Whether in the form of colonialism or interaction with an individual from a contrasting cultural background, foreign influence undeniably leaves behind an impression. Regardless of it being illuminative or exploitative, the interaction awakens a sense of self-awareness that later moulds an individual’s identity – thus, altering their course of life for once and for all. Towards the beginning of the twentieth century, the collision between the critical features of foreign influence, namely traditionalism and Westernised modernity, continued to be an element that profoundly shaped world politics. The disaccord, having its roots in the nineteenth century, commenced when the Europeans, the flag holders of modernity, began imposing such ideologies on the classical Arab societies. It was this interaction that contours the entire progression of modernisation in Arab civilization to this day.
This notion of modernity is contested by many like Muhammad Abduh or Jamal al-Din Afghani while it is welcomed by others like Rifaah al-Tahtawi. However, quite clearly, foreign influence results from a clash of civilisations that leads to estrangement, alienation and identity crisis – a sense of remoteness that characterises the life of every individual at one point in time. It has a wide range of forms: including colonialism with its unscrupulous and deceitful mechanisms focusing mainly on its pursuit of power, eroding the relations between people and cultures. And it includes the puppet governments that prioritize foreign nationals over their poverty-stricken citizens’ well-being, failing to provide them with minimal subsistence to keep themselves alive. The foreign influence as a result of the never-ending debate between Culture and Modernity creates an imbalance. To thrive, an individual simultaneously needs to preserve social, cultural and traditional values and adopt modern science and technology-based principles. Tranquility between the East and the West is difficult to attain, and many people find themselves at the crossroads of civilisations. This is like the various individuals mentioned in multiple novels of Arab literature who felt estranged both home and abroad due to this tussle.
For some, the transition in self-perception and identity through foreign influence is quite smooth, and they tend to harmonise the two distinct ideologies with scarcely any difficulty. In contrast, others – who are unable to come to terms with their self-recognition and newly discovered identity – are not only fractured between the two cultures but, in extreme cases, lose their lives.
The foreign influence which leaves an individual becoming a tug of war between the East and the West, and later regulates his self-awareness and identity, is clearly noticeable in the character of Mustafa Saeed in Al-Saleh’s novel Season of Migration to the North. Mustafa Saeed is an enigmatic and enticing protagonist who opened his eyes in the early twentieth century in Sudan under British colonial rule. With the father having passed away before his birth and raised by a single mother, Saeed is likely to be an eyewitness to the brutality and atrocity of the foreign influence in the form of British colonisers. The troubled childhood experience might have left an eternal impact on his personality, which later becomes a crucial feature of his identity. The ferocity and viciousness of the British inculcated in him a wave of anger, a feeling of being stifled that only consolidates over time. His intelligence and diligence earned him the opportunity of studying in Cairo on a scholarship. In Cairo, he not only experiences a sexual yearning for the first time. But it was in Cairo; he started to equate people to their culture and territory, which subsequently compelled him to view British women as the symbol of British imperialism. Thus, Cairo becomes the first foreign influence to shape the self-awareness and identity of an impressionable Mustafa Saeed. As stated, “I felt as though Cairo, the large mountains to which my camel had carried me, was a European woman just like Mrs. Robinson.” Mustafa Saeed later obtains the marvelous opportunity to go to London to continue his higher study due to his prodigal talents.
The visit to London is the prime source of foreign influence that proves to be a turning point in the life of Mustafa Saeed as it embarks him on his lifelong journey of conceding with his true self and mediating his identity. The migration is not only significant because it awakens his sexual identity but because it gives him a taste of the Western culture that ultimately leads to the conflicting identities that torment him later in life – shaping his identity as an individual. The foreign influence alters his self-apprehension and identity to the extent that he starts to view himself as Othello, a black man from Shakespeare’s drama, who becomes grief-stricken at Western civilization’s hands. However, Mustafa Saeed is so conflicted due to the foreign influence that he later fails to recognize himself even as Othello because his dual identity seems innately hypocritical. As asserted, “I am no Othello. I am a lie.” Foreign influence by the agency of British women makes him realize his inherent hatred for British colonization, pressing him to become a diametrical opposite of Kitchener, a colonial administrator who achieved many victories for Britain. His interaction with these women further unravels his deficiencies and weaknesses, reinforcing his self-perception and identity as an inferior slave to the British. As a being who is futile and worthless, “There came a moment when I felt I had been transformed in her eyes into a naked, primitive creature, a spear in one hand and arrows in the other, hunting elephants and lions in the jungles.” Thus, reflecting the momentousness of foreign influence in molding one’s individuality and altering one’s self-assumptions.
One can observe the feeling of estrangement, identity crisis, and puzzled self-perception through Mustafa Saeed’s apartment in London and the secret room in Sudan. Saeed’s property ownerships are an impeccable portrayal of his displacement and identity predicament due to foreign influence. In London, his apartment embodies the “exotic east” that enables him to lure Englishwomen showcasing Persian rugs, mirrors, and perfumes that highlight a stereotypical and fetishized depiction of his native Sudanese culture. As put forward, “In London, I took her to my house, the den of lethal lies that I had deliberately built up, lie upon lie: the sandalwood and incense; the ostrich feathers and ivory and ebony figurines; the paintings and drawings of forests of palm trees along the shores of the Nile.” In contrast, his secret room in Sudan was a bona fide representation of Western culture, packed from tip to top with English books, so much that the Holy Book of Quran was also in English. The paintings and pictures of every incident from Saeed’s life in London suggest how intact his Western roots were and how influenced his personality was under it. His outcast identity due to the foreign influence echoed from every element in the room, specifically the fireplace, which is strange antiquity in a geographical location close to the equator. As quoted, “How ridiculous! A fireplace—imagine it! A real English fireplace with all the bits and pieces.”
For some, the transition in self-perception and identity through foreign influence is quite smooth, and they tend to harmonise the two distinct ideologies with scarcely any difficulty. In contrast, others – who are unable to come to terms with their self-recognition and newly discovered identity – are not only fractured between the two cultures but, in extreme cases, lose their lives
Mustafa Saeed not only witnessed a journey of self-exploration but a blemished identity crisis owing to foreign influence. It was solely due to the foreign power that his feeling of estrangement and inherently false identity became so intense and detrimental to his mental stability that he took his own life. The sense of loss and rootlessness was so formidable that Saeed overlooked the repercussions his wife and two young sons would have to face following his death. Mustafa Saeed is an impeccable example that unveils how foreign influence, with all its vigour and glory, can negatively influence a person’s self-assumption and identity, leading to disastrous consequences like suicide, leaving a lesson for those who wish to ponder upon it.
Moreover, another character torn between the classical East and the modern West that causes a monumental change in his self-apprehension and identity is Ismail. Strikingly, even Yahyia Haqi’s novel The Lamp of Umm Hashim that he is the leading role of belongs to the category of the bildungsroman. A prototype directed towards the protagonist’s education, exclusively the foreign influence is epitomized in his short stay abroad to study medicine, altering his self-perception immeasurably. Being brought up in a conservative and cultural Muslim family, what transitioned the self-apprehension and identity of Ismail were the few impressionable years of his life in England. The brief foreign influence put his traditional values in juxtaposition to the modern values and caused him to question his status as enlightened or blinded. His interplay with foreign influence led him to the absence of self-assurance and an abundance of self-diffidence. This state left a dreadful mark upon the fragile soul of an illustrious man caught in the aftermath of cultural rifts. The foreign influence on Ismail is prominent through the shift in his outlook and character in seven years. Ismail, who left as an unsophisticated and gawky guy, arrived as a poised and refined gentleman with all his western allure reflecting from his renewed self-confidence. His face had lost the roundness, and the cheeks had become hollow. His lips that formerly never closed now remained compressed with aplomb and tenacity. Thanks to foreign influence, and altered ideology and approach towards life and things subjected his self-perception and identity to a complete transformation.
Ismail, who had learned the Holy Book by heart and the one who took wooden clogs to ease his performance of ablution owing to his fathers’ distress about the European practice of wearing shoes indoors, had wholly withered away. Ismail had returned, devoid of religious devotion, and viewed the traditional rules and beliefs as reductionist, useless, and superstitious, with no roots in reality. For him, these practices were nothing more than the indication of the age-long neglect and ignorance of the masses. From his perspective, religion was the opium of the masses to which incapable and inadequate men resorted for happiness. It did not have anything to do with prosperity or character enhancement. The western school of thought and notions by virtue of foreign influence became such an absolute feature of his personality, self-perception, and identity. That he contemplated his mother, his flesh and blood, as oblivious and in-cognizant as cited, “she is simply a mass of negative goodness.” Owing to the foreign influence, he experienced alienation and isolation among his kith and kin. For years, people he had known suddenly appeared to him as total strangers with no mental capacity or vision. He felt deserted, lonely, and misplaced. The people he once conceived as friends and family now seemed as impoverished, ludicrous, and bizarre as quoted “they were like vacant and shattered remains, pieces of stone from ruined pillars in a wasteland: they had no aim other than standing in the way of a passer-by.” The aroma of roses, which once seemed pleasing, and the bright light of Umm Hashim’s lamp, which once insinuated rejuvenation, revitalization, and revival, now seemed a sign of ignorance and superstition. It appeared as misleading and suffocating as highlighted “Instead of fresh air, rose thick vapors of barbaric perfumes.” Through the medium of Western culture and modernity, the foreign influence shriveled his faith in the essence of religion and eastern values that it never occurred to him to fast in the most celebrated month of Muslims named Ramadan, highlighting the degree to which foreign domination had modified the course of his life.
The individuals defying imperialism tend to resort to their own culture but soon discover their deeply rooted emptiness and misplacement, either making them feel a stranger in their own country or instigating them to undertake a new journey of finding themselves their identity
The substantial modification in his identity and self-perception was primarily due to Mary, the primary source of foreign influence in his life, a colleague who was intrigued by his dark skin and belonging to the Eastern terrain of Egypt—being a compelling symbol of Western values. Mary was a fanatic believer of scientific analysis and logical reasoning, self-reliance and realism, liberation from traditions, and forward-thinking. She was a flipside to Ismail’s belief in culture and tradition, reverence for family values and heritage, and marriage institution. As asserted, “She had removed him from a state of unhealthy lethargy to one of confident energy, and she had opened up to him new horizons of the beauty of which he had been ignorant: in art, in music, and nature, even in the human soul.“ Mary was a conflicting figure to Eastern culture and traditionalism. And it was on the trip to Scotland that Mary sowed in him the seed of westernization, replacing religion with a firm belief in science and technology and fixating his attention on nature and its secrets rather than the splendor of Heavens. It was this trip that shaped Ismail into a westernized self-reliant man from an eastern religious individual.
Unlike characters such as Mustafa Saeed, Ismail’s foreign influence stimulated a spiritual development that ultimately led to regulation in his moral, mental, and social behavior. It proved a constituent in the emergence of a convinced individual who overcame the blind imitation of the West by absorbing moral values alone underlying Western materialism and medicine techniques. He not only became the cultural and moral integration. For instance, he now practiced medicine fortified by faith, treating others’ blindness, not to amass wealth but to make amends for his shortcomings that resulted from his shallowness. As affirmed, “Ismail fled from the house, unable to live in it with Fatima continually before him, her blindness a symbol of his own.” The foreign influence impacted Ismail’s self-perception and identity so that he not only accepted religious faith and his people but was able to return home despite the acute Western influence. He became such a tender-hearted and accommodating figure who devoted his life to human service. So much so that people loved and prayed for him long after his death, reflecting that foreign influence in Ismail’s case did not lead to stereotypical cultural clash or destruction but spirituality and humanity resulting from the marriage of Eastern and Western ideals.
In light of the above analysis, foreign influence remains a complex subject with tangential impacts on different characters in various social, political, and religious positions – let alone Arab literature. However, undeniably, the phenomena remain prodigious in sculpting one’s personality and psyche, which later paves the path to the augmentation of identity and self-awareness. The individuals defying imperialism tend to resort to their own culture but soon discover their deeply rooted emptiness and misplacement, either making them feel a stranger in their own country or instigating them to undertake a new journey of finding themselves their identity. Foreign influence inexorably causes a strong feeling of alienation. The estrangement is dealt with accurately by some like Ismail, who find common grounds and benefit from both worlds’ best. In contrast, it heightens the intensity of loneliness in others like Mustafa Saeed, who fall prey to anxiety and depression, ultimately leading to dire consequences.
Whether foreign influence leads to identity crisis or advancement, self-assurance or self-destruction, discovery, or deadlock primarily depends on an individual’s firsthand experiences, struggles and encounters. Nevertheless, it seems that the role of foreign influence as a crucial determinant of one’s identity and perception remains binding and irrefutable.