The Arab desert in American poetic discourse.
The word "desert" is arguably one of a few which have resisted fixed definitions across time. Tracing the different meanings of the word, David Teague shows how it developed from a descriptor of any "uninhabited and uncultivated tract of country ... including forest land," to a word describing "waterless and treeless areas" (6). According to Webster's American dictionary the term refers to "a deserted or forsaken region, a barren tract incapable of supporting population ... [and] destitute of moisture and vegetation." In most definitions, therefore, barrenness, lifelessness, and destituteness are common attributes of such spaces.
Geographically speaking, the desert is usually defined as a place that gets very little rainfall--less than 10 inches (250 mm) per year (Claybourne 4). Although dictionary definitions involve heat as a primary element, geographical scholarship refutes this claim by pointing to the Gobi desert in Mongolia and China as cold places in winter. Lexicographically designated as lifeless, unpopulated areas, deserts, which cover more than one quarter of earth's surface, have more than 600 million people living in them. Despite their barrenness, they still have animals and plants. Commonly known as dry, some deserts receive rain, snow, and hail (Claybourne 4). Notably, the biggest desert in the world is the Sahara which extends across a considerable number of North African, mostly Arab, and Sub-Saharan countries, and occupies a central position in the Judeo-Christian tradition.
Far from the lexicographical and geographical contexts, the desert, like other aspects of landscape, can be taken to refer to "a complex locus of experience and reflection; it is simultaneously an interior space of the mind; an exterior place where pilgrims, adventurers, and travelers can visit and dwell; and an archetype or icon of the imagination " (Klemm xiv). Indeed, the desert lies at a point between nature and culture. It is transformed into a cultural construct once it is perceived, imagined, or crafted--either literarily or artistically. The conceptual meaning of the desert, therefore, is tied to the particular background from which it emerges, be it personal, cultural, historical, political, or religious.
In most Western and American views, the desert, as Claudia Rapp puts it, is not only taken as a geographical setting, but is also regarded as a "historical stage on which the history of salvation is played out" (106). Thanks to the Judeo-Christian biblical narratives of Exodus and Deuteronomy, the desert has long been associated with the Arab landscape, particularly the Sahara. The people of Israel, as Mafia Del Pliar Blanco reminds us, crossed the desert for forty years. Jesus Christ withdrew into its expanses for forty days at the beginning of his public ministry. David Jasper also points to the fact that it was in the Arab desert that the "Prophet Elijah was fed during the time of the drought," and that it was also there that the early Christian monks known as the Desert Fathers led a pious mystic life in the fourth and fifth centuries (12). In these religious stories, the desert appears as a place of encounter with the Divine, a place where worldly desires are forsaken in an attempt to seek divine blessings. Claudia Rapp argues that in Exodus, the desert functions as "a place of encounter with God who made his presence through revelation, chastisement, nourishment and protection" (107). At one level, therefore, the Judeo-Christian tradition associates the desert with mysticism, with wandering into nothingness to reach piety, or, as Blanco puts it, "epiphany through alienation, perfection through a breaking away from community, the preparation in life for the afterlife" (63). At another level, and as G. H. Williams argues, in the Judeo-Christian view, the desert is the ultimate epitome of wilderness: "(a) wilderness as a moral waste but a potential paradise, (b) the wilderness as a place of testing or even punishment, (c) the wilderness as the experience or occasion of nuptial (convenantal) bliss, and (d) the wilderness as a place of refuge (protection) or contemplation (renewal)" (qtd. in Rapp 106).
The idea of wilderness as "a moral waste" and "potential paradise" has been theoretically adopted and practically tested across ages. The desert has long been regarded as a "great spatial tabula rasa, as a site for renewal, reinvention and regeneration" (Blanco 61). Escaping the contours of the populated urbanized city is one step towards self-discovery, self-renewal, and purgation. It is also a place where one can realize moral integrity. Empty as it is, the landscape enables man to avoid sin and seek perfection through solitude. At a deeper religious level, the desert can turn into a paradisal space where one's soul, wholly devoted to the Divine and absorbedly contemplating His Creations, relishes its spiritual blessings. For many Judeo-Christian people, therefore, the wild desert, though "a no place" is also, as Jasper contends, "a utopia, the land to which we are led back ... a 'door of hope'" (xviii).
While Williams's concept of wilderness mostly assumes positive associations, in other views, it tends to be wholly unfavorable. Teague argues that, in the Judeo-Christian conceptualization, particularly the American one, the desert wilderness is negatively associated with Heavenly wrath: "[C]reated by God as an expression of his wrath," he argues, the desert, a landscape of "brimstone and slat and burning, not sown, nor any grass groweth therein" (Deuteronomy 29:23, qtd. in Teague 14), was a place of punishment and atonement for "a stiffnecked people" (14). He further argues that, in Exodus, the desert is known as the wilderness of Sinai or the wilderness of Sin (Exodus 17:1, qtd. in Teague 14).
Overall, notwithstanding the two opposite poles pulling at the Judeo-Christian mind, the desert in general is not only suggestive of "vast, timeless landscapes whose principle components are windswept sand and obdurate stone and whose only growths are stunted shrubs and stubborn cacti" (Polette 163), but is also indicative of a frightful, empty crucible, a space for a symbolic quest for spirituality and piety through isolation or atonement.
The (Arab) Desert in early American Poetic Canon
The Judeo-Christian tradition has certainly left its imprint on the way the desert is conceptualized, imagined, and crafted in the American literary canon across ages. Notable enough is the fact that there is more proclivity towards the desert's negativity, particularly, and as Teague points out, the idea of "howling wilderness" inherent in the Judeo-Christian teachings (3). The American psycho-emotional shrinkage from the desert is also informed by the topographical nature of American desert, which long defied civilized urbanization. In fact, early white American immigrants regarded the desert as a hostile "Other" that tended to thwart the American Dream with its potentiality of a paradise on earth. It was also an antagonistic Other to the Western civilization which is thought to have depended basically "on agriculture" (Henry Nash Smith, qtd. in Teague 24). As a corollary, American settlers of Western descent balked at the desert logistically; for them it was "deadly [and] ... impossible to live in or even move across" (24). For other settlers, the promise of a new paradisal land was conditioned by confronting the desert. Many settlers crossed the American heartland and faced the desert, which had to be conquered and traversed in order to settle in the West Coast.
Notwithstanding this negative attitude, in some American poems, the Arab desert is represented from a neutral--if not a positive--angle. As far back as the early decades of the nineteenth century, and in keeping with the dominant literary motif in which the desert is metonymically represented either through its sand, its wind, or its typical creatures, Henry Wadsworth Longfellow (1807-1882), in his poem "Sand of the Desert in an Hour-Glass," captures a series of religious and historical events taking place on the Arab desert. Stirred by a gaze at a sand hourglass wherein lies "a handful of red sand, from the hot clime/of Arab deserts," the poetic persona embarks on a temporal voyage in search of their latent "vicissitudes" and "histories" (138). Time and space combine into a unique oneness, and in answer to some rhetorical questions about the length of time lapsed and the multitudes of events witnessed by the landscape, a series of visual images unravel:
Perhaps the camels of the Ishmaelite Trampled and passed it o'er, When into Egypt from the patriarch's sight His favorite son they bore. Perhaps the feet of Moses, burnt and bare, Crushed it beneath their tread; Or Pharaoh's flashing wheels into the air Scattered it as they sped; Or Mary, with the Christ of Nazareth Held close in her caress, Whose pilgrimage of hope and love and faith Illumed the wilderness. (138)
In a strict chronological order, the poet sets off by envisioning the biblical camels of the Ishmaelites, the prophet Ishmail's offspring (also known as Arabs), trampling the desert on their way to Egypt. The representation of the desert is donned by the metonymic use of camels and sand. As such, the desert emerges as a linking route and a traveling companion, or, as David Jasper puts it, a place "not to be lived in but to be entered into and crossed and traveled through" (2). In his next temporal stop, the poet moves to the "burnt and bare" feet of the fleeing Moses and the "flashing" wheels of Pharaoh, hence pinpointing a significant biblical narrative wherein the desert wilderness is symbolic of God's blessing and atonement. It was in the desert that the Israelites were saved from the oppressive Pharaoh, who in his turn was punished by drowning. Beguiled by the miraculous divine transformation of the sea into a strip of land so that Moses and his people could cross to the other shore where the Sinai desert lies, Pharaoh and his followers hurriedly chased them, only to be drowned in the Red Sea. Moving across the temporal line, the poet jumps to Mary and Jesus "whose pilgrimage of hope and love and faith/illumed the wilderness," hence adding to the landscape a pious and mystic dimension. Barren as it is, the desert is lush with Jesus's and Mary's devoutness.
This mystic streak is further underlined when, in the succeeding stanza, the poet leaps forward to the middle ages bringing to the foreground the story of
Anchorites beneath Engaddi's palms Pacing the Dead Sea beach, And singing slow their old Armenian psalms In half-articulate speech. (138)
The Engaddi Anchorites were hermits who chose to abandon urban and rural life for the desert in an attempt to approach the Divine. In this episode, they are seen performing their desert-animating religious rituals. In fact their "pacing" and "singing" help construct an effective visual and auditory image, which is made all the more emphatic through the use of the present participle.
This spiritually vivacious atmosphere soon gives way to another animated picture in which commercial caravans are "departing.... Bassora's gate/with westward steps" (138). In this sense, the desert acquires an economic function, given that the goods-laden caravans are apparently heading for some city in the west of Arabia only to return loaded with other commodities. Not before long, however, and in the succeeding part of this stanza, the poet resumes his previous preoccupation with the religious and mystic associations of the desert. Widening the spiritual scope such that it is not confined to the Judeo-Christian narratives, the poet refers to the Muslim "Mecca's pilgrims," who, "confident of Fate" and "resolute in heart," are pacing up the desert to perform their rituals and seek God's mercy and forgiveness (138).
As the poem moves towards its end, the poetic persona, twisting his temporal machine, swirls us back to the present. The Arab landscape, now intensively portrayed as "hot immeasurable," "boundless plains," and referred to as "the vast stretches of the desert with its shifting sand/its unimpeded sky," shrinks into "a crystal tower/Imprisoned by some curious hand" (139). Accordingly, in the closing lines, the desert loses its religious and worldly connotations and becomes an abstract symbol of infinity and boundlessness. Longfellow, therefore, presents a multi-fold vivid image of the Arab desert, an image which falls short of the negativity arguably overwhelming most American conceptualization.
Other poets, however, continued to be imaginatively haunted by the negative image embedded in the Judeo-Christian tradition. In his much cited poem, "In the Desert," Stephan Crane (1871-1900) presents the desert as a horrendous symbol of bestiality and fright:
In the desert I saw a creature, naked, bestial, Who, squatting upon the ground, Held his heart in his hands, And ate of it. I said, "Is it good, friend?" "It is bitter--bitter," he answered; "But I like it Because it is bitter And because it is my heart." (111)
Although the desert here appears as a mind/scape reflecting the poetic persona's inner tension and distress, it still points towards the latent negativity working inside the American psyche. The image of the unidentified, heart-holding, heart-eating creature that is both "naked" and "bestial" detaches the desert from the real world rendering it into a dystopic void. The horrific image of the bestial, self-destructive creature implicitly ties the landscape to dehumanization and destruction. The emphasis on bitterness--which is also suggestive of the desert's cactus--through the steady and successive use of the word "bitter" further underlines the state of misery tying man and place in an open, temporal point.
The same attitude is picked up in Robert Frost's (1874-1963) poem "Desert Places," in which the desert with its aridity and wilderness is set vis-a-vis a chilly snowy landscape:
Snow falling and night falling fast, oh, fast In a field I looked into going past, And the ground almost covered smooth in snow, But a few weeds and stubble showing last. (296)
The poem features an intensive image, both visual and auditory, of a frightening landscape overwhelmed by snowfall. The snow's whiteness is squarely opposed to the night's blackness; what brings them together is the action of "falling fast," which is enhanced by the repetition of the word "falling." As the poem moves on, the picture gets gloomier, with the field referred to in the above stanza expanding into "woods," and the snow-buried weeds pictured earlier now foregrounded by a shoot of "all animals [which] are smothered in their lairs" (296). Amidst this overcast landscape, the poetic persona appears "too absent-spirited" and weighed down by the loneliness surrounding him:
The loneliness includes me unawares. And lonely as it is, that loneliness Will be more lonely ere it will be less-- A blanker whiteness of benighted snow With no expression, nothing to express. (296)
After giving this intensive image of scary, devouring solitariness, accentuated by the notable repetition of the word "lonely," the poet gives a more fearful view of the desert:
They cannot scare me with their empty spaces Between stars--on stars where no human race is. I have it in me so much nearer home To scare myself with my own desert places. (296)
The desert is the ultimate embodiment of incomparable emptiness and fear, an idea that is much in line with this aritcle's argument. For many American voices, the desert remains a symbol of fearful wilderness and distressed alienation.
The fearful image of the desert is sometimes linked to the topographical nature of the American landscape. In her poem "Mexican Desert," Mina Loy (1888-1966), a prolific writer and artist whose career was highlighted after the posthumous recognition she received, delineates a fearful image of the desert/scape:
The belching ghost-wail of the locomotive trailing her rattling wooden tail into the jazz band sunset The mountains in a row set pinnacles of ferocious isolation under the alien hot heaven Vegetable cripples of drought thrust up with parching appeal cracking open the earth stump-fingered cacti amid hunch-back palm trees belabour the cinders of twilight. (74)
The keys to the desert picture are "ferocious isolation," "alienation," heat, and "drought." The minute physical description of the peculiar topographical features of the American landscape indirectly sheds light on the skeptical, rejecting tone. Although the desert is pregnant with its typical plants, its picture is gross rather than attractive. Hence, vegetables are "crippled," cacti are stumped, and palm trees are hunched, and they are all "belabouring" the twilight.
An intensive, multi-faceted representation of the desert can be traced in the poetry of W. H. Auden (1907-1973). In fact, Auden is well noted for the use of the desert as a motif and a metaphor for description, not only of places, but also of people and interior states of mind. In more than one place in his Collected Poems, there are references to the "desert [that] sighs in the bed" (135), to "the dust and scrub of a desert" (147), to "desert lions" (288), to "the deserts of ... [the persona's] forearms" (845). In his poem "Journey to Iceland," the desert is not only a linking route through which the traveling persona explores a new country ("in the desert on its way from Mothrundalun to some other place"), but is also a place where sinful men can seek purification; hence "the pale from too much passion of kissing feel pure in ... [the] deserts" (151). In "In Memory of W. H. Yeats," the landscape is metaphorically used in the description of human body and emotions:
In the deserts of the heart Let the healing start In the prison of his days, Teach the free man to praise. (247)
The vast desert is tied to the small-sized heart, an image which is suggestive of both infinity and barrenness. The fact that the heart's desert/scape is a place where wounds are healed deflates this potential sterility, and highlights the positive tone. The persona's heart is experiencing barrenness due to the loss of his friend, but it is as open for restoration as the tabula rasa-like desert.
In his poem "The Average," the desert emerges as a wild space of fearful silence; still it is a place of self-exploration, a refuge for the middle classes who are denied equal opportunities of prosperity and social justice in the capitalist city. Disappointed by the lack of a "sensible career," Auden's typical self-exploring persona throws himself into the fair emptiness of the desert, the tabula rasa that is free from human interventions and mechanisms:
So here he was without maps or supplies, A hundred miles from any decent town; The desert glared into the blood-shot eye The silence roared displeasure: looking down, He saw the shadow of an Average Man Attempting the exceptional and ran. (288)
Despite its barrenness and displeasing silence, the desert is a place where the "Average Man"--typically capitalized to represent a whole distressed class--can attempt "exceptional" deeds. Although stripped of maps and supplies, the persona is still optimistic about the potentialities offered by the unpopulated, non-commodified wilderness. Auden manipulates nature/scapes to vent his anger on the modern, industrialized, capitalized city which tends to extend the sufferings of the deprived low classes.
In "The Adventurers," one piece in his sonnet sequence "The Quest," Auden is directly involved with the Arab desert through his reflections on the Desert Fathers, those early Christian monks who had arguably played a significant role in the flourishing of Christian monasticism. Following the example of St. Antony who lived for twenty years in the Egyptian wilderness, the monks moved
beyond a boundary from the world of the city and the cultivated plain into a "counterworld" where alone the City of God could be built. Paradoxically, in this impossible place whose immensity could be embraced only by the imagination, and of which, seemingly, there was no end, the world is defined anew. (Jasper 52-53)
Auden captures their experience in the following lines:
Spinning upon their central thirst like tops, They went the Negative Way towards the Dry; By empty caves beneath an empty sky They emptied out their memories like slops, Which made a foul marsh as they dried to death, Where monsters bred who forced them to forget The lovelies their consent avoided; yet, Still praising the Absurd with their last breath, They seeded out into their miracles: The images of each grotesque temptation Became some painter's happiest inspiration, And barren wives and burning virgins came To drink the pure cold water of their wells, And wish for beaux and children in their name. (292)
Focusing on the Fathers associates the Arab desert with Christian mysticism. The poem shows how the journey towards spiritual purity and piety has been laden with suffering, both physical and psychic. Notably, the poet refers to the landscape as the "Dry" and the "Absurd," using capital letters, a technique which reflects its sanctity in the poet's mind, on the one hand, and raises the terms from descriptive to archetypal references, on the other. The use of polyptoton in "empty" and "emptied" serves to authenticate its typical attributes of emptiness and sterility. Thirst, loneliness, and fright (evident in the image of monsters) are the costs paid for communion with and commandment of the Divine. Waterless as it is, the desert bursts with wells under the spell of the Fathers' pious dedication. Hence, although the poet's tone tends to be depreciatory--a fact emphasized by the use of diction, particularly in the second line--it shifts into affirmative, exalting notes towards the end of the poem. This is clear in the use of the complex metaphor whereby the monks are compared to plants that grow out into miracles, in the reference to artists who draw on the monks' experience to come out with creative works, and in the emphasis on the blessings obtained from the desert's wells.
The Arab Desert in Contemporary American Poetry
In contemporary American poetry, the Arab desert continues to occupy a significant place. Rather than constructing an imaginative picture, however, most writers envision it through their tangible and direct experience, whether through traveling, fighting, or dwelling. In addition to tourists, fighters/poets and Arab American writers are among the dominant voices in this respect. While in some poems it is depicted through the lens of the exploring tourist/poet, in others, the desert is viewed from a political angle, particularly in light of the Palestinian crisis and the Iraqi War. Despite this pragmatic angle, some contemporary American writers still revisit the Arab landscape from a religious and mystic angle.
In her brief study of the desert in Arab poetry, Maysa AbouYoussef Hayward writes that in Arab poetry:
[t]he Sahara represents a location marked by fear, loss, exile, and emptiness, the result of destruction. Those who truly live within the desert, however, embrace this arid environment. City people refer to the desert as a sign of absence, of no life, but desert dwellers use the land to express a presence and to celebrate a way of life. (n. pag.)
In this reading, the desert remains entangled with polarities, depending on the background from which it is perceived. For Arab American poets, one can add, the perception of the desert is entangled with the personal experience of exile and homesickness. Most of them associate the wild landscape with the political and historical crises that swept the region across different ages. The Palestinian issue and the war on Iraq receive particular attention.
In his poem "No Echo in Judea," Samuel Hazo (b. 1928), a prolific Arab American writer, crystallizes this particular tendency of tying the landscape with politics and history. Featuring a car-driving persona speeding up across the desert road and heading for his native homeland Syria, the poem presents the barren landscape as an in-between point--not only between two spatial extremes, but also between the past and present:
The sun blinks at me from a donkey's eye exactly as it blinked eight centuries ago on tribes of Arabs armed to purge the last crusader from Jerusalem. (25)
Images of donkeys, nomads, and Arab tribes loom over the scene. Using Longfellow's technique of voyaging back in time, Hazo drags the reader back to earlier days. Just as Longfellow's flashback journey was stirred by a look at the sand hourglass, Hazo's voyage is spurred by a blink from a donkey's eye. Shortly, the desert is transformed into the stage for Arab tribes, a battling field wherein the invading Crusaders are fought and ousted. The desert, therefore, is associated with dignity and valor, with a unified Arab/Muslim voice and force. The image of the Crusaders indirectly hints at the Middle Eastern crisis following the establishment of the State of Israel and the occupation of some other Arab lands. Notwithstanding this implicit lamentation over the current situation in the Arab world, the poet's tone is not in the least celebratory of war and destruction, an idea evident in the succeeding lines:
How many bones survive? How many skulls did Timurlane leave stacked in pyramids where bedouin fork wheat against the wind and watch it fall. I squint for evidence. The deadness of the sea near Jericho unscrolls no secrets, and the sand endures for wind alone to sift and re-arrange and blow the smell of Briton, Frenchman, Turk and Mongol to the sun. (25)
The use of two successive rhetorical questions, the stark use of diction: "bones" and "skulls," and the reference to Timurlane, the merciless Mongol conqueror, are all suggestive of the poet's rejection of war and its destructive consequences. The mention of the smell of Briton, Frenchman, and Turk widens the historical and political scope even further, turning the desert, now symbolized by its sand and wind, into a huge battlefield. History and geography are thus wedded, and the ironical involvement of innocent landscape in bloody imperialist struggles is highlighted.
Abruptly, however, the poet changes the scene taking the reader back to earlier biblical ages:
The time is what it was when Sarah laughed the angel back to God. The shepherds wait for Christ. The tribes of Canaan graze their camels near the road I conquer like a new crusader armed With film and cigarettes. (25)
In this stanza, the reader gets a glimpse of Sarah, Prophet Abraham's old barren wife, receiving the good news of the much-awaited-for baby. There follows an image of the "shepherds wait[ing] for Christ" and another of "the tribes/of Canaan graz[ing] their camels." Consequently, the desert loses its associations with war and destruction and assumes its religious and biblical attributes. Suddenly, the temporal machine swirls, spinning the reader back to the present. Instead of the early Crusaders, the persona himself becomes a "new crusader" who is "armed with/film and cigarettes" and "[n]ursed on the blood/of Europe's cross and Europe's rack" (25). Like them, he is encroaching upon the virgin landscape and conquering it. The desert, therefore, acquires a new ecocritical dimension. The poet's "film" shows how tourism, the ultimate embodiment of capitalism, is threatening the integrity and virginity of the desert as an aspect of nature. His cigarettes, with their implicit connotations of smoke and industrialization, further highlight these threats and render the victimized desert squarely opposed to the urbanized city. This opposition is enhanced by the final pastoral nomad episodes in which male Bedouins are seen "can[ing] their sheep," while a female is breast-feeding her baby, "plump[ing]/her breast against [her child], thumb[ing] the nipple firm" (25).
In "Flawed Landscape," Sharif S. Elmusa (b. 1947), a Palestinian American poet, ties the Arab desert to the bitter sense of dislocation after the notorious Nakba in 1948. The image of the desert is informed by the title which unquestionably gives an initial negative impression: It is a flawed landscape. As the poem sets off, the poet/persona captures the bitter sense of dislocation afflicting Palestinians following their Exodus. In minute details, he describes how, after losing "the war," and turning into a displaced "nation of refugees," his father, "fueled by fear," was forced to flee, how he lugged his baby/son--in his arms (84),
and headed, on his peasant feet, across plain and impassable mountains, without a compass, headed east. We set down in a desert without the sinuous sands of the movies, in a camp, by the gateless Jericho. (84-85)
The desert is a temporary dwelling place wherein the refugee camps were set for the fleeing Palestinians. For the reminiscing poet/persona, it was a harsh, unwelcoming place lacking the noble beauty displayed in movies. The negativity of the desert is reinforced by the repetition of the title phrase; its hostility and harshness are further underlined by the image of "dark rocks":
In that flawed landscape, under the shadow of the dark rocks of the Mount of Temptation the world was kind to us. The United Nations, our godfather, doled out flour and rice and cheddar, "yellow," cheese sharp beyond our palates. (85)
The ironic reference to the kindness of the world and the image of the UN as the exiled Palestinians' godfather are instrumental in aggravating the sense of suffering. They show how nature and culture, landscape and humanity, have willingly or unwillingly joined forces to intensify the dilemma. The horrid picture of the flawed desert is further underscored when set against that of the benign landscape in the abandoned homeland:
My father remembered his twelve olive trees every day for ten years. He remembered the peasant saying to the olive tree. Had she felt for his toil, she'd yield not olives, but tears, and the tree answering: "Tears you have enough; I give you oil to light your lamps, to nourish, and to heal." Then one day he let go. Let go. My father was no Ulysses. He found a new land and stayed away on the farm, eking out some rough happiness. (85)
The enlightening, nourishing, and healing olive trees are the ultimate opposite of the desert with its dark rocks, bad meals, and flawed physical topography. The mournful tone with which the poet summons the picture of their benign fertile farm with its twelve olive trees is enhanced by the series of lively personifications by which the poet describes how the olive trees manifest their kindness to the father, how the tree "felt for his toil," how "she'd yield not olives, but tears." Although unquestionably innocent, the desert is pictured negatively thanks to the political background with which it is entangled.
Other Arab American poets approach the Arab desert from the perspective of an outsider/tourist. In her poem "In the way to Palmyra," the Syrian American poet Marian Haddad (b. 1962) portrays her visit to the "mysterious Palmyra," this oasis which stands in the middle of the Syrian desert and which is known to contain the "monumental rains of a great city that was one of the most important cultural centers of the ancient world" ("Site of Palmyra" n. pag.). In the poem, the first glimpse of the desert/scape brings to the foreground the picture of "Bedouin/woman and son [who] wander the Palmyrene ruins, selling/turquoise jewelry" (n. pag.). The scene deflates the typical picture of Arab nomads; instead of shepherding, they are selling "wares" which "they carry on arms or raise high up" (n. pag.). The image shows how capitalism, embodied in tourism, has not only defiled the virginity of the landscape but also degraded its people, transforming them from intrinsic indivisible parts of the landscape into worthless gypsies. Towards the middle of the poem, we catch a glimpse of some "Bedouin men who make/their living giving tourists ... a ride on old-world camels," an image which further authenticates this reading (n. pag.). The camel, a typical desert animal known in Arab culture as "the ship of the desert," has turned into a commodity, a fact made clear by the intensive decoration it is subject to. In order to be well marketed, camels are "draped in tasseled blankets, in bold colors, bright as their sun" (n. pag.).
Exploring the landscape with the eyes of an amazed tourist, the poet, whose vision is informed by her being raised in the West Texas desert town of El Paso, describes the Palmyrene desert as "exotic, mysterious; historic, full of art" (n. pag.). Further, she gives advice to forthcoming travelers as to the physical nature of the landscape:
But--make certain to wear a white head scarf, make certain you have, not only water, but heart; the only hotter desert city is Dubai, a thick and humid heat, 42C at 11:00 p.m., traveler, if you are so inclined to hike through wide and ancient grounds. But I wouldn't have missed walking this desert, and if you are in love with desert, these dunes will be more forgiving in April or September. (n. pag.)
The reader is thus informed as to the temperature and the conditions of hiking/walking in this vast hot landscape. As the poem moves towards its end, the poetic persona's hilarious tone gets more intensified, as she gets indescribably fascinated with the Palymrene landscape whose culture was at "the center of everything" (n. pag.).
Approaching the Arab desert from a touristic perspective can be traced in the works of other contemporary American poets. In "Wadi Rum," Vincent F. A. Golphin (b. 1952) captures scenes of the Arab desert with the eyes of the amazed, exploring traveler, who is not only overwhelmed by the peculiarity of the foreign landscape, but is also keen on presenting panoramic, descriptive details to his disoriented readers. Notably, the poem starts with a very long line followed by a few others, each comprising a single word. Orthographically speaking, therefore, the initial stanza gives a visual image mirroring the envisioned landscape, with particular emphasis on the sense of emptiness:
Earth here is as dry as a sand-stripped skeleton, bitterly brilliantly beautifully yet bearably barren so that I might empty myself as I glide across the desert. (12)
Even though the poet, born in a steel-production city in Ohio in the American Midwest, delineates the desert as dry, "barren," and like "sand-stripped skeleton," his tone is not in the least negative or derogatory. In fact, he speaks in celebrative high-pitched notes, a fact evident in the choice of diction ("brilliantly," "beautifully"), the breathtaking one-word end-stopped lines, and the careful use of the phrase "yet bearably" before the adjective "barren." This extolling, rather ecstatic, tone gets more pronounced as the persona hilariously declares how he took this Safari trip to "empty" himself in the vast expanse of the desert (12). The desert is, therefore, not only a place to be explored, it is also a locale where man, regardless of his religion or culture, can seek relief, empty his cares, and escape the burdens of modem life. In this sense, the desert is again sharply opposed to urbanized, modernized city. It is a unique aspect of nature's beauty that, as John C. Van Dyke argues, was "beaten to ashes under the successive marches of civilization" (1).
The positive high pitched tone is carried over in the succeeding stanza in which the poet describes in detail his Safari trip:
The driver hurls the Land Cruiser across the dunes. like an air-conditioned carnival ride, the car hugs the ruts in the road like rails careful not to leave the traced paths so that we do not get mired in the silken wastes cautious that i, an initiate, never meet the land, because he knows from the past many like me lack the strength to stare down god's brutal legacy. i bounce and slide upon the seat entertained by the illusion of risk, face the unknown ignorant of the many other souls wooed by the sound of its pulse. and gaze with excitement at the black and brown rock empire once ruled by Nabateans, Persians, Romans, grabbed by the British and French who rolled the scapes in search of a take. (12)
The assertive, celebratory tone is evident in the metaphor whereby the car is seen hugging the ruts in the road, and still in another in which the sand is compared to silk ("silken wastes"). The way lexical items are coupled together performs the same function--for instance, the use of "bounce," "gaze with excitement," and "entertained," and the way "dunes," "paths," and "wastes" are wedded to "silken wastes." Notwithstanding his transitory union with the dazzling landscape, the persona remains a tourist/other taken care of by the unidentified native driver. For him, to explore the desert is to "face the unknown," to live "the illusion of risk" and to encounter "god's brutal/legacy." Despite his excitement, therefore, the persona remains entangled in the American legacy with its latent negative attitude towards the Arab landscape and its Exodus-inscribed "howling wilderness" (Teague 3). In the final lines, the poet adds further historical nuances to the image of the desert. Accordingly, although Golphin approaches the Arab desert as a traveler/tourist, he presents a multi-fold image through which it emerges as not only a virgin empty landscape wherein one can escape the dilemmas of modern, industrialized cities, but also as a place laden with relevant religious and historical legacies.
In some contemporary American poetry, the Arab desert is linked to the Iraqi war. As is the case in the two World Wars, which yielded major poetic voices like Wilfred Owen, the Iraqi war has also produced its poets/soldiers, primary among whom is Brian Turner (b. 1967), an infantry team leader in the US Army. Turner had the opportunity to witness the daily records of the war and chronicle its nuances. What is unique about Turner's poems, however, is that, rather than limiting his perspective to the military aspect, he gives a panoramic picture of the daily and cultural life in Iraq. In his two collections of poems Here Bullet and Phantom Noise, the image of the desert, thus, emerges from streets and alleys, as well as the battlefield.
In "The Baghdad Zoo," the first poem in his collection Here Bullet, the desert is squarely opposed to the city. Departing from the battlefield and plunging into the suburbs of Baghdad, the poetic persona impartially points to the state of havoc sweeping the city under the US military. Notably, the poem is initiated by quoting Hans Blix's words: "Is the world safer? No. It's not safer in Iraq" (5). This imminent danger is deftly captured through a short episode in which zoo animals are taking flight into the city, spreading havoc and terror among the already horrified people, and spilling blood in the already blood-covered streets, laden as they are with "tanks" and "gunners," and capped with hovering "Blackhawk Helicopters" (5):
An Iraqi northern brown bear mauled a man on a street corner, dragging him down an alley as shocked onlookers shouted and threw stones. Tanks rolled their heavy tracks past the museum and up to the Ministry of Oil. A gunner watched a lion chase down a horse. Eaten down to their skeletons, the giraffes looked prehistoric, unreal, their necks too fragile, too graceful for the 21st Century. (5)
Destruction overwhelms everything. Human beings are not only reaped by weapons but also by animals; hence the man-dragging bear. Not only humans but also animals kill each other, hence the picture of the "lion ... chas[ing] a horse" and the giraffes "eaten down to their skeletons." As the poem draws to its end, the desert moves to the foreground:
One baboon escaped the city limits. It was found wandering in the desert, confused by the wind, the blowing sands of the barchan dunes. (5)
The desert is metonymically represented by its wind and sands, and is portrayed in such a way as to intensify the destruction prevailing over the city. The wind and the blowing sands deflate hope for a safe, harboring landscape. Hence, although the desert is not specifically entangled with battles and fighting, it is represented as an extension of the catastrophic chaos resulting from the unjustified bombing of Baghdad. It is as if Nature, represented by desert/scape and animals, collaborates with military science, embodied by tanks, gunners, and helicopters, to add up to the dilemma of the Iraqi people.
The negative representation of the desert through the metonymic use of the wind is picked up in another poem, significantly entitled "Ashbah," the Arabic word for "ghosts," in the same collection. Although initiated by reference to the ghosts of dead American soldiers who, "lonely" and disoriented, "wander the streets of Balad by night," it soon assumes an unbiased tone when referring to the Iraqi dead who "watch in silence from rooftops" (18). Between the two scenes, there emerges a picture of "the desert wind blowing trash/down the narrow alleys," an image that further intensifies the dominant gloominess and fright (18). The noisiness of the wind contrasts sharply with the silence of the dead, and is overshadowed by the sounds of the minarets, springing the adhan (call for prayer) sound with its mystic and soothing connotations.
The use of the desert as a background to the image of warring and destruction continues to engage Turner across the whole collection. In a poem entitled "Sadiq," Turner, who adopts a steady anti-war stance, attempts to make the Arab archer decline his fighting action, simultaneously presenting the desert as a place of punishment:
It should make you shake and sweat, nightmare you, strand you in a desert of irrevocable desolation, the consequences seared into the vein, no matter what adrenaline feeds the muscle its courage. (56)
In other poems, however, the desert appears in the background but remains pregnant with associations of tranquility and peacefulness:
I have only the shadows under the leaves to take with me, the quiet of the desert, the low fog of Balad, orange groves with ice forming on the rinds of fruit. (64)
In the second collection, Phantom Noise, the Arab desert gets more entangled with war and fighting, but is still metonymically represented--this time through fighting equipment and uniforms. In more than one poem, there is reference to the poetic persona carrying his "rifle" and wearing his "desert fatigues" and "desert boots." In "Illumination Rounds," the poet drags the reader right into a US Army camp in the Iraqi desert where American soldiers and doctors intermingle among themselves and with Iraqis:
Parachute flares drift in the burn time of dream, their canopies deployed in the sky above our bed. My lover sleeps as Iraqi translators shuffle in through the doorway--visiting as loved ones might visit a hospital room, ill at ease, each of them holding their sawn-off heads in hand. (23)
The poet uses perfect auditory and visual images to convey the sense of parachutes flaring and the sleeping lover. The image gets increasingly more depressing as the persona, swiveling his visionary poetic lens, shuffles the reader back to the scene of Iraqi martyrs. Assuming the voice and role of the physician-fighter, the persona hurries to put on his "desert fatigues" and attempts to "sew the larynx back," "suture by suture," yet fails to resurrect them back to life (23). At the end of the poem, the poetic persona is seen "digging deep" in the ground and is heard talking to his lover: "We need to help them, if only with a coffin," he says (23). The desert is thus not only a place to fight in; it is a graveyard, a healing place, and a cultural hive where Arabs and Americans, despite differences and conflicts, openly intermingle.
The Arab desert continues to loom over the scene in poems which are not set in Iraq. In his poem "Viking 1," which, as suggested by its title, deals with the first of two spacecrafts launched by the American National Aeronautics and Space Administration to Mars, Turner justifiably uses unidentified desert images to describe the physical nature of the uninhabited planet. Hence, astronauts are:
landing on the Golden Plain, Chryse Planitia, which is a vast and stony desert, a graveyard of shadows cast sanguine in their repose. (17)
In the final stanza, however, the poet's interest in Arab people and landscape superimposes the Arab desert upon the poem's texture and imagery:
In the old days, they say the desert Arabs hung lanterns high in the date palms, a guide for friends and strangers traveling by night. And maybe that's what I'm doing as I search for lamps in the night's vast amphitheater, even if I don't know how to put it into words-- I'm searching for the face on Mars, so much like our own, made from dust and to dust returning, the wind's erosion calling into the void with that brutal instrument, pain. And like so many before me, I listen. (17)
Rather than being a symbol of darkness, solitariness, and aridness, the Arab desert is pictured as a populated place, one alive with its people and vegetation (e.g., "date palms"). Apparently the poet conjures the image of the desert as well as that of the spacecraft to reflect on his own peculiar state of mind, as well as his desire for enlightenment and knowledge. Like the Arabs, he is searching "for lamps." For the poetic persona, the Arabs are guides to be followed, lanterns to be guided by. The desert is a place to be explored and to help you re-discover yourself.
Although in most contemporary American poetry the Arab desert is presented from a historical, touristic, and political perspective, it still retains its typical religious and mystic attributes. This approach is particularly evident in the poetry of Kazim Ali (b. 1971), a Muslim Indian American poet who is keen on re-envisioning the image of the desert through revisiting the story of Hagar, the second wife of Abraham and the mother of his first son, Ishmael. As per common knowledge, Hagar was an Egyptian handmaiden of Sarah, the first wife of Abraham. Being barren, Sarah offered Hagar as a second wife to her husband, who was later forced to take Hagar and her son into the desert when tension erupted between the two women. Although differences exist between the biblical and Muslim stories as to whether Hagar left Sarah's house willingly or unwillingly and as to the exact time--before or after her pregnancy--her desert experience is a common and indisputable part of both versions. Fascinated by Hagar, whom he regards as the "mother of the hungry," Ali, in his poem "Hunger," from the collection The Far Mosque, presents her story from both the Christian and Muslim angles:
In the Christian version of the story, Ishmael lies limp on the ground, Hagar, mother of the hungry, beginning to rise up, one arm flailing, stricken. She does not even see the necessary angel, coming to reveal the hidden spring's location. (47)
Ali captures the scene of Hagar and her hungry, limp son in a harsh landscape which wears them down and denies them the basics of life. The words "limp," "hungry," "flailing," and "stricken" reinforce the idea of exhaustion and misery. Despite being pictured as ruthless, the desert is also a site of miracles, a place where God's divine power is manifested. Conforming to the story revealed in Genesis, Hagar, who is said to have left Sarah's house when Ishmael was a teenager, is pictured unaware of the presence of the angel who was to give her the reassuring tidings about the location of the desert well.
In the following stanza, Ali introduces the Muslim version of the story. Hagar and her son are said to have left Sarah's house shortly after the birth of Ishmael due to the strife enkindled between the two women. It was through a divine decree that Abraham moved his wife and son out of Sarah's house and re-settled them in a barren, unpopulated land. Having run out of water, the panicked Hagar keeps running between the two hills of Al-Safa and Al-Marwah, an act which later becomes an essential pilgrimage ritual in Islam. After her seventh run, Ishmael hits the ground with his heel and causes a miraculous well---now known as Zamzam--to spring out of the ground:
In the Muslim version, she knows Ishmael is dying, but doesn't wait to find out what happens next. Like Abraham with the sacrificial knife in his hand, she does not expect rescue from the sky. She would never expect the earth beneath the boy would crack, a spring would bubble up there, water filling his mouth. Alone in the desert, between two mountains, she's gone before his heels begin hammering the rock in the spasm of death. (47)
Ali's Muslim background is well reflected in the way he reads Hagar's desert experience against that of Abraham who, later in his life, would be forced by a divine call to slaughter his son Ishmael. Like the father, Hagar emerges a symbol of obedience and submission to God's word. The desert, however, remains a symbol of loneliness, a "spasm of death," but one that yields to God's word and miraculously surrenders to the feet of the small boy, bringing up the bubbling "spring."
Ali revisits the same story in "Carlisle," another poem from Bright Felon in which he ties his pilgrimage experience to that of Hagar:
Why is it I would want to go to Mecca. Because there a stone fell from the sky. But more importantly than that small thing. That is where a mother refused to believe. A mother refused to believe the obvious: I am alone in the desert with my son. (12)
The desert continues to be a symbol of loneliness, challenge, and fortitude. Ali reiterates the episodes of Hagar's loneliness in the desert, of "the water that came exactly where she put the boy down" (13). Despite its harshness, the desert is a place where Hagar's faith in God can be tested; it is a place of exile, but is also a space where a lonely woman can make a decision:
In the desert the mother was left. She had to decide. Do you wait for god to tell you what to do? Or do you panic? (13)
Considering the idea that woman and land are interchangeably used in poetic symbolism, the desert here, despite its harshness, proves to be a benign mother. As is the case with the mother from whose breasts gushes out the nourishing milk, the water comes out from the rocky barren desert. In both cases, it is a divine miraculous act in which Woman and Desert are powerless recipients of God's bounty, which is then transferred to humankind.
In her essay "Asphalt Nomadism: The New Desert in Arab Independent Cinema," Laura U. Marks underlines the significance of the Arab desert arguing that "there is no teleology in the desert ... [that] blowing sand effaces markers, erasing time and memory" (1). The previous investigation has shown how the Arab desert, noted for its physical features including sand dunes, rocky mountains, wells, and plants, has never been disentangled from time and memory, that the blowing winds and sands--by which it is sometimes metonymically represented--have never been successful in erasing the religious, cultural, and historical landmarks with which it has long been associated. Thanks to Judeo-Christian narratives, the Arab desert has occupied a central position in the American tradition. For long, it has been tied up with polarities, with the idea of wilderness as a blessing and curse, reward and punishment, of emptiness as an escape and mystic reunion. This polarity continues to loom over the vision of most American poets, ranging from early voices to contemporary ones. The perspective from which the Arab desert is tackled alternates across time, and varies according to the writers' experience, whether real or imaginary, but the landscape remains fraught with narratives, images, and potentialities; it is an inextricable part of history, politics, and spirituality.
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|Author:||Hassan, Naglaa Saad M.|
|Publication:||Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics|
|Date:||Jan 1, 2013|
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