Dylan and the a-changing times of literature, in the Arab world and elsewhere


Bob Dylan at Massey Hall, Toronto, April 18, 1980 Photo by Jean-Luc Ourlin

By Teresa Pepe, Post.Doc at the Department of Culture Studies and Oriental Languages (University of Oslo). This blog post was first published on Mada Masr.

Come writers and critics
Who prophesize with your pen
And keep your eyes wide
The chance won’t come again
And don’t speak too soon
For the wheel’s still in spin
And there’s no tellin’ who that it’s namin’
For the loser now will be later to win
For the times they are a-changin’“Bob Dylan, The Times They Are A-Changin’, 1963

The awarding of the Nobel Prize for Literature to songwriter Bob Dylan for having created “new poetic expression within the great American song tradition” on October 14 caused controversy in the literary field. While prominent writers including Stephen King, Joyce Carol Oates and Salman Rushdie celebrated Dylan’s literary achievement, and called him “the brilliant inheritor of the bardic tradition,” others called the decision misguided and questioned whether song lyrics, however brilliant, rise to the level of literature.

This controversy has included Arab literary circles, through social networks, face-to-face discussions and print media. London-based Al-Hayat published “The Nobel that spoils the book market and irritates writers all over the world,” and the next day “Bob Dylan, whom the prize did both justice and injustice.” Egyptian state-owned literary journal Akhbar al-Adab dedicated a four-page insert, titled, “The Morning of this Strange Day” to the issue, while Egyptian state-owned newspaper Al-Ahram inquired about Dylan’s pro-Zionist views with, “Have politics and Zionism played a role in the awarding of the prize?” 

Akhbar al-Adab included a collection of testimonies by Egyptian writers and scholars concerning Dylan’s award and titled it: “Bob Dylan, who is this man? Is this a joke?” I believe they are indicative of the disappointment felt in Arab literary circles.

Among the 10 writers interviewed, only two seemed pleasantly surprised. Literary critic Said al-Kafrawi interprets the award as a negative sign of “how horror is influencing our world,” echoing critic Shakir Abd al-Hamid’s affirmation that it is “part of the chaos we are living through.” Egyptian author Mai Khalid believes it is a sign of the simplification (istishāl) of culture at a time in which people have no time to read difficult books, and therefore opt for articles and songs. Against this trend, she admonishes, we should preserve the effort on language (jahd al-lugha), because this is what distinguishes literature (adab) from other types of writing. Poet and translator Mohamed Id Ibrahim understands it as part of a liberal economy that privileges sales over quality. He adds, however, that this does come as a surprise, since Arab and Egyptian literary prizes are ruled by the same criteria. Scholar Heba Sharif sounds more ambivalent, supporting the opinion that Dylan’s songs should be categorized as adab shaabi, popular literature, and that the prize is an indication of the academy’s opening toward more popular forms of culture.

Another disagreement with the academy, shared by scholar Shirin Abu al-Naga and writer Ahmad al-Shafi, is that Dylan is globally known as a singer (mughannī) or music composer (musiqār), and therefore not an author (adīb). The adib, explains al-Shafi, writes fiction (khayāl). For this reason, the Egyptian writer believes that the academy is contributing to the destruction of literature (adab), especially since last year it devoted the prize to journalist Svetlana Alexievich. They should call the prize “Nobel for Literature and Art” (al-adab wa-l-fann), concludes Suzan Bashir, head of Afaq publishing house. Further testimonies from Egyptian authors, concerning the role of the Swedish Academy in deciding what is literature and defining the margins of the literary canon, can be found in this report by Mada Masr in Arabic, including some more positive voices, such as Ahdaf Soueif.

The negative comments however seem to point to two concerns: firstly that adab, literature, as a prestigious form of high culture, made of printed novels, poetry and short stories, and written in a high language, is in danger of extinction and the Swedish Academy is contributing to its death; secondly, that the adib is being replaced by other figures, such as the singer/musician or journalist, who have nothing to do with the real literature mentioned above.

It is not my intention to debate why song lyrics should be evaluated as poetry, decide whether Dylan is entitled to enter the pantheon of laureates, or investigate his supposed pro-Zionist views, which some of his Israeli fans are already proud of. I am taking the prize as a prompt for reflection on a more general question, that is the understanding of literature in our contemporary society.

I want to draw attention to the fact that terms like literature and adab, author and adib, should be understood not just as mere words, but as concepts. Unlike words that have a univocal meaning (a table, for example, may have different shapes but is always a table), concepts are abstract ideas rife with semantic potential, and therefore ambiguous. These meanings can be interpreted, but are often the object of hermeneutic discussions, as Dylan’s Nobel Prize showed us in recent days. What’s more, these meanings are shaped by the political and social circumstances in which the concept is used. Therefore the range of meanings attributed to a concept may change over time, and this may be not a linear history. Until the early twentieth century, the Arabic concepts of adab and adib were partly different from the English concept of literature and author. These concepts came to coincide during the modernizing project of the Nahda that changed the Arab world from around 1850 to 1920, and are being re-evaluated today in the midst of global and local cultural transformations.

Adab was a term initially meaning sunna (Muslim customs and practices). Then, after the spread of Islam, it was used in to indicate the entire body of non-religious knowledge, whose function was to “discipline, educate the mind” (F. Gabrieli’s Encyclopedia of Islam, 2012). With the rise of court culture in the Abbasid period (2th hijri/8th century CE), it came to identify works intended to educate and entertain members of court, including manuals of behavior and conduct, as wells as genres such as biography, history, and travel accounts.

In the early twentieth century, the term adab began to include new forms such as novels, short stories and drama. Therefore the adīb, who used to identify as the“scholar or the erudite, polite man” (J. Sadan’s Encyclopedia of Arabic Literature, 1998), slowly began to be understood as the writer of fiction. This process was favored by a series of social and cultural transformations, among which are: the encounter with European literary works through translation, the adoption of the printing press and the emergence of a literary market, the spread of a modern, secular education, and connected to that, the emergence of a new reading public with an appetite for stories. A similar transformation to that undergone by literature and author in Arabic may be traced in the English concept of literature. That term originally indicated all kinds of books and writing, and only at the end of the 18th century, with the advent of European Romanticism, did it began to demarcate “imaginative, creative literature” (R. Williams’ Keywords, 1976). The Swedish Academy is aware of the changing nature of these concepts, as its website indicates that the criteria for awarding the prize have changed over the century.

The transformation of these concepts has not been immune to discussion. The debate concerning the admittance of certain forms, such as song lyrics, into the realm of literature reminds me of similar discussions, both in the Arab Nahda, and in 18th century England, concerning the literariness of the novel (riwayah), for example.

In the Arab world, novels were first seen as objects of distraction for young people, but were later admitted into literature by emphasizing their didactic (non-fictional) and edifying moral role. Short stories and dramatic pieces were used by Arab writers to illustrate social problems. Part of the discussion concerning the literary status of the novel was also due to the fact that adaptations or pseudo-translations of European novels were invading the Arab print market at the time.

This is connected to the other point I want to make. In the Arab world, the re-formulation of the meaning of the term adab as ‘literature’ at the beginning of the 20th century implied its identification with high culture, and therefore the exclusion of an extensive body of works belonging to the corrupt realm of the popular. These works were excluded from Egypt’s national canon of literature because of their use of extensive imagination, a recitative style, or vernacular expressions (see Samah Selim’s The Narrative Craft and Realism, 2010). Therefore, zajal poets as Bayram al-Tunisi (1893-1961), whom Egyptian poet Girgis Shukry (interviewed by Akhbar al-Adab) identifies as a possible Arab antecedent of Dylan, as Bayram too was an author of many highly popular, vernacular ballads, were not recognized by the establishment as proper literature.

In recent decades the divide between high and popular literature does not seem to make sense any more for many in the Arab as well as in the rest of the global cultural field. It is enough to visit the annual Cairo Book Fair or have a look at Goodreads ratings to see that the interest of young Arab readers spans international bestsellers, classic masterpieces, graphic novels, Islamic books and satirical literature, often downloaded for free from the internet.

Genres that combine writing with visual and audio elements, such as graphic novels, blogs or digital novels, are alive and kicking in the Arab literary fields, as elsewhere. As pointed out by Ahdaf Soueif in her interview with Nael el-Toukhy on Mada, Egypt’s revolution has extended the definition of literature to several art forms, such as blogs, graffiti, revolutionary slogans and letters from prison — “literature is everywhere.” Thus it does not come as a surprise that Dylan’s lyrics were translated into Arabic back in January on al-Kitabah, a literary website devoted to “marginalized writing in the Arab world.” And after the award, videos and verses of his songs, translated by amateurs into Arabic, are being circulated on Twitter and Facebook. This means that literature changes and adapts to social reality faster than we think, and that the academy just came to confirm it.

In conclusion, I want to draw attention to the fact that the Nobel Prize for literature is translated in Arabic as Nubil al-Ādāb, where the plural of adab indicates a prize for ‘literatures’, across national boundaries, but also for ‘humanities’, in a broader sense (as Kulliyat al-ādāb, the Faculty of Humanities). One can say that, in times of chaos and deep cultural and social transformations, it is in this extended and transformed sense of adab and literature that Bob Dylan has been awarded the Nobel Prize: as an adīb, endowed with a broad humanistic knowledge, who despite being “impolite and arrogant” as a member of the academy called him, has given voice to universal human feelings and experiences, through both words and music.