Khalīl al-Khūrī begins the introduction to his novel, Wayy, Idhan Lastu bi Afranjī [Alas, then I Am Not a Foreigner], by telling the reader about beginnings:Readers of books, ever since the craft of writing was established, have been sentenced with the punishment of also reading introductions. And if we are to embark upon this art, it is not appropriate for us to stray from the path of our honorable authors. So we must therefore present an introduction here, and struggle to understand what … the pen has brought us to write. It is for the reader to burn it or tear it up if it does not suit his mood.1
Introducing as it does the earliest known novel to be written in Arabic, “beginnings” seems like an appropriate subject for meditation. Recently discovered in the rare books collection of the American University of Beirut, Wayy dates to 1859 – nearly half a century earlier than Muḥammad Ḥusayn Haykal’s Zaynab (long considered the first Arabic novel).2 Yet while its cover, re-issued by Egypt’s state press in 2007, heralds it as “the first Arabic novel” and thereby stakes a claim in the one of the central debates of Arabic literary studies, al-Khūrī seems less interested in establishing this status. Neither of his two introductions announces the inauguration of a genre, nor does either imply that he considered himself to be doing anything very new.
Instead, al-Khūrī imagines himself as following the lead of the “honorable authors” who came before him. The genre in Arabic begins, it seems, with a gesture toward a derivative history.
To say this, though, isn’t to tell scholars of Arabic literature anything they haven’t heard before. In most literary histories, the Arabic novel has been characterized as derivative, a genre imported from Europe in the 19th century and then imitated by Arab authors until they finally produce a “real” or “authentic” Arabic novel, usually in the second decade of the 20th century. 3 Standing as a benchmark for modernity, the Arabic novel has been seen as representing a larger process of catching up with Europe, with acculturation characterizing the 19th-century period in which it was produced, the Nahḍah. A word meaning “renaissance” or “revival,” the Nahḍa was once considered a period of cultural efflorescence initiated by contact with Europe – where the arrival of the West heralded progress.4
This, though, is an old story, and is being challenged by Arabists who are complicating the narrative of acculturation. I try to build on their work of reimagining the Nahḍa, as Samah Selim has written, as “a dynamic constitutive process,” rather than the inevitable product of the so-called encounter with the West.5
This goal is complicated, however, by the fact that Wayy seems concerned above all with products of the West, from novels to hats and cigarettes. It tells the story of a “foreignized” Aleppo merchant (or mutafarranj, one who imitates the customs of the afrānj, or Franks) as he attempts to marry his daughter to a mysterious European visitor. It is a plot that serves as a microcosm for the Nahḍah’s cultural encounters, with the protagonist, Mikhālī, serving as a negative model for how one might “heed the voice of the age,” as al-Khuri writes, as it calls for “moral and material progress” (44). Mikhālī’s attempt at progress via acculturation fails, as his daughter – after spurning her Arab suitor – is rejected by the French count. As he tells Mikhālī, “Europeans aren’t accustomed to marrying Arabs” (127). Mikhālī’s despairing response comprises the title, as he tells him “wayy, Idhan lastu bi-afranjī” (“Alas, then I am not a foreigner”).
Mikhālī is not a foreigner (franji) but a mutafarranj (pseudo-foreigner), one, as al-Khūrī describes it, who wears foreign clothes and speaks English or French more fluently than Arabic. Or, as the author pithily puts it, he mistakes “the European tailor’s shop for a school for civilization” (162). That is to say: Far from denying the idea that the “new age” was characterized by material and immaterial things being “imported” from the West, al-Khūrī seems to be taking them as the object of his interrogation, focusing on the consumption of foreign objects and texts as the problematic locus of modernity. 6 Even as it focuses the discussion back on products of the so-called ‘encounter with the West,’ Wayy does so with an understanding of objects that sees them as complexly tied up with agency, subjectivity and modernity. (After all, it is the pen that brings him to write in the introduction.) In emphasizing the materiality of his book and its fragility in the hands of consumers – the pages that a reader might tear or burn – we can see the novel as self-consciously embedded within transnational circuits of literary and material consumption. Al-Khūrī leads us to ask, what can be gained if we take the idea of “importing” seriously and try to understand the novel as both “literary and material,” as a textual object in international circulation? 7
To begin to answer this question, we might start with the opening scene, which could be categorized as depicting the arrival of the West:The Frenchman or Englishman who leaves the Boulevards or Regent’s Street on the first of the month will easily find himself in Beirut by the middle of it … packing himself, along with spools of un-dyed cloth and yarn, into one of the steamers at Liverpool, he arrives at the Beirut harbor imagining that he has entered a great stage. It trembles with people of the East and the West, and the South and the North, as our guest sees this multitude babbling in their own language and wearing their own costumes – for they wouldn’t know a pair of pants from the alif of their language (this is the letter “A”) and use things proper to the West in a manner that provokes laughter. (4 – 5)
Al-Khūrī begins here by indicating some of the prominent features of this new age, in which steamships allowed foreigners and foreign goods to arrive with increasing frequency at the ports of the Levant. In the 1830s, the opening of steamship routes in the Mediterranean coincided with Ottoman trade reforms and the expansion of credit, rapidly opening the empire to new levels of foreign investment, trade and immigration. 8 The largest consequence of these changes was the rapid growth of the production of agricultural exports – silk thread in present-day Syria and Lebanon, and cotton in Egypt. In Aleppo, where this story takes place, farmers exported raw cotton to English and French factories, where it was transformed into cheap undyed yarn twists and “white cloth,” which Aleppan manufacturers then re-imported to dye and weave for the regional market.9 It is not surprising, then, that al-Khūrī imagines foreigners to pack themselves “along with spools of undyed cloth and yarn” into the steamer. The textile industry was a major thread linking Europe to the Middle East in the 19th century.
Al-Khūrī thus situates the action in the context of the incorporation of Ottoman cities into an emerging global capitalist system. It was what al-Khūrī’s father-in-law and fellow author called the “great global chain,” linked “by means of the steamship [and] telegraph.” 10 Or, as al-Khūrī imagines more precisely, cotton harvested near Aleppo filled “the bellies of English ships” and fed “the mouths of Manchester or Liverpool factories” (45). Not everyone on the chain was equally sated, as “foreign investment” turned into “foreign loans on unfavorable terms” and then “foreign rule.” By the time of Wayy’s publication, Ottoman provinces were importing far more than they were exporting, and cheap, European-made textiles were putting pressure on local manufacturers – Aleppans, Beirutis and Caireans were being integrated into the global chain, largely as consumers in a global market whose center was elsewhere. But this scene engages more than the novel’s material context: Al-Khūrī is equally – if not more – interested in the corresponding cultural and intellectual relationships being formed. Here, denizens of the port don’t know a pair of pants from the “letter A”; it is a scene in which a foreign commercial good can be rhetorically interchanged with a foreign textual object (marked typographically with a Latin “A” in the margin notes)
This encounter, to use al-Khūrī’s formula, is represented as material and cultural – coinciding with a homology between Western goods and ideas trade, in which deficits correlate with what has been called a “perceived civilizational deficit” by many of the period’s intellectuals. 11 Yet – as you might have already suspected – this scene is difficult to assimilate to such a discourse, the “syntagm of reform” where decay and stagnation are overcome through knowledge imported from the West. Al-Khūrī’s typographical joke gives us a hint about that: Allowing the letter “A” to be interchanged with a pair of pants, he renders what was phonetic as pictographic, with the A’s two angled legs troubling the Western alphabet’s capacity to signify knowledge. It becomes, like the language of the Arabs in the harbor, “babble.” Most important, in this scene, al-Khūrī satirizes the traveler who, as he writes, “like most Europeans, leaves his thoughts at home, exchanging them for mountains of arrogance and ignorance” (5). In making reference to European travelers, this scene calls to mind narratives written by some of al-Khūrī’s European contemporaries, such as Alexander Kinglake, Lady Hester Stanhope and Alphonse de Lamartine, whose travelogue he will later quote at length.All depict a similar arrival: landing in the Beirut harbor amongst foreign ships, goods for sale and a throng of unintelligible Arabs in unfamiliar costumes. Al-Khūrī’s version, in fact, is distinguished only by its brevity – it reads like an inventory of tropes, a banal checklist of European travelogue-exoticism. And it packs the subject of those narratives, the traveler, into the cargo hold – using yashhan, a verb for freighted cargo, to describe his journey.Thus we see al-Khūrī importing European texts into Arabic not to emulate, but to parody. This scene, then, not only depicts the international circulation of goods, but the literary circulation of images.
In this sense, it participates in one of the overarching projects of the Nahḍah, as its intellectuals theorized their participation in larger material and literary circuits, whether in positing a universal history of development, an international literary sphere, or by participating in what one critic has called “global radical culture”. 12 These are all ways that the Nahḍah’s thinkers posed questions of modernity in the context of what they identified as an age of increased interconnectedness.13
The question was how – and on what terms – to negotiate their position in the connected world. It was a question of what it meant to “be a civilized Arab” as al-Khūrī puts it, in the crosscurrents of global capitalism, empire, and the trans-regional and potentially global community of the faithful. It was an attempt to understand the local not against the global, but within its unequal structures of exchange. It is in this context that I want to read this opening scene – not just as depicting the arrival of Western goods or European literary modes, but as identifying the larger networks in which the characters and their objects are already embedded. By beginning his novel in the Beirut harbor, after all, al-Khūrī sets the action in a nodal site of international trade, where “people of the East and West and South and North” come together to do business.
That is to say, this is not a scene of arrival at all, but one that engages the question of exchange itself, as a process in which A’s become pants, people become cargo, and empiricist travel narratives become parodies. Importation is figured as a scene of exchange invoking problems of translatabilityand value, which on the market are not intrinsic but what Gayatri Spivak has called textual, in that they have no adequate literal referent. Value, as Spivak writes, “is a vanishing semblance” that “can never appear on its own” – it is produced in exchange and circulation, where it is always on the move, in constant deferral that opens a gap within “identity as adequation.” 14 As she quotes Marx in another essay, “You may turn and toss an ounce of gold in any way you like, and it will never weigh ten ounces. But here in the process of circulation one ounce practically does weigh ten ounces.”15 Especially in the context of 19th-century Ottoman monetary crises caused by the debasement of the kurush and later the introduction of paper money – where for a time 10 kurush really did equal 1 – we can see representations of international trade as engaging the textuality of value.16
We can see this in this opening scene, as the narration turns to focus on a local figure, a mutafarranj, one of those who “uses things proper to the West in a way that provokes laughter”. In his use of circulating goods, he is described in a series of displacements, qualifications and implied quotations. As the narrator continues,this man was enveloped in what it is only correct, in the absence of proper names, to call “clothes:” wrapped in a white coat with tails that is referred to in other places as a “riding coat” [ridīnkūt], he holds in one hand a cane that he grips like a ship’s oar, and keeps his other hand in his pocket like one who is afraid his wallet will burst out of it. And in his mouth was a Faubourg chimney, by which I mean what they call a sīkāra [cigarette].
Here the displacements, the transliterations from riding coat to ridinkūt or cigarette to sīkāra, we can see value’s vanishing semblance, as what he wears can only be valued as clothes “in the absence of proper names.” This description also marks the introduction of the mutafarranjiyīn to the reader, describing him as the consumer of imported goods and even composed of them – this man’s hand is mentioned only as the holder of a cane, and his mouth as the location of his cigarette. A figure for the circulatory matrices of the Nahḍah, his own value – his being a “civilized Arab” – also appears as a vanishing semblance in a series of exchanges. “If you see a man in Western clothes in Damascus,” al-Khūrī writes, “one assumes that his grandfather married a foreigner.
The protagonist of our story, for example, Mikhālī, learned a little of the language of his grandfather’s wife’s brother’s godfather – and thereby became foreign” (34). To paraphrase Marx, a Syrian is not a Frenchman, but here in circulation, an Arab can seem to turn into a foreigner. Incorporated into the Nahda’s transnational economy as a consuming subject, the characters can cease to resemble themselves. And so despite their best efforts, the actions of the mutafarranjiyīn make them seem like characters in a “play denouncing European customs.” Circulation produces subjects that are themselves a kind of “vanishing semblance.”
The potential for transfiguration is already apparent to the reader of Wayy, as the narration highlights the promiscuity of circulation in Mikhālī’s misused objects.
By figuring the protagonist as wearing a coat both present in the Beirut harbor and “referred to in other places,” and smoking a cigarette connected imaginatively to the Faubourgs of Paris, al-Khūrī emphasizes the character’s potential to be embedded in mobile scales of value – where what passes as “clothes” in the West are laughable in the East. Each of the objects Mikhālī consumes, in fact, is an international commodity whose value is determined not just by its local market, but in several at once.
In a century when the price of Ottoman-manufactured products was particularly volatile, al-Khūrī’s readers would have felt the contingency of value firsthand. Indeed, they would have read about it in al-Khūrī’s journal, Ḥadīqat al-Akhbār [The Garden of News], which first serialized Wayy. In addition to being one of the first venues for serialized fiction in Arabic, it was advertised as a “literary, political, commercial journal” – and was devoted to providing its readers with the knowledge necessary to do business on the world market. It was a venue, that is, in which one read about how consumer objects were “referred to in other places” and how they were valued there.
Subscribers read chapters from Wayy alongside the “commercial bulletin” that gave currency exchange rates and commodity prices in international trading centers.
And next to these was a space reserved for advertisements, publicizing imported goods for sale – silkworm eggs from Egypt, codeine syrup from France – as well as books recently printed by al-Khūrī’s press. 17 Wayy itself was advertised there, next to these circulating objects, and as one of them; the advertisement describes the novel’s contents as “social criticisms … presented in a humorous manner” and “170 corrected pages made from the plates formerly serialized in the journal and bound with a thick, colored paper cover.”18 Readers encountered Wayy as social interpreters and as consumers, and were thus identified with the consuming subjects criticized in the novel. Mikhālī’s fate then serves as a warning for the reader, as he urges the reader to “say [like Mikhālī], ‘Alas, then I am not a Foreigner’” (163).
By asking the reader to repeat after the protagonist, al-Khūrī addresses the reader as both a critic of the mutafarranj and as a potential mutafarranj himself, and interpolates the reader into his larger intellectual project: understanding the ability of consuming subjects to encode things with meaning in an international market where objects and ideas circulate in multiple systems of valuation at once. What is more, al-Khūrī also seeks to understand how subjects – as fused to objects – encode themselves with value. What does it mean to think about the mutafarranj as a model for the novelistic subject, or to think of circulation as a basis of the Arabic novel? It means rethinking one of the primary assumptions about the rise of the Arabic novel: that the confluence of its emergence with nationalism produced the novelistic subject as a specifically national one. Seeing circulation as a foundational interest and structuring possibility helps us out of one of the tautologies of the theory of the novel in general – where the “rise of the Arabic novel,” to paraphrase William Warner, becomes the self-fulfilling story of the Arab rise of the Arabic novel. 19 Instead, we might incorporate the hundreds of non-national fictions that preceded Wayy.Seeing the novel as a circulating object or representing circulation also means re-thinking the centrality of Benedict Anderson’s thesis in studies of the novel. As Anderson argues, print culture began as an “appendage of the market,” where commercial news “created an imagined community among a specific assemblage of fellow-readers, to whom these ships, brides, bishops and prices belonged.” 20 Yet where Anderson assumes a national circulation and spatially-bound imaginary – these ships, these prices – The Garden of News gave commercial news about ships in multiple ports (or ships of multiple nations within a single port), and prices in multiple countries as they were recorded on a single day.
If Arabic print in the Nahḍah is a “complex gloss on the word meanwhile,” then it describes a simultaneity across spaces larger and more varied than the nation. 21 This is a meanwhile of the harbor or the valuation table. Doing so also allows us to question the “unified literary fields” that are being theorized now in debates about world literature – fields often calibrated to a Greenwich Meridian Time of Western Europe. Instead, we might abandon our centers altogether for uneven circuits of exchange. Seeing the novel as one sort of object that circulates takes seriously al-Khūrī’s homology of goods and forms as it poses the question of literary value in a connected world. To do so might just help us out of our debate of “arrival” and see the “rise” of the novel not as a rise at all, but as a series of exchanges.