Book Reviews; Roger Allen’s ‘Introduction to Arabic Literature ,’ is an informed and erudite compantion to his ‘Arabic Literary Heritage .’ It gives an overview of a huge field, to the extent that a lot of the book seems to be listings of authors and dates, in the sort of detail that you have no hope of absorbing without a command of the language and access to a good library of those books.
Some aspects of what he describes are fascinating, and mildly surprising to the reader new to this area. E.g. drama—as in theatre—first manifests itself (in Egypt) in reaction to exposure to the European version of same, and there doesn’t seem to have been any tradition of plays in existence. A significant contribution to the literary patrimony has been given by emigrant Lebanese and Syrian Christians in the United States.
Also, I’ve personally had a concept of the historical Arabic world as pretty much a monolith—porous to the east, as trade and debate with Persia and modern Pakistan showed—but in the essentials, the one (or at least a primary) centre of government, of religion, whatever. Not the case at all ; these people have been fighting among themselves on questions of the Prophet’s legacy pretty much since the last time the Prophet drew breath. What’s awe-inspiring is that they managed to do that, and still have the fastest-growing religion in the world for so long.
The image it gives of today’s literature is of an Arabic-speaking world either rich and badly governed (think silly levels of censorship), or poor and subject to GB Shaw’s seven deadly sins; “Food, clothing, firing, rent, taxes, respectability and children. Nothing can lift those seven milestones from man’s neck but money; and the spirit cannot soar until the milestones are lifted.” In all, it’s a depressing state of affairs to see such a major tradition of learning be in.