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Bitter Weeping & Dreaming: Salwa Bakr’s “Thirty-One Beautiful Green Trees” as an Allegory of Neoliberal Egypt
Abstract by M.J. Ernst On Session IX-27  (Feminist and Queer Literature)

On Saturday, November 4 at 3:00 pm

2023 Annual Meeting

This paper reads Salwa Bakr’s 1986 story Ihda wa thalathun shajarah jamilah khadra’ (“Thirty-One Beautiful Green Trees”) as an intersectional feminist critique of crony capitalist development in post-infitah Egypt. Assuming the form of a secret letter written by Kareema Fahmi, a woman confined to a mental institution for trying to cut out her own tongue, I argue that the narrator’s fugitive testimony of her oppression at the hands of conservative social forces can be read as a tragic allegory of post-leftist utopian thought in the neoliberal age—one that calls out to our present global moment of environmental degradation and neo-fascism. While Kareema’s portrayal of the decay of her beloved city as a struggle between vermin, birds, and trees seems to place her critique outside the realm of politics, drawing on Yasmine Ramadan’s theorization of space in modern Egyptian fiction, I contend that Kareema’s fabulistic mapping of Cairo reflects the crisis of representation that ensued with the liberalization and privatization of Egypt’s economy. In this context, I argue, Kareema’s former engagement with collective anticolonial nationalist movements has necessarily given way to an individual mode of embodied politics, consisting primarily of witnessing, gasping, and weeping. I conclude by suggesting that Bakr’s story can also be read as an uncanny postcolonial feminist rendition of Herman Melville’s Bartleby the Scrivener, which restages the political-economic dilemmas of mid-nineteenth-century New York in late-twentieth-century Cairo. Like Bartleby, Kareema’s queer notion of work disrupts business as usual at her place of employment, and her intransigence in the face of various authority figures ultimately results in her premature civil death. At the same time, quite unlike the example set by Bartleby’s mild ‘politics of refusal’, I argue that Bakr marks the insurgent figure of the paranoid hysteric and the unruly, democratic convulsions of her fleshy body as key to the articulation of alternative futures.
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