Theses Doctoral

Against Eurocentrism in World Literature: the Case for Modern Arabic Fiction

Elbousty, Jonas M.

Our increasingly rancorous and politicized climate has sustained dominant narratives that chiefly serve to marginalize and negatively single out non-dominant groups. These narratives should be interrogated because of their damages that objectify the citizens of the world and only serve to reproduce stereotypes and reinforce divisions. In the United States especially, we have seen the rise of Right-Wing movements and the subsequent effects of highly politicized narratives that support divisiveness and inequity, creating a binary, in this case the White middle class and other minorities. Arabs have been vilified as witnessed by the rise in legislative attention, an immigration ban, issuing from Arab countries and the continued criminalization of Arabs as terrorists.

It has long been contended that literature has the power to create bridges between nations. Literary texts give readers opportunities to visit places in history, travel around the world, and peer into other cultures. These possibilities gain currency only through exposure to the literature of the “Other.” The study of world literature has attempted to assume the responsibility of widening the canon to include diverse representations of people and places through the literature from around the world; however, silences and absences from the canon remain common.

Using the concept of world literature, I trace its intellectual genealogy, starting with Goethe’s coinage of the term Weltliteratur, and then discuss how this term has been critiqued, reconfigured, and shaped over the years since Goethe’s initial usage. I examine the foundational texts and major tensions that have characterized this field. I then examine the connection between World Literature and translation, the essential conduit through which literature crosses borders. Throughout my discussion, I examine the Eurocentric approach that governs the circulation and availability of texts, including examples that demonstrate the process of “re-writing” source texts.

Next, I examine the (lack of) representation of modern Arabic literature in the academic community’s most widely used World Literature anthologies, particularly Norton Anthology of World Literature, Longman Anthology of World Literature, and Bedford Anthology of World Literature, and World Literature courses. I argue for inclusion of marginalized voices in these anthologies and World Literature courses, specifically suggesting works from North Africa. This study attempted to demonstrate the richness that is represented by modern Arabic literature by identifying some authors who are relatively unknown in the West and entirely absent from World Literature anthologies, but nevertheless deserve a wide international audience, whether in World Literature anthologies or otherwise. Two of these authors stand out in particular: Mohamed Choukri and Mohamed Berrada. I base my suggestion on the importance of the writing of these two prominent modern Moroccan authors in terms of what they contribute to the aesthetic and formal development of modern Arabic literature, and what they offer to advance our critical and ethical consciousness.

On a pedagogical level, the problems and possibilities of introducing Arab literature and culture to U.S. readers are revealed and illuminated best perhaps by an account of a university graduate course in modern Arabic literature and culture for in-service and preservice teachers of literature. Some of the recommended texts to widen the canon were explored in a graduate course where the students and I attended to the social and cultural contexts of these literary narratives through close readings, exploring their aesthetic forms and examining the Arab society the narratives depict. These texts were read in English translation, and, when available, students were given more than one English version of the same text to make them aware of the problems of translation. Throughout the semester, students read diverse texts and were fully engaged with literary narratives that depict life in Arab societies. In short, this study has not only proposed texts to be read but also examined the benefits gained from learning about and teaching these literary narratives in a classroom setting.

Geographic Areas


This item is currently under embargo. It will be available starting 2025-01-14.

More About This Work

Academic Units
English Education
Thesis Advisors
Blau, Sheridan
Ph.D., Columbia University
Published Here
February 6, 2020