An Interview with Professor William Granara

For almost 16 years, Professor William Granara has served as the Director of Modern Language Programs (DLP) at our department. Ozzy Gündüz (G3) and Johannes Makar (G2) sat down with him to reflect on his experiences, research projects and love of Arabic and Arabic literature.


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JM: Professor Granara, in reflecting upon your tenure as the DLP at NELC, can you share your thoughts on your achievements and the challenges you faced?

WG: During the time I served as the DLP, we saw amazing growth in Arabic and to some extent in Persian and Turkish enrollments. Although there has recently been a national decrease in language enrollments and in the Humanities more broadly, NELC can still boast a strong language program, particularly in Arabic, Hebrew, Persian, and Turkish. Much to my delight, we have resuscitated Armenian and are rebuilding the program as well. We have had a Yiddish program for many years. The greatest accomplishment has been our ability to recruit a strong faculty in our language programs.

As for challenges, Harvard, like many universities across the country, is witnessing a decrease in foreign language enrollments. As I mentioned above, this decrease is reflected in the Humanities, especially as we enter into a period of STEM. The university is seemingly more interested in developing departments in those areas, so we are somewhat at a disadvantage. One of my disappointments is that over the years language faculty have been treated more and more as second class citizens of the academy.  More often than not, there is no long-term job security for many, and limited research funds. In spite of this, we do our best to recruit very fine people with strong academic backgrounds to teach our language programs, from the elementary to the advanced levels.

OG: We are curious to know what led you to work both on modern comparative literature and medieval Arabic literature?

I have always been interested in literaturePull Quote as a field of inquiry. When I went to college, I first majored in French and, of course, in my four years of French, I studied French literature. I was at the School of Languages and Linguistics at Georgetown [today, the Faculty of Languages and Linguistics] and we could choose either the field of linguistics or a second foreign language as a minor language or second language. I chose Arabic as a second language. As I progressed, I became more and more interested in literary texts. What piqued my interest was reading Camus’ The Stranger [L'Étranger] and thinking about this as a classical example of a post-World War II or a modern French novel of existential angst, of a Europe that was passing through a very traumatic century. Thinking about Camus in that way, and then starting to study Arabic, one asks the question more and more: who was that dead Arab on the beach? Eventually, studying Arabic brought new meanings to the reading of Camus’ The Stranger.

After I graduated from Georgetown, I went to Cairo in 1973 and took courses in modern Arabic literature. I think that my understanding of modern Arabic literature, and my appreciation of it, was in part influenced by my study of French literature. As much as the Arab world was opening up to me, particularly in the areas of the East, and to a lesser degree in the Arabian Peninsula, I found myself more and more drawn to the Mediterranean. So, thinking about Camus and then thinking about Arabic, I eventually came to the realization that my interests were drawn around an Arab Mediterranean world -- around Arabic literature and its experiences around the Mediterranean; around Arabic as a Mediterranean language and also as an area that interfaced very closely with French.

When I went to U. Penn as a graduate student, I began taking courses with George Makdisi, an eminent historian of medieval Islam and medieval institutions. I became even more drawn to the Mediterranean, but forty some years later, I still have not decided whether I am a medievalist or a modernist: I work in the medieval world and then I realize that I am out of touch with modernity, and when I deal with modernity, I realize that I need to return to the sanity of the medieval world. So that which really connects my academic interests, is not temporal, but geographical. That is to say, the Arab world and its interface with southern Europe, which leads me to my work on Sicily as a medial space between the two.

JM: You have published research on classical as well as modern Arabic literature, and translated a number of Arabic novels into English, including The Earthquake by al-Tahir Wattar (2000); Granada by Radwa Ashour (2004); and The Battle of Poitiers by Jurji Zaydan (2011). In what ways has the so-called turāth, or Arabic literary heritage, shaped and informed modern Arabic literature?

WG: That’s a very good question - as we say in Arabic: al-su’āl fī maḥallihi. You’ll notice that the novels that I translated in many ways touch upon the interface between the Arab world and the southern European world. The Earthquake is the story of a religious man and scion of a family of collaborators in Colonial Algeria. I became drawn to this novel after postcolonial theory hit Literary and Cultural Studies in the late seventies. Radwa Ashour deals with Muslims who lived in Granada following the reconquest in 1492. The Battle of Poitiers is a novel about the Arab conquest moving north into the Iberian Peninsula and being stopped by Charles Martel. In other words, all these novels deal with aspects of the encounter between Arabs and Europeans. What’s most crucial in these novels is that they are written against very contemporary anxieties. In a sense, one could say that understanding modern Arabic literature requires both a knowledge of the past and the present. A department such as NELC is in an ideal position to promote this.

OG: You started teaching Arabic and Arabic literature at Harvard in the early 1990s and prior to this you also taught at other institutions. Could you tell us how the field has changed throughout the last 30 years or so?

WG: When I started studying Arabic in 1969, the study of Arabic was connected very much to Area Studies. I was the product of, or the victim of, or the beneficiary of Area Studies which began in the 1950s. To study Arabic at Georgetown meant to take related courses, such as Middle East History and An Introduction to Islam. I also took a course on Islamic Art and Architecture, and a course on contemporary Arab politics with Majid Khadduri. In other words, the study of Arabic as a language was part and parcel of the study of the Arab world and Arabic studies broadly defined. It was Area Studies as a “discipline,” if I can use that word, that made this combination possible. Most of us took Pull Quotethese courses as a way of enhancing the study of language, and vice versa.  

By the time I came to Harvard in 1993, I was interested in teaching Arabic as an integral component of an Arabic Studies concentration. Up until the 1990s, a position in teaching Arabic required someone to teach three levels of Arabic, along with a possible introduction to Islam, or even an introduction to the modern Middle East history or culture. This is no longer the case, especially in the job market. Unfortunately, the positions of language teachers are gradually being regarded to that of a service contractor. A wide expansive specialization in Middle Eastern studies is not necessarily required for employment to teach language. The drawback is that we are not always able to hire a culturally literate Arabic teacher who teaches language in academic contexts. Also, they stay for just three, five, or eight years. There are no tenure possibilities, as I mentioned above, no automatic research funds; they don’t get any sabbatical leaves. They are basically hired to perform a service. For all the lip-service to globalization and the values of international experiences in higher education, the university’s commitment to foreign language education falls a bit short. I lament that our language faculty today, here and elsewhere, are not fully integrated into the academic mission of the academy.

JM: In addition to Arabic literature, you have taught courses in comparative Middle Eastern literatures. What is comparative literatures of the Middle East for you?

WG: Interestingly enough, Arabic literature continues to expand beyond its linguistic and geographical borders. One could say that this began in the 1950s when Algeria started producing what we call francophone Algerian novels. When I was in graduate school, we never recognized these as Arabic novels, even though they were dealing with an Arabic predicament, traumas, anxieties, hopes and dreams that were shared by their North African and eastern Arab neighbors. Then the Italophone novel emerged, and we now see similar novels of immigrant experiences in Portuguese and Spanish South America, not to mention the early 20th century Arabic novels penned in English by immigrants in the US. We now see Turks writing novels in German. So, the Arabic and the Middle Eastern novel trespassed its national borders, but writers still focus on Arab characters and Arab situations, Arab displacements, shifting identities, as well as dysfunctional Arab families, even if they are not necessarily happening in the native country.

Comparative literature, as an academic discipline and a university department, provides space for the teaching of novels that have these shared experiences. You first start teaching Arabic novels that were only written in Arabic, then you have to start thinking about other things: What do you do with Anton Shammas’ Arabesque written in Hebrew when it is a Palestinian-Arab novel? How and where do you deal with this? We now live in a time when we need to consider a rising number of important novels that are not necessarily penned in Arabic and not necessarily published in Arab countries. As the Arab world goes beyond its strictly defined linguistic, geographic and historical spaces, we need to start thinking about new experiences, and about new ways of reading.

As I began to read more and more Israeli, Turkish, and Persian novels, I was struck by the amount of similar themes and anxieties. For example, migration from the rural to the city is a massively destabilizing phenomenon but one that makes very rich literature. As a teacher of literature, it is exciting to watch an American student who is reading an Arabic novel for the first time, or a Persian reading an Arabic novel, or an Armenian reading a Turkish novel. There is a lot there that brings them all together. Unfortunately, the problem is still with institutional boundaries. Departments of Comparative Literature, NELC, and Oriental Studies stubbornly cling to their comfort zones, their familiar turf.  So, the teaching of something called comparative Middle Eastern literatures allows me to think about and teach the Arabic novel as being not only local, but also regional, and then eventually global. This is what makes Arabic literature all the more relevant and all the more exciting at this time.

JM: The upcoming publication of your book, Narrating Muslim Sicily (I. B. Tauris, 2019), speaks to your interest in the history and literature of Arab Sicily. What led you to write it?

Being an American-Italian, I have always had some degree of interest in Sicily within my Middle Eastern Studies education. As a graduate student studying under George Makdisi, I wanted at first to write a dissertation on the ‘Ayārūn in Baghdad. Then I shifted to the study of a little-known poet, named Sibṭ Ibn al-Ta‘āwīdhī. But there was something in the Mediterranean that was calling me back.  Since I always harbored an interest in learning Italian, and growing up in an Italian-American community, I decided to shift my focus to Sicily. It was a challenge at first, especially since there was not a lot of texts, primary and secondary, to work with.  But I must say that working on medieval Muslim Sicily has helped me to become a better Mediterraneanist, and that’s one of the things that gratifies me most.

Sicily is a peculiar place. Unlike Spain, where what is Muslim and what is Christian was clearly delineated, despite some grey areas, Norman Sicily in the medieval period brought all three cultures together by way of what historians today call the Norman Synthesis. When you go to Palermo today, it's very hard to see what exactly is Arab Muslim, Byzantine Greek, or Latin Christian, in the way that you can in Spain. This is one of the areas where Sicilians see themselves as being different from the mainland.

The fourth chapter of Narrating Muslim Sicily deals with Ibn Ḥamdīs, the Syracuse-born poet of Sicily, who lived most of his long life in exile. He left us a massive diwan that carries a very strong autobiographical voice in the poems. For another book project, I want to go back and reconstruct the trajectory of his life, drawing a chronology of his poems that preserve accounts of battles and other important historical events, and that provide us with a host of actual, historically accurate, names and places.

JM: If you were to recommend us five works, modern fiction or classical Arab works, which would they be?

That is very hard to say. I love classical Arabic poetry. I am amazed at how these poets could compose sixty or seventy lines in one meter, and say so much. Even sometimes just one line is a revelation. A seminar I took on the poet al-Mutanabbi with George Makdisi was probably the best course I had as a graduate student. As for the modern period, I see the Arabic novel as something of a replacement to the classical qaṣīda in its ability to entertain, to edify, and to document the human experience. I also see the novel as a love child between the East and the West.

More than any other genre of writing, the modern Arabic novel probably gives the most vivid accounts of the complexities of the modern Arab experience. The first novel I ever read in the original Arabic was Taha Hussein’s al-Ayyām [The Days]. Any self-respecting student of Arabic, in my humble opinion, will read it. It is possibly, after the Quran, the most beautiful piece of writing in Arabic. Novels like Bahaa Taher’s Aunt Safiyya and the Monastery [Khālatī Ṣafīya wa-l-dayr] and Abdul-Hakim Kassem’s The Seven Days of Man [Ayyām al-insān al-sab‘a] are novels that are just Pull Quoteabsolutely exquisite; these are novels that tell us so much about a people and their societies. Then there is, of course, the modern classic from Sudan, The Season of Migration to the North [Mawsim al-hijra ilā al-shimāl], which is now taught in a lot of English departments in courses on post-colonial theory. I had one of the most incredible experiences of my life. I was stuck in traffic in the backseat of a limo with its author, al-Tayyib Salih after a conference, and he and I for about a half an hour had a very nice chat. It was arguably the most delightful single half hour of my life. I mention these four novels as outstanding examples for a much larger treasure trove of Arabic fiction.

Going back to the classical period, I think that some of the maqāmāt are really magnificent. I'm also a big fan of the Arabian Nights as examples of great world literature. Medieval biographical dictionaries are interesting for their historical information, but I would not call them great reads. I once asked Abdelfattah Kilito, a very good friend of mine and former visiting professor at CMES, what he reads when he curls up in bed. For entertainment, he said, he reads al-Jāḥiẓ. I agree that reading al-Jāḥiẓ is very rewarding. He was a writer who was able to use the text as a way of getting deep inside society and talking about what makes people think, speak and write, love and hate.

OG: What advice do you have for the new generation of scholars studying the histories, societies and literatures of North Africa and West Asia?

One of the things that I worry about is that, particularly in this post-9/11 era, we think about societies, or at least the societies we study at NELC, in terms of religion or religious activism.  It does draw in a lot of students, and I understand this. But Middle Eastern cultures should be taught at least in an equal part with the great literature and culture that they've produced. I am hoping that in the future students who come to do a PhD in what we call Near Eastern or Middle Eastern studies will take a broader approach. I hope that they will allow themselves to be exposed to more creative literature. Our students and scholars should be encouraged to read the mu‘allaqāt and the Arabian Nights. They should look at literary works in addition to key religious texts. I always had wonderful exchanges with the late, my dear friend and mentor, Wolfhart Heinrichs about what to assign students to read. When I started to supervise my own graduate theses at Harvard, I insisted that all of my PhD students in modern Arabic take a section on classical Arabic, and I tried to persuade Prof. Heinrichs, as the professor of classical Arabic, to have all of his students take one field in modern Arabic. I argued that doing the one without the other was missing the whole point. I must admit that I wasn’t always successfully persuasive.

JM: You lived in Egypt for a couple of years in 1970s and also resided in other countries of the Arabophone world while many significant events unfolded. If it's true that literature functions as a lens onto society, then how has Arabic literature changed in tandem with the region's history and, if anything, what glimpses of the future does Arabic literature offer?

That is a great question. The year I participated in the CASA program in Cairo, the ‘73 War broke out. I lived through weeks of not going out after dark, seeing every window painted blue. There were pitch black nights for weeks and weeks on end. There were major shortages: there was no sugar, coffee, toilet paper or water in many cases. So, I witnessed first-hand many of the hardships that Arabic fiction’s characters endure: restriction of movement, deprivation, and fear. I shared some of the experiences which helped me to appreciate and understand the many things Arabs write about with great creativity and sensitivity.

Another example of trauma and war is the Lebanese Civil War. It lasted 15 years and it continues to spawn amazing amounts of highly creative literature. In this literature, women are more often than not the more insightful and inventive. The enemy isn't always the facile Maronite or Shiite militiamen, nor the Palestinian intruder, nor the American or Israeli agent. It is very often the negligent husband, the unfaithful lover, or an oppressive patriarchal system.

Algerians and Palestinians, who face[d] national traumas, produced works in which the foreign ‘other’ is backgrounded in the novel. The Algerians are not interested in the French when they write their novels, and the Palestinians are not terribly interested in the Israelis. Similarly, early 20th century Egyptians were not interested in the British. All of these novels are primarily interested in the bifurcated Self.

What's is continuing to happen right now in the Arabic novel is that the depth and honesty of self-examination and self-critique is increasing in sophistication. Writers are moving into areas that were once taboo. This introspection demands greater creativity. The consciousness of the novel rises higher and higher, as the writer assumes wider geographies and wider ranges of emotions, and s/he invents nuanced strategies for political expression. The Saudi Arabian novel is witnessing amazing development. One of the great novels, Ākharūn [The Others, by Siba al-Harz] is a bold experiment in storytelling in which a woman is having an affair with another woman. Her ex-husband chastises her only because the other woman happens to be a Shiite. There's a lot of humor to this, but you also understand the boldness of this kind of writing. The Iraqi invasion of Kuwait and the Gulf Wars of the 1990s spawned alternative reactions, and the national narratives are now losing ground to the novel’s ability to give voice to the voiceless.

OG: To conclude, what is up in the future for Professor Granara?

WG: As I step down as NELC’S DLP, I'm looking forward to this next academic year on sabbatical leave. I’ll spend some time in Tunisia where I am hoping to run a workshop in late September on Tunisia and Italy, combining my medieval and modern Mediterranean interests. I also plan to go to Rome in the Spring for a research project on the Tunisian literary character: Zayn al-‘Abidin al-Sanusi, who died in 1965. He's a major architect of modern Tunisian Arabic literature. He wrote two books on Ibn Ḥamdīs and that's how I got to know him. He's one of the ‘godfathers’ of my research in some ways. He was arrested by the Fascists in Italy in 1943 where he ended up spending several years. I want to find police records of his arrest. I visited archives in Tunis, and in France, Nantes, Aix-en Provence, and Courneuve in Paris, but I couldn’t find what I was looking for.  I'm thinking that I need to go to Rome now, and hopefully the archives there will have an account of his arrest. I want to write a literary biography of this man in the form of a police detective story, especially because al-Sanusi fell into a wide network of espionage that ran rampant throughout the Mediterranean world in early decades of the twentieth century.  Just as I suspect happened in the early decades of the eleventh century!

JM: We look forward to it! Thank you very much, Professor.

OG: Many thanks for this engaging conversation, Professor Granara.

WG: Thank you for your attention.




DISCLAIMER: The opinions and views expressed in this article are those of the authors and/or interviewees and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of the Near Eastern Languages and Civilizations Department or Harvard University.