Gestalt Psychology, Semiotics and the
Modern Arabic Novel

Peter Willows


There are many who feel that translation, by design or perhaps by nature, will ultimately alter a text's impact on the reader. Naguib Mahfouz notwithstanding, the Arabic novel is not a popular form that can be seen as having taken hold — and whether it will ever become widely read remains to be seen. Without an extensive readership, such works fail to gain what might be described as international academic legitimacy, although the books are quite widely read by the Western-educated, Arab bourgeoisie. This being the case, the Arabic novel is then accused of impurity — by virtue of the fact that many have already been translated, on 'received' on some level, before being written. The texts could then be said to fall into an aesthetic called 'oriental ornamental.' (Dallal 1998)

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This study, however, is intended merely to analyse three texts in their original form — and in a non-politicised aesthetic. For when incendiary literary charges, like the one above, are brought against a genre — appreciation of the form of a text, and its effect on the reader, are ultimately influenced. This is a structuralist study of the Arab novel in translation, emphasising analysis of the written text itself, with limited meanderings into biographical, cultural, or social sources.

The novels discussed here are constructed in a literary frame that sets them apart from traditional contemporary Western literature: the disruption of linear time, the salient absence of Freitag's triangular paradigm (rising action into climax followed by dénouement), and shifts in verb tense without marking the historical present, for example: often from the Arabic's past perfect into present progressive indicative active – and then back. Such constructions in the West earn the categorisation 'experimental fiction,' a category which enjoyed a flash of popularity in the 1970s, and was written by the likes of Donald Barthelme, John Barth, et al. But this form also never really took hold in Western literary 'canons.'

The Relevance of Gestalt Psychology

Gestalt theory was developed (c. 1910) from psychological studies of perception, more specifically, the way in which humans organize, process, and categorize their visual stimuli. The word, Gestalt, as one would presume, has a Teutonic etymology — and means 'form; shape; or, configuration.' A prevailing dictum in Gestalt theory is that one's visual stimulation is perceived in patterns – patterns which take precedence over the specific (or whole) element perceived – patterns which have properties that are not inherent in the elements themselves. A phrase often used to characterize Gestalt theory, is, "The whole is more than the sum of its parts." (Bernstein, et al., 2003)

In one example, termed 'closure,' a series of small dots arranged in a straight line will be perceived as not a group of dots, rather, they will be conceived as a line: Halftone images in newspaper photographs, which have thousands of dots per- inch, blur in perception into shades of grey, though, when the image is very closely examined it is then seen to consist entirely of small dots — a mosaic.

AS/SA nº 15, p.15

Scala/Art Resource, NY The Grand Hunt This detail of antelope being attacked is part of The Grand Hunt (early 4th century), a large floor mosaic found in the villa at Piazza Armerina, Sicily. The villa had 651 sq m (7000 sq ft) of floor mosaics depicting various scenes from life in the late Roman Empire. The mosaic work may have been done by North African artisans. Microsoft "Encarta" Encyclopedia 2002. c 1993-2001 Microsoft Corporation. [reproduced for academic purposes, permission requested and pending].

This is not to say, however, that the brain only does this with perceptions of dots representing material states of affairs. A silhouette of a city skyline with the outline of a minaret will not only tell the viewer that there is a mosque among the buildings, even if the viewer has no personal experiential knowledge of the mosque, but also, when the outline of a minaret is perceived in in this silhouette, the brain automatically configures both what the shape physically denotes – a minaret – but also what the shape signifies in the social context – that there is a mosque there.


Ideas in Gestalt angle congruently with elements of Semiotics, which I think of as a branch of linguistics that deals with the aesthetics of signs: now, the shape of the minaret is the signifier, and the mosque becomes the signified. Perception becomes language through conception. A semiotic plan of a universal underlying structure in language, where words and syntax are considered arbitrary signs for ideas, has origins in a series of lectures by Ferdinand de Saussure (d. 1913). Saussure's lectures were reconstructed posthumously from the notes of his students, and conflated with fragmentary pieces of manuscript – the resultant Cours de linguistique générale surfaced. In that volume Saussure distinguishes between langue (the language system) and parole (the utterances produced) (Joseph 2004).

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Suzanne Langer paired Gestalt schema with Semiotic stratagem:

The eye and the ear make their own abstractions, and consequently dictate their own peculiar forms of conception and `appearance,' or the pattern of things with their qualities and characters, is another. [misconception occurs] because one construction may indeed preclude the other; but to maintain consistency and universality [the] one [that] brands the other as a false is a mistake. (1985:98)

Misconception (whether or not it is recognised by the individual) too, plays a part in the overall image produced by the signifier – we'll look at examples of this later, in the texts. Would one doubt the likelihood of a mosque existing where the perceived minaret outline is located? Probably not. Putatively, there is no cognitive awareness of the transference of image to idea: upon seeing the outline of the minaret in the distant cityscape, you simply tell yourself, `that is a mosque': the thought occurs instantaneously: the moment of realisation passes unnoticed.

One may question whether the signifier is representational of mosque 'instead of mosque.' Though here, still, we notice the asymmetrical motion of this relationship between language (L) and the perceived sign system (S), that is, the transformation exclusively moves in one linear direction [S G L], regardless of surrounding conditions. (Benveniste 1985).

That's fine. And it swims nicely with the mosque minaret example in Gestalt, though, the mosaic example may appear slightly different to a fresh mind on this subject. If one were to position an unknowing closed-eyed person very close to a mosaic, and then told the unknowing person to open their eyes, the unknowing person would only see a uniform pattern of monochromatic tiles. As the unknowing person moved backward, the representational image would be revealed by distance, and only then, would the sign-system (S) move to language (L) and penetrate the viewer's mind. An apparent retrograde motion of our model may be thought witnessed here { ? [L G S]}, but it is spurious witness, as this Semiotic process is non-reversible. This rule of the irreversibility of [S G L] may cause some contention when examining the act of writing, a case in which, ideas are moving to paper by pen. But metaphorically, sending and seeing your own smoke signals is not the same as seeing smoke signals sent by somebody else. And this is what we are exploring here. Therefore then, the reader and not the writer, of any text is always in the [S G L] position.

Could the moment that a gestalt-shift occurs ever be caught? Could one ever catch a glimpse of the moment of actualization between the signified and the signifier? I was standing in Cairo's Sadat Metro station one day, and I stared intensely at one of the reproduced pharaonic mosaics, and for a great duration, until I was no longer able to see the image as representational – there were merely a group of tiles in varying colours. But this took tremendous effort. Even after, I wondered if I were simply convincing myself that I had had an actual gestalt-shift. And a policeman too, thoughtfully enquired as to whether I were in need of assistance.

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Gestalt theory, by design, is relevant for interdisciplinary application. So by combining it with Semiotics we may be able to explore, define, and catch the very moment when a gestalt-shift occurs in text. These are the applications to Arabic literature.

By examining three Arabic texts in translation, Naguib Mahfouz's Miramar, `Abd al-Rahman Munif's Endings, and Ghassan Kanafani's Men in the Sun – and through a triangulation of narrative technique – we may be able to approach these Gestalt and Semiotic ideas on perception, in Arabic literature: the perceptions of the characters have themselves, as well as, the perceptions of the characters as they relate to each other, the story, and to the reader. Also, what the sum of all these individual parts ultimately create.

Ghassan Kanafani's Men in the Sun:

Kanafani arranges his introductory chapters by the names of some of the characters, Abu Qais, Assad, Marwan – each time telling of the character's individual life path which took him to the same smuggler as the others – as well as, giving the reader the perceptions that these characters have had, and do have. For example, in the chapter on Assad, Kanafani blends Assad's journey outside the city limits, by way of desert to avoid capture by the frontier police, with Assad's interaction with the smuggler in his office:

(i) Abul-Abd had given him a head-dress, and he had wrapped round his head, but is was no use for keeping off the blaze [of the sun]. Indeed it seemed to him that it too was catching fire. The horizon was a collection of straight, orange lines, but he had taken a firm decision to go forward, doggedly. Even when the earth turned into shining sheets of yellow paper he did not slow down. Suddenly, the yellow sheets began to fly about, and he stooped to gather them up [italics added](Kanafani page 18).

Kanafani conflates two separate elements of time and space (the smuggler's office, and the trip through the desert) through a rather cinematic technique: one perception morphs the entire scene to another. Assad's desert delirium was less so much a mirage, though, more so a febrile experience of which Kanafani uses to blend the two scenes into an amalgamation of past and present experience. All triggered by his perception of the horizon.

Kanafani repeats the cinematic technique in a later chapter, 'The Road:'

(ii) Abul Khaisuran shook his head, then he narrowed his eyes to meet the sunlight which had suddenly struck the windscreen. The light was shining so brightly that at first he could see nothing. But he felt a terrible pain coiled between his thighs. After a few moments he could make out that his legs were tied to two supports which kept them suspended, and that there were several men surrounding him. [italics added] (Kanafani page 37).

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The precise moment of the shift: The light was shining so brightly that at first he could see nothing. Though this time the gestalt-shift is a more internalized realisation within the character, videlicet, the moment becomes a memory. Abul Khaisuran's emasculation flashes before him as he drives through the desert – the moment triggered by the blinding light of the sun – and this (ii) gestalt-shift is not a conflationary technique in narrative, like (i). Abul Khaisuran's gestalt-shift in (ii) is a more a structuring device: the emasculation of Abul Khaisuran will later be relevant to the text, when he is chided by the inspection people as having had a recent romantic entanglement with a dancer, Kawkab. And as Abul Khaisuran suffers that humiliation to his manhood (remember: he's been emasculated), he too is pained by the delay that the chiding causes – resultantly, killing the men hiding in the tank of his water truck as they bake to death in the scorching mid-day sun of al-`Iraq.

Abul Khaisuran is now faced with the dilemma of what to do with the bodies of these men. He reckons that the corpses are more likely to be discovered in the morning, and then given a proper burial, if he takes them to the city dump. Abul Khaisuran weighs this choice against leaving the bodies to decompose by force of the desert elements and scavenger animals. He chooses the city dump. And this was a controversial element in the text1. In the final chapter, appropriately called, The Grave, the text gives a comparatively concrete example of the `mosque minaret' phenomena in Gestalt:

(iii) As darkness fell, Abul Khaizuran drove his lorry away from the sleeping city. Pale lights trembled along the side of the road, and he knew that those lamp-posts which were retreating in front of the window would come to an end shortly, when he had left the city far behind him. The night was moonless, and the edge of the desert would be silent as the grave. [italics added](page 54)

'Pale lights' = the signifier. '[T]he city' = the signified. And this is the second instance (chronologically) in which Kanafani uses the perception of lights to be indicative of the realization of a city. Earlier, before the death in the sun, when Abul Khaizuran is explaining to Assad why he is safer being smuggled by him as opposed to other, more nefarious smugglers, Abul Khaizuran tells Assad:

(iv) I have a cousin called Hasanain, who was smuggled across the border once. After more than seven hours' walking, darkness fell. Then the smuggler pointed to a cluster of far-off lights saying: 'There's Kuwait.' You'll reach it when you've walked for half an hour.' Do you know what happened? That wasn't Kuwait, it was a remote Iraqi village. [italics mine] (page 39)

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Naguib Mahfouz's Miramar:

In Mahfouz's Miramar, Gestalt analysis must be used to explore textual analysis in other areas than were explored in the passages (i-iv) – this time we look at the composition as being greater than the sum of its parts. And this type of analysis is comparatively more abstract. This book is highly symbolic. The characters are said to be representational of various elements of post-revolutionary Egyptian society: Amer Wagdi, is perceived to represent the aging Egyptian literati (Mahfouz himself); Hosni Allam, is a representation of the new land-owning youth; Zohran, of the innocence and purity of the fellaheen, et cetera. Though this symbolism is lost on a reader unfamiliar the dynamics of contemporary Egyptian society, and its post-revolutionary history – the novel then becomes a more existential piece – at other times, this book reads like a film script.2

Here is where Gestalt theory plays in: the book is written through four different character's perceptions of the same series of events. The many parts do not only make up the whole, the many parts also enable the reader four unique and individual perspectives on a like event: the murder of Sarhan at the hand of Monsour Bahy. By piecing together the four perspectives – or say, this `collection of dots' – Amer Wagdi, Hosny Allam, Monsour Bahy, and Sarhan al- Beheiry, the complete mosaic develops. Writing the entire book solely from one character's perspective would not have given the reader this collection of dots to assemble into a complete and cohesive image – there would only have been one perspective. Or on another level, Mahfouz has given his reader four gestalt-shifts, with which to play: when you turn to the next chapter and see the same series of events unfolding, but through a different perspective, you truly get to decide for yourself how the individual parts which make up the whole. Nor could Mahfouz have achieved the same effect through the use of third-person omniscient narration, which is the brilliance behind his technique here.

Zohra, the voluptuous young fellaha, though deprived of voice in the text, is instead presented to the reader through varying perspectives – perspectives which range from paternal approbation, to lascivious intent, to espousal (Amer Wagdi, Sarhan al-Beheiry, and Mansour Bahy, respectively). The reader is able to enjoy and appreciate Zohra as a child, a lover, and a wife. In a way, her character is rent asunder – then re-created as a full image, in the mind of the reader: a complete woman.

`Abd al-Rahman Munif's Endings:

If Kanafani's text, Men in the Sun, is demonstrative of the mosque minaret phenomenon, and Mahfouz's Miramar gives his reader the mosaic sensation, then what is one to think of Munif's Endings? Munif applies a combinatory literary technique of the mosque minaret gestalt-shift seen in Kanafani, and a sort of mosaic gestalt-shift, though, a little bit different than in Mahfouz's Miramar. A unique literary technique in text manipulation is going on here: by killing-off his main character, `Assaf, and mid-way through the text, Munif triggers wonder in his reader – a wondering of, which direction he will now take the story (there are still many pages left in the novel). Munif closes the text with a series of thirteen stories, as told by all the al- Tiba townspeople, including the guests, as a sort of closure to the death of `Assaf – or, in Western literary analysis, a prolonged denouement.

AS/SA nº 15, p.20

But before moving into this peculiar plot-structuring approach, let's examine Munif's rather elegant and fluid prose, as he narrates a gestalt-shift-like impression of travelling through the desert by truck – here, the messianic `Assaf leads a hunting expedition of outsiders, on their way to the grouse hunt:

(v) The desert's aspect is tentative at first, almost as though it had been fashioned in a hurry. The ground features are very similar to those of the surrounding areas. But then bit by bit the soil starts to change until it turns into a single, repetitive pattern, looking for all the world like the palm of a person's hand with a few isolated wrinkles. From time to time sand dunes appear and then vanish. [italics added] (51)

This is a perfect example of a gestalt-shift, res ipsa loquitur, and needs little elucidation – the perception of sand morphs into `a single, repetitive pattern' until the image `starts to change' in the mind of the narrator from desert, to that of a person's hand. Again, desert-delirium has proven itself conducive to working as a catalyst for a gestalt-shift. Yes, a rather impressionistic paragraph.

But this impressionistic paragraph comes as a sort of knell to the death of `Assaf, for it is during this hunting expedition that the desert rages in sandstorm. Resultantly, both `Assaf and his faithful hunting dog are separated from the hunting party. A phrenetic search ensues. And at the very instant the reader comes across the following passage, the outcome of that search is unequivocal:

(vi) For a long way the terrain was like the palm of someone's hand; nothing at all on the surface. At first we could not see the vulture, but then we managed to make out a black dot in the distance. It kept soaring and swooping. The first time we spotted it, it disappeared for just a second; we told ourselves it had been an illusion. from the distance the whole thing looked like a mirage.
The car accelerated. Our eyes were all glued to the spot where he was pointing. As we got closer, we were able to confirm that there was indeed a vulture; from a distance it looked as though it were sitting down like a man. As we came closer, it grew in size. it took on a huge and menacing appearance. [italics added] (73)

Munif begins (vi) by continuing his narrator's gestalt- shift from (v), where the image of the desert was conflated with the image of the palm of a human hand – a hand which closed into fist, via sandstorm, and then re”pened to allow for the search for `Assaf. Just about any reader will fast associate the image of a vulture with the death of somebody lost in the desert, but notice how the narrator's denial immediately sets in, ". we told ourselves it had been an illusion." The vulture = the signifier. Death = the signified. The gestalt-shift here, in (vi), is so immediate and decisive that the characters deny at-all, even having seen this black dot in the distance – the image of the black dot was instead ruled, 'a [group] mirage'.

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Anthropomorphic imagery is rife in passage (vi): the desert is symbolised by the image of an opening and constricting human hand, though too, the vulture, ".looked as though it were sitting down like a man." This leads to the curious thirteen stories which follow the death of the messianic `Assaf – a sort of grieving process in the book, made whole beyond the sum of the parts of these many stories. Many of these stories involve animals as metaphor for human interaction:

(vii) So began the incredible all-night session, something al-Tiba had never witnessed before. Almost everyone who was there said something. They talked of many things. The guests told stories too. Many, many things were said that night. There was a certain manic aspect to the whole thing; not for a single second did anyone there want to stop. The order in which the tales were told was governed by neither logic nor intention.
They talked about dogs, gazelles and donkeys, about floods in the valley, about he spring drying up, about `Assaf and humanity in general. [italics added] (77)

Some of these stories, or black dots, contribute to the animal-man image of `Assaf, who is one with nature – `Assaf who is earlier seen advising hunters against the perils of shooting female birds, the mothers, lest the cycle of life be interrupted. And the stories too, are more than a therapeutic process for the villagers in mourning the loss of `Assaf. The stories also become a life-generating force: the people of the village of al-Tiba afterward decide to renew their demands for a dam, which makes the whole, or resolution here, of the death of `Assaf a life-generating force – the existence of a dam being a positive idea for the community.

And here is another wonderfully mosaic scene toward the very end of the book:

No one can remember how it all happened even at the very end. `Assaf's body had just reached the grave when the women of al-Tiba gave him a welcome befitting such a man. Nothing was made to seem special or unusual. Yet no sooner had the coffin arrived and been lowered to the ground in preparation for burial than the women gathered in a circle and started a rhythmic, orderly dance which blended elements of sadness, joy, pleasure, insanity and anger. The steps were complicated, and so only the women who were used to performing the dance could do them properly. They were accompanied by shouts, and that gave the whole performance an emphatic beat and allowed for a more subtle rendition. [italics added] (137)

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These Arabian texts are rich with Gestalt-Semiotic images. It is difficult to recall whether patterns stimulated the idea of examining these texts in Gestalt- Semiotics, or if it were, that the idea moved in the opposite direction. They may have occurred concurrently. And there was earlier work available, for consultation, when connecting these two perceptual analytic disciplines. Where Sassaure makes his instant conversion from signified to signifier, Roman Jakobson asserts this can only happen as the result of an agreed upon set of terms, or common code – and too, agreeing upon the same reference frame. Plainly stated: you cannot recognise an image you have never seen before.

The idea of pairing Gestalt with Semiotics seemed so obvious that this author was surprised to find so little written – and though my initial research was cursory, it would seem an excellent area for Semiotics to further explore. Arabic literature in English translation, provided plenty of material from which to draw, when coupling Gestalt with Semiotics. Other disciplines would do well to combine the ideas in perceptual analysis, and apply them to their own field.


1. The translator, Hilary Kilpatrick, tells in her introduction that, ". at the time when the book [Men in the Sun] was published many readers took the ending literally and Kanafani was accused by enraged compatriots of `throwing Palestinians on the garbage heap.'" (page 3) [Return]

2. Miramar reads like a film script: much of the narration is in present tense, and a fair deal of the action is dialogue-driven. By the time this book was written, 1967, Mahfouz had well-established himself, and likely knew this work was going to go to the screen – which may or may not have impacted his writing style. [Return]

AS/SA nº 15, p.23


Benveniste, Emile: The Semiology of Language. Semiotics: an introductory anthology. Robert E Innis, ed. 1985. Indiana University Press. Bloomington. ISBN 0 253 35162 6

Bernstien, Penner, Clarke-Stewart, and Roy: Psychology Sixth Edition. 2003. Houghtom Mifflin Company. Boston. ISBN 0 618 21374

Dallal, Jenine Abboushi: The perils of Occidentalism: how Arab novelists are driven to write for Western readers. The Times Literary Supplement. 24 April, 1998

Langer, Susanne K.: Discursive and Presentational Forms. Semiotics: an introductory anthology. Robert E Innis, ed. 1985. Indiana University Press. Bloomington. ISBN 0 253 35162 6

Joseph, John E.: Root and branch: Pictet's role in the crystallization of Saussure's thought. The Times Literary Supplement. 9 January, 2004.

Kanafani, Ghassan: Men in the Sun. 1978. The American University in Cairo Press, Cairo. ISBN 977 424 261 0

Mahfouz, Naguib: Miramar. 1978. The American University in Cairo Press, Cairo. ISBN 977 424 091 X

Oxford English Dictionary Online: /books /hopkins_guide_to_literary_theory /roman_jakobson.html


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