Reflecting the Gulf: Arab views of the sea in literature and song

By Noah Haiduc-Dale
Submitted to Session P4172 (Economic Development and the Transformation of Gulf Landscapes, 2015 Annual Meeting
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector with Audio Patch or Speakers;
Changes stemming from industrialization and the new oil economy of the twentieth century have fundamentally altered the relationship between people and the environment in the Persian/Arabian Gulf. While the lives of most Gulf coast residents of the nineteenth century were intricately connected to the desert and the sea, this has changed in recent decades as new job opportunities, modernized cities, widespread air-conditioning, and other changes have distanced local residents from their landscape and climate. This paper explores the shifting relationship between the Gulf’s coastal dwellers and the sea by examining various forms of cultural production including poetry, stories, fiction, memoirs, and songs.

Using a combination of historical and literary analysis, this paper examines a variety of texts to assess the way in which local Gulf communities related to the sea. For instance, in medieval literature Richard van Leeuwen argues that literary reference to the sea suggest that Arabs “retained an uneasy relationship to the sea” (2006, 13), though in more contemporary Gulf poetry the sea is often hailed as a balm for modern woes. My paper contextualizes such literary reflections through historical analysis of the changing political, technological, and physical setting that altered that relationship, and thus a particular focus on cultural production from before and after the discovery and exploitation of oil.

Though Arabic literature specialist Roger Allen argues that “the seas of the Middle East do not appear to have roused the interest of Arab litterateurs to any great extent” (2000, 9), the sea is essential in works that are not recognized as literature in the classic sense. Laith Ulaiby’s Performing the Past: Sea Music in the Arab Gulf States and Music in Bahrain: Traditional Music of the Arabian Gulf by Poul Rovsing Olsen provide a strong foundation for discussion of the Gulf’s oral tradition.

In addition, in the last decade or so a number of anthologies of Gulf literature have emerged, including Beyond the Dunes (ed. Jayyusi, 2006), Folktales from the Arabian Gulf (ed. al-Hamdan, 2003), Gathering the Tide (ed. Paine, 2011), and The Donkey Lady (ed. Paine, 2013). I will interpreting these literary sources (as well as others in Arabic and in English translation) in conversation with archival sources from the British colonial office archives gathered at the British National Archive and British National Library.