The Many Faces of Zenobia, 1871-1941

By Ghenwa Hayek
Submitted to Session P4512 (Queens, Ghosts, Damsels and Modernity's Distress - Novels and History in Arab and Ottoman Societies, 2016 Annual Meeting
All Middle East;
19th-21st Centuries;
In this talk, I will explore two relatively forgotten Arab historical representations of Zenobia, Queen of Palmyra. I will focus on two historical novels named after the queen, Salim Bustani’s novel Zanūbia, published serially in al-Jinān in 1871-1872, and Zanūbia, Malikat Tadmur, by Muhammad Farid abu-Hadid (1941). By placing these two novels side-by-side, I hope to draw out shifting notions of gender, nation, and literary form. In this talk, I will argue that Bustani, who turned his literary attention to the historical novel after experimenting with the national romance in al-Huyām fi Jinān al-Shām (1869-1870), uses the form of the historical novel in order to stake a claim for a new Arab identity rooted precisely in its potential as a crossroads. If al-Huyām fi Jinān al-Shām was, as Stephen Sheehi has argued, preoccupied with a confrontational attitude towards Europe and the West, Zanūbia is Bustani’s attempt to use history in order to imagine other possibilities. Bustani, in his historical preface, highlights Palmyra’s place as a crossroads of ancient civilizations, and its queen as a figure who embodies a cross-cultural ethos literally and figuratively, in which she “gathers in her breast the wisdom of the Greeks, the science of the Romans and the letters (ādāb) of the Syrians, and has learned the Latin language, and knows well the Greek and Syriac language and perhaps – who knows (ma adrāna) even Arabic as well” (29) – even her physical features are described as being in the middle between white and tan (29). On the other hand, for Abu-Hadid writing in an Egypt under British rule, the novel’s subject matter becomes fodder for an Arab nationalist discourse that claims Zenobia as a fighter of European oppression, while producing a prescriptive paradigmatic femininity in which the queen’s roles as a wife and lover takes precedence. What can these two texts, written seven decades apart, contribute to scholarship in history and literature that engages with shifting notions of the nation, gender and the novel form?