Academic journal article Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics

The Ecological Bedouin: Toward Environmental Principles for the Arab Region

Academic journal article Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics

The Ecological Bedouin: Toward Environmental Principles for the Arab Region

Article excerpt

To the memory of Vanessa Korany

This article examines the figure of the "Ecological Bedouin"--a take on the "Ecological Indian" (the Native American in unison with Nature)--in three Arab "desert novels," and evaluates the significance of this figure for the formation of environmental principles for the region. (1) The Ecological Bedouin as depicted in these works upholds environmental ethos, is a conservationist, values the lives of non-humans for their own sake, sees creation as an interdependent whole, not as isolated components, and evokes with reverence the inheritance of the ancestors inscribed in rock art, stories, and place names. He--there is no ecological she in these novels--is a new figure in Arabic literature, forcefully portrayed in Endings (1977) by Abd al-Rahman Munif; The Bleeding of the Stone (1990) by Ibrahim Al-Koni; and Seeds of Corruption (1973) by Sabri Moussa. (2) He has not been explored before by scholars who have studied the Arab novel and no attempt has been made to introduce him into the environmental discourse of the region.

Overview of the Novels

Each of the stories takes place in a different Arab desert. The site of Seeds is in Egypt's Eastern desert bordering the Red Sea and Sudan, near the mountain of Darhib. The setting in Endings is a fictitious village, al-Tayyiba ("the Good One") (3) that marks the "beginning of the desert," according to the narrator, and, from its description, is similar to other villages in the dry land of the Fertile Crescent. Bleeding is set in the heart of the Libyan desert at the intersection of two wadis. The writers are familiar with the terrain and modes of life which they portray in their narratives. Moussa remarks in the preface that he visited the area that is the fulcrum of the novel twice, and then lived there afterward for a year; Al-Koni, who writes from outside Libya, grew up in the desert; and Munif hailed from Saudi and Iraqi parentage and grew up in Jordan. The novels, in other words, are productions of storytellers each with a double gaze: the non-native familiarizing himself with the landscape and culture of desert life, and the native writing from exile. This authorial double gaze is embodied--whether intentionally or not--in the native/non-native characters whose vision of, and expectations from, the desert stand in sharp contrast to each other, a contrast that adds to the novels' visual and sensual load and to the ideational differences in the dialogue.

Each story presents a central character whom we dub the Ecological Bedouin and who dies in an accident or a confrontation toward the end of the novel. The indigenous protagonists care deeply for, and are part of, the place; recall its history frequently; know experientially its geography, topography, and climate; and cherish its flora and fauna. They encounter, and are encroached upon, by greedy, insatiable outsiders equipped with modern weapons and technologies for a quick loot--animals, minerals, gold, whatever the desert has to offer--seldom contemplating the terrain in terms other than utility. The novels are by no means "pastoral," in the sense of idealizing rural--in this case desert--life at the expense of the urban. Yet, we have here a variation of a classic plot where the idyllic is suddenly disrupted and torn apart by the machine--the machine in the garden--and the corrupt power and wealth of the city. Moussa's Seeds goes further, bringing in members of the government, including the king, for a decadent party that ends with his majesty deflowering the adolescent daughter of Nicola, the Russian engineer who designed and maintained the mines. The molestation of the young woman is meant clearly to symbolize and intensify the idea of the "rape of the desert."

The three novels accord the desert fundamental significance, a feature that distinguishes them from other Arab fiction that employs the desert leitmotif. They do not treat it as a mere setting, a metaphor to express human emotions, or a background for the main events. …

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