Resistance to Loss through the Preservation of Form: the Continuing Practice of Adab in the 20th century

By Gretchen A. Head
Submitted to Session P4775 (Literary Genealogy in Medieval and Modern Iberia and North Africa, 2017 Annual Meeting
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector without Audio;
In a 1983 preface to Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, Albert Hourani acknowledges that he may have “distorted” the thought of the writers he considered, exaggerating the “modern” elements in their thought, in turn emphasizing a break with the past rather than continuities. His call to consider thinkers of a different kind – those still working within an inherited mode of thought grounded in the framework of institutions like the Azhar in Cairo, the Zaytuna in Tunis, or the Sufi brotherhoods – has been only partially heeded. The dominant story of the nahda remains one of oppositions (tradition vs. modernity etc.). Recent arguments suggest that with the nahdah, adab is redefined, shifted away from its original semantic range and refigured as a concept in line with modern globalized ways of reading that reimagine religious practices and textual traditions. This paper will suggest a different way to interpret adab, both as a textual tradition and an embodied mode of reading, in the 20th century through an analysis of al-Tuhami al-Wazzani al-Zawiyah.
Published in 1942, it is an autobiographical work that retains its ties to a premodern tradition of Sufi life writing widespread in North Africa; al-Wazzani models his portrait of selfhood on predecessors dating back to at least the fifteenth century and in function the text follows the established practice of its genre. But, he also manipulates the form to record the pain experienced by his city under Spanish occupation. His search for spiritual fulfillment merges with Tetouan’s drive for independence and autonomy. Here, the category of adab, as both a way of writing and reading, is adapted and expanded to create a new hybrid literary form which becomes an act of resistance, a way to reclaim the city’s pre-colonial identity and to record its collective suffering. The people of Tetouan (al Ta?waniyun) join the autobiographical “I” of the narrator as a collective protagonist of equal importance, the story just as centrally a chronicle of the city’s traumatic past and present as the author’s development. Adab, for al-Wazzani, is a defense against the violence of his city’s foreign occupation. Yet it nevertheless becomes something hyphenated, for just as he draws on earlier literary structures, he both uses the modernized Arabic that was the result of language reforms catalyzed by the Arab world’s encounter with imperial Europe and incorporates his colonizer’s narrative techniques, internalizing the colonial violence within the practice of adab itself.