A Dream about Hell, A Dream about Freedom- Zahawi's Rebellion in Hell

By Orit Bashkin
Submitted to Session P5817 ("I Have a Dream": Political Imagination and Utopian Writings in the Late 19th and Early 20th Centuries, 2020 Annual Meeting
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In this paper, I focus on a dream about poetry and politics. I look at pomes about dreams as connected to numerous and overlapping modern movements of Arabic literary and cultural renewal, which animated several Arab public spheres from the second half of the nineteenth century until the Second World War, and whose writers were interested in political theory, historical progress, and scientific innovation. These movements, I suggest, generated a new spatial thinking about modernity, reality and the afterlife. To do so, I present a close reading of a long poem written by Iraqi intellectual Jamil Sidqi al-Zahawi (1863-1936), Revolution in Hell (Thawra fi’l jahim, 1931). Zahawi was a fervent supporter of positivism, Darwinism and social Darwinism, and celebrated the role of science in the modern world in his works of poetry and prose, which circulated in Arabic and Ottoman journals in several regional languages (such as Arabic, Persian, Turkish and Kurdish). In Revolution in Hell, Zahawi depicts how he dreamt about a lengthy visit to underworld, where he meets Darwin, Hegel, Buchner, Spencer, Fichte, Huxley, Spinoza, Newton, Holbach, Renan, Rousseau, Voltaire, Zarathustra, al-Kindi, Ibn Sina, Ibn Rushd, Abu Nuwas, Omar Khayyam (amongst others), as well as Dante and Abu ‘Ala al-Ma‘arri. Together, they devise modern machinery that allows them to conquer the Heavens. In my analysis of the poem, I reflect on the ways in which it captures many of contemporary narratives about the power of the science and explore how Zahawi subverts religious imagery related to Islamic cosmology in order to create a new understanding of a modern and new world. The presentation of these politics as a dream, however, subverts their radicalism. I further argue that the translation of both scientific and literary works into Middle Eastern languages enabled this conceptual and spatial shift with respect to Islamic cosmology.