Published in Paris in 1855, Ahmad Faris al-Shidyaq’s Leg Over Leg is often called the first novel written in Arabic. […] Born to a Christian family in an Ottoman province of modern-day Lebanon, al-Shidyaq could not have published Leg Over Leg in his homeland, mostly because of what he had to say about religion. The Arabic word bid‘, or “innovation,” which he uses many times to describe his novel, means both “literary novelty” and “heresy.” Al-Shidyaq guessed what the reaction to his work would be. The novel’s first pages imagine its author caught in a crowd of howling priests, who accuse him of blasphemy and demand that the book be burned. In response, al-Shidyaq spends several pages listing euphemisms for “vagina,” taken from a medieval Arabic dictionary: “the sprayer,” “the gripper,” “the large floppy one,” etc. This is followed by lists for “penis” (“the falcon’s stand,” “the big spider,” “the little man”), the anus (“the toothless one,” “the catapult,” “the whistler”), and intercourse (“to stick the kohl-stick in her kohl pot”). […]
The Nahda, meaning “reawakening” or “renaissance,” was a nineteenth-century movement of reform and modernization throughout the Middle East. […] It was not just the influx of foreign models that set off the Arabic renaissance, but a rediscovery of native traditions. In this way, the Nahda resembles the modernism of Pound and Eliot and Yeats, which fused metaphysical poets with the Upanishads, Noh drama, and Gaelic revivals.
One of the Nahda’s most important revivals was that of the Arabic language itself, and here al-Shidyaq’s achievement was central. His fascination with Arabic was like that of an archaeologist who unearths a sophisticated alien culture—although in this case that culture was his own. The abundance and precision of old Arabic words, which al-Shidyaq found in classical dictionaries, suggested that there was nothing in the world that did not already have its place in what he called “our noble language.” For example, khafut, “the woman who is considered comely on her own but not among other women”; buldah, “freedom from hair of the space between the eyebrows”; bahsala, “to remove one’s clothes and gamble with them”; samut, “having legs so thick that her anklets make no sound”; or dihindih, “a children’s game, in which they gather and then say this word, and any who mispronounces it has to stand on one leg and hop seven times.” None of this advances the plot of his novel, but al-Shidyaq is openly impatient with narrative conventions. At one point he boasts that Leg Over Leg is “a repository for every idea that appealed to me, relevant or irrelevant.” […]
Al-Shidyaq’s novel […] hews closely to the life of its hero, and its digressions are, if I may put it this way, philological, that is, the detours pivot on a word or a phrase that calls for explanation. When the Fariyaq falls for the daughter of an emir, we get an essay on the eight stages of love and the names for each. Everything that happens in the novel becomes a pretext for interpretation, which must be interpreted in turn. Or, as al-Shidyaq writes, “Every commentary must have a super-commentary.” […]
What most enraged al-Shidyaq was his contemporaries’ illiteracy: the real illiteracy of the poorer classes, along with almost all women, and the literate classes’ ignorance of their own tongue. Everywhere the Fariyaq goes in his travels, he finds priests whose knowledge of Arabic is a disgrace. “All church books are full of horrible mistakes,” he writes, then proves his point by looking into an Arabic version of the New Testament. (One of al-Shidyaq’s jobs in Malta was to begin a translation of the Bible into Arabic; at the same time, he wrote but did not publish a critique of the gospels’ historical credibility.) The Fariyaq meets poets who parrot foreign phrases while mangling their own tongue, monks who do not know the difference between a dictionary (qamus) and a nightmare (kabus), and literary men whose language is full of lame metaphors and the flattery of powerful men.
Al-Shidyaq’s own writing is a rebuke to all this. It is acrobatic, cutting, and baroquely self-aware. It is the style of a virtuoso in flight from the orthodoxy of his place and time.
Doesn’t that sound interesting? Unfortunately, it’s in four volumes at $40.00 each — not unreasonable for a bilingual edition, but out of my price range. Maybe I can convince a local library to get it; at any rate, I’m glad to know about it. (Thanks, Eric!)