Writing ‘nah?a’: a term and its transformations, 1850-1914

By Hannah Scott Deuchar
Submitted to Session P4678 (Re-imagining Literary Works and Concepts, 2016 Annual Meeting
All Middle East;
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector without Audio;
Today, the temporal and geographical boundaries of the modern Arabic Nah?a are much disputed, and the question of its origins is a tense one. The word ‘nah?a’ itself has taken diverse paths; now generally translated or glossed as ‘renaissance’ or ‘revival’, it has reappeared in recent years in both political and cultural incarnations. However, the emergence of the term itself in modern times has rarely been examined directly. This paper therefore returns to the nineteenth century to examine early usages of the word 'nah?a', charting its shifts from a sort of synonym for ‘threshold’ or ‘stair’ (Lis?n al-'Arab, 1290), to a word meaning ‘energy', 'strength' or ' movement’ (Muh?t al-Muh?t, 1867), to a widely recognizable term signifying social transformation. This is not primarily an etymological study, nor does it posit yet another Nah?a origin: rather, it is an attempt to trace the early genealogy of a key concept in Arab modernity.

I therefore examine mid-nineteenth century lexicographical and historical works by, among others, Ahmad F?ris al-Shidy?q, B?trus al-Bust?n? and Abd al-Rahm?n al-Jab?rt?; I both interrogate the ways they use and define the word ‘nah?a’, and pay attention to the places where they significantly do not. Informing close textual analysis with approaches drawn from translation studies and critical theory, I use these sources to complicate the imitative relationship between the Arabic Nah?a and the European Renaissance implied by current translations of the word as ‘renaissance’ or ‘Arab renaissance’. I find that although this connection exists in the early texts, it is by no means straightforward. The process by which ‘nah?a’ apparently came to denote (or at least to symbolise) an ideal of social and cultural change took place in a context of unevenly circulating texts and ideas, and encompassed multiple definitions, redefinitions, debates and disagreements. The term was, and surely remains, thoroughly unstable.

This initial study will, I hope, make a contribution to our understanding of the early coalescence and conceptualisation of the Arab Nah?a, in addition to prompting an interrogation of some of the ways the term is used and translated today. Equally, the paper’s close focus on a single term and its translation I suggest provides more general insights into the ways in which cultural concepts travel and transform, and into the interactions between social and cultural movements across time and space.