The Poet as Palm-Tree: Muhammad al-Thubayti and the Re-Imagining of Saudi Identity

By Hatem Alzahrani
Submitted to Session P5522 (On the Margins of Shi'r: Historical and Philosophical Perspectives on the Development of Modern Arabic Poetry (Panel I), 2019 Annual Meeting
Arabian Peninsula;
Gulf Studies;
LCD Projector without Audio;
The aesthetic project of the Saudi modernist poet Muhammad al-Thubayti (1952-2011) was a defining moment in the modernist movement in the Arabian Peninsula, in general, and in Saudi literature in particular. Al-Thubayti’s project, particularly with the publication of his third collection al-Tadaaris (Terrains, 1986), attests to an acute awareness of tradition and presents a “creative misreading” of it. Furthermore, the overarching theme of his oeuvre hinges upon the idea of the poet as a secular prophet, preserving a collective, pre-oil identity and creating new forms of expressions capable of redefining the self, often in ways deeply rooted in the culture of the place. This is a dynamic poetic project aimed at creating a form of existence where modernity and tradition can co-exist in harmony.

This paper is primarily concerned with an issue that appears central to al-Thubayti’s project, namely the poet’s self-image versus the reductionist, oil-based narrative about modern Saudi Arabia, a self-image that all so often transfers the poem into a site of commemoration, something like a talal (ruined abode) that is not yet ruined but the poet fears it might very well be, a talal upon which the poet stands to remember the past before taking the journey into the future. This site of commemoration provides the poet with an excellent vantage point for deconstructing the current narrative and for making possible a new re-imagining of the past, the present, and the future.

To examine the overarching theme in al-Thubayti’s oeuvre, my paper will present an interpretive reading of his Mawqif al-rimaal ... mawqif al-jinaas (The Stance of the Sand... The Stance of Paronomasia), one of the poet’s last and longest poems, which stands as a
heteroglossic, multi-layered masterpiece that culminates a lifelong project of experimentation with poetry as a way of redefining identity. This identity, while firmly anchored in the tradition of the place, is flexible enough to accommodate the innovations of modernity and, to use al- Thubayti’s words, to “make friends with them,” as friendship signifies understanding and complementarity. The paper argues that al-Thubayti’s primary “poetic event” is to devise a new imagining of the place, or, say, to imagine a new Saudi/Arabian identity, and that this event was condensed in the last of his long poems, i.e. Mawqif al-jinaas.