In the Shadow of World Literature: Sites of Reading in Colonial Egypt – From Literary Artifacts to Reading Cultures

by Michael Allan

When I first set out to write In the Shadow of World Literature, I had every intention of exploring the place of Arabic literary traditions in discussions of world literature. The generic formulation of something called world literature, I was tempted to argue, does little to confront the unique dynamics of Arabic literary traditions. I was lured by some of the classical tensions between the universal and the particular. On the one hand was Marx, who provided a frame for thinking of world literature as the standardization of literary forms across territories, languages and traditions; and on the other hand was Herder, who addressed the particularities of specific literary traditions as reflective of distinct national characteristics. I found myself wanting to suggest that Arabic literature already anticipated many of the contemporary arguments about translation, transnationalism and literary exchange, but that it did so in the ninth century, whether in the work of al-Jahiz or Abdullah ibn al-Mu’tazz. Attention to history, I hoped to argue, would reveal unique insights about the imagination of an Arabic literary world beyond the national and cultural frames that constitute the global cartography of world literature.

Tempting as the logic of Arabic exceptionality was for me, it failed to address the question to which I was eventually drawn. In fact, I found that tinkering with the particular national, cultural and linguistic map of world literature somehow missed how to account for what literature—as a category capable of traversing a range of textual practices and traditions—is. Beyond recognizing the obviously distinct attributes of Arabic, Chinese, French or South Asian literary traditions, what is it that makes literature generalizable? Does literature have a particular history as a category? And what impact does the recognition of a work as literature have for how it comes to be read? A central paradox of the term “literature” is that it refers both to a text (a novel, poem, or play) and to a discipline and manner of learning. It is a word whose meaning folds back upon itself, defined by a circularity in which a text is recognized as literary in part by how it is supposed to be read. With these issues in mind, then, the question at stake for me was not how Arabic literature either adheres to or is exceptional from other literary traditions, but instead, what it is that literature comes to mean in the nineteenth century—and ultimately, how it comes to matter in particular ways.

Cover of the book „In the Shadow of World Literature“, Princeton University Press, 2016. Co-Winner of the MLA First Book Prize, 2017.

As literary scholars, we tend to focus on texts situated geographically and linguistically. We are trained to attend to the particular history and language of a text’s composition and the translations integral to its transnational circuits of exchange. In each of these ways, we ultimately approach the text as a sort of linguistic, historical or even philosophical artifact. And yet, much as I value this sort of work, I found myself asking less about the specific attributes of texts than the framework in which they come to be read as literature. Is there a particular mode of reading that literary education privileges, I wondered, and what textual modes are excluded from this paradigm? When Taha Hussein collaborated in the development of a literary curriculum for schools across Egypt, he included a range of classical Arabic poetry. What impact did the shape of the curriculum have for how these poems came to be read? When the national library was founded in Egypt, what impact did this institution have on conceptions of textuality more broadly? I could not help but note that these developments in modern literary culture transformed not only what was read, but how.

This analytic shift—from literary artifacts to reading cultures—means that In the Shadow of World Literature focuses much less on a collection of texts than on frameworks of intelligibility and reception (which I refer to as sites of reading). In certain chapters, I look at how the modern Arabic novel narrates those who cannot read and write, whether in Naguib Mahfouz’s Cairo Trilogy or the beginning of Taha Hussein’s The Days. And in other instances, I investigate social situations that determine how texts come to matter, whether the scene announcing the discovery of the Rosetta Stone or the protests surrounding Haydar Haydar’s novel. As I pursued my analysis of each of these various sites, I found that taking reading, hermeneutics and interpretative frames as my focus was transforming how I myself related to literature.

What resonated for me then—and still now—was the challenge of moving beyond a representational paradigm. I was to come to terms not only with places and situations depicted in texts, but more crucially still, with the acute ways in which interpretative traditions impact and inform literary sensibilities. It is this analytic field that serves as the invitation and the challenge of world literature and the perennial question of what literature is. What comes to matter has less to do with the status of the literary artifact under analysis than the reading culture that determines how to read properly. In this story, the terrain of world literature transforms from a collection of traveling texts to the institutions and practices that inform how texts matter. I hope, in the end, my book is an effort to consider the potentials and pitfalls of this literary world—and a possible future in which to learn how to read anew.


Michael Allan. Picture: private.

Michael Allan is Associate Professor of Comparative Literature at the University of Oregon, where he is also program faculty in Cinema Studies, Arabic and Middle East Studies. He was a EUME Fellow at the Forum Transregionale Studien in Berlin for the first time in 2011-12. In 2017 (February-July) and 2018 (June-August), he is a EUME-CNMS Fellow of the Alexander von Humboldt-Stiftung. His book „In the Shadow of World Literature. Sites of Reading in Colonial Egypt“ was published with Princeton University Press in 2016 and was a co-winner of the Modern Language Association (MLA) Prize for a First Book in 2017.





Citation: Michael Allan, In the Shadow of World Literature: Sites of Reading in Colonial Egypt – From Literary Artifacts to Reading Cultures, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 06.03.2018,



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