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February 25th, 2010 at 7:01 am

Arab responses to Elizabeth Suzanne Kassab’s Contemporary Arab Thought

Elizabeth KassabElizabeth Kassab

How have Arab readers and critics responded to Kassab’s new book Contemporary Arab Thought: Cultural Critique in Comparative Perspective?

The book was recently reviewed in in the pan-Arab daily al-Hayat (review is in Arabic). For those who cannot read Arabic, the review, written by a leading Arab literary critic, Faisal Darraj, highlights the author’s balance between a sober assessment of contemporary Arab critical thought and an engaged commitment to it.

Darraj also notes on how Kassab measures the difficult tension between the intellectual efforts of critical thinkers and the pressures of most challenging realities, let alone on her appreciation of those efforts precisely in light of the challenges themselves. Finally, Darraj refers to the comparative perspective of the book which, for the first time, situates contemporary Arab thought in wider African and Latin American perspectives, and in so doing breaks the claims of exceptionalism and the confines of self-referentiality.

Kassab was also recently interviewed by the Lebanon-based Web site Now Lebanon. Here is an excerpt from that interview:

Q: What is the cause of “Arab malaise” according to these [critical Arab] thinkers?

Elizabeth Kassab: For a long time, people tried to give a cultural explanation for the [Arab] cultural malaise: There is something flawed in our culture, so we need to fix our culture to fix our situation. But throughout 150 years, there have always been voices saying that the problem is political rather than cultural. From the very beginning, if you start from the Nahda, for people like [scholar Rifaa] al-Tahtawi, the cause of the malaise was [lack of] political justice – as long as you had despotism, repression of human rights, then you’re not going to have a healthy country or society. In the 1930s, and also in the 60s and 70s, there were [the seeds of a] political reading of the malaise… I think that from the 90s onward, in the writings of many political prisoners… you have that political critique really being articulated… The big challenge is: How do you channel that critical spirit into politics as individuals? That, I think, is the one million dollar question.

Finally, read the introduction to the book, Cultural Malaise and Cultural Identity in Twentieth-Century Western, Postcolonial, and Arab Debates.


  1. Ana says:

    The link above to the introduction does not work – please fix!

  2. Columbia University Press says:

    The link should now go through correctly to the introduction. Thanks for pointing out the problem!

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