Criticism through Symbolism in Modern Arabic Literature

Criticism through Symbolism in Modern Arabic Literature

Desirée Custers

Desirée Custers

25-year old from the Netherlands. Master student of Arabic and Islamic Studies at the KU Leuven. Holds an MA in International Politics and Conflict Studies, University of Leiden and Utrecht.

Writers in the Arab world have often served as a voices that question, criticise, and evaluate society. Their literature offers psychological insight and self-criticism in which various dimensions of alienation, disillusions, and disappointment are explored. This is especially true for periods of hardship and of radical and societal change, something the Arab world has consistently witnessed from the beginning of the last century.

However, the voices of writers have not always coincided with the political and social goals of various Arab regimes resulting in a high level of censorship and in many Arab countries writers face threats, arrests, imprisonment and torture. A creative way in which many writers have been able to avoid these problems, is by using symbolism that obscures the work’s message.

Symbolism could be achieved by setting the novel in the past, but resembling its characters or circumstances to a contemporary situation. Alfred Faraj’s play Suqūṭ Firʿawn (‘The Fall of a Pharaoh’, 1957), for example, describes the inner conflict of the Pharaoh Ikhnaton between his new pacifist religion and his duties as monarch of the state, which involved action and violence. The Pharaoh abdicates the throne to his son and devotes himself to teaching his new religion. The political message of the play is the need for the state leader to act.

A second example is Jamāl al-Ghīṭānī’s al-Zaynī Barakāt (1985, English trans. Zayni Barakat, 1988). Situated against background of the collapsing Mamluk Sultanate in the years 1507-18, the novel records its disintegration in the accounts of several characters grouped around the powerful figure of al-Zaynī Barakāt. Zaynī acquired enormous power by carefully combining Machiavellian and populist methods. He survives the fall of the Mamluk throne and joining the ranks of the new Ottoman rulers. Al- Ghīṭānī’s novel can be read as a critical assessment of the Nasserist era. For example, al-Zaynī’s preoccupation with internal security and his neglect of the external threat resulting in the catastrophe of 1517, resemble Egypt’s unpreparedness during the six day war in 1967.

Jamāl al-Ghīṭānī’s al-Zaynī Barakāt in Arabic and in English

It is not only the past that can be used as a symbolic representation of a contemporary situation. Mythology is also widely used as a vehicle of criticism. Egyptian mythology is used for example by Rʾaūf Musʿād is his novel Zahra al-Ṣamt (2016). Through a priestess mother and her young daughter who flee the Arab invasion of pharaonic Egypt, the novel describes the ancient pharaonic stories of Izīz and Osīris and relates these to an actual and imagined history of Copts and Arabs, especially the discrimination and prosecution of Coptic Christians, from the pharaonic time until now.

Rʾaūf Musʿād’s Zahra al-Ṣamt

A second example of the use of mythology is the Greek story of Oedipus. Originally, this play by Socrates which was preformed between 430 and 426 bce, examines the story of Oedipus Rex, the king of Thebes who unwittingly killed his father and married his mother.

Alī Aḥmad Bakāthīr’s adaption of the play which is titled Mʾasāt Ūdīb, (‘The Tragedy of Oedipus’, 1949) however, reflects the historical and politically influenced conflict between Islamists and the growing Marxist movement in the Arab world in the 1940s. Oedipus, a Marxists, fails to achieve social justice while his enemy, Tiresias, does succeed by suggesting that social justice can only be reached by the will of God.

ʿAlī Sālim’s play Kūmīdiyā Ūdīb aw anta illī ʾatalt al- wahsh (‘The Comedy of Oedipus, or You’re the One Who Killed the Beast’, 1970), is a loose adaption of Oedipus’ story in which its characters are placed in the environment of the ancient Egyptian city of Thebes and are used as a vehicle for the exploration of the ways in which political authority can be manipulated and the media can be exploited to persuade and mislead the populace. The play is an attack on the tyranny of Nasser’s regime and discusses the state of affairs that led to the 1967 defeat.

ʿAlī Aḥmad Bakāthīr’s Mʾasāt Ūdīb
ʿAlī Sālim’s Kūmīdiyā Ūdīb

A third example of the use of symbolism, is by making it a work of science fiction. Ibrāhīm Naṣrallah’s Ḥarb al-kalb al-thāniyya (‘Second War of the Dog’, 2016), which won the International prize for Arabic fiction this year, for example, uses a future setting to expose the tendency towards brutality inherent in society. After differences in society led to the first war of the Kalb, the military base Qalʿa (fortress) was built to control the city of Būsṭa through cameras. These cameras are linked to automatic weapons that fire at every suspicious movement. Despite the whole city being managed by the latest technology, strange things happen for no apparent reason. Furthermore, every human can make a human like him/herself, which leads to marital infidelities and lack of trust between people. It is the similarity that is created in the city, not the differences, that leads to the second Kalb war, despite the city’s technological advantages.

Ibrāhīm Naṣrallah’s Ḥarb al-kalb al-thāniyya

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