Ecocritical Perspectives in Arabic Literary Studies
Panel X-6, 2023 Annual Meeting
On Saturday, November 4 at 5:30 pm
This panel seeks to explore ecocritical aspects in Arabic literature at large. Ecocriticism typically looks at how the environment is represented and how humans have/can create(d) a favorable relationship with the non-human world and how humans cultivated themselves through this relationship. Issues of justice, aesthetics, climate, water, human-nonhuman relations have been explored in premodern Arabic poetry (and prose) as humans expressed their relationships with the environment in the desert from the scarcity of water and the wars over it, to an entire genre of the description of rain and thundering skies. Andalusians wrote in praise of their beautiful gardens but also developed eco-conscious methods of farming and gardening. More recently, Arab novelists and poets have composed works lamenting the destruction of the environment produced by anthropogenic climate change, the extractive petro-industry, and other forms of ecological disaster.
This relationship with the environment is perhaps of utmost importance facing humanity at this critical moment of global changes. This panel seeks papers that critically engage with these issues via the study of Arabic literature from both the premodern and modern periods. Papers might also consider how this approach can explain the ability of literary texts to enhance our understanding of the non-human world. Critical papers that provide a productive and path-forging contribution to this model of inquiry will be considered.
To engage with scenarios of extinction in a literary medium facilitates an affective sense of our entanglement both with the material of the Earth itself and with the other life-forms who inhabit the Earth along with us. Extinction narratives animate their own “geophenomenology,” in philosopher David Wood’s terms, emplacing us on the planet as one set of bodies among the many that are threatened when the environments upon which they are biologically and evolutionarily dependent are violently altered or demolished. In this paper, I examine the 2012 Arabic young adult science-fiction novel Ajwān by Emirati author Nūrah al-Nūmān as a work that invites readers to a geophenomenological awareness of the multispecies embodied stakes of ecological crisis on a planetary scale. The novel’s titular protagonist is the sole member of her species to escape aboard a spaceship when a meteor decimates her home planet. An anthropomorphic being adapted for an ocean environment, Ajwān struggles to acclimate to life on other worlds; with its excessively porous borders and constrained homeostatic requirements, her body is a liability in her ongoing efforts to ensure the continuation of her species. In conversation with contemporary critical debates over the representability of anthropogenic ecological crisis in fiction, I read al-Nūmān’s novel as a text that decenters humans from the story—or “history,” per Dipesh Chakrabarty—of the Anthropocene by figuring extinction imaginatively as an imminent risk to the nonhuman body.
The poetry of the Egyptian Romantic poet ‘Abd al-Raḥmᾱn Shukrῑ (d. 1958) is suffused with reverence for the natural world. In “Mother Earth,” he portrays Mother Earth as “a wretched old woman who strives to provide for its numerous children.” In “The Imprisoned Bird,” he pities an imprisoned bird “singing the song of a heartbroken man.” In “Reality and Imagination,” “Humans are monkeys and donkeys,” and in “Evolution,” humans are unworthy of being human. “They have surpassed birds and animals in sinfulness.”
The present paper purports to analyze Shukrῑ’s eco-sensibility. It argues that Shukrῑ’s poetry and criticism are characterized by a tension between the natural world, including children, and the human/artificial world. While nature represents simplicity and innocence, and inspires feelings of the sublime and the beautiful, the human world represents cruelty, malice, and hostility. Shukrῑ renounces the latter in favor of the untainted company of nature.
This paper analyses the representation of climate change and environmental crises in contemporary Arabic fiction. It focuses, in particular, on two short stories authored by Iraq-born authors, “The Worker” by Diya Jubaili; and the "Gardens of Babylon" by Hassan Blasim, both included in the short story collection Iraq +100 (2016) edited by Blasim. Both stories participate in a wider dystopian trend in post-2011 Arabic literature, as they project a pessimistic view of the future. Besides, in both stories, the climate crisis plays an important role in the plot and interlaces with the question of oil resources in the region.
The paper will highlight the shared narrative and aesthetic features: the interlacing of different temporalities, the mixture of realistic and fictional elements; the co-existence of human, non-human, and post-human characters; the link between the climate crisis, war, capitalism, and political and economic oppression.
Scholars of the poet Badr Shakir al-Sayyab’s (d. 1964) oeuvre have long recognized the central place in his poetics of the Buwayb rivulet in his southern Iraqi hometown of Jaykur. Orit Bashkin, Terri DeYoung, Muhsin J. al-Musawi, Shmuel Moreh, R. C. Ostle, and others have likewise noted the development of his modernist verse following his move to the bustling city of Baghdad to attend the Higher Teachers College. There is, then, some previous scholarly recognition of how Sayyab’s shift from a rural environment to an urban one led to profound developments in his poetic output. Yet a fully-fledged ecocritical reading of Sayyab’s poetry remains to be done.
This paper makes an initial foray in this direction through a comparative reading of Sayyab’s 1958 poem “al-Mabgha” (“Whorehouse”), which—both formally and in terms of content—encapsulates his persona’s reflections on the experience of moving from the countryside to the city. Building on DeYoung’s analysis, in Placing the Poet, of Sayyab’s use of a tadmin “poetic quote” from the 9th century poet ʿAli Ibn al-Jahm’s (d. 863) Rusafiyyah ode, the paper turns an ecocritical lens on Sayyab’s invocation of his poetic forebear, who was popularly understood to also be a country “bumpkin” transplanted into the urbane caliphal court in Abbasid Baghdad (Samer Ali, Arabic Literary Salons in the Islamic Middle Ages). Through a close analysis of Sayyab’s inclusion of Ibn al-Jahm’s line beginning “Oryx eyes between Rusafah and the Bridge” in his 20th century poem, I argue that “Whorehouse” can be read in an ecocritical vein. The poem not only gestures to the recent history of Iraq’s development into a petrostate but also highlights a longer tradition of poetic reflections on the divide between the rural (figured as an idyll) and the unnatural development of the city, reflected in Sayyab’s and Ibn al-Jahm’s poems through their treatments of Abbasid urban infrastructure projects in the “Rusafah” (i.e., “paved”) district of Baghdad.