The coming of age of the Arab youth in modern Arabic literature

The coming of age of the Arab youth 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.

How do Arabic literary novels portray the maturing of their youth? What are the problems they to face and do they differ for men and for women? In this article I would like to answer these questions by describing the literary genre of Bildungsroman, to be more specific: the Arabic Bildungsroman.

Although a study into this topic could lead to a hundred page research, I will try to present a modest answer by showing how the Arabic Bildungsroman differs from the Bildungsroman in general and I will name a few examples. Let’s start by defining what a Bildungsroman is.

First coined in Germany in the 18th century, the term refers to an ‘upbringing’ or ‘educational’ novel. Novels in this category describe how the hero or heroine reaches maturity through a process of ups and downs. Usually the novels end on a positive tone. Classic English examples of Bildungsroman novels include Charles Dickens’ Great Expectations (1861), J.D. Salinger’s Catcher in the Rye (1951) and Harper Lee’s To Kill a Mockingbird (1960). Arabic novels following the maturation process have also been written.

ʿAbd al-Ḥamīk Qāsim’s novel Ayyām al-insān al- sabʿa (1969, English trans. The Seven Days of Men, 1989) follows the classic structure of a Bildungsroman. The novel traces an Egyptian boy’s progressive alienation from his family’s traditional world of mystic religion and Islamic folklore as he moves to the city and follows an education. It is set in a time-space of seven years each set in one of the seven stages of a pilgrimage. These start in early years the hero and continue through his puberty and adolescent. Yet, however much he intellectually disagrees with his family, he is still bound to them because of their love and friendship something he cannot find in the harshness of city life. The novel accurately describes the hero’s psychological evolution as he grows, one of the typical aspects of a Bildungsroman.

ʿAbd al-Ḥamīk Qāsim Ayyām al-insān al- sabʿa (source:

However, Nedal M. al- Mousa, Professor of English and Comparative literature in Amman, Jordan, argues that there is a genre of the “Arabic Bildungsroman. In it the original theme of learning the art of livingis replaced by the hero(ine) learning how to reconcile two opposing cultures: the Arabic and Western. In this genre the main protagonist leaves home to the West (to seek his fortune, realize his ambitions or follow and education) where he goes through a variety of shaping experiences.

Among others, al-Mousa uses the example of Suhayl Idris’ al- Hayy al- Lātīnī (The Latin Quarter’, 1958) to make his case. In this novel the hero leaves for Paris where, liberated from the traditions of his native culture, he sets out to live his life at the highest pitch, an undertaking central to his education and his quest for self. The novel describes the way the central character aims to combine the culture he brings with him and the new European culture he is getting to know.

Suhayl Idris’ al- Hayy al- Lātīnī (source:

Al-Ṭayyib Ṣāliḥ’s Season of migration to the North (source:

An different example of this cultural interaction we can find in the famous novel Mawsim al-hijrah ilā al-shamāl (1966, English trans. Season of migration to the North, 1969) by Al-Ṭayyib Ṣāliḥ. The novel depicts the North-South/ East-West encounter as one of political, social, cultural, racial and psychological conflict and violence. Muṣṭafā Saʿīd, the Sudanese hero of the novel, comes from a small village and moves to Cairo and England respectively to study before he returns to the Sudanese village life. During his years in England he teaches at a British university while his private political agenda is revenging colonialism by exploiting his exoticism though a series of destructive relationships with British women. This journey of vengeance ends by him murdering his wife, Jean Morris.

Within the Arab Bildungsroman a distinction can be made for novels with a female protagonist. The Arabic novel depicting the female self-development necessarily relates the heroine to the traditional conventions that govern the lives of many women in the Arab world. In her maturing and self-exploration she struggles against the constrains of family and society. Imīlī Naṣr Allah’s uyūr aylūl (September Birds, 1962) in an example that explores the fate of women who defy convention by leaving home to gain education and a career.



Imīlī Naṣr Allah’s Ṭuyūr aylūl (source:

Furthermore, in many novels the heroine identifies her quest for freedom with that of the national struggle independence and a the sense of national identity that many Arab countries went through in the previous decade. An example is Mīrāl al- Ṭaḥawīal-bāthinjānah al-zarqāʾ (1998, English trans. The Blue Aubergine, 2002). Set in the period after the defeat of Arab nations by Israel during the six-day war (1967) this novel describes the story of the Egyptian Nadā who instead of following her family wishes joins several political and religious parties of which the Muslim brotherhood is one example.


Mīrāl al- Ṭaḥawī- al-bāthinjānah al-zarqāʾ (source:

We can see through these examples that Arabic literature has given its own spin on the genre of the Bildungsroman that relates to the Arab world’s relationship with the West and on its own political and social environment. Reading about the formation of Arab youth through literature can thus offer western readers a new way of gaining insight on their own Western


culture and how it relates to the Arab world as well as an insight into the political and social developments of the Arab world through the eyes of a youngster.

For more articles written by this author visit her blog at:

For readers interested in the Arabic Bildungsroman, here is a list of suggestions:

ʿAbd al-Ḥamīk Qāsim’s Ayyām al-insān al- sabʿa (1969, English trans. The Seven Days of Men, 1989)

Al-Ṭayyib Ṣāliḥ’s Mawsim al-hijrah ilā al-shamāl (1966, English trans. Season of migration to the North, 1969)

Fadwā Ṭūqān- Riḥlah ṣaʿba, riḥlah jabaliyya, (1985, English trans. A Mountains Journey, 1990)

Imīlī Naṣr Allah- uyūr aylūl (September Birds’, 1962)

Laṭīfa al-Zayyāt- al-Bāb al-maftūḥ (1960, English trans. The Open Door, 2002).

Layla Baʿlabakki- Ana Aḥyā (I am Alive, 1958)

Mīrāl al- Ṭaḥawīal-bāthinjānah al-zarqāʾ (1998, English trans. The Blue Aubergine, 2002)

Suhayl Idris- al- Hayy al- Lātīnī (The Latin Quarter’, 1958)

Waguih Ghali- Beer in the Snooker Club(1964)

Yaḥyā Ḥaqqī- Qindīl Umm Hāshim (1944, English trans. The Lamp of Umm Hashim, 2006)