Literature, Information and Surprise


Hassan Ajami


Literature is a communication pattern which aims at maximizing surprise through transmitting and hiding information at the same time. But most of the modern Arab authors and poets tend to use literature as a process of hiding information due to many reasons such as the fact that Arabs live under the reign of dictatorships.


The usage of literature as a communication mechanism aiming at hiding information is widely spread among modern Arab poets and authors. For example, the Syrian poet Nizar Qabbani says in his poem "A Lesson in Drawing": "My son places his paint box in front of me / and asks me to draw a bird for him. / Into the color gray I dip the brush / and draw a square with locks and bars. / Astonishment fills his eyes: / "…But this is a prison, father, / don't you know, how to draw a bird?" / And I tell him: "son, forgive me. / I have forgotten the shapes of birds." These poetic verses transmit the information that the father has failed to draw a bird because he has forgotten the shapes of birds, rather he was successful in drawing a prison. Hence these verses imply that the father only knows how to draw prisons. But the poet did not explicitly explain why the father has forgotten the shapes of birds and why he only knows how to draw a prison. And thus, the poet is hiding a huge amount of information. The hidden information, implied in the previous verses, is that there are no birds, i.e. no freedoms, in the Arab world, rather there are only prisons. And this is why the father was not able but to draw a prison instead of a bird. In this sense, the poet is using poetry as a communication process which aims to hide important information. In this poem, the poet is hiding the information that the Arab world became a prison instead of a homeland.


Qabbani's previous poem continues to portray the failure of the father in every task his son is asking him to carry out. This indicates that Qabbani's poem is also a communication medium for hiding the information that the current Arab culture is failing in each and every task. This poem ends in the following manner: "My son lays down his pens, his crayon box in front of me / and asks me to draw a homeland for him. / The brush trembles in my hands / and I sink, weeping." These final verses hide the information that it is impossible to draw a homeland in the Arab world because the Arab world itself turned out to be a prison imprisoning its own citizens. The Arab homeland does not exist anymore, and this is why the father wept instead of drawing a homeland. In addition, Qabbani's poem aims at maximizing surprise. For example, surprise is maximized when the father drew a prison although he was asked to draw a bird. And surprise is maximized in this example because we expect from any normal and rational person to be able to draw a bird, but the father in Qabbani's poem was not able to do so although he is not suffering from any mental and/or physical disability. This in itself surprises us because it is not expected. All of this shows how modern Arabic literature is a communication mechanism which tends to maximize surprise through hiding information.

The hidden information within modern Arabic literature is the most accurate and important information about the Arab-Islamic culture. It is extremely dangerous to explicitly reveal this hidden information due to its importance and accuracy. Revealing the hidden information is equivalent to challenging the status quo, and challenging the status quo contradicts the communication paradigm adopted by the Arab-Islamic culture. Most Arabs and Muslims use communication in order to maintain the status quo and minimize change. This is so because in the Arab-Islamic culture change is bad and dangerous. And since most Arabs and Muslims use communication as a mechanism for maintaining the status quo and avoiding change, it is natural that modern Arabic literature tends to be a process of communication aiming at hiding information, especially important information which usually challenges the status quo. The usage of literature as a process of hiding information also fits with the Arab-Islamic mind which conceives al-iajaaz as the highest communication pattern. Al-iajaaz is the ability to express maximum information through relying on minimum words and sentences such that others are not able to do the same. Muslims believe that the Quran is iajaaz. And on the basis of this belief they infer that the Quran is a divine revelation due to their belief that no human being can compose verses similar to those of the Quran. But al-iajaaz is a process of hiding information because of its usage of minimum words and sentences, and thus al-iajaaz is the ability to imply maximum hidden information. This shows that the usage of literature as a communication pattern aiming at hiding information fits with the Arab-Islamic mind which conceives al-iajaaz as the highest form of communication.

The usage of minimum words and sentences in order to implicitly convey maximum information could be easily seen in many modern Arabic texts, and it is equivalent to the usage of literature as an information hiding mechanism. For instance, the Syrian author and poet Adonis says the following in his poetry book "Songs of Mihyar": "I buried in your subservient entrails, / in the head, the hands and eyes, / a minaret; / I buried two corpses, / the Earth and the sky." Here the poet is using the word "Earth" as a symbol referring to human civilization, and he is using as well the word "sky" as a symbol referring to divine revelations. In these verses, the poet transmits the information that the Earth and the sky are two corpses which he buried. Yet at the same time the poet hides the information that he is claiming that human civilization and divine revelations are deceiving us because they are full of lies and false beliefs, and they are usually used to terrorize us. In this sense, Adonis is using poetry as a communication pattern aiming at hiding information. This is another example of how modern Arabic literature is an information hiding mechanism. But Adonis is also maximizing surprise because we do not expect that anyone is capable of burying the Earth and the sky. Therefore, Adonis, as most of the modern Arab poets and authors, is using literature to maximize surprise through transmitting certain information and hiding the maximum amount of information at the same time.


Similarly, the Egyptian critic and author Yusuf Al-Qaid describes in his short story "Hunger Fantasia" a possible world in which the father is constantly sleeping for years and years, and in which hunger prevails leading people to actually eat each other. The author is transmitting the information which describes this possible world in the previous manner, but at the same time he is hiding the information that the Arab-Islamic world is identical to this possible world. This short story implies a deep analysis and critique of the current Arab-Islamic culture. And it amounts to claiming that the Arab-Islamic world today is suffering from hunger, extreme poverty and surrendering to the status quo. The inevitable result would be people eating each other as this story indicates. The possibility of people eating each other is manifested in the continuous bloody conflicts among the Arabs themselves. The important message of this story is the hidden message which implicitly declares the collapse of the current Arab-Islamic culture. Al-Qaid also maximizes surprise when he presents a world in which people are eating each other. In this sense, modern Arabic literature aims at maximizing surprise through hiding the maximum and the most important information.


In addition, the Egyptian author and novelist Tawfik Al-Hakim describes in his novel "Diary of a Country Prosecutor" how many Egyptians are not able to understand the laws imposed on their society. For example, they are legally punished through paying some piastres for carrying out certain activities which they consider to be natural and normal to perform. In this manner, Al-Hakim is hiding one important message which is: modernism as it is adopted by the Arabs and Muslims today has failed due to the fact that some Arabs and Muslims are imposing on their societies certain laws which do not fit with the Arab-Islamic culture and the circumstances in which the Arabs and Muslims live. The author also maximizes surprise when he portrays many Arabs and Muslims as being not able to comprehend the laws of their own countries and why they have been punished for doing what seems to them to be legitimate and habitual. All of this clarifies the fact that modern Arabic literature is a communication process aiming at maximizing surprise and hiding information. It also shows that the hidden information within modern Arabic literature is the most important and vital information.


In conclusion, modern Arabic literature is a communication mechanism aiming at maximizing surprise through transmitting and hiding information at the same time. But it is more oriented to hiding information due to different reasons such as the Arab-Islamic culture itself and its communication patterns.