Editor's Introduction

by William R. Polk

NAPOLEON, whose career so deeply affected all modern European history, made a profound impression on the Arab East as well. His invasion of Egypt at the end of the eighteenth century introduced a startling new perspective of the world. The Empire he had sought to win proved ephemeral yet posed the “Eastern Question,” a focus of diplomatic gymnastics among the big powers until the end of the First World War. Of more significance in the East was the fact that the successful challenge to antiquated Ottoman military and economic formations and the personal figure cut by Napoleon inspired the Albanian mercenary Mehmet Ali Pasha, who was born in the same year as Napoleon, to try to make Egypt an Afro-Asian France. Copying Western techniques, hiring Western experts, and sending Egyptians to study in Europe, Mehmet Ali soon created an industrial base to support a modern army and navy with which he was able to conquer a vast empire. The empire itself soon broke on the rock of European opposition, but it has left behind two legacies which strongly influence the contemporary Arab scene.

The first of these is opposition to Europe. Mehmet Ali, who spoke no Arabic, could hardly be said to have been an Arab patriot, yet to succeeding generations, who from the Atlantic to the Persian Gulf have fallen under European domination, the retrospective grandeur of Mehmet Ali vis-à-vis Europe has provided something of the mystique necessary to nationalism. Indeed, opposition to Europe has been the chief political motivation of Arabs until the present day, and even now many Arabs are profoundly suspicious of and antagonistic toward the West.

At the same time, Mehmet Ali has left as his second legacy an intense interest in the West and a respect for Western abilities. Perhaps the mostpopular book in Arabic and Turkish in the first half of the nineteenth century was a description of Paris by the Egyptian scholar Rifaah Rafi, one of those sent by Mehmet Ali to Europe. Each in its own way, successive generations have attempted to discover the “secret" of Western might, and this has led to a deeper and deeper study of Western civilization. Culturally speaking, the past century has been one of Arab absorption, often rather uncritical, of the literature, art, governmental forms, dress, social habits, and techniques of the West. As in Russia under Peter the Great, this has tended to cut the upper class off from the lower; and to conservatives it has posed the question, “Will anything remain to be protected from the West with our new Western techniques?” One need only read a few Arabic books or open an Arabic dictionary written in the past century to see how profound has been the “impact of the West.” Not only has the bulk of the literary output been formed by translations from European books (Rafi is said to have translated every European book he read) but the native literature itself has been strongly influenced. New kinds of books came into vogue. Rafi wrote a manual of good manners, itself an innovation, to teach love of country, a Western notion, to young gentlemen, and he wrote the first patriotic poems. His followers and students gave to Arabic its first short stories, novels, and plays. Some of these were merely adaptations from French and English models, and most seem remarkably familiar to Western readers. In art an analogous process took place, while in music a sort of neo-Orientalism à la Rimski-Korsakov held sway. In all truth, the nineteenth century produced little of permanent value in Arabic culture.

World War I led to a new emotional upsurge, and it intensified contacts with the West. In the 1920’s the most popular intellectual magazine was an Arabic equivalent of Popular Science. Later the instability of the 1930’s led to a period of experimentation and soul-searching. Such panaceas as socialism, communism, fascism, revived Islam, etc., exercised the same attraction to Arabs that their counterparts did to Europeans. Much of the writing of these years makes tortured reading — for the nonspecialist every short story needs a commentary — and it must be confessed that the Arabs have yet to produce in modern times a great literature, art, or political system. Our generation is still one of borrowing, today also from Russia, but Arabic writers and artists are showing a new introspective vitality. Today Americans must recognize that the very notion of stability is anathema to most Arabs.

This state of flux cannot and should not be suppressed here. Like the other publications in this series of Atlantic, supplements, this anthology deals primarily with nonpolitical questions — surely the political issues already lay a great enough claim on our attention elsewhere. Most of the essays included here are addressed to problems which lie behind the current issues; similarly, of course, the fiction and poetry mirror the effects of the central problems before Arabic society. The authors of our material come from most of the Arab countries as well as from England and the United States. The editor has been guided in his task of selection chiefly by the hope that Americans who read these stories, poems, and essays and look at these pictures will come to understand, at least in part, what Arabs today are seeking in their civilization.