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Journal of Arabic Literature 47 (2016) 62-90

Return of the Beast: From Pre-Islamic Ode

to Contemporary Novel

Tarek El-Ariss
The University of Texas at Austin


Can the exile ever return? And if so, how? This question has consumed literature from
the times of Gilgamesh. Focusing on works by the Jhil poet al-Shanfar (d. 70/525)
and the contemporary Lebanese author Hud Barakt, this essay reads the metamor-
phosis of the exile and the outcast as a critique of tribal identification. I argue that
while the moment of exilic departure is confounded and erased, the return (al-awdah)
operates as a form of revenge (raiding, haunting, possessing) that emerges from expe-
riences of tawaush (becoming wild, beastly) and tagharrub (estrangement, alien-
ation). This vengeful return harnesses beastliness and alienation as both destructive
and productive forces that dismantle communal rituals of inclusion and exclusion,
death and burial, while opening up the human/beast relation to multiple social and
political configurations. Drawing on classical and contemporary theoretical frame-
works, I examine the function of cruelty in the exiles transformation and return, read-
ing it as a survival mechanism and aesthetic device.


Hud Barakt al-Shanfar Villain Violence Cruelty Revenge Ghurbah


In present-day science fiction jahl [as in Jhiliyyah] was correctly identi-
fied as an archetype and a new myth in the story/phenomenon of the

koninklijke brill nv, leiden, 6|doi 10.1163/1570064x-12341317

Return of the Beast 63

wrath of the Incredible Hulk, the man who mutates metabolically when
possessed by ire, reaching heights of power and size.
Jaroslav Stetkevych, Muammad and the Golden Bough1

Saudi critic Abd Allh al-Ghadhdhm identifies the current stage of Arab his-
tory as lying between the collapse of universals and the rise of sectarian and
tribal identities on the one hand; and a highly technological and globalized
world on the other. Fear, the demise of the middle class, and the end of pub-
lic educational projects are some of the conditions that give rise to a violent
return to the origin, the primordial, perhaps even the savage.2 Turning to litera-
ture to trace antitheses to and contestations of contemporary developments,
al-Ghadhdhm examines models of rebellion and exception in, among other
works, the ode of al-Shanfar (d. 70/525), who is associated with the alk or
the brigand poets from pre-Islamic Arabia. Specifically, al-Ghadhdhm reads
tawaush (becoming wild, beastly) in al-Shanfars Lmiyyat al-arab (Arabian
Ode in L)3 as a process that seeks to unsettle the tribe that has betrayed and
expelled him. Al-Ghadhdhm argues that al-Shanfarthrough his forced
inhabiting of taraul (itinerancy) and tawaush in the wildernessdoes
not rebel against the tribe, but rather brings his tawaush to the tribe itself,
permanently altering it as an ideological construct and as a social and politi-
cal model. The errant self that al-Shanfar embodies could only be preserved
through beastliness or tawaush.4
As al-Ghadhdhms discussion and Jaroslav Stetkevychs quote above imply,
Jhiliyyah and its authenticity, primordiality, and untamed and untamable
character is part of an Arab-Islamic imaginary that continues to shape the
perception of social, ethical, and political transformations until this day. But

1 Jaroslav Stetkevych, Muammad and the Golden Bough (Bloomington: Indiana University
Press, 1996), 9.
2 Abd Allh al-Ghadhdhm, al-Qablah wa-l-qabiliyyah, aw, huwiyyt m bad al-adthah
(Tribe and Tribalism: Postmodern Identities), 2nd ed. (Beirut: al-Markaz al-Thaqf al-Arab,
2009), 11.
3 Lmiyyat al-arab, ed. Muammad Bad Sharf (Beirut: Dr Maktabat al-ayt, 1964). For the
translation I use Suzanne Pinckney Stetkevych, The Mute Immortals Speak: Pre-Islamic Poetry
and the Poetics of Ritual (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1993).
4 Al-Ghadhdhm, 180.

Journal of Arabic Literature 47 (2016) 62-90

64 El-Ariss

how do we explain al-Ghadhdhms return to literature and specifically alk

poetry in his discussion of the resurgence of tribalism and tawaush, a model
that has been appropriated by contemporary jihadi groups to contest the dis-
course of Arab modernity and nationhood?5 This investigation of the archaic
and the untamed, both as a mode of violence and a contestation of violence,
necessitates new literary analysis through a comparative reading of Arabic
classical poetry alongside contemporary texts. This essay inaugurates a larger
project in which I draw on theories of affect and the posthuman to examine
what lies outside of both Islamic ilm (patience) on the one hand, and, on the
other, the community imagined by the European Renaissance and celebrated
by the Enlightenment through models of intersubjectivity and ethics, the polis
and tamaddun (civilization, progress), which were taken up by Arabs during
the Nahah.
It is in view of this radical challenge to Arab modernity in the contemporary
era that I turn to Arabic literature to explore the production of the human
and the non-human, examining the metamorphosis of the outcast into villain
and beast. Focusing on processes of tawaush and tagharrub (estrangement,
alienation)6 in both classical and contemporary texts, I examine al-Shanfars
Lmiyyah, in which the pre-Islamic ulk (vagabond; singular of alk) leaves
his tribe only to return as an assassin. I frame al-Shanfars raids and com-
munion with desert animals through literary and theoretical discussions of
tawaush from Hind bint Utbah and Majnn Layl to Kafkas Metamorphosis.
Then, moving to the modern period and tying tawaush and tagharrub to
experiences of war and displacement in light of current tribal and sectarian
interpellations, I explore Hud Barakts works such as Rasil al-gharbah
(Letters of a Stranger, 2004) and Ahl al-haw (Disciples of Passion, 1993). In
al-Shanfars and Barakts texts, tawaush and tagharrub turn the trauma of
separation into a quest for revenge directed against tribal and sectarian struc-
tures, structures tied to war violence and its ensuing displacements. From this

5 Idrat al-tawaush (management or administration of savagery) is a jihadist manifesto

attributed to a certain Ab Bakr Nj that spells out the political strategy of radical Islamist
groups after 9/11 that Jacques Derridas reading of bestiality can help us understand further.
See The Beast and the Sovereign, 2 vols., trans. Geoffrey Bennington (Chicago: University of
Chicago Press, 2009/11).
6 While tawaush is translated as return to a wild or savage state, wildness, savageness,
barbarity, brutalization; brutality, istsh is rendered as strangeness, estrangement, alien-
ation, unsociability; weirdness, uncanniness, eeriness (Wsh, Hans Wehr, A Dictionary
of Modern Written Arabic, 3rd ed. [Ithaca: Spoken Language Services, 1976], 1056). Though
I draw on these different meanings to develop my conceptual framework, I will be using
tawaush as the process that arises from washah and leads to istsh.

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Return of the Beast 65

violent confrontation with violence emerges an aesthetic and ethical interro-

gation of the boundaries of the human and its relation to the community, the
tribe, and the homeland.
Methodologically, I engage three overlapping functions of tawaush:
narrative, de-scriptive (in tension with in-scription through writing), and com-
parative. The trajectory of return originating from the position of washah
(forlornness, wilderness), which transforms the human, extends to the way in
which we critically engage texts. Bearing in mind Foucaults warning that time
periods and traditions are distinguished by epistemic breaks, my comparative
practice does not seek to anchor washah, ghurbah (separation from home,
estrangement), violence, and revenge as fixed and unchanging categories
across classical or modern narratives. Instead, I explore their various articu-
lations by reading al-Shanfar through Barakt, Barakt through al-Shanfar.
Rather than follow a literary-historical trajectory, I track the monstrous trans-
formation by moving back and forth between the two texts and their various
literary and theoretical registers. As the rhythm of my essay accelerates, the
comparative logic surrenders to a process of associationto writingthat
draws in literary and philosophical connections that mimic the subject matter
with which the essay contends.

Becoming Beastly

In the Arabic tradition, the iconic example of tawaush could be traced to

Majnn Layl, the romantic fool7 or mad poet. Majnns all-consuming desire
is conjured up in poetry, songs, and countless miniatures and drawings. He is
often depicted in a state of sadness and emaciation, surrounded by animals.
Majnn goes into the wild (yatawaash) to escape social interdiction and
protect his love for his beloved Layl. Unable to renounce his desire, he holds
onto the ropes of the Kabah, praying that his love for her should consume
him ever more. His symptoms and actions expose the violence of the social
order that condemned him to washah. The emaciated body thus becomes the
text that inscribes desire through a confrontation with tribal law. In this space
outside the community, Majnn performs violence against himself and the
tribe at the same time, contaminating the tribe with his beastliness. Majnns
tawaush accentuates the words meaning in Arabic as that which threatens
and confronts the social and the human.

See Michael Dols, Majnn: The Madman in Medieval Islamic Society (Oxford: Oxford
University Press, 1992).

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66 El-Ariss

In Lisn al-arab, washah refers to the distance from the human com-
munity; it marks the absence of the human as a condition of forlornness
and beastliness.8 The notion of washah is related to the desolate places one
inhabits outside the community, from deserts and forests to sites of ruins and
decay. Makn mish (eerie place) captures this desolateness, which hinges on
the danger that might arise from the presence of something profane, evil, or
non-human. Wush as opposed to ins or insn (the human) are wild beasts
that inhabit such dehumanized or anti-social places. Tawaush thus involves
a transformation, as in a transfer of affects between the human relegated to
a condition of washah and the characteristics of the space itself. Involving
wildness, loneliness, beastliness, and haunting, tawaush interrogates the
boundaries of the human, rendering porous the separation from that which
is radically outside and terrifying. The mutawaish (one who is wild, beastly,
savage, barbaric) is thus not only the one who is missing his beloved in the
space of washah as in Majnns longing and desire for Layl. Rather, he or she
is also the one who challenges the community and questions the attributes
of the human and the social through which the community is imagined and
desire inscribed. The mutawaish ruthlessly performs negation against the
community, often embodying the figure of the villain.
The Qurayshi princess Hind bint Utbahs reaction to her familys slaying
at the battle of Badr while fighting the nascent Muslim community in 2 AH/
624 CE, and her revenge against the Muslims at Uud (3 AH/ 625 CE), fully cap-
tures the process of tawaush. Nadia El Cheikh argues that Hind turned wild,
by occupying a space outside of the community in words and deeds, becoming
only part human if not entirely beastly.9 While Majnn operates as the roman-
tic mutawaish in the Arabic tradition, Hind transforms into the villain par
excellence, exacting revenge not only on the Muslims but on the entire value
system associated with Islam as well. El Cheikh argues that Hinds actions, from
beating herself hysterically to mutilating the body and biting into the liver of
amzahthe Prophets uncle and her fathers killerthoroughly position
her in what I refer to as tawaush, this radical outside to the community and
the human. Addressing Wash, the Abyssinian slave who slays amzah at
Uud, Hind says: And you, Oh Wahshi, you have assuaged the burning in my
breast.10 Wash (from wash, the savage or beastly one) thus operates as an

8 Muammad ibn Mukarram ibn Manr, W--sh, in Lisn al-arab, ed. Al Shrr, 18 vols.
(Beirut: Dr Iy al-Turth al-Arab, 1988), 15-16: 168-170.
9 Nadia El Cheikh, Women, Islam, and Abbasid Identity (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University
Press, 2015), 17-37.
10 Ibid., 21.

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Return of the Beast 67

embodiment of Hinds tawaush in her quest for revenge. Embodiment

as opposed to representationmarks the breakdown between the meta-
phorical and the material that I am trying to capture in my reading, wherein
transformations involved in the process of tawaush are physical, aesthetic,
and ideological, and thus shape the content, form, and reception of particu-
lar texts and narratives. In performing tawaush, Hind becomes the antith-
esis of Islam: she unsettles the narrative of faith and enlightenment that is
unable to tame or incorporate her dialectically. Despite the reclaiming of the
Jhiliyyah during the Abbasid era, Hind remains the negative other to Islam
as a civilization and belief system meant to bring about ilm (patience) and
ghufrn (forgiveness).11

Al-Shanfar: The Bionic Assassin

While Hind occupies the position of radical outside in the Arab-Islamic

imaginary, the alk occupy a more ambivalent position of exclusion. These
brigand poets of the Arabian Peninsula from pre-Islamic times onward were
condemned by the tribe for various crimes and infractions to expulsion (khal)
to mountainous regions.12 From there they raided tribes for food and booty,
composing poetry celebrating their own exploits and lamenting their exclu-
sion. alakah became synonymous with a non-normative way of life involv-
ing roguishness, anti-social behavior, and villainy.13 The poetry of alk such
as al-Shanfar, Taabba Sharran, and Urwah ibn al-Ward became a constitu-
tive part of the Jhiliyyahs literary canon. These outcasts both embody and
challenge the tribal ethos through their lifestyle and literary production.
Resisting neat classification, al-Shanfar also belongs to a distinguished group

11 This is captured in the meaning of jahl in the word Jhiliyyah as non-submission rather
than ignorance vis--vis Islam. See Stetkevych, 6.
12 The process of exclusion (khal) constituted a sentence pronounced against a fellow-
tribesman guilty of a crime leading to dishonour. Such opprobrium damaged the pact
instituted by aabiyya [q.v.] (loyalty to the group), since it almost invariably rebounded
on the tribe. See ulk, Encyclopaedia of Islam, Second Edition, ed. P. Bearman, Th.
Bianquis, C. E. Bosworth, E. van Donzel, and W. P. Heinrichs (Brill Online, 2014), <http://
13 For a detailed account of villainy in classical Arab-Islamic literature, see C. E. Bosworths
The Medieval Islamic Underworld, the Banu Sasan in Arabic Society and Literature, 2 vols.
(Leiden: Brill, 1976).

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68 El-Ariss

of Jhil poets such as Imr al-Qays and Antarah who are best known for
their muallaqt.
Al-Shanfars tawaush in the Lmiyyah indexes an experience but also a
place in the Arabic classical tradition that is both unsettled and unsettling.
Starting with an anti-ral (poetic departure of the pre-Islamic ode) and sub-
verting the nasb (opening elegiac mood and expression of loss) of the qadah,
al-Shanfar embodies in his Lmiyyah the most powerful tawaush. Vowing
to kill a hundred men of the Ban al-Azd tribe that betrayed and abandoned
him,14 al-Shanfar sets out into the wilderness where he undergoes a physical
transformation, communing with animals. Suzanne P. Stetkevych argues that
the ral of the alk ode sets the condition of estrangement and departure.15
Estrangement is predicated by the ral both geographically and poetically.
What Suzanne P. Stetkevych calls the perpetual liminality16 associated with
the alk thus follows, I argue, trajectories that move inward and outward,
turning in and becoming other, breaking the dialectical relation to the com-
munity. This estrangement extends to the very nature of the ode itself and its
literary reception.
Given the speculation surrounding his background (parentage, tribal affilia-
tion, social status, etc.) and the authenticity of his ode, al-Shanfar is threaten-
ing, uncanny, and defiant of both tribal and literary community. The entry on
him in the Encyclopaedia of Islam best captures this defiance, and the mon-
strous nature of the story, the character, and the ode:

A great deal of confusion surrounds the man and his work; for this rea-
son it is appropriate to handle the information concerning him with
the greatest caution [...]. Details relating to the life of al-Shanfar are
sparse, contradictory and marked by an anecdotal quality much more
pronounced than is the case with all the other pre-Islamic poets [...].
The Dwn, such as it has survived, presents enormous problems [...].
This ode, which has the rhythm of a beating drum, turns its back on the
poetic conventions of the jhiliyyah. It reflects a purely individual reg-
ister and constitutes, thereby, a negation of tribal values (w. 1-5). The self
stresses its primacy in each verse.17

14 There are many explanations for this event, including the tribes unwillingness to avenge
the death of al-Shanfars father.
15 Suzanne P. Stetkevych, 143.
16 Ibid., 138.
17 Al-Shanfar, Encyclopaedia of Islam.

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Return of the Beast 69

The historical and fictional character and the text itself cause the critic anxiety
and confusion,18 as the Lmiyyahthe embodiment of his tawaush
comes to mirror al-Shanfars monstrosity, contaminating literary history and
genre. The texts uncanniness and questionable authenticity19 require that we
accept its multiple contradictions.
What the scholarship on al-Shanfar seems to be least in doubt about is
not the authenticity of a particular fact, a historical character, or the ode itself,
but rather his reputation as the fastest runner among the Arabs.20 This repu-
tation anchors al-Shanfar not so much in the human community that could
be traced and reconstituted historically through tribal lineage or literary gene-
alogies, but rather in his bionic or superhuman nature. The other apparent
certainty is tied to his name, al-Shanfar, which is a reference to his protrud-
ing lips. This physical characteristic, perhaps denoting racial difference given
the hypothesis that his mother might have been a slave of Abyssinian origin,
anchors the name in the body, its protrusion and excess.21
The texts resistance to interpretation begins with a process of erasure of
its origin and source, which operates as a mise en abme in the text itself. This
erasure is embodied in al-Shanfars ambivalent departureleaving by asking
his kinsmen to leave.


1. Raise, my brothers, the chests of your mounts,
set them straight;

18 For further discussion on the origin and authenticity of al-Shanfars Lmiyyah, see
Suzanne P. Stetkevych, 120-124, and Diwn al-Shanfar, ed. Iml Bad Yaqb (Beirut: Dr
al-Kitb al-Arab, 1991), 9-21. One critic says: His biography is ambiguous (ghmiah) and
his date of birth vague (mubham) and his location foggy (muabb). See Sharf, 15.
19 Suzanne P. Stetkevych mentions that the ode has been singled out, in a tradition going
back to Ibn Durayd (d. 321/933), as an Umayyad forgery composed by the notorious Basran
poet-transmitter Khalaf al-Amar (d. 180/796) (120).
20 See Yaqb, 10; Al-Shanfar, Encyclopaedia of Islam. Al-Shanfar was the fastest of the
Jhiliyyahs addn (runners), who included al-Sulayk bin al-Sulkah and Amr bin
Barrqah. See Sharf, 18.
21 See Bernard Lewis, The Crows of the Arabs, Critical Inquiry 2.1 (1985), 88-97. Some alk
were ghurbn (crows), born to an Arab father and an Abyssinian slave mother. Antarah
is the most famous example of a mixed-race pre-Islamic poet who was set free when he
fought for the tribe.
22 Sharf, 28.

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70 El-Ariss

As for me, I incline

toward another tribe.23

This mitigated origin of departure and of the ode itself is staged as an inscrutable
horror that cannot be fully represented, translated, or contained. Al-Shanfar
goes on invoking kinship and blood ties and lamenting the tribes betrayal. The
poetic narrative then moves through the various stages of tawaush involving
hunger, emaciation, communion with wild animals, revenge, and finally, com-
plete disintegration. Suzanne P. Stetkevych suggests that the ode ends with a
portrait of the ulk face to face with nature at its most brutal, with noth-
ing but the most worn-out remnants of the accouterments of civilization that
might mediate between him and that brutality.24
As his transformation in the desert intensifies, al-Shanfars bow becomes a
prosthesis, the extension of his arm. The bow then becomes a maternal figure,
a she-camel losing a calf every time it shoots an arrow.


13. When an arrow slips from it,
it resounds like a she-camel
Afflicted and bereft,
moaning and wailing.26

Al-Shanfars bow is compared to a wailing mother (she-camel / Afflicted and

bereft) abandoning her childlike arrow every time it is used to kill. The wailing
of the bow (tarinnu wa-tuwilu) is doubled: it is the loss of the arrow likened
to a child, and the death of the other for whom another mother wails. The
process of separation or expulsion, and the act of killing, are thus intertwined
in a structure of revenge that performs loss at multiple levels. The poetic and
material departure (ral) that lies at the origin of the poem is both erased
and continuously reenacted through repetitive acts of violence. Expressing
the ambivalence of separation, al-Shanfar returns as the assassin hunting
and haunting his tribe. Like the structure of trauma,27 which is anchored in

23 Suzanne P. Stetkevych, 143.

24 Ibid., 155.
25 Sharf, 34.
26 Suzanne P. Stetkevych, 144.
27 Cathy Caruth argues that victims of trauma are tormented by the memory of the inde-
scribable event. The pathology consists, rather, solely in the structure of its experience

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Return of the Beast 71

repetition, the ode performs the moment of separation as the bow wails at
the terror of abandonment (the loss of the arrow-like son), exacting revenge
(al-Shanfar killing his kinsmen) through its continuous return.

Into the Wild

Al-Shanfars departure and vengeful return depict the trajectory of a villain

disrupting natural and social order in words and deeds. Although the desert is
traditionally seen as a site of redemption that stages the production of tradi-
tional Arab masculinity (life with the Bedouins, hunting, etc.)28 and return to
the tribe, in al-Shanfars case it anchors his gradual yet permanent tawaush.


20. When the ground, hard and flint-strewn,

strikes my hoofs,
Sparks and splinters

or reception: the event is not assimilated or experienced fully at the time, but only belat-
edly, in its repeated possession of the one who experiences it. To be traumatized is pre-
cisely to be possessed by an image or event [...]. The traumatized, we might say, carry an
impossible history within them, or they become themselves the symptom of a history
that they cannot entirely possess. Cathy Caruth, ed., Trauma: Explorations in Memory
(Baltimore: Johns Hopkins University Press, 1995), 4-5. Also, she writes: The trauma is
repeated suffering of the event. But it is also a continual leaving of its site. The traumatic
reexperiencing of the event thus carries with it what Dori Laub calls the collapse of wit-
nessing, the impossibility of knowing that first constituted it (10). Emphasis in original.
For an excellent engagement with loss in Arabic literature, dealing with the question of
devastation within language itself, which engages yet could not be reduced to the effects
of the historical event, see Jeffrey Sacks, Iterations of Loss: Mutilations and Aesthetic Form,
al-Shidyaq to Darwish (New York: Fordham University Press, 2015).
28 Ibn Khaldn claims: Since desert life no doubt is the source of bravery, savage groups
are braver than others (107). See The Muqaddimah, trans. Franz Rosenthal (Princeton:
Princeton University Press, 1989).
29 Sharf, 38-40.

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72 El-Ariss

21. I prolong the length of hunger
till I have killed;
I turn my mind from it
and forget it.
25. I writhe around the hollow
of my gut,
Like a rope maker twisting his strands,
firm and tight.30

Jhiliyyahs fastest runner causes sparks to fly as he runs. Calling to mind

villains and superheroes in graphic novels and filmsnamely the Flash, who
leaves a trail of fire when runningal-Shanfar becomes superhuman, shat-
tering natural order. His movement across the desert inscribes the terrain,
marks and distorts it as he is marked and distorted by it. His guts twist and
turn like ropes as in the transformation of Spiderman or the Incredible Hulk.
From animal to superhuman to non-human, al-Shanfar finally will become
an arrow in the hands of fate, which is likened to a gambler. His break with
the tribe and movement in the desert unsettle social order and poetic ethos,
as he exposes through his metamorphosis the tribes violence and modes of
subjugation and interpellation. More radically, al-Shanfar shatters and tran-
scends the order that regulates animal, human, and non-human boundaries.
His metamorphosis in the desert is such that he not only produces an alterna-
tive kinship that has broken with the tribe but also occupies a position of radi-
cal alterity, exceeding the human and the animal and undoing the categories
through which they are constituted:


28. When his sought-out prey evades him,
he calls out,
And others like him, emaciated,
return his call.
29. Fleshless, white-faced,
they are like bare arrows

30 Suzanne P. Stetkevych, 145.

31 Sharf, 42.

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Return of the Beast 73

In a maysir players hands,


Al-Shanfars transformation is embodied in the odes sounds and its rhythm

of a beating drum.33 From the moaning of the bow and the clattering of the
arrows, the ode arrests the reader/listener and subjects him/her to al-Shanfars
tawaush, his becoming beast in the desert. In this passage, al-Shanfars pain
is captured in the alliteration of muhalhalatun () , the l...l (... )that

visually and acoustically doubles and accentuates the emaciation of the arrow-
like ulk, murderous yet thin as a thread (l). This gives new meaning to the
odes title, Lmiyyat, which means the ode rhyming in the letter L (), open-
ing up its rhythm to transformations through multiple sounds and vibrations.
The bow moans, tarinnu, also doubling the n, capturing the pain of loss and
the jouissance of revenge. These sounds and images multiply, transforming
al-Shanfars estrangement and monstrosity into intensities, movements, and
lines of flight traversing terrains at great speed, distorting and being distorted
by them. As al-Shanfar metamorphoses in the desert, his ode gestures toward
a level of violence that cannot be fully represented or contained in words or
poetic structure.


There are at least two main tropes of departure and return in literature. One
consists in the initiation journey that could be associated with the return of
the prodigal son, Gilgameshs return, or most famously the return of Odysseus.
The other, however, depicts a non-redemptive or even impossible return that
does not produce a model of masculinity that endows the one returning with
wisdom, wealth, and dominion. We could associate this non-redemptive
return with Lucifers fall into villainy or the wretchs revenge in Mary Shelleys
Frankenstein, coming back as the assassin following a process of estrangement,
becoming beastly, or what I refer to here as tawaush. In The Metamorphosis
(1915), Frantz Kafka depicts a character who wakes up one day to find him-
self transformed into a monstrous vermin (a dung beetle). Kafkas protagonist
Gregor Samsa attributes his condition to a state of radical estrangement vis-
-vis both his parents and the outside world: The curse of travelling, worries
about making train connections, bad and irregular food, contact with different

32 Suzanne P. Stetkevych, 146.

33 Al-Shanfar, Encyclopaedia of Islam.

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74 El-Ariss

people all the time so that you can never get to know anyone or become
friendly with them. It can all go to Hell.34 As the metamorphosis takes hold,

he heard his own voice answering, it could hardly be recognized as the

voice he had had before. As if from deep inside him, there was a painful
and uncontrollable squeaking mixed in with it, the words could be made
out at first but then there was a sort of echo which made them unclear,
leaving the hearer unsure whether he had heard properly or not.35

The family knocks at the door, first his mother, and then his father: Gregor?
Arent you well? Making an effort to remove all the strangeness from his
voice, he answers, Im ready, now.36
Kafkas novella traces Gregors metamorphosis as he hisses and groans,
oozing liquids and dragging his body through his cluttered room, negotiat-
ing spatial boundaries and reimagining his relation to the family in whose
house he resides. Gregors taraul (itinerancy) and tawaush (becoming
wild, beastly), now unfolding in a makn mish (eerie place), is manifested
in the echo and vibration in his voice, and in the sounds he makes as he moves
around behind his locked door. His monstrous voice is doubled, coming from
him and from somewhere else. His movements chart new possibilities, in
which the subject acts and is acted upon. Gregor transforms and enacts his
own shattering within this monstrous new self, a body constituted by intensi-
ties, forces, inscriptions, and partial connections.37 Kafkas story relegates the
condition of alienation to a state of collapse wherein subjectivity and desire,
departure and return are fundamentally interrogated. Embodying the trajec-
tory of the villain in this makn mish, Kafkas character can only return to
his family, that is, leave his room, through a violent performance. Gregor the
villain returns or is carried away, lured by the music of his sisters violin
the echo, the vibrationto attack her bare neck. This return could be traced
in the Arabic tradition to al-Shanfar, whose ode performs revenge and disin-
tegration in the face of the tribal system.

34 Franz Kafka, The Metamorphosis, trans. David Willey (Classix Press, 2009), 9.
35 Ibid., 2.
36 Ibid., 3.
37 See Gilles Deleuze and Flix Guattaris analysis of the text in Kafka: Towards a Minor
Literature, trans. Dana Polan (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986).

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Return of the Beast 75

Uncanny Return

The transformation of al-Shanfar in the wilderness challenges the models of

Hegelian and Freudian subjectivity38 through which critics have approached
literature and discussed ins (the human) within the Jhil context as well.
Suzanne P. Stetkevych argues:

we should note that among the common symbols or attributes of the lim-
inal phase [associated with the alk] are transvestism, bisexuality, and
androgyny. In this context, the gender inversion serves to suggest sexual
confusion. The ulk becomes in terms of sex or gender ambiguous,
betwixt and between the domestic femininity of Umm Amr39 and the
straight masculinity of the tribal chieftain.40

The collapse of the border between animal and human, the ulk and the
arrow, coincides with the collapse in gender and sexual categories, thereby
interrupting the process of masculine initiation associated with travel or going
into the wild. The ulks perpetual liminality, in Suzanne P. Stetkevychs
terms, systematically unsettles the very structure through which the human is
socialized through kinship and ritual, taking his tawaush into death. When
the tribe finally captures al-Shanfar and decides to kill him, some ask him
about his burial wishes. Al-Shanfar responds by rejecting burial altogether.41
Choosing instead to be devoured by wild beasts, he inscribes in this rejec-
tion his own washiyyah. This ultimate act of cruelty toward oneself and the
other dehumanizes al-Shanfar and posits the diffrance of the human, set-
ting its arche and limit in poetry. The act of cruelty staged and performed

38 Here I am thinking of Gilles Deleuze, who takes up along with Flix Guattari the notion
of the body without organs, moving from the Freudian subject of lack to the machine
dsirante (desiring machine), which inscribes the body and invests its opaque surface
with desire, giving it the freedom to act and be acted upon. See Gilles Deleuze and Flix
Guattari, Anti-udipe: capitalisme et schizophrnie (Paris: Editions de Minuit, 1972), 20-21.
39 This is the feminine sobriquet of al-Shanfars maternal uncle, the ulk poet Taabba
Sharran, who performed the role of the maternal vis--vis the alk (Suzanne P.
Stetkevych, 134).
40 Ibid., 140.
41 Ibid., 131; al-Ibahn quotes al-Shanfars verse regarding his burial: Do not bury me
for my burial is forbidden (qabr muarramun). See Ab al-Faraj al-Ibahn, Kitb
al-aghn, ed. Muammad Ab al-Fal Ibrhm, 24 vols. (Cairo: al-Hayah al-Miriyyah
al-mmah lil-Kitb, 1973), 21: 185. He then relates three different versions of al-Shanfars
capture and death.

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76 El-Ariss

throughout the ode confronts the tribes violent cooptation of al-Shanfar

through ritual burial.
Al-Shanfar leaves the tribe in order to return, but never to the moment
of origin or instance of separation, as these are systematically displaced and
confounded through his tawaush. Undoing the origin and causality of
departure, his monstrous return unsettles the narrative through which kinship
operates, crime is punished, revenge exacted, and burial performed. This radi-
cal break with and of the tribe is best captured in the verses wherein al-Shanfar
describes how he raids his former tribe at night:


58. They said, Our dogs
were whimpering in the night.
We said, Was it a wolf on the prowl
or a prowling hyena whelp?
59. It was but a faint noise,
then they went back to sleep.
We replied, Was it a sandgrouse startled,
or startled hawk?
60. If it was of the jinn,
then he is a more sinister night visitor;
And if it was a man
men do not act like that!43

The moment of return underscores the confusion about al-Shanfars human-

ity, exacerbating the transformation incurred in his tawaush. Here, the tribe
wonders what it was that raided it, animal or jinn, concluding that it must not
be ins (human) because men do not act like that! In this context, the return
marks the exclusion of al-Shanfar from the tribe, and more importantly, from
the human (ins) altogether. In this didactic section, marked by ql/quln
(they said/we said), the ode shows the ways in which al-Shanfars tawaush

42 Sharf, 59-60.
43 Suzanne P. Stetkevych, 149.

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Return of the Beast 77

has contaminated the tribe both by prompting him to raid it and by forcing the
tribe to rethink how a maninsacts and how the human and its actions are
tied to notions of speed, violence, and return. The act of violencethe raiding
at night that kills and orphans childrenis staged as a performance of loss to
the rhythm of the wailing bow (verse 13). Al-Shanfars revenge confronts the
tribe with its own violence and throws it into disarray both within the narra-
tive and as a structure of power defining the human through the ideology of
kinship, loyalty, and belonging in the pre-Islamic context.
The confusion and terror of the tribe as a result of al-Shanfars raids cannot
be separated from the confusion of the critic struggling to establish the odes
historical and literary lineage. The system of causality and the structural nar-
rative of revenge attributed to this genre and historical context are unsettled.
The act of killing is not a ritual, but rather an act of hunting and haunting.
That his tawaush is brought to the tribe through the act of raiding anchors
al-Shanfars position as a villain, not so much as an antagonist of the tribe who
punishes its misdeeds, but rather as the one who unsettles tribal and natural
order. What is external to the community is not another community, similar
but different, but rather its radical outside, constituted through a process of
tawaush not unlike Majnns, Hinds, and Gregors in Kafkas novella.
The tribes questioning of ins following al-Shanfars raid brings to mind the
mythical creatures of pre-Islamic Arabia, namely the ghl44 and the anq,
which stand at the limit of the human, animal, and jinn worlds.45 The ghl,
which has been incorporated into the pantheon of superheroes as Ras al
Ghula supervillain character battling Batman46is a shape-shifting crea-
ture that was blamed for luring travelers into the desert and devouring them.
Though it is the poet Taabba Sharran who is most associated with the ghl,
having brought it to the tribe in one instance and overcome it in another,
al-Shanfars transformations and the tribes reaction to his raid make him ghl-
like as well. But while the ghl lures its victims into the desert through trickery
in order to devour them, the anq is the monstrous bird that carries them

44 See D. B. MacDonald and Ch. Pellat, G h l, Encyclopaedia of Islam.

45 See Suzanne P. Stetkevychs reference to Taabba Sharran bringing back the ghl (94).
The reference to a jinni may recall the mother of dust, mentioned just before the raid
and which may be an allusion to the ghul, that female jinni known to change forms con-
stantly. See Michael Sells, Desert Tracings (Middletown, CT: Wesleyan University Press,
1989), 22.
46 This character was created in the 1970s by DC Comics. Actor Liam Neeson played the role
of Ras al Ghul in Batman Begins (Dir. Christopher Nolan, 2005).

Journal of Arabic Literature 47 (2016) 62-90

78 El-Ariss

beyond the horizon. Going to Lisn al-arab once more,47 al-anq al-mughrib
(westerly anq) takes its prey to bar al-ulmt (the sea of darkness)the
space of anxiety but also of tyrannical and inexplicable cruelty, as in ulm
(unfairness, oppression). In the many references to qal al-anq (killing the
anq) in the pre-Islamic tradition,48 this mythical creature produces confu-
sion, terror, and doubt. Breaking the structural narrative of revenge, the anq
is imagined as attacking for no reason, performing an act of ulm beyond the
laws of trickery (as does the ghl) and causality. Incorporating aspects of ulm,
alm (oppression, darkness, night), and ulmt (the uncanny), the anq is
the haunting that unsettles the very structure of murder and revengethe
ritual dialectics of Jhiliyyah (eye for an eye, revenge killings, etc.). Just like
al-Shanfar, it throws the system into question, creating the space for doubt
and critique best captured in the didacticism of verses 58-60, which conjures
up an uncanny power, and puts in question the human and tribal order.49
Likened to the anq or the shape-shifting ghl, the supervillain al-Shanfar
produces anxiety and haunting through his texts imagery, sounds, intensi-
ties, and vibrations. The Lmiyyah is an arresting and uncanny text both given
its cultural context and its literary reception. Al-Shanfar thus produces and
inhabits a makn mish par excellence, which leads us to revisit suppressed
texts and mythical creatures, unearthing carcasses and confronting anxiety
and violence in the Jhiliyyah. The ode is the stage for the humans transforma-
tion in this makn mish. This metamorphosis is brought back to the tribe
(as Taabba Sharran brings back the ghl), forcing it to question what the
human is and what lies outside of it and within it. Tawaush thus operates
as an arrow that goes into the heart of the tribal system and its values yet
opens up a new space of critique and movement, with multiple readings and
literary trajectories.

47 Ibn Manr, -n-q, 9: 430-434.

48 I am thinking also of Mamd Darwshs poem Mara al-anq (The Death of the
Phoenix), in Limdh tarakta al-isn wadan? (Why Did You Leave the Horse Alone?)
(Beirut: Riy al-Rayyis, 1999).
49 See for instance Johanna Sellmans essay The Ghosts of Exilic Belongings: Mamd
al-Bayts Raq al al-m: alm warah and Post-Soviet Themes in Arabic Exile
Literature published in this issue, which reads the Arab exile in Scandinavia as a specter
that haunts and is haunted by the left as an ideology, structure of belonging, and politi-
cal struggle.

Journal of Arabic Literature 47 (2016) 62-90

Return of the Beast 79

Hud Barakt: Facing the Cadaver

Recent depictions50 of the human threatened with disintegration reso-

nate with if not echo al-Shanfars ode and its Jhil context. The version of
ghurbah and tawaush staged in contemporary texts also involves the trauma
of separation and the continuous performance of return through acts of
revenge, physical transformation, erasure and confounding of the origin. In
novels about the Lebanese Civil War (1975-1990), villains such as Ilys Khrs
Yl and Hud Barakts Khall are violent and violated (muannafn), dehu-
manized by war and tribal and sectarian belonging, and forced to inhabit
spaces of washah from which they raid and haunt the tribe, the sect,
or the nation.
Hud Barakts characters go through processes of tawaush as they
become aware, like the wretch in Frankenstein, of their experience of abandon-
ment and desire for revenge. In ajar al-ak (Stone of Laughter) (1990), she
portrays one of the first homosexual main characters in contemporary Arabic
literature. Khall, living in Beirut during the war, expresses yet struggles with
his sexuality only to find himself contaminated by violence, recognizing his
own monstrosity in the makn mish that is war-torn Lebanon. Joining the
militias at the end of the novel, Khall becomes a villain who rapes and kills.
While in rith al-miyh (Tiller of Waters) (1998), the protagonist Niql enters
a state of washah in the destroyed city center in order to escape wars violence
by communing with animals (wolf-like dogs), Khall sees no outside to the col-
lapsing social order. Through different forms of tawaush, Barakt embodies
and confronts violence, practicing it in the literary text in order to interrogate
its meaning but never to escape it. Barakt possesses (tataqamma)51 her char-
acters to return over and over again from her own space of washah, facing the
strewn bodies of war.
Barakt, who left Lebanon for France in the late eighties, has been exact-
ing her revenge in writing ever since. Returning the violence inflicted on her
(annafath),52 Barakt continuously writes the narrative of the villain, erasing
and mitigating the origin of departure and the point of return. Her writing

50 For instance, see Amad Sadw, Frnkinshtyn f Baghdd (Beirut: Manshrt al-Jamal,
51 Taqammu means transmigration of souls, metempsychosis (Qm, Wehr, 790). I use
it as Hud Barakt referred to it, as a form of possessing, haunting, and in its most extreme
form, devouring the other, as in Ahl al-haw. Hud Barakt, The University of Texas at
Austin, September 30, 2013.
52 Ibid.

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80 El-Ariss

stages and interrogates the human and the structure of violence, disrupting
gender and sexual categories, narrative voice, and notions of community.
Barakts work engages the cruelty of belonging, opening it up in texts that
vibrate and resound through processes of tawaush and tagharrub. She writes
against the system of inclusion and exclusion dictated by tribal, sectarian, and
national loyalties. In order to expose this structure she embodies its violence,
writing violence against violence, confronting it in a spectacle of cruelty.
Barakts work traces narratives of revenge not by starting with the moment
of departure or locating an always already elusive origin, but rather by focus-
ing on the return itself, decoding the letters and missives sent from the space
of washah and ghurbah. Her collection of essays Rasil al-gharbah (Letters
of a Stranger) is written in memory of Joseph Smah, the gharb she finds
dead one morning while preparing to attend the funeral of another gharbah,
May Ghub, editor of Saqi Books, in London. Barakt knocks at Smahs
door in the morning; she knocks only to enter and encounter the cold body of
her friend, the mourner who came to London to hold a wake only to be trans-
formed himself, to be touched by a ghurbah that freezes one, renders one cold,
irretrievable. Barakts letters, which emerge from a diasporic position, are not
addressed to those left behind; nor are they letters from the grave to the world
of the living. Instead, her letters emerge from the space facing the cadaver,53 in
a makn mish reminiscent of al-Shanfars desert in which he encounters
animal carcasses, or Gregor Samsas room in which he transforms into a car-
cass himself, only to be discarded by the family.
Ghurbah is translated as absence from the homeland; separation from ones
native country, banishment, exile; life or place away from home.54 Absence
in Arabic is ghiyb, which does not only mean absence but is also the plural
of ghayb (unknown, doubt) as well. Ghiyb comes close to ghurbah as it, too,
inhabits a multiplicity of unknowns and doubts, fundamentally questioning
the very nature of belonging and interrogating the binary of home and exile.
Novelist and literary critic Abd al-Fatt Kl likens ghurbah to gharbah
muqliqah, the uncanny in Kls Lan tatakallam lughat (Thou Shalt Not Speak

53 See Walid Sadek, In the Presence of the Corpse, Third Text 26:4 (2012), 479-489.
54 Ghrb, Wehr, 668. Ghurbah has often been left untranslated especially in the con-
text of Hud Barakts work. In Italian, for instance, it is rendered as ghorba. In French,
ghurbah is dpaysement. See Gonzalo Fernndez Parillas discussion of Abd Allh
al-Araw (Larouie)s novel Ghurbah in La literatura marroqu contempornea: la novela y
la crtica literaria (Cuenca: Ediciones de la Universidad de Castilla-La Mancha, 2006), 200-
208. The classic of ghurbah literature from the tenth century is Ab al-Faraj al-Ibahns
Kitb al-ghurab.

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Return of the Beast 81

My Language). Kls gharbah is the anxiety experienced in the encounter

with a threatening familiarity embodied in language. Ghurbah thus becomes
a blurry image but most importantly a tingling, a frisson felt deep within, in
ones guts as in al-Shanfars awy (guts).

Coldness and Cruelty

Barakts writing is from and to this position of the outsider and stranger
(gharbah), this position of cruelty in which lies a painful truth that consumes
and devours both author and reader, character and place. In this space, the
eponymous letter can only be strange (gharbah). It is a haunted writing
that embodies the specter, the monster, the anq mughrib, that mythical bird
that practices an uncanny form of raiding like al-Shanfar. In Barakts Rasil
al-gharbah, writing is no longer about identity, gender, and sexuality; writing
is for its own sake. This monstrous writing stages the collapse of these catego-
ries, emptying words and drowning them in a spectacle of crueltyechoes
and screams over the telephone:






55 Hud Barakt, Rasil al-gharbah (Letters of a Stranger) (Beirut: Dr al-Nahr, 2004),

13-14. All translations from this work are mine.

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82 El-Ariss

We see in them our folks who are there, far whom we unneces-
sarily yell over the phone so that we can empty out words of their mean-
ing, a meaning that burns deep inside. We want to spare them a cruelty
that would add to the cruelty of the thousands of miles that separate us,
so that we forgetas we provoke a clamor over the phonethat they
will die soon, in that interval between two phone calls. They will certainly
die while were still here.
We are not a community, but a thin thread infiltrates itself between us
and ties us a little closer together when we realize that one of us is about
to move back to the homeland. We become ashamed to acknowledge
that we feel a bit betrayed, avoiding each others eyes. We fail to recognize
that part of what we feel is a dreadful loneliness, a death followed by
another death, in this country where people cannot even pronounce our
names and where well have to spell words over and over. And we will
raise our voices, yelling over the phone, to say nothing to the one who

In yelling over the telephone, Barakt provokes a clamor (iftil al-ajj)loud

and vibrating tremors that expose the monstrosity of words. Speech on the
stage of ghurbah is meant to spare the parents on the other end of the line
the cruelty (qaswah) of separation and the truth about their certain death in
an interval between two calls. Thus, cruelty is not erased or confounded but
rather becomes omnipresent as it moves into the text itself, mutilating and dis-
torting it through noise and tremors, permanently inhabiting the letter. Cruelty
reveals a truth about the conditions of ghurbah, separation, and belonging but
no longer through representation, the figurative, or communication, as the
telephone is meant to convey. The phone call is a form of revenge and writing
back that pierces like an arrow, collapsing distance and making that distance
possible in and as ghurbah. The telephone is no longer a machine or instru-
ment of communication but rather that which exposes the precariousness of
the link to home, parents, and kinship. The call reveals the certainty of death,
gesturing toward a metaphysical truth that infiltrates lines and satellite con-
nections in order to amplify their mutilating and mutilated attributes. Her let-
ter is a message to her parents, coming from her and from multiple networks
of fibers and connections that inscribe wishes and desires.
Barakt continues the reflection by negating the community outside (dia-
sporic, exilic, etc.), yet identifying a thin and almost imperceptible thread that
ties outsiders to one another, linking (as through an Internet link or Skype)
this non-community to home even while exposing the precariousness of
this linkthe bad connection, full of echoes, rising from within and from

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Return of the Beast 83

somewhere else as in Gregor Samsas voice. This thin thread, however, does
not connect the ghurab (strangers) to each other through bonds of shared
longing and nostalgia while eating home-cooked food and attending events for
Lebanon in Paris. The thread becomes visible only when one of the ghurab
decides to return, in doing so reactivating kinship, forgiving or forgetting the
violence of war and belonging, seeking to undo the cruelty of ghurbahthe
unspoken pact. This thread appears in order to trigger in those left outside a
feeling of betrayal, discomfort, an uncanny feeling that maintains the sense
of connectedness that has crept in again as they try to unite in their cruelty,
in their constant attempts to not hear or be heard on the telephone. Barakts
text reveals a break and a connection with home as a psychological space and
a material one to which she can only return by calling. The negationlasn
jamah, we are not a community; l nusamm, we dont callcharts the pre-
cariousness of home, making the return both possible and impossible at the
same time. The alternative to home is not another home abroad but a position
of cruelty and an act of survival emerging from the inability to forget home and
from the violence associated with remembering and calling it. The No as in
l and lasn marks the negation of return, as if to say, No, I will never return!
The negation, which brings to the surface yet confounds the dialectics of
departure and return just as in the Lmiyyahs opening lines, is exacerbated by
Barakts description of the memory and temporality of war that continues to
haunt its survivors and escapees:

. .
... .
. .

We have no room for this murdered one. No heart to arrange for his fall to
the ground. No lap to hold his head as it gently falls. No family album for
his picture with his kin....
No hatred to immediately return the bullet to his murderers heart.
No tribal instinct to immediately slaughter a member of his murderers

56 Barakt, Rasil, 44.

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84 El-Ariss

clan. No forest wide enough for the long growling of the herd. No herd to
howl its gut out in the dark night, in this autumns pool....We are more
extinguished than this sky. Darker than this sky. But we are less dead
than he is.

The ambivalent negation of the tribal identity and tribal system (murder,
mourning, revenge) emerges from this passage. The No (l, )is not definite,
decisive, or exclusionary. The repetition of No...No (l...l) makes possible
the desire for revenge, displacing it on the text itself. The repetition proclaims
the negation, yelling it as in Barakts telephone call or on stage, reminding
oneself and the other of what we are not and should not be in exchange for
survival and attenuated death (aqall mawtan). The negation is performed and
heard loud and clear, arresting the reader and forcing him/her to confront
the truth about blood ties, separation, and return. The cruelty of breaking
with home thus doubles as the cruelty of breaking with the tribal system that
requires us to mourn, seek revenge, and die.
The l is tied to lasn jamah but also to the two occurrences of in

(clattering). The thin thread mimicking in al-Shanfars text the emaciated
ulk and his arrow, clattering in the hands of fate, joins the thin thread,
khayan whiyan, that breaks with the community and makes the commu-
nity possible in Barakts space of tawaush and ghurbah. From al-Shanfars
ulk, expelled by the tribe and seeking revenge by haunting it back, we move
to the unavenged murdered one in Barakts text. The pain caused by his loss
and by the unwillingness and inability to avenge him turns inward, allowing
the violence to resound through yells and alliterations, echoes and clamor. The
wailing in the ode, which transforms into a beating drum, provides the rhythm
for the process of tawaush, accompanying the staging and the negation of
the community from al-Shanfars work to Barakts. These sounds become a
way of hearing the text and recognizing its meaning.
The break with the community, as in al-Shanfars case, constitutes a break
with its system of violence, without succeeding, however, in ridding oneself of
violence entirely. This violence becomes embodied in the text, forcing author
and reader to confront it within themselves as words and meaning crash and
fail as in the phone call with the parents. The individual is tied to this rep-
etition, cruelty, and shattering as a condition of a new subjectivity, however
monstrous and uncanny. The violence in the text is a staging of the violence of
the tribe that pushes one into a makn mish, a dangerous text (ode, novel)
and space (campsite, city). Writing this violence is a performance of cruelty
in the text and a critique of the violence of belonging, expulsion, and separa-
tion. Cruelty against violence doubles as a cruelty against oneself and ones

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Return of the Beast 85

kinship structure: ahlun hunk in Barakt and ban umm57 in al-Shanfar.

This violence afflicts the tribal system, unsettling its links and ties and connec-
tions (telephone lines, thin threads), exposing their violence and vulnerability
in the body. To be at home and away, to belong to and reject the tribe, is thus to
occupy the position of cruelty that triggers and writes the narrative of revenge.
This also means occupying a permanent liminality as Suzanne P. Stetkevych
argues, not in the Freudian structuralist sense in which one is stuck, unable to
complete the ritual and identify with the tribal chieftain or militia warlord, but
rather as a condition that recognizes the machine within and without, hears
its sounds and vibrations as they produce intensities, movement, and lines of
flight across deserts and airwaves.58
Lauren Berlant defines cruelty as the condition when the pleasures of
being inside a relation have become sustaining regardless of the content
of the relation, such that a person or a world finds itself bound to a situation of
profound threat that is, at the same time, profoundly confirming.59 Antonin
Artaud reminds us: In the practice of cruelty there is a kind of higher deter-
minism, to which the executioner-tormenter himself is subjected and which
he must be determined to endure when the time comes. Cruelty is above all
lucid, a kind of rigid control and submission to necessity. There is no cruelty
without consciousness and the application of consciousness.60 Artaud moves
us closer to cruelty as an awareness of the violence of violence that consumes
one yet allows one to survive by inflicting it on others and taking it in, only
to disintegrate in the end, as in al-Shanfars un-burial and ultimate commu-
nion with nature in the ode. It introduces questions of intentionality into the
reading of spectacle, revealing the return of the villain through a decisive and
well-planned raid. While al-Shanfar raids his tribe and kills a hundred of its
members, Barakt embodies the cruelty of separation and takes her revenge
by thinking her parents death. The violence of war in Barakt thus points to
another violence, internal and conscious, and which can only be staged and
confronted in literature, as George Bataille would remind us.61 Her text both
veils the radical truth of wars violence yet exposes it through cruelty.

57 Fayrz singing Jubrn, y ban umm.

58 I am thinking of Deleuze and Guattaris machine dsirante (desiring machine). See foot-
note 38.
59 Lauren Berlant, Cruel Optimism (Durham: Duke University Press, 2011), 2.
60 Antonin Artaud, The Theatre and Its Doubles, trans. Mary Caroline Richards (New York:
Grove Press, 1958), 102. Emphasis in original.
61 See Georges Bataille, La littrature et le mal (Paris: Gallimard, 1957).

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86 El-Ariss

Cannibalism, Transcendence, Haw

Reappropriating the figure of Majnn, traumatized and bruised by his pas-

sion but also by the horrors of the Lebanese Civil War, Hud Barakts most
cruel text, Ahl al-haw (Disciples of Passion),62 depicts a mans journey of for-
bidden love, border crossing, and murder. His lover is a woman from a differ-
ent religion, a different clan. This nameless Majnn is kidnapped, beaten, and
tortured. He loses control of his giant body only to become aware of its dis-
jointedness and collapse. Liberated through a prisoner exchange, he is institu-
tionalized and subjected to further beatings meant to calm and pacify him. He
becomes beastly by absorbing the washah into which he is pushed, embrac-
ing his monstrosity in an ultimate act of jouissance: murder.


After killing her, I sat on a high boulder.64

The novel starts with this horrific sentence, a confession uttered by a dis-
jointed villain communing with nature. This violent opening allows the killer
to become one with himself and the world, disintegrating as al-Shanfar does
at the end of the Lmiyyah. Killing his lover allows him to permanently enter
his own body and lose it completely. He overcomes his madness, his position
as prey, and the limitations of his human condition. He exalts in the act of
killing, attaining transcendence and pantheist communion with the universe
opening up in front of his eyes and in his lungs. He becomes saintly, godly, and

. .

62 See Moneera al-Ghadeers illuminating review of Disciples of Passion, in Journal of Middle

East Womens Studies 2.3 (2006), 115-118.
63 Hud Barakt, Ahl al-haw (Beirut: Dr al-Nahr, 2002), 9.
64 Hoda Barakat, Disciples of Passion, trans. Marilyn Booth (Syracuse: Syracuse University
Press, 2005), 1.

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Return of the Beast 87


At the moment I killed her, when I saw and realized that I had killed her,
I knew that I had breathed in her soul. I swallowed the angel of her, and
it was within me. The sky flung itself wide before me; all of space broke
open, and my body unfolded itself. A sacred being, a saint: that, I know,
was what I was. I knew that this body of mine had embarked on its slow
but assured ascent. I knew that if one day they were to open my tomb,
they would not find me there. They would find nothing but my shroud,
split asunder, emptied; they would find only the women, tipping their
scents into the soil and running joyous, to tell the tidings of my absence.
For whosoever has not killed does not know.
Whosoever has not killed remains prey to fancies, prey to suffering,
captive to an enervating search for wondrous salvation. That persons
existence will be as the life of a fly at the rubbish dump, circling endlessly
round the same point, inhaling indigestible, bloated questions, then and
there to die without having so much as disturbed the stagnant air.66

Barakt, in the first few pages of her novel, stages murder in a cannibalistic
scene that brings to mind Hinds eating of amzahs liver and al-Shanfars
being devoured by his new kinsmen (the wild beasts), wherein the act of kill-
ing doubles as a devouring of the other and the appropriation of the others
soul. Killing is the ultimate act of salvation that restores humanity yet marks its
complete disintegration. The lover eats his beloved as, one could argue, Majnn
would have eaten Layl had he reunited with her. In that tale, just as in the tale
of Layl wa-l-dhib (Little Red Riding Hood), the narrative is but a deferral of
the ultimate act, keeping Layl alive, away from the emaciated and now wolf-
like Majnn.67 Barakt pushes the romantic narrative of unrequited love to its
cruel denouement, confronting it with its violent truth beyond tribal interdic-
tion and law. The cannibalistic act constitutes the social yet shatters it at the

65 Barakt, Ahl al-haw, 10.

66 Barakat, Disciples, 2.
67 I am thinking here of the saying: wa min al-ubb m qatal (love kills).

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88 El-Ariss

same time.68 In Ahl al-haw, cannibalism is the nonc, the first scene and the
ultimate act that gives the text its shape and rhythm, inscribing haunting as
a narrative that dismantles fetishism. Devouring the beloved transcends the
killing and eating of the father in Freuds Totem and Taboo, which establishes
guilt as the basis of the law and community formation that we find reenacted
in the Christian communion through the consumption of the body and blood
of Christ. Christ transforms in Barakts novel to a Shanfar-like figure who
rejects the grave by maintaining his washiyyah to the end, insisting on his
own un-burial, denying human salvation. While the shroud veils and simulates
the contours of the corpse, the literary work radically uncovers it in a spectacle
of cruelty. Literature, from al-Shanfars ode to Barakts novel, does not simply
represent war and conflict, belonging and exclusion vis--vis the tribe or the
community, but rather harnesses them to expose and confront their violence.
The act of killing in Barakts passage is an epistemological act as well.
The inability to kill prevents one from knowing. But what is this knowledge
(al-marifah)? Is it something concrete or scientific? Is it an understanding
of the human condition attained by devouring the other? The act of killing
consists in reaching a metaphysical or apocalyptic knowledge69 that connects
the end of life to lifes attributes, stages, and passion (haw). The act of kill-
ing distorts nature in order to reconnect with it. To kill is to avoid dying with-
out knowing, without this marifah or ajj that comes from inside and from
somewhere else in Kafka, Barakt, and al-Shanfar. This ajj is an unbearable
buzzinglifes passion (haw) in the guise of murder. The cruelty of murder
pushes violence beyond its limits in Artauds sense, projecting the body of the
villain into the ether. ajj is thus the sound of Ezekiels machine, the hum-
ming of his spacecraft from the Old Testament. This machine has returned
through a portal into the archaic, opened asunder by violence and war.
Discussing Ahl al-haw at a seminar in Austin, Barakt said that writing
is like putting words on the wound.70 The pain is in the narrators disjointed
body but also in his horrific cruelty. Arrested by her own text, she exclaimed:

68 Al-Ghadeer argues that when the act of cannibalizing and interiorizing the other occurs,
the other subsequently reemerges to haunt us. See Moneera al-Ghadeer, Cannibalizing
Iraq: Topos of a New Orientalism, in Debating Orientalism, ed. Ziad Elmarsafy, Anna
Bernard, and David Atwell (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), 117-133, 130.
69 Apocalypse here is meant in the sense of uncovering and shattering the veil in a moment
of tajall.
70 The notion of exilic writing as variously healing or deepening the wound is key in
modern Arabic literature and especially poetry. For instance, see Muhsin al-Musawis
analysis of al-Bayts poem The Wound, in which he argues that for the exilic poet

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Return of the Beast 89

I was horrified to read this novel of mine. I was shocked at the violence
in it, in me. I am a violent human being (an insn anf ), [I thought,]
and when I reflect on this experience, I say that the only way to speak
this places languageLebanon during the Civil Waris to embody
(ataqamma) a violent character, to send an assassin from my ghurbah,
to deliver my message, my violent message. Writing is a form of revenge
at the violence inflicted on me and that has estranged me (gharraban),
pushing me into the desert, the desert inside and outside, where I would
lose myself.71

Barakts vow of revenge through writing traces the narrative of the villain.
Finding her way out of the desert, Barakt, like al-Shanfar, returns and writes
the return with all her determination for vengeance, coming in the figure of
the assassin who raids at night, the anq that haunts and hunts down the
Ban al-Azd tribe, one by one, and not even the dogs bark at its ghostly pres-
ence. Declaring an insn anf (Im a violent human being) implies a com-
plicity in the economy of violence, looking into its abyss and being fascinated
by it. Barakts text thus shatters the position of the victim narrating her vio-
lation. Her confrontation with violence arises from a makn mish, a mate-
rial and literary wilderness wherein the returning villain loses and then finds
him/herself through continuous acts of revenge (intiqm) that turn the vio-
lence inward and outward, triggering the ral (departure, but also poetry) and
anchoring its pain in al-Shanfars empty entrails. This cruelty leads to ema-
ciation in the desert and a change in the voice, exposing its monstrous echo
on the telephone with the parents. This ajj empties language; it invents an
uncanny text, a writing that burns and consumes all. There is no romanticism
to cruelty, no salvation as a part of an Oedipal denouement of rejection and
recognition. The narrative of the villain is writing for itselfa machine that
keeps producing its own monstrosity: Odysseus and Gilgamesh never return as
good and enlightened kings; they simply never return.


Tagharrub and tawaush in al-Shanfar and Hud Barakts works are acts
of revenge involving great cruelty. These acts expose and confront violences

painful memories come back as unhealed wounds. Muhsin al-Musawi, Abd al-Wahhb
al-Bayts Poetics of Exile, Journal of Arabic Literature 32:2 (2001), 212-238, 215.
71 Hud Barakt, The University of Texas at Austin, September 30, 2013. My translation.

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90 El-Ariss

complicity in the production of the human through rituals of belonging and

identification, war and murder. The space of tawaush is a dehumanizing
space that unsettles the human, wherein violence is turned against itself and
against the system of inclusion and exclusion it performs. Just as in Majnns
itinerancy and emaciation in the wilderness, tawaush and tagharrub
involve physical transformations that are inscribed in the body, that mold and
transform it, undermining its unity, morphology, and kinship. The forms of
subjectivity and writing that emerge from these states of washah are never
dialectical, never redemptive, but rather render exclusion and exile perma-
nent, refiguring in the process the meaning of home and the significance of
belonging. Tawaush depicts a departure and a separation that are never
resolved or mourned. Villainy and cruelty are the only outcome of this impos-
sible return. The return of the villain or of the wash can only be unsettling,
pointing to other possibilities of the social, the political, and the human. It is
this fundamental philosophical questioning of departure and return, exile and
diaspora, that this essay begins to trace comparatively in Arabic literature.
The literary investigation, as al-Ghadhdhm suggests through his return to
al-Shanfar, is a confrontation with political transformations in the Arab world.
How could we reread the Arabic literary tradition, think the relation between
classical and modern texts, in light of the current collapse that has fundamen-
tally unsettled the way canons and periods are imagined and conceived? It is
the current disintegration, facing the archaic in all its forms, that accentuates
the urgency to rethink the literary no longer as a representation but as a stage
of confrontation, as a stage of cruelty that exposes the ideology of belonging,
exclusion, and violence. With refugee crises and the acceleration in the process
of tagharrub due to war and conflict, the return (al-awdah) gains a new mean-
ing in literature and cultural production. Can the exile only return as a beast?
My critique of psychoanalysis and structuralism more generally, which will be
brought to bear more fully in a larger project, arises from a rereading of the
Arabic literary tradition in light of contemporary literature, produced against
the backdrop of political transformations that leave no room for the Oedipal
as a framework for thinking the self. Rituals of initiation and healing, and mas-
culinity and nationhood, are permanently altered both as structures and as
interpretive frameworks deployed to describe how the human is constituted.

Journal of Arabic Literature 47 (2016) 62-90