In what seems almost a return to a classical-Arabic poetic stance, Muhammad al-Maghut’s ‘Shade and Noon Sun’ presents the reader with a poet/subject in an idealised guise, an ungovernable and resolute spirit. Al-Maghut’s descriptions mimic established Arabic hyperbolic associations of nature and freedom. His aversion to traditional Arabic rhythmical structures, and patented use of free verse merely serve to emphasise the unbound, and ungovernable nature of the spirit and of nature itself.
Yet this apparent return to nature is not a stable one, as al-Maghut’s depictions of his homeland are continually fraught with uncertainty, his nature so often becomes mixed with and polluted by the political state which oppresses it.
The most obvious initial theme within the poem is in its emphasis on possession. In the second and third stanzas we find only three lines without a possessive term. They/we and their/our present a simple, repetitive example of the dichotomy between the two factions. This is al-Maghut’s power struggle, his belief that ‘[t]he Arabs won’t get freedom without democracy. The worst democracy is preferable to the best dictatorship.’
The possession belonging to al-Maghut’s powers are equal and opposing. They are ever in the present tense, making the poem applicable to general political and national struggles throughout time, and throughout nations. The power that ‘we’ possess is one that seems secondary, however it is only secondary from the perception of one who belongs to ‘they’. The brilliance of his poem is that it defines him who reads it into one or the other spectrum. One would inherently ethically associate oneself with ‘we’, such is the modern stigma attached to the personal subjective pronoun ‘they’. It is a word that has been attributed through media and state discourse to the unknown enemy, playing upon man’s inherent fear of the unknown. As in Gramsci’s techniques of ‘cultural hegemony’, we automatically desire to be the ‘we’ for fear of being the ‘they’. Yet in al-Maghut’s poem, if one views his nature-bound stance as the lesser of both sides, then one becomes ‘they’, unwilling to see emancipation through any terms that relinquish the Western power schemata.
In the poet’s personal circumstances this struggle was in Beirut, a city he lived in, yet exiled himself from in the place of his birth and death, Syria:
This is what I have to say to the Lebanese: Whether partisan, secular, materialistic or spiritual you must cling onto this fragment of freedom, the last little fragment that remains. This scrap is our salvation. Don’t let go: freedom is taken, not given… i
So then what do the Lebanese possess? In the second stanza they ‘wait’ on the unnamed power, and their ‘necks’ fit perfectly the state’s fascist methods of controlling opposing factions, the symbolic ‘gallows’. Their ‘freckles and moles’ are compared to the state’s ‘pearls’ (and so, from their bodies the state collects its wealth), and their ‘skin and bones’ to the state’s ‘night’, ‘dawn’, ‘afternoon sun’ and ‘day’ (therefore, the state controls the actual times of when it makes its oppressed peoples work for its own ends).
In the second stanza, this possession takes over these bodily qualities; the treasured qualities of modern beauty are compared to the realities of the body created in subalterned peoples in order to sustain modern beauty. These subaltern peoples however, are ironically empowered by such subjugation, for ‘we are the kings of the world’. And so ‘the world’ becomes not the ‘official’ nation but the very earth, the soil itself. This naturalist pretension leads to supremacy in both ethics and strength, in its comparison of ‘thieves and traitors’ to ‘rivers and thunderstorms’. The possessions of the dominating power serve in reality to protect them from al-Maghut’s ‘we’, yet are made by this very same ‘we’. Finally we see the image of a subjugated power in revolt, symbolised through the structures of rule, ‘the walls and balconies’, being vulnerable to the freedom and adaptability of the revolting power, ‘the ropes and daggers’.
The final stanza shows the success of this revolt, disposing of any reference to ‘they’ and culminating the scheme of ‘we’ and ‘our’, into ‘us’. A term unused so far, ‘us’ does not create even an unspoken relation to the repeated ‘they’ and ‘their’, as it is neither of their polar opposites ‘we’ and ‘our’; ‘they’ and ‘their’ are banished as, in the structures that ‘us’ possesses, no attention has been paid to ‘they’ and ‘their’ systems of rule as a foundation for the new method of living. For most, it would be our natural tendency to question what kind of a nation is to be found in ‘sleep[ing] on the pavements’. This, however, is merely the moment when we must realise that we are ‘they’, unable to comprehend the power inherent in al-Maghut’s system of possessing nature.
This initial theme of possession runs parallel with al-Maghut’s common ones of freedom and oppression, of a continual and destructive duality.
in Arabic "freedom" has too often been little more than a rancid buzzword, incessantly mouthed by politicians and demagogues until its very meaning has been blurred. For Mr. al-Maghut, the notion of freedom both torments and enlivens his verse; if it flickers anywhere, it is in the most disreputable corners and alleyways of his city, among whores and beggars, and not in "the stoning squares of Mecca" or "the dance halls of Granada"
Al-Maghut’s opening statement is one that declares this aggrandised purpose, to show how ‘All’ powerful systems, ‘the fields of the world’ and ‘the streets of history’, oppose an oppressed minority, of ‘two small lips’ and ‘two small feet’. In this initial duality al-Maghut presents us with both historical-symbolic and immediate-physical constructs. One can view ‘All the fields of the world’ as representing the sheer span of the Earth itself, and the ‘two small lips’ as the visually and monosyllabically exaggerated symbol of a singular unnoticeable voice. Yet physically the fields are the means of food production, and the lips are devoid of this resource, in which we see a Marxist perception of the exclusion of those who do not follow Capitalism’s systems (initially the reading seems implausible, but finds its foundation as the poem progresses). In the symbolicism of ‘All the streets of history’ and ‘two bare feet’ we see the inconsequentiality of a singular presence in the history of civilization (for the man-made construct of ‘streets’ can only represent the period of man’s domination and not time immemorial). However, we also see the immediate-physical reality of a ruling power exerting authoritarian control over its constructed lands (al-Maghut again using monosyllabic words and hyperbolically pathetic imagery to reinforce his point).
And so in four purposefully simple lines, al-Maghut presents us with a Marxist dissection of seeming capitalist/totalitarian oppression, which could be applied to all man-made realities. The point that they are man-made must be emphatically stressed, for as the poem continues al-Maghut presents us with a theoretical solution to this original duality (albeit an inherently flawed one). To avoid exclusion from man-made and man-controlled living areas, al-Maghut excludes himself and turns to nature. In doing so he rejects the Kantian notion of a dualism of freedom versus nature and turns instead to Hegel’s idealised perception of the correlation of freedom and nature. It is a belief we see reiterated throughout al-Maghut’s poetry, for instance we find in his beautiful poem ‘The Orphan’ a vision of freedom gained through literacy and travel – man must be given the tools to understand nature, and as soon as he has them he is set free by his understanding of it.
This universal reaction stems of course from al-Maghut’s personal one, as Eric Ormbsy writes, ‘Long resident in Beirut and having experienced the worst horrors of the Lebanese civil war, he has nothing left but a savage disgust, not only with the powers-that-be but with his heritage, his homeland, and even his language.’ii And so he opposes ‘the powers-that-be’, creates a heritage undefined and indefinable by time, usurps the man-made concept of a ‘homeland’ with the inherent ‘homeland’ of the earth and, to fit this system, changes Arabic traditional writing schemes.
It is this idea of a replete ‘homeland’ that we see in his poems such as ‘The Orphan’ and ‘Shade and Noon Sun’, in which al-Maghut advocates a kind of Nomadism. His nature becomes ‘All the fields of the world’ and it is those who belong to this universal earth, not constricted by proper names of person or place, who are ‘the kings of the world’. They are nomadic not in that they are one singular people, moving from place to place to seek natural resources, but in that they are all people and occupy all places of nature. Nature remains a resource of survival, but its importance changes from the physical to the spiritual.
Al-Maghut’s Nomadic reality is comparable to Deleuze and Guattari’s rhizomic reality, in which ‘any point of a rhizome can be connected to anything other, and must be’ . Unfortunately for al-Maghut such a system deconstructs itself, as in rhizomes:
‘there is no language in itself, nor are there any linguistic universals, only a throng of dialects, patois, slangs, and specialized languages. There is no ideal speaker-listener, any more than there is a homogeneous linguistic community. Language is, in Weinrich's words, "an essentially heterogeneous reality." There is no mother tongue, only a power takeover by a dominant language within a political multiplicity.’iii
In such a light, ‘Shade and Noon Sun’ becomes linked inherently to the language of those that he argues against, it is merely an adaptation of their words, a change of dialect, but not a change of reality. The poet’s poetry, voicing his ‘savage disgust …[for]… even his language’ii, becomes self-defeating. In his purpose, to show the evils of a capitalist system of possession, al-Maghut assumes his own possession over nature – he becomes as his enemy, exerting his influence and assumed right over nature in a bastardised hegemony. Whereas capitalism redefines nature by remoulding it into ergonomically helpful architectures, al-Maghut redefines nature through the very act of naming it - ‘winds’, ‘waves’ and ‘mud’ become man-made concepts, as they have been defined through a man-made creation: language.
It is at this point that al-Maghut’s whole Marxist frame dismantles itself, for ‘How could movements of deterritorialization and processes of reterritorialization not be relative, always connected, caught up in one another?’iii In his depiction, nature ironically becomes like one of Marc Augé’s ‘Non-places’ , in which Augé takes what Lefebvre asserts to be rationalized, abstracted and generalised capitalist architectures, and in turn shows them to be nihilistically universal and faceless spaces.
And so we are forced to ask ourselves, does al-Maghut depict the oppression of a nation (and if so by an occupying force, or one’s own national government), of Beirut, or of the homeless/refugee Lebanese people, or are all of these merely inseparable concepts? Although the study of literature can often detach itself from the study of the writer, we find al-Maghut’s Nomadic paradox in the writer’s own psychology, as we see in an interview with Youssef Bazzi:
I mean: What do you dream about when you’re asleep?
I never remember, but I do have one recurring nightmare. I’m lost. I can’t remember my address and I just wander around looking for it. Usually the dream is set in Beirut. Policemen, security officers, clerics and dogs are chasing after me. I wake up terrified and I can’t breath properly.i
Of course Maghut is a relativist, and in his deconstructing basis for a nation, one in which man made dwelling places and systems of rule apparently become void, we see the attempted formation of a type of ‘constructive’ nationalism. In taking pride in a ‘home’ which is the literal and universal ‘earth’, the physical soil or ground, of the country itself, one’s pride is formed on that which cannot truly be taken away from a place (ie. itself). Such a nascent nationalistic intent can be seen as ‘constructive’, as it does not necessitate that this physical ground be attributed to or named after its inhabitants (as in the poem they remain similarly nameless).
In analysis of al-Maghut’s nationalism and its foundations, one must therefore separate the often interchanged terms ‘ethnic group’ and ‘nation’ as well as ‘nation’ and ‘state’*. The ‘state’ is ostensibly an objective reality and can be characterised as a territorial entity with legal sovereignty , and so is not the nation al-Maghut proposes. Smith defines a nation as ‘a named human population sharing a historic territory, common myths and historical memories, a mass, public culture, a common economy and common legal rights’ . Within ‘Shade and Noon Sun’ this named population is simply ‘we’ and ‘us’, the historic territory is ‘All the fields of the world’, the common myths and historical memories are those possessed by all selfsame naturalists who have existed before us, the mass public culture is that of the nature-bound peasant, his common economy being of course nature itself, his common legal rights (in the face of ever-present Western oppression) becoming the law of nature. Al-Maghut’s therefore is a newly created, universal nation, constructed within the confines of anthropological structures defining a nation, and even within the immediate physical confines of a pre-constructed, dominating, Orientalist national structure.
Such a conception of nation therefore, does bear a correlation with ‘ethnic groups’, both of which bar the institutionalisation of ethnic markersvii; for this institutionalisation of an ethnic group into a nation ‘effects a qualitative change’, creating a new type of cultural politics, frequently leading into ethno-nationalism in the dominos effect of categorisation which al-Maghut seems to be purposefully trying to avoid. He effects one of Eriksen’s proto-nations, that is, ‘nations without a state’ . His nationalistic intent becomes essentially a bastardisation of Hearn’s conception of nationalism as the ‘making of combined claims, on behalf of a population, to identity, to jurisdiction and to territory’ . Al-Maghut’s identity is to remain ignominious, forever a pronoun, his jurisdiction is to revenge with ‘the ropes and the daggers’, and his territory is that of the ground itself; be it the ‘autumn leaves’, the ‘desolate forests’ the ‘mud’ or even the ‘pavements’.
‘Shade and Noon Sun’ does not support trends of Arab Nationalism or Pan-Arabism. Perhaps in the poem the basis of J. D. Eller’s ‘ethnicity’, that it was thought to be doomed to extinction in the ‘modern age’ to be replaced by ‘higher-forms of solidarity’viii, is substantiated - but its examples of the ‘higher-forms’ of solidarity, such as ‘nation’ or ‘class’ibid, are discounted. The poem’s regression into pre-capitalist, sociologically naturalist ideals asserts that one’s bond with nature, instead of Western hegemonic imperatives, can create such a ‘higher-form’ of solidarity.
Such a reading is acceptable within Eller’s own structure for ethnicity as not a unitary phenomenon, but ‘shaped by the conjunction of culture or history as remembered and of present challenges … and future goals’viii: leading to the reality that ethnicity must be subjective, even if it is based on perceived objective markers viii. Al-Maghut’s assertion of a universal, nature-rooted ethnicity then fits into both Fishman’s belief in ethnic groups as ‘a guarantor of eternity’ and Eller’s that they are ideologically isolated from ‘crass considerations’ such as economics and politics and premised on ‘more authentic grounds’ viii even though these grounds are ‘an alternate system of values and truths’ viii.
Unfortunately, by the end of ‘Shade and Noon Sun’, with its naturalistic empowerment, its anti-capitalist, anti-totalitarian, anti-definition (whether by ethnicity or state) message, al-Maghut’s new and unlabelled peoples are fated to become merely one of Roosens’ ‘pressure groups with a noble face’ . Such is the mindset of the hegemonically subjugated peoples that his readership must be dominated by, unable to see realities of power outside of the systems that they have created themselves.
|* For analysis on ethnicity and state, I am (as ever) indebted to the help of Miss. Cailah Jackson, and, upon this topic, to her excellent dissertation ‘Power and Piety: The Historical Construction of Muslim Identity and the Quest for a Moro Nation-State in Mindanao’ (London School of Economics, 2007)
Bazzi, Youssef, ‘An interview with Mohammed Al-Maghout: I’d rather be a frightened eagle than a bold mouse’ (2004) Internet resource -
ii. Ormsby, Eric, ‘The Shape of Spoons & the Taste of Salt’ from The New York Sun (February 16th, 2005)
Internet resource - http://www.nysun.com/article/9299
iii. Deleuze, Gilles, & Guattari, Félix, A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia, trans. Brian Massumi, (University of Minnesota Press, 1987) p.7-8, 11
iv. Augé, Marc, Non-places: Introduction to an Anthropology of Supermodernity, trans. John Howe (London: Verso, 1995)
v. Lefebvre, Henri, Production of Space, trans. Donald Nicholson-Smith (Oxford; Basil Blackwell, 1991)
vi. Abinales, P. N., and Amoroso, D. J., State and society in the Philippines (Lanham: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers, 2005) p.6
vii. Smith, A., National Identity (Reno: University of Nevada Press, 1991) p.40
ix. Eller, J. D., From Culture to Ethnicity to Conflict: An Anthropological Perspective on International Ethnic Conflict (Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 1999) p.21, 2, 5, 9, 15, 16
x. Eriksen, T. H., Ethnicity and nationalism: anthropological perspectives (London: Pluto Press, 1993) p.14
xi. Hearn, J., Rethinking Nationalism: a critical introduction (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2006) p.11
xii. Fishman, J., ‘Ethnicity as Being, Doing, and Knowing’ in Ethnicity, ed. J. Hutchinson and A. D. Smith (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1996) p.63
xiii. Roosens, E. E., Creating Ethnicity (London: Sage, 1989) p.14