The Peculiar Destinies of Arab Modernity

Dr. Faisal Darraj
Arab Art Histories: The Khalid Shoman Collection, 2013
Translated from the Arabic by Anna Swank

If European modernity was a project left uncompleted (as German philosopher Jürgen Habermas would have it), then Arab modernity is a project crippled since birth. The former was rooted in intellectual, scientific and industrial revolutions that accelerated throughout the eighteenth century; the latter only began to take shape, and in fits and starts, in the mid-nineteenth century.

While European modernity developed at the hands of powerful and politically dominant sectors of society, the quest for Arab modernity was championed by intellectuals. Beginning with Napoleon’s invasion of Egypt at the end of the eighteenth century, these intellectuals contemplated the causes behind Western progress and superiority, and what had caused the Arab world to lag behind, thus leaving it susceptible to colonization. In both cases, the foil of the victorious West was inherent to the discourse of the Arab Nahda—“awakening”— albeit in two different ways. Intellectuals who rejected the Ottoman legacy adopted the tradition of thought that had produced “Western superiority”, while still maintaining ties with their societies’ own cultural particularities. By contrast, those who adhered to traditional religious thought insisted on a return to their “Islamic roots,” claiming that Arab society had been defeated precisely because it had drifted away from these roots. Thus they responded to “foreign” or “imported thought” by launching a project of religious revival. But since both intellectual projects were a response to this “culture shock” with the West, they suffered from an internal, unresolvable tension. Hence, neither the proponents of the European model nor the advocates of Islamic revival could see their projects through to the end, and fulfill their promises.

The Arab modernity project was in crisis from the outset. Those intellectuals who accepted the European model never enjoyed apposite socio-cultural conditions for their project. Those who attempted to defend the authority of tradition fared no better; the past they had hoped to reinstate could not be brought back, for the needs of their society had changed. The traditionalists ensnared themselves in a vicious cycle: they could not implement this “old Islam,” nor could they produce a “new Islam” that would be equipped to enter into dialogue with the modern age and respond to its questions. Therefore, they resorted to reifying a “Fundamentalist Islam” existing outside of history, and not by successfully constructing an Islamic utopia but rather by refuting the various Western alternatives.

In contrast to the advocates of this “a-historical Islam”—who saw no difference between the age of the Prophet and the age of the steam engine—the Arab intellectuals of the Enlightenment recognized a universal human culture, to which Islamic culture had contributed, and thus opened up to the European culture that had facilitated the rise of the West. Consequently, they branched out into different European schools of thought, unveiling new horizons for Arab society: Taha Hussein was influenced by the French philosopher René Descartes; Egyptian writer Salama Moussa became an enthusiastic advocate of Darwin; Egyptian writer Muhammad Hussein Haykal translated the works of Jean-Jacques Rousseau; and Sheikh Rafa’a al Tahtawi—who was sent on a scholarly delegation to France in the 1820s by Egyptian governor Muhammad Ali—discovered the political philosophy of Montesquieu, just as fifty years later the mufti of Al Azhar, Muhammad ’Abdu, would discover the ideas of evolutionist English philosopher Spencer.

What fundamental questions did these intellectuals pose in Arab societies under four centuries of Ottoman rule? What slogan embodied their intellectual propositions, implicitly or explicitly? That question—which took different forms—invariably issued from a comparison between the weak East and the strong West, out of a troubled consciousness that simultaneously condemned the West and was infatuated with it. “Why do they progress while we regress?” asked Abdullah al-Nadim, the Egyptian rebel who participated in the ’Urabi Revolt of 1882. “Why are they strong?” wrote Salama Moussa. It was Shakib Arslan who articulated the famous question which is still pertinent today: “Why did the West progress and the East regress?”

All these questions revolved around regression, weakness, backwardness, and the intellectual and social alternatives that could liberate the weak from their weakness. This is why Arab Nahda thought fought its initial battles under the banner of “the new”—in which the advocates of “the new”, with the improved accuracy of their thinking, were able to defeat the doomed “ancients” once and for all. This is what Taha Hussein believed when he wrote his famous book On Pre-Islamic Poetry in 1925. This “new” gained support in the domains of politics, literature, and the study of Islamic heritage and jurisprudence, and by the second quarter of the twentieth century it had effectively become social movement.

Far from closed Islamic thought—which invented an ideal past and equated the needs of that fictitious past with those of the present, lived reality —Arab Nahda thought addressed the diagnosed problems of modern society: Tahtawi defended women’s right to education and advocated for citizenship and political participation; at the end of the nineteenth century, Al Kawakibi attacked despotism vehemently in a book that has remained unique in modern Arab culture, The Nature of Despotism; Qasim Amin made the liberation of women his life’s work; Ahmad Faris al Shidyaq condemned fanaticism of all sorts, especially religious; Muhammad ‘Abduh rejected the idea of excommunication and called for tolerance; Khairuddin al Tunisi discussed science, technology and industry; Farah Antoun raised the question of civil society; and the enlightened nationalist Sati’ al Husri called for replacing religious association with national association, building on the ideas of Herder and other German nationalist intellectuals. Nonetheless, the influence of Western culture on these thinkers did not prevent them from maintaining diverse identities. For instance, Taha Hussein linked Egypt’s “Mediterranean” identity to its ancient Pharaonic history, Al Husri reconciled “Arabism” with European culture, and Al Kawakibi believed in an “Arabist Islam” while commending the freedom that people enjoyed in the West.

As a social project, Arab Nahda thought linked the idea of the school to their proposed future. The school assumed a self-evident position in the writings of all enlightenment intellectuals. It was a metaphor for science, a definite road to sophistication, progress and development, and a necessary rite of passage to produce a leading social elite capable of identifying the shortcomings of society and proposing solutions. Perhaps it was this belief in the power of new knowledge that propelled belief in a better future and made these intellectuals confident in rejecting the religious idea of the “corruption of time.” That is, from a traditional religious perspective, every epoch is succeeded by a less virtuous one; therefore, overcoming this “corruption” requires faithful emulation of the original foundations of the religion, making “true belief” the only means for progress, although this “progress” seeks to resurrect some ideal past that once existed.

Traditional thought called for a future that resurrected the past on the basis of “correct belief.” By contrast, the enlightenment intellectuals spoke of a worldly future based on the power of knowledge, which while accepting the relativity of all knowledge, harbored doubts toward inherited wisdom and considered new discoveries and developments to be more accurate. The new school of doubt, which attempted to desacralize the ancients and their writings, was perhaps what made traditionalist culture perceive Taha Hussein as an apostate and an agent for the West, from the moment he wrote On Pre-Islamic Poetry until his death in 1973. The idea of a “unified human culture” played a large role in this debate; Arab Awakening intellectuals spoke of unequal development in human culture, and of the necessity of cultural interaction and dialogue between civilizations. Some went so far as to suggest that Arabs were not taking anything from the West, but rather taking back from the West what it had taken from Arab culture during its Golden Age. Based on this notion of  unified human culture, Arab Nahda intellectuals believed in the inevitability of progress in their society, as part of the ever-progressing human society at large. They also embraced Darwinian theory, accepting evolution as natural law, even a “cosmic rule,” as they deemed it at the time. This conceptualization entailed an innocent optimism that took history to be a “just spirit” dispersing progress evenly among all nations and people.

This made translation a valuable and necessary component of the Nahda, since knowledge belonged to the whole of humanity and should be made available to all. Thus the “Westerner”, formerly reduced to a religious-colonial identity, was replaced with a pluralized image of the “Other” as an innovative, exploratory human, and a pioneer of new literary genres. Therefore, in the first half of the twentieth century, Arab readers were introduced to Greek and European literatures, as well as to a variety of philosophical and artistic traditions.

So what did the Nahda discourse mean in the context of a dominant traditionalist Arab culture? It meant liberation from a narrow and stagnant culture, and an opening to an evolving human world. This is what the Lebanese writer Ameen Rihani discussed in his early novel The Book of Khaled (1911), and what Tahtawi suggested in his book An Imam in Paris (1834) when he discovered that the French, although non-Muslim, were more generous than the Muslim Turks, that the virtues of peoples come from their science and industry, and that human needs are varied and changing. During the last two decades of the twentieth century, closed religious ideology attempted the so-called “Islamization of science” as if there were an Islamic physics with its own set of laws, while Arab Nahda thinkers tried to delimit the sphere of religion so that it could not expand and engulf other spheres. Thus, Tahtawi defined nationalism as geography and history; Taha Hussein differentiated between writing history and religious allegory; and Salama Musa defended experimentation and scientific inquiry. In the early days, it was the Awakening intellectuals’ recognition of the resistance their ideas confronted that gave rise to the concept of the “project”. These “projects” could link the present to a desired future: Qasim Amin launched the project of female emancipation, which Huda Sha’rawi continued; Ahmad Amin pursued the project of rewriting Arab-Islamic history, which was never completed; Iraqi poets participated in creating a modern poetry in the 1940s.

Arab modernity was born into a double paradox. It was called for by bourgeois intellectuals in the context of a nascent Arab bourgeoisie inclined towards selectivity and fabrication, and those intellectuals benefited from  Western culture in the context of colonial domination. The first paradox pushed people towards a quick failure, while the second entailed accusations and a sense of alienation because the “masses”—which were then predominantly illiterate—confused modernity with Westernization, and Westernized modernity with subordination.

In fact, the closed religious consciousness—which was reproduced by an array of traditionalist “clerics”—has been since the beginning and continues to be an obstacle for modernist thought, as it continues to cling to the false formula equating modernity with blasphemy, and a cleric with the sacred speech that he employs. It was for this reason that in the early twentieth century, Sheikh Muhammad ‘Abduh petitioned for a fatwa from a prominent Tunisian cleric to justify teaching geography and mathematics at Al Azhar University in Egypt and the Syrian Qustaki al Himsi decried the reduction of the various sciences to “religious science” and the science of language necessary for interpreting religious texts. The clerics also equated literary imagination with “the vice of dishonesty” when they protested Muhammad al Muwaylihi’s novel The Story of Isa Ibn Hisham (1900) which directly contributed to the birth of the Arab novel. They also condemned the language of newspapers as a deviation from the language of the Holy Quran, and considered writing in dialect to be a conspiracy against the sacred Arabic language. While Taha Hussein criticized the ancient methods of teaching literature and language and writing history, the proponents of the old who “monopolized” tradition declared modernity heretical in all its forms. They saw theatre as cheap entertainment, the parliament as the delegation of God’s will to the people, and painting, sculpture and music as deviations from “ancient knowledge” and thus as tools for moral deprivation.

The religious obstacle—represented by clerics defending their social authority—was cemented by authoritarian principles that celebrated stability and stagnation. Hence, the Syrian theatre pioneer Abu Khalil al Qabbani was subjected to Sultan Abdulhamid’s wrath in the last quarter of the nineteenth century when some clerics claimed that theatre “emboldened the populace to criticize the Sultan.” The Palestinian writer Rawhi al Khalidi published his book The Discipline of Literature between Arabs and Victor Hugo (1904) anonymously so as not to upset the same Sultan, since it was influenced by the French Revolution. Egyptian Ali Abdel Raziq was forced to withdraw from public life after writing his book Islam and the Foundations of Governance (1925) because King Fouad thought it challenged his aspiration to reinstate the Caliphate.

As a matter of fact, from Muhammad Ali Pasha, who ruled Egypt in the first half of the nineteenth century, up until the end of the twentieth century, political leaders in the Arab world have distinguished between technological modernity and intellectual modernity. The former was reduced to “the importation of arms and goods,” while the latter was considered a “foreign” evil that is necessarily incompatible with Arab authenticity. This dichotomy, which was taken as a given, became articulated in this false duality: modernity and authenticity, or the original and the contemporary. Thus somehow the need for commodities and modern technologies to support the authoritarian, repressive apparatus were deemed necessary, while modern thought that called for democracy, justice and equality was forbidden. In the early 1970s, Egyptian president Mohamed Anwar al Sadat put forward a parallel formula: “the state of science and faith.” Here, science meant “fighting illiteracy” and faith meant “religious folklore” whereby the people obeyed God, the Prophet, and the political authority represented by their “pious president.”

Despite the fact that fanatic religious consciousness and despotic power had historically challenged modernist thought in different ways, the advent of the “sovereign nation-state” in the mid-twentieth century brought the two together for authoritarian and pragmatic purposes. By the end of the 1960s, with the failure of the nation-state, religion became the key element of an authoritarian ideology in search of its lost legitimacy, as Moroccan philosopher Abdullah al ‘Arwi has argued. This was buttressed by the rise of oil power, which spread a Salafi strain of Islam that dealt with life matters through the duality of belief and blasphemy, and considered intellectual modernity a form of subservience to the West while remaining totally silent with regards to the economic and political subservience on which those traditional anti-modernist authorities were founded.

The failed “sovereign nation-state” depended on two complementary policies in dealing with society: firstly, impoverishing the people and depriving them of all their rights of citizenship; and secondly, expanding the religious sphere to an unprecedented degree. By the first strategy, the political sphere was restricted, human rights confiscated, public oversight of authority abolished, and civil society lost its basic components. By the second, the authorities created a religious discourse that justified its practices by means of the ever-spreading houses of worship, mass media, and the state education system, which infused religion into all of the “sciences” and oversaw the religionization of daily life, undermining “civil society” and reducing it to the believer vs. non-believer dichotomy, rather than the notion of the citizen who unites both through criteria issuing from citizenship and belonging to the nation rather than being recognizable solely by religious affiliation.

Half a century after achieving “national sovereignty,” Arab society did not live up to the image that Arab modernity had promised. It ended up experiencing a set of unexpected shifts: the cleric had expanded his authority at the expense of the intellectual; the difference between the mosque and the university had dwindled; a “chaos of fatwas” issued by unqualified clerics threatened to supplant laws and customs in all domains of life and culture; the woman had come to be defined primarily as “sister,” defined by the taboos that made her an “inferior creature” from the male perspective, whose masculinity was of course bolstered by religious teachings.

Arab authorities complicit with “political Islam”—which profanes both Islam and politics, as argued by Samir Amin—created a social culture that rejected modernity on the grounds of cultural exceptionalism, which authorities used to justify stasis, succession, the rejection of democracy, the spread of corruption and the transformation of authority into inviolable private property. Yet far from this mentality, Arab Nahda intellectuals distinguished and continue to distinguish between the universal and the specific: that is, the achievements of human civilization in all its facets are universal, whereas the adaptations of this achievement to the socio-cultural conditions of Arab societies are specific. In this sense, specificity entails rejecting tradition and calling for innovation from a nationalist perspective. This is what Naguib Mahfouz did in the field of literature, Sa’dullah Wannous in theatre, Anwar Abdel-Malek in sociology, and Tawfik Saleh in cinema. In contrast to this, cultural specificity from a Salafist religious perspective meant erecting a boundary between “pure Islam” and foreign ideas, such as rationalism, materialism, the relativity of truth, and everything that challenged their absolutist perspective. This so-called political particularity was an attempt to legitimize anti-democratic policies without challenging “economic liberalism” which of course means a subservient market, economy and consumption.

Arab exceptionalism, which rose in the last decade of the past century, abolished the political domain that political and religious authorities forged in two complementary ways: the first resurrected the notion of subjects—i.e. that people are completely accountable to authority, but to whom authority is not accountable; the second generated a religious discourse based on the notion of the collective—a group of believers who do not challenge their central religious authority. What was lost in both cases was the individual, without which there can be no innovation, no freedom to propose something new, no diversity—which is the basis of life and culture—no critique—which is necessary for development—no dialogue, no relativity of knowledge, and no recognition of a “different Other.”

It was perhaps this increasing religiosity of social life—which was unknown to Arab societies in the 1950s and 1960s—that introduced religious fatwas to the realm of art and literature. Hence, a religious fanatic stabbed novelist Naguib Mahfouz as punishment for his novel Children of Gabalawi, another fatwa denounced as heretical a piece by Muhammad Abdul-Wahhab, the most innovative artist in the history of the modern Arab song, a third condemned a poem composed by Mahmoud Darwish and sung by the Lebanese musician Marcel Khalife, the evangelist Amr Khaled distinguished between “Islamic cinema” and non-Islamic cinema, many painters chose to emigrate to the West, and “the body” receded as a topic of artwork, while ornamental and geometric art flourished.

If every product is defined by its audience, then the public’s retreat toward tradition and traditional books—or more precisely, their embrace of a backward-looking perspective—left only a small audience for modern art and literature. This is what enables critics of the Arab novel—a modern genre—to speak of a double alienation: relative to the dominant culture the novel is an alien genre—an “import,” as they say—and the reader of the novel is thus also alien, because his society sees the novel as an extension of anti-Islamic Western culture. The plight of the novel, i.e. a severely limited audience for a genre that emerged more than a century ago, also applies to other modern arts.

Did Arab modernity defeat itself, or was it defeated due to a lack of the necessary social conditions for its development? Traditionalist discourse claimed that Arab modernity carried from the outset the seeds of its own destruction, and defined it thus in such negative terms as subservience, heresy, deviation from authentic roots, Westernization, incompetent imitation, and an  inferiority complex. But the ratification of these accusations came from political authorities who chose a false modernity, content to fight illiteracy but to distort the meaning of education, to separate education from the recognition of the pupil’s personhood, and to create universities without distinguishing physics from the teachings of the Quran, all the while conflating scientific-technical progress with importing Western technology. Thus, the failure of the Arab modernity project cannot be attributed to the principles of progressive discourse, nor to an essential Islam that is anti-modern, nor to a subservient Arab mind that shuns innovation. Rather, it must be attributed to the practices of Arab authorities. It is therefore not surprising that Arab theatre flourished in the 1960s as it experimented with different schools, and then began to decline thirty years later. It is also not surprising that Egyptian cinema reached its artistic peak at around the same time, and then had the same fate as that of theatre. Nor should it be surprising that religious innovation is considered blasphemy and heresy.

The decline of Arab modernity becomes clear when we compare the crisis that besieged Taha Hussein in 1925 when he published his book On Pre-Islamic Poetry, with that of Nasr Hamid Abu Zayd seventy years later, when he published his book Critique of Islamic Discourse. The former found potent social powers to defend and celebrate his work within the academy and beyond. By contrast, the latter, having been excommunicated, was left defenseless and died in exile. Even more tellingly, Taha Hussein himself “excommunicated” traditionalist clerics who controlled the illiterate sectors of society, while in the latter’s case, it was “university professors” who excommunicated him—a sign of the defeat of “intellectuals” by clerics, “the academy” by the mosque, and “political parties” by “religious groups” that saw the democratic political sphere as a “heresy” incompatible with Islam.

In fact, enlightened Arab intellectuals, who dreamt of a national-social alternative, have attempted from the beginning to generate a critical dialogue between Arab heritage and universal modern thought. Sheikh Muhammad Abduh drew on the ideas of Spencer to construct an evolved Islamic discourse, Taha Hussein applied Descartes’ method to Arab-Islamic history, rationalist philosophers returned to Ibn Rushd and the Mu’tazilah, theatre scholars resurrected the tradition of “Ibn Danyal,” and Naguib Mahfouz included folkloric and Pharaonic heritage in his novels. In many ways, Arab Nahda intellectuals united the future to which they aspired and the “golden past” which had produced the Arab-Islamic civilization from which the West had benefited in launching its modern renaissance. Abdullah al ‘Arwi, the most important thinker today, is still contemplating and developing Muhammad Abduh’s ideas about heritage in defense of the Arab Nahda and its causes. The fact that the Arab Nahda was not fully realized does not mean it was mistaken, merely that there needs to be a new attempt, in a new way.

Fateh al Moudarres, Femmes sur le pont, 1966. Oil on canvas, 76 x 78 cm.

Fig. 1 – Fateh al Moudarres, Femmes sur le pont, 1966. Oil on canvas, 76 x 78 cm.

The field of visual art has followed a similar trajectory. The prominent innovators established a productive dialogue between their national heritage and what they learned in European universities. A prominent example is Mahmoud Mokhtar, a pioneer of modern sculpture in Egypt (1891-1934), who studied in France, but derived his topics from “the characteristics of Egypt”, most famously in his historic sculpture “Egypt’s Renaissance” (1928). The painter Mahmoud Sa’id (1897-1964) represents a slightly different example; he lived in the same period and his innovative work was inspired by the Egyptian countryside. He developed a nuanced technique that matched his national artistic ambition. The innovations of Egyptian artists were mirrored by others, such as the Iraqis Jawad Salim and Faiq Hassan, who reinvigorated Iraqi art in the 1940s, as well as the Syrian artist Fateh al Moudarres, who also tried to combine the universality of art with national specificity (Fig. 1).

While most Arab modernists, in both art and culture, studied at European universities, what they produced would not have been possible without the tradition from which they came and which they resurrected anew. For instance, Islamic architecture, with its many famous landmarks, is a fascinating mix of architecture, design and engraving. It has a particular aesthetic philosophy that revolves around the finite and the infinite, the transient and the eternal. In fact, Islamic arttransformed nature into abstractions with broader meanings, and outlined geometric rules that governed the elements of construction and forms of ornamentation in mosques, pulpits, and Qurans. It defined the meaning of calligraphy and the art of writing, and made the meaning of God legible through abstractions.

The rise of the visual arts, and cultural life in general, was linked to the Arab Nahda project, and similarly notable for its emphasis on creative subjectivity and the unity of human culture. Thus the failure of this project, especially in the last decades of the twentieth century, narrowed both the creative cultural and artistic domain. Political authoritarianism forced many artists into exile, and the resulting cultural poverty came between the visual arts and their audience in numerous ways. Religious censorship also tightened its stranglehold by making sculpture and painting tantamount to raising “idols”, which Islam forbids.

Shaker Hassan al Said, Untitled, 1990s. Mixed media on wood, 86.5 x 104.5 cm.

Fig. 2 – Shaker Hassan al Said, Untitled, 1990s. Mixed media on wood, 86.5 x 104.5 cm.

Arab visual art entered a new phase in the new era of globalization however, starting in the nineties and continuing through the beginning of the twenty-first century. It had become commonplace for Arab artists to settle in foreign capitals: Marwan Kassab Bachi chose Germany, the Lebanese artist Walid Raad New York, and the Iraqi artist Adel Abidin Finland, and in those cities they came to occupy distinguished status. To name others: the sculptor Ismail Fattah ended his days in exile, and Adam Henein, of the older generation of Egyptian artists, chose to live in Paris starting with the beginning of the Nasser era. Those artists encountered and interacted with a new public and culture, which behooved them to take on new styles which expressed, first and foremost, the universality of artistic expression and the flexibility of visual art, based on color, line, collage, and other forms of artistic experimentation.The Arab visual artist entered the scene of artistic experimentation driven by many necessities. Experimentation contains in and of itself a declaration of the exercise of freedom, which is of course a prerequisite for creativity in general. The Arab artist also had to see himself as a mediator between the global public and the local public, as a site where the horizons of artwork and materials could broaden. The Iraqi artist Shaker Hassan al Said moved away from the realistic style that he had adhered to during the fifties and sixties, and ended up adopting a style of complete abstractionism two decades later, in both eye and spirit. He attempted through his art, especially in the late nineties, to combine modernism with Sufism, employing concepts from Islamic Sufism as well as structuralism, existentialism, and phenomenology, which he experimented with until the end of his life (Fig. 2).

This “openness to the world” appears in the work of Mona Hatoum, a Palestinian artist born in Beirut then pushed by the civil war in Lebanon to London, for her works articulate human anxiety and the many worlds inside each of us. She employs a variety of materials (video, models, installations), and creates works that operate on many levels—distributed between eye, ear and consciousness—as she monitors the inner life of the individual in all its different possibilities.

Basma Alsharif, Everywhere was the same, 2007. Video, 12'00".

Fig. 3 – Basma Alsharif, Everywhere was the same, 2007. Video, 12’00”.

As for Basma Alsharif, also of Palestinian descent, she entered the field of artistic experimentation with an emphasis on the multiplicity of artistic materials, including photography, film, audio recording, text, and language, where the language is a reaction to the image, and the image a reaction to the aesthetics of the text (Fig. 3). With this multiplicity of materials, which combine imagination and fantasy, Alsharif articulates the relativity of truth, and articulates a political protest to the world.

Amal Kenawy, Silence of Sheep, 2010. Video 8'51". Courtesy the Amal Kenawy Estate.

Fig. 4 – Amal Kenawy, Silence of Sheep, 2010. Video 8’51”. Courtesy the Amal Kenawy Estate.

Similarly, this tendency toward experimentation seems to evoke poetry and philosophy in the works of Amal Kenawy, an Egyptian artist of the new generation, who passed on prematurely in 2012 at age 37. In her work, the piece of art is an exposure of the multiplicity of the arts and the complexity of human concerns and inner worlds (Fig. 4). Indeed, this experimentation seems even clearer in the discourse of personal experience of exile, or the hypothetical “adopted homeland”, as is the case in the works of the Iraqi artist Himat Ali, who is a pupil of Shaker Hassan al Said, born in Kirkuk in 1960 and living in Paris. This artist, who won prizes early on for his graphic art, after experiencing exile pondered for a long time the importance of cross-fertilizing different kinds of knowledge and art and discovering broader spaces, and how that experience reformulated the artist’s awareness and tools. “Drawings and Excavations” by the Syrian artist Ziad Dalloul, born in Syria and living in Paris, reflects a similar state; a nostalgia for “something” gleams in the colors of his paintings, something that was once there but has vanished and left its traces. Unsurprisingly, there is a dialogue in his work between Eastern and Western cities, sending its messages into a far-off, nebulous sky.

Operating within the new era of globalization, Arab artists are in a place that resembles exile without actually being exiled completely: it resembles exile because the artist does not live in his homeland, and does not because he is fulfilling in this “new homeland”, if only in part, his artistic potential. Perhaps this paradox is what incorporated those artists, more than at any previous time, into the global art scene, especially through exhibits. For the artists mentioned here, like many others, have a greater presence internationally than in their home countries, and at times their image at home could only be described as marginalised.

Adel Abidin, I'm Sorry, 2008. Lightbox, 68.2 x 171 x 29.8 cm.

Fig. 5 – Adel Abidin, I’m Sorry, 2008. Lightbox, 68.2 x 171 x 29.8 cm.

The state of the globalized Arab artist, whether Adel Abidin (Fig. 5), who represented Finland at the Venice Biennale in 2007, or Ziad Dalloul, who rendered the reflections of memory through abstract graphics, leads to two questions: which public does this globalized Arab artist address? And what is the meaning of cultural identity in a the age of artistic globalization? These questions are problematic, regardless of the legitimacy of who poses them. For artistic innovation, by definition, is the exercise of freedom in its most sophisticated form, crossing geographic and historical borders and giving voice to creative fantasy. In addition to that, broadening the horizons of artistic freedom requires innovative artistic techniques, because technique is what both generates new artistic needs and seeks to fulfill them. Thus this Arab artist employs modern technologies made available through computer drawing programs, and leans heavily on video art, as he searches for an aesthetics of thought, inevitably veering into “conceptual art”. Those two last forms of artistic practice, video art and conceptual art were not well-known in Arab art in the eighties or before, and their appearance represented a harbinger of the era of globalization, and the movement of the Arab artist from traditional foundations of art to divergent ones. However, this did not constitute a complete break in the trajectory of modern Arab art. In reality, in the significations of this artwork, or the language of signifiers necessitated by these artistic subjects, is what allows for the opening of a space in which to express the individual intellect and being, and this is what we see in the works of Basma Alsharif and Mona Hatoum, which refer to the Palestinian tragedy, or the works of Walid Raad, which point toward a distant city.

Rachid Koraïchi, A Nation in Exile (series), 1985/1992. Graphic print, 76 x 57 cm.

Fig. 6 – Rachid Koraïchi, A Nation in Exile (series), 1985/1992. Graphic print, 76 x 57 cm.

Although the question of identity, in the visual arts as well as in the novel, seems confusing and confused, many artists have ventured responses to it in the field of Arabic calligraphy, with its direct symbolism and wide flexibility, which artists have invested in different ways. The most prominent example is Algerian artist Rashid Koraïchi (born 1947) who studied in France and articulated the “spirit” of Arabic calligraphy and its signs, joining “authenticity and modernity”, despite the contradictions in the terms (Fig. 6). There is also the Iraqi artist Rafa’ al Nasiri, who has participated in exhibits from Texas to Sao Paolo to Seoul to New Delhi, who gives Arabic calligraphy a central importance in his work. Calligraphy, for those two artists and others, allows modern renderings of Arab artistic heritage, and has its cast of symbolisms and schools, the most famous being Al Wasiti. And as an ancient, independent art in and of itself, calligraphy has generated a number of varieties over the centuries, such as Kufic and Naskh and Riqa’ and Thulth. The latter was particular to the diwans of Sultans, and also had ornamental and philosophical uses, for in the parallel, perpendicular and intersecting lines is a space for abstraction, which creates a distance between the “holy spirit” and “material shapes”, and gives that distance various material forms. Intuitively, the aesthetics of Arabic calligraphy, old and new, cannot be separated from the symbolism of the Holy Quran, which all Muslims share.

A last question: How is it possible to incorporate this “artistic globalization”, which Arab artists are living, into the dominant socio-cultural fabric of their home countries? A difficult question.

The Arab visual arts scene does not only express the artists’ alienation and experience in exile, but also the human unity expressed through the arts, and the ambition of new generations of Arab artists to join the ranks of global art.


Despite the cultural impoverishment to which the Arab peoples were systematically subjected, depriving them of their humanity, they showed themselves capable of liberating themselves from this accumulated repression by initiating a series of revolutions in 2011. They thus proved that life-affirming power can undermine life-denying power. Regardless of what the “Arab Spring” may become—and the possibilities are many—there are two crucial issues: the widespread popular protest against those powers that reduced the Arabs to their bare biological needs; and the end of a historical era, which has lasted over fifty years and arrested the development of history and “the various social processes” articulated by Edward Said.

The Arab masses, who did not set out with pre-established ideologies, have expressed their outlook through clear slogans: freedom, equality, the rule of law, and civil rights, all of which immediately recall the rhetoric of the Arab Nahda. They have reinstated the concept of the city, which cannot be reduced to a geometric space in which authority enforces its laws, but rather represents a free space that embraces dialogue, protest, political speech, chants, and popular songs, stressing that “civil society” is built on free will.

Arab modernity has known a series of stages, and the boundaries between them are blurred: a first stage entitled “the New”, led by intellectual warriors, a second called “the Nahda” in which elite political parties played a limited role; then a third, labeled “the Revolution”, which was monopolized by authorities whose practices negated their ideological discourse. The 1970s brought the term “modernity,” which celebrated art and literature and left aside social issues. And now with the “Arab Spring,” a host of nascent social phenomena have emerged that are still searching for a proper name: revolutions, intifadas, popular movements, awakenings . . .

Perhaps the act of demonstrating, led by individuals who have broken free of their bonds, marks the start of a new Arab era beyond the control of authorities, or intellectuals, or religious clerics, and instead negotiated by the everyday needs of life that can no longer be denied.

Dr. Faisal Darraj is a philosopher and critic based in Amman. He has published several books on literary theory and criticism.