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New Texts Out Now: Jens Hanssen, Kafka and Arabs

[Cover of [Cover of "Critical Inquiry" (Autumn 2012)]

Jens Hanssen, “Kafka and Arabs.” Critical Inquiry (Autumn 2012).           

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this article?

Jens Hanssen (JH): I have been carrying a dog-eared photocopy of Kafka’s three-page animal story “Schakale und Araber” in my luggage ever since a friend of mine at the German Institute in Beirut handed it to me to read. This was back in 1998, and I remember that when I read it I knew I would return to it one day. I think for anyone concerned about the tragedy of Palestine, Kafka’s story resonates. It is certainly not straightforward and at the time I did not fully know what it meant or what it meant for me personally.

Then, in 2009 Atef Botros’s wonderful Kafka: A Jewish Author from an Arab Perspective came out in German. I dug up that dog-eared copy of “Jackals and Arabs” and decided to write a book review of it for the Süddeutsche or Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung. The German public intellectual Wolf Lepenies had written a shallow review for Die Welt, which argued that some Arabs objected to Kafka and others celebrated his work. What was missing in both accounts was that reading Kafka has the potential to address the question of Palestine and the German taboos around it in new and critical fashions. I felt so strongly about this that I started doing my own research in the German-Jewish newspapers Kafka read at the time. I was struck by just how unabashedly settler colonial most articles were. The papers were full of detailed statistical surveys and calls for maximal colonization of Palestine.

In the end, my review was rejected because the editor opined—rightly, I think—that this was no longer a book review and not yet an academic article. So I abandoned the idea of engaging the German public directly, translated what I had written into English, and broadened the scope of my study to include a host of other Kafka stories. The process since then has been an amazing collective effort of my students, colleagues, friends, and family, who have suggested different approaches and pointed me to new readings.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does your article address?

JH: Since the Egyptian intellectuals Georges Henein and Taha Hussein “discovered” him in the late 1930s, many Arab authors have identified with Kafka’s literature. Joseph K., the tragic protagonist in The Trial, has been particularly popular. Sonallah Ibrahim’s al-Lajna is an obvious example, but as I learnt in the process of writing this article, Jabra Ibrahim Jabra and many other Palestinians, not least Samih al-Qasim and Mahmoud Darwish, have invoked Kafka’s works, too. And I just read that el-Warsha is putting “In the Penal Colony” back on the Egyptian stage. I have traced some of these Arab engagements with this maestro of modernism.

But the article is also about Kafka’s relationship to Palestine and to Zionism, and so I explored the context of fin de siècle Prague and discovered his close ties to the Zionist movement there. It is a complicated relationship, but what I discerned is that Kafka’s rejection of settler colonial Zionism contrasted with his acceptance of Zionist ideals of emancipation in Europe. So I read "Jackals and Arabs” along with other Kafka texts that are set in the non-West, like "In the Penal Colony" and "The Great Wall of China." What I found is that in these writings, European violence in the colonies mirrors the Jewish experience in Europe.

Finally, it was important for me to trace the reception of Kafka in Germany, where the Jewish component of Kafka’s work has been downplayed and the very possibility of critiquing Zionism and Israel from within the German-Jewish tradition is taboo and suppressed, as in the visceral backlash against Judith Butler being awarded the Adorno Prize last month.

J: How does this work connect to and/or depart from your previous research and writing?

JH: I was trained as a nineteenth-century social historian of Ottoman-Arab relations at Oxford. Extended research stays at Aix-en-Provence introduced me to Mediterranean historiography, and almost three years at the American University of Beirut turned me into an urban historian. But since coming to Toronto in 2001, I have been teaching Arab intellectual history in general and the Nahda in particular. I have always felt inadequate to do justice to the Nahda without any training in modern literary studies. I have been hoping for years we would hire someone in modern Arabic Literature who could help me out, but alas, it seems jinxed. So I turned my fascination with "Jackals and Arabs" into an exploration of German and postcolonial literary theories. I have far too much respect for my colleagues in literature to dabble in their field, but I feel more comfortable to speak about Arab intellectual history having done this exercise.

J: Who do you hope will read this article, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

JH: I am actually quite nervous about the reception of this piece. In some sense I have left the familiar moorings of Middle East studies, where I can picture my work’s audience in some vague yet bounded way. I have no idea what my exposure to the Critical Inquiry readership will bring about. I take comfort in the fact that the spirit of Edward Said still permeates the journal. There will likely be objections to my use of the terms “apartheid” and “settler colonialism” in some Israel-right-or-wrong circles, but I am on analytically sound ground here and look forward to pushing the debate further in places like German and Jewish studies. At the same time, there remain ill-conceived traces of a dogmatic rejection of Kafka and other humanists who are wrongly or rightly associated with Zionism in committed scholarship on Palestine. I would like to think that an appreciation of Kafka and like-minded Jewish writers enriches the commitment to justice for the Palestinians. I am most anxious about what Kafka scholars make of the piece. The Kafka shelves [sic] in my university library are intimidating; it is such a dense forest of research!

J: What other projects are you working on now?

JH: This Kafka article is part of a series of essays in a larger project tentatively entitled "German-Jewish Echoes in Arab Political Thought." It is about the traumatic entanglement between German, Jewish, and Arab histories in the twentieth century. This research project uses multiple registers of translation and cultural criticism that connect German-Jewish history to Middle Eastern political developments. I give an account of the unacknowledged traces of the Middle East in Weimar- and post-World War II Germany. I ask, what was the place of the Middle East in critical theory and among writers from Luxemburg and Benjamin to Arendt and Adorno? Conversely, I explore how Arab intellectuals—particularly from Egypt, Lebanon, Palestine/Israel, and Iraq—have translated German-speaking and, in particular, German-Jewish writers. In fact, another essay in this series—on “Reading Hannah Arendt in the Middle East”—has been published online earlier this year. In all of this, I have not forgotten about the Nahda. I am hoping to wrap up an equally long-standing project, my translation of Butrus al-Bustani's soul-searching, anti-sectarian pamphlets "Nafir Suriyya," which he wrote in response to the civil war of 1860, and send it to a publisher by the end of the year.

J: What new directions, do you think, is Middle East Studies taking in the wake of the Arab uprisings?

JH: The money is certainly on Islam and there is still a backlog demand for historically-informed research on the intersection of religion and politics in the region. It is not that there has not been good work since the Iranian revolution caught the field by surprise. But most of the time, Middle East scholars were busy fending off floods of racist and misogynist “expert” discourses on Islam. After 2001, “terrorology” was the gilded discipline, and the general assault on academic freedom intimidated many of us recently-hired faculty. In North America, history departments were the first to respond to the thin coverage of the Middle East at universities. But since then, the study of Islam has attracted considerable amounts of research centers, grants, and funding. The few of us who studied the Nahda and Middle East intellectuals more generally did it on a shoe-string. We found it difficult to convince grant-giving bodies why this research mattered. Then came the spontaneous uprisings in Tunisia, Egypt, Libya, Yemen, and Bahrain, and many of us felt that finally reality had vindicated what we had always claimed and conceived but had no contemporary evidence for: people-power exists here, as it does in elsewhere in the world. Secular, liberal, and leftist Arabs rise up against Western-funded authoritarianism and neo-liberal misery; overcome adversity; are passionate about politics, justice, and freedom; and inspire the rest of the world to resist. The current issue of Critical Inquiry has a wonderful slate of articles on the Occupy phenomenon and the Arab spring, including one by Nasser Rabbat.

Right now, there is a sense of disappointment, as better-organized and less progressive forces as well as sectarian divisions have taken over the ideals of the revolutionary moments. But I think Middle East studies is in much better shape to respond to these momentous events than to those in 1979 and 2001; the field is larger, there is a greater variety of scholars in it, including more tenure-stream and tenured faculty with Middle Eastern backgrounds. Jadaliyya is a powerful expression of the field’s readiness to represent the challenges of a new Middle East. And finally, the terrorologist approach has been exposed as the gigantic counter-insurgent spin-operation that it is. For historians who, like myself, are tired of refuting foregone conclusions about rulers and the ruled, the Arab uprisings have validated the search for alternative histories of silenced political ancestries.

The Nahda is one such ancestral problem space that is receiving more attention lately, especially from Arabic literary scholars. Whether you consider the nineteenth-century Arabic revival and reform movement an incomplete project or the source of Arab self-alienation, not to know about the Nahda risks reinventing the wheel or leads to crackpot culture talk. Take for example a recent book, Lost in the Sacred, by Dan Diner, a prominent German historian who (seriously) still argues the old canard that Arabs have failed to secularize and modernize because their language was sacred. Even if Arabic had still been of Koranic quality and Arabs had still considered their language as sacred and unchangeable by the time European armies and commodities flooded the Ottoman empire, the Nahda had so fundamentally transformed the Arabic language that some religious scholars and Arabic classicists started, in vain, to complain. Such an argument was bad enough in German, but then a prominent US university press translated it into English.

Today this approach has the whiff of an era past, and modern intellectual history is making a comeback that seems fuelled by the uprisings. My colleague Max Weiss and I held a conference at Princeton last month to mark the fiftieth anniversary of Albert Hourani’s seminal Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age. Once the domain of Orientalists who sought out the permanence and persistence of traditional ideas, intellectual history seems to have experienced a re-enchantment of sorts. A whole host of interesting methodological trends surfaced at the conference; all recognized that we need to move beyond the social law of secularization inherent in Hourani’s liberalism thesis if we want to properly understand the intellectual appeal of the Muslim Brotherhood and affiliated groups. The other move was to develop recuperative methodologies—approaches that constructively engage with dissident alternatives, especially of Arab leftist intellectual formations in the twentieth century. Here the goal is not to measure social effect, reception processes, or the mass appeal of dominant worldviews. Rather, the point is to participate in the process of transmitting intellectual experiences and counter-currents to posterity that may have been marginal at the time but that may serve—under the right conditions—as a Gramscian inventory of traces to be recovered to inform a more democratic future.

Excerpts from “Kafka and Arabs”

In October 1917 Martin Buber published an animal story by Franz Kafka in his monthly review Der Jude. Kafka’s friend and literary executor, Max Brod, recommended it, assuring Buber that Kafka’s work was among the most Jewish documents of our time. Kafka wrote “Jackals and Arabs” during the war-induced hiatus in Jewish immigration to Palestine, only half a year before the Balfour Declaration of 2 November 1917 committed the British government to support a Jewish national home in Palestine. The polyvalent story and its multilayered context crystallize Kafka’s relationship to Zionism and Palestine as well as his German, Jewish, and Arab scholarly reception. The current revolutionary moment in the Arab world allows us to rethink Kafka and Arabs and, at the same time, the Palestine conflict. As such, this essay contains an intellectual affinity with the revision of Kafka scholarship offered in Critical Inquiry following the fall of the Berlin Wall, as well as Achmat Dangor’s haunting postapartheid novel Kafka’s Curse.


The correspondence between two of the most important poets of the Palestinian resistance in the mid-1980s is another example. During their widely publicized exchange, Samih al-Qasim invoked Kafka to assuage Mahmud Darwish’s painful sense of the futility of poetry in exile after the Israeli siege of West Beirut, the massacres of Palestinians at Sabra and Shatila, and the hypocrisy of Arab regimes. Al-Qasim reminded Darwish of Kafka’s “ravaging” power as a fellow pariah by way of an allegory in which Kafka gives a “terrifying speech” on the podium of the United Nations. Oblivious to the applause from the General Assembly, Kafka is turned inwards, “contemplating that human beetle helpless on its back.” Al-Qasim explained to Darwish “this beetle is you and me and us and them.” Before the imaginary Kafka leaves the “hypocritical lectern” and returns to his absolute human solitude, he gasped “didn’t I tell you so?” as if to say that for all their professions of support the family of nations considered Palestinians as a burden, long condemned by their deformation during the nakba of 1948. The al-ju`al al-bashri (human beetle) is a direct allusion to Metamorphosis, Kafka’s harrowing tale of the fate of the breadwinning son who wakes up one morning in his bedroom as an ugly beetle and who, nevertheless, is constantly worried about being a burden to his family. But, al-Qasim intoned, “Kafka saw. We saw, and we rebelled; we believed and rebelled, too….And despite everything, we write poetry….This human beetle, turned on its back unjustly, treacherously, and aggressively, will get back up and give birth to a normal human being despite all the civilized beasts turning against us.”

Al-Qasim’s moving plea to Darwish to keep writing also referred to another Kafka work, The Burrow. The story’s narrator is a badger- or molelike creature who exhausts himself in building a maze of underground tunnels and chambers in search of protection from a hostile world above. But the more intricate the tunnel gets the more paranoid the mole becomes that there is a beast outside that audibly pursues him. Al-Qasim appealed to Darwish to break out of this kafkaesque paradox through steadfastness: “This burrow must end—we just have to walk, crawl, believe and say, say and believe, reclaim our strength seed by seed and rise up step by step….We have no choice but to see that distinct flicker of light at the end of the dark tunnel.”

This literary exchange is an evocative instance of the appeal Kafka and his work have for outcasts and victims of history like these two Palestinian poets. Kafka offers an allegorical vocabulary with which to express resistance to one’s plight. It also suggests that the stakes of reading Kafka in the contemporary Arab world are high. Kafka’s work is part of the Arab political lexicon precisely because many Arabs feel they have experienced his fiction as reality.

[Excerpted from Jens Hanssen, “Kafka and Arabs,” Critical Inquiry (Autumn 2012), by permission of the author. © Copyright 2012 Critical Inquiry. For more information, or to subscribe to the full issue, please click here; to download a PDF of this article, please click here.]

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