Climate change is humanity’s most intractable challenge, with major nations seemingly unable to offer practical solutions to the crisis that threatens human existence. Despite the seriousness of the problem, the world literature – whether East or West or in developing or developed countries – has lagged behind in addressing the issue of climate change.
“Climate and weather changes are part of nature. They have never been central to Arabic literature, even when depicting the natural background, such as a flowing river, greenery or a crystal clear or gloomy sky,” said Ahmed Al-Khamisi, professor of comparative literature. (Russian and Arabic) and a News Editor.
“In Arabic literature, man has not generally been seen as part of nature, nor has he 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 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 only took note of it in the 1970s and 1980s following the release of Hollywood films on the subject. The first United Nations Conference of the Parties (COP) on the problem was held in Berlin in 1995.
However, despite the general lack, Arabic literature contains a few publications in which man is considered part of nature, among them Taraneem fi dhil Tamara (Hymns in the shade of Tamara) by the satirist Mohamed Afifi, who died in the 1980s, Al-dit Khamisi.
In this book, republished by Dar Al-Hilal in 1996, Afifi writes a long dialogue between Tamara, a privet, and Zahira, a lemon tree, depicting herself sitting in their shade each autumn afternoon and listening to the conversation. between plants, animals, birds and insects.
“Afifi has made for himself a window through which the reader observes nature, until he transforms 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” to climate change in some poems in Arabic literature. “If we expand the concept of climate, we will find that poetry has paid attention to it,” he said.
Khairallah, also a historian, cites the works of the poet Ahmed Abdel-Moeti Hegazi, such as Ashgar Al-Assmant (Cement Trees), which opposes “modern civilization and its machines which deprive man of his humanity”.
In the 1950s, Hegazi published his Madina Bela Qalb (A Heartless City) collection, in which he “mourns the death of the urban environment, which he considers inhuman”, Khairallah said.
He added that some Arab novels have also been concerned about the climate, including Qadar Al-Ghoraf Al-Moqbeda (The Fate of Confined Rooms) by novelist Abdel-Hakim Qassem and Fasad Al-Amkena (The Corruption of Places) by Sabri Moussa. .
For a long time, the latter was considered a pioneering novel for its focus on nature and the transformations it has undergone as a result of human intervention.
“Certain Nubian novels also played a role”, notably Al-Shamandoura (The Buoy) by Mohamed Khalil Qassem on “the flooding of Nubian villages by the waters of the lake formed by the Aswan High Dam in the 1960s. Nubians, living mainly from the production of dates, had to move to other places, some of which are not suitable for agriculture or housing.
Despite their differing views, Al-Khamisi and Khairallah agree that mentions of climate change in Arabic literature are only hints, as the priority was and is likely to remain “political and social issues and cultural issues”. and individuals to the detriment of climate change,” according to Khairallah.
Al-Khamisi adds that “we did not concern ourselves with the big problems in the humanitarian sense of the term. Our priorities were above all societal.
“We weren’t part of the world in a sense. We went in another direction, as if we wanted to separate ourselves from the rest of the world. Because we were once Western colonies, fighting for our independence, we couldn’t be part of the Western world either,” he said.
“The West controls the world, and it didn’t want its colonies to be part of it. The colonies didn’t 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 in colonial systems such as the Baghdad Pact in the 1950s, and several former French colonies refused to join the French-speaking world in the 1960s.
There was a desire to restore a sense of history and identity to India, and there was the cultural revolution in China in the 1960s. All of these countries wanted to return to their national roots more than they wanted integrate into a world ruled by colonial Western countries.
“The causes that we considered priorities, the West was already done with them,” Al-Khamisi added, citing the novel Al-Ard (The Earth) by Egyptian writer Abdel-Rahman Al-Sharqawi. “This novel dealt with the struggle against feudalism in the Egyptian countryside, which Europe had passed through more than a century earlier.
“Even our generation, which discussed social, cultural and humanitarian issues and was influenced by schools of realism, addressed issues that industrial societies had turned their backs on, such as poverty, inhumane housing, illiteracy, religious extremism and women’s rights.
“Above all, there has been no science fiction literature in Egypt and the Arab world, only fairly naive attempts suitable for children.”
In Egypt, science fiction started in the 1990s, but it didn’t develop beyond mediocre teenage stories. “Our societies do not believe strongly in science, and therefore there is no fertile ground for science fiction,” Al-Khamisi noted. “In this sense, Arabic literature has a limited consciousness.”
There is no scene in Arabic literature like in Dostoyevsky’s novel about the trial of a young girl for the murder of the governor of St. Petersburg. When the interrogator asks the girl why she killed the governor, she replies 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 and abstract principles of this kind,” he added, “because literary consciousness 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 over four centuries old.
“There was no literary interaction with the hardships that Arab, African and Muslim people are enduring,” Al-Khamisi said. “The Arabic novels did not talk about epidemics, a kind of natural phenomenon, because the last major epidemics occurred before the production of contemporary Arabic novels.”
Literature is like the State, he said. The state cannot allocate funds to fight climate change if it means reducing spending on education, health and social protection. Social issues take priority, as has been the case in the literature.
*A version of this article appeared in the October 13, 2022 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly.