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Arab Renaissance along the Red Sea: Expatriate Politics and Literature of Yemen


by Samuel England

University of Wisconsin, Madison 

Yemen Update 2020 #52-E3

Fellowship Summary


Research Countries: Lebanon; also presented research products in France


Dates of Travel: 5/29/19 – 6/14/19 (Lebanon); 6/15/19 – 6/20/19 (France)

Research Design, Implementation and Results


Please describe your research methods and design.


I conducted my research project as original-source archival reading. I located my materials of primary interest from the Jafet Library (Special Collections) at the American University of Beirut and at the Ameen Rihani Museum. My request for research privileges at AUB Library was successful, whereas the Rihani Museum denied me access, obliging me to seek from the US Library of Congress a set of facsimiles of the museum’s original documents. For the duration of my stay in Lebanon I conducted my research in the Jafet collections and AUB’s main reading room, focusing upon the prose written by Jurji Zaydan and Sulayman al-Bustani (contemporaries of Rihani) on Yemen’s role in the formation of Arab cultural identity.


My photographing notes and manuscripts came to represent a key part of the overall research project. By producing high-resolution images of these authors’ writing that was never edited nor published (e.g., miniature charts, marginalia on Yemen, sketches of demographic patterns, emendations between lines of text), I have prepared material for my book-in-progress that will be entirely new to readers interested in the Middle East and Red Sea regions. When my on-site research was complete, I presented elements of it in a Columbia University (Paris facility) workshop on Arabic literature and intellectual history, on which more details appear below.


What are the substantive results and conclusions of your research?


My research on Yemen makes up a substantive portion of chapters 1 and 2 of my book in progress. In chapter 1, I draw from the Bustani primary documents (and, to a lesser extent, from Zaydan) to argue that Levantine thought on Arab identity used Yemen’s cultural history as a kind of precursor to widespread Arabness during the expansion of Islam. I further argue that stalwart nationalist writers, Zaydan among them, understood their own moment in the late Ottoman period as a turn back to Arab traditions, even as their political statements focused on the national future. Certain traditions that they prized are firmly Yemen-centered, an ironic position given how much Zaydan tended to speak of Lebanon, Syria, and Egypt as the all-important capitals of Arab culture. Chapter 2 of my book deals more directly with cosmopolitanism in Arabic literature: texts from my Rihani research come into play here, and Zaydan’s manuscripts of historical works (both his nonfiction and fiction) comprise substantive sections of this section of my book. My overall historical observation from my AIYS-supported research is that Yemeni Bedouin traditions, as well as elements of its seafaring culture that had fascinated Rihani, form the backdrop for Syrian-Lebanese thought over some five decades of textual production, ca. 1870-1925.


Describe any new perspectives you have encountered as a result of the fellowship.


My research project addresses the Nahda (“Arab Renaissance”) movement, in which Egyptian, Syrian, and Lebanese intellectuals formulated a new cultural and political vision for Arabs worldwide. Although academics now produce more scholarship than ever on the Nahda, and we are gaining a better understanding of how Arab nationalism achieved currency as an idea in that movement, basically no contemporary studies try to understand the actual geographic scope of Nahda theory. It is that gap that my research project fills. One of my key findings that I made in the course of my research was that turn-of-the-century Levantine writers were consistently uncomfortable with the subject of Yemen. Despite the veneration in which they generally held Yemen as a source of Arab culture from pre-Islamic times onward, they also exhibited little idea of where southern Arabia would fit in the national picture that they sought to draw for the greater Middle East. One of the ironies of the Nahda is that its major figureheads were at once cosmopolitan and parochial: these highly educated polyglots did not always know a great deal about their own Arab neighboring cultures. Bustani and Rihani made concerted efforts to transcend that parochialism, insofar as the Arabian Gulf was concerned, but even they seem to have limited their interactions with Yemenis and other Gulf Arabs to official visits with diplomats and other elites. My research project highlights the cultural lacunae in Nahda thought.


Directly after my research in Lebanon, I presented my preliminary findings at the workshop “Conceptions and Configurations of the Arabic Literary Canon,” on Columbia University’s facility in Paris. I benefitted from a session of challenging responses to the workshop panel on which I had presented, dealing in particular with the tension between nostalgia for medieval Arabia and the theory of an “age of decadence” that supposedly took hold as the Abbasid Empire crumbled. Workshop participants rightly pointed out that Zaydan dates the “age of decadence” as starting when the Arabian Peninsula, including Yemen, increased its political contact with empires in Africa—a way of revising the standard account of Nahda nostalgia and uncovering another conceptual role that Yemen has played in major historiographic trends among Levantine scholars.


Sam England in the spider-haven basement of an archive.

4. Please pose one or two research questions that your current research has led you to be curious about.


Now that I have closely inspected archival materials for signs of Nahda writers’ attitudes toward the Arabian Peninsula and Red Sea regions, I would like to move from Arab origin-stories of culture to the Nahda’s treatment of Hellenic sources. Ancient Greece and Rome represent another great historical reference-point for Arab intellectuals working prior to the World Wars. Along with medieval Arabness, the ideal of European “Classics” animated the work of the Nahda as its leading writers looked for historical precedents for their attempts to establish a literary canon in their own language. I would like to argue that a modern notion of Greek and Latin Classical traditions has shaped not only Arab universities and scientific laboratories (famous products of the Nahda, many of which survive to this day), it has also tended to promote a unitary model of political power in many states during the aftermath of the two World Wars. This set of historical, political questions help me to make my transition in my book, from historiography to government in the midcentury period of Arab nation-building.


Research Products


• “Decadence and the Diwan in the Arab Renaissance.” Workshop presentation, Conceptions and Configurations of the Arabic Literary Canon Workshop, Columbia University (Paris facility), June 2019.


• “Arabic Classes and Classics in the Opera House.” Invited lecture, Medieval Studies Program and Center for Middle East Studies, Harvard University, November 2019.


Dictating the Classics: Arabic Historical Performance in Modern Military Regimes. Currently writing book manuscript.


• “Sovereign Stories: Tyranny from Premodern Arabic to 2018.” Invited lecture, Department of Middle Eastern & South Asian Languages & Cultures, University of Virginia, March 2020.


Fellowship Logistics


AIYS has been extremely helpful and collegial as I prepared and executed my research project. Likewise, the Department of Arabic and Near Eastern Languages at the American University of Beirut gave me vital assistance in securing full research privileges in the campus libraries. (The Rihani Museum was less welcoming, as I mention above.) Although I wish I had special perspectives on how AIYS might strengthen its relationships with fellows and peer organizations, I cannot offer specific advice; my experience with AIYS has been entirely positive and productive.


Manuscript page examined by England.

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