115th Annual Conference - Honolulu, Hawaii
Friday, November 10 - Sunday, November 12, 2017

Jackals and Arabs: Kafka on the Banks of Nilus

Amir Irani-Tehrani, United States Military Academy, West Point

Through close-reading of Kafka's short-story, this paper seeks to challenge all previous interpretations of "Jackals and Arabs" that have either focused on the Zionist/assilimationst discourse, or more recently, the Arab/Israeli conflict.  In fact, this essay argues, the ordeal of Kafka's text is much more problematic than any previous commentators have considered and requires us to go deeper both into the present and the ancient past.

Proposal: 

Kafka’s "animal story" seems always on the verge of interpretation before slipping away.  Until recently, major interpretations of the story by eminent scholars such as Rubinstein, Beck, Binder, Gross and Sokel have all centered on the Zionist/assimilationist discourse.  It was not until 2012 when Jens Hanssen has looked at the geopolitical and historical aspects of the story within the Arab world that seem ever harder to ignore.  

In his essay “Kafka and Arabs” Hanssen offers conceptual illuminations that range from history of Kafka reception in the Middle East to postcolonial and Saidian orientalist criticism to make up for the ignored jackal in the room – so to say.    

While quite illuminating and a welcomed and necessary intervention, what Hanssen deviates from is the text itself.  By trying to bring the focus onto the Palestinian/Israeli conflict and the state of political troubles starting in the early twentieth century, in my reading, he neglects to stay true to Kafka's own words.  In doing so, Hanssen falls in the long tradition of Kafka interpreters:  It seems Kafka-interpretations would hold water as long as one ignores one small, almost negligible part of the story; and justice is nearly always in that tiny little unfitting bit.    

In a close reading of the story, I propose to think through what it means to take seriously the figure of talking jackals, "high and white" Arab caravan leader, and the European "man from the north," all speaking German, one insomniac night, in an oasis -- not in Palestine, but as Kafka has it, by the river Nile.