Literary CornerAn anthology of Arab humor in Arab literature (1 of 3) [Archives:2005/876/Culture]

September 12 2005

Undoubtedly, the Arabs and the various nations that fell under Islamic rule over the centuries had a very lasting influential in the development of human civilization and culture. Much of modern life, with its cultural and social advances is owed to the dynamic inputs made by Arab and Saracenic scholars, scientists, philosophers, men of letters and the arts over a span of well over a thousand years. When studying in the United States, this critic remembers a young Jewish Physics professor, aged 27, who had remarkably already obtained professorship status, whose name I believe was Dr. Flory, if my memory hasn't become foggy made an astounding remark to the class on his first lecture for the year: “If it was not for the work of Arab and Moslem scientists in the Middle Ages, the world would still be enmeshed in perpetual darkness in both the scientific and social arenas”. He then went on to elaborate the outstanding achievement of the Arabs in such fields as mathematics, optics, astronomy, medicine and chemistry, just to name a few. To be honest, I must admit that even Arab professors could not have been as elaborate and flattering to such achievements. His specialty was science, he nevertheless made note of the achievements in the arts, literature and the social sciences. I could not help but go up to him and convey my astonishment at such an open minded attitude the professor reflected. This writer made note of the fact that quite often he has had to argue with many prejudiced professors, who have always tried to convey Islam and the Arabs in the Middle Ages as proponents of “God, Glory and Gold”. He flatly, shook his head and said: “It goes to show you that these people should not have been accredited for teaching distortions of history. Only a fool would fail to admit the works of a thousand years of human progress.”

If the case can be said as such for the sciences, then surely the arts and the social sciences had also aroused the attention of many Arab and Moslem scholars over this transition period between the Middle Ages (incorrectly called the “Dark Ages”, just because Europe was in dark slumber) and the Modern Age. With the Arab Language providing a uniform medium of communications and movement of information, this helped produce an astounding literary heritage that crossed all ethnic and national boundaries that were under Islamic rule. It is noteworthy to mention that many a succeeding empire, some emanating from what may be considered as barbaric origins, eventually took in Moslem cultural influence and carried on with the magnificent output of their Arab and Saracenic1 predecessors. The Mongols and the Ottoman Empires are examples of such national movements that adopted Islam as their religion and their messianic universal missions.

Throughout this period, the field of literature was indeed accorded a high distinction of attention by many rulers, despotic or otherwise, because through this medium many of the rulers saw in the use of literature as a means of disseminating propaganda about their rule and their glory. Arabic poetry has already established itself as the record of Arab history in the Pre-Islamic Age, with literally thousands of Arab poems depicting the life story of many of the heroes of the period, of chronic inter-fighting and feuding among the tribes and mini-states that came and went in this anarchic period of Arab history. With writing, not yet widely used to record such history, the poets of the period were able to compose great masterpieces of rhythmic prose, that provided a solid base for establishing the Qur'an as the masterpiece of Arab literary flair and Islamic doctrine. Most of these poems were quickly spread throughout the Arabian Peninsula and kept in memory by the many talented poets over the ages, until the advent of Islam, in which writing became more widespread and scholars began to record all these fantastic anthology of prose, that is the major record of the history of the Arabian Peninsula for the span of almost 650 years of history, which is called the Jahiliyah, or Ignorance (as Islam is deemed to be the enlightening element that was infused into Arab culture and the dynamic course to free the Arabs from the petty warfare, vices and evil that dominated the period).

In this work under scrutiny, we have a lengthy in depth anthology of some of the literary output of the post Islamic period, especially that of literature combined with humor to produce a fascinating picture of the social and political environ that prevailed in some of the Islamic lands, particularly under the rule of the Abbasid Caliphate. While the whole work is quite large to cover in detail in this corner, we will only concentrate on the First Volume of this great anthology. Just a word on the author and we will begin the insight into the work in the next issue. Ali Mroueh is a Lebanese writer who was instrumental in publishing many literary publications over his 76 years of life which began in 1904. It is worth noting that he lived during the period when Arab culture was indeed beginning to see a reawakening after a long slumber that was probably due to the weakening of the body politic of the Arab nation as a unified state. In fact, it was indeed a period in which many important books were published that helped to maintain a tie of the present with the past that almost seemed to drift into oblivion had it not been for the work of people like Mroueh, Georgy Zeidan, Taha Hussein, Mohammed Hussein Heikal (not the present claimant to journalistic superiority and political analyst, who was one of the late President Nasser's propaganda mouthpieces).

1 Saracenic may be construed to include all the cultures that were encompassed by the Islamic Empire, with the Arabs still prevailing as the dominating cultural and political influence.