Languages and Literatures of the Arabian Peninsula
The ambition of this theme is to federate work on the languages ​​and literatures of the Arabian Peninsula and to manage to study the different dimensions from a perspective that is not only hyper-specialized and erudite relating to linguistics and the sciences of literary criticism (works dedicated to the varieties of Arabic, documentation of extinct languages ​​and analysis of the forms of literary creation and novelistic, poetic writing, etc.)
but also cross-cutting and complementary aimed at underlining the solidarities that exist between expression of the literary imagination and the linguistic forms that convey it. The choice to study languages ​​and literatures together makes it possible to approach the status of the so-called “literary” language, but also to understand the deployment, within the different kinds of writing, of a reflection on the registers of language used by writers. The work carried out by CEFREPA researchers takes into account the aesthetic dimensions, narrative forms or linguistic variations that affect oral and written productions. The fact of approaching these dimensions both from the angle of specialization in this or that point of linguistics and literary criticism and from transversal and comparative approaches aims to document languages ​​threatened with extinction or poetry oral skills that must be highlighted, while making it possible to advance in the knowledge of the linguistic and literary realities of the Arabian Peninsula.
I. Linguistics of the Arabian Peninsula The Arabian Peninsula represents a linguistic area in which many languages – extinct and living – are still little known: little documented and therefore little analyzed. In fact, in addition to standard Arabic, the official and communication language, there are many varieties of Arabic (which are acquired by speakers as their mother tongue, and which correspond to linguistic systems distinct from standard Arabic), living languages of the Semitic family, distinct from Arabic, extinct Semitic languages (Minean, Qatabanian etc), some of which have not yet been deciphered in their entirety, finally non-Semitic living languages, e.g. Kumzari, an Indo-Iranian language (Indo-European family) spoken in the Musandam peninsula in Oman, the UAE and Iran. A significant number of these languages being in danger, the role of CEFREPA as a privileged observatory of linguistic diversity in the Arabian Peninsula is crucial. A. Documentation and analysis of languages. The first step is to document as large a set of languages as possible, each one being conceived as an autonomous system. a) Varieties of Arabic. Various researchers have produced important descriptions and analyzes of the varieties of Arabic spoken in the Arabian Peninsula, from various perspectives – comparative, experimental, descriptive, theoretical etc. (cf. among others, the works of Behnstedt, Bettega, Davey, Eades, Holes, Idrissi, Prochazka). Based on these results, CEFREPA researchers continue to document these varieties, e.g. A. Manoubi and F. Lagrange have transcribed and translated an important corpus of the extract from the web series “Yawmiyyāt Mṣabbaḥ Barbecue” (2021, Omani Arabic) and work is underway to document the Arabic language of the al-kaθīrī tribe, very little described so far, spoken in Dhofar, Oman. In the field of the study of varieties of Arabic in the peninsula, collaborations with relevant institutions in the region, e.g. with the Neuroscience of Language Lab (NYU-Abu Dhabi, UAE) and Qatar Univ, could be considered. b) Living languages distinct from Arabic. CEFREPA is a key player in the current study of modern South Arabian languages. For 10 years, CEFREPA has been continuously involved in research projects on these languages with significant funding: partner of the ANR OmanSaM project (2013-2017) and of the IRN ALL network (2020-2024) (coord. S. Bendjaballah ), leader of the ANR Almas project (2020-2024, coord. J. Dufour). It also contributes in the foreground to research training in the field: currently, 2 funded doctoral students, in conjunction with CEFREPA, are working on these languages (2020-2023: Almas A. Manoubi doctoral grant, which will offer the first complete description hobyot, a language on which documentation is extremely limited; 2019-2022: SMI CNRS-INSHS A. Kungl doctoral grant, which will provide the first complete analysis of the nominal system of Oman’s mehri). However, despite these important results, much remains to be done: study of the varieties of mehri (Yemen, Oman, Saudi Arabia), jibbali, and hobyot, linguistic analysis of popular oral poetry (funūn) e.g. Thanks to the continuous and close relations developed in the field, partnerships with local actors (in particular the Center for Omani Studies and the history department of SQU in Muscat) have been set up. This collaboration is intended to be deepened and to give rise to various scientific events in the future. c) Extinct languages. The epigraphists associated with CEFREPA are involved at the highest level in the study of the extinct languages of the peninsula: cf. CNRS delegation of Mr. Arbach in progress, regular field missions in Saudi Arabia, Oman. This component is naturally carried out in collaboration with archaeologists. d) As for kumzari, apart from 2 articles (Anonby 2011, 2012), an M2 dissertation (Tabet 2019), everything still remains to be done.
B. Variation and language contact.
Linguistic variation is a massive phenomenon in languages, in the Arabian Peninsula as elsewhere. However, the variation is not arbitrary: the linguistic features constitute sets, which vary in a coherent way and thus define typological classes. It is in this perspective that the work on linguistic variation carried out at CEFREPA is placed. One of the issues related to variation is that of change due to language contact. The Arabian Peninsula has and still is an area in which language contacts are intense: contact between Standard Arabic and the regional varieties of Arabic, between Arabic and the modern South Arabian languages, between the regional varieties of Arabic and languages of migrant populations etc. Furthermore, the rapid social developments in the region and the transformations associated with them must be taken into account for a correct understanding of the sociolinguistic conditioning of linguistic change. One of the lines of research of CEFREPA linguists is therefore aimed at a better understanding of linguistic variation and language contact. CEFREPA researchers combine different levels of analysis (phonological, morphosyntactic, pragmatic, typological, sociolinguistic) in order to be able to take into account the multifactorial nature of linguistic variation and contact. In particular, contacts on both sides of the Red Sea have a long history and population movements between the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula are still intense. The area formed by the Horn of Africa and the Arabian Peninsula is therefore a coherent object of study, at the crossroads of several disciplines: archaeology, history, genetics, geography, linguistics, political science, etc. Linguistically, the similarities between certain languages of the Horn of Africa and certain languages of the southern Arabian Peninsula (e.g. between Ethio-Semitic and modern South Arabian languages) are debated. Several researchers associated with CEFREPA being specialists in the languages of these two areas (see also the IRN-ALL network), all the conditions are met to move forward on this question. In this regard, it would be interesting to explore avenues of collaboration with the CFEE. To conclude, the work carried out by the linguistic team of the L&L axis of CEFREPA aims to 1) produce solid and as complete as possible descriptions of the languages spoken in the Arabian Peninsula in all their diversity, in order to establish a reliable empirical basis for further research, and 2) to provide a comparative perspective of the language systems of the region. This work responds to a double challenge, documentation of languages, in collaboration with the speakers of these languages, as long as there is still time, and linguistic analysis. In this sense, these works clearly contribute to the preservation of the intangible cultural heritage of the Arabian Peninsula.
II. Renewal of literary writings
Research on the literatures of the Gulf is almost a territory to be discovered given the limited number of studies it has generated in the French-speaking and international academic field, in particular with regard to prose. The main reason for this is surely the relative youth of prose literature, of the novel in particular, while poetry has benefited from a history rooted in the tradition of the countries of the area (cf. in particular the works of Clive Holes, Marcel Kupershoek, Julien Dufour and Saad Abdullah Sowayan, these last two having published in Arabian Humanities).
A. Recent trends in the prose and the novel
We generally date the beginnings of literary prose in the countries of the peninsula to the 1930s (The Twins, by the Saudi al-Ansari 1930), but it was in the 1990s that the novel would show its vitality and find a place for itself both in the Arab literary field and in the international field. This entry is all the more remarkable since the production of this still little known part of the Arab world will be at the forefront of the renewal of Arab aesthetics, in particular through the freedom of tone and the transgressive nature of the themes addressed. It is the work of a generation of new writers, generally young, some of whom will only have a short career, and who are shaking up a certain number of taboos and writing habits. As literature entered an era of disillusion following the collapse of great ideologies, the invasion of consumerism and the renunciation in the face of authoritarian powers or conservative social discourses, their often violent critique of social hypocrisy and moral taboos , religious or political is all the stronger when it emanates from societies considered to be conservative. The movement is also marked by the massive presence of women. Their production, which very largely stigmatized male-female relations, took hold of broader themes from the beginning of the 21st century and is part of the major orientations that characterize most of the countries of the peninsula. It is a prolific period (we speak of romantic tafra) who’s dynamic has not weakened until today.
The novel expresses human experiences, in touch with a lived reality, of which it renders both the successes and the shortcomings and of which we can summarize the main lines as follows: – The novel testifies to the evolution of societies and the emergence of a modern individual, as much attached to a collective identity as to being recognized in his specificities and in his freedoms. He stages characters attached to their environment, whose specificities they appreciate and defend, just as much as they criticize the marginalization, the discrimination of some or the way in which individuals can be crushed by the collective. This is particularly the case for works that address the issue of female-male relations, the marginalization of beings according to their origins (social, geographical or religious), as well as those that evoke racism, slavery or, particularly in Kuwait, the status of stateless persons, the Biduns. Social and political violence is thus at the center of a large part of the novels published in the 20th and 21st centuries, in particular in Yemen, Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.
– The novel is largely part of the reflection on the identity of countries which have undergone profound changes since their political independence and participates in the debate around the concept of “khaleejness”. The question of migration, of contact with foreign countries, which Arab literature has known well since its beginnings, is one of the themes of the novel, but it is revisited through the prism of globalization which blurs national boundaries and questions the very existence of citizenship. It is no longer a personal experience, but a questioning of collective affiliations that is exposed.
– Reflection on identity is accompanied by an exploration of history, memory and geographical and symbolic spaces. The historical novel is a very much alive type and it returns in particular to the period of the British or Portuguese presence, or more recently to the wars which shook Kuwait and Yemen. More broadly, there are many texts that return to events of the past to reinterpret them, rewrite them through the prism of present reality. They evoke a world before (that of the desert, the traditional district or the sea of fishermen and divers) and sketch through the texts a new cartography of the peninsula, based on memorial and historical reconstruction. In an opposite movement but which stems from the same logic, the science fiction novel or the texts which evoke parallel universes offer a field of research to be cleared.
– The novel is also a laboratory of technological, aesthetic and linguistic modernity. He stages a connected world, open to others, and criticizes the ways of thinking that contradict this openness. He draws his models as much from the heritage of Arab novelists as from world literature and experiments with new forms of writing, in a contemporary and uninhibited language that mixes literal Arabic, dialectal Arabic and the realities of code switching (Arabic-English) which characterizes the contemporary language in the countries of the Persian Gulf.
– A final line of research needs to be cleared: the study of literary fields that cannot be approached under their simple national delimitation and their connection with the public policies of the countries of the peninsula. There does not seem to me to be any solid work in this field except for the thesis and articles published in Arabian Humanities by Salwa al-Maiman.
B. Poetry
Can we consider that the expression “poetry is the divan of the Arabs”, omnipresent in the classic works of Belles-Lettres, is still relevant? Once considered the memory of the peoples of Arabia, the receptacle of their wisdom, their deeds and gestures (Ayyâm), as well as the place of expression of their individual or collective literary sensibility, poetry has undergone great evolutions in contemporary times both in terms of the renewal of forms (abandonment of classical metrics, adoption of the free poem, introduction of the poem in prose) and from the point of view of the content and functions assigned to poetry. The same evolution has affected the division between the written and the oral, between poetry as declamation and theatrical staging, and poetry read and meditated on as a fiction or a philosophical text. These main changes that should be studied with the different aspects that characterize contemporary Arabic poetry allow us to see the place of poetic genres within a literature where romantic fiction increasingly predominates.
With regard to the Arabian Peninsula, many figures from the Kuwaiti poetic scene (Ahmad Al-Adwani, Khalifa Al-Waqiyyan, Najma Idriss, Suad Al-Sabah, Ali al-Faylakawi), Bahrain (Qasim Haddad, Alwi al-Hashimi , Ali al-Khalifa), Emirati (Khulud al-Mualla; Saliha Ghabish Ahmad Rashid Thani, Adil al-Khuzam), Omani (Sayf al-Rahbi, Hasan al-Matroushi, Layla Abdallah), Qatari (Soad Al Kuwairi, Mubarak ibn Sayf), Yemeni (Abdurrahman al-Ahdal) or Saudi (Muhammad al-Damini, Jasim al-Sihhi) deserve to be studied, translated into French and commented on. These authors take a particular look at their societies, question the process of modernization they are going through and force readers to adopt a meditative, dreamy or critical posture. These figures and many others still share with the Arab poets of the Near East and the Maghreb certain issues related to the renewal of poetic writing, in particular the craze for the prose poem. But certain tendencies characterize them individually (which requires the analysis of their poetic universes, their styles, etc.) and collectively as representatives of the poetry of their country or of the Arabian Peninsula. As such, certain characteristics such as the link between poetry and song (with the Saudis Badr ibn ‘Abd al-Muhsin, Ghazi al-Qasibi, Abdallah al-Faisal or Muhammad Talaat) or the presence in the Gulf countries of a popular poetry known as “Nabataean” or Bedouin (al-taghrouda) bears witness to the interest of looking into these dimensions which make it possible to probe poetic imaginations and individual accents while broadening the analysis to the question of the status of the poet in the within these societies, and the links between poetry and the different forms of culture (literary, religious, political, etc.) that unfold there. Certain social dimensions such as the prestigious competitions organized by the media in Abu Dhabi (Shâ’ir al-milyûn) or anthropological dimensions such as the origins of these popular poetic forms and the relationships they have with neighboring cultures (Middle Eastern, Greek, etc., see the article by Saad al-Sowayan in Arabian Humanities, 5, 2015) constitute a field to explore for researchers and an opportunity to undertake work on new or little studied subjects.
III. Arabia in travel literature
If it can be part of the famous texts dedicated to the “journey to the East”, with the Levant, the Maghreb and Egypt, Arabia is distinguished, since the first stories dedicated to it, by the fact that it identifies itself to a place of permanent travel, because it contains the holy cities of Islam which are the destination of pilgrims, and that it has been crossed since antiquity, from north to south and from east to west, by the caravan routes. Moreover, within the Arab poetic imagination, this space has been identified for centuries with the theme of the rihla (journey), which constitutes, along with the tears over the vanished camp of the beloved, one of the themes major of the pre-Islamic ode (the qasida). This shows how real or fictitious travel has crossed the space of the Arabian Peninsula for centuries and that it is important, with regard to contemporary dimensions, to analyze its different dimensions and characteristics.
The work devoted to this axis aims to show the way in which the Arabian Peninsula is perceived and represented by Arab or European writers, and to compare these cross-representations of the societies they were able to visit and describe in their stories. If there are some pioneering works that have been devoted to this theme (see in particular Louis Blin, La Découverte de l’Amérique par les Français. Anthologie de textes sur Djeddah, 1697-1939, Paris, Geuthner, 2019), if the Kuwaiti, Yemenis or Omanis feel a certain enthusiasm for texts written by foreign travelers and reflecting the representation of their countries in their eyes, it should be noted the inadequacy of academic work, translations and editions of texts addressing these themes.
Many authors, French (Laborde), Danish (Niebuhr), English (Doughty), Swiss (Burckhardt) or Polish (Rzewuski) have visited these spaces and produced literary texts, historical documents or scientific works on peninsula. Other civil servants of the French or British Empires engaged in the same exercise, leaving important archives still not sufficiently exploited by researchers. With the birth of romanticism and exoticism in the 19th century, European writers will feed the imagination with exact or fantasized representations, productions approaching reality or seeking to satisfy the stereotypes specific to a particular era or society. Part of the work in this area therefore aims to develop research on this dimension, and to explore texts reflecting the construction of imaginaries of identity and otherness, as well as the way in which documentation for scientific purposes unfolds or a narrative seeking escape into a mythologized or fantasized elsewhere.
This axis is also attentive to the study of stories written by Arab travelers within the Arabian Peninsula, such as the texts of al-Tha’alibi (al-Rihla al-yamaniyya), al-Azm (Rihla fi -l’arabiyya al-sa’îda) or al-Rayhani (Muluk al-‘arab) which are devoted to Yemen and other parts of Arabia. Indeed, any travelogue plays on the ambivalence between the writer who travels and the traveler who writes. Moreover, the travel stories obey the same literary canons and mobilize the same principles of the genre based on the crossing between literary dimensions and historical-anthropological documentation on the one hand, and mixing, on the other hand, various forms and varied: logbook, correspondence, scientific observations, fiction, etc. Creating a gap between the representation of the culture addressed and the rest of the world, this literature places the issue of otherness and identity at the heart of the processes deployed in order to better know oneself and to know Others. The outside view of a society can turn into a privileged mode of self-criticism, even of questioning the foundations of one’s own society. It can also lead, as is the case with several European authors of the 19th century who were passionate about the Orient and Arabia, to the expression of an aesthetic finality and to the desire to communicate the emotions provoked by traveling to a sublimated elsewhere. Finally, when it comes to recounting the past and present of millennial civilizations, this literature can join the considerations of historians on the rise and fall of peoples and empires and be the source of true philosophical reflection.