Hilla Peled-Shapira, The Prose Works Of Gha’'’ib Tu'’ Ma Farman: The City and the Beast (Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield, 2018).
[This review was originally published in the most recent issue of Arab Studies Journal. For more information on the issue, or to subscribe to ASJ, click here.]
The Prose Works of Gha’ib Tu’ma Farman is a welcome contribution to the growing number of studies about modern Iraqi literature. With it, Hilla Peled-Shapira joins the ranks of researchers who have sought to elucidate the role of Iraqi writers in the development of Arabic literature during the twentieth and twenty-first centuries, scholars such as Muhsin al-Musawi, Orit Bashkin, Fabio Caiani, Catherine Cobham, Ikram Masmoudi, and Terri DeYoung. Peled-Shapira’s incisive and thoroughly researched study of Farman’s position as progenitor of the Iraqi novel does for scholarship on Iraqi prose what DeYoung’s 1998 Placing the Poet: Badr Shakir al-Sayyab and Postcolonial Iraq did for Iraqi poetry. That is, Peled-Shapira’s book focuses on a single writer to illuminate several aspects of Iraqi literature and society more broadly by combining biographical and literary analysis throughout. In the book’s four chapters, Peled-Shapira addresses Farman’s biography and the influence of leftist thought in his writing; the use of language (particularly the vernacular) and style in Farman’s work; the position of the intellectual in Iraqi society; and Baghdad’s special place in Farman’s oeuvre. The book, therefore, contextualizes Farman’s life and work in an engaging way that should be a useful model for future scholarship on Arabic literature, a field that is sorely lacking in similar book-length studies of individual authors, and specifically those that deal with Iraqi writers.
Peled-Shapira writes that she was first drawn to Farman’s work due to the near absence of his writings in bookshops and libraries. The Prose Works, then, “is an attempt to unravel the mystery of Farman through a close reading of his oeuvre and an analysis of his style and technique, which, as the book suggests, were at least partly responsible for Farman’s exile not only from Iraq, but from the bookshelves as well” (x). Her close readings further highlight the importance of “Farman’s Communist and Socialist leanings” (15), which emerge not only with characters who openly declare their political alignments but also through Farman’s prose style.
Peled-Shapira’s examination of Farman’s 1954 short story Hasid al-raha (Harvest of the Grindstone), for example, shows how socialist concerns shape not only the content of Farman’s work, but also the language of the characters’ dialogue. This story, she explains, tackles a contemporary debate “between those who believed in predestination and those who sup- ported the idea of free will” (16). Many Communists in the story advocate for the latter position and go on strike to achieve their demands, but the woman protagonist is “shocked” that they would try to change the course of destiny. Peled-Shapira here focuses on the varying use of pronouns in the dialogue between the Communist (who uses the first-person plural) and the skeptical woman, who “addresses the man [only] in the second person masculine singular” (16). The first character’s “use of the plural reflects the collective awareness of the striking man” (17). With this close reading of Farman’s dialogue, Peled-Shapira makes the case that such usage is “a reflection of a controversy in Iraqi society at the time, and in Arab societies in general, between those who fought collectively for their rights, and those who were resigned to their unfortunate situation” (17). She then extends this line of inquiry to a consideration of the gendered dynamics at work in the conversation, postulating that Farman may have “[chosen] the woman to be the one who is lacking class consciousness” in order “to show the inferior status of women in Iraq and to criticize women’s disconnection from their own rights as well as from the rights of their society” (17). While Peled-Shapira does not suggest that the male character is here engaging in patriarchal didacticism, we might also read the scene in such a way. Still, she does make a point of mentioning, by way of comparison, another woman character’s direct participation in a strike and subsequent arrest in 1975’s al-Qurban (The Sacrifice), concluding that “in the later novel the female character takes a much more mature stand and shows a greater collective awareness than in Farman’s other stories, perhaps implying a slight change in the status of women” (17-18). This is but one example of Peled-Shapira’s ability to tie together works from different periods in Farman’s career to provide readers with significant insights into their connections both to each other and to Iraqi society at large.
Perhaps the greatest achievement in the book is Peled-Shapira’s investigation of Farman’s use of vernacular language, which she discusses in tandem with his “secularization of the holy, that is, giving secular meaning to previously religious terms” (109; italics original). “The vivacious colloquial dialect, saturated with curses, blessings, and oaths,” she tells us, “serves as a tool in the novels al-Nakhla wa-l-jiran [The Palm Tree and the Neighbors] and al-Qurban” (109). Al-Nakhla wa-l-jiran, Peled-Shapira clarifies, “is considered the first ever mature Iraqi novel” (107), and her readings show just how Farman’s use of dialogue and polyphony—she adds a healthy dose of Bakhtin here (44-47)—in this and later novels textually embodies the modern Iraqi experience in language. Farman’s “secularization of the holy” aligns with what the Syro-Lebanese poet Adunis (b. 1930) has termed “sadmat al-hadatha,” (“the shock of modernity”). Representing this shift after the Iraqi encounter with modernity, Peled-Shapira writes, is “Farman’s shahid” who “is no longer a martyr in the religious sense, but an intellectual who sacrifices his freedom and even his life for his ideological cause; in the same manner, the imam is no longer the person who leads the prayer, but a metaphor for corrupt Arab leaders who perceive the intellectuals’ lives as useless” (109). These modes of secularization are in no way limited to Farman’s prose, but instead permeate modern Arabic literature across national contexts. Peled-Shapira’s analysis of Farman’s work thereby also speaks in a relevant way to the field more generally.
The Prose Works furthermore stands out because of the attention the author pays to recent publications by junior scholars working on Iraq. She makes several references to all of the following: Arbella Bet-Shlimon’s work on urban spaces in Iraq; Hilary Falb Kalisman’s study of education and the Iraqi state; and Haytham Bahoora’s research on modernism and Iraqi literature, among others. Peled-Shapira thus exemplifies good scholarship by engaging a broad range of works by up and coming scholars. She also engages with Yoav Di-Capua’s recent work on Arab intellectuals. Still, Terri DeYoung’s Placing the Poet remains conspicuously absent from the bibliography since some reference to this ground-breaking study might have been useful as a comparative point, though of course DeYoung’s focus is the development of modernist poetry in Iraq, not modernist prose. Peled-Shapira does, however, also look to the critical tradition, by way of which she models a useful approach to modern Arabic literature. Instead of depending only on Western theory and her own analyses, she makes a point of exploring the Arabic critical tradition. In so doing, she substantiates her argument about Farman’s importance in the development of modern Iraqi literature by taking up his reception among a local audience as well.
Peled-Shapira’s excellent study does not address the time Farman spent in Russia or his engagements with Russian literature at much length. Of course, this additional work would require research fluency in Russian, which is beyond the usual areas of focus for scholars of modern Arabic literature. I mention this here to raise the issue for future scholars, who may begin to seriously consider the meaningful interactions modern Arab writers and intellectuals had with Russian literature or the connections many of them forged in Russia with the support of Soviet cultural and educational programs for people from formerly colonized nations. To name only a few of immediate interest to those of us working on Middle Eastern literatures, Mahmud Darwish, ‘Abd al-Wahhab al-Bayati, Sun‘Allah Ibrahim, and the Turkish modernist Nazım Hikmet all spent significant time in the USSR, where Farman made his home for three decades. I do not mean this as a criticism of Peled-Shapira’s book but rather pose it as a challenge for emerging scholars seeking to further elaborate the connections of modern Middle Eastern literatures with literary traditions outside the West.
The Prose Works of Gha’ib Tu’ma Farman should find an enthusiastic readership among both scholars and students of Arabic literature as well as other readers interested in the connections among leftist politics, Marxist thought, and writing in the Global South. The book’s extensive footnotes and bibliography will prove useful to specialists working on modern Iraqi literature. Finally, implicit in Peled-Shapira’s approach to Farman is a call for more studies like this, without which the important contributions of twentieth-century Iraqi writers to broader Arabic literary developments (other than those of the fairly well-known Sayyab and Bayati) will remain relatively unfamiliar to scholars not working specifically on Iraq.