Environmental protection and the modern Arabic novel

Environmental protection and the modern Arabic novel

I am writing to you from Amman (Jordan) where I am doing an internship in an environmental organization called EcoPeace. The organization aims to achieve peace through ‘environmental peacebuilding’ between Palestine, Jordan, and Israel, meaning that through investing in the shared goal of environmental protection, people from all three countries work together. One of the major issues in the region is water shortage and the ineffective use of water, a problem emphasized by climate change.

In line with my internship, which you can read about here, I would like to devote this article to novels describing the problems of environmental degradation in the MENA region (the Middle East and North Africa). The bond between man and nature has often been a topic in modern Arabic literature because of the relationship many Arab nomads and farmers have with their land and earth.

Water in the MENA is often a source of conflict due to a phenomenon that in political science is called the ‘Prisoners Dilemma’: the idea that if none of the countries invests in the environment, for example, water sustainability, no individual country will feel inclined to so because its benefit of the natural resources will be much less than the others. Defecting and exploiting natural resources seems is thus the most profitable option, although this is often not the case on the long-term.

The Egyptian writer/ artist Ganzeer (his real name is Muhammad Fahmy) dealt with the scramble for resources in his graphic political science fiction novel The Solar Grid (2016-). It is set in a world destroyed by an environmental catastrophe and its last resources are collected to serve a group of Martians living elsewhere. Two earth-children however, when scavenging the earth looking for valuables come across something that will disrupt the Earth/Mars codependency. Ganzeer targets the powerful writ for complicity in environmental destruction, including businesspeople who profit from it. He periodically publishes chapters of the novel in PDF format that can be bought on his website.

The Solar Grid by Ganzeer

Another writer, the Saudi Abdelrahman Munif, has also depicted the deteriorating state of the desert environment due to human over-use in his quintet focused on the discovery of oil in an unnamed society similar to that of the Gulf. The Mudun al- Milḥ series (in English Cities of Salt 1984- 1989) show the dramatic effects of the discovery on society and environment: foreign intervention; corruption; the wrenching of traditional desert communities into exploited and oppressed urban populations; nomadic tribal rivalries; and the creation of a centralized police state. As Edward Said stated on the jacket- cover of the English translation: “it is the only serious work of fiction that tries to show the effect of oil, Americans and the local oligarchy on a gulf country.”

Cities of Salt by Abdelrahman Munif

Munif’s quintet touches upon the spiritual relationship traditional nomadic communities have with the nature around them which he emphasizes in his novel al- Nihāyāt (1978, English trans. Endings, 2007). The novel takes place at a time of prolonged drought in the desert which threatens the existence of its inhabitants. Its hero, ʿAssaf tries to persuade the community to not overhunt and not to uphold the privileges of a few at the expense of nature. He eventually dies guiding around a group of sportsmen visiting the desert from the city saving one of them during a sandstorm. The novel ends by his funeral evoking a collective catharsis, releasing the villagers to work together on a dam to secure them against future droughts.

Problems of water scarcity in the MENA have become worse due to the effects of climate change. Many countries are getting hotter and drier which has a serious impact on for example food security, especially considering the fact that the MENA has a strongly growing population. The massive flash-floods that Jordan has seen in the last two months and that have resulted in many deaths are also a result of climate change.

One of the first novels to describe climate change, its effects, and its possible solutions, is 2022 (2009) by the Lebanese Ghassan Chebaro. It is set in 2022 in a world similar to ours in which the effects of Co2 pollution, climate change, and water scarcity will lead to the eventual destruction of humanity. Its hero is the Lebanese climate activist struggling to convince the industrial world too, among others, switch over to green energy.

2022 by Ghassan Chebaro

Climate change and issues with water in the MENA region and in the world, in general, are curial. However, they are often presented in very academic and abstract ways. Literature can on the other hand, just like other forms of art such as movies and music, present the facts and dangers of overuse of resources, climate change, and water shortage and its effect on society and the environment in a comprehensible manner. More literature and other forms of art should incorporate this topic, because as the recent and dramatic UN IPCC Report showed, its consequences are undeniable and affect us all.

For more articles written by this author visit her blog at https://issabramil.wordpress.com/

Author: Desiree Custers