Literature and Revolution


Samah Selim

Department of African, Middle Eastern and South Asian Languages and Literatures, Rutgers University, New Brunswick, N.J.; e-mail:

The three-week uprising in Egypt that ended with the removal of Husni Mubarak on February 11 happened to coincide with the section of my spring course syllabus on the Egyptian novel from Najib Mahfuz to Ahmed Alaidy. As was the case for many of my colleagues and their students, the rapid and awe-inspiring events unfolding daily before us pushed purely academic concerns to the margins of class discussion. This tidal wave of revolutionary politics erupting into the classroom forced me to the realization that my larger syllabus was not simply some neutral or systematic survey of half a century’s worth of Arabic literature. I began to think about the largely invisible dystopic intellectual and historical paradigms through which modern Arabic literature is often framed, at least in the United States. The nahḍa/naksa narrative, which compelled many of us to read Arab cultural history of the 20th century as a story of brief “awakening” followed by irredeemable decline and corruption, is clearly no longer tenable in the wake of February 11. This same narrative underpinned the highly self-conscious postmodernism that began to emerge in Egypt in the 1990s and that reached its apogee a couple of decades later at the end of the 2000s, a postmodernism that was celebrated (though by no means universally) as the true beginning of literary modernity and the emancipation of the subject from the dead weight of a past ideological age.