The Earthquake


 
 
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Gaber Asfour
Professor of Arabic and Literary Criticism
Cairo University



The epic of change has been a dominant theme of Arabic novel since its inception. Political, economic, social and cultural changes have taken place along with the growth of the modern city, still striving to overcome all obstacles hindering its growth until the present day. The epic of change evolves around the conflict between ancient and modern. The conflict arises with the realization that modernism and modernity are compatible; for the process of modernization to materialize, modernity has to be inscribed in the social consciousness. This becomes the intelligentsia�s main preoccupation.

In the epic, the configuration of the ancient/modern binary is represented by the conventional forces striving to preserve a status quo that would maintain their economic, political, social and cultural ting earthquake destabilizing existence. Class consciousness informs the status of these conventional forces. It also implements a reductive vision of the cultural heritage, narrowing its confines to that which maintains their limited vision. The result is the construction of difference, a negation of diversity to sustain a patriarchal order. The disseminators of such beliefs reject modernity as heresy, making it as the initial step to final damnation.

The dialectical relationship between ancient and modern is represented in the Arabic novel through an insurgent consciousness. It focuses on the dilemma facing the elements of change on both the existential and political levels, Such elements interact with the modernizing process and react against conventional forces have never been highlighted in the narrative structure. In the early years of the century, there was no attempt to intuit the conceptual framework by which such conventional types abide, to perceive their strict conservative confines that resist change and try to deter it.

The few Arabic novels that have treated conventional types appear at a later stage. Earlier novels have mostly concentrated on revolutionary protagonists, seeking a rupture with the past in order to reconstruct a new order. Muhammad Hussein Heikal�s (1888-1956) Zaynat (1914) is the first narrative attempt revealing a modernist consciousness. It traces the relationship of the rising intelligentsia with the conservative society. The purpose of the novel is to reconstruct the social order of a society dominated by conventionality. A series of fictional rebels later trailed in the Arabic novel : Kamal Abdelgawwad in Naguib Mahfouz�s Trilogy (1956-57) is such an example, followed by other novelists of the succeeding generations.

Although these novelists have captured the continuous appearance of innovators at different stages of modernization, focusing on the problematic emerging from conflicting social needs, few have examined the rigid conceptual framework of  conventional opponents to modernization, thus failing to shed light on the inherent motives driving them to shun diversity and innovation. There are even fewer attempts to analyze strategies of violent response that can become an act of virtual aggression against any challenge undertaken for progress.

Tahir Wattar (b. 1936) is one of the few novelists who have attempted to make up for the lack of conventional types in the Arabic novel. The Earthquake (first published in Beirut in 1974) presents a conventional figure who is an opponent of modernity. The narrator acts at times as subject, allowing the reader to listen to the inner voice, which is a strategy used in the stream of consciousness technique. Nevertheless, we still have a �typological� study, to use Georg Lucca�s� term, where the typical refers to the universal, and the �type� becomes a representative of what is yet to come.

This provides the novel with an additional function within its historical context. The changes affecting the dialectical relationship between tradition and innovation are connected to the changing relation between the typical and the general, the typical being the nucleus generating the general. Abdelmajid Boulawah � the protagonist characterized by typicality- becomes a general phenomenon in the Arab region. Echoes of Boularwah as conventional type recur in the Arab world, even though their opposition to modernization may be directed to different ends. Their targets differ simply because they have presently achieved more gains. They now succeed were Boularwah has failed due to the aggravating social conditions that have eventually empowered the oppressive forces. Allusions to such forces are made in Wattar�s novel, and at times their presence is directly perceived.

Two decades after its first publication, the novel seems to be a forewarning of what is actually taking place at present. It features the dilemma in the Arab world on two levels: private and public. On one level, we follow up the protagonist, Shaykh Abdelmajid Boularwah�s return to a changed Constantine, one that seems to have been struck by an earthquake. He is one of al-Zaytouna�s fanatic graduates who later become the principal of a high school. He comes back to divide his property among his heirs, at least on paper, to avoid confiscation by the government. On another level, the change in the public sphere is brought about by a new state establishment that claims socialism and agricultural reform, while its newly constructed social order teems with contradictions.

Shaykh Boularwah�s journey in place is a configuration of a spiritual journey. His movement throughout the transformed city ignites parallel shifts of consciousness at significant moments, evoking significant figure that have had a lasting impact. The alternating movement between past and present previews a devastating future. The aftermath becomes fully perceptible with Boularwah�s end, bearing a multiple signification. However, the fact that he does not actually die, but is merely taken to hospital, raises the possibility of a future return. Indeed, his second return is marked by the resurgence of the political activists operating in Algeria today, who justify their terrorism with religious interpretations.

No wonder that the Algerian intelligentsia today is targeted by the terrorists, with the additional sacrifice of the very young and old. Most terrorists are high school graduates who were ideologically trained by principals similar to Shaykh Boularwah. They have multiplied in number, as have university graduates who were subjected to the same training. These graduates are the instigators of Algeria�s present violence.

There is also in the novel a significant allusion to Naguib Mahfouz. Boularwah compares the Sidi M�sid district in Constantine to the Garabi� district in Mahfouz�s The Children of the Alley (1959).Some have called this novel sacrilegious and accused Mahfouz of denying God�s messengers their due respect. Boularwah accuses the Egyptians of cowardice for not putting Mahfouz to death. Ironically, Boularwah�s wish was partially fulfilled two decades later (1994), when a young man attempted to assassinate Mahfouz six years after he had received the Nobel Prize for Literature. It seems that the young man was responding to Boularwah�s fatwa.

Mahfouz might have met the same fate as Abdelqadir Alloula, the Algerian dramatist assassinated by a Boularwah disciple who was trained in a similar high school administered by a Boularwah type. Such training fostered total rejection of all those branded as dissenters, particularly communists.
According to the shaykh, communists, liberals and existentialists are all infidels, followers of an alien West whose impact should be totally obliterated. Only then will the true faith be crowned with victory, victory is attained by recruiting young people and making them blind followers who punish dissenters wherever they appear.

Although the implied narrator of the Earthquake alludes to the shaykh�s fallen world, the narrative ironically forewarns of an imminent danger left by Boularwah and his disciples. Perhaps allusions to such a danger were inconceivable when the novel first appeared. However it lurks in the background as a premonition of a forthcoming disaster capable of aborting all dreams of emancipation. The narrative launches a strong criticism against the state, debunking the corrupt institutions that have contaminated its positive achievements.

Indubitably, such positive achievements arouse hopes for a better future. Boularwah�s relatives better their condition by occupying higher social positions. His own impotence reveals the narrator�s desire to eliminate his kindred, to ensure the removal of obstacle in the way of social democracy. Social democracy marks the destabilizing earthquake haunting Boularwah. His failure to adjust to the changing social conditions leads to a mental breakdown, a climactic moment in the narrative flow as Boularwah�s withdrawal signifies a kind of moral punishment for his retrogressive stand.

In Algeria today, disaster is at hand. The nation lives in the aftermath of a devastating earthquake whose primal signs have erupted along the narrative flow, preceding the great downfall, extinguishing all hopes for democracy and justice. Wile Boularwah is defeated by the earthquake of progressive change, the present generation suffers the havoc created by terrorism. The earthquake bears a symbiotic nature revealing the common ground between binaries. The rebirth of Shaykh Boularwah in the existing conventional types creates another recessive cycle whose end is inconceivable in the near future.

 

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