ALN logo; link to Arid Lands Newsletter home page No. 50, November/December 2001
The Deserts in Literature, II

Communities at the margins: Arab poetry of the desert

by Maysa Abou-Youssef Hayward

"For Arab poets, the desert in its presence or absence is power, but this power takes different forms. . . .In all cases, the desert is a context, whether a life threat or a life, and it has a voice."

Sahara means desert in Arabic, an arid space, desolate and waste-also with the sense of being open and unprotected, borderless (jarda). Much of the population of the Arab world lives close to the edge of a desert. In Egypt, my country of birth, 96% of the land is desert. Except for those living in the Nile Delta region, the desert is never more than a few miles away. Similar conditions hold in the other Arab lands of the Maghreb (or North Africa) and the eastern Mediterranean. How, then, do those who live always on the desert's edge view the desert? As a wasteland, a place of danger, a place at the margins of civilization? Or is there a chance for community within the arid and seemingly hostile environment? Perhaps there is another way to pose these issues, calling for a revision of our usual ways of thinking about margins and centers, civilization and wasteland. For those whose lives are outside the borders of the desert or within the desert's cities, the 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. We can see these themes operating in Arab poetry.

In the modern, highly-censored Arab world, Arabs use poetry as a way to speak indirectly of their frustrations with their governments and indeed with any form of corrupt authority, whether internal or external. In this poetry, images of the desert often describe the ruin brought by these authorities: war, human alienation and isolation, and social decay. In other words, the desert represents the loss of a community on the social level and the loss of a way of life on a personal level.

As the desert was (and is) often the place where wars happen in the Arab world, an association of the desert and war seems natural. In his poem "In the deserts of exile," Palestinian writer Jabra Ibrahim Jabra feels nostalgia for a lost Palestine, this "green land of ours." Compared to the fertile valley he knew, the land is presently waste:

O land of ours where our childhood passed
Like dreams in the shade of the orange-grove,
Among the almond-trees in the valleys--
Remember us now wandering
Among the thorns of the desert,
Wandering in rocky mountains;
Remember us now
In the tumult of cities beyond deserts and seas;
Remember us
With our eyes full of dust
That never clears in our ceaseless wandering. (Jabra 1974, 227)

For Jabra, the war has "Unfolded the desert before us" (Jabra 1974, 227), and the desert is a place of exile, where "Only the dust hisses in our face" (Jabra 1974, 229). In the Arab culture, wandering within a village or city plays a positive role. It offers the opportunity for interconnectedness among people. Wandering in a desert, however, is aimless as it offers no chance for such a connection.

Lebanese poet Nadia Tueni also uses the desert as an image of war, destruction, and the death of fertility. And as in Jabra, the desert is empty:

What more does war need?
A road, someone living, someone dead,
a river of sacred mud,
and the devouring heat of June.
A clock, a wall, an old saber,
a head forgotten at the top of the stairway,
a Bedouin white against the background of sand,
and the double noise of fear. (Tueni 1978, 108)

Tueni's desert image of the Bedouin "white against the background of sand" comes at the end of a list of other fragmented images, the result of the fragmentation brought by war. The road she mentions, like Jabra's "ceaseless wandering," does not promise to lead anywhere.

Fellow Lebanese poet Andrée Chedid creates similar desert-like images of destruction. In her desert landscape, signs of life have been torn away. In "Imagine," she writes:

Imagine the ocean
dry as lavender.
Imagine branches
ceasing to be perches
for the birds.
And then on the horizon
imagine death
in its pallor of pallors
letting the dead
live again. (Chedid 1978, 7)

Dryness prevails in this radical call for a juxtaposition between being and nothingness. Her poem "Landscapes" offers a similar vision of the desert:

I speak of Desert without repose
Carved by relentless winds
Torn up from its bowels
Blinded by sands
Unsheltered solitary
Yellow as death
Wrinkled like parchment
Face turned to the sun. (Chedid 1995)

For these poets the war transforms the city into a desert. The borders of the city give way to the empty horizon of the desert in which natural vitality has been lost. The desert is a place of alienation as well as loss, as an "Unsheltered solitary" stands unprotected in the sun.
For Lebanese-born Etel Adnan, an opposite movement occurs. In the previous two poems, the city becomes a desert; for Adnan, the war extends itself and its images of death into the desert. The desert itself seems to die. In The Arab apocalypse, Part LVIII, she writes:

Oil wells will dry out and eight-headed monsters will crawl on Earth
neither the cross of David nor the star        will resist the yellow waves
yellow is the color of plague    yellow is the sun's color
palm trees will fall in front of the electric organs
the banners of death float on the pylons
the desert will be covered with concrete    springs sequestered by angels carrying blue
swords. . . .

(Adnan 1989, 77; Adnan's spacing in original)

Not only nature (palm trees) dies; even oil wells "dry out." The desert itself dies under "concrete" as the "yellow sun" becomes a "plague." Thus there is a kind of double death at work. The desert, a place of death, is itself killed.

More broadly, some poets use the desert as a symbol of the alienation of modern life or spiritual isolation. Governmental failures that lead to war are but one part of a larger breakdown in the fabric of society, the separation between the leaders and the people that results in a sense of alienation and loss. That loss extends to the individual. In "Fragments of a Common Tale," Egyptian Salah `Abd Al-Sabour symbolizes this emptiness as a desert:

In time's desert I feel your presence.
In the rock's silence I hear your footstep.
Emotion overcomes me.
Then, like a sudden downpour
Fear of death startles me. (`Abd Al-Sabour 1992, 64).

The desert is also used as an image of spiritual exile. Recalling the wandering of Jabra and Tueni, `Abd Al-Sabour writes: "I traipsed my desert years / A grim-faced plodder" (`Abd Al-Sabour 1992, 65). The heavy steps in the sand signify a meaninglessness life, a wandering without purpose. Similar to other writers, the desert's dryness speaks of spiritual aridity:

hearing nothing, understanding nothing
except the loud dry wind blowing,
shaking him, breaking off his dry, aged twigs
leaving him bare and mean and alone. (`Abd Al-Sabour 1992, 66)

The images of aridity are similar to those that Melhem, Chedid, and Adnan use to signify man's isolation from the community and from self. Being "alone" means more than being physically alone, as in a desert. It means a separation from all signs of life.

The best of poets combine and intensify such issues. Adonis, a Syrian-born Lebanese writer, is one of the most well-known contemporary Arab poets. His radical, revolutionary criticism looks not to politics but to the Arab culture and mentality as the cause of war and alienation. His poem "The Desert" begins with a political statement on the feeling of being under siege in Beirut in the 1980s. The poem presents a series of fleeting yet significant desert references. Exile is invoked. "You will see / There is no homeland" (Adonis 1984, 143), Adonis writes, as the city has assumed the feel of death: "The killing has changed the city's shape—This rock / Is bone / This smoke people breathing" (Adonis 1984, 139). Nature too has vanished: "The earth's trees have become tears on heaven's cheeks" or again "The flower that tempted the wind to carry its perfume / Died yesterday" (Adonis 1984, 147). The land is on its way to being desert: "Trees bow to say goodbye / Flowers open, glow, lower their leaves to say goodbye" (Adonis 1984, 151).

Like the land, for Adonis, individuals and even art become a desert, the result of war, of the Arab culture, and of the human condition:

He wrote in a poem (I don't know where the road begins—
and how to surrender my forehead to its rays)
He wrote in a poem (how can I convince him my future is a desert
and my blood its mirage of sand?)
He wrote in a poem (who will shake the hardness of words off me?) (Adonis 1984, 161)

The desert seems inevitable, "my future is a desert." But at the end of his poem, Adonis makes a recuperative gesture toward the desert:

The cities break up
The earth is a train of dust
Only love
Knows how to marry this space. (Adonis 1984, 163)

If the "future is a desert" and earth a "train of dust," love still can exist in this environment; it is possible for human bonding, community, love to "marry this space" of the desert.

Adonis suggests in his closing lines a different view of the desert. For many Arab poets, the desert is a convenient trope for the failure of fulfillment, just as it has been for many Western poets. The tragedy of war, human alienation and isolation, the absence of inspiriting natural forces, and the inability to find a way to truth are all imaged as desert. Yet the poets who created these images were raised in or accustomed to city life. The desert takes on a far different meaning for those poets for whom the desert is not alien or foreign, feared and to be viewed from afar. There are poets for whom the desert is home.

Bedouins are nomads. Tracing their ancestry to the first Arabs who roamed through the eastern Mediterranean and North Africa, they still maintain an active and vital cultural presence throughout the Arab world, erasing borders between nations. For Bedouin poets, the desert is not an arena of war but a place for community, not a site of alienation and exile but a location for self-fulfillment, and not devoid of nature but full of life. For the Bedouin, the phrase "the future is a desert" has positive implications.

While survival in the desert is not easy, Bedouin life in the desert is not the result of forced exile, but rather of positive choice. Their culture is spiritual, communal, and ecological. Using the terms of an ecofeminist dialogics, they are interactively "engaged" with their world, rather than in opposition to it; they give to their world as well as gain from it. They are not victims in the desert, but celebrants of pride in their home. To understand this, we need to readjust our view of home. In the West and in much of the East, home is a fixed center outside of which there are borders that should not be crossed. Literary theorist Patrick Murphy suggests that we need to "recognize the relative nature of centers and their dynamic relationship with margins" and to accept a new kind of center, one which "serves as pivot, a base on which to step and from which to move on to another center-as-pivot" (Murphy 1991, 51-52). This sort of moving center within a borderless desert is a way to understand the sense of home and community that Bedouins create in their poetry. The desert really has no margins, it is everywhere the same, and wherever the Bedouins are within the desert they are at a center which is always changing as they wander their margins.

Shanfara, a pre-Islamic poet, uses the desert to glorify the freedom that comes with this wandering. In "Arabian ode in 'L,'" Shanfara writes:

How many a desert plain, wind-swept,
like the surface of a shield,
empty, impenetrable,
have I cut through on foot,
joining the near end to the far,
then looking out from a summit,
crouching sometimes,
then standing,
while mountain goats, flint-yellow,
graze around me,
meandering like maidens
draped in flowing shawls. (Shanfara 1994, 943)

When Shanfara separates himself from his tribe, he asserts his individual existence and embraces the desert. The desert is a place for being alone, but not lonely. This is different than the wandering as seen by Jabra and others; it is not a "plodding" or a "ceaseless wandering" with no goal, but an act of affirmation in "joining the near end to the far." In other words, wandering becomes an act of connectedness. Moreover, the desert is "wind-swept" and "empty," but it is not barren; Shanfara is part of a landscape that includes mountain goats grazing around him. Nature is alive and productive in the desert.

While some Bedouin poets, like Shanfara, emphasize the individual alone in the desert, others, more commonly, see an establishment of community in the desert. As Roger Allen says, Shanfara's life is one of "liminality, and the attitudes and hardships depicted in his poetry serve to confirm for the bard's audience the wisdom of communal living" (Allen 1998, 143), even in the midst of constant movement in the desert and the establishment of provisional centers, "centers-as-pivots." In the poem, "Hospitality in the Desert," for example, an anonymous poet writes:

The poor said, "Move on," so we moved;
A guest goes by naught but his host's desire.
Not he that deprived us, but rather our luck;
And luck sometimes brings pain, then takes it away.
For we stopped to alight at a camp of the Shawama
Like hawks whose talons are lowered for prey.
There, Mohammed Sirhan, whom perfumed women long for,
Swore he would divorce his wife if we didn't stay.
Then he poured out hot suet that hissed round our hands
And stacked fattest sheep's meat high on the tray.
So we ate of this bounty until we were full;
Then, like well-watered camels, we went on our way. (Bailey 1991, 33-34)

Bedouins trust that there will be a host within the desert, such as Mohammed, who will create a center, but not a permanent one. At the end of the poem the Bedouins leave, moving "center-as-pivot," going on their way to a new place; the simile "well-watered camels" suggests they are prepared for travel.

One reason that community works in the desert is that family takes the place of a fixed habitation and is linked with hospitality. A poet, again anonymous, thinks of the joy that "desert travelers and the men of our camp" have in sharing food, and says,

If ninety chiefs had we, none would ask me to leave;
All to me are first cousins—full brothers, indeed.
How fine these my brethren, who camp near the highway,
Lovers of joy, ever cheering their friends. (Bailey 1991, 53)

The habitation is not a fixed center; it is a "camp," temporary, and "near the highway" besides, suggesting the probability of immediate movement. Yet the family does provide a locus, a moving center within a place that has no fixed centers.

The desert also provides a source of positive imagery and energy for Bedouin poets. In the ecology of the desert, life is interconnected. Images of humans and animals are intermingled, as in the image of "well-watered camels," forming another way of seeing a desert community. Descriptions of women, for example, are given in terms of features of desert life. Abu Mas`ud writes,

I can't describe what's under clothes:
White!—like fresh milk from a pastured flock.
. . . . .
The breasts that rest upon her chest:
A little bunch of ripened dates
Her fingers—stamens of a date-palm,
When the shepherd's flute they play.
. . . .
Around her mouth are stars tattooed,
Like Venus bright some cloudless night . . . (Bailey 1991, 195)

Likewise Irgayya, a female Bedouin poet, expresses her anger at her husband leaving her and says,

But as he rejects me, so I'll leave him too,
Like a deer that bolts from a hunter's shell.
Please listen, O Lord, who first brought him to me,
As you bring pregnant mares to lush pastures to dwell,
Redeem me with one at whose tents travelers stop,
Who'll serve guests fresh coffee and their morning's first bite . . . (Bailey 1991, 244)

Within this ecological community, Bedouin poets connect themselves with life in the desert; dates and date palms, deer, camels, and horses, are all life-giving elements within a hospitable environment that to an outsider seems devoid of life.

The desert is how you live it. For Arab poets, the desert in its presence or absence is power, but this power takes different forms. For city dwellers, the desert is death and decay, a sign of destruction, forced exile, and a reminder of the absence of a homeland. For Bedouins, desert dwellers, the desert is a living presence, a place for establishing community, connection, and identity. In all cases, the desert is a context, whether a life threat or a life, and it has a voice. The Sufi poet, Assad Ali, adopts the voice of the desert, beginning each poem, "I, the Desert." The Desert calls for all Arabs to recognize their common identity: "the grains of my sand rush in asking, / begging You [God] to keep my descendents / and nation united" (Ali 1991, 66). Thus the desert "may produce for the world / that which cancels need and pain" (Ali 1991, 67).

The Arab culture has always been fed by a high sense of belonging to a community. The geography of the region invites such a collective sense for the sake of survival. At times writers have spoken of the loss of this ideal-they have used the desert to image this loss. Other writers have described ways in which this ideal has succeeded-they have also used the desert to image such success. Modernization may have replaced tents with houses, fire with electricity, and the sharing of communal values in group face-to-face meetings with television, but it has not eliminated the collaborative nature of a dream of Arab unity as an often wished for but rarely fulfilled ideal. This unity confirms itself in the poetry of the city and that of the lively arid landscape of the desert.


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`Abd Al-Sabour, Salah. 1992. Fragments of a common tale. In Ten Modern Arab Poets, ed. and trans. Desmond O'Grady. Dublin: Dedalus Press.

Adnan, Etel. 1989. The Arab apocalypse. Sausalito, CA: Post-Apollo Press.

Adonis. 1984. The desert. In Victims of a Map, ed. and trans. Abdullah al-Udhari, 134-163. London: Al Saqi Books.

Allen, Roger. 1998. The Arabic literary heritage. Cambridge: Cambridge Univ. Press.

Ali, Assad. 1991. Happiness without death: Desert hymns. Trans. Camille Adams Helminski, Kabir Helminski, and Ibrahim al-Shihabi. Putney, VT: Threshold Books.

Bailey, Clinton. 1991. Bedouin poetry from Sinai and the Negev. Oxford: Clarendon Press.

Chedid, Andrée. 1978. Imagine. In Women of the Fertile Crescent: An Anthology of Modern Poetry by Arab Women, ed. and trans. Kamal Boullata, 7. Washington, D.C.: Three Continents Press.

_____. 1995. Landscapes. Available from <>, accessed 3 December 2001.

Jabra, Jabra Ibrahim. 1974. In the deserts of exile. In An Anthology of Modern Arabic Poetry. Ed. and trans. Mounah A. Khouri and Hamid Algar, 225-229. Berkeley: Univ. of California Press.

Murphy, Patrick D. 1991. Prolegomenon for an ecofeminist dialogics. In Feminism, Bakhtin, and the Dialogic. Ed. Dale M. Bauer and S. Jaret McKinstry. Albany: SUNY Press.

Shanfara. 1994. Arabian ode in "L." Trans. Michael Sells. In Harper Collins World Reader: Single Volume Edition, ed. Mary Ann Caws and Christopher Prendergast, 937-943. New York: Longman.

Tueni, Nadia. 1978. I think of the land. In Women of the Fertile Crescent: An Anthology of Modern Poetry by Arab Women, ed. and trans. Kamal Boullata, 108. Washington, D.C.: Three Continents Press.


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Author information

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Maysa Abou-Youssef Hayward has been an instructor in the English department of Indiana University of Pennsylvania and Cairo University, Fayoum, Egypt. She received her doctoral degree from IUP in 1997 with a dissertation on translation theory and representations of Egyptian culture.

Additional web resources

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Arab gateway: poetry
Although most of the poems to which this site links are, not surprisingly, in Arabic, there is also general material on Arabic rhyme and poetic structure that will be of interest to non-Arabic speakers.

Arabic literature
Maintained by the Columbia University Libraries, this directory site links to information on Arabic poetry as well as broader information on Arabic literature.

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