Contemporary Egyptian historical fiction: What's at stake?

By Radwa El Barouni
Submitted to Session P5012 (Literary Configurations of Secular Modernity, 2017 Annual Meeting
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In a time when we are witnessing a seemingly unprecedented abundance of information, the lack of access to post 1952 historical archives in Egypt is still an issue. With the events of 2011, there emerged a discussion in the Egyptian public sphere of what kind of historical narratives can be circulated that counter official histories, in addition to what forms of subjectivity resulted from these previous narratives. Little is written on Arabic historical fiction, despite its persistence as a genre in modern times from the works of Jurj? Zayd?n right up to Rab?? J?ber.
Within a comparative framework, I will be looking at two novels Faraj (2008) by the Egyptian writer Radwa ?Ash?r, and Nis?? l-Karant?na (2013) [The Women of Karantina] by another Egyptian writer N??il a?-??kh?. At their core, both novels are “Narratives on history” making history as much the subject of enquiry, as incorporating historical incidents. Although, the novels were published only five years apart, their respective writers belong to two different generations within the Egyptian literary scene. On the one hand, Radwa ?Ash?r is considered to be one of the 1970’s generation of writers who embraced the value of Adab al-?Iltiz?m [committed writing]. On the other hand, a?-??kh? is considered to be one of a generation of writers that has been termed as either the millennial writers or the “Two thousanders” whose writing has been described as postmodernist or metamodernist. Both novels span a period of around sixty years and three different generations; ?Ash?r’s novel starts in the 1950’s and ends with the American occupation of Iraq in 2003, while a?-??kh?’s novel covers the years from 2004 and projects into the future till 2064.
In my paper, I will argue that these two novels show a drastic shift in consciousness between these two generations. While in Faraj, we see the notion of “speaking truth to power” and reclaiming the right to the unofficial histories of the oppressed, in Nis?? l-Karant?na, we see the unsettling of the very notion of power and facts and thus in many ways subverting our sense of what constitutes history and its importance. By doing this, I will explore how these perceptions can be understood within the larger context of the writers’ generations’ socio-political and cultural milieu and aesthetics and how each writer differently conceives of interpersonal subjectivity and responsibility, certain aspects of history and its constitutive role in subject formation.