice during the battle alienates the object of his desire, Mademoiselle Junly, and suggests that "progress" involves not only mastery of scientific knowledge but also the practice of the classical Arab muruwah, the manly, chivalric code.
  20. The dichotomies inherent in Salim's novels serve allegorical purposes. Reading allegorically, we are not concerned with whether Salim intentionally created Dr. Boueff as a demonstration of `ilm (knowledge) without akhlaq (character); or how the Doctor functions as an independent caricature, representing Europeans' flaws despite their advancement. Rather, the importance of an allegorical reading is its relational effect. The Doctor's lack of valor makes visible Suleiman's brave successes. Dr. Boueff's willingness to sacrifice freedom and dignity for safety exactly contradicts and therefore accentuates Junly's credo that life is not worth living under oppression. Further, Dr. Boueff's actions resemble Monsieur Bellerose's preconceptions of Arab infidelity and laziness, thus exposing the hollowness of racial and cultural stereotypes. Through the portrait of the Doctor, the model of European knowledge becomes ineffective because it suffers from the very vices that Europe has projected onto the Arabs. New emphases on morality and virtue bestow authority on the Eastern subject, as represented by the educated native, thereby addressing the disadvantageous position the Arabs otherwise have in their belated, Hegelian relationship with the West.

  22. Specular desire drives the romance plot of Al-Huyam. Suleiman's search for and reunion with Wardah begins with his watching her in a Damascene garden, where he is immediately enamored with her beauty and refinement. This paradaisical setting, one reinforced by the Eve-in-the-garden images occurring in his subsequent dreams of her, encloisters Wardah's purity and places her on an Edenic pedestal toward which one can only direct an admiring male gaze. During his first actual meeting with her, when he is acting as Dr. Boueff's assistant, he is virtually dumb-struck. At her house in Damascus, he only manages to whisper to her, "I wish it were my eye (that was injured) not yours" (126). They do not exchange any other words until they are "reunited" in the Bedouin camp where they are coincidentally both held captive. Even there, direct conversation is muted and mediated. Communication is possible only when Wardah is disguised or otherwise unrecognizable: for example, they converse when Suleiman is held captive by the Bedouin and Wardah serves him in the dark (250) or, later, when she is disguised as a boy while Suleiman is imprisoned (722).
  23. Much criticism of nineteenth-century Arabic fiction maintains that dialogue, as an essential generic narrative element of the novel, is absent.[7]

  24. Wardah's passivity is demonstrated throughout the plot as she is tossed around from place to place, suitor to suitor, trial to resolution to trial again. Like Candide's Cunegonde, Wardah is desired, coveted, and exchanged by men. However, Cunegonde's sexual activity and the ability to continually regenerate her virginity, if not her life, imply active, albeit dubious, agency on her part. Wardah's virtue is never compromised, despite implications that she might have been molested by the abducting pirates and the hero's fear that he "would find and see her in a state that [he] would like not to see her in" (509). On the ship that Suleiman commandeers, Wardah's only activity is crying and wishing for death until her love saves her. In this sense, she embodies a cultural ideal of the feminine centered on passivity. As Suleiman explains:
  25. The nature of women is to be kind, delicate, gentle, mild-mannered, and obedient. This is as opposed to men whose duties call for them to be rough, callous, and strong. Most important, these qualities are necessary for the defense of their women, their children, and their nation (121).

    Such a statement clearly places the male subject as defender of the nation and female subject as the embodiment of it. The efficacy of Suleiman and the passivity of Wardah must be highlighted if she is to be the hero's desired love-object.

  26. Wardah's passivity, her underdeveloped character, and her relationship with Suleiman stand in contradistinction to the European Madame Bellerose, the most intellectually developed character in the novel apart from Suleiman himself. As opposed to her monolingual French companions, she speaks Arabic and is versed in Arabic poetry. Specifically, she is described as having "a strong intelligence and firm rationality. She knew the righteousness of knowledge and duties it entails" (121). Her conversations with Suleiman are dialogues on culture and morality, at times argumentative but not antagonistic. Suleiman is enthralled by Madame Bellerose because she displays all the virtues of civilization and progress but also an understanding of Arab ways and history. For example, after Monsieur Bellerose has indicted the Arabs for being cowardly and slavish, it is Madame Bellerose who preempts what the reader may expect to be Suleiman's defense of Arab character. She says that, contrary to her husband's belief, the Arabs developed a sense of "national religious fervor" which motivated them to become independent from their Mamluk masters (254). Since Western accusations of Eastern slavishness are ammunition for European imperial projects, Madame Bellerose's invocation of Arab history in the defense of Arab character is neither ironic nor insignificant. Her stance relieves an antagonism between the defensive East and the accusing West, providing her with a special position between Arab and European subjects, or more specifically Suleiman and his countrymen and Bellerose and her compatriots. Madame Bellerose's open-mindedness and enlightenment relieve an antagonism between the defensive East and the accusing West, providing her with a special position between Arab and European subjects, or more specifically between Suleiman and his foreign friends' compatriots.
  27. It is crucial that Suleiman and Madame Bellerose's alliance occurs in Wardah's absence. While all main characters meet at the Bedouin camp, the direct relationship between Wardah and the hero only transpires after the relationship between him and Bellerose has been firmly established. Furthermore, after the release of the Europeans from Bedouin captivity, we never again see Suleiman's foreign friends. At this point, the protagonists' relationship takes on the compelling and passionate force necessary to motivate Suleiman's prolific efforts to find Wardah, from whom he has again been separated. I argue that the relationship between the hero and Wardah is a transposition of the relationship between the hero and Madame Bellerose. Moreover, his desire for Wardah is a transference of his original desire for the Western Bellerose.
  28. The process of transference is threaded through al-Huyam. Suleiman is infatuated by almost every "refined" woman he sees--including Wardah when she is unrecognizably disguised as a servant. Also, just as the hero spies on Wardah, he spies on Madame Bellerose and Junly in the forest; not recognizing them, he thinks that they are prostitutes (218). This act of spying is repeated throughout the text, if not literally then metaphorically, as when Suleiman carries on long internal monologues admiring various women for their beauty and virtue. However, on each occasion, after admiring them, Suleiman links these "love-objects" with Wardah, stating how they remind him of her (e.g. 319). The 'proper' object of specular desire, Wardah assumes and purifies the potential transgressions of sex that churn beneath Suleiman's visual erotics
  29. This act of looking, the male gaze possessing the female body, illustrates the active-passive relationship that I discussed earlier. If we agree with Jacques Lacan that "it is only with activity/passivity that the sexual relation really comes into play" (192), then Wardah, not Madame Bellerose, offers the perfect object-choice for Suleiman's displaced desire. The very qualities that make the European heroine desirable are undermined by her activity and her reciprocal relationship with the hero. Contrarily, Wardah is passive from the time of that first encounter in the park, where her refinement and decorum are contrasted with the aggressiveness of her elderly female attendant. Madame Bellerose, and the text's other women characters, function allegorically in the sense outlined above, through contrast producing Wardah as a relational effect.
  30. Suleiman recognizes his overlapping of desire for these two women, posing them as two competing love-objects who must be distinguished qualitatively through the lens of his own love:
  31. I said to myself that this lady (Bellerose) has shed my blood and, with love and dignity, I forgive her for her great sin. While my love for her is different than my love for Wardah, it is based on sincerity. As for my loving Wardah, my tongue is inadequate in describing it, and my mind is insufficient in acknowledging its depth. If I were to try to characterize the two loves, I would certainly fall short of it, explaining, after much effort, water with water. (152)

    This passage demonstrates that desire resists representation and, consequently, clear differentiation. While Suleiman's choice of Wardah is unambiguous, Bellerose's enthrallment of the hero, her "sin," is equally clear. Thus the two love objects blur, and choosing Wardah seems to include rather than to exclude other attractions.

  32. The transference of desire--that is, substituting an accessible love-object for an inaccessible or forbidden one--is a common trope in modern Arabic literature. A prominent example occurs in M.H. Haykal's Zaynab (1953), where Hamid's desire for the peasant girl Zaynab is only increased when his own love, `Azizah, is forced to marry elsewhere. Al-Mazini's Ibrahim al-Katib (Ibrahim the Scribner, 1931) is an older example of how the hero's primary desire is transferred. Ibrahim desires his cousin Shushu, who is replaced by two accessible and willing substitutes. Both of these lovers, Laylah and the Syrian-Christian nurse Marie, metonymically fulfill, at least temporarily, his primary desire for his cousin.
  33. In the case of al-Huyam, the transference of Suleiman's desire is more complicated than substituting one loved-object for another. Like Naguib Mahfouz's Bidayah wal-Nihiyah (The Beginning and the End) written some seventy years later, the protagonist's love-objecst (in Bidayah's case, Bahiyah and the daughter of Ahmad Bey) is a fantastic ideological and class-based assemblage. Wardah's qualities of refinement and civilization, notably her appreciation of knowledge and her virtue, facilitate the transposition of Suleiman's "love." That is, his desire is first fulfilled metonymically, through his relationship with Madame Bellerose, and then transfered to Wardah. Yet Wardah is more than a stand-in for Bellerose and the Western "success" that she represents, as is the case with Ahmad Bey's daughter in Mahfouz's Bidayah. Rather, as a passive native love-object, Wardah fulfills the desire of the Arab male subject without compromising his masculine efficacy and cultural autonomy.
  34. Hegel, among others, has shown us that in the search to fulfill desire, the subject defines who he is vis-à-vis whom he masters. Suleiman identifies himself--and asserts his mastery--through those porous binaries of cultural "decay" and "progress" demonstrated in his relationships with the Doctor and with other Arabs. Just as his success is not possible without the pernicious native failure of the hotel servant or the cowardice of Dr. Boueff, his transposed desire for Wardah is not possible without the existence of Madame Bellerose. Suleiman's pronouncement of love for Wardah announces his own commitment to both the principles of European-informed progress and the preservation of native authenticity. Al-Huyam demonstrates that European preeminence structures the native subjective ideal and his/her desire for national success. However, while the representation that Wardah embodies is circumscribed by her European counterpart's example, Madame Bellerose's activity and her foreign nationality prohibit the fulfillment of Suleiman's desire. Contrarily, Wardah, cultured and passive, is also a "native daughter" (ibnat al-watan)--a status permantently denied to Madame Bellerose.
  35. As we have seen, while Wardah is a mirror of Bellerose's refinement and enlightenment, the two do represent separate choices: a national choice and a foreign choice. Suleiman articulates this clearly by reminding himself upon each encounter with an attractive woman that Wardah is his sole love and that there can be no option other than the native one (94). Wardah can satisfy Suleiman's desire because she represents a nexus between the nation and a Western-inspired "progress." Likening the heroine to the nation and figuring the relationship between her and the hero as a national allegory are popular tropes that occur frequently in twentieth-century Arabic literature, especially in Egyptian national literature (al-adab al-qawmi). For example, in Haykal's Zaynab (1913), the female protagonist is, quite obviously, a metonymic stand-in or embodiment of the authentic nation. Likewise, Muhsin's love for his neighbor Saniya, in Tawfiq Hakim's `Awdat al-ruh (1928), is another ready example of this phenomenon.
  36. Doris Sommer's discussion of nineteenth-century Latin American melodramatic novels suggests useful ways of thinking about Arabic romances of the same period, particularly regarding shared "social ideals and concomitant strategies" (79). Sommer notes that the main characters usually originate from clashing social groups, classes, and ethnicities. The lovers' struggle for unification allegorizes the necessity and, in fact, the 'naturalness' of the nation and national unity (81). Latin American "novels are all ostensibly grounded in the 'natural' romance that legitimates the nation-family relationship through love" (76). In Europe and Latin America, she states, "love and productivity were coming together in the bourgeois household where, for the first time in the history of the family, love and marriage were supposed to coincide" (85). Consequently, "we may understand the concept love of country as a metonymy, and the goal of productivity as implying reproductivity. . . . Conjugal romance's national project. . . is to produce legitimate citizens, literally to engender civilization" (86). [8]

  37. Sommer's assertions are relevant to a host of Arabic romances, whether written by Syrian Nu`man Qasatli in the nineteenth century or by Shahatah al-`Ubayd in the twentieth century. [9] In the case of al-Huyam, her insights reinforce the understanding that the transference of Suleiman's desire for Wardah is necessary to national reform itself, and that the female protagonist is herself metonymically a national love-object. In al-Huyam, we not only find the popular leitmotif of "love of the nation" (hubb al-watan), so prevalent in the works of innumerable ruwwad al-nahdah (pioneers of the Arab Renaissance); the conjugal metaphor is made explicit at the end of novel. Salim-the-narrator discusses the progress of the nation towards civilization in such terms:
  38. As for the day prejudice (aghrad) dies, it is the day unity (ittihad) weds concord (ulfah) and the consummation of welfare (salih) (702).

  39. The conjugal metaphor regarding national reform and rejuvenation is particularly pertinent in a romance novel. The struggles of the protagonists are the struggles of the nation; they are not only mutually referential but inextricable. The union of two enlightened natives, Wardah and Suleiman, who allegorically wade their way through their country's decay and fanaticism, establishes a meaningful future for the nation, presenting the possibility for the reproduction of "progress."
  40. Al-Huyam is an expression of this process. Wardah is not only likened to the nation but also given the authority of the nation itself. In a letter to Suleiman who is searching throughout Lebanon and Syria for his love, Salim-the-narrator asks whether the hero still remembers his love. Suleiman responds "how can I forget her, she is like my kidney....She is my soul and the only thing I have in this world. She is my heaven." He continues:
  41. You are asking if I am returning to my nation. What is my nation, you wonder? Is it the buildings of Beirut and its trees or its heat and dust? Don't you know that my nation is where Wardah lives? And if she sets down at the end of the world, there is my nation. (572)

    Throughout the novel, Wardah embodies national progress, but in this passage she transcends it. She becomes an immutable sign of the nation while also transforming it into an ideal and idyllic state that fully merits unconditional love. The above passage shows that Wardah raises the nation to a new metaphysical level.

  42. Elsewhere in the text, we see that the nation (i.e. the geographic and physical place) becomes almost indistinguishable from Wardah. The romance plot traces Suleiman's wandering from Syrian city to Syrian city in his search for her. In other words, his love is a national tour. This tour brings him to the Cedars of Lebanon where he finds Wardah's name carved into a tree. This sign is her message to him. Salim-the-narrator, who has met his friend at the Cedars, tells us that Suleiman says:
  43. "No doubt that my love and the bloodline of my life, Wardah, has written her name here with her own hand because I told her that if I escaped from the Bedouin's captivity, I would go, in search of her, to all the famous places in Syria. So she wrote what she wrote knowing that I would pass by here." (510)

    Wardah's name is carved into the sign of the nation, the Cedar, which is explicitly stated as one of the "famous places in Syria." [10] The national monument and the female protagonist's name are conflated into an overdetermined signifer. The passage reveals that Wardah brings to her relationship with reform-minded Suleiman a national authenticity that Bellerose could never provide.

  44. The authenticity of Wardah-as-nation constitutes Suleiman's very identity, even his very existence. Just as, without her, he welcomes death (722), their initial separation sends him into anomie, leading him to profound, even profane, philosophical and existential questions. He asks himself:
  45. I wonder who I am, where am I among God's creatures, and what are the requisites of existence? Am I awake or dreaming? Who are these people who pass around me, going from here to there? How do they begin and how do they end? What is the path of their existence and what is the meaning of their death? . . . Are they born only to die and disappear and why? Does the sun set on humankind and never again rise? . . . Why is this person great and this one lowly? Why is this one rich and that one poor; that one strong and this one weak? Why is one tall and another short, and one brown-skinned (asmar) and another white? Why is this one Muslim and that one Christian? What is one's kinship and what is one's origin? What is existence as compared to non-being? And non-being versus being? What is this great secret that hides from us the understanding of these mysteries? (126-27) [11]

    The loss of Wardah is the loss of all that she embodies: the idealized and transcendental nation. Suleiman's philosophical tirade recognizes that contemporary social and cultural decadence constitute the social death of the nation. Moreover, the question of unification with Wardah, and the implied question of native reform itself, involve not only individual desire but also collective national teleology. Identity is established only if one is joined with his desired-object, his libidinal love, which is also a metonym for his nation and "progress." The lover and the patriot are one and the same.

  46. When we recognize that the political importance to the nation of union between male and female protagonists, the conclusion of al-Huyam takes on additional meaning, ambiguity, and irony. Salim-the-narrator receives a concluding letter from Suleiman, who has finally escaped to Italy with Wardah. We are informed that Wardah and the hero were married in Naples where they are currently residing. If as Sommer suggests, this marriage is the consummation of "progress," then it is fittingly consummated in Europe. This relocation of "the national choice" to Italy complicates the novel's ideology of reform.
  47. Certainly, as much of al-Huyam demonstrates, if native reform were simply the uncritical adoption of European culture and scientific knowledge, the result would be an unhappy eschaton: "civilization" (tamaddun) for the Arabs would imply a surrender of one's national-cultural identity. A union between Suleiman and Madame Bellerose, even if she were accessible, would offer such a result, and ratify the progressive native subject's rejection of the national choice. Such a union is seen in Salim's subsequent novel, Asma, where Nabihah, the culturally superficial counterpart to the heroine Asma, decides to marry a less-than-desirable European. By sole merit of his nationality, Nabihah construes her Western love to be the epitome of civilization, despite the poverty of his mind, spirit, and means. The transference of Suleiman's desire for Bellerose to Wardah in al-Huyam offers a more satisfactory resolution to this dilemma by substituting a domestic, indeed national, choice for his initial foreign one.
  48. This marriage, however, has an ironic discursive effect. As his union with Wardah takes place in Europe, it confirms the authority of Western "success." While the narrative of al-Huyam focuses on the importance of cultural authenticity in the project of national reform, the protagonists' marriage in Naples reasserts the primacy of an ideal European space where the exemplary Arab subjects have found refuge, solace, and closure. In other words, the novel's individual/collective dialectic contracts: the text's development of Wardah as the metonym of nation reverses itself, and the nation becomes a metonym for Wardah. Reformist national ideals collapse into alienated bourgeois domesticity, and the couple presides over a country that contains only themselves as subjects, a relocated Damascene garden paradise constituted by the specular gaze and its powers of transference.
  49. Salim al-Bustani's fiction struggles, not always successfully, to work out a new sense of Arab identity that hopes to circumvent the paradox inherent to reform discourse. His romances, al-Huyam in particular, present many strategies for articulating an Arab subjectivity that is efficacious and progressive while simultaneously authentic. Rather than seeing his novels as qualitatively poor [12] or merely didactic, they should be seen as a site of contestation, where the native subject is wrestling with the past glories of the Arab world, with its perceived contemporary decrepitude, with the Western hegemony that promises to keep getting stronger, and with the competing demands of progress and cultural tradition.


    [Stephen Sheehi is Visiting Professor of Arabic Literature at the University of Utah. His articles have appeared in Critique, Public, and The Arab Studies Journal. An abbreviated version of this article was presented at the Annual Middle Eastern Studies Association Conference, in San Francisco, Nov. 22 1997.]

  1. This article is dedicated to Prof. Edward Said, without whose political and intellectual commitment I would have been hard pressed to navigate the treacherous path between the potential hegemony of the colonial and nationalist legacies. I would also like to than Ruth Tsoffar and Deborah Wyrick for their most conscientious and invaluable editorial and substantive comments.Back

  2. For example, `Abd Allah al-Nadim, Jurji Zaydan, and Muhammad Muwaylihi attacked the indiscriminant imitation of Western customs, while also purporting progressive political and social stances and stressing the need for the infusion of "Western," positivist knowledge. Farah Antun, Y`aqub Sarruf, and Salamah Musa, contrarily, found Arab "tradition" stifling, and insisted on the need to base Arab cultural and social reform on exclusively scientific principles. Muhammad `Abduh and Rashid Rida found those principles within the Islamic tradition. Jibran Khalil Jibran and al-Manfaluti chose to circumvent the tension between cultural authenticity and "progress" by shifting to a discourse of romanticism that allowed the native Arab subject to find authority in the very transcendence of material progress and "civilization." Back

  3. A geographic term, Greater Syria includes Lebanon, Syria, and Palestine, as well as parts of modern-day Jordan, Iraq, and Turkey. Al-Bustani lived during the Ottoman period, when Greater Syria was divided administratively into various wilayat (provinces) and sanjaks, as well as the mutassarifah of Lebanon. Back

  4. All translations from Arabic to English are my own. Back

  5. Al-Bustani, in fact, wrote an article condemning smoking, "`Ubudiyah dakhaniyah" (Smoking Slavery), in al-Jinan (1870). Back

  6. Years later, various intellectuals such as literati Jurji Zaydan and Nadim `Abd Allah, clerics Muhammad `Abduh and Rashid Rida, and the romantic al-Manfaluti use smoking European-style cigarettes an emblem for their argument against the indiscriminate import of all Western habits. Back

  7. See, for example, M. M. Badawi's Modern Arabic Literature and the West, p. 132. Back

  8. See also her book, Foundational Fictions. Back

  9. For example, Nu`man al-Qasatli, al-Fatat al-aminah wa ummuha (The Virtuous Girl and her Mother) in al-Jinan (Beirut: 1880); Riwayat Anis (The Story of Anis) in al-Jinan (Beirut: 1881); and the short stories of Shihatah al-'Ubayd republished from al-Sufur in Dars al-Mu'allim (Cairo: Dar al-Qawmiyah, 1964). Back

  10. While a study is still needed to determine the genealogy of Lebanese, Syrian, and Arab nationalist imagery, it should be noted that by 1869 Marun al-Naqqash's plays were posthumously published as Arzat Lubnan (Cedars of Lebanon; Beirut, s.n., 1869). Back

  11. The litany of the most basic existential questions, posed in the most straightforward manner, suggests the depths to which the reform project runs. Hisham Sharabi asserts in both Neopatriarchy and Arab Intellectuals and the West that Arab intellectuals, particularly secular intellectuals, failed to articulate "a genuinely independent critical and analytical discourse in which the problematics of identity, history, and the West could find effective resolution" (Neopatriarchy 10). The above passage, the very nature of its questions, demonstrates the contrary is true. Back

  12. M. M. Badawi, for example, while seeing Salim's novels as an experiment with new prose narratives, concludes that they are unequivocal failures as novels (95). Back

Works Cited

Al-Bustani, Salim. Asma. In al-Jinan (The Garden. Beirut: 1873.

---. al-Huyam fi Jinan al-Sham (Love in a Damascene Garden). In al-Jinan. Beirut: 1870.

---. "`Ubudiyah dakhaniyah" ("The Slavery of Smoking") In al-Jinan. Beirut: 1870.

Al-Mazini, Ibrahim. Ibrahim al-Katib (Ibrahim the Scribner [1931]). Cairo: Dar al-sh`ab, 1970.

Al-Naqqash, Marun. Arzat Lubnan (The Cedars of Lebanon). Beirut: 1869.

Al-Qasatli. al-Fatat al-aminah wa ummuha (The Faithful Aminah and her Mother). In al-Jinan. Beirut: 1880.

---. Riwayat Anis (The Story of Anis). In al-Jinan. Beirut: 1881.

Al-'Ubayd, Shihatah. Dars al-Mu'allim (The Teachers' Lesson). Cairo: Dar al-Qawmiyah, 1964.

Badawi, M. M. Modern Arabic Literature and the West. London: Ithaca Press, 1985.

---. A Short History of Modern Arabic Literature. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1993.

Hakim, Tawfiq. `Awdat al-Ruh (Return of the Spirit). Cairo: Maktabat al-adab, 1928.

Haykal, Muhammad Husayn. Zaynab . Cairo: Dar al-Hilal, 1913.

Lacan, Jacques. The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-analysis. Trans. Alan Sheridan. New York: W.W. Norton & Co., 1978.

Mahfouz, Naguib. Bidayah wal-Nihiyah (The Beginning and the End), Beirut: Dar al-Qalm, 1949.

Muwaylihi, Muhammad. Hadith 'Isn bin Hisham (The Story of 'Isn bin Hisham). Cairo: Matbaat al-maarif, 1907.

Sharabi, H. Arab Intellectuals and the West. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1970.

---.  Neopatriarchy. Oxford: Oxford UP, 1988.

Sommer, Doris. Foundation Fictions: The National Romances of Latin American. Berkeley: U of California P, 1991.

---. "Irresistable Romance." In Nation and Narration. Ed. Homi K. Bhabha. London: Routledge, 1990, pp. 71-98.


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