To speak of the current status of Arabic within American Comparative Literature requires us to look back at the history of the discipline since it declared its openness to the world beyond Europe. Such a retrospective is necessary, first, because Arabic does not figure in any of the previous reports on the status of the discipline; and second, because the Arabic field is divided along historical and disciplinary lines that have distinct methodologies and institutional histories. The intersection of those histories with that of Comparative Literature has been fraught with problems that reveal something about the scope, horizons, and paradigms of American Comparative Literature at the present time.

I take my cue from the titles of the last two ACLA reports on the status of the discipline, the Bernheimer report of 1993, which was included in a volume called Comparative Literature in the Age of Multiculturalism (1995), and the 2004 Saussy report published in Comparative Literature in an Age of Globalization (2006). The immediately noticeable difference between the two titles (the second obviously echoing the first) is the replacement of the definite with the indefinite article as the “age” of “multiculturalism” gave way to that of “globalization” while crossing the threshold of the twenty-first century. Does the phrase “the Age of Multiculturalism” mean that the period in question was the first of its kind in which culture was “multiple,” however that may be understood, such that it deserved an “-ism” all to itself, to set it apart from other “ages” in the history of humanity? Do such ages succeed one another universally, by which the “Age of Multiculturalism” would have been the last age, while it lasted, only then to be succeeded by another age, each of which reigns across the world? Or, alternatively, do multiple ages coincide in time, each pertaining to a different “culture”? If so, does the “-ism” in “Multi-cultural-ism” designate a particular formation at a particular time in a particular location (let’s say, the United States, since the report in question is an official document of the American Comparative Literature Association), rather than, for instance, in India or Brazil—great multicultural nations in their own right? Is it possible that other cultures were, are, or could become “multi-cultures,” with or without an “-ism” of their own? If so, that was not, in any case, something with which the report concerned itself, since it described the state of Comparative Literature in “the”—read “the one and only”—Age of Multiculturalism. Perhaps it was simply the case that “the age of multiculturalism” was the first time that the multiplicity of “cultures” in the US was registered by mainstream “Culture,” giving rise to a tension between multiplicity and unity that revealed the fault lines of the so-called Culture Wars of the period. The discipline of Comparative Literature was sufficiently impacted by this to engage, somewhat belatedly as the apologetic tone of the 1993 report intimated, in the kind of self-examination that led it to question its parameters, methods, and objects of study.

Then something happened, in the pre-history of the Saussy report, to usher in “an age” (that is, one of many) of “globalization.” We can again speculate on whether the multiplicity denoted by the indefinite article applies temporally, spatially, or both; in any event, there are certainly those who argue that the world has seen other ages of globalization, that the ancient Silk Road was a superhighway of sorts, that Alexander’s imperium was a globalizing enterprise, as was those of Islam during the so-called medieval period and of Europe from the Renaissance onwards. In that sense, the American version is the latest of a number of “ages” of globalization that the world has witnessed, and its authority does not derive from a claim of first-ness, but rather from its belatedness, in an evolutionary sense, as the latest and the most pervasive global order. It is, therefore, content with the indefinite article, which in fact underscores rather than diminishes its authority. This empire’s confidence derives from its currency, its having succeeded or outlasted other empires.

If American multiculturalism was a process of self-examination and reinvention of self, based on the recognition of earlier shortcomings, globalization has been a projection outward onto the rest of the world of a self-assured centeredness. And while multiculturalism led literary studies to be consumed with the critique of the canon, in this age of globalization, Comparative Literature is obsessed with world literature. The implicit logic of this development is this: as our country leads the world, we teach the world. In this formulation, the world is both the object and the subject of our teaching, in that, first, it is the literary field that we construct, anthologize, and compress into our syllabi in order to make it intelligible; and second, it is also the world that we instruct or train in the ways in which it should see itself as that which we make of it, the world to which we hold the mirror of “world literature.”

By way of suggesting how the shift from multiculturalism to globalization has changed the status of Arabic literature in a way that registers the pulse of the discipline in the last quarter-century, I offer a personal anecdote. When I met my graduate advisor for the first time, in the fall of 1990, as a new student freshly arrived from Egypt, I learned two new words. He explained to me that American Comparative Literature had been “Eurocentric” but that in recent years it had begun to “globalize.” He hastened to add that, as head of the Comparative Literature program, he had been trying for a number of years to win the college approval for a position in Arabic literature (not the Arabic language, which was taught in another department). His efforts proved unsuccessful, and many years later he confided that the failure to secure that position during the 1980s-90s had been due to concerns, as one dean reportedly put it, about potentially bringing terrorists to campus. With “the age” of multiculturalism in full swing, Comparative Literature, with characteristic foresight and vanguard initiative, at least in some of its quarters, was already trying to globalize itself, but this effort was hampered by institutional gatekeepers who had decided that Arabic was out, not to be admitted into American “multiculture.”

That was also the time when, as Edward Said remarked, Arabic literature was “embargoed” by major New York publishers who regarded Arabic as a “controversial language” (Said 278). The commercial embargo thus complemented the academic boycott of Arabic. Throughout the 1990s, as the age of multiculturalism bequeathed cultural studies and postcolonial studies to Comparative Literature, to be a postcolonialist meant to specialize either in African and Caribbean or in South Asian, but not in Arabic, literature—a curious thing if we consider that the founding text for postcolonial studies, Said’s Orientalism (1978), focused mainly on the representation of the Arab Middle East. This situation would not change until the logic of “Know Your Enemy” imposed itself on the heels of the Second Intifada of September 2000 and the terrorist attacks of September 2001, both of which ushered in the first decade of the twenty-first century. Unlike “the age of multiculturalism,” this “age of globalization” has witnessed an unprecedented boom in literary translation from Arabic, with dozens of new titles appearing each year. During the same period, sessions on Arabic literature have increased at the annual meetings of the ACLA and the MLA, and in the latter organization a Discussion Group formed in 1999 quickly grew into a Division, which in turn became two Forums in the MLA’s revamped structure. This growth has been steady, such that the 2014 convention in Chicago and the 2015 in Vancouver have each featured on their programs at least twenty sponsored, co-sponsored, and special sessions focusing partly or entirely on Arabic. Volumes on Arabic literature have even begun to trickle onto lists of MLA publications. There are more modern Arabic literature scholars with comparative training now than at any time in the past, and Arabic literature is slowly making inroads into Comparative Literature departments, with many making their first hire of an Arabist during the past decade. In the year of the Saussy report, my graduate department was finally able to hire not one but two Arabists—proof that we had, indeed and at last, globalized, as my advisor had hoped.

As encouraging as those developments may be, there is every reason to believe that they are among the incalculable, and sometimes contradictory, repercussions of conflicts in the Middle East, which can in no way be dissociated from U.S. foreign policies there since WWII—the period in which Comparative Literature took hold in American universities as a direct result of that war, as the Levin Report duly acknowledged in 1965. The exclusion of Arabic up to the end of the twentieth century, then its sudden introduction into the discipline in the 2000s, is therefore part and parcel of the history of American Comparative Literature, which has never led an existence independent of national or international politics. The Europe-only CompLit of the 1950s-80s was very much in line with the West/East dichotomies of the Cold War, in which context the expansion of Russian studies represented a national security imperative. The multiculturalist turn of American Comparative Literature in the 1990s reflected the discipline’s somewhat belated acknowledgment of the oppositional politics of the Civil Rights, Women’s, and anti-colonial movements, which triggered the Culture Wars and the critique of the canon. Finally, the end of the Cold War brought “globalization,” a code word for U.S. global dominance, which intensified since 9/11, exchanging the sanguine and celebratory airs of the Clinton era for the belligerence of the Bush Doctrine and the War on Terror. As Djelal Kadir argues in his contribution to the 2004 Report, the discipline in the early 2000s ought to be known as “Comparative Literature in the age of terrorism” (68-77). This is the context in which Arabic language instruction has expanded as never before, such that it is now taught at almost all major and many regional institutions, a boom driven by government funding and the promise, especially in a bleak job market, of employment opportunities in greatly expanded state security agencies.

Needless to say, this instrumentalist approach to the Arabic language is indifferent to literature, about which two clarifications need to be made, one to do with Arabic and one with Comparative Literature. The first clarification concerns the institutional settings that house Arabic literary studies: Near East studies and Comparative Literature departments. Historically, Arabic is part of centuries-old European Oriental studies and their U.S. extension, Near East studies. Within that domain, “Arabic literary studies,” as such, is divided into two fields: classical and modern. Classical literature (traditionally dated from the pre-Islamic period to roughly the twelfth century) remains largely the subject of philological and literary-historical approaches, with the annual conference of the Middle East Studies Association (MESA) as its major forum since its founding in 1966. Classical Arabic literary scholarship, in other words, squarely belongs within area studies, and its history can be written within the narrative of Middle East studies’ reconstruction since Edward Said’s critique of Orientalism. Where classical Arabic literary studies brushes elbows with Comparative Literature is usually in medieval Iberian studies or in Arabian Nights scholarship; otherwise, it is not part of the training of comparatists, nor ipso facto are the majority of its specialists trained in Comparative Literature programs.

As for scholarship on modern Arabic literature—the period from the early nineteenth century to the present—it has a much more recent beginning.[1] Nevertheless, it has by now bifurcated into Near East studies and Comparative Literature tracks, each with a distinct institutional history. The area studies track was pioneered at Oxford in the mid-1960s by M.M. Badawi, an Egyptian professor of English literature who directed the first doctoral thesis on modern Arabic literature, defended by Roger Allen in 1968, and founded the Journal of Arabic Literature in 1970, which still publishes work on classical to modern Arabic literature. Until then, the consensus among Arabists in Britain and the U.S. had been that modern Arabic literature was not worth studying. The new interest in modern Arabic literature migrated to U.S. Near East studies departments in the 1970s, with the arrival therein of scholars such Allen, Pierre Cachia, and Trevor Le Gassick, among others. Methodologically, modern Arabic literature scholarship attempted to break free from the philological and literary historical approaches characteristic of classical Arabic studies by borrowing some of the prevailing critical approaches and categories of English literary criticism, namely that of F.R. Leavis, I.A. Richards, and René Wellek and Austin Warren.[2] Edebiyât: Journal of Near Eastern Literatures, founded in 1976 at the University of Pennsylvania, began to publish studies of modern and classical Arabic, Persian, and Turkish literatures, although it did not promote comparative approaches per se, since precious few scholars were (or are today) qualified to work on more than one literature from the region. As such, while the Near East studies field includes several literatures, they are not studied comparatively in relation to each other but as discrete national literatures, or in the case of Arabic as a supra-national but single-language tradition.[3]

Another development occurred in the 1990s, thanks largely to multiculturalism and the impact of postcolonial theory on Comparative Literature: Arab students, native speakers of Arabic who had majored in English or French in Arab universities, began to be admitted to U.S. Comparative Literature departments and to turn their attention to modern Arabic literature within postcolonial and/or related theoretical frames. Their academic trajectories mirror that of M.M. Badawi, except that they were now enrolled in U.S. Comparative Literature graduate programs, and their training includes the heavy dose of contemporary literary and cultural theory typical of Comparative Literature graduate programs. For these scholars, the MLA and the ACLA are regular haunts, although some also attend MESA. The current generation of Arabists working on the modern period are, therefore, the product of these two distinct academic trajectories—the area studies and the comparatist tracks. More than the classicists, they are the ones, especially the comparatists, who have made an impression on American Comparative Literature in the last two decades by way of publishing comparative scholarship and/or engaging in discussions on the nature and practices of the discipline.

The second clarification concerns the way in which the paradigms of comparison that have largely governed American Comparative Literature as a whole since WWII determine the place of modern Arabic literary studies within the discipline. Those paradigms can be described in directional terms as follows: North-North, East-West, North-South, and South-South. The North-North paradigm includes inter-European and Euro-American comparison, which German Romance philology bequeathed to American Comparative Literature in the mid-twentieth century and which was the only model of comparison at that time. In the 1980s, when interest in China among American comparatists began to develop, what was described using the now dated terminology of “East-West” comparison came into play. This terminology reproduced a discredited Orientalist dichotomy in which “East” and “West” came to constitute civilizational essences.[4] North-South comparison refers mainly to postcolonial studies, which by focusing on colonial history opened the doors of the discipline to African and Asian literatures and their Diasporic offshoots. Finally, South-South comparison, which considers relations among literatures of the Global South, remains in its initial phase, a theoretical possibility with some promising manifestations, but not yet established as a trend either in the training of comparatists or in the hiring practices of Comparative Literature departments.

The study of modern Arabic literature within Comparative Literature in the “ages” of multiculturalism and globalization (the latter arguably extending into the current decade) has remained by and large confined to the North-South paradigm, as a small subset of the postcolonial, and studied mainly in relation to English and French.[5] The reasons for this should be clear enough: English and French are the foreign languages most widely taught in the Arab world, a colonial legacy. Moreover, and part of the same legacy, modern Arabic literature from the late nineteenth through at least the first half of the twentieth century looked to European literature for models, be it new genres (novel, short story, drama), or modes and movements (Romanticism, Realism, Symbolism, Modernism). These two factors normalize the North-South approach—with or without the oppositional thrust of postcolonial politics. That is to say, the North-South paradigm accommodates both postcolonial critique that rejects the hierarchy of superior and inferior cultures as well as the sort of Eurocentric comparatism that assumes European cultural supremacy and Arab backwardness and dependency, and which judges Arabic literature by European standards only to find it wanting.[6]

Because of the backgrounds and linguistic skills of Arab graduate students and the rising enthusiasm for postcolonial studies in American Comparative Literature departments, reinforced by the job market, modern Arabic literature has found a place within the North-South paradigm, which does not allows it to be studied in connection with African, South Asian, Latin American, or East Asian literatures—that is, in a South-South configuration. Postcolonial studies has thus had the paradoxical effect of creating a space for Arabic, African, Caribbean, and South Asian literatures by tying them to the center-periphery, or North-South paradigm. The enormously rich area of South-South comparison remains largely unexplored. As for what I elsewhere described as tertiary models of comparison that merge, or triangulate, the verticality of North-South with the horizontality of North-North and South-South—such that, for example, Arabic literature is studied in relation to Arab Diasporic literatures in North and South America, which would require knowledge not only of English and French (for Arab-Quebecois literature) but also of Portuguese and Spanish—they are not on the agenda of Comparative Literature in the age of globalization and terrorism (Hassan, “Which Languages?” 8-9).

Instead, Arabic in the age of globalization and terrorism has been subject to two logics at work: one sees Arabic as an extension of foreign policy imperatives (an instrumentalist “language plus” approach), and one that broadens the scope of the discipline. The current boom in Arabic studies is largely driven by the instrumentalist imperative. Much of the government funding is directed toward language programs because Arabic is now seen, for obvious reasons, as vital to national security (although you can still be stopped and questioned at U.S. airports for carrying Arabic-language materials). If, following this logic, Arabic remains ancillary and tangential to the intellectual agenda of a globalized Comparative Literature that is content to make room for the North-South axis in the shadow of the dominant North-North, this boom may well undergo a bust, a cycle experienced in the second half of the last century by Russian and Slavic studies during and after the Cold War.

But there is another historical vision that holds more promise for an enriching integration of Arabic within a discipline continually in the process of self-renewal, and that is the institutional genesis of Comparative Literature itself in this country following WWII. Funded at first through the National Defense Education Act, Comparative Literature took hold in U.S. universities on the premise that greater cross-cultural understanding through literature would help avert another man-made catastrophe. Should this belief in the humanistic mission of literary education that seven decades ago enabled our discipline to come into its own be now able to carry us beyond the ideological and institutional constraints of multiculturalism and globalization, Arabic literature would play its part broadening the imaginative scope of comparison.



[1] The intermediary period between the conventional end of the classical and the beginning of the modern has long been considered an “age of decay” or “decadence” (‘aṣr al-inḥiṭāṭ). The reasons for this now highly contested view are too complex to summarize here, but suffice it to say that a certain account of Arab cultural history sees it, in a reflection of its European counterpart, as progressing from a classical to a “Dark” age and finally to a “Renaissance” (the common way in which the Nahḍa, the name of the influential 19th century reform movement in Egypt and the Levant, has been translated). On the problems of the literature of the 13th-18th centuries, see Allen and Richards.

[2] In his introduction to The Study of the Middle East (1976), an extensive “state of the discipline” report, Leonard Binder describes the difficulty of wrenching the multi-disciplinary study of the modern Middle East from the Orientalist tradition’s overwhelming focus on the Arab-Islamic past—something that Orientalism inherited from its founding model of classical studies (Greek, Roman, and ancient Hebrew). Roger Allen’s contribution to the chapter on “Literature” in that report attempts to establish criteria for bringing the study of Arabic literature up to date with that of European literatures (the chapter is co-authored with William Hanaway and Walter Andrews, who focus on Persian and Turkish literatures, respectively).

[3] This is in stark contrast to, say, the German tradition of Romance philology, the parent discipline of American Comparative Literature and a discipline in which students were expected to acquire competency in several Romance languages. Thus while traditional American Comparative Literature focused on inter-European relations, Near East studies has overlooked inter-Middle Eastern literary relations. The reasons for this presumably have to do with linguistic competencies of scholars as well as the assumption that the most important cultural contacts for Middle Eastern peoples in the modern period have been with Europe rather than neighboring cultures.

[4] I hope it will be clear that I in no way mean to imply that to study Chinese or Japanese literatures in relation to European, American, or any other literatures is an outdated thing, but only that framing such work in Orientalist dichotomies is no longer tenable.

[5] On the relationship of postcolonial theory to modern Arabic literature during the 1980s-90s, see Hassan (2002). On the conceptual and institutional limitations of postcolonial studies as seen from a comparative perspective, see Hassan and Saunders.

[6] Abdelfattah Kilito illustrates this sort of comparatism in the work of Charles Pellat and ‘Abd al-Rahman Badawi (Kilito 10-16, 96-98).


Works Cited

Allen, Roger, William Hanaway, and Walter Andrews. “Literature.” In Binder, 399-509. Print.

--- and D. S. Richards, eds. Arabic Literature in the Post-Classical Period. Cambridge: Cambridge UP, 2006. Print.

Bernheimer, Charles, ed. Comparative Literature in the Age of Multiculturalism. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1995. Print.

Binder, Leonard, ed. The Study of the Middle East: Research and Scholarship in the Humanities and the Social Sciences. New York: John Wiley & Sons, 1976. Print.

Hassan, Waïl S. “Postcolonial Theory and Modern Arabic Literature: Horizons of Application.” Journal of Arabic Literature 33:1 (2002): 45-64. Print.

 ---. “Which Languages?” Comparative Literature 65:1 (2013): 5-14. Print.

--- and Rebecca Saunders. “Introduction, Part I: The Project of Comparative (Post)colonialisms.” Comparative (Post)colonialisms, a special issue of Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa, and the Middle East 23: 1-2 (2003). 18-23. Print.

Kadir, Djelal. “Comparative Literature in the Age of Terrorism.” In Saussy, 68-77. Print.

Kilito, Abdelfattah. Thou Shalt Not Speak My Language. Trans. Waïl S. Hassan. Syracuse: Syracuse UP, 2008. Print.

Said, Edward W. “Embargoed Literature.” The Nation (September 17, 1990): 278-280. Print.

Saussy, Haun, ed. Comparative Literature in an Age of Globalization. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 2006. Print.