Gretchen Head

Gretchen Head is currently Assistant Professor of Literature in the Humanities Division at Yale-NUS College in Singapore. She holds a PhD in Arabic literature from the University of Pennsylvania and has been a Mellon Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Comparative Literature at the University of California, Berkeley. She has published articles in the Journal of Arabic Literature, Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics, Portal 9: Stories and Critical Writing about the City, The Global South, and the Journal of North African Studies. She is coeditor (with Nizar F. Hermes) of the forthcoming The City in Arabic Literature: Classical and Modern Perspectives (Edinburgh University Press). 


Resistance to Loss through the Perseveration of Form: al-Tuhāmī al-Wazzānī and the Practice of Adab in the 20th Century

In a 1983 preface to Arabic Thought in the Liberal Age, Albert Hourani acknowledges that he may have “distorted” the thought of the writers he considered, exaggerating the “modern” elements in their thought, in turn emphasizing a break with the past rather than continuities. His call to consider thinkers of a different kind – those still working within an inherited mode of thought grounded in the framework of institutions like the Azhar in Cairo, the Zaytuna in Tunis, or the Sufi brotherhoods – has been only partially heeded. The dominant story of the nahda remains one of oppositions (tradition vs. modernity etc.). Recent arguments suggest that with the nahdah, adab is redefined, shifted away from its original semantic range and refigured as a concept in line with modern globalized ways of reading that reimagine religious practices and textual traditions. This paper will suggest a different way to interpret adab, both as a textual tradition and an embodied mode of reading, in the 20th century through an analysis of al-Tuhāmī al-Wazzānī  al-Zawiyah. Published in 1942, it is an autobiographical work that retains its ties to a premodern tradition of Sufi life writing widespread in North Africa; al-Wazzanī models his portrait of selfhood on predecessors dating back to at least the fifteenth century and in function the text follows the established practice of its genre. But, he also manipulates the form to record the pain experienced by his city under Spanish occupation. His search for spiritual fulfillment merges with Tetouan’s drive for independence and autonomy. Here, the category of adab, as both a way of writing and reading, is adapted and expanded to create a new hybrid literary form which becomes an act of resistance, a way to reclaim the city’s pre-colonial identity and to record its collective suffering. The people of Tetouan (al Taṭwaniyun) join the autobiographical “I” of the narrator as a collective protagonist of equal importance, the story just as centrally a chronicle of the city’s traumatic past and present as the author’s development. Adab, for al-Wazzani, is a defense against the violence of his city’s foreign occupation. Yet it nevertheless becomes something hyphenated, for just as he draws on earlier literary structures, he both uses the modernized Arabic that was the result of language reforms catalyzed by the Arab world’s encounter with imperial Europe and incorporates his colonizer’s narrative techniques, internalizing the colonial violence within the practice of adab itself.