World Congress for Middle Eastern Studies

Barcelona, July 19th - 24th 2010


Orality and Literacy in Arabic Literature (421) - NOT_DEFINED activity_field_Panel

· NOT_DEFINED date: FRI 23 / 9.00-11.00 am

· NOT_DEFINED language: English / Français

· NOT_DEFINED description:
Chair: Zahia Smail Salhi (University of Leeds)

Paper presenter: Sarali Gintsburg (External Researcher, Tilburg University), “Literacy and Formulaic Language in Today's Traditional Oral Poetry: Case Study of the Songs of the Jbala (Northern Morocco)”
When M. Parry and later A. Lord, introduced the oral-formulaic theory and concept of poetic formula, stating that it is 'a group of words which is regularly employed under the same metrical conditions to express a given essential idea' (M. Parry, 1930 and A. Lord, 1960), it was accepted with a great enthusiasm and successfully applied to epics of various cultures and written literary works. However, one of the primary ideas of applying this theory was to prove the oral origin of these works. Furthermore, one of the key points raised by Lord in his foundational 'The Singer of Tales' (1960), was that poetic formulas are used practically only by oral, i.e., illiterate poets, and play the role of tools of improvisation during poetic performance. Moreover, in the same work, Lord argued that literacy of an oral poet and society itself leads to extinction of oral poetry and formulaic language. In this paper I will attempt to analyze modern popular songs of Jbala. The Jbala are a group of Arabic speaking tribes inhabiting the mountainous part of northern Morocco. I will review in particular songs by modern literate poets and singers who work in the framework of this genre and compare their texts to the old ones, published in the French periodicals, such as “Archives Marocaines”, in the beginning of the last century, with emphasis to show that usage or non-usage of poetic formulas is strictly individual and conditioned not only by literacy but by a number of other factors, such as the necessity to produce poetic text under the pressure of time, the necessity in conveying to the audience information in the available for it format, desire, and need in individualism, etc. This paper is a part of a bigger research project that I am undertaking at the moment.

Paper presenter: Nourine Elaid Lahouaria (Enseignant, Université Es-Senia ORAN Algérie), “La Femme dans le Conte Algérien”
L'objectif étant de présenter les multiples images féminines, il s'agira de voir comment à travers cette production orale les femmes vont parler d'elles, se décrire, s'exposer, se compromettre, mais aussi proposer des stratégies en vue de se réaliser comme un être social. J'essayerai de mettre en évidence pourquoi et comment les femmes vont mettre en valeur, ou peut-être remettre en question, les normes sociales et culturelles qui définissent la société dans laquelle elles évoluent, une société de type patriarcal où l'on s'évertue à les convaincre de l'infériorité inhérente à leur sexe.

Paper presenter: Dr Zahia Smail Salhi (Senior Lecturer, University of Leeds), “Heard/Symbolic Voices: Assia Djebar as the “Porte-Parole” of the Guardians of Women’s Memory “the Porte-Mémoire” in the Maghreb”
In her book “Ses voix qui m’assiègent”, Assia Djebar ponders on the question of women and the function of writing. It is undeniable that even though the tradition of writing in the Maghreb predates the advent of Islam, women were excluded from the realm of writing and were assigned the role of oral narrators who told/narrated stories and history instead of writing them.
This state of affairs automatically strips women from positions of power in the form of scripture and downgrades them to the position of the subaltern raconteurs who only spoke within the walls of their homes.
As such, women passed over their knowledge to next generations through oral narration. The most disconcerting aspect of this function, however, is that next to the written word, and the male’s word women’s narration is only given the last position.
Djabar remarks, “After all, if Scheherazade did not narrate at every dawn, but wrote, perhaps she would have needed only one night, and not a thousand nights to liberate herself (Djebar 1999: 77), which suggests that one written word bears more power than a thousand spoken words. Furthermore, the transmission of the inherited word does not confer authorship to women. Instead they remain the eternal transmitters of the word and the faithful guardians of the collective memory, which they relate in the past tense, in the third person and often in a hyperbolic manner.
While this serves well the purpose of transmitting the past and folk heritage, it becomes problematic when women not only witness important events they would like to report but actually play an active role in them. This becomes particularly true in the case of women’s roles in wars of independence.
How are these women going to transmit their experiences? Is oral transmission a suitable tool to carry over the stories of the heroines of the battle of Algiers and other heroines whose stories may not have survived to the postcolonial period? Isn’t oral transmission a risk to the veracity of these stories? Do we not run the risk of hyperbolism and turning reality into myth and legend?
All of these risks highlight the magnitude of women’s need for a transition from the function of oral narrators to that of writers; an evolution which can only be achieved through women’s literacy and education.
This paper aims to demonstrate how Djebar successfully substitutes silence with voice, oblivion with memory, and voicelessness with speech. She has rightly become the spokesperson “Porte-parole” of the sequestrated women, writer-witness of a historical era, writer stimulating the memory of the grandmothers, whom I call “the Porte-mémoire”, and shaking the archives of history.

Paper presenter: Firas Massouh (PhD Candidate, University of Melbourne), "Politics of Orality: The Case of Hammad al-Rawiyah"
A good deal of attention has recently been given to the subject of orality and literacy in early Arabic literature (namely the works of Gregor Schoeler, Shawkat M. Toorawa and Suzanne Stetkevych). This has dealt in the main with the emergence of writing and publication during the first century of the Abbasid Caliphate; a period marked by an expanded literary milieu that included the caliphs and their courts, the high officials, and a new urban elite of mixed origins. A central figure in this cultural milieu was Hammad al-Rawiyah, a learned transmitter and the first collector of the poetry of the ancient Arabs as attested by Ibn Sallam al-Jumahi. With a particular focus on Hammad, this paper proposes a re-evaluation of the literary landscape of the early Abbasids by turning to Pierre Bourdieu’s concept of the “field”. The Abbasid cultural climate facilitated the emergence of pre-Islamic poetry as a focus of literary attention and activity, inviting poets (shu’ara’, sing. Sha’ir) and transmitters (ruwat, sing. rawi) to play a pivotal role as cultural agents whose objective was to construct appropriate images of the Jahiliyya past. Such activity shaped the way in which the interaction between the oral and the written changed the meanings of classic poetry and its reproduction. By employing Bourdieu’s concept of the ‘field’, this paper will approach Hammad's 'orality' to be emerging within a field of power struggles in which his interactions with the caliphs, poets, and transmitters- and indeed their interactions with him - determined the strategies he implemented in defining and defending his position as a rawiyah (a scholarly rawi). This novel approach enables us to discern otherwise-invisible aspects of early Abbasid cultural history, and it will hopefully make a contribution to the ongoing academic interest in Arabic orality and literacy.