All photographs were taken by Mike Orr.
A number of people assisted me in the writing of this paper. I wish to thank Dr Mike Orr and Professor Edgar Rosenberg, who read the final version, Dr Mustafa Shah of SOAS, who proofread and corrected the Arabic, Rachelle Askar and Mona Sahyoun, who spent time talking Dickens with me, and all my Victorian literature students at Balamand University (2007–2011) whose experience of Dickens I have tried to capture and analyse.
- 1 The article deals with teaching Dickens specifically in Lebanon, but the term “Arabia” is used rhet (...)
The Corniche at Mina
It was one of the best times (in the eyes of some people), and it was one of the worst times (in the eyes of other people). That was surely the age of wisdom and that was surely the age of foolishness. That was surely the epoch of belief and certainty. It was also the epoch of perversity, doubt, lewdness, and absence of certainty. That was surely the time of the spreading of the light and the prevalence of enlightenment. That was also the time of darkness. That was surely the spring of hope, and that was surely the winter of despair. Before us was everything and we were ascending directly approaching the sky. We also were all heading towards the abyss, the opposite way of going up […].
1This article begins with Aly S. El Gawhary’s 1999 Arabic translation of the opening of A Tale of Two Cities, followed by its translation back into English by Fatima Muhammad Muhaidat in her book A Tale of Two Cities in Arabic translation (5). We have all imbibed Dickens’s original words thoroughly, so it is a particularly stark example. As you see, the Arabic version involves both deletions and additions. El Gawhary qualifies the superlative “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times.” He puts in brackets a number of explanatory phrases (“in the eyes of some people”), uses a series of three words (perversity, doubt, lewdness) which Dickens does not use, lending a different connotation to Dickens’s use of “incredulity,” and decides against “we had nothing before us,” breaking with Dickens’s original antithetical arrangement. And in the last phrase El Gawhary avoids the direct allusion to Heaven or to “the other way,” as Dickens puts it.
- 2 Munir al-Ba’labakki is the best-known translator of Dickens. His version of Oliver Twist (Beirut: D (...)
2Muhaidat tells us that the audience of El Gawhary’s translation here, are Arab students of the English language—perhaps accounting for the use of slightly laboured explanations, clarifications and departures from the original (6).2 But the differences also make for some interesting and creative new meanings—which, it is to be hoped, will elicit further research in due time.
3This is, then, an example of what Regenia Gagnier calls a “transculturation” or even a “re-accentuation” of Dickens in a global context (83). Given Dickens’s fascination for and anxiety towards the East, it is most interesting to assess how he is received in the East, or more particularly in Arabia, and more particularly still in an Arab country—Lebanon.
- 3 Antony Johae, “The Reception of Dickens: From his First English Readers to his Present-Day Arab Rea (...)
4Thus this paper concerns the reading and teaching of Dickens in the North Lebanon city of Tripoli, where I had a full-time teaching assignment in 2007. While Antony Johae has written a wide-ranging essay on the reception of Dickens in the Arab world,3 as far as I can tell, this is the first analysis centred upon the teaching of Dickens in north Lebanon. The aim is to outline a number of possible questions with respect to the student response to Dickens and to generate approaches to the issue of whether Dickens should still be taught and read in a country such as Lebanon in this post-colonial age. This study represents what Juliet John in her piece on “Global Dickens” calls “piecemeal” or “anecdotal” evidence concerning the reception and engagement with Dickens in a country with very different cultural traditions and intellectual contexts from that in which the original work was written (503).
5My interest in the topic began with my teaching assignment in Tripoli, when I was hired to teach nineteenth-century literature in English to Lebanese undergraduates. My students were Arabic speakers and English was either their second or third language. The students came from a number of sectarian backgrounds, but were mostly Sunni Muslim or Christian, representing a fairly good cross section of middle-class Lebanese society in North Lebanon. All came from what one could call a middle-class, relatively wealthy background, since they could afford university fees.
- 4 It also resulted in the setting up of a student Women’s Studies Group, which debated women’s issues (...)
6My teaching approach was not based upon any particular theory, although it clearly took place within a post-colonial context and was informed by post-colonial theory. The idea of teaching nineteenth-century English Literature in Lebanon did pose a real challenge in terms of negotiating the problem of Eurocentricity; and while this problem remained essentially unresolved in my mind, I took an interest in examining the role literature could play in tackling cross-cultural issues and promoting intercultural understanding, an approach that resulted in, among other things, the present paper.4 I did not deem it appropriate to set up a controlled environment or apply a specific methodology to gather data for the project. The aim was not to conduct any kind of social scientific experiment. What I was interested in doing was teasing out the kinds of literary meaning, if any, Dickens’s texts had for Lebanese students.
7The aim was to introduce Oliver Twist to students, and to engage with the text and discussion in classes, creating an intercultural encounter between Lebanese students of today and the nineteenth-century English writer par excellence, Dickens, often seen as the epitome of Englishness.
- 5 Edward Said, in Orientalism (London: Routledge, 1978), examines Western discourses, representations (...)
8Edward Said’s concept of “Orientalism”5 was known to the students, although it was taught by another teacher in other classes, and it was unclear how much the students had assimilated and synthesised the theory. In terms of my approach then, I did not bring up Orientalism immediately in case it dominated the discussion, preferring to see what students themselves offered in terms of an engagement with Said and the text.
- 6 I decided against teaching Barnaby Rudge (1841), Dickens’s fictional account of sectarian conflict, (...)
9I was struck by how enthusiastically students embraced Dickens’s novels and particularly Oliver Twist.6 They knew the story and characters from film versions. To some extent, they expressed surprise Dickens was on the academic syllabus, because they understood Dickens to be mainly a creator of a popular form of entertainment, which appealed to a mass audience—not a writer of material to be critically analysed in universities. But they were adamant that, despite writing in challenging English and describing the life of a nineteenth-century metropolis thousands of miles away, Dickens spoke directly to them. The task was to explore exactly how Dickens appeared to do this.
10Students claimed they enjoyed Oliver Twist because Dickens was not afraid to criticise English institutions, England’s commercial and industrial practices and its social conditions. They instinctively took to Dickens’s political sensibility, his explicitly expressed views—delivered as satirical comment or as direct and angry addresses to the reader—his attitudes toward particular policies, like the workhouse.
11The critic and poet Antony Johae goes as far as to identify Dickens’s social conscience and its explicitly reformist agenda as being of primary importance to Dickens’s relationship to his Arab readership and their politics: “the advocacy of solutions for social amelioration, has the effect of endowing Dickens’s novels with an exemplary integrity [...] the prioritised social trajectory of Dickens’s criticism has proved to be meaningful in the reformation of post-colonial societies in the Arab world” (330). Dickens’s brand of social criticism, then, was an encouragement to his post-war and post-independence Arab readers—and was something they both needed to hear, and related to.
12Among themselves, the students also decided that the themes of poverty and urban hardship were especially important, because although comparatively well-off, they came into close contact with them in their lives. These were the issues they kept returning to as being their contact with Dickens. One of my students told me:
If you compare the Lebanon of 1940s and now, it’s a catastrophe! People were so open-minded and the Islams lived happily with the Christians. Nowadays in Lebanon and especially in Tripoli, the situation is very bad. There are more than 65% of the population poor, uneducated and unemployed. Well, honestly, Dickens would be very sorry for the condition of this country and Tripoli as well, and he’d make this clear in his novels. He’d want something done about it, and so do we. (Rachelle Askar, interviewee)
13The social distortions and hardships that Dickens depicts, and which attend a burgeoning capitalist world whose rampant economy is rapidly changing, was something students experienced in Lebanon: “Dickens shows huge affluence next to terrible poverty. We see that here in Lebanon. That’s what makes him so relevant to us and shows us he understands the terrible cost of development in the modern world” (Mona Sahyoun, interviewee). So Dickens’s depiction of poverty and hardship and his demand for reform was considered arresting because scenes of extreme poverty are conspicuous in Lebanon, and desire for reform and change is very strong. The way in which Dickens represents cases of poverty generated a reaction in the Lebanese students which was equally significant.
- 7 Workhouses became more central as a result of the Act. They were organised so that existence for oc (...)
14Oliver Twist is a sentimental novel and Dickens brings to bear lashings of feeling, pathos and sentimentality in his exposé of the institutions and their philosophies that allowed the poor and needy to suffer unnecessarily, advocated laissez-faire or even worsened the paupers’ agony (the Poor Law Amendment Act, 18347). The eighteenth-century tradition of sentimental writing was always meant to affect the reader. The deathbed scene was a test of fine moral feelings, wrought to elicit sympathy and emotion, to teach the good Christian how to die well.
15Dickens’s version of this tradition, the dying child and his companion, the suffering orphan, or the fallen and battered woman, were powerful tools utilised to move an audience to feel and sympathise, generating anger, tears, a change of heart, a moral judgment and social reform. Scenes with Oliver and the dying Little Dick in Chapter 7, Oliver’s regular fits of crying, his fainting away at the sight of the portrait of his mother, and Nancy’s situation, are all honed to elicit kindly feelings and sympathy in both characters and readers. The dominant quality here is, of course, vulnerability. Dickens, who experienced the fearfulness and powerlessness that poverty entails, has the insight and boldness to represent vulnerable characters and situations where the poor, and particularly children, are at the mercy of a harsh economic system and industrialising world, as well as of the Utilitarian philosophy that underpinned it. All of this awakens sympathy in the reader. Besides sympathy, and even tears, such scenes also, at times, elicit laughter. The comedy that can nestle in the kernel of the tragic situation can result from a character’s ineptitude in the face of his state of affairs, an inappropriate or clumsy action, or from situations where the reader intuits that the character knows less than we do, or is totally unaware of his/her circumstances, how they came about or how to control them. This sort of vulnerability warms the heart, and can be the source of compassionate identification that draws meaning and laughter from that very connection. It is the kind of vulnerability essential to the Tramp, and to the clown, something Charles Chaplin appreciated in Dickens and would use to such great effect in his own work. This is a kind of politics of sentimentality or a politicising of pathos, and it is at the heart of Dickens’s project.
16According to Dickens, sympathy teaches individuals how to act morally and guide governments towards the moral good. It is a valuable quality, almost akin to holiness when directed towards poor vulnerable children, but it is rarely shown by the powerful and is more often than not manifested by the poor themselves towards their peers. The poor folk (the turnpikeman and the old lady) who offer Oliver help on the road, like the grandmother who dresses Nell’s bleeding feet in The Old Curiosity Shop, or the woman who supports Jenny when she loses her baby in Bleak House, show a sympathy that is only to be understood by them and by God, as Esther’s first-person narrative states, when she watches the woman comfort her friend: “how the heart of each to each was softened by the hard trials of their lives. I think the best side of such people is almost hidden from us. What the poor are to the poor is little known, excepting to themselves and GOD” (161).
17Lebanese students did not have any problem with Dickens’s moral tone, or with his expressive narrative voice or novelistic interventions that made clear moral judgments and emotional appeals with respect to this or that fictional event. For the critic Antony Johae:
The clearly enunciated criticism, the voicing of moral precepts, and [...] the prominence of sentiment in Dickens has always been regarded as a great strength of his fiction, no doubt because it is thoroughly in tune with Arab sensibilities. The expressiveness not only of Dickens’s narrators, but also his fictional characters, has had, for the Arab reader, the effect of reinforcing the sincerity with which the author projects his ideas, rather than as with many modern Western readers, creating an impression of an over-emphasised rhetorical strategy. (332)
18Hence, what Western critics might see as the unpalatable effect of high Victorian sentiment—the cloying nature of a story of an orphan child and his knock-backs and his being miraculously restored to the middle class at the end—were not in fact issues of “truth” or “realism” for my students. They were authentically felt, subjectively wrought representations, which were entirely legitimate and moving for the reader. Moreover, they were convincing, since such interpretations of the world were simultaneously “possibilities” or even “probabilities,” which Dickens sensitively depicted. They gave a dignity to events, such as the death of a child, the loss of one’s parents or a reunion with a relative. Other students viewed sentimental choices and scenes as powerful emotional fictions that make a point about the world’s injustices.
- 8 The 1989 Taif Agreement created a power-sharing framework called the National Pact, whereby Lebanon (...)
- 9 See media critic Elisabeth Anker’s similar analysis of melodrama within American Culture: “Melodram (...)
19If sentimentality is acceptable to the Lebanese palate, the clear-cut highly emotional and Manichean worldview of melodrama is also an element they are thoroughly familiar with. It is almost as if the melodramatic worldview, the broad brush and the black and white colours it delineated, were a lens through which post-Civil War Lebanese students experienced their everyday life. This lens seemed to help them negotiate the extreme social injustices and sectarian conflicts all around them, those conflicts and injustices of the past and those of the present. To the outside observer, Lebanese culture seems dominated by political sectarianism, and is pervaded with heightened emotions, both explicitly displayed and implicitly present. None of this is surprising in view of the ordeal of the Lebanese Civil War, which lasted 15 years and claimed many lives in one of the most brutal sectarian conflicts imaginable. Hence, in a country that has undergone such suffering, and continues to struggle with political violence of all kinds, it is logical that political discourse should dominate, and that the sectarian worldview should be built into the very structures of society. This division—or honouring of the differences of the many sects—depending on your point of view, holds not only with respect to how parliamentary representation is organised,8 but in terms of how the media work too. Rival Lebanese parties have a firm grip upon newspapers and TV channels—Hezbollah influences Al Manar TV, the Lebanese Forces holds sway with MTV Lebanon. The melodramatic contours are traceable, one could suggest then, in the heightened emotion that feeds into media coverage of catastrophic and extreme events, such as bombings or assassinations, and its descriptions of figures across the political divide as heroes and villains. So while the melodramatic qualities within Lebanese life take on a decidedly more serious complexion when seen in this light, Dickens’s use of this mode in his texts is like mother’s milk to the Lebanese students.9
20The readiness of students to accept a portrayal of a character, such as Fagin, as villainous, without an immediate tendency to scrutinise its meanings too closely, or to think critically about it, is perhaps understandable within this wider context. Some gifted students did comment upon the grotesque nature of the portrayal, while others claimed not to have recognised the character’s Jewishness as an important factor. Other students expressed an interest in, and even surprise at, the idea that modern Western criticism would view such a delineation as problematic and antisemitic.
- 10 This is a complex issue. Murray Baumgarten goes on to wonder “whether the situation of Jews in Engl (...)
- 11 Israeli ground troops invaded Lebanon in summer 2006, and an air and naval blockade ensued. A peace (...)
- 12 Edward Said notes that part of the legacy of colonialism and the chaotic, distorted world stage it (...)
21In further discussions, it became clear that part of the Fagin issue for the students was the problem of genre, a hesitancy on their part—being as yet relatively unfamiliar with Dickens and his complexities—as to whether or not to view Fagin as a comic, exaggerated and cartoonish creation, at variance with realism, in the mould of a Daniel Quilp, and therefore as an enjoyable villain. In a way, they hit on a complex issue, brought to light by Murray Baumgarten, when he wondered whether we should “regard Riah and Fagin as the Jewish versions of […] melodramatic antitypes?” (n6, 174).10 It is also worth pointing out that, according to the critic Nur Sherif, the rendering of the slang of Fagin and his cohorts can appear farcical in classical Arabic, meaning students who read the Arabic translation of Oliver Twist might view Fagin as comic (18–19). But another facet of the issue was Lebanon’s geo-political situation with respect to Israel, their historical hostilities, and the relatively recent invasion of Lebanon by Israel.11 The students’ cultural co-ordinates were firmly anchored within this context and this meant that a literary portrayal of a Jew as villainous sat fairly easily, at least initially, with a (melodramatic) view that Israel (and its people) were to be seen as an enemy.12 On learning that Dickens was challenged about the portrayal of Fagin, and later produced the wise and good Riah in Our Mutual Friend in answer to this criticism, students became interested in the idea that people in a different historical epoch negotiated racial stereotyping, something the students thought was confined to the post-colonial complexities of the contemporary world. Hence, this became another connection with Dickens and Dickens’s text was having a bearing—across cultural and historical space—upon the “localism” of the students’ experience of modernity.
22The narrator’s description of the workings of the melodramatic mode, which is an important feature of Oliver Twist, provides a possible clue as to the Lebanese position with respect to melodrama:
It is custom on the stage, in all good murderous melodramas, to present the tragic and the comic scenes, in as regular alternation, as the layers of red and white in a side of streaky bacon. The hero sinks upon his straw bed, weighed down by fetters and misfortunes; in the next scene, his faithful but unconscious squire regales the audience with a comic song [...]. Such changes appear absurd; but they are not so unnatural as they would seem at first sight. The transitions in real life from well-spread boards to death beds, and from mourning weeds to holiday garments, are not a whit less startling; only there, we are busy actors, instead of passive lookers-on, which makes a vast difference. (160–68)
- 13 See Andrew Wander, “Soap operas have become part of Ramadan tradition,” Daily Star 3 Sept. 2008.
- 14 Holly Furneaux, Queer Dickens: Erotics, Families, Masculinities (Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009); Kelly Ha (...)
23The Lebanese who, as it were, ingest the melodrama of Oliver Twist, or television soap operas, from the outside,13 enjoy the extravagant “red and white” of the “side of streaky bacon” with a self-consciousness about the form’s extreme, vigorous brush strokes, while also knowing first-hand the precarious nature of life and the brutal reversals of fortune. The Lebanese, then, appear remarkably advanced with respect to understanding the comic relief of melodrama, experienced from a distance. The other theme Lebanese students are at home with is Dickens’s belief that the individual flourishes most effectively within a family or an extended family group. Where Western cultural trends have seen the family unit giving way to other forms of social collectivity, in Lebanon. Family is still the centre of identity and status. Despite the more recent critical approach that debunks the notion that Dickens’s interest in families is limited to the depiction of the heterosexual reproductive unit,14 Lebanese students insisted upon maintaining this blueprint as the one they were interested in. The students had imbibed the popular notion that the one model of the family the Victorian novelist represents is the heterosexual family headed by a strong benevolent male or paterfamilias—and it was here that their affinity with Dickens’s description of the family began. Their initial leanings towards this idea were not modified by the fact that Mr. Brownlow adopts Oliver; nor by the idea that Oliver’s parents’ less than successful relationship ended in his mother’s death in a workhouse.
- 15 There is a venerable and very active Women’s movement in Lebanon and a great tradition of feminist (...)
24The travails of females within a fairly curtailed context was of interest to both male and female students. Marriage is still a serious institution in Lebanon and, for men, social norms demand that the bride be a virgin. For the students, the position of Nancy and the contrast of her treatment with, say, Rose Maylie, are instantly recognisable as an example of the virgin/whore dichotomy. Both female characters were treated sentimentally in the novel, another point of affinity with Lebanese culture. Where the restrictions of Dickens’s women within a patriarchal system involve assumptions and struggles that are for the Western female reader quaintly remote, to the Lebanese reader, meanings concerning the status of women and family are strikingly relevant.15
Hablot Browne’s plate of Tom-all-Alone’s for Bleak House
Dickens’s Oriental City?
Street Scene — Mina
- 16 Whether Dickens’s urban walking can indeed be called flânerie, and Dickens considered a flâneur, is (...)
- 17 See Chapter 4 of my Dickens and Benjamin: Moments of Revelation, Fragments of Modernity, 143–207.
25Dickens’s delineation of the city of London was a constant topic of discussion in the classes I taught. Dickens’s cityscape was seen as remarkable and when I told the students about Dickens’s walking habits, and the profound relationship that holds between walking, seeing and writing for him, as well as the idea of flânerie and the creative production that results from it, they were intrigued.16 They were intrigued, not so much with walking in the city per se, which the population of Tripoli regularly does, in the Souk, passing among magnificent ancient world heritage sites and edifices, along narrow labyrinthine bi-ways, to the modern shopping precincts and offices and above them, to their own apartments. The Lebanese would walk in the late balmy evenings, along the Corniche at Mina (Tripoli’s port overlooking the Mediterranean) after a late meal. The students were inspired by Dickens’s walking because it is a mode of production, a repetitive activity, a physical journey that creates a mental narrative. It would not be going too far to claim Dickens’s walking was, as it were, a vampiric activity, since he was feeding off the abrupt events, the infinite variety of life around him. The city’s palimpsestic textuality made its way into Dickens’s texts.17 What could be called a compulsive need for urban walking by the writer was, I think, fascinating to them.
26One of the students was surprised to hear Dickens had never visited Lebanon or anywhere in the Holy Land or the Middle East, since some descriptions of London sounded, he claimed “a bit like Tripoli,” the city he visualised while reading Dickens. It was suggested that Dickens sometimes “travelled” in his dreams, recounted in his 1852 essay “Lying Awake” (88–94); but alas Tripoli was not one of the places “visited.” Hence we set about thinking through the possible oriental aspects, if there were any, of Dickens’s London. There are three areas to explore here: Dickens’s walking and London’s ability to generate dreams of travel and the exotic; a reading of Oliver Twist in view of Dickens’s childhood reading; and London’s porous identity as the centre of the Empire.
- 18 Also quoted by Laura Peters, Dickens and Race, 90.
27London was Dickens’s magic lantern, the phantasmagoric display within which he could circulate, walk and dream, his daily perambulations an indulgence of his love of adventure, as well as a vital source of energy and production. London was the physical landscape where the exotic, the unknown and the “Other” existed cheek by jowl with the familiar and the mundane, so that the (travel) narratives that came out of walking in it were simultaneously realist representations of the physical city and imaginative/fanciful constructions. The physical space of London, then, combined with his childhood reading, prompted Dickens’s exotic dreams of far-off places. He finds in the city: “Mosaic Arabs,” “a vast emporium of precious stones and metals,” “foreign fruit and spices,” Bedouin Baring Brothers who “travelled with caravans” to “valleys of diamonds,” where the merchant and banker population was a “compound of Mr Fitzwarren and Sinbad the Sailor,” and his companion Rothschild “had sat in the Bazaar in Baghdad” winning the heart of “a veiled lady from the Sultan’s harem” (“Gone Astray” 160).18 Students had little to say in response to these passages: a moment where the question of Orientalism could have arisen. One student did comment that rather than capturing a reality or specificity of Arab life and culture within this depiction, Dickens had lapsed into fairy-tale discourse. Another student asserted that Dickens did not intend to allude to the real Arab world.
28The physical sensation of walking or travelling speedily by train equally generates a turn to the exotic to capture the experience, as is exemplified in the essay “A Flight,” Dickens’s paean to rail travel: “So I pass to my hotel, enchanted; sup, enchanted; go to bed, enchanted; […] blessing the South Eastern Company for realising the Arabian Nights in these prose days, […] as I wing my idle flight into the land of dreams” (35).
- 19 The Arabian Nights Encyclopaedia asserts that Dickens’s love of One Thousand and One Nights “spiced (...)
- 20 In terms of Dickens’s reading of One Thousand and One Nights, the “Inventory of Contents of 1 Devon (...)
29As is clear, One Thousand and One Nights is a huge influence here. “Again and again he has put the spirit of the Arabian Nights into his pictures of life by the river Thames,” says George Gissing (33).19 And Michael Slater tells us, “The Nights” represented childhood’s magic and pleasures, it was often invoked to represent wonder, mystery and glamour in Dickens oeuvre, something that can be traced in Dickens’s city (130).20
30One can see this in a reading of Oliver Twist—in this instance we were deliberately practising Orientalism, as an exercise meant to show how an Arabian Nights reading may arguably apply to Dickens’s early novel. Like the Occidental in the oriental city, all Oliver’s former assumptions and experiences are useless in preparing for what confronts him on arrival in Barnet. Vertiginous with crowds, energy and speed, the city offers shapes and sounds which are unreadable, and signs which are uninterpretable. Strangers do not speak to Oliver but eye him like an exotic bird, and the Dodger does not speak his language. Meanwhile, the route to the spice-named Saffron Hill (Fagin’s lair) is via a cluster of dark narrow walkways and labyrinthine alleys whose repetitive intricacy resembles the geometric patterns that are such a feature of Islamic art. This dark city, like those of the Orient, is comprised of anonymous passageways, and dark, secretive spaces. On entering Fagin’s lair, Oliver enters a black cavern lit by a bubbling cauldron, surrounded by eyes and overseen by a kind of magician or djinn wielding a magic wand, who administers him a potion that puts him to sleep (106) and in a dreamlike state, he spies the magician turning muck to gold.
Near to the spot on which Snow Hill and Holborn Hill meet, there opens, upon the right hand as you come out of the City, a narrow and dismal alley leading to Saffron Hill. In its filthy shops are exposed for sale huge bunches of second-hand silk handkerchiefs, of all sizes and patterns; for here reside the traders who purchase them from pickpockets. Hundreds of these handkerchiefs hang dangling from pegs outside the windows or flaunting from the door-posts; and the shelves, within, are piled with them […]. (235)
31One agrees with Andrew Long when he writes of this passage:
the quarter where they wind up is clearly a kind of ghetto, replete with casbah-like small streets and suspicious characters who furtively dart here and there […] since Fagin is a Jew, and thus of the “Orient,” then his crew of child thieves are surely “street Arabs,” while even the slums they frequent assume an “Oriental” character. (148)
32Fagin’s lair is a Bedouin encampment of pariahs, replete with exotic silks and calicos, an oasis to the Nargileh-smoking street boys. The outside world, the city, for Fagin’s tribe, is a hostile environment, a desert, where careful knowledge and a keen hunting sense will yield up rich pickings and sweetmeats.
- 21 Grace Moore’s Dickens and Empire; Laura Peters’s Dickens and Race; and Priti Joshi’s “Mutiny Echoes (...)
33Dickens’s anxious stance towards the East pervades the text, and some excellent studies have treated Dickens from a post-colonial perspective.21 The underworld’s status as abject and its opposition to the bright and modernising “overworld” in Oliver Twist is clear. Its oriental traces must be seen in relation, then, to abjection. In Edwin Drood, the East End is the East (Moore, Dickens and Empire 183)—and there is even a suggestion that in smoking one opens oneself up to the danger of being transformed into an Oriental Other; as John Jasper, hooked on the ultimate oriental substance, frequents the opium den surrounded by London’s immigrants.
34Edward Said argues that: “Partly because of empire, all cultures are involved with one another; none is single and pure, all are hybrid, heterogenous” (xxv). Nineteenth-century London’s identity, then, was naturally porous, open to influence. It was the cosmopolitan centre of Empire, a dynamic, kaleidoscopic site of rapidly moving people and traffic and goods, with imperial commodities flooding in from the rest of the world. And Dickens, as if anticipating this globalising, hybridising effect of Empire, invents a beautiful “sands of history” metaphor to describe this phenomenon in his essay “Down with the Tide,” of February 1853: “Some of the component parts of the sharp-edged vapour that came flying up the Thames at London might be mummy-dust, dry atoms from the Temple of Jerusalem […]” (113).
35It is not surprising that Dickens’s London is full of returning exiles—criminals, business men and sailors—and that he also represents in abundance “the accumulation of imperial artefacts, commodities and detritus” (Moore, “Turkish Robbers” 75) which constantly returned back to the centre and with which London seemed increasingly awash.
Just round the corner [from the House of Dombey] stood the rich East India House, teeming with suggestions of precious stuffs and stones, tigers, elephants, howdahs, hookahs, umbrellas, palm trees, palanquins and gorgeous princes of a brown complexion sitting on carpets, with their slippers very much turned up at the toes. Anywhere in the immediate vicinity there might be seen pictures of ships speeding away full sail to all parts of the world. (Dombey and Son 32)
36The notion that Dickens’s London is “a bit like Tripoli” then, is not as far-fetched as it may initially appear. Dickens’s own productive methods meant that walking in London was the necessary objective correlative for him to create an “Oriental” city traced through with his childhood reading and his adult imagination, his dreams and his memories. The criminal underworld of Oliver Twist, at least at a schematic level, reveals that The Arabian Nights was an influence and it is clear that the depiction of its “otherness” is laced with an anxiety about “the Orient.” And London’s imperial status meant that the London Dickens walked in, day and night, was saturated by the peoples, refugees and goods from the Empire, including those from the East—which made their way onto Dickens’s pages.
37So much for Dickens’s “Oriental” London. It was time, said the students, to take a walk in Tripoli. What, if anything, could Boz or The Uncommercial Traveller tell us about wandering in the city of Tripoli? And what could we in turn learn from Dickens’s productive practices, and his narrative strategies? Ahead of the British Council’s bicentennial call for urban wanderers all over the globe to walk their cities and imagine what Dickens would say about this experience, we decided to do so (John 504).
38Tripoli is Lebanon’s eastern-most port with a population of over 500,000 mostly Sunni inhabitants. It is an incredible palimpsest of historical conquests with traces hailing from the prehistoric period through to the Ottoman rule of the nineteenth century and up to the present time. Upon the enormity of this temporal and spatial stratification, the current city nestles.
39Dickens’s London in the mid-nineteenth century was, like Tripoli, an ancient city, which had not undergone Haussmannisation, and, like Tripoli, was a place where “the pre-modern and irrational persists in twisting, nearly unmapped and impenetrable, older sections of the city” (Long 147).
The old town by the river Tebbeneh, Mina, Tripoli
“the pre-modern and irrational persists in twisting, nearly unmapped and impenetrable, older sections of the city.” Long, Reading Arabia, 147.
40The point was to walk, in a sense, in Dickens’s shoes, to come across unexpected events and sensational scenes, to get a grasp of how Dickens’s assimilation of these urban fragments resulted in the sort of rapid sketches, and highly visual urban narratives the students found so arresting. While Dickens sometimes compared himself to a “camera” recording shots of existence, he saw London with its moving images as a “Magic Lantern.” And from Eisenstein onwards, film scholars have repeatedly observed his uncanny ability to evoke movement, discontinuity and other proto-filmic techniques in his urban delineations. As one critic puts it: “His camera eye peers at London and reads it, so that London becomes a literary text. As Raymond Williams maintains, for Dickens the experience of the city and his narrative method coincide, making his vision the only possible form of writing” (Cremonesi 199).
41If this were not enough, Dickens provides passages representing the psychological and emotional processes of seeing, thinking and walking the city: “It made my heart ache to think of this miserable trifling, in the streets of a city where every stone seemed to call me, as I walked along, ‘Turn this way, man, and see what waits to be done!’ So I decoyed myself into another train of thought to ease my heart” (“The Uncommercial Traveller: Wapping Workhouse” 51).
Market and old car lot, Mina, Tripoli
“Turn this way, man, and see what waits to be done!” (“The Uncommercial Traveller: Wapping Workhouse”).
42He even provides an account of the guilt that the privileged walker, the “poverty tourist,” feels in the face of the suffering of the poor: “We […] felt intrusive and out of place [...] between us and these people there was an iron barrier, which could not be removed” (Bleak House 159). Was it possible, then, for the Lebanese city of Tripoli to be somehow “recognisable” to my students and to a foreigner, like me? Did this pocket of tenement poverty resemble Tom-all-Alone’s?
A Lebanese “Tom-all-Alone’s?”
- 22 Tom-All-Alone’s is Jo’s dwelling, a ruinous hovel described in Chapter 16 of Bleak House. Staggs’s (...)
43Did that dilapidated neighbourhood bring to mind the description of Staggs’s Gardens?22
Stagg’s Gardens — Boz
Would the passage describing Staggs’s Gardens from Dombey help us see Mina afresh? Or should we, like Boz, walk, read the city and write our own Sketches?
- 23 Bleak House, Chapter 19; Little Dorrit, depiction of Marseilles at the opening of the novel. Marsei (...)
- 24 “More quickly than Moscow itself, one gets to know Berlin through Moscow.” Opening line of Benjamin(...)
- 25 Forster tells us that, impressed by the description of Covent Garden in George Colman’s Broad Grins (...)
44Is it convincing to claim that dozens of Tripoli shops ornamented with a bird in a tiny wooden cage remind us of Miss Flite’s home in Little Dorrit? Or that pictures of Marseilles in the scorching heat in Little Dorrit can be used to describe an afternoon stroll in Mina perfectly?23 Can one learn anything about life in an Arab city like Tripoli, through an engagement with Dickens’s fictional London wanderings—or is this a purely Orientalist activity? One way to defend it would be to say that one cannot but approach a city via a multitude of textual cities. For Walter Benjamin, real or imagined cities throw light upon one another reflexively.24 This observation holds despite, or even because of, differences between cities. Counterfactuals in one city lead to an uncovering of information in the other city that might otherwise have remained overlooked. So the exercise of wandering in Tripoli and finding a familiar city, recognisable through one’s reading of Dickens and one’s knowledge of London, is a Benjaminian one which Dickens himself practised intuitively and before it was theorised in this way. Commenting upon Genoa, Dickens tells Forster that the Italian streets are: “narrower than Albany-street and […] less wide than Drury-lane or Wych-street” (Forster 220). And in “Gone Astray” of course, Dickens represents the memory of experiencing the city and negotiating urban spaces via his childhood reading, textual sources that included One Thousand and One Nights.25
Market day in Tripoli
45According to Anna Devers, “if Dickens were around today, he would be living in, and writing from, one of the major cities of the developing world” (qtd. in John 505). Dickens’s appeal is undoubtedly global, his reach and influence transnational. Despite the fact that Dickens was criticised for his Orientalism, Lebanese students felt “at home” in Oliver Twist. They were also at times defamiliarised and induced to revise their own stereotypes. What appeals to post-Civil War Lebanese students is the political Dickens, Dickens the social reformer. What stood out for them was the searching eye and moving camera of Boz and The Uncommercial, the sentimental and compassionate Dickens, the Dickens who could make the chaotic world seem clearer, in light and shade, in the contours of a melodramatic scene or character. Most puzzlingly, they found the London Dickens represents to have an Arab feel and in our flâneries through Tripoli, we recognised in this hybrid city some of Dickens’s London.
46What, in this post-colonial age, can be said about Dickens’s relationship to cultures of the Middle East, like that in Lebanon? Can someone writing from the heart of the colonial past have anything substantial and interesting to say to Lebanese students of literature today? The enthusiastic responses of Lebanese students to Dickens’s lively and unmasterable texts encourage one to suggest that there might be benefits in teaching Dickens. The students found a number of areas of connection with him: they drew upon Dickens’s formal qualities, his melodramatic structures and characters, his social conscience, and his criticism of institutions. They were more comfortable with the prevalence of sentimentality and feeling in his texts than I have ever found in discussion with my British students. They also threw themselves with gusto into walking, thinking and reading/writing the city, Dickens’s fascinating proto-modernist response to urban life. If Dickens’s London was a porous entity filled with the commodities and peoples of the Empire, like a Victorian version of a globalised city, what if one took this idea one step further? Could Dickens have seen poverty like that of Tripoli in London in the mid-nineteenth century and written that into his texts? Do not diverse societies in a globalised world have similar stages of economic development, which, even across history, can throw up certain recognisable forms, similarities and affinities? Gagnier argues (with respect to literatures) that:
diverse societies caught between traditional cultures and the forces of modernization, as Dickens’s society was, give rise to formal similarities in their literatures. “Dickensian” novels, “Dickensian” characters, “Dickensian” affect, “Dickensian” institutions and so forth are thus less derivative than similar, strategic aesthetic responses to similar social conditions. (83)
47Is the fact that Lebanon is currently developing in that gap between traditional society and modern economy, as was Britain in the mid-nineteenth century, somehow at the heart of why elements of Dickens’s universe seem recognisable to today’s Lebanese students?
48These are vast questions, broadly couched, that cannot be answered at this point. Nor, as an English woman, privileged to teach Lebanese students in Lebanon, do I feel comfortable concluding on one side or the other. The question, then, still remains. Is Dickens worth teaching abroad in the post-colonial world?