Fever Dreams: The Narrative Structuring of Fever in Arabic Literature

By Rawad Wehbe
Submitted to Session P5000 (Textual Configurations of Gender and the Body, 2017 Annual Meeting
All Middle East; Lebanon;
Comparative; Theory;
LCD Projector with Audio Patch or Speakers;
Can fever tell a story? Despite recent attention in Arabic literary scholarship to questions of the body and affect, fever remains neglected as an object of study. Replete with feverish encounters and descriptions, Arabic literature is a wellspring for scholars to examine the literary function of fever. Faced with an existential dilemma, the ?Ab?ssid poet al-Mutanabb? composes a poem wherein he employs the metaphor of a deadly fever that visits him like a lover in the night. Over ten centuries later, fever also figures into the contemporary fiction of Hud? Barak?t, but this time as a narrative strategy to depict the political and social tragedies that befall her characters in the Lebanese Civil War. In my paper, I explore this topic to argue that fever (?umm?) is a moment when the body intervenes, for the sake of self-preservation, to destabilize and reconfigure systems of knowledge and power that inform the narrative structure of a text.

In my paper, I use al-Mutanabb?’s fever poem to create a theoretical framework, outlining the pathology of fever and exploring its behavior within a literary text. Furthermore, I demonstrate how fever simultaneously attacks and heals the body, behaving as poison and cure (Plato’s pharmakon). Imprisoned within the liminal space created by the fever (sleep and wakefulness, life and death, etc.), al-Mutanabb? claims that only movement and travel can effectively counterbalance the inebriating effects of his condition. Against this theoretical framework, a close reading of fever in Barak?t’s novel Sayyid? wa-?ab?b? reveals that fever not only functions as a liminal space, but also as a moment of intervention. In a state of fever, systems of knowledge and power are renegotiated and reconfigured within the narrative, challenging what is accepted as truth and lie, memory and imagination, etc. This epistemological reconfiguration sets narrative in motion, transforming fever into an active agent rather than a passive symptom. This paper pioneers a study of fever in Arabic literature, exploring new territory, and also deploys an approach that allows pre-modern and modern literature to be read side-by-side, focusing on the linguistic and philological threads that tie these traditionally distinct bodies of literature together, while respecting their independent historical contexts.