Traveling Underpants:

 On May Hawas’ Politicising World Literature  


Aya Labanieh


In the wake of the Arab Spring, a plethora of political satire programs sprung up across the Middle East, their sole mission being to lampoon existing regimes and their media pundits and disseminate what they felt was the real story unfolding on the ground. The story of Bassem Youssef, who left his career as a heart surgeon to start the political satire program Al-Barnameg on the eve of the 2011 Egyptian Revolution, has become familiar to many, especially with Youssef’s guest appearances on Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show and his more recent comedy tours across the United States. 

More recently, the lesser known Egyptian comedian Youssef Hussein, who aired the first episode of his Joe Show on YouTube in early 2013, has garnered considerable attention across the Arab world. Not unlike the Daily Show or Last Week Tonight, Hussein juxtaposes a variety of funny graphics with a one-man spiel from his desk, and uses these graphics as an occasion for an ingenious incorporation of popular Internet memes. In an episode that aired on September 19th, Hussein mercilessly mocks President Sisi for his claim—in response to accusations of wasteful spending and corruption by his military—that he is bolstering local Egyptian businesses. Among Hussein’s many jokes on this theme was a rendition of the viral Drake meme from the 2015 music video “Hotline Bling”, with Sisi’s face photoshopped onto Drake’s. In keeping with the meme’s format, the image depicts the president disapproving of brand-name men’s boxers in favor of “locally produced” white, diaper-like pull-up panties. While this meme is standard low-brow humor, it connects an audience of Arab viewers to a canon of social media humor that is world-wide, its ability to travel rooted in a blend of luck and resonance rather than power and violence. A black Canadian hip hop artist’s face, as transformed by various video-game forums online, becomes the lingua franca for all viewers who have access to the Internet, and becomes legible as funny to any Arab-speaker who hears the joke’s set-up, or any non-Arab-speaker who has the set-up translated. The humor the meme conveys is near universal in its pluralistic possibilities, while providing a local idiom for that universality to anchor itself: through the creative process of comedy (not so different from fiction-writing), Drake’s face, Sisi’s face, and stifled giggling over underwear humor alter the comedy canon, paving the way for Hussein to cite them as inner-text in future episodes, and for other comedians, Arab or otherwise, to access and drape them over the nether regions of their own respective demagogues. 

May Hawas’ book Politicising World Literature: Egypt, Between Pedagogy and the Public (Routledge, 2019) takes an interest in precisely this kind of global cultural exchange, this time on the level of the literary text. Hawas writes her book in defense of World Literature as a discipline that can encompass and transcend the postcolonial; that can surpass “the question of literary representation” that has stymied many an academic or political project and can venture to ask: what can these books achieve in their various “pedagogical locations in our present time?” (4).  In her view, World Literature goes beyond the binaries so integral to the postcolonial tradition without forgetting them—it absorbs the terms and contents of those binaries but asserts that the journey towards cobbling together one’s self (or one’s selves, as she insists) is not only more individually fulfilling, but more politically subversive.

The materials one uses to put together an identity become central. Identities, especially when singular, too easily become factors of necessity that absolutely determine courses of action. The moment one realizes one exists in a disadvantaged global zone, or subaltern epistemic condition, for example, one’s telos becomes to migrate from one end of that binary to the other. Canons share in this interpretative determinism. Solutions to an imperial and Western canon are often twofold: to erase what exists and replace it with a “postcolonial” or “decolonial” canon or to take the old canon and read against its grain, using the methods of Edward Said’s “contrapuntal reading” or Paul Gilroy’s “call-and-response”. Hawas acknowledges the value of these techniques, but finds them pedagogically insufficient in the context of the globalization of the cultural sphere—a globalization that has considerably decreased the “representational value” of writing, as well as the notion of marginality itself. Hawas is not convinced that any participant in the literary market of World Literature (by way of criticism or publication) can meaningfully partake in the representation or marginality that has for so long been a fashionable cultural resource. She is not convinced that the positions of academics around the world can reasonably interrogate global inequality, nor that writers contributing to World Literature (who have likely written in English all their lives, and come from middle or upper class backgrounds) have any conception of themselves as subaltern and marginalized until they stumble, dazzled and disoriented, into the global marketplace. In the same way that Gayatri Spivak once insisted that the moment a subaltern articulates themselves, they cease to be a subaltern, Hawas bluntly insists that the moment anyone enters the global market, they cease to be as representative or marginal as they (or their champions) would like them to be.

This, Hawas insists, is the “corner” into which “the postcolonial category paints itself”; a corner from which World Literature escapes by refusing to view writing as inherently distinct by nationality or local milieu (9). As a result of being produced in the world, the texts have as much a right and reason to be compared as any; the postcolonial binary possibly embedded in texts becomes one element among many, rather than a “historically determinative affinity” that ultimately undercuts the “comparative potentiality” of any text emerging from a formerly colonized nation. Between the two poles of the imperial canon and the postcolonial resistance to it (the call and the response, so to speak), Hawas finds the world itself to be missing. Given that her book centers on Egypt, she cites it as a prime example of her frustration: why can premodern literature from Egypt be read alongside a “much larger corpus of affiliated texts, ranging from the classical Mediterranen through to the Biblical and Hebraic world and Islamicate Central Asia” while modern Egyptian literature is suffocated into juxtapositions with Western texts under an almost exclusively postcolonial microscope? In a manner reminiscent of Orientalist narratives juxtaposing the glorious Pharaonic cultures of antiquity with the backward natives of the present day, the world outside colonial contact is pulled out from under modern Egypt’s feet. Instead, modern Egypt is provided one possible self to embrace or to resist, and one possible relationship between that self and those colonizing or colonized “selves” that surround it.

But to Hawas, modern Egypt is already a set of selves, colonized and colonizing and neither. Hawas thus commits herself to a project of “worlding”—or, if we take this comparative history of hers seriously—a project of “re-worlding”. To relegate colonial contact to the less glamorous role of “an element” of a text rather than a pole, she uses the method of the “third variable,” or an object of comparative study within a text that lies outside the colonial paradigm. The designation “third” is significant here; Hawas does not wish to erase the postcolonial binary and pretend as though she cannot see its relevance, but rather to move from an opposition between Self and Other to one between Self and World (15). The third variable renders the deterministic “necessities” of postcolonial identity less ironclad, without forgetting why they came to constrain the better part of the world to begin with. In so doing, this variable thrusts a share of “presence in and responsibility to the world” on the self (18). Insofar as there is room once more for the self to be fashioned rather than pre-fashioned, there is room for accountability and self-critique, which is the form that resistance takes on a world literary scale. In this, Hawas takes after Edward Said in his efforts to go beyond the “rhetoric and politics of blame” that uneven colonial relations produce on both their ends by excavating overlapping histories, and forcing the colonizer to be as much transformed by the colony as the inverse.

Thus, Hawas’ goal becomes to excavate the multiple selves within the Egyptian self. Her most brilliant instances of producing the “re-worlding” effect she intends happen when she veers into territory that traditional postcolonial scholarship would struggle with. She does so by making room in canon-formation for such a thing as “luck”, or by exposing the unsystematic interconnectedness (and the generous excess of chance encounters) of the premodern world before the colonial as we know it came to exist.

A perfect example, which also happens to mirror the Joe Show meme with which I began, can be found in chapter three. Hawas draws a complex web of explicit and implicit references and inspirations between, in the foreground, Andrea Camilleri’s detective series The Terra-Cotta Dog, Tawfik Al-Hakim’s play The People of the Cave and detective novel Diary of a Country Prosecutor, and, in the background, the shared Biblical and Quranic legend of the Sleepers of Ephesus, along with the dialectical, non-traditional theatre of Luigi Pirandello. She applies the concept of “iqtibas” (which translates literally to “lighting from another light”) to canon-formation through the creative process, because in fiction-writing (unlike in academic research) one “does not have to cite the most well-known sources; one can cite anything” and in so doing, one can transform the canon one “ought” to draw from. In gaining light from unexpected sources, the writer affirms that the potential for inspiration is all at once haphazard and omnipresent; in addition to a “taught canon” embroiled in systems of power and violence, Hawas asserts there is a “personal canon” rooted in the eccentricity and banality of subjective experience: accidental run-ins with texts, whimsical tastes, unexpected resonances with one’s unique past. This uncultivated, personal canon is what Hawas chases through Camilleri’s citation of The People of the Cave as the inspiration for his book: through citing Al-Hakim, Camilleri creates a new canon for an Italian detective novel in which an Egyptian writer like Al-Hakim features prominently, both through his cited play, his uncited but eerily similar detective novel, and his own personal canon of mythology and theatre which originally inspired him and, through him, inspired Camilleri. The iqtibas of the creative process allows World Literature to craft its own “world canon-in-the-making” that slowly escapes (or “re-worlds”) canons that are tied to nations and empires. In this I see a successful departure from the postcolonial, which is rightfully uncomfortable with personal whims and chance encounters, and hesitates to take account of the haphazard when the obliteration of entire cultures is at stake. Instead, it prefers to view colonialism and imperialism, not unlike Said’s description of Zionism, as “programs of detail.” Their deployments are systematic, premeditated, far-ranging; they prefer to at least give the lost lives and cultures of their victims the dignity of defeat rather than the arbitrariness of accident. There is little room for an author’s flights of fancy—for magical little moments like Al-Hakim hearing monks chant in the background of his play’s Italian staging and being delighted by the unintentional comparse. The formulae of postcolonial study can at times be overdetermined, can allow less room for play, less room for Internet memes to go viral because they are sufficiently slapstick, and not because they come from certain privileged regions of the world, or because they mobilize age-old racist and sexist tropes to pernicious ends (though plenty of those exist, too, and should rightfully be studied).

I struggle a bit more when Hawas frames her work as an explicit departure from the postcolonial only to carry on performing comparative analysis that can be described as traditional postcolonial scholarship. Her chapter mediating colonial binaries through the third-variable of the nation (using Waguih Ghali’s Beer in the Snooker Club and Milan Kundera’s The Unbearable Lightness of Being as main texts) fails to escape the binaries of anti-colonial struggle, no matter how vehemently the protagonists daydream about internationalist utopias as alternatives to the liberationist resistance movements they seem to perceive as hackneyed (“gimmicky” to Ram and “kitsch” to Tomas). The nation is a category routinely taken up by postcolonial academics, even if it has become more fashionable since the time of Fanon for that category to be framed negatively. Debates surrounding the nation as a necessary intermediate stage, a totalizing, overly-humanist discourse, a blanketly Western imposition that destroys “local knowledge” or local forms of imagined community (Frantz Fanon, Homi Bhabha, Christopher Miller, Prasenjit Duara) are very much alive in the discipline, and inescapably intertwined with the colonial binaries that brought about nation-formation in Bohemia and North Africa to start with. The “re-worlding” of Egypt (and the Czech Republic) that Hawas hopes to accomplish through these visions of the nation falls short of escaping what one would traditionally describe as the postcolonial—rooted in a specific period, region, and type of Manichean struggle, with varying degrees of underlying enthusiasm for the always already compromised final product. 

The same can be said for her second chapter, which reads Tsitsi Dangarembga’s Nervous Conditions alongside Leila Ahmed’s A Border Passage, with the goal of “worlding” Egypt through the “biological nation” of womanhood that collapses “multiple sites of identification” (or the multiple “selves” of the female protagonists) into a useful unifying gender identity beyond “postcolonial national formation” (80). The chapter is rife with familiar binaries: oral forms of knowledge are linked to the indigenous and female while written forms are linked to the masculine, the institutional, and the colonial; nature is linked to female labor and resistance while more modernized agricultural practice is linked to male labor and colonial exploitation; the private, informal, and hybrid (both in religious and sexual practice) is female, the public, rigid, and policed is male, and so on. The “historically determinative affinities” Hawas pitches her world literary project against are altogether untroubled (if not further substantiated and entrenched). Furthermore, to make the case that the authors’ relation to Western culture is not one of simple hate but incomplete belonging, and to claim that British canon classics become World Literature when read and “provincialized” by these African and Arab women, is to engage in straightforwardly Saidian contrapuntal reading. Hawas does the work well, but it is ultimately traditional postcolonial work that she is doing, under the heading of a different name. Perhaps she doesn’t mind this residual attachment to the postcolonial as much as she initially expected?

These critiques notwithstanding, Hawas’ Politicizing World Literature is a refreshing account of how individuals who were formed by their postcolonial conditions can exceed them through discovering the multiplicity they invariably contain, be that on the level of biology, language, history, or cultural canon. There is much to be learned from Hawas’ scholarly generosity—she makes room for contingencies most would prefer to ignore, and in so doing, reveals connections between ourselves and others that might fray our polished arguments, but enrich our presence in the world writ large. And that is a tradeoff I find well worth making.