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Narrating Catastrophe and Loss

Session IV-21, 2022 Annual Meeting

On Friday, December 2 at 11:00 am

Panel Description
The recent developments of the Syrian refugees’ exodus from their homelands, fleeing war, authoritarian regime, rebel militias, and, worst of all, the terrorist group ISIS, along with the devastating outcomes of the Iraq War and the ongoing Israeli-Palestinian conflict, have been at the center of the Middle East cultural production. For instance, more than 5.6 million Syrians have escaped across borders, either settling in neighboring countries, such as Jordan, Lebanon, and Turkey, or taking perilous journeys with smugglers to the Southern shore of Greece. Besides, Syrians, Iraqis’ livelihoods have been destroyed because of the U.S. invasion. These unimaginable, disastrous outcomes have been portrayed in literary production. This panel explores broader questions of identity and loss, zeroing on how Arab writers narrate catastrophe and loss in their writing. Each panelist examines how narratives of catastrophe, loss, and identity are inextricably tied, discussing the dialectical dynamics of these concepts.
  • When the Syrian uprising erupted in 2011, it unleashed a glimmer of hope for possible democratic changes to a nation that was politically and economically crippled under the Assad regime. However, unfortunately, even this hope dissipated as the uprising, which had started peacefully, morphed rapidly into a devastating civil war with sectarian violence, state repression, forced displacement, and an exodus of refugees. These struggles, both in their country of origin and host lands, have inspired many writers to explore topics documenting their trauma and loss. The majority of cultural production that has been produced since 2011 discusses themes, such as alienation, displacement, traumatic experience, liminality, and constructed subjectivities. Caught in a permanent limbo, Syrian poets’ past lived experiences in their homelands, involving the repressive practices and atrocities they underwent as well as the new hardships they are facing in their new societies, including the tightened immigration policies and xenophobia, have shaped themselves and their artistic production in the diaspora. My paper is a close reading of “Homs and The Studio of Good People,” a poem written by Akram Alkatreb, a Syrian poet, who currently live in the U.S. In this poem, Alkatreb addresses the questions of refuge, destruction, loss, grief, and suffering, zeroing in on how longing for the homeland, collective suffering, distress, the effects of dislocation from home, and social alienation in a society that dramatically differs from their homelands shape his sense of identity. Alkatreb reminisces about, reflects on, and recapture significant moments from his childhood years, and vividly describes the atrocities that have plagued his native city of Homs. Alkatreb takes up subjects like the plight of living in a foreign community with its social alienation, the grim future of his homeland, and the endless catastrophe created by conflict. In short, both destruction and longing remain at the center of this poem.
  • My paper analyzes the translation of Ahmad Saadawy's 2013 novel, 'Frankenstein in Baghdad', which utilizes the defragmented human body as a metaphor of war and catastrophe during the US invasion of Iraq. By utilizing translation theory and looking at how concepts specific to Arab culture and the Iraqi context are rendered into English, the paper will explore ways in which violence and the catastrophic context of the war are reflected in the novel. As a modern retelling and a work of dark satire, Frankenstein in Baghdad brings a fresh and novel approach to looking at the human body as a metaphor for the defragmentation and devastation brought on by war.
  • The Nakba (1948) was a catastrophe on the Palestinian people. It has ongoing traumatic effects for subsequent decades as the Palestinian people were displaced from their hometowns-not to mention their motherland. Suad Amiry’s memoir Sharon and My Mother-in-Law narrates the author’s strenuous travels across check points and artificially-created boarders within her motherland––Palestine after the Palestinian Nakba (catastrophe). Amiry lived in Ramallah in the 1980’s and had to go through the pain of crossing multiple check points to rescue her mother-in-law from the Israeli forces who were about to knock down the latter’s apartment. This paper attempts to read how the Nakba has exiled and marginalized a people inside their own country. Sharon and My Mother-in-Law shows how Palestinians live in a state of catastrophe––as the parts of Palestine under the authorities of the Palestinian Liberation Organization PLO are shrinking with time. Using the methodological tool of Adrienne Rich’s Biomythography (a combination of autobiography, theory, sociological and psychological awareness) and Lauren Fournier’s Autotheory (a combination of theory and its lived experience everyday) I argue that Suad Amiry’s memoir acts as a historical agent that combines the unfortunate lived experiences of Palestinian women with the disastrous political reality. Such insights (re)frame and refashion trauma literature in socio-political history. Through deploying these two interrelated theories, I illustrate how such a performative memoir reimagines Palestinian borders caused by the Nakba as sites of literary resistance. Since Biomythography and Autotheory and have not been read in tandem with literature by Palestinian women, my work departs from existing studies in this area and offers new insights on post-Nakba literature.
  • In the context of the Covid-19 pandemic, scholars of Arabic literature are revisiting Iraqi poet Nazik Al-Malaika’s Cholera (1947), a free verse poem that was groundbreaking in terms of its innovative subversion of conventional verse. Restricted by the limitations of metrical conventions, Al-Malaika later explained that free verse was what enabled her to express the grief she felt upon hearing news coverage of the rising death toll in Egypt. The refrain of the poem “death, death, death” is repeated at the end of each stanza and is meant to mimic the sounds of the horse carts dragging the bodies of cholera victims. Through poetic language, death remains at the center of the poem and its transcendental reality is apparent in the unrelenting force of the cholera virus. Drawing upon Jacque Derrida’s work on the relationship between death and language, the paper examines the way the theme of death is reimagined in different metaphorical layers, through the use of metonymy and synecdoche. The paper will also draw on Benedict Anderson’s work on nationalism and his argument regarding the symbolic significance of death, and the role it plays in the construction of collectivities in order to examine the way the poem integrates tropes of death with questions of nationalism. The poem ends with a lamentation about Egypt: “O Egypt, my feelings are torn apart by what death has done,” suggesting an identification and solidarity with Egypt, at a time when political crises were fueling Arab nationalism. The dead body in the poem becomes a venue for patriotic sentiment in relation to the symbolic birth of Arab nationalism.