Tales of literary history

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Yusuf Awadh Al-Azmi

Not long ago, a student presented a research which was required for his graduation from an academic institution in his major that is related to history.

The student presented a research that he believed to be historical in literary writing.  The person in charge of the subject was certain it was a literary essay.  There is a huge difference between literature and history.

Certainly, the grade obtained by the student was given on compassionate ground, which means the lecturer helped him pass the subject.

Far from this introductory hint on this simple article, I think that literature enters in all types of writings.  If we take history as an example, how beautiful it is to write with literary sense in a manner that touches the beauty of literature, positioning words between pieces of information, and exploring history in an integrated manner as a comprehensive event adorned with literal taste and exquisite words.

I believe history requires literal writing in order to make it easy to read, and at the same time, give it a flavor which motivates the reader to keep on reading due to the clarity of the intended meaning and expressions that enable the reader to comprehend both subtle and perfunctory contexts.

Once, I came across an eloquent expression in which history overlapped with literature to bring the idea closer to the reader and in an interestingly beautiful manner.

Omani historian Dr Ahlam Al-Jahuriyah wrote: “In a reluctant simplicity, Mrs Salima laid down feelings towards the death of her mother, loss of her father, disappointment towards her brother Majid, pride for her sister Khawla, grievance from her brother Bargash, loneliness of being in Germany and longing for her country, Zanzibar…”

In Mrs Salima’s series of emotions, she managed to merge the actual events with historical and literal touches, in addition to the choice of words and expressions which summarized various aspects of Mrs Salima’s emotions in a paragraph which, despite its simplicity, carries massive information, let alone its ability to deliver the intended purpose smoothly.

On numerous occasions, academic historians expressed their concerns about writing history.  This is evident in the book, “How to Write History that People Want to Read,” published in 2011 by Ann Curthoys and Ann McGrath.

Once again, this book echoes the silent concerns about historians who produce novels devoid of “interesting details” and “dotted with rust of antiquity.”

Definitely, the stereotype of an unreadable academic historian is incorrect.  Many historians have received major awards in literature. Others have authored works with wide popularity and influence, while others have contributed to public debate through television, radio and digital media.

In the golden days of the Egyptian television, the series “Layali Al-Hilmiya” written by famous scriptwriter Osama Anwar Okasha, depicted the reality of issues in spite of its formal imagination trait which was essential for its narrative text.

However, the series was full of historical incidents, as if it dated back to contemporary history of the local social society in Egypt where it implicitly chronicled many social relationships using the Egyptian ‘street’ as a rich field for these historical events.  Here, it appears that merging history with literature and making a mixture that allows reading history in a literary form to be convenient depends on the intelligence of the reader.

Kuwaiti scriptwriter Abdel Amir Al-Turki wrote the famous series, “Slippery Path,” which documents the Kuwaiti ‘neighborhood’ in the pre-oil era.

It seems clear that the magic of mixing history and literature is only good for a few innovators, because if the reader’s understanding of the historical event comes in a polite form with literature, the palatability of the event will be better.

Indeed, some assert that literary expression of history is useless for fear of turning it into more of fiction writing.  In addition, the possibility of suspicion on introducing imagination to embody a specific historical scene or explaining historical facts and information exists.

Nonetheless, I support adherence to clear principles and definite rules for the historian when exploring the secrets of history and its interesting events.  This is done by adopting foundations and rules based on credibility and veracity, as well as seriously dealing with source tools and references related to the event, until the historian reaches in his or her research a reasonable and appropriate result which earns the required credibility and trust.


By Yousef Awadh Al-Azmi

“Major historical events are like an iceberg, its tip floats while its actual mass hangs below the water surface, and whoever wants to discover it has to dive deep,” Egyptian Journalist, Muhammad Hasanayn Haykal (23 September, 1923-17 February, 2016).

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