Using Middle Eastern Literature and Allusions in Class

by Martha K. Goodman

from VCCA Journal, Volume 7, Number 1, Summer 1992, 14-25

Copyright 1992 Martha K. Goodman


Treasuring the richness of many cultures, I have always thought it important to emphasize cultural diversity in teaching community college students. This is easier for some cultures than others. It was difficult in the 80's to mention Persian allusions because of the Iranian hostage situation, and it has been tricky in the 90's to mention Iraq. But in literature we have borrowed much from the Middle East, and as I teach, I remind students of our global dependency. Our daily use of Arabic numbers is one ready example. My purpose in sharing this topic for the Virginia Community College Association is to provide a series of suggestions of what instructors can do to make our classes more relevant for Virginia natives, as well as students from outside the Commonwealth, and to suggest some readily available material.

This emphasis on our multi-cultural heritage is timely. Last October, I heard a five part series on Monitor Radio about Muslims in California, and the strong movement to add more unbiased information about Muslims to the public school curriculum. With the release of Terry Anderson on December 4, 1991, and with Middle East peace talks constantly in the news, coupled with ongoing violence in the region, this geographic area is with us daily, and reaches even students on the periphery of current events.

Using Middle Eastern literature in the English classes that I teach does more than directly involve students from that area. It also allows me to teach, very easily, some important literary concepts--allegory, translation, transliteration, the sonnet form, and the art of story-telling. Using the works of a Nobel Prize Winner such as Nahguib Mahfouz is exciting and encourages students to take an interest in the yearly Nobel Prize announcements. A ready reference familiar to all English instructors is the writing of Edgar Allan Poe, who used many Middle Eastern allusions in his writing. As our culture is contrasted to others, students can see both the differences and the similarities in our lives.

Teaching the Work of a Nobel Prize Winner in Literature--Nahguib Mahfouz

Students enjoy studying a winner--in this case a Nobel Prize Winner for Literature. I was overjoyed when Nahguib Mahfouz won the 1988 Nobel Prize for Literature, and since I'd attended some sessions on his work at conferences of the American Research Center in Egypt, I knew I could use a work of his as supplemental reading.

Then I had another piece of luck. Returning from Egypt in 1989, I sat beside a friend of Mahfouz on the plane. Because he saw me reading an article on Mahfouz, he told me about the man as he knew him and about the Khan Khalili coffee house Mahfouz still frequents. This experience provided credibility for me as instructor when a World Literature class at CVCC read Mahfouz's Children of Gebelawi. Reading this work made students aware of the richness of this literature. The relevance of this study increased with the U. S. involvement in the Gulf in late 1990 and early 1991. I got high marks for timeliness in that evaluation!

Mahfouz is a good role model for inspiring our students to write. One of the first statements which the press used was his declaration that "If the urge to write should ever leave me, I want that day to be my last." I use this sentence when I discuss in all my classes the importance of keeping a journal.

Another statement is also important as we teach global understanding. Mahfouz said he "learned to believe in science, socialism and tolerance" at an early age. Students are pleased to know that there are moderate voices coming from the Middle East. I have found they too often accept the views of one speaker as characteristic of all--all of us tend to generalize too much about everything.

Mahfouz is also a humorous person. When asked the typical "Why do you write" question, he drolly replied: "I write because I have two daughters and they need high-heeled shoes!" His practicality was appealing to CVCC students.

We approached Children of Gebelawi as an adventure, starting discussions with the obvious question: why the was book banned in Egypt? Children of Gebelawi is an allegory, and students easily see that the characters are based on Adam and Eve, Moses, Jesus and Mohammad, and a modern scientist similar to Einstein. Jesus and Mohammad, especially, seem very human. Studying this work requires students to learn something about Islam and about allegory. They see the art of story-telling in the technique of the novel. In my class, students led discussions of the novel, formulating questions about the work as they read. Their insight showed that they had integrated a timely work and topic. In evaluating the class, students strongly favored keeping Children of Gebelawi in the curriculum.

Sharing Poetry

From the Middle East comes the Persian poetic tradition, one of the great bodies of world poetry, along with the English, French, and Chinese. Persian poetry provides useful examples in world literature. I provide particular insights in Persian literature gained through studying it while I taught at Damavand College in Teheran for three years. Modern Persian, Arabic, and English literatures do not share social conditions, but they share a modern world culture. Since these literatures share the influence of France, it is important to make this point in any study of world literature. French is the main influence on modern Persian literature; German is a secondary influence. But from the end of World War II until the fundamentalist revolution of 1979, the main influence became English and American. Then of course the influence halted. One student suggested that Middle East and American relations and tensions will replace tensions between Russia and the U.S.

Persian literature has traditions of ambiguity; Americans are sometimes disturbed by ambiguity. In Persian poetry, each line rhymes; Persians are shocked by blank verse. English has had a tradition of blank verse ever since Shakespeare. When people speak of Persian poetry, they often mean Sa'adi, Hafiz, and Molavi--all tenth century. And we can also note that almost all Middle Eastern poetry can be interpreted symbolically or allegorically, as can The Song of Songs of the Old Testament.

European and American countries and the Middle East also share a popular literary form--the sonnet, which came to France from Persian and Arabic literature during the Crusades. Developing the tie between East and West, this literary form is basic to poetry discussions of the sonnet. In poetry discussion in college composition classes I also point out the importance of finding the right image. Paul Simon's "Punky's Dilemma" provides favorite examples. A student brought in this poem by Nima Yushij from modern day Iran which also serves:

Blue light exudes
This nice beautiful warm
Sleep is not interrupted in anyone's eyes
And yet my worries break the sleep in my wet eyes
Look at where we started, where we are
My body is like a plant I cared for
And now it is ruined.

Writing poetry in the Middle East is recognized as hard work, not a gift; and word play is very important. Poets are viewed as servants with constant demands on their time, but they are respected. Good poets in the time of Sa'adi were well paid and were as famous as our pop musicians are today. Students are surprised to hear that when I taught in Iran and would say, "Now tomorrow, class, we will study such-and-such poem," there was always applause, a delight for me and quite a change from the usual groans of American students.

Teaching About Transliteration

When the name of Moammar Qadaffi began to appear in newspapers, spelled in a variety of ways, I was teaching college grammar to a group of elementary and high school teachers who asked why the papers couldn't agree on the spelling. Then I realized that it was important to teach a few notions about transliteration-- taking characters from one alphabet and changing them into another alphabet.

Now I make the topic of transliteration a standard ten minute lecture for almost every course. I tell students they can confidently sound out any word they see, using the 26 characters we learned in kindergarten and first grade, because that's how transliteration works. Transliteration takes characters from one alphabet and changes the sound of the character into words, using our 26 characters. Sometimes translators hear the schwa in Teheran, sometimes they hear Tehran. With transliteration, the spelling is free, a novel idea for our students, but a clear thing to see in the examples of Kassem or Qaasim, or in the Lebanese disc jockey's name, Casey Kassem. His name is one all our students know. If there are students in my class who know Arabic or Persian, I always ask them to pronounce the sounds we transliterate with kh and q. There's quite a difference to them, but not often to our ears accustomed to English only.

One Vietnamese student, hearing all this, delighted students with an example from his language of a Vietnamese word, which, depending on how it is pronounced, means one of five entirely different things. Speaking about transliteration gives international students help in this subject too.

Teaching About Problems in Translation

Many people can translate, but it is difficult to find a translator who is competent with literary works, an important consideration with world literature studies. John Rodenbeck, who has translated some of Mahfouz's works, says competence means that the person is capable of earning a living in a variety of easier ways (translation does not pay well). Philip Stewart, who translated The Children of Gebelawi, reports that he has made less than 200 Egyptian pounds (about $400) from his work to date (Rodenbeck, "The Art of Translation," Cairo Today). Further, at the Egyptian gala for Mahfouz following the Nobel, Philip Stewart was the only translator invited. Many good translators, such as John Fowles, are already busy with their own projects which pay far more adequately.

According to Rodenbeck, "the only effective [system] for translation" from Arabic to English has six stages:

As students see these criteria, they begin to realize how problematical world communication can be. Rodenbeck decries that of his four translations of Mahfouz, only Miramar and Wedding Song have been translated according to this system. Autumn Quail and The Thief and the Dogs, he laments, "were whisked away for publication before I would have deemed them ready, with long sections left in what [he regards] as unacceptable form" (37). Rodenbeck illustrates what he means with a passage from Autumn Quail:

They carried on as usual, but death was looking down at them from a nearby window; its harbingers flew into their ears and then intruded into their innermost thoughts. The city was turned into an army camp: convoys of armored vehicles and trucks moved along the streets, and normal life was drowned in a sea of thoughts and misgivings. (113)

I have used the passage above as a short writing assignment, challenging students to write a better version of this short passage. It also served as a good journal entry for college composition students.

Teaching About Cultural Differences

In technical report writing classes, I use a series of quizzes designed to help students think about cultural differences. Below is one from Gavin Kennedy's Doing Business Abroad, which focuses on the Arab world. I use these quizzes at the beginning of class as students come in, and we check them and discuss them in about five minutes. It takes about three of these tests for students to begin guessing the right answers and sometimes figuring out the reasons. Kennedy's book covers large blocks of geography and is a useful book in Lynchburg, where many CVCC students take jobs which require travel abroad.


Sample Quiz: Doing Business in the Arab World
Source: Gavin Kennedy, Doing Business Abroad, Simon & Schuster, 1985.

Read through these problems and choose an answer. We'll discuss your choices. [Answers are underlined.]

1. You are arranging to visit a number of Arab countries to promote your products and to secure local agencies to distribute them in local markets. How many days do you allow for your itinerary, which is to include Egypt, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Kuwait, the Emirates, and Libya?

a. Seven
b. Fourteen
c. Eighteen
e. Twenty-eight
f. Thirty-one (Allow as much time as possible; negotiations cannot be rushed)

2. You have been given an interview with a leading local Arab agent and have spent several hours socializing and drinking coffee. No business has been talked about and you are anxious to get the discussion of your proposals under way. Do you:

a. Raise the subject in a lull in the conversation?
b. Wait until your host raises the matter? (The host sets the conversation pattern.)

3. You have decided to wait until your host raises the subject, and now it is time for you to leave. Do you:

a. Ask him when you can return to see him?
b. Leave a set of materials about your products? (The other two answers seem pushy.)
c. Ask him for a definite date for an interview to discuss your business?

Universal Truths from Middle Eastern Literature

Another way to compare different literary trends is to examine a culture's proverbs and sayings.

The Middle East is rich in proverbs. An obvious source is the Book of Proverbs in the Bible, but students from the area enjoy providing other examples. Many of these proverbs also teach a great deal about manners. For a short writing exercise, I may ask students to write a proverb. If they are from other countries I ask them to write it in their own language, and I have other students copy that language as best they can. The student translates the proverb and then we see if the class can suggest a similar English proverb or saying. By the end of the session, each student has copied 25 or so proverbs--and they will have taken notes! This exercise is also a good way for me to see how wide our own students' backgrounds are.

Sometimes I ask them to think of proverbs or sayings they think nobody else has ever heard of. Here is one example from the Qabus-nama:

To drink wine is a sin, and if you must sin, let it at least be pleasantly and gracefully. So let the wine which you drink be of the best, and likewise the music to which you listen; and if you jest with any one, do it well, so that, if you are to be punished in the next world, you may at least not be blamed and censured in this.

Students suggested that the phrase "Do it now" incorporates a bit of this philosophy. Chef James Beard said, "I find it hard to believe that God's good gifts of butter, wine, and cream can be harmful," a statement that carries some of the same thought.

Teaching a Writer Who Uses Numerous Middle Eastern References--Edgar Allan Poe

In teaching English literature to students to whom English is not a native language, instructors often feel as if we are imposing our literature on other people, and we may feel abashed at doing this. However, if we are teaching literature to students from the Middle East, our task is easier if we realize the great number of Middle Eastern references found in English literature and can demonstrate these references to our students. It has been my experience in searching out Oriental references that students are quite proud of the infusion of references from their culture into Western literature. The writing of one particular author, Edgar Allan Poe, who used many references to the Middle East in his writing, and whose writing is studied in many courses, is rich in these references. Simple background is all that is necessary.

The Western world, since the Middle Ages, has always been influenced by the Middle East and Persia. Our ideas came first through the Greek historians (Herodotus, et. al.), and later came through the writings of European travellers to that area. But in the eighteenth century interest in the Middle East, and especially Persia, rose to a new level. The life, ideas, religions, and practices of the Middle East were of great interest in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries because of the archaeological discoveries of Belzoni, Champollion, and Lyard, the translation of works of Middle Eastern writers (particularly The Arabian Nights Entertainment), George Sale's translation of the Koran, and Sa'adi's Gulistan), the popularity of travel sketches, and the eighteenth century tradition of the Oriental tale (cf. Washington Irving's The Alhambra). Edward Said comments on the "prodigious cultural repertoire whose individual items evoke a fabulously rich world: the Sphinx, Cleopatra, Eden, Troy, Sodom and Gomorrah, Astarte, Isis and Osiris, Sheba, Babylon, the Genii, the Magi, Nineveh, Prester John, Mahomet. . .settings, in some cases names only, half-imagined, half-known; monsters, devils, heroes; terrors, pleasures, desires." (63)

Thus, in one respect, Poe was merely capitalizing on the interest in Middle Eastern culture and following a literary convention of his day by choosing an Oriental frame of references for many of his writings.

For Poe, Oriental references served a greater purpose in allowing him to create in his writing his own unique world. His use of an Oriental frame of reference is obvious in four particular areas-- his "arabesque," his basis for feminine beauty, his knowledge of the Middle East and the Koran, and his own particular fictional world. These four topics illustrate Poe's deep indebtedness to the Middle East Poe for the richness of his allusions.

Many of the works of Poe which we already include in our classes are filled with Middle Eastern images. The stories about the beautiful maidens Berenice, Eleanora, Ligeia, and Morella demonstrate Poe's idea of beauty. These beautiful women have dark hair and dark eyes and a sense of the mysterious surrounding them, a description not unlike that of the Circassian women who were then supposed to be the most beautiful women in the world. Circassia,bordering both the Black Sea and the Caspian, bounded on the North by Russia, was famed long before Poe's day as an earthly paradise--the countryside was lovely, the men were handsome, the women superbly beautiful, and an atmosphere of complete trust existed between husbands and wives. Their nearest present day counterparts seem to be the women of Armenian Georgia and Azerbaijan. I have taught girls in Iran who looked strikingly like the description given in the 1797 edition of Encyclopedia Britannica, the most likely volume for Poe to use. Students need to know that Poe used reference works, just as they do. Part of the 1797 Britannica description of Circassia states:

This country has long been celebrated for the extraordinary beauty of its women; . . . The women (are) extremely well-shaped, with exceeding fine features, smooth clear complexions, and beautiful black eyes, which with their black hair hanging in two tresses, one on each side the face, give them a most lovely appearance: they wear a black coif on their heads, covered with a fine white cloth tied under the chin. During the summer they all wear only a smock of divers colours, and that open so low before, that one may see below their navels; this, with their beautiful faces always uncovered (contrary to the custom of most of the other provinces in these parts), their good humour and lively freedom in conversation, altogether render them very attracting: not withstanding when they have the reputation of being very chaste ....

Incidentally, a modern day novel, very popular in the Middle East, is Ali and Nino, by Khurban Said (New York, Simon & Schuster 1972), which gives a similar description of Georgian girls. Nino, the heroine, is a Christian.

Nino had a fair skin, big laughing dark Caucasian eyes under long delicate lashes. Only Georgian girls have such sweet and gay eyes. No other girls, European or Asiatic. Delicate half-moon eyebrows, and a Madonna's profile. I was sad. The comparison made me feel melancholy. There are so many comparisons for a man in the Orient. But these women can only be likened to the Christian Mirjam, symbol of a strange uncomprehensible (sic) world. (21)

Poe's little stories, "The Imp of the Perverse" and "The Angel of the Odd," are effective to compare with the Islamic idea of providence. "The Thousand-and-Second Tale of Scheherazade" contains specific references from the Koran. For poems, "A Dream Within a Dream" is simple and effective, since dreams are an important element in Middle Eastern culture. "Israfel" is also a good choice, and "Annabel Lee" (a Circassian beauty) is usually anthologized.

Many students for whom English is not a first language have already studied Poe, since his works are used abroad to teach English, so reading Poe in our courses is welcome because it is somewhat familiar. They already like his work. The stories are finely crafted and contain excellent examples of all the elements of literature. Middle Eastern students recognize the rich allusions to people and places already familiar. Poe's work also illustrates a creative mind combining Middle Eastern and Western cultural elements. Choosing Poe's work appeals to students' sense of pride in their own culture and shows how this culture is reflected in another literature. It is particularly rewarding to thus demonstrate to students and to myself the close relationships that may be discovered in very different literary traditions.

Ask Students for Help--A Good Way to Obtain Helpful Teaching Information

Most of us have Middle Eastern students in our classes. I ask them to tell me which literature from their country is available in translation--more practice for them in preparing a bibliography. Then I ask them which of the selections they have read and which they would like to read. (Or I ask them to provide a list of things they would like other students to know about their country.) Often I ask them for a journal entry telling me how they were taught literature,providing me with clues to helping them learn in our setting. I always ask students which proverbs they were told as they were growing up. In my College Composition classes, one of the assignments is to write down an anecdote, an easy assignment no matter what culture we come from. Since I ask that the thesis for this paper state the point of the anecdote, students can make the point clear, if, as they say, it is lost in transition.

I like the challenge of relating material in a different way to each class and trying to be sure each student can understand what I'm teaching. I continue to stress global concerns, and thrill when world events inform and reinforce classroom exchanges.

When a South African student was in a Survey of British Literature class, I chose July's People, by South African writer Nadine Gordimer. Lively debate with an articulate South African spokesman in class provided great cross-cultural exchange. Last fall on the morning after Gordimer was announced as the 1991 Winner of the Nobel Prize for Literature, the South African student (now transferred to another college) called to see if I'd heard the news. "I've just talked with my mother in South Africa. She doesn't really know much about Gordimer but everyone's thrilled that a South African is the recipient. I told my mother that Gordimer was a great writer whom I'd recently studied and my mother felt quite a bit better about my American education." Such moments are rewards that come as we see our students gain awareness of the richness of other cultures.

Suggestions for Middle Eastern Literature

An eclectic bibliography, leaving out Hafiz, Saadi, Rumi, Omar Khayyam, and thousands of others. The choices are especially aimed for the community college world literature course. Asterisks indicate works referred to in the article.

Attar, Conference of the Birds. (Manteq-o-Tayr).

Bible, King James Version. Joseph and Potiphar's Wife. For comparison in world literature, also use Thomas Mann's Joseph.

Behrangi, Samad. The Little Black Fish and other Modern Persian Stories. Three Continents Press. Excellent allegory about bringing about change in government

*Burton, Richard, translator. One Thousand and One Nights. New York: Chanticleer Press, 1955.

Disraeli, Benjamin. Tancred.

*Encyclopedia Britannica. Third Edition. Edinburgh 1797. Pp. 19-20.

Ferdowsi. Sohrab and Rustam. Matthew Arnold reworks the story in English.

Hourani, Albert. A History of the Arab Peoples. London: Faber & Faber, 1991. A scholarly history of the countries where Arabic is the main language and Islam the most widespread religion. Covers the period from the 7th century to the present day. Especially helpful is the section on the reassertion of Islamic identity in recent times. Current and comprehensive.

Mahfouz, Mahfouz. Cairo Trilogy.

*---------. Children of Gebelawi.

----------. Midaq Alley. Close attention to detail; good for description of Cairo.

----------. Miramar. This one is one of the better translations. Almost a prose poem with its lyrical description.

----------. Respected Sir. Easy to read and see a character similar to Willy Loman. The respected sir, though admirable for his hard work and subverting his own needs to his career, learns too late that he has missed the most important things in life. A good work to show the birth of a tragic hero in modern Arabic literature. The civil servant is often, in Mahfouz's work, a symbol of alienation.

----------. The Beginning and the End.

----------. Palace of Desire.

----------. Palace Walk.

----------. Quail in August. or Autumn Quail, depending on the translator.

----------. The Thief and the Dogs. or The Thief and His Dogs. In this one the river is an ambivalent symbol of fertility and the irreversible passage of time. There is both a sense of lust and of oblivion. The river is movement versus stasis; growth versus stagnation; movement versus progressive movement.

----------. God's World.

Nezami-yi Ganjavi, Leyla va Majnun, tran. R. Gelpke.

*Poe, Edgar Allan. The Complete Tales and Poems of Edgar Allan Poe. New York: Modern Library, 1938. (For a more thorough discussion of Poe's Orientalism, I will be happy to send a copy of my paper presented and published in Iran in 1974.)

*Qabus-name.

*Rodenbeck, John. "The Art of Translation." Cairo Today, January 1989.

*Said, Edward. Orientalism. New York: Vantage. 1979. "A convincing indictment of most Western scholarship on the Middle East, Said's book analyzes the prejudices and fancies that have marked Western attitudes toward Arabs and Islam. (`As late as 1967,' notes Said, `a Middle East scholar at Princeton published a report confidently predicting that the Middle East was about to dwindle in political importance and would hardly repay close study.')" Laura Shapiro with Ray Sawhill and Mark Miller, Newsweek, February 18, 1991, p. 62.

*Said, Khurban. Ali and Nino. Modern Middle Eastern setting with the Romeo and Juliet theme; Ali is Muslim; Nino Christian.

Scott, Walter. The Talisman.

*Yushij, Nima. The poems of this twentieth century Persian woman are often anthologized.

Zakani, Obeyd. The Ethics of the Aristocrats and Other Satirical Works. trans. Hasan Javadi, Jahan Books Co., 1985. A book of advice, similar Machiavelli's The Prince. Contains "Rats Against Cats," an animal fable about the hypocritical and tyrannical reign of Mubarek al-Din Muhammad.


Martha K. Goodman is an associate professor of English at Central Virginia Community College in Lynchburg, Virginia. From 1972-75 she taught at Damavand College in Iran and studied Persian literature. With her husband, she has led study tours to Japan, China, Hong Kong, Thailand, Egypt, Mexico, Greece, France, and the British Isles.