Letters to Tolstoy: Arab Writers Between Prophesy and Fiction

By Margaret Litvin
Submitted to Session P3142 (Russian and Soviet Strands in Arabic Literature, 2012 Annual Meeting
Egypt; former Soviet Union; The Levant;
19th-21st Centuries; Arabic; Translation;
LCD Projector without Audio;
In his famous 1904 letter to Leo Tolstoy, Islamic modernist and Mufti of Egypt Muhammad `Abdu addresses “the great wise man Monsieur Tolstoy” (al-hakim al-jalil musyuu Tulstuy) as a universal spiritual thinker, not a Russian novelist. “You are known to us in spirit if not in person,” `Abdu writes. “The light of your thought has illuminated us, and the suns of your ideas have risen in our skies, drawing the souls of intelligent people close to yours.” Four years later, sitting on his dormitory bed in Poltava, Ukraine, Lebanese-born schoolboy Mikhail Nu`ayma writes a rather similar love letter to Tolstoy in his private diary: “I am indebted to you for so many thoughts which filled with light the darkness of my spirit,” the future /mahjar/ modernist confesses. “Your recent works that I read last year were a great source of inspiration which illumined my life. Indeed, you have come to be my teacher and guide, a fact of which you are unaware.” However, like surprisingly many towering figures of modern Arabic letters, Nu`ayma would ultimately draw lessons from Tolstoy that were as much about literary form – the artistic representation of reality – as spiritual orientation. Building on new Nu`ayma scholarship by colleagues on this panel, my paper will explore Tolstoy’s changing function in twentieth-century Arabic letters. Attracted to the Orient and ambivalent about westernizing modernity, Tolstoy made a perhaps paradoxical bearer of modern literary forms. How did his role go from prophet to realist short story writer and novelist? What can that transition tell us about the figure of the writer-prophet so central to modern Arabic literature’s narrative about itself?