Between Revision and Return: Emile Habiby’s Pessoptimistic Response to Postcolonial Theory

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This essay explores how literary postcoloniality, postmodern aesthetics and local narrative traditions are historicized in modern Arabic literature, in particular in the novel of Palestinian writer Emile Habiby (1922–1996), (The Mysterious Facts of the Disappearance of Saeed abi Nahs al-Mutashail: A Story) (1974). As an implicit critique both of postcolonial reading categories and postmodern writing, the novel recycles classical Arabic prose (most notably the maqama and the One Thousand and One Nights), French literature (Voltaire’s Candide) and Arabic poetry to offer a different historiographical approach to the postcolonial moment in which colonial and anticolonial cultures coexist. I argue Habiby’s recycling of classical prose opens up possibilities for rewriting the history of the Arabic novel and responds to postcolonial criticism’s problematic privileging of discourse over form. In mocking the expectation of realistic representation, the novel suspends the tension between retaining history and liberating the contemporary Arabic text from the past, specifically by foregrounding traditional narrative forms within the long form of the novel. As such, it invites us to reassess the resurgence of classical narrative forms in the period known as (al-nahda) or Arab Renaissance (1798–1939) as an integral moment of negotiation between the (turath) or heritage and the modern (imported) novel form. In revisiting this significant historical moment, the novel historicizes both accounts of literary modernity and postcolonial representation and demands a revisionary literary history that could remind postcolonial theory of the need for an open and engaged commitment to singular “postcolonial” conditions.

Original languageEnglish (US)
Pages (from-to)210-228
Number of pages19
Issue number2
StatePublished - Feb 17 2018


  • Arabic novel
  • Habiby, Emile
  • Palestinian novel
  • nahda
  • turath

ASJC Scopus subject areas

  • History
  • Anthropology


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