2018 Keynote Speeches

Dr. Yaseen Noorani, University of Arizona

The Birth of Nationality on the Stage of World Literature: The Iliad, Victor Hugo and Arabic Poetry

World literature is a concept that is of great importance to students of non-Western languages in American universities. Yet this concept has a complicated relation to non-Western literary heritages that calls for contemplation and rethinking. The term “world literature,” famously coined by the German poet Goethe in the early nineteenth century, envisions an assemblage of European nations that find self-expression in aesthetically defined forms of composition – poetry, drama and fiction. These works find their origin and continued sustenance in the classics of ancient Greek literature. What was regarded as Oriental literature was given a place in this order, but as an exotic, terminal branch that provides only supplementary inspiration for the present. As this framework of world literature and its norms became dominant in Europe, intellectuals emerged in other areas who accepted these norms and sought to promote them among their countrymen. In many cases, the shaping of a national literature that fit into the order of world literature was part and parcel of the emergence of national identity and consciousness. In the Arabic context, devotees of Arabic poetry were reluctant to accept the prestige and literary norms of European works and thus posed an obstacle to the formation of an Arabic national literature that could take its place in world literature. Two ambitious works published in Cairo in 1904 attempted to placate Arab resistance to European literary standards by recasting the Arabic poetic heritage as central to world literature. Sulayman al-Bustani’s monumental translation of the Iliad presented this epic as the European twin of pre-Islamic Arabic poetry, while Rawhi al-Khalidi’s book on Victor Hugo made the celebrated French poet the heir of a European poetic tradition originating in Islamic Spain. These works alter the Eurocentric framework of world literature in different ways to enable the fashioning of an Arabic national literature that can fit into this order. In this way they reveal what was at stake in the incorporation of Arabic into world literature.

Yaseen Noorani holds his PhD in Comparative Literature in Arabic and Persian from University of Chicago. He has spent his career teaching at the University of Edinburgh and currently at the University of Arizona in the School of Middle Eastern and North African Studies. Dr. Noorani’s research interests focus on the relationship between premodern and modern modes of thought and representation, and on the role of literary representation in social order and values. He is the author of Culture and Hegemony in the Colonial Middle East, which investigates the transformation of social values and modes of expressing them that took place in the Arabic public sphere in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Dr. Noorani is the co-editor of Counterhegemony in the Colony and Postcolony, a collection of essays that examines the nature and limitations of cultural and political resistance in postcolonial contexts. Dr. Noorani has published articles in areas connected with these interests, including work on classical and modern Arabic literature and political thought. Dr. Noorani is currently completing a research project on the role of aesthetics and aestheticism on modern Islamic political thought, and is also constructing a project on the entry of Arabic into world literature.



Dr. Charles Häberl, Rutgers University

About the Chaldaeans:  August Ludwig von Schlözer and the Discovery of Semitic

In his 1997 novel Antarctica, Kim Stanley Robinson writes, “The life of the mind is an imaginary relationship to a real situation; but then the real situation keeps happening, event after event, and many of those events are out of our control, but many others are the direct result of the imagination’s take on things.” Historical and comparative linguists share the same utopian ideals concerning the use of experimental data, reproducibility of results, ontological parsimony, and peer review as others who identify primarily as scientists, but to what extent are our cherished axioms the “direct result of the imagination’s take on things,” and how have they impinged upon reality through their own referential and representational powers? This talk will reflect upon the 18th century Orientalist August Ludwig von Schlözer, his seminal article “von der Chaldäer” (about the Chaldæans), and the discovery of Semitics.

Charles G. Häberl is presently Associate Professor and Chair of African, Middle Eastern, and South Asian Languages and Literatures at Rutgers, the State University of New Jersey, in New Brunswick, NJ, USA. Prior to joining the Rutgers faculty in 2006, he studied at Brown University in Providence, RI, USA and Harvard University in Cambridge, MA, USA. It was at the latter institution and in the Borough of Queens, NY, that he conducted his doctoral research into the “Neo-Mandaic dialect of Khorramshahr (Iran),” which was subsequently published as a monograph in the Harrassowitz series “Semitica Viva.”

After embarking upon this first project in language documentation in 2003, he has served as a Near East Regional Editor for the Endangered Languages Catalog (ELCat), a collaborative project by the University of Hawai’i at Mānoa and The LINGUIST List at Eastern Michigan University (since 2012), a member of the board of the Endangered Languages Alliance (ELA) of New York (since 2014), and a Sectional Editor for the 2nd edition of the Encyclopedia of the World’s Endangered Languages (Routledge). Häberl's research primarily focuses upon the contemporary Mandaean community, its history, its religious tradition, its living language, and the ancient literature that has been composed in that language. He additionally investigates historical and comparative linguistics, and the vernacular linguistic and religious traditions of the Middle East, as represented primarily in the extensive corpus of magical texts produced by the Mandaean community and their Jewish, Christian, Zoroastrian, and Muslim neighbors.