Elsherif discusses 1960s Middle Eastern literature

English Honor Society Sigma Tau Delta hosted its second speaking event this semester as part of the Literature Around the World lecture series. On Monday Nov. 12, visiting Fulbright Scholar in Arabic, Amr A. Elsherif, gave a lecture titled “Living in the Eve of Doomsday.”

“Our goal with the lecture series is to create more spaces where students and faculty can interact,” President of Sigma Tau Delta senior Gretchen Barkhuff said. “This way you get to see their research interests outside of class and have a more informal discussion.”

“Each professor has taken a different approach, whether it be solely within that specific culture or comparing it to American or English literature,” Barkhuff said.

Elsherif focused on two concepts: “symbol” and “irony” – symbol as the literary form most prevalent in dominant literature in the Middle East in the late 1960s, juxtaposed with irony as the literary form most prevalent in “dissenting” literature.

Elsherif focused on the use of symbol in the novel Open Door by Latifa al-Zayyat against the use of irony by dissenting Egyptian poets Amal Donkol and Kamal Ammar, Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani and Iraqi poet Ahmed Matar.

“For me, symbol means the materialization of the whole in the one, the general in the particular, the abstract in the concrete, the signified in the signifier, as opposed to the structure of irony in which the signifier, at first, means opposite,” Elsherif said.

Elsherif said these dissenting voices came about in the late ‘60s after the Middle Eastern freedom movements of the ‘50s and early ‘60s started to take control. The problem, however, was that those “freedom” movements reverted into old forms of dictatorship and oppression.

“What you have is a pursuit of freedom in the form of revolution,” he said. “The revolutionary group takes control, and they become the dominant authority. What they want to do is construct a strong national identity … but that excluded all those who didn’t accept these ideas, which ended up in a form of political oppression.”

“The whole is not just the collective consciousness of everybody, but the collective consciousness of everybody is included in the conscious of the individual,” Elsherif said. “The dissenting voices, when they rebel against the whole, they are rebelling against parts of themselves as well, hence the irony.”

According to Elsherif, at first the dissenting voices were not steadfast – that is, they were uncertain in their beliefs. After some time, however, the dissenters stopped blaming themselves and realized they were right that freedom ended in oppression; thus, they produced literature.

“When you produce any form of art that counters tradition, you cannot produce it in the same form,” Elsherif said. “The relationship is dialectical; the mainstream forms produce their opposition. The pursuit of freedom develops dialectically into oppression, so also, symbol dissolves into irony.”

He said that parts of tradition acquire “opposite or negative values” and that what once had a positive value in tradition now has a negative value.

“The dissenting voices don’t say, ‘We are a bad nation or a great nation,’” he said. “The word ‘great’ itself doesn’t really mean great; it means autocracy or dictatorship – something negative.”

According to Elsherif, some of these positive values begin to acquire negative connotations, while the negative begins to acquire positive values.

“For example, if you speak of someone in prison, it doesn’t mean he is in shade; it simply means he is an honorable person because he is the one who spoke the truth and had to take the consequences for his actions,” Elsherif said. “This is what I call irony.”