Academic Exchange Quarterly     Spring   2005    ISSN 1096-1453    Volume  9, Issue  1

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English Literature and Arab Students


Layla Al Maleh

Kuwait University

Visiting Scholar, University of North Carolina-Chapel Hill


Layla Al Maleh is associate professor of English literature at the Department of English, Kuwait University. Her main interest lies in post-colonial literature in general, Anglophone Arab writers in particular.



Teachers of English literature in non-Western environments may find it more challenging to bring their students to an appreciation of English literature, which offers social, moral, and cultural values different from their own. This paper depicts the experience of teaching English literature in the Arab/ Moslem world and recommends that, to avoid alienating students, literature should be taught amorally and encourage free interpretation.



The language in which we are speaking is his before it is mine. How different are the words home, Christ, ale, master, on his lips and on mine. I cannot speak or write these words without unrest of spirit. His language, so familiar and so foreign, will always be for me an acquired speech. I have not made or accepted its words. My voice holds them at bay. My soul frets in the shadow of his language

James Joyce. A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man


Teaching English literature in a non-Western environment may entail more than the usual task of interpreting a text in the light of current critical methodology, or helping students acquire analytical skills which enable them acquire an appreciation of literary works. The teacher of English literature in a cultural milieu that holds sets of values and codes of morality different from its Western counterpart finds the teaching mission both taxing and challenging. On the one hand, he/she needs to construe the text by positioning it within the cultural and social setting that originally produced it; on the other, he/she needs to relate the students to the assigned work by creating a certain degree of referentiality within their mental and emotional constructs so as to liaise them to it and trigger identification and empathy.


This, naturally, touches on the major issue of how to address the act of reading. Should not reading be viewed as an act leading to a comprehension of a certain text, hence to a cognitive end? Or should the reader/learner primarily seek an ethical use of that text? The present paper wishes to explore, through examples chosen from personal teaching experiences, the relationship between cognitive and ethical knowledge of texts taught to Arab learners of English literature. More specifically, it hopes to highlight the need to train students to read the ‘foreign’ text cross-culturally by trying to bestride the cultural divide, and traverse moral controversy.


The task is not an easy one. My personal experience as both a teacher and formerly a student of English literature in the Arab World testifies to this. Regardless of my academic status, the problem of striding worlds and bridging cultural divides seemed always to be both thorny and pressing. In my younger years, I was aware of differences that existed between the culture I belonged to and the one I was in the process of acquiring, To my simplistic mind then, I had imagined the chasm to be merely of geography and perhaps of some social habits: of trying to imagine in my mind’s eye why T.S. Eliot wrote that April was the cruelest of months or that winter had “kept us warm”; or why Shakespeare wished to compare his sweetheart to a summer’s day when ‘my’ summer was unpleasantly hot and disagreeably enfeebling of the senses. Coming from a closely knit family and a warm and affable social background with strong community ties, I also found it hard to understand Eliot’s description of the self being locked up in its own prison, each “Thinking of the key, each confirms a prison / Only at nightfall, aethereal rumours / Revive for a moment a broken Coriolanus.”


Slowly but surely, I began to parrot remarks on alienation and estrangement engendered by readings not of Eliot, who seemed to appeal to us Muslim Arabs (for his respect of the past, of tradition, and his call for a return to faith) but by other western authors and thinkers such as Colin Wilson, Albert Camus, Jean Paul Sartre, and Franz Kafka. I, the Muslim Arab, secure in religion and protected and pampered by communal ethos, was straining to identify myself with social outcasts, intellectual misfits, waiting along with nameless heroes for nameless Godots ‘metamorphosing’ with Kafka’s protagonists into new identities, preparing for a “Brave New World.”


I did not realize that slipping into the foreign western literature meant a slipping not just into the values of ‘the other’ but in their psychological ailments as well. The journey back home, which I later embarked upon, was both strenuous and exacting. In true Fanonian fashion, I had to struggle to disentangle myself from the grip of ‘the other’ and find my own hold of my own race, face and space. It took me time and energy to discover that my ‘alienation’—if ever I suffered from one, was not a Sarterian existentialist alienation, or a Kafkan verfremdung but basically one resulting from an ‘overdose’ of intellectual estrangement.


Years later I found myself a teacher of English literature at Arab universities standing in front of be-cloaked, semi-veiled students explaining to them Stephen Dedalus’s desire for flight from the ‘constraints’ of family, faith and religion to ‘forge’ his artistic career; expecting them to hail and approve. The absurdity of the situation was soon reflected in bewildered eyes, dropped jaws and disturbed looks. The whole question of anyone merely thinking of departing from faith and family was unacceptable, let alone drawing sympathetic approval or consideration. When a student of mine stood at the door of my office asking why we teach Greek ‘pagan’ literature and why we permit the circulation of textbooks with illustrations of naked gods and goddesses, it was my jaw this time that dropped. Questions pertaining to the raison d’etre of English departments, foreign literatures, etc. were naively thrust at my bewildered face. More often than not, I was speechless.


The relevance of ethics to aesthetics became a burning issue, and the task of any English literature teacher trying to break boundaries and span divides was more pressing than ever. One had to look for practical solutions to make the study of English literature a worthwhile experience for students—an experience enriching without being psychologically perturbing. One needed to offer some answers to those who began to even doubt the viability and validity of English departments per se.


On this latter point, I am more convinced than ever that English has established itself as the lingua franca in this ‘global village’ we are all heading towards. English, more than ever has become the language of communication, informatics, networking and navigation, thus binding the inhabitants of the world into one linguistic community. No doubt, teaching English language is a top priority on the agenda of any academic institution. Naturally, teaching English literature can not receive the same degree of attention. After all, the majority of Arab students in English departments , whether they pick up the linguistic track of study or the literature one, end up in vocations that mostly demand knowledge of the language itself, namely: teaching, translation, mass media, the diplomacy, etc. Even the literature taught in these departments is quite often presented as examples of the wonders of literary expression—more of a “forceful rendering of language”, as Professor John Munro asserts, or “the best manifestation of its vigor.”[1]


But “language is the most cogent and comprehensive expression of culture,” too. This is what Frantz Fanon rightly asserted in his Black Skin, White Masks: “to speak a language is to take on a world, a culture.”(38) What happens then when that world seems to hold values so very different from those of the readers, to the point that such dichotomy serves to bar enjoyment of the work and appreciation of its literary merits? What happens when readers lack a common frame of reference or fail to pin down the work’s relevance to their lives? What catharsis is there for them? What purgation? Or is it just a matter of fear and terror but no pity?


English departments in the Arab world are more or less replicas of their counterparts in the West, in the sense that they frequently stick to the canon (with occasional departures), follow more or less the same curricula and assign textbooks and reading selections not too different from those at King’s, Leeds, Warwick, or Brown. Staffed by American or English professors along with their Arab colleagues (themselves western educated), these departments hardly display any propensity towards localizing curricula by opting for that particular text, which may fare better among students of different cultural inclinations. Furthermore, by emulating western paradigms, they piously echo judgments of master critics who tend to mirror a Euro-centric vision in most cases.


The closest these departments get to adopting indigenous identities of their own is reflected in their attempts to introduce courses of comparative nature where the local and the foreign cultures are juxtaposed with a view to highlight areas of likeness or difference. The same tendencies towards bridging worlds and striding schisms are noticed in the nature of the research work conducted by the departments’ Arab staff members. Scores and scores of them have embarked on studies that address questions of acculturation, aesthetic encounters, cultural hybridity, quests for identity, images of the self in the literature of the ‘other’, and similar topics that actually characterize post-colonial discourse by and large. Other than that, the departments have remained conventional in outlook to a large extent, treading along in the footsteps of the “Great Tradition.”


Whether to teach the canon or graft some local color on it, there remains the question of how to teach English literature to students who come from a totally different cultural background and how to indulge in critical analysis of such themes, characters and plots which may project situational values of distant relevance to the readers.[2] The issue involves matters pertaining to text selection, critical approach and analysis, class stimulation, students’ participation, and, of course, final assessment.


Text selection is usually vigilantly considered by most Arab teachers of English, particularly in Gulf countries. A self-imposed censorship is often piously observed when it comes to assigning reading material or ordering textbooks. Books with radical or highly controversial subjects are quickly excluded; no “Waiting for Godot”, no “Lady Chatterly’s Lover” are ever considered, to mention just two examples. Selected works would normally run in line with what is thought least perturbing to the dominant value system of the educational environment. The same applies not only to the written text but also to auxiliary material brought into the class-room, such as video-films, audio recordings or transparencies. My attempts to show slides of Ingre’s nudes, Delacroix’s Liberty Leading the People (with her stripped bosom showing), even Michael Angelo’s David drew as much resentment as did my lectures on Darwin or the existentialists.


But what price, what cost is involved in this discriminatory practice? Is Andrew Marvel’s “To His Coy Mistress” to be excluded on account of its ‘licentious’ invitation to the pleasures of love? What will happen to Chaucer’s Wife of Bath with her promiscuous discourse on female sexuality? Even the more harmless works such as Hawthorne’s The Scarlet Letter or Scott Fitzgerald’s Great Gatsby are apt to solicit discontent ( students found it hard to see the ‘A sign on Hester Prynne’s bosom change from that of ‘adulteress’ to one symbolizing ‘Angel’ or ‘Able’; ‘sin’ was not to be exonerated , not to pass condoned) . What can happen to Ovid, to the flirtatious Restoration drama, to Milton’s Paradise Lost infused with Christian thought and belief or to violence, blasphemy and lax moral attitudes towards myriads of topics reflected in contemporary English literature? Are we to teach Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress or be content with the comedies of social manners of a Jane Austen? Worthy of notice here is the fact that Emma, for example, fares very well in Arab countries as students do not see the heroine’s interference in other people’s lives as a violation but as a completely acceptable practice; the match-maker still figures as a recognized mediator in their societies. Thus they miss the whole point of the novel.


Is this then an invitation to cut students’ minds from the reservoir of Western, particularly English literature and culture in the name of compatibility of values? Are we to teach only what has immediate relevance and bears reference to Arab and Moslem experiences? When confronted with a choice between Adrienne Rich’s poem “Living in Sin” or Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s “How Do I Love Thee?”, are we to assign the latter simply because it does not ruffle the reader’s emotions as might the ideas of adulterous relations in the former? I have heard many say, “yes”, and “by all means”, especially that this will not do the canon any harm.


To argue this, one needs to indulge in issues pertaining to the relationships of ethics to aesthetics, the moral exegesis and the literary exegesis of a work as well as to issues of educational environments.


Since a literary text is assumed to be the reflection or example of social, historical, and ideological forces at a given time and place, and since it is usually “penetrated” or “permeated” by the social, ideological, and ethical assumptions of its author or his milieu, a certain “ethical moment”, a ‘moment of recognition’ (J. Hillis Miller, 4) is expected to establish a link or highlight a similarity between such ideologies and the living practice of readers. What happens when such moment of recognition, necessary to illuminate comprehension and facilitate literary judgment, is lacking due to an absence of a suitable referentiality is that the ‘estranged’ student fails to identify with the work and chooses to dismiss it as ‘foreign’, or ‘alien’.


But does it follow that the students expect to meet characters like themselves or to whom in emulation they might liken themselves? As already mentioned, a written text is likely to churn an ethical reaction as a response to a cognitive moment of realization. This moment is value-bound as readers may be tempted to judge characters’ choices or assess themes by drawing analogies between the ethical implications of the literary works under study and their own referential value system. In other words, the question at hand remains whether the ethical act of the protagonist in the literary product corresponds to the ethical norms generated outside the book—in this case a possibly adversarial reading environment.


This argument, J. Hillis Miller in The Ethics of Reading would say, is no different from Victorian writers’ defense of realism. Trollope, for one, believed that the function of realistic fiction was to give us fictional characters on whom to model ourselves. His theory of the novel guaranteed readers that they would get their money’s value when they bought The Warden or Orley Farm .The guarantee depended on the fact that the novels would have a constructive social function, namely to reinforce the ethical values of the middle-class readers for whom they were intended.


That literature conveys an ethical message seems to be undisputed. But whose ethics? What ‘ethicity’?(to borrow a term from Derrida). And is a literary text to be approached from an ethical perspective only or mainly?


We all know that the charges against ethical judgment are legion. It is often monologic, reductive, and proselytizing and thus does violence to the aesthetic complexities in order to promote a moral agenda. It has no claim to objectivity and can never end in anything but opinion, which is not knowledge. It is frequently no more than a baseless positing, often unjust and unjustified, therefore always liable to be displaced by another momentarily stronger or more persuasive but equally baseless positing of a different code of ethics.


To the teacher of English, there is a fear, undoubtedly a legitimate one, that interpretation of the literary text from an ethical perspective may become strongly thematized to make reductive, dogmatic, monologic claims about its moral content, or take the moral component of the work as its sole theoretical and practical object. From a pedagogic point of view, teachers indubitably strain to elucidate the work without subordinating the aesthetic to the moral or the moral to the aesthetic; instead, both categories are to remain intact in choice of forms and methods necessary for textual interpretation.


Surely, any teacher of English in the Arab Moslem world knows for a fact that the first thing students look for in a story is its “moral’. They feel that the moral values asserted or implied in a literary work are worth noticing, examining, and evaluating. However, this does not imply an acceptance of any particular moral code or a particular view of moral judgment. For example, a teacher cannot assign Rousseau’s Julie because the book will be good for readers as it provides advice for husbands and wives. A practice of this nature would force us out of epistemological subtlety into ethical naiveté. Any work needs to be assessed within the context of the culture that produced it, and is not to be accepted or rejected because it does not comply with the readers’ own set of beliefs or subscribe to their code of ethics.


What is being said, then, is that there is not and there should not be one univocal interpretation of a text that depends on an endorsement of one’s own ethos and an annihilation of the rest. Nowhere in our educational practices should we shift grounds from the cognitive historical, political, and social connections of literature to merely the ethical. Questions pertaining to social or moral values of a foreign text should never be allowed to stand between the students and the assessment of the work. Besides, it goes without saying that students should not be reading books for their ethical content or import alone. They should be encouraged to look at reading as primarily a cognitive process leading to some transnational awareness of comparative ‘ethicity’. “If there is to be such a thing as an ethical moment in the act of reading, teaching, or writing about literature, it must be sui generis , something individual and particular, itself a source of …cognitive acts, not subordinated to it.” (Miller 5)


Perhaps what a teacher of English literature in a non-western environment should target as a way out of this mesh of values is to pinpoint that particular paradigm which is universally recognized by each and every one in a borderless world. Reading should go beyond the East-West, Islam-Christianity binary opposition of values and norms. A discursive formulation can be developed towards cosmopolitan views that at once respect the cultural and spiritual energies of all religions and engage the reader with tolerance and respect for the culturally different.


By reaching out for a universal truth, a teacher is doing more than reasserting the presuppositions of a certain race, religion or time in history; he is in fact confirming commonality and accord of human experience, an experience that transcends locality and forges recognizable frames of reference. In search for this paradigmatic model into which all texts can fall, a teacher traverses the geographical borders of learning.


What a teacher of English literature in a non-western environment should also reflect on is how to train students to read a text amorally without involving themselves in any moral obligation. One needs to achieve, or be capable of, intellectual or moral detachment to perceive merit in a writer whom one deeply disagrees with. Orwell disagreed with Swift’s moral sense, yet found him one of the best writers in his age. This rests on the assumption that there is a difference between acceptance and agreement. For acceptance is not so tightly related to belief. If an argument is right, then the reader can ‘accept’ the moral presuppositions of a work without necessarily agreeing with them.


This is related to what has already been stated regarding the relationship between cognitive and ethical processes or practice. It can be affirmed time and again that the reading itself should be “epistemological, cognitive, a matter of getting ‘the text right’, respecting it in this sense.”(Miller 43-44) In other words, a certain detachment or distance from the text can give the reader a better perspective; and a certain lodgment of the text within the generative forces that shaped it will allow such an amoral stance to emerge, thus minimizing any ethical differences or moral conflict.


Post-modernism can also be seen as coming to the rescue of multivocal interpretations. The very advent of newer critical approaches such as deconstruction gives way not to a univocality but to a multivocality of exegeses. Although deconstruction does not, as it is often accused of doing, advocate a totally ‘free play’ of language in the void, abstracted from all ethical, social or political effect, it invites the reader—the sole proprietor of the text, as its author has been declared dead (Roland Barthes), to make the text mean anything he wants it to mean since any meaning is as good as another.


 Such freedom of interpretation endows the reader with a certain degree of detachment necessary for recognizing a work’s merit regardless whether he/she is morally at odds with it. Muslim Arab students can then accept the text, reject it, feel suspicious about it, adopt it, or simply feel totally neutral towards it away from the hegemony of the dominant criticism which, more often than not, is western oriented. Indeed l’auteur est mort, mais le lecteur sera plein de vie.


The choice, then, for Arab teachers of English literature is not to ‘eclipse’ texts from the eyes of their students as much as to encourage them to adopt an amoral stance towards them, and to search for that universal paradigm which is found at the heart of all great literature. By doing this, students can ‘tame’ a work’s foreignness and turn it into a familiar space to which they can relate and with which they can identify.



[1]John Munroe, “Teaching English as a Foreign Literature,” a public lecture given at the American University of Beirut, Lebanon, Spring 1967.


[2]A special conference on “The Problems of Teaching English Language and Literature at Arab Universities” was held in Amman, Jordan in 1982. Participants addressed the question whether it was “risky to teach Arab students literature that poses a major problem for English departments morally, culturally, and socially; whether teaching a foreign literature has advantages; and what its moral effect might be.” See, Marwan M.Obeidat (1996) “On Non-Native Grounds: The Place of American Literature in the English Curriculum of Arab World Universities,” American Studies International, 34.1., P.19. Also see, Mohammad H. Asfour, “Cultural Barriers: Teaching English Literature to Arab Students,” or Eid Dahiyat, “Three Problems of Teaching English Literature to Arab Students at the University of Jordan,” in Eid A. Dahiyat and Muhammed H. Ibrahim, eds. Papers from the First Conference on Problems of Teaching English Language and Literature at Arab Universities (Amman: University of Jordan press, 1983).



Booth, Wayne. “Are Narrative Choices Subject to Ethical Criticism?” In Reading Narrative: Form, Ethics, Ideology, edited by James Phelan, 57-78. Columbus: Ohio State University Press, 1989.

Fanon, Frantz. Black Skins, White Masks. Translated from French by Charles Lam Markmann. N.Y.: Grove Press, 1967.

Krapp, John. An Aesthetics of Morality: Pedagogic Voice and Moral Dialogue in Mann, Camus, Conrad, and Dostoevsky. Columbia: University of South Carolina Press, 2002.

Miller, J.Hillis. The Ethics of Reading. N.Y.: Columbia University Press, 1987.

Norris, Christopher. “The Ethics of Reading and the Limits of Irony.” Southern Humanities Review 23 (Winter 1989):1-35.

Trollope, Anthony. An Autobiography. World’s Classics ed. London: Oxford University Press, 1961.