Egyptian literature

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Copy of the Westcar Papyrus on display in the Ägyptisches Museum, Berlin

Egyptian literature traces its beginnings to ancient Egypt and is some of the earliest known literature. Indeed, the Egyptians were the first culture to develop literature as we know it today, that is, the book.[1]

Ancient[edit]

Plates vi & vii of the Edwin Smith papyrus at the Rare Book Room, New York Academy of Medicine

The ancient Egyptians wrote works on papyrus as well as walls, tombs, pyramids, obelisks and more. Perhaps the best known example of ancient Jehiel literature is the Story of Sinuhe;[2] other well known works include the Westcar Papyrus and the Ebers papyrus, as well as the famous Book of the Dead. While most literature in ancient Egypt was so-called "Wisdom literature" (that is, literature meant for instruction rather than entertainment), there also existed myths, stories and biographies solely for entertainment purposes. The autobiography has been called the oldest form of Egyptian literature.[3]

The Nile had a strong influence on the writings of the ancient Egyptians,[4] as did Greco-Roman poets who came to Alexandria to be supported by the many patrons of the arts who lived there, and to make use of the resources of the Library of Alexandria.[5] Many great thinkers from around the ancient world came to the city, including Callimachus of Libya and Theocritus of Syracuse. Not all of the great writers of the period came from outside of Egypt, however; one notable Egyptian poet was Apollonius of Rhodes.

Writing first appeared in association with kingship on labels and tags for items found in royal tombs It was primarily an occupation of the scribes, who worked out of the Per Ankh institution or the House of Life. The latter comprised offices, libraries (called House of Books), laboratories and observatories. Some of the best-known pieces of ancient Egyptian literature, such as the Pyramid and Coffin Texts, were spoken from the New Kingdom onward and is represented in Ramesside administrative documents, love poetry and tales, as well as in Demotic and Coptic texts. During this period, the tradition of writing had evolved into the tomb autobiography, such as those of Harkhufand Weni. The genre known as Sebayt (Instructions) was developed to communicate teachings and guidance from famous nobles; thelpuwer papyrus, a poem of lamentations describing natural disasters and social upheaval, is a famous example.

The Story of Sinuhe, written in Middle Egyptian, might be the classic of Egyptian literature. Also written at this time was the Westcar Papyrus, a set of stories told to Khufu by his sons relating the marvels performed by priests. The Instruction of Amenemope is considered a masterpiece of near-eastern literature. Towards the end of the New Kingdom, the vernacular language was more often employed to write popular pieces like the Story of Wenamun and the Instruction of Any. The former tells the story of a noble who is robbed on his way to buy cedar from Lebanon and of his struggle to return to Egypt. From about 700 BC, narrative stories and instructions, such as the popular Instructions of Onchsheshonqy, as well as personal and business documents were written in the demotic script and phase of Egyptian. Many stories written in demotic during the Graeco-Roman period were set in previous historical eras, when Egypt was an independent nation ruled by great pharaohs such as Ramesses II.

Christian[edit]

Alexandria became an important center in early Christianity during roughly the 1st to 4th century CE. Coptic works were an important contribution to Christian literature of the period and the Nag Hammadi library helped preserve a number of books that would otherwise have been lost.

Islamic[edit]

By the eighth century Egypt had been conquered by the Muslim Arabs. Literature, and especially libraries, thrived under the new Egypt brought about by the Muslim conquerors.[6] Several important changes occurred during this time which affected Egyptian writers. Papyrus was replaced by cloth paper, and calligraphy was introduced as a writing system. Also, the focus of writing shifted almost entirely to Islam. The earliest novel written in Egypt was Ibn al-Nafis' Theologus Autodidactus, the earliest example of a science fiction and theological novel.[7] The concept of a "brief statement praising a literary product", now known as a blurb, also dates back to medieval Egyptian literature from the 14th century, and was known as taqriz in medieval Arabic literature.[8]

Many tales of the One Thousand and One Nights (Arabian Nights) can be traced to medieval Egyptian storytelling traditions. These tales were probably in circulation before they were collected and codified into a single collection. Medieval Egyptian folklore was one of three distinct layers of storytelling which were incorporated into the Nights by the 15th century, the other two being ancient Indian and Persian folklore, and stories from Abbasid-era Baghdad.[9]

Modern[edit]

In the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the Arab world experienced al-Nahda, a Renaissance-esque movement which touched nearly all areas of life, including literature.[10] One of the most important figures from this time was Naguib Mahfouz, the first Egyptian to win the Nobel Prize in Literature. In 1914 Muhammad Husayn Haykal wrote Zaynab, considered the first modern Egyptian as well as Islamic novel.

There is a new writing movement of literature in Egypt that spawned during the 1990s.[11] During this decade, the youth has faced socio-economic, cultural, and political crises. Not only has Egypt's population nearly doubled since 1980 with 81 million people in 2008, leading to a rural-urban migration that has led to the Arabic term al-madun al-‘ashwa’iyyah, or ‘haphazard city', around Cairo, but unemployment has remained high and living expenses have increased amid the overcrowding. In turn, the difficulty of living in poverty has inspired new Egyptian literature that focuses on crises, namely irrational and fragmented works that focus on isolated individuals dealing with an ever-expanding and changing Arab culture. [12] The publication industry in Egypt has grown demonstrably by entrepreneurial publishers, for significant instance, Dar Sharqiyat and Dar Merit, which have led to a less problematic market for new authors becoming published. This surge of literary production has led to experimentation with traditional themes, a greater emphasis on the personal, an absence of major political concerns, and a more refined and evolving use of language. Husni Sulayman founded Dar Sharqiyat, a small-scale publishing house that printed avant-garde work during the 1990s.[13] After some financial difficulty, Dar Merit replaced it as a leading avant-garde publisher, printing over 300 books by 2008. Many critics have referred to the new generation of writers as the Sharqiyyat generation in reference to the publishing company. [14] The proliferating authors include Samir Gharib ‘Ali, Mahmud Hamid, Wa’il Rajab, Ahmad Gharib, Muntasir al-Qaffash, Atif Sulayman, May al-Tilmisani, Yasser Shaaban, Mustafa Zikri and Nura Amin. Safez, Sabry. "The New Egyptian Novel".  Publication company Dar Merit is an open supporter of the new writing. With the direction of its owner, Muhammad Hashim, Dar Merit has helped facilitate the discussion and dissemination of the writing despite a pessimistic chance of compensation after the cost of publishing. Consequently, small publishing houses, because they are not state owned, are not influenced by the traditional literary elite and have produced new tastes of Egyptian writing. For example, stories by Ahmed Alaidy, published by Dar Merit, focus on youth mall culture, used vernacular Arabic, and featured text messages. These works challenge the orthodoxy of form and style in Arabic literature.

The 1990s has also seen a rise of women writers due to the ease of modern, privatized publishing.There has been a lot of press and criticism on female authors, good and bad, and are pejoratively described as kitabat al-banat, which translates to girls' writing. Moreover, most novels during this time were relatively short, never much longer than 150 pages, and chronicle the individual instead of the lengthy representation of family relationships and national icons.[15] Stylistically, many novels now featured schizophrenic, first-person narrators instead of omniscient narrators.[16]

Since the awarding of the International Prize for Arabic Fiction (IPAF), there have been 18 nominations for Egyptian writers. 2 IPAF awards were given consecutively to an Egyptian writer in 2008, Bahaa Taher's Sunset Oasis, and in 2009, Yusuf Zeydan's Azazel Dar merit publishes works that challenged the orthodoxy of Arabic literature. The Egyptian literary scene under Mubarak's Presidency was active and many authors published their works in Lebanon due to regime's controlling censorship. Many novels, such as the graphic novel "Metro" by Magdy el-Shafei, were banned from publication due to cultural codes such as indecency (currently in publication development). There are noteworthy books amid the predictable post-revolutionary pulp. In 2004, the Nasserist intellectual Abdel-Halim Qandil was seized by government security forces, beaten and abandoned in the desert. Qandil’s books, “Red Card for the President” among them, were banned under Mubarak for their strident attacks on the regime — though bootlegged photocopied versions did manage to get here and there. Today, “Red Card,” with its distinctive caricature of Mubarak as a baton-carrying Napoleon, is a best seller. Humphrey Davies, the English translator of “Metro” and “The Yacoubian Building,” notes that graphic novels and comics have been immensely popular as well as frequently targeted by censors because of “the immediacy of their visual impact.” Looking ahead, he adds: “How they will be treated by the authorities will be a litmus test for their commitment to freedom of expression.” The Mubarak Award, the state’s top literary honor, has been rechristened the Nile Award.[17] Bahaa Taher is arguably the greatest living Egyptian fiction writer. Taher is only now gaining the international recognition he deserves. The Guardian said of Sunset Oasis: “Bahaa Taher is one of the most respected living writers in the Arab world. At 73, he has weathered political purges and a lengthy exile from his native Egypt to carry off the Booker Prize for Arabic fiction. The recognition is long overdue.”

Moreover, a notable writer in Cairo today is Youssef Ziedan. Ziedan has dominated the bestseller lists in Egypt as of late. His nonfiction work, Arab Theology and the Roots of Religious Violence (2010), was one of the more widely read books in Cairo in the months before the January 25 Revolution.[18]

Notable writers[edit]

See also[edit]

References[edit]

  1. ^ Edwards, Amelia, THE LITERATURE AND RELIGION OF ANCIENT EGYPT., retrieved 2007-09-30 
  2. ^ Lichtheim, Miriam (1975), Ancient Egyptian Literature, vol 1, London, England: University of California Press, p. 11, ISBN 0-520-02899-6 
  3. ^ Ancient Egyptian Stories, Biographies, and Myths, retrieved 2007-09-30 
  4. ^ The Nile in Ancient Egyptian Literature, retrieved 2007-09-30 
  5. ^ Greco-Roman Poets, retrieved 2007-09-30 
  6. ^ Groups of books and book production in Islamic Egypt, retrieved 2007-09-30 
  7. ^ Dr. Abu Shadi Al-Roubi (1982), "Ibn al-Nafis as a philosopher", Symposium on Ibn al-Nafis, Second International Conference on Islamic Medicine: Islamic Medical Organization, Kuwait (cf. Ibnul-Nafees As a Philosopher, Encyclopedia of Islamic World).
  8. ^ Rosenthal, Franz (1981), ""Blurbs" (taqrîz) from Fourteenth-Century Egypt", Oriens (Oriens, Vol. 27) 27: 177–196, doi:10.2307/1580566, JSTOR 1580566 
  9. ^ Zipes, Jack David; Burton, Richard Francis (1991). The Arabian Nights: The Marvels and Wonders of the Thousand and One Nights pg 585. Signet Classic
  10. ^ MSN Encarta entry on Egypt, Encarta, archived from the original on 2009-11-01, retrieved 2007-09-30 
  11. ^ Elsadda, Hoda (2012). Gender, Nation, and the Arabic Novel. Syracuse University Press. p. 147. 
  12. ^ Safez, Sabry. "The New Egyptian Novel". 
  13. ^ Elsadda, Hoda (2012). Gender, Nation, and the Arabic Novel. p. 151. 
  14. ^ Jacquermond, Richard (2008). Conscience of the Nation: Writers, State, and Society in Modern Egypt. American University in Cairo Press. p. 76. 
  15. ^ Elsadda, Hoda (2012). Gender, Nation, and the Arabic Novel. pp. 146, 147, 151. 
  16. ^ Mehrez, Samia (2008). Egypt's Culture Wars: Politics and Practice. Routledge. p. 126. 
  17. ^ "What Do Egypt’s Writers Do Now?". Retrieved 2015-01-19. 
  18. ^ "Six Egyptian Writers You Don’t Know But You Should". Retrieved 2015-01-19.