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The structure of the Arabic language is well-suited to harmonious word-patterns, with elaborate rhymes and rhythms. The earliest known literature emerged in northern Arabia around 500 AD and took the form of poetry which was recited aloud, memorised and handed down from one generation to another. It began to be written down towards the end of the seventh century. The most celebrated poems of the pre-Islamic period were known as the mu’allaqat (“the suspended”), reputedly because they were considered sufficiently outstanding to be hung on the walls of the ka’ba in Makkah.
The birth of Arabic prose as a literary form is attributed to the Persian secretarial class who served under the Abbasid caliphs (750-1256) in Baghdad. Ibn al-Muqaffa’ (died 757) was a convert to Islam who translated classical Persian works into Arabic. He became famous as the author of Kalila and Dimna, a series of didactic fables in which two jackals offer moral and practical advice.
The origins of the modern Arabic novel can be traced to a long process of cultural revival and assimilation, referred to in Arabic as the Nahada or Renaissance. Characteristic of this period were two distinct trends. The Neo-Classical movement sought to rediscover the literary traditions of the past, and was influenced by traditional literary genres such as the maqama and the Thousands and One Nights. In contrast, the Modernist movement began by translating Western works, primarily novels, into Arabic.
Individual authors in Syria, Lebanon, and Egypt created original works by imitating the classical maqama. The most prominent of these was al-Mawilhi, whose book, The Hadith of Issa ibn Hisham, critiqued Egyptian society in the period of Muhammad Ali. This work constitutes the first stage in the development of the modern Arabic novel. This trend was furthered by Georgy Zeidan, a Lebanese Christian writer who immigrated with his family to Egypt following the Damascus riots of 1860. In the early twentieth century, Zidan serialized his historical novels in the Egyptian newspaper al-Halal. These novels were extremely popular, especially in comparison with the works of al-Mawilhi, because of their clarity of language, simple structure, and the author’s vivid imagination. Two other important writers from this period were Khalil Gibran and Mihail Naima, both of whom incorporated philosophical musings into their works.
Nevertheless, literary critics do not consider the works of these four authors to be true novels, but rather indications of the form that the modern novel would assume. Many of these critics point to Zind, a novel by Muhammad Hasnin Heikhal as the first true Arabic-language novel, while others point to Adraa Denshawi by Muhammad Taher Haki as the first true novel.
The metres normally used were first codified in the 8th century by al-Khalil bin Ahmad and have changed little since. Metre (wazn) is based on the length of syllables rather than stress. A short syllable is a consonant followed by a short vowel. A long syllable is a vowelled letter followed by either an unvowelled consonant or a long vowel. A nunation sign at the end of a word also makes the final syllable long. In Arabic poetry each line (bayt; abyat) is divided into two halves (shatr; shatrayn).
Rhyme (qafiya) is basically determined by the last consonant of a word. In rhyme-words nunation is dropped, as (sometimes) is the final vowel. Where the final vowel is fatha (short “a”), it must be used consistently each time the rhyme occurs – though kasra (short “i”) and damma (short “u”) and interchangeable. If a long vowel precedes the last syllable of a rhyme-word, it also becomes part of the rhyme. Similarly, ya (long “i”) and waw (long “u”) are interchangeable but alif (used as a long “a”) is not. Because short vowels are generally considered long when they occur at the end of a line, the vowels which appear short in their written form also rhyme with their corresponding long vowels – it’s the pronunciation, not the writing, which counts.
The most outstanding Arabic writer of the 20th century is Naguib Mahfouz, a prolific Egyptian novelist, playwright, and screenwriter who won the Nobel Prize for literature in 1988. Other prominent writers from Egypt – which has long been the intellectual centre of the Arab world – include Taha Hussein, Tawfiq al-Hakim and M. Hussein Heikal.
A number of modern writers have also emerged in the Maghreb (north Africa), though many of them write in French rather than Arabic.