Version classiqueVersion mobile
OpenEdition Books Demopolis Quaero Rachid El-Daïf 9. The Hidden Hypotext : Transtex...

Rachid El-Daïf

Katia Ghosn

9. The Hidden Hypotext : Transtextual Strategies in Rashid al-Daif’s

Forget about the Car (Insay as-sayyāra)

As‘ad E. Khairallah

Texte intégral

  • 1 Instead of the general term “intertextuality”, I am using the term “hypertextuality”, per Genette’s (...)
  • 2 Allen Graham, Intertextuality, London and New York, Routledge, 2000. See particularly pages 111-126

1One of the problems raised by the theories of intertextuality is what one may call the problem of the hidden or lost hypotext.1 “The question of what happens when specific inter-texts are culturally lost” has been aptly discussed by Graham Allen in his book, Intertextuality,2 where he mentions the basic difference between two major positions. The first is that of Michael Riffaterre, who thinks that, even when an intertext is not known or recognized, one has to suppose its existence. In other words, the unawareness of such an intertext does not change the fact that it does exist, waiting to be discovered some day. In the meantime,

  • 3 Michael Riffaterre, “Interpretation and Undecidability”, in New Literary History, Vol. 12, No.2, In (...)

all that is needed for communication is the postulation of the absent meaning. All that is needed for the text to function is the presupposition of the intertext. Certainly, presupposition itself cannot exist unless the reader is familiar with the structures organizing a representation of reality : but these are the very stuff of our linguistic competence.3

2On the opposite side, we have the position of Gérard Genette, who conceives of the hypotext as a prior text used in full consciousness by the author. In Genette’s opinion, the reader may well understand the hypertext without being conscious of its hypotext, but the hypertext “always stands to gain by having its hypertextual status perceived” (Palimpsests, 398), that is, if the reader is made aware of the relation between hypertext and hypotext, for “the beauty of the hypertext always does consist in such a relation, which it legitimately whishes to be apparent.” (Ibid. , 398)

3If Riffaterre tends to focus on short poetic texts, Genette is more concerned with large narratives. In this respect, his position is of central relevance to the present paper, namely that “contrary to the case of intertextuality, as it has been so aptly described by Riffaterre, a simple understanding of the hypertext never necessitates resorting to the hypotext. Every hypertext… is invested with a meaning that is autonomous and thus in some manner sufficient. But sufficient does not mean exhaustive” (ibid., 397).

  • 4 Allen Graham, Intertextuality, p. 111.

4Discussing Genette’s standpoint with respect to the “problem of the missing or forgotten hypotext,” Allen remarks that “Sometimes even the scholarly community forgets important hypotexts, long buried in forgotten traditions. In such cases the hypertext becomes merely a text, a non-relational, non-transformational work.”4 Yet when the hypotext is not really missing, I think one has to take into consideration Genette’s statement that hypertextuality is more or less mandatory more or less optional according to each hypertext. But the fact remains that it cannot be overlooked without voiding the hypertext of a significant dimension, and we have often seen that authors went to great trouble — at the very least by means of paratextual clues – to guard against such loss of meaning or of aesthetic value (Palimpsests, 398).

5But what if an author, like Rashid al-Daif, does not give any paratextual clue to his readers?

  • 5 Rashīd aḍ-Ḍa‘īf, Insay as-sayyāra, Beirut, Riyāḍ ar-Rayyis lil-kutub wan-nashr, 2002. I am writing (...)

6This question will be the focus of the present article, namely to study the transtextual strategies of a leading Arab novelist, Rashid al-Daif, in his Insay as-sayyāra5 (Forget about the Car , 2002), and simultaneously to shed some light on the problem of the hidden and forgotten hypotext, as illustrated by this particular novel, in order to show the difference in reading when we become aware of the hypotext and its cultural field.

  • 6 Rashīd aḍ-Ḍa‘īf, Lā shay’a yafūqu l-waṣf, Beirut, Manshūrāt lubnān al-jadīd, 1980).
  • 7 Rashīd aḍ-Ḍa‘īf, Ahl aẓ-ẓill, Beirut, Mukhtārāt, 1987, p. 5. See the original text, “aṭ-Ṭu-ma’nīna” (...)
  • 8 Rashīd aḍ-Ḍa‘īf, al-Mustabidd, 2nd edition, Beirut, Riyāḍ ar-Rayyis lil-kutub wan-nashr, 2001. On p (...)
  • 9 Rashīd aḍ-Ḍa‘īf, Tiṣṭifil Mīrīl Strīb, Beirut, Riyāḍ ar-Rayyis lil-kutub wan-nashr, 2001, pp. 120-1 (...)

7Rashid al-Daif’s work is a frontal attack against the various aspects of the dominant discourse, be it religious, ideological, social, political, moral, or aesthetic. He deconstructs established codes and systems by resorting to transtextual strategies in an inverted or parodic manner. This is true of some of the poems in his Lā shay’a yafūqu l-waṣf (Nothing is Beyond Description, 1980)6, as well as of his novel, Ahl aẓ-ẓill (The Shadow Creatures, 1987), which tries to prove that life is just the contrary of the “Tranquility” that the inaugural intertext claims it to be.7 Some of his novels, however, are structured around and narrated in line with their intertext, such as al-Mustabidd (The Obstinate, 1983),8 with citations from Camus’novel, The Plague, or Tiṣṭifil mīrīl strīb (Who Cares about Meryl Streep, 2001), with citations from and allusions to The Arabian Nights.9

  • 10 Abūl-Faraj al-Iṣfahānī, Kitāb al-Aghānī, vol. 9, ed. ‘Abdassattār Aḥmad Farrāj, Beirut, Dār ath-tha (...)

8In his novel, Insay as-sayyāra, the author does not overtly mention his major hypotextual source, namely al-Iṣfahānī’s Kitāb al-Aghānī.10Yet, this work has clearly inspired the novel, not only in some motifs, but also in style and, above all, in spirit, moral attitude, and basic narrative theme.

9As far as I know, no critic has yet noticed the hypertextual connections of this novel, which is linked to its hypotext by some markers that do not seem to be all that present in the minds of modern Arab critics. Thus, the absence of a clear reference to al-Aghānī has not only robbed the readers of the greater pleasure of the text, but has also caused the critics to miss an important dimension of its message and a great part of the interrelations that are activated by the various markers linking the novel to al-Aghānī.

10While focusing on al-Daif ’s transtextual strategies and the complexity of their ramifications throughout his novel, this paper will also attempt to shed light on the benefits and shortcomings of some intertextual devices when they depend too much on the capacity of the reader to decode the diverse indices that signal the presence of the hypotext.

  • 11 Suhayl Idrīs, Dhikrayāt al-adab wa-l-ḥubb (Memoirs of Literature and Love), Part one, Beirut, Dār a (...)

11In the following, I shall, first, present a detailed summary of Forget about the Car, in order to give us a broad basis for comparison. Second, I shall take a look at its reception by some critics who, having either missed the intertextual marker or chosen not to give it enough importance, were not aware of the interconnections with the hypotext and the dialogical dimensions it activates. Finally, I shall attempt to analyze the novel in light of the interaction between two major transtextual elements, namely, the story of Qays Ibn Dharīḥ, from al-Aghānī, and the citation from Suhayl Idrīs’s Memoirs11 concerning his father.

The Story

12The narrator wakes up one morning suffering from amnesia after a car accident. He gradually recovers his memory and thus remembers that the accident happened with the Subaru he bought from his best friend, Rafīq. At the time, he had been talking on the cell phone with his girlfriend, Laylā.

13Thus, we are directly set at the heart of the story, which is going to unfold through the narrator’s recollections. His Japanese car was designed for the United States and not for Europe or Lebanon, and therefore has no spare parts. Rafīq (the “companion and friend”), who often used to race with the car, had worn its brakes out. He then sold it to the narrator without telling him about this serious problem. So, the narrator finds himself using a car with worn-out brakes and always in danger of a major accident.

14The narrator’s car, a status symbol, but especially a symbol of modern life, becomes a booby trap ( “mufakhkhakha”, the term for cars packed with explosives) and incorporates the most common vehicle of terror and destruction during the Lebanese civil war; it is a constitutive element in the narrative structure. Since its defective brakes are practically beyond repair, the car becomes a key symbol for human relations, even between best friends -- relations that exhibit no restraint in seeking one’s interests through cheating and hypocrisy. This is confirmed by the novel’s frequent description of all human relations as hiding a “fakh”, a trap, or being “mufakhkhakha”.

15While trying to remember what happened during the few months before the accident, the narrator is repeatedly astonished and shocked by the course of events and keeps exclaiming, “Oh God!” He then recalls his father, who had always told him, “You only remember God when you are in trouble.” But, he adds, “my father is a dissolute unbeliever” (p. 10).

16Thus we are introduced to the second constitutive element of the narrative: the problematic father-son relationship, which is based on self-interest, rather than on paternal or filial ties, and which is characterized by the son’s fundamental mistrust of the father’s moral integrity. At the same time, the narrator’s comments hint at an inversion of roles, since he sees himself as the one who knows his responsibilities, while his father “is still a child in need of someone to rear him and to take care of him” (p. 15). And as with the car, we soon discover that this father-son relationship has its ramifications in the whole network of relations with the two other major characters of the novel: Laylā, the narrator’s girl-friend, and Zāy, the father’s future wife.

17As the story unfolds, the car becomes a minor element in comparison with the new catastrophe that threatens the narrator: he discovers that his 65 year-old father plans to marry an extremely ugly30 year-old woman, who can still bear children and whom he mentions only by her first name’s initial, Zāy (Z). The hero, or rather antihero, is then launched on an obsessive race to stop this marriage, which could prove catastrophic for him, since his father has no income and he himself would have to sustain a whole new family. Having lost his job, he had been counting on selling his car for a decent price which he would add to his savings to start a new business, especially since his father had promised to help him get a financial loan by mortgaging their apartment. Now he discovers that the penniless father is about to sell their only apartment in order to enjoy a comfortable life with his future wife. Here again, the narrator perceives this potential marriage as a trap: “I will never allow him to marry: it is an entrapped marriage” (p .24). By using the very term “mufakhkhakh” (entrapped) for the marriage as for the car, the narrator established a clear relation between the two.

18The rest of the story is a labyrinthine series of abortive schemes to foil the father’s plan to marry Zāy. The more the protagonist plots to get rid of his obsessive fears about his car and his father’s marriage, the more entrapped he becomes. While all the other major characters -- his father, his sister, Laylā, Zāy, and Rafīq -- seem to know what they want and to be light-hearted about what they do, he is the only one who finds everything strange and hard to understand. It is no surprise then that they see him as an odd character who spoils their fun with unwarranted worries, and that they pay little attention to such anxiety.

  • 12 Al-Aghānī, vol. 1, p. 386 ff, mentions this way of torturing people by shaving their heads, rubbing (...)

19The first big scheme is to pressure the father by torturing himself slowly by means of a sun-stroke. For this purpose he uses a combination of two old Arab methods reported in al-Aghānī, namely to expose his naked head to the heat of the summer sun (on June21st, as he says, p. 21), adding to that another method of torture, namely, to rub his head with oil, so that the sun would burn him all the stronger.12 At first, the father feels guilty and tries for hours every day to stand next to his son and shelter his head from the scorching sun. After a few days, the father retaliates by rubbing his own head with oil and sitting on the balcony in front of his son. It is now the turn of the son to feel worried that the sun’s heat might cause his father’s death and leave him behind with an unbearable sense of guilt. He thus stands up and tries to shade his father’s head, but his father makes a sign of refusal. When the narrator sits back in his place, his sister comes out with two buckets of water. She pours the first one on his head, so he jumps up and begins gasping for breath. And instead of pouring the second bucket on the father’s head, “as any reasonable person would expect,” his sister repeats the same act over the narrator’s own head. The father stands up victoriously and leaves, and the narrator has to admit defeat and realize the difficulty of stopping his father from marrying Zāy. “My stratagem has failed, then. My attack was absorbed and repelled, and I am a laughing stock…” (p. 44).

20The protagonist is then obliged to think of some other scheme. This time he works on two fronts. While discussing his father’s problem with Laylā, a “devilish idea” (p. 51) dawns upon him : why not find him a young woman with whom he can sleep a couple of times a month ? If his father can satisfy his long frustrated need for sex, he will forget about Zāy. He asks Laylā to find one of her acquaintances who would be ready to do the job, whether for free or for money. Laylā proposes one of her friends, who would certainly want some money, she says, and the narrator accepts the idea. But it turns out that her friend Sīn (S) is not interested in having sex with the old man, but would be ready to sleep with the narrator. So he asks both girls to make love to each other first, then, once excited, he joins them in their love match.

21Finding no one else to do the job, and noticing that Laylā is interested in buying the car, the narrator thinks of selling it to her for a low price, while asking her to do him the great favor of sleeping with his father once every month or two. But the experience turns to the advantage of the father, who proves to be a lady’s man, to whom Laylā feels quite attracted. The protagonist realizes that he has played with fire, for he discovers another Laylā than the one he thought he loved and regarded as a “pure” and true girlfriend.

22His other front and last resort is to try to spoil his father’s game by seducing his future wife, Zāy. She seems attracted to him and makes much effort to be appealing whenever he visits her. So he practically rapes her, without giving her the only satisfaction she has ever dreamt of, namely, to be, at least once, desired as a full human being. This we know from Laylā, who learns later that Zāy was keeping her virginity for her future husband, but was ready to offer it, as the greatest gift, to the one who would take her for her own person, if only once in her life (p. 141). Yet the narrator doesn’t satisfy this single wish of hers. He insists on turning off all lights and deflowers her (i. e., his future step-mother) in an aggressive and dehumanizing way.

23At the depth of her humiliation and the height of his triumph, she reminds him that he forgot to take any precautions and that she may very well become pregnant. She tells him that she has never been so happy in her life: she will be both married and a mother; this is beyond all her dreams (p. 133). “Never in my whole life,” says the protagonist, “had I had such a sense of failure and despair as I had that night.” Yet soon it occurs to him that “Laylā is the solution!… . The car is the solution!” (p. 133). He is ready to let her have the car for the lowest price or even as a gift if only she would intervene in his favor.

24But Laylā gives him the cold shoulder. She has become friends with both his father and his future wife (here we learn that she used to have “massage” sessions with his father behind closed doors in Zāy’s apartment!). After many failed attempts to talk to her on the phone, he tries to induce her to call him by leaving his car in front of her house, announcing it for sale and adding his telephone number (p. 134). The people of that district are afraid that the car might be booby trapped. Rather than recognizing the car, Laylā calls up the police, who give the protagonist much trouble during a whole night’s investigation. Once he realizes that the narrator is harmless, the policeman asks him in astonishment: “Where do you think you’re living!” (p. 135), reminding him of the dangerous situation, particularly in that district, the very tense atmosphere in the whole region after September 11, and the many booby-trapped cars that had exploded in Lebanon over the last thirty years (p. 135). When he later meets with Laylā and asks her why she called the police, she answers that she wanted to punish him for treating Zāy so rudely. At that point he feels lost and unable to comprehend the situation any longer (p. 137).

25The only little hope that seems to remain is to convince Zāy to abort of the child. He threatens her to make a scandal, telling everybody that he is the father of the child, but his threats remain without effect. “What is in her womb is hers. This is what she used to repeat” (p. 149). She wants to keep the child, with or without a father. In the meantime, he visits a doctor and asks him to abort Zāy, claiming that she is his wife. But on his second visit, the doctor insults him, calling him a cheat and a crook. The narrator was even afraid that the doctor would accuse him of being an agent “trying to set a trap for him” (p. 149), but he later learns that his father had already told the doctor the whole story.

26This also means that his father knows about Zāy’s pregnancy and is still ready to marry her and keep the child. And here the protagonist goes into another one of his self-lamentations :

Instead of being an instrument of pressure against her, her pregnancy has become an instrument of pressure against me; not only in her hand, but also in his (sc. his father’s) hand. O my God! O Lord of the universe! Why should all this injustice befall me! (p. 150)

27The defeated hero’s last attempt is to call Laylā, who tries to cool him down, still hoping that the pregnancy is not real. In his total despair, he drinks too much and loses all powers of concentration (p. 152). On his way home, he is busy talking to Laylā on his mobile phone, when he smashes his car against an electric post and breaks a leg. His ‘friendly’neighbors take care of the rest, until he wakes up from the shock. He realizes later that his demolished car was very cheaply sold by one of his neighbors. After some days his ‘friend’Rafīq gets in touch and tells him that he shouldn’t worry, for the only thing that matters is one’s health. In full disgust and resignation the protagonist bitterly answers : “You are right.”

28This is certainly no Sophoclean tragedy. The protagonist is far from possessing the nobility of the classical tragic hero, and the reader is often led to laugh at the ridiculous behavior of this anti-hero. The whole narrative is imbued with a distinct cynical tone demolishing all social and moral pretensions and exposing the permanent war within the war, nourished by the economic and material struggles for everyday survival. It is a disturbing novel that breaks many taboos and ends without catharsis. Throughout, and true to his own mode of writing, al-Daif is extremely provocative. He desecrates what modern Arab society still holds as sacred, including those ideals and norms that in everyday life many may trespass, but not without guilt feelings, nor without the need to confess and liberate their conscience or to free themselves from profound fears of some kind of divine revenge. For most traditionally-minded readers, the problem with al-Daif ’s narrative world is that it seems to be devoid of the notion of sin. This does not mean that no one of his characters has that notion or the remorse it generates. It means, rather, that the novel as a whole presents a general worldview that is amoral. This is no innocent point of view in such a moralistic society. It surely has an alienating effect and is very provocative for some people, especially for those who, down deep, would feel lost without sacred norms and divine commandments.

  • 13 For a pioneering discussion of these taboos see: Bū ‘Alī Yāsīn, Ath-Thālūth al-muḥarram: Dirāsāt fi (...)

29Al-Daif devaluates by attacking all three main taboos,13 the political, the religious, but mostly the sexual and its corollary, namely, the supposed sacredness of love, marriage, and family relations. He ridicules the old ideal of chastity as only a thin veil hiding sexual debauchery of all kinds. Laylā sleeps around as a “masseuse”, but she is very careful not to arouse her parents’suspicions. So long as it is secret, “illicit” sex is practiced under all its aspects: homosexual, lesbian, ménage à trois, outside the family bonds (e.g., the married man with the pearl necklace, p. 57), between old and young (pp. 17, 57), foreigners and Lebanese (p. 17); sexual behavior seems to respect no taboos, so long as it is behind secret walls and especially when generously rewarded. The father, who also has homosexual tendencies, used to sleep with his wife from the back, and she enjoyed it (p. 77). It is probable, then, that Zāy attracts him with her large buttocks, as Laylā thinks (p. 77).

  • 14 Rachid El-Daїf, L’Eté au tranchant de l’épée, transl. and introd. by J.E. Bencheikh, Paris, Edition (...)

30Part of the author’s struggle is to be able to say these things without fear or prudence. “Tranquility,” says al-Daif, “is to divulge, to divulge, to divulge, to divulge what you are, to divulge whatever you want, to be able to… ”14 This is surely a clear contrast to the “Tranquility” of Mikhail Naimy, cited at the beginning of al-Daif ’s Ahl aẓ-ẓill. It is as if the author was telling us: “If these things happen in real life, why should we be ashamed of narrating them?” In fact, people do talk about them, but to write them down breaks a taboo. It is similar to the printing of The Thousand and One Nights. It was normal to tell its tales in male café houses, but it has always been a problem to publish them, since they could fall into the hands of women and children.

  • 15 See Hayfā’ Bīṭār, “‘Indamā yataḥawwal al-adab ilā film porno”, Akhbār al-adab, Cairo, May4, 2003.

31The Syrian novelist, Hayfā’ Bīṭār, vehemently attacks al-Daif ’for the openness of his descriptions and his naked language; she admits that his style is attractive, but that fact endows it with more power to corrupt the youth. Since Bīṭār believes that “the aim of art is the Good, the True, and the Beautiful,” it is no surprise that she finds the novel extremely provocative, for it unmasks the emptiness of such ideals in modern Arab society.15 It is interesting that Bīṭār does not seem to recognize that fact. To conceal such complicated relations seems to be her choice for dealing with them. This is similar to censorship in some Arab countries: it blocks internet access to anything dealing with sex or coming from Israel. In this manner, the censors imagine, these factors will have no more effect, since they no longer exist! The curious thing, though, is that Bīṭār admits that Arab youth are already heavily exposed to pornographic films through movies, TV, and the internet. That is why she blames al-Daif for contributing to that current instead of taking a stand against the immoral tide. In her blind fury against what she sees as the corruption of the youth, she is unable to see many important elements and nuances. In analyzing the story, she does not even mention the episode of the suicide attempt as the narrator’s first means of stopping his father’s marriage, let alone the link between this narrative and the context of its Abbasid hypotext. She pities the father, who is denied the right to have company in the loneliness of his old age. Such company, she thinks, must not necessarily be for sexual pleasure; otherwise, “where is the spirit!” she wonders. She forgets that this “poor father” is eager to sleep with a twenty-year old girl in the apartment of his future wife, and that to be sure of his sexual performance and of the girl’s pleasure he takes Viagra pills (p. 106). In short, Bīṭār projects her own feelings and values on the novel, and thus cannot tolerate their deconstruction. She starts by admitting that she was not able to find any maghzā (meaning or moral) in the novel, except provocation. She ends her article with an open instigation against the author: “Is it possible that literature becomes a cheap pornographic film… I wonder where is the function of constructive [i. e., morally committed] criticism in front of novels that are illogical on top of being immoral!” Under the guise of exercising “constructive criticism,” her words smack of a spirit of Inquisition.

Other Critics

  • 16 ‘Aql al-‘Awīṭ, “Insay as-sayyāra li-Rashīd aḍ-Ḍa‘īf : Burnugrafia l-ḥayāt as-sirrīyya riwāyatan”, M (...)

32Without being so provincially narrow-minded, other critics tend to declare their lack of understanding of the novel’s structure and of all the fuss made about the car, as well as about the father’s marriage. One extreme position is that of ʻAql al-ʻAwīṭ. He sees the whole narrative with its complications only as a pretext for what he considers pornographic episodes, and this reminds him of those TV films that use a narrative ploy in order to exhibit erotic scenes.16

  • 17 “Where is really this narrative’s aim ? I don’t know.” Ibid.

33Of course, when al-‘Awīṭ fails to find a narrative aim behind the novel,17 all details become haphazard and whimsical to him, and this corroborates his thesis that they are there only as pretexts. He then, naturally, wonders : “Why the reader should accept this extent of pornographic relationships only because the hero cannot bear the problems resulting from his father’s marriage !” At the same time al-‘Awīṭ declares that he has no problem with pornography when it is part of a sound narrative structure.

34Curiously enough, al-‘Awīṭ considers the novel to be totally simple like the naïve Arab and French love stories of the 1950s and 60s, adding that these stories were very arresting. Above all he detects a great simplicity in the narrative as well as in the language, while admitting that

35these are very genuine and very realistic stories that happen within hushed and discrete walls, but they are actually very true. The inner world of such walls may not be open or told. Rashid al-Daif ’s “achievement” is that he does this in a very plain style and with a very “insolent” coldness. But do the father’s second marriage and the son’s terror in the face of this eventuality deserve all these sexual stratagems which make up this novel ? I don’t know ! (p. 10)

36Al-‘Awīṭ differs fundamentally from Bīṭār on at least two major points. He is not blinkered about the fact that these things take place everyday behind closed walls ; and he does not impose on a good novelist the championing of “The Good, the True, and the Beautiful” as antidote to the reality that is secretly hidden behind these walls. In this sense it is interesting to read a critic who is open-minded and liberal yet unable to see the point. Here, I should like to argue that the inability of a liberal critic like al-‘Awīṭ to see the necessity for what he calls “all the sexual stratagems” is mainly due to his missing the link with the classical text and the basic inversion of moral and social mores that the author wants to substantiate through his hero’s obsessive fixation on his father’s plans.

37I personally enjoyed reading this novel maybe twice as much as I would have had without being aware of the intricate way it integrates the multiple aspects of its hypotext, which I shall discuss later. That is why I fully understand that most critics missed its comic side and were not at all amused by the scenes of the father’s and the son’s sexual games. Bīṭār is the best example of missing most points. Blind as she is to the pleasure side of the text, she cannot see any fun in the whole thing and is totally infuriated by the light treatment of what for her is a morally and socially serious subject. She is even unable to read the text with any alertness. In her idealistic view of Arab society, she simply refuses to see any possibility that such illicit behavior may exist. Where al-‘Awīṭ sees perfect realism, she claims that al-Daif is trying to emulate Henry Miller and she wonders whether it is possible at all to find any resemblance between ‘our’society and Miller’s, where “sex has become a sheer absurd act that does not lead to any paradise, but to an increase in one’s isolation and melancholy, after the chaos of absurd sexual relations.”

38In answer to both critics one may say that the use of al-Aghānī as his major hypotext serves the author’s main strategy to contrast classical and modern Arabic discourses on sex. In the past, modern Arab prudishness was scorned. This goes for al-Iṣfahānī as much as it goes for the great writer and theologian, al-Jāḥiẓ (d. 869), who has a clear position on the moral question raised by the open discourse on sexual matters:

39Words have been coined so that speakers use them; if they were supposed not to be uttered, then their existence would have no sense in the first place, and it would have been more resolute and more protective of the Arab language that these names and terms be eliminated from it.

  • 18 al-Jāḥiẓ, “Mufākharāt al-jawārī wal-ghilmān”, in Rasā’il al-Jāḥiẓ, vol. 2, ed. ‘Abdassalām Hārūn, C (...)

40He who says, “For every situation there is a speech” is totally right.18

  • 19 Ibid., p. 93-94.

41Al-Jāḥiẓ then tells a number of anecdotes in which the Prophet’s companions use “obscene” words without any false prudence; and in one story a woman comes to the Prophet requesting permission to go back to her ex-husband because the new one, she says, “has a penis softer than the tip of my dress.” The Prophet only smiles and then tells her that she cannot go back to her ex-husband before she and her new husband have tasted of each other’s “honey”.19 For al-Jāḥiẓ the matter seems to be straightforward :

  • 20 Ibid., p. 92.

Some of those who show off asceticism and abstinence are disgusted and displeased when one mentions the vagina, the penis, and fucking. Most of those who are like that are men who have no part of chastity, honor, nobility or dignity, except this affectedness.20

42Intertextuality is also a matter of style. Indeed, what seems to shock many critics is al-Daif adoption of al-Aghānī’s matter-of-fact style and of the liberal attitude to sex in classical Arabic literature. In this regard, al-Isfahānī is not far from al-Jāḥiẓ in considering that if sexual organs, thoughts, and acts exist along with the terms that express them, why should one avoid talking about sexual matters in openly sexual terms ? Even more disturbing, perhaps, is the novel’s adoption of al-Aghānī’s style of passing lightly over what may be seen as very serious matters, rarely depicting any real inner turmoil or presenting any dramatic, moral conflict.

  • 21 Sulaymān ‘Awda, “al-Mukhayyila al-hūlyūdiyya”, an-Nuqqād, No. 138, Beirut, January 16, 2002, p. 24.
  • 22 Rashid al-Daif, Personal Interview (20 October2004).

43In general, various positions have been taken by the main critics. Some were able to see the positive sides and deeper layers of the novel, putting their fingers on the symbolic nature of the seemingly simple narrative and on the basic critique it conducts against practically all aspects of modern Arab society, and especially the falsehood of postcivil-war Lebanese society. Others honestly mentioned their sheer pleasure at reading the text. Sulaymān ‘Awda asserts that “Insay as-sayyāra is a text [made] for joy. It is a novel that one reads with love and pleasure, and this, in an Arabic perspective, is an achievement, in the midst of the huge quantity of texts of boredom presented to us yearly by the Arabic writing factory.”21 ‘Awda’s comment touches a central point in al-Daif’s narrative art ; he thinks that a novel can narrate anything and take any form so long as it is not boring.22

  • 23 Ṣabrī Ḥāfiẓ, “Insay as-sayyāra” wa-tajalliyāt al-kharāb al-māddī wal-ma‘nawī fī Lubnān”, al-‘Arab, (...)

44Among those who have noticed the double layers of the narrative and highlighted the success of the text in denouncing the contradiction and duplicity in Lebanese and Arab modern life, we find Ṣabrī Ḥāfiẓ, who published a perceptive analysis that, besides illuminating many interesting sides of the text, foregrounds the central symbolism of the car and its structural relevance, considering it a good token for all the cheating and double-crossing in the social, economic, and human relations that represent the “Lebanese material and moral devastation.”23

  • 24 Ibid. See also Insay as-sayyāra, p. 93.

45The most important insight Ḥāfi offers, however, is the relationship he draws between Insay as-sayyāra and al-Daif ’s earlier novel, Who Cares about Meryl Streep! He sees in both an embodiment of the author’s intention to show us “that the Arab male is an eternal adolescent and an eternal debauchee, who does not know sexual maturity, be he thirty-five years of age, like the son, or a sixty-five year old man, like the father.” In another basic observation Ḥāfi notes that “deep down, the Oriental hero does not have confidence in a woman who offers herself to him. Her generosity toward him makes him treat her as if she were a kind of a prostitute, no matter how much he is the cause of that prostitution.” At the same time Ḥāfi highlights the author’s insistence on presenting socially alienated males who are fixated on proving their false sexual potency at a time when different parts of their homeland are being raped by foreign invaders .24

46Despite the perceptive remarks of many of these critics, I should like to investigate the possibility of a different reading based on an intertextual marker that establishes a link with classical Arabic culture, and thereby opens a whole new perspective on the text, making it a real dialogue between two epochs, if not two cultures, to the detriment of the ‘modern’one, in which people have lost their soul and authenticity and have become entrapped in a mindless, heartless, and treacherous life, as the hero says (p. 106). This is similar to his car, in which he feels that he is riding a viper (p. 89), and similar to all the families he knows, no one of which is normal (p. 108).

47Besides his many insights, Ḥāfi makes an important remark which, in my opinion, can be attributed to his ignorance of the classical hypotext of the novel. Thus, he says:

In reality, the novel passionately strips all its characters naked, to the point where we finally discover that we have to do with many uneven mirrors that convey various manifestations (tajalliyāt) of one and the same male character and one and the same female character. (p. 14)

48This I should like to contest, and will attempt to show that these characters are not the same. For if they all behave according to the same patterns of falsehood and cheating, they still have different functions and play different roles, otherwise one would not be able to invert these roles, nor would one be able to contrast them with their classical counterparts as well as with the classical set of norms and values. For this purpose, I should like to sum up the basic hypotext taken from al-Aghānī, the 9th century literary encyclopedia, namely the story of Qays Ibn Dharīḥ and his beloved Lubnā.

The Story of Qays and Lubnā

49First, I should like to draw attention to the great importance of style in al-Aghānī, a style which al-Daif tries to adopt. At the beginning of the story, al-Iṣfahānī gives us the key to his sources and explains his method of composing the story of Qays and Lubnā:

  • 25 Al-Aghānī, vol. 9, p. 173.

A group of our masters told me the story of Qays and Lubnā, his wife, in connected and disconnected stories and anecdotes, in prose and poetry. I composed them, so that his story would be consequent, except what occurred as a single report, which I mention alone… [Here the author mentions about 15 transmitters] I related all the concurrent reports in a connected way, and I attributed the variants to their different transmitters. They all said…25

50And then al-Ifahānī tells what one may summarize as follows:

Qays ibn Dharīḥ and Lubnā fell in love. Dharīḥ, Qays’s father, was a rich man and wanted Qays to marry one of his cousins. Neither was his mother ready to help. However, al-Ḥusayn ibn ‘Alī ibn Abī Ṭālib, his milk-brother, intervened and helped the lovers to get married. They spent a period in perfect harmony. But then the mother became jealous, feeling that Lubnā was distracting Qays from taking care of her. It so happened that Qays fell very ill, and once healed, his mother found it a proper occasion to tell his father that she was afraid that Qays would die without leaving any children behind, for Lubnā seemed to be barren, and all his money would go to distant relatives. The best solution would be to make him marry another woman, so he might have children (p. 213).

51Qays rejected the idea of marrying anyone but Lubnā. He would neither divorce her nor take any concubines. He then proposed that his father marry and get more children of his own. The father insisted on the divorce, swearing that he would never be under any roof so long as Qays did not divorce Lubnā. He went out and stood in the heat of the sun, and Qays came and held his own clothes above his father so as to provide him with shade, while he himself was scorched by the sun.

52This went on for forty days, and then Qays agreed to divorce Lubnā. Others say that this report is false and that his parents remained years without talking to him, so he had to divorce her. In any case, the result was that he regretted his action very strongly and his longing for her drove him nearly mad. He would visit her or at least come close to her camp. But her parents reported Qays to the caliph, who gave them permission to kill him if he came near them again.

53One of his parents’solutions was to find him a beautiful girl who would distract him from Lubnā. Others say that, while going through the market, he met another woman called Lubnā who greatly resembled his divorced wife (p. 229). She took a liking to him, and her brother, who had heard of Qays and had a great admiration for him, succeeded in convincing him to marry his sister. Yet, Qays’s fidelity to his ex-wife prevented him from consummating this marriage. Still, when the first Lubnā learned that Qays had remarried, she was grieved and accepted an offer to remarry.

54As for the end of the story, there is more than one version. One says that Qays and Lubnā remained separated and that he died before she did and then she died of grief (p. 251); another story relates that she died first, and Qays cried over her grave until he fell unconscious; he remained silent for three days and then died (p. 252). Yet another important variant says that a certain Abī ‘Atīq was able to get her husband to divorce her, and then to allow the two lovers to marry again (pp. 252-253).

55The moral of the story is clear: despite all suffering and imposed divorce, the lovers may make mistakes and fall in to various kinds of misunderstanding, but they basically remain true to the ‘udhrī ideals of truthfulness and chastity. In spite of their separate marriages, they die out of grief over each other.

Al-Aghānī as Background

  • 26 Hilary Kilpatrick, Making the Great Book of songs : Compilation and the author’s craft in Abū l-Far (...)
  • 27 See “Accuracy and the criticism of Akhbār”, in Kilpatrick, Making the Great Book of songs, pp. 111- (...)

56Al-Aghā is an encyclopedic compendium of stories, mainly of poets and singers, covering at least four centuries, from pre-Islamic times to al- Iṣfahānī’s second half of the 10th century. Although it naturally reflects its author’s perspective, it tries to report these stories with as much objectivity and detachment as possible. In her master work on this subject, Hilary Kilpatrick,26 not only considers it an “epic panorama of pre- and early-Islamic literature, history and culture” (p .277), she discusses and confirms Iṣfahānī’s accuracy and induces examples to that effect, among which we find an example having to do with Qays ibn Dharīh.27 She discusses one case concerning the story of Qays and Lubnār (p. 118), and considers that al- Iṣfahānī respects the “artistic truth” in judging that “a year” is “more appropriate that the mere forty days Khārlid ibn Kulthūm mentions” (IX, 183-84) in connection with the time span Qays was able to resist his father’s insistence on him to divorce Lubna.

  • 28 Rashid al-Daif, Personal Interview, Beirut, 15 October2004.
  • 29 Rashīd aḍ-Ḍa‘īf, Ma‘bad yanjaḥ fī Baghdād, Beirut, Riyad ar-Rayyis lin-nashr , 2004.

57From an interview with al-Daif,28 I learnt that, for about three years, he was intensively absorbed in al-Aghānī, reading and taking notes in preparation for his later novel, Ma‘bad Succeeds in Baghdad.29 Once we are aware of the ancient story, it would not be too far-fetched to claim that it provides the novel with a nuclear structure that the author travesties by inverting its motivation and the roles of the main protagonists. The second major operation the author does is to amplify the story from about20 pages to about200 and to transpose it in the modern Lebanese climate of violent breakdown of all traditional mores.

Transtextuality and Inversions

58Once we are aware of the marker of the suicide by sun-stroke, we gradually realize that we are not dealing here with a simple peripheral allusion, and that the marker activates the whole hypotext, spreading its structure all through the novel. Simultaneously, the basic inversion operated on the marker’s structure draws our attention to the same inversion the author applies to the very core of the story and its social and moral dimensions.

59The core and meaning of the Qays and Lubnā story is that of chaste and truthful ‘udhrī love, whereas the core of love relations in Forget about the Car is untruthful libertinage and hidden fornication. The former relations are based on the open declaration of real, licit love that, through society’s obstacles and constraints, ends in separation and death, whereas the modern relations seem to flourish much more in illicit sexual practices and in hiding and cheating. The social and moral values of the hypotext reflect the stability of a traditional society, whereas those of the hypertext reflect the instability and treachery of civil war, going in line with the Arab adage “war is a deceitful maneuver” (al-ḥarbu khid‘a).

60The aforementioned features of the new mores are emphasized through another transtextual element, namely a quotation from Suhayl Idrīs’s Dhikrayāt al-adab wal-ḥubb (Memoirs of Literature and Love), where he remembers his adolescent years when his father used to bring home a young boy whom he used to take into the sitting room and lock the door. This intertext not only strengthens the contrast between the ‘udhrī morality and its modern counterpart, it also helps elucidate some moral and psychological aspects of the narrator’s father, since it is followed by an open discussion in which he disapproves of divulging such secrets about one’s father as Suhayl Idrīs does. More importantly, the discussion insinuates that this divulgence upsets the father because he may have been the young boy to whom Idrīs’s father made love. But while Suhayl Idrīs is disgusted by the duplicity in his father’s behaviour (Idrīs, pp. 12-13), the narrator’s father is outraged only by the divulgence. The act itself does not seem to concern him too much. For, as we have seen, he has no qualms about making love to a twenty-year old girl, Laylā, behind locked doors, nor about doing that at home, namely, in his future wife’s apartment. In the course of the discussion, as elsewhere in the novel, we also learn that he is exceptionally interested in homosexuality, although he disapproves of homosexual marriages which he considers to be against nature and an expression of a death-wish in the societies that allow such marriages (pp. 32-33). Although the author frequently hints to the father’s possible homosexuality, he wraps this point in intentional ambiguity (pp. 32-36).

61In short, these two major transtextual operations serve to show the decadence and falsehood of the modern mores based on mutual bluffing, while safeguarding appearances to the detriment of authentic sentiments and values. In this modern game, no one is spared. Only the sister’s character and minor role are presented under a somewhat neutral light.

The Structural Inversion and its Consequences

62The inversion of all values as a structural element takes place in some essential characters and relationships and, above all, in the relationship between father and son, where many terms are inverted :

63The basic structural inversion is operated on the main element of the plot and on the roles of the two major protagonists. In the story of Qays and Lubnā, Qays’s father insists on his son’s having progeny and consequently wants him to divorce the barren Lubnā. Conversely, in the novel, it is the son who wants to stop his father from marrying for fear he may still beget children (since Zāy’s major aim and sine qua non condition is to have a child or two, cf. p. 112),

64Consequent to this general inversion, both the roles and the means of pressure are inverted. Instead of the father trying to commit suicide, it is the son who does that. This goes hand in hand with a basic opposition in psychological and physical characteristics as well as social behavior and attitude toward money and wealth.

651. The father is a happy-go-lucky, libertarian, nonchalant, carpe-diem type ; the son is anxious ; he calculates every step and every penny ; he feels responsible for his father, whereas the latter is portrayed as “a child,” of whom the son or the daughter has to take care (pp. 15, 37).

662. The father is potent ; he could “beget a legion of children” (p. 97) if the son doesn’t stop him ; the son seems sometimes unable to make love without resorting to the use of Viagra. The word “impotence” is repeated in the text (cf. pp. 120, 151).

673. While pretending to be in dire need of company as a way out of his isolation, the father behaves as an overly generous lady’s man. This allows him to live as a king or a caliph.

  1. He lays his legs on Zāy’s lap in order to have her natural warmth as a cure against rheumatism. In this, he claims to be imitating the old Persian kings and Arab caliphs, who did that with boys and girls in their puberty. For him, Zāy’s importance in this operation lies in her virginity (p. 82).

    • 30 This is cited from Abū Manṣūr ‘Abdalmalik b. Muḥammad b. Ismā‘īl ath-Tha‘ālibī, al-Luṭf wal-laṭā’if(...)

    He is self-confident, free and indifferent to what people say. He allows his daughter to stay out late in the evening and leaves her alone at home with her fiancé. When the narrator worries that this laxity would make the family “the talk of the people” (ḥadīth an-nās), the father retorts : “I am the people” (ana n-nās). “As if,” says the narrator, “he had in his blood some blood of the great Arab caliphs, one of whom once said : “We are the Times, for the one we raise will rise, and the one we humble will be humbled” (pp.22-23).30 Against this boastful, royal attitude, the son is a permanent loser. He is constantly worried about life and about his actual and future financial and social situation. He is totally at the mercy of a mercantile society, by which he seems to be as overwhelmed as he is by his father’s whims.

684. A Double Incest?

  • 31 “Why should the recognition of my humanity be against my husband?” p. 126.
  • 32 Al-Aghānī, vol. 18, p. 110
  • 33 See “Akhbār Manẓūr Ibn Zabbān”, al-Aāghnī, vol. 12, ed. ‘Abdassattār Aḥmad Farrāj, Beirut, Dār ath- (...)

69In the Qays-Lubnā story, the father refuses to replace Qays in marrying a young woman, so as to beget new children, and thus leave Qays with the barren Lubnā. Here, not only does the father establish a sexual relationship with his son’s girlfriend, the son, in turn, deflowers his father’s “wife”. This is not a clear oedipal relationship, since it is done out of revenge and devilish scheming and not out of attraction to the mother. Still, it is a rather incestuous relationship, since Zāy is virtually his father’s wife, without being his own mother: just before the narrator sleeps with her, she clearly refers to the father as “my husband” (zawjī, p. 126).31 Here, again, what some critics see as a shocking, “pornographic” act is not unknown in the Abbasid period; similar stories are told in a simple and straightforward way in al-Aghānī, such as that of ‘Abdalwahhāb ath-Thaqafī’s son, Muḥammad, who was in love with his father’s wife, Bāna, from whom he had a son, Ziyād, who looked so much like him.32 That this whole episode may have been inspired by such stories is corroborated by a strong marker that relates the love act to an anecdote in al-Aghānī. When the narrator ejaculates in Zay he says: “My father can now detect my traces in his wife’s vagina” (p. 127). The same terms (atharī fī ḥiri zawjatih) are found in al-Aghānī’s anecdote about Manẓūr ibn Zabbān who married Malīka, his father’s wife, and then was ordered to divorce her by the caliph Omar, who chided him by saying: “How do you marry your father’s wife; she is your mother!” Malīka remarried Muḥammad ibn Tāha who was later addressed by Manẓūr with these terms “How did you find the traces of my penis in Malīka’s vagina?” (athara ayrī fī ḥiri Malīka).33 The immediate allusion to this passage in al-Aghānī is obvious, not only through the term athar (trace, traces), but also through the unusual usage in modern Arabic of the very term ḥir for vagina.

70Moreover, this possible incestuous relationship is corroborated by Laylā’s comment: “It is shameful to sleep with your father’s wife” (p. 56). This dimension of the son-father relationship may imply a hidden desire by the son to get rid of the father’s dominant presence or even existence (symbolized by procreation). This seems all the more probable when we remember the oppressive, almost castrating father’s potency and the son’s feeling that since he was a child his father has had a tendency to devour him: “In an old picture one sees him kissing me, with his mouth open, as if I were a piece of cake” (p. 87). This deeply repressed feeling towards the father comes out in a burst of anger: “I really wanted to explode him!” (p. 150).

715. Laylā: Mother Theresa.

  • 34 One must remember here the many ‘udhrī traits common to the stories (anecdotes and poetry) and char (...)
  • 35 “She is purity itself.” p. 45.

72The novel presents two parallel couples: the narrator and Laylā, and the father and Zāy. The narrator’s intention to break the father-Zāy couple leads him first to offer Laylā to his father as a “deterrent”, and then to rape Zāy. If we consider the father-Zāy couple as an activation of the Qays-Lubnā couple through the sun-stroke marker, it would not be too far-fetched to think of the narrator-Laylā couple as activating the other famous ‘udhrī Qays-Laylā couple. One may thus claim that the narrator’s girlfriend is called Laylā, both as the eponym of all beloved women in the classical (and modern) tradition and as the particularly “virgin” beloved of the love-mad-poet al-Majnūn.34 Here the inversion of all values (Genette’s Transvaluation?) resides in the fact that this Laylā is “virgin” only through hypocritical appearance,35 whereas in reality, she has no scruples about selling herself for money, or simply enjoying sex for her pleasure’s sake, so long as this is done in secret and her “honor” is not tarnished. While taking great care not to get pregnant, or to let her parents suspect anything wrong in her “behavior” (sulūk), she has no restraint in her sexual pleasures: “I love “fu.. » more than anyone else, as you know and as you’ve realized yourself,” (p. 119) says she to the narrator in one of their discussions.

73The climax of sarcasm is reached when the narrator likens Laylā to “Mother Theresa” (he uses the term “Sister Theresa”, p. 119), while he likens his father to Gandhi. “Laylā” being traditionally the incarnation of chaste, ‘udhrī love, it is rather astonishing that, even without noticing the intertextual allusions, critics have not given this fact enough attention.

746. The Story of Sallāma az-Zarqā’

  • 36 Al-Aghānī, vol. 15, pp.46-58, here p. 52.

75Al-Daif uses the well-known story of the singer Sallāma az-Zarqā’ with the jeweller Yazīd ibn ‘Awn al-‘Ibādi aṣ-Ṣayrafī, from the chapter that al-Aghānī dedicates to Sallāma.36 His use of the story serves also to demonstrate the discrepancy in values between the classical and modern times.

76The singer az-Zarqā’ was married to Muhammad ibn Sulaymān, who had bought her for the huge sum of 80,000 dirhems. One day he asked her if anyone of those who loved her ever got intimate with her or was able to kiss her. She admitted that no one except Yazīd ibn ‘Awn al-‘Ibādi aṣ-Ṣayrafī: “He kissed me once and threw in my mouth a pearl which I sold for30000 dirham.” The story is further related in some detail by a certain ‘Abdarraḥman ibn Muqrin, where he tells how he went with this Yazīd aṣ-Ṣayrafī to Ibn Rāmīn the master of az-Zarqā’, where she was singing, and that after she stopped singing, Yazīd aṣ-Ṣayrafī told her he had two pearls that were worth40,000 dirhems, and that if she wanted them she would have to get them with her lips from his mouth. He crawls on all four with the pearls in his mouth, and when she does the same and tries to get them with her lips, he repeatedly tries to sneak away so she would be obliged to keep trying to stick her lips on his. Finally, her maid holds him from behind, and Sallāma snatches the pearls from his mouth, upon which she blushes for shame and tries to counterattack Yazīd, claiming that she had won over him, but he says that her flavour would remain for ever in his nose and mouth.

77Al-Daif uses the same anecdote, integrating it into his general descriptions of the father’s extravagant behaviour. The father does the same with Laylā, not with pearls but with a sum of paper money hidden in a small plastic envelop within his mouth. In order to get the money, Laylā was supposed to get that envelop out with her mouth (p. 99). The father greatly enjoyed the game, and Laylā was happy to play it even for a miserable sum of money in comparison with what az-Zarqā’ got (the pearls were worth half the price that her master got by selling her).

78Another variation on the same anecdote is found in the story of Layla’s friend, Dān, who dates an old man, rich enough to afford such games. He would put in his mouth a precious present and let Dān get it with her mouth. Sometimes, he even puts the present on his genitals, turns off the light, and asks Dān to find it and get it. She enjoyed the game, because “she liked him a lot” (p. 57).

797. Let me see your legs ! (Arīnī sāqaykī)

  • 37 Al-Aghānī, vol. 6, p. 190.

80Zynab bint Yūsuf ibn al-Ḥakam ath-Thaqafī, the sister of the famous al-Ḥajjāj, goes out to a certain garden in the company of some women. She is told that one of them has the nicest legs ever seen. Zaynab turns to that woman and tells her : “Let me see your legs !” The woman says : “No, except in seclusion.” Zaynab says : “As you wish.” Once in seclusion, the lady uncovers her legs, and Zaynab, full of admiration, gives her thirty dinars, and says : “Buy yourself anklets.”37

81The same story is taken up by al-Daif, but, as usual, with the contrary effect. Being intrigued by Laylā’s body that so much attracts the father, Zāy expresses one day the same wish as Zaynab’s in al-Aghānī and uses with Layla the same terms, telling her : “Let me see your legs !” But instead of being impressed and giving Laylā a present as a sign of admiration, Zāy goes into a fit of jealousy, keeps frenetically repeating : ‘Mabrūk, mabrūk, mabrūk !’ (Congratulations !), and then, feeling that life is unfair, she breaks into tears (pp. 100-101).

A Chart of Inversions

82As already mentioned the marker, suicide by sun-stroke, establishes both the fundamental relation between the two texts and the basic inversion. In both stories there is a suicide attempt by exposing the head to the scorching sun, an attempt aimed at exerting moral pressure on another man in order to oblige him to sever his relationship with a certain woman. In the hypotext the attempt succeeds, whereas in the hypertext it fails. The major difference between the two does not lie in the results of the attempt, but in the inversion of roles and of the motives for separating the two lovers.

83In the case of Qays ibn Dharīḥ it is the father who wants his son to divorce because of Lubnā’s barrenness, whereas in the case of the narrator it is the son who wants his father to break with Zāy because of her possible fertility. The fact that Dharīḥ finally succeeds in forcing his son to divorce gives the story a different turn of events from that of the modern novel, in which the son’s failure to separate his father from Zāy pushes him into a deeper indulgence in his phantasms and eccentric tricks to reach his goal.

84Without necessarily being the generic nucleus of the novel, the Aghānī-hypotext provides a wide network of motifs and strongly enters in a polemic rather than in a dialogue with the novel’s modern social and moral world.

85By exposing the inversion of norms and behavioral patterns that is manifest all through the text, the author stresses the strong discrepancy between old, ideal values and present, actual living. This discrepancy generates the double life of external values and hidden intentions and feelings. The polemic with the world of the novel’s hypotext helps the author to operate a ruthless deconstruction of the patriarchal discourse and to lay bare the whole web of hypocrisy and lies that dominate modern life. Suffice it here to mention some examples that spread over the different individual, social, and moral levels.

86Such examples are abundant in the novel and touch on all three taboos of politics, religion, and especially sex.

  1. Socio-politically, the background of the novel is less the actual civil war than its atmosphere, mentality, and social and moral consequences : the broken family and social relations, the economic profiteering and cheating, the explosive relations similar to the usually booby-trapped cars so common during the civil war and in its aftermath. Furthermore, civil war means also civil-war economy : the narrator would have liked the war to go on much longer ; his business of pirating CDs, floppies and dictionaries would have continued to flourish (p. 93).

    • 38 Suhayl Idrīs, Dhikrayāt al-adab wal-ḥubb, op. cit, p. 17.
    • 39 “Idhā bulītum bil-ma‘āṣī fa-statirū.” This is not really a Prophetic tradition, but it is often mis (...)

    Religion is nowadays, even in Lebanon, the most dangerous to challenge. It is not directly attacked, but frequently hinted at in the form of the fake bigotry and hypocrisy that dominate the moral behavior of the characters, who never give up the claim of being religiously correct : the protagonist claims to be a believer, because he normally prays, while accusing his father of unbelief (p. 10). Yet our protagonist misses no occasion to manipulate others for his own profit. The best example, however, is a main representative of the patriarchal system, namely, Idrīs’s father, who is a practicing believer and a daily prayer leader,38 and yet allows himself to fornicate at home, without really hiding, i. e., without any deference to the quasi-religious precept that says : “If you are inflicted with sin, hide yourselves.”39

  2. As for sex, it is the main device for deconstructing family, love and social relations exposed to the socioeconomic pressures of civil war and Westernization.


  • 40 He makes clear that he hides Sīn’s real name because people would easily recognize her, since she w (...)

87Al-Daif uses many devices to keep the suspense and the reader’s interest in the story. He makes us believe that his novel’s strange events and bizarre characters are not improbable in modern Beirut. Without pretending as usual that the novel is partially autobiographical, he uses many devices to embed the narrative in present Lebanese life. Besides the intertext from Idrīs’s Memoirs, one of his devices is to use the initials “Z” and “S” in order to add a touch of realism, giving the impression that they are the initials of two real women, whose full names the narrator wants to hide.40 All this goes into strengthening the impression of this novel being a natural exhibition of inverted values and norms.

88Most critics have noted the double standards in the behavior of the characters, but an awareness of its major hypotext, I mean al-Aghānī’s story of Qays and Lubnā, helps the reader realize the extent to which the novel exploits the parodic inversion of all values and norms thus sharply contrasting the ‘udhri code of love and honor with the pretensions of our modern times.

89Finally, al-Daif has risked a lot in betting on the critics’knowledge of classical Arabic literature. If his novel’s structure and external meaning are intriguing and enjoyable enough to keep the readers engrossed, the wager is with the critics to uncover the hidden layers of the text. Giving no real clues to its hypotext, the novel conceals the network of themes and motifs that may be activated upon noticing the main marker (suicide by sun-stroke). By pointing to the ‘udhrī Story of Qays and Lubnā and to the manifold Abbasid background of al-Ahgānī, this marker allows a new reading, replete with interesting perspectives on another one of al-Daif ’s arresting novels.


1 Instead of the general term “intertextuality”, I am using the term “hypertextuality”, per Genette’s definition : “By hypertextuality I mean any relationship uniting a text B (which I shall call the hypertext) to an earlier text A (I shall, of course, call it the hypotext), upon which it is grafted in a manner that is not that of commentary.” (Gérard Genette, Palimpsests : Literature in the Second Degree, translated by Channa Newman and Claude Doubinsky. Lincoln and London : University of Nebraska Press, 1997, p. 5). Good instances are Homer’s Odyssey as hypotext for Joyce’s Ulysses and, in Arabic, Jamāl al-Ghīṭānī’s az-Zaynī Barakāt as hypertext ‘grafted’on Ibn Iyās’s chronicle, Badā’i‘ az-zuhūr fī waqā’i‘ ad-duhūr.

2 Allen Graham, Intertextuality, London and New York, Routledge, 2000. See particularly pages 111-126.

3 Michael Riffaterre, “Interpretation and Undecidability”, in New Literary History, Vol. 12, No.2, Interpretation and Literary History, Winter, 1981, 227-242, here p. 239 ; also quoted in Allen, Intertextuality, pp. 125-26.

4 Allen Graham, Intertextuality, p. 111.

5 Rashīd aḍ-Ḍa‘īf, Insay as-sayyāra, Beirut, Riyāḍ ar-Rayyis lil-kutub wan-nashr, 2002. I am writing al-Daif’s name as he writes it in English.

6 Rashīd aḍ-Ḍa‘īf, Lā shay’a yafūqu l-waṣf, Beirut, Manshūrāt lubnān al-jadīd, 1980).

7 Rashīd aḍ-Ḍa‘īf, Ahl aẓ-ẓill, Beirut, Mukhtārāt, 1987, p. 5. See the original text, “aṭ-Ṭu-ma’nīna” (Tranquility) in Mikhā’īl Nu‘ayma, Hams al-jufūn, Beirut, Mu’assasat Nawfal, 1988, pp. 73-74.

8 Rashīd aḍ-Ḍa‘īf, al-Mustabidd, 2nd edition, Beirut, Riyāḍ ar-Rayyis lil-kutub wan-nashr, 2001. On page 8, there is a citation in French, and on page 17, a citation in Arabic from Camus’novel, La peste.

9 Rashīd aḍ-Ḍa‘īf, Tiṣṭifil Mīrīl Strīb, Beirut, Riyāḍ ar-Rayyis lil-kutub wan-nashr, 2001, pp. 120-121.

10 Abūl-Faraj al-Iṣfahānī, Kitāb al-Aghānī, vol. 9, ed. ‘Abdassattār Aḥmad Farrāj, Beirut, Dār ath-thaqāfa, [1957], 8th printing, 1990, pp. 172-211. All subsequent references are to this edition.

11 Suhayl Idrīs, Dhikrayāt al-adab wa-l-ḥubb (Memoirs of Literature and Love), Part one, Beirut, Dār al-ādāb, 2002.

12 Al-Aghānī, vol. 1, p. 386 ff, mentions this way of torturing people by shaving their heads, rubbing them with oil, and exposing them to the sun.

13 For a pioneering discussion of these taboos see: Bū ‘Alī Yāsīn, Ath-Thālūth al-muḥarram: Dirāsāt fi d-dīn wal-jins waṣ-ṣira‘ aṭ-ṭabaqī, Beirut: Dār at-Ṭalī‘a, 1973.

14 Rachid El-Daїf, L’Eté au tranchant de l’épée, transl. and introd. by J.E. Bencheikh, Paris, Editions Le Sycomore, 1979, coupled with the original Arabic version, Rashīd aḍ-Ḍa‘īf, Ḥīna ḥalla s-sayf ‘alā ṣ-ṣayf, Beirut: Dār al-Fārābī, 1979, p. 61.

15 See Hayfā’ Bīṭār, “‘Indamā yataḥawwal al-adab ilā film porno”, Akhbār al-adab, Cairo, May4, 2003.

16 ‘Aql al-‘Awīṭ, “Insay as-sayyāra li-Rashīd aḍ-Ḍa‘īf : Burnugrafia l-ḥayāt as-sirrīyya riwāyatan”, Mulḥaq an-Nahār, Beirut, December 8, 2002, p. 10.

17 “Where is really this narrative’s aim ? I don’t know.” Ibid.

18 al-Jāḥiẓ, “Mufākharāt al-jawārī wal-ghilmān”, in Rasā’il al-Jāḥiẓ, vol. 2, ed. ‘Abdassalām Hārūn, Cairo, Maktabat al-Khānjī, 1965, pp. 87-137, here p. 93.

19 Ibid., p. 93-94.

20 Ibid., p. 92.

21 Sulaymān ‘Awda, “al-Mukhayyila al-hūlyūdiyya”, an-Nuqqād, No. 138, Beirut, January 16, 2002, p. 24.

22 Rashid al-Daif, Personal Interview (20 October2004).

23 Ṣabrī Ḥāfiẓ, “Insay as-sayyāra” wa-tajalliyāt al-kharāb al-māddī wal-ma‘nawī fī Lubnān”, al-‘Arab, London, April23, 2003, p. 14.

24 Ibid. See also Insay as-sayyāra, p. 93.

25 Al-Aghānī, vol. 9, p. 173.

26 Hilary Kilpatrick, Making the Great Book of songs : Compilation and the author’s craft in Abū l-Faraj al-Iṣbahānī’s Kitāb al-aghānī, London and New York : Routledge, Curzon, 2003.

27 See “Accuracy and the criticism of Akhbār”, in Kilpatrick, Making the Great Book of songs, pp. 111-119.

28 Rashid al-Daif, Personal Interview, Beirut, 15 October2004.

29 Rashīd aḍ-Ḍa‘īf, Ma‘bad yanjaḥ fī Baghdād, Beirut, Riyad ar-Rayyis lin-nashr , 2004.

30 This is cited from Abū Manṣūr ‘Abdalmalik b. Muḥammad b. Ismā‘īl ath-Tha‘ālibī, al-Luṭf wal-laṭā’if, ed. Maḥmūd ‘Abdallah al-Jādir, Beirut, ‘Ālam al-kutub, 1997, p. 21.

31 “Why should the recognition of my humanity be against my husband?” p. 126.

32 Al-Aghānī, vol. 18, p. 110

33 See “Akhbār Manẓūr Ibn Zabbān”, al-Aāghnī, vol. 12, ed. ‘Abdassattār Aḥmad Farrāj, Beirut, Dār ath-thaqāfa, 1990, 8th printing, pp. 189-194, here 192.

34 One must remember here the many ‘udhrī traits common to the stories (anecdotes and poetry) and characters of the two famous love-poets, Qays Laylā and Qays Lubnā.

35 “She is purity itself.” p. 45.

36 Al-Aghānī, vol. 15, pp.46-58, here p. 52.

37 Al-Aghānī, vol. 6, p. 190.

38 Suhayl Idrīs, Dhikrayāt al-adab wal-ḥubb, op. cit, p. 17.

39 “Idhā bulītum bil-ma‘āṣī fa-statirū.” This is not really a Prophetic tradition, but it is often mistaken to be so.

40 He makes clear that he hides Sīn’s real name because people would easily recognize her, since she works in a very famous shop (p. 52).


Est professeur à l’Université américaine de Beyrouth (AUB). Après une licence en philosophie, il obtient un doctorat en littérature arabe, persane et en littérature comparée à Princeton. Il a enseigné à Freiburg, Princeton, Basel et Berkeley. Spécialiste de littérature arabe moderne, des relations culturelles Est Ouest, de littérature comparée et mondiale, il est également rédacteur en chef de la revue bilingue arabe-anglais, al-Abhath de la faculté des Arts et des Sciences (de l’Université américaine de Beyrouth). Il est l’auteur de Love, Madness, and Poetry : An Interpretation of the Majnun Legend, Wiesbaden, Franz Steiner Ferlag, 1980. Il a codirigé un ouvrage de référence en quatre volumes : Literature : A World History pour le Stockholm Collegium of World Literature dont il est membre du comité exécutif, paru chez Wiley-Blackwell, 2015.

© Demopolis, 2016

Conditions d’utilisation :


Open access

Rechercher dans OpenEdition Search

Vous allez être redirigé vers OpenEdition Search