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Arabic Petrofictions

Panel XII-12, sponsored byAssociation for Gulf and Arabian Peninsula Studies, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Sunday, November 5 at 11:00 am

Panel Description
In his 1991 review of Abdulrahman Munif’s Cities of Salt, entitled "Petrofiction: The Oil Encounter and the Novel,” Amitav Ghosh ascribes the overall absence of serious literary fiction addressing oil to the fact that “the history of oil is a matter of embarrassment verging on the unspeakable, the pornographic.” Yet, while critical works such as Imre Szeman and Dominic Boyer’s Energy Humanities (2017) regularly frame both Ghosh and Munif as foundational to the study of oil-in-literature and oil-in-culture, their engagement with the Arab world typically ends there. Exploring literary and artistic grapplings with the violent advent of oil and oil exploitation in the Arab Gulf and beyond, this panel brings together papers seeking to chart and problematize from an ecocritical perspective narratives of petromodernity, petroeconomy, petroarchive, statebuilding, empire, and the petrodollar standard. In so doing, it offers the Arabic text and cultural/economic space as a site both local and global for continued theorization of Petrofiction.
  • As the quintessential work of Arabic Petrofiction, Abdulraḥmān Munīf’s Mudun al-milḥ (Cities of Salt) interweaves depictions of the destruction of sustainable, traditional forms of desert life with the development of the Petrostate and its concomitant social, material, and affective restructuring of human life. While Cities itself, the first of the eponymous quintet, concludes on a note of hopeful labor triumph, other Arab authors have continued in Munīf’s footsteps, crafting literary tales that document, ponder, and problematize oil development, yet do so while simultaneously eschewing Cities’ sense of closure. Among such authors are Kuwaiti Bidun writer Nāṣer al-Ẓafīrī (1960-2019), who has long argued that his migration to Canada enabled him to write his Jahra trilogy. Actively publishing since the early 1990s shortly after the Iraqi invasion, al- Ẓafīrī’s work gained renewed prominence after the 2011-2012 Bidun street protests. Since then, his early writings including Samāʾ maqluba (Upturned sky, 1995) and stories from al-Damm al-awwal (First Blood, 1993) have been reissued alongside the publication of his Jahra trilogy which includes al-Ṣahd (Scorched Heat, 2014), Kalīskā (Coyote, 2015), and al-Masṭar (Notebook Paper, 2017). These three novels are of particular interest given their multi-generational consideration of intertwined Bedouin, Bidun, and Palestinian lives that ultimately, in Kalīskā, inaugurates a pivotal space for the figure of the Native American within the story of oil both globally in the Arab Gulf. To date Zafiri’s work has been read in terms of critical pedagogy (al-Shammiry 2020) and reclaiming the place of the Kuwaiti Bidun in the nation’s formation (Alrabei 2021). In this paper, I propose building upon these approaches to analyze al-Ẓafīrī oeuvre in light of the fossil fuel powered dispossessions first explored in Munīf. Between al-Ẓafīrī sympathetic yet highly complex depictions of the have-notes of the emerging oil economy, including culturally specific Bedouin, Palestinians, and Native Americans in his trilogy, as well as culturally ambiguous, luckless figures of his short stories, I argue that Zafiri’s writings offers a kaleidoscopic, polyvocal crafting of the genesis of the Petrostate writ large and the human and ecological human sacrifice zones integral to its rise. Blending magical and social realism, al-Ẓafīrī pens a Kuwaiti and a global petrohistory that serves as a model for tracing the contours of the next generation of Arabic Petrofiction.
  • Since the early 2000s, numerous artists originating from or associated with the Gulf (UAE, Kuwait, Qatar, and Saudi Arabia) have turned their attention to the oil economy’s infrastructures that underlie the region’s rapid urbanization, not to mention the art institutions and foundations that support their own artistic practic. Some of these artists, such as Fatima al-Qadiri, Wael Shawki, or Lydia Ourahmane, constructed large, sensuous gallery objects that aimed to evoke oil’s materiality – its shimmering, otherworldly slickness. Many other projects, however, including sometimes by the same artists, turned to the petroeconomies archives as a source, in a move adjacent to and contemporary with the calls of (primarily Western) academics such as Szeman, Macdonald, and Wilson to excavate cultural histories of oil production. Works such as Nasrin Tabatabai and Babak Afrassiabi’s Seep (2012-2013), an art installation and a magazine; Hajra Waheed’s The ARD: Study for a Portrait 1-28 (2018); or Manal Al Dowayan’s If I Forget You, Don’t Forget Me (2012) are all grounded in meticulous archival research on the one hand, and, on the other, make use of a giddy, speculative aesthetic to present their interventions into this archive. Such cross-generic projects straddle the boundary between conceptual art installation, research, and fiction. This paper questions the prevalent form that characterizes so many of the art projects engaging with the oil economy: hybrid, multidisciplinary, and excessive (to these one may add Reza Negarestani’s unclassifiable tome Cyclonopedia, at once a sci-fi novel, a philosophical treatise, and a geopolitical exposé). Aiming to contextualize this mode of art practice-as-research, I explore two directions: first, what Hanan Toukan identified as the meaning taken on by the term “contemporary” in a hegemonic neoliberal-cosmopolitan art scene, denoting a mode of largely conceptual art practice engaged in supposedly post-ideological subversion and “consensual dissent” (Toukan, 2021: 68-72). Secondly, I consider these works’ primary gesture – a speculative positioning of past archives – in relation to the financial tools of the petroeconomy, speculation and credit, and examine the temporal politics of their aesthetic practice alongside neoliberal political economy’s technologies for managing the future through relations of debt and finance.
  • Deepak Unnikrishnan’s “In Mussafah Grew People” is a short story contemplating the forces driving Gulf migrant labor. To borrow scholar Swaralipi Nandi’s analysis, the story exposes a petroeconomic system that appears to “[replicate] the structures of slavery” (Nandi 138) in its expropriative treatment of the “petro-precariat” (i.e migrant worker) subject working under oil. On its own this description might not distinguish “In Mussafah” from its contemporaries, but what does distinguish this work from a comparable story like Nawal el-Saadawi’s grungy Love in the Kingdom of Oil is the nearly total absence of women from the narrative. The foremost interests of this study lie in this point. Aided by Sheena Wilson and Sharae Deckard’s feminist critiques of gender relations within the petroeconomy, I first propose that a gendering of “In Mussafah” illuminates a site of seeming lack within the narrative. I argue, however, that what at first appears to be an exclusionary, dismissive narrative oversight might be better served if read as an extension of (rather than in competition with) feminist critiques of gender politics in petrofiction. Working cooperatively in this way with feminist petrocriticism, I show that the absence of women from Deepak Unnikrishnan’s narrative is not lack but inauguration of a new constellation of gender relations generated by a coldly technocratic, utilitarianist logic that conceptualizes its human subjects and the gender relations between them not just as dehumanized objects to be expropriated, but as parts of a machine to be upgraded.
  • Despite the preponderance of oil in the Middle East, there are only a handful of critical studies on the intersection of Arabic literature and oil. This paper seeks to redress this gap by plumbing environmental insights from the nomadic protagonists of characters in novels by Saudi Arabian writer Abdal-Rahman Munif by examining the understudied figure of the ‘Ecological Nomad’ in unison with nature and at war with the violent aspects of petro-modernity. Abd al-Rahman Munif evaluates the environmental politics of the region in relation to this figure. Oil is indeed a sticky subject of narration for Munif who worked in the oil industry for nearly two decades only to revile the politics of petroleum production in his fiction. I show how Munif ties together political critique and ecological mourning through the figure of the ecological nomad in his quintet Mudun al- Milh (Cities of Salt 1984- 1989). The ecological nomad reveres the lives of non-humans on their own terms, cares deeply for the embattled dessert, communes with its non-human inhabitants, and attempts yet fails to ward off the extractive exploits such as drilling for oil, overuse of dwindling resources and disrespect for nonhuman existence. I place the quintet in conversation with al-Nihāyāt (1978, English trans. Endings, 2007), which takes place at a time of prolonged drought in the desert Its ecological nomad ʿAssaf tries to persuade the community to not overhunt and not to uphold the privileges of a few at the expense of nature. There is much to be learned from the novels under study in this book; for sustaining the natural environment in the face of climate change, countering disregard for the non-human world, and urging us to tread gently into the future. I aim to make this paper a contribution to our understanding of the broader politics of our current moment of climate crisis through the less recognized but powerful potentialities of ecocritical Arabic fiction and by sounding the alarm about things that may not yet be visible but are already coming to pass.