Analysis: Climate change and Arabic literature

Haitham Nouri , Friday 14 Oct 2022

Why has the climate and the issue of climate change often taken a backseat in Arabic literature.

A still from Al-Ard (The Land) directed by Youssef Chahine, an adaptation of Abdel-Rahman Al-Sharqawi's novel

Climate change is humanity’s most intractable challenge, with leading countries seemingly unable to offer practical solutions to the crisis threatening human existence. Despite the gravity of the issue, world literature — be it in the East or the West or the developing or developed countries — has lagged behind in addressing the issue of climate change.

“The climate and changes to the weather are part of nature. They have never been the focus of Arabic literature, even when describing the natural background, such as a flowing river, greenery, or crystalline or dark skies,” said Ahmed Al-Khamisi, a professor of comparative literature (Russian and Arabic) and a short-story writer.

“In Arabic literature, man has generally not been seen as part of nature, and he has not been presented as particularly affected by it, not even in the writings of great literary figures such as Naguib Mahfouz and Youssef Idris,” he added.

Al-Khamisi has translated Russian literature into Arabic as well as works on Mahfouz and other writers.

Climate change alerted scientific circles some time ago, but the international media took note only in the 1970s and 1980s following the release of Hollywood movies on the subject. The first UN Conference of the Parties (COP) on the problem was held in Berlin in 1995.

However, despite the general lack, Arabic literature does contain some publications in which man is seen as part of nature, among them Taraneem fi dhil Tamara (Hymns in the Shadow of Tamara) by satirist Mohamed Afifi, who died in the 1980s, Al-Khamisi said.

In this book, which was reissued by Dar Al-Hilal in 1996, Afifi writes an extended dialogue between Tamara, a privet tree, and Zahira, a lemon tree, staging himself as sitting in their shade every afternoon in autumn and listening to the talk between plants, animals, birds, and insects.

“Afifi made himself a window through which the reader observes nature, until he turns the pages of the book into a part of himself,” according to Al-Khamisi, author of The Head of the Red Rooster among other books.

According to poet and journalist Mohamed Khairallah, there are also “hints” about climate change in some poems in Arabic literature. “If we expand the concept of the climate, we will find that poetry has paid attention to it,” he said.

Khairallah, also a historian, cites the works of poet Ahmed Abdel-Moeti Hegazi, such as Ashgar Al-Assmant (Cement Trees), which objects to “modern civilisation and its machines that are robbing man of his humanity”.

In the 1950s Hegazi released his collection Madina Bela Qalb (A City without a Heart), in which he “mourned the death of the urban environment, which he considers to be inhuman,” said Khairallah.

He added that some Arabic novels have also been concerned about the climate, among them Qadar Al-Ghoraf Al-Moqbeda (The Destiny of Confined Chambers) by novelist Abdel-Hakim Qassem and Fasad Al-Amkena (The Corruption of Places) by Sabri Moussa.

For a long time, the latter was considered to be a pioneering novel for its focus on nature and the transformations it has endured owing to man’s interventions.

 “Some Nubian novels have also played a role,” especially Al-Shamandoura (The Buoy) by Mohamed Khalil Qassem about “the flooding of Nubian villages by the waters of the lake formed by the Aswan High Dam in the 1960s. The Nubians, mostly living off date production, had to move to other places, some of which are not suitable for agriculture or housing.”

Despite their different points of view, Al-Khamisi and Khairallah both agree that the mentions of climate change in Arabic literature are no more than hints, because the priority was and will likely remain “political and social issues and cultural and individual problems at the expense of climate change”, according to Khairallah.

Al-Khamisi adds that “we have not been concerned with the big issues in the humanitarian sense of the word. Our priorities have been primarily societal.

“We were not part of the world in a sense. We went in another direction, as if we wanted to be separate from the rest of the world. Because we were formerly Western colonies, fighting for our independence, we also couldn’t be part of the Western world,” he said.

“The West controls the world, and it didn’t want its colonies to be full parts of it. The colonies did not want that either, and so there was no global sense of solidarity that would lead writers to consider global issues like the climate.”

Newly independent countries refused to be included within colonial systems such as the Baghdad Pact in the 1950s, and several former French colonies refused to join the Francophone world in the 1960s.

There was a desire to restore a sense of history and identity in India, and there was the cultural revolution in China in the 1960s. All these countries wanted to restore their national roots more than they wished to be integrated into a world led by the colonial Western countries.

“The causes we considered to be a priority, the West had already done with,” added Al-Khamisi, citing the novel Al-Ard (The Land) by Egyptian writer Abdel-Rahman Al-Sharqawi. “This novel tackled the struggle against feudalism in the Egyptian countryside, which Europe had been through more than a century earlier.

“Even our generation, who discussed social, cultural, and humanitarian issues and was influenced by schools of realism, addressed issues that the industrial societies had turned their backs on, such as poverty, inhumane housing, illiteracy, religious extremism, and women’s rights.

“Above all, there has not been a science-fiction literature in Egypt and the Arab world, but only rather naive attempts suitable for children.”

In Egypt, science fiction commenced in the 1990s, but it did not develop further than mediocre stories for teenagers. “Our societies don’t strongly believe in science, and so there is no fertile soil for science fiction,” Al-Khamisi noted. “In this sense, Arabic literature has a limited conscience.”

There is no scene in Arabic literature such as in Dostoevsky’s novel about a girl’s trial for the murder of the governor of St Petersburg. When the interrogator asks the girl why she killed the governor, she replied that he was torturing prisoners. The interrogator asks her if she had a husband, a father, or a brother among the prisoners. She said “no, but I cannot accept that a crime goes unpunished,” Al-Khamisi said.

“In Arabic literature, we do not defend general, abstract principles of this sort,” he added, “because the literary conscience is formed over a long period, and our contemporary literary history is only 100 years old.”

More than a century ago, the great Russian writer Maxim Gorky lamented that Russian literature was no more than 150 years old, while English literature was more than four centuries old.

“There has been no literary interaction with the hardships that Arab, African, and Muslim peoples endure,” said Al-Khamisi. “Arabic novels have not discussed epidemics, a kind of natural phenomenon, because the last important epidemics happened before the production of contemporary Arabic novels.”

Literature is like the state, he said. The state cannot allocate funds to combat climate change if that means reducing spending on education, health, and social protection. Social issues take priority, much as has been the case in literature.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 13 October, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.

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