Middle East

Severed Heads

Arab literary fantasy and terrible reality.


"My blood flowed on the pavement. The head had separated from the body as though it had been chopped off by a sharp sword. I was sorry to see my body lying on the macadam only to be run over by some truck or lorry. I tried to order my hands to lift the corpse but soon realized that they were no longer subject to my command. The veins and arteries were gushing a jet fountain, spurts of blood spreading out, perhaps aspiring toward the final form of [a] red pool."

So begins Mohammed Barrada's intentionally disturbing tale "The Story of the Severed Head." Before its adventures are over, Barrada's severed head will take flight and deliver a politically subversive message to an astonished populace: You may take solace in fantasies, the head announces, but those fantasies are the source of your oppression. Eventually, the head will be captured and judged by a ghost. First published in 1979, this short, surrealistic work by the distinguished Moroccan author lately has taken on an unhappy contemporary resonance.

The most obvious source of the story's renewed timeliness is, of course, the severed head itself. Originally a device intended to evoke antique horrors, it now evokes the disgust of daily reality. Beheadings or threats of beheadings have been in the news almost constantly, thanks to murderers acting in the name of Islamist political fantasies. Headless bodies are found floating in the Tigris; bodiless heads are discovered in Saudi refrigerators. Videotaped beheadings are posted on the Internet, their appalling images overwhelming any attempt to capture their savagery with prose.

Yet Barrada's bizarre tale is timely for other reasons too. His bodiless head lies at an intersection of terrible cultural and political forces in the Arab world, forces that not only shape the story's message of personal and political fantasy but also underlie the story's own origins.

Arab literary fantasy is a remarkable phenomenon. Despite the flights of imagination for which the Arab folk tale and epic are justly famous, fantasy remained rare in modern Arabic fiction until quite late. Such leading writers as Yusuf Idris and Naguib Mahfouz did use fantastic elements, especially in their short tales, but most Arab novelists remained faithful to an established tradition of social realism.

In the late 1960s, however, this situation changed. There was an explosion of Arab prose tales employing the fantastic, the surreal, and the marvelous. More than one Arab critic has linked this development to the deep cultural shock of Egyptian President Gamal Abdul Nasser's catastrophic defeat in the Arab-Israeli war of 1967. It was as if the crisis then faced by the Arab world, and by its dominant paradigm of pan-Arabism, was too profound to be addressed in realist terms. The Arab world's most pressing issues were not social or economic, this body of work suggests, but psychological and intellectual. What was required to address such a political nightmare was its literary equivalent: a literature of a world that had lost its bearings.

The oppressive fantasies of Arab nationalism whose collapse Barrada was addressing a quarter century ago again have led their adherents into crisis. But where previous pan-Arabist crises took the outward shape of political and military problems, the current situation–whether measured by the reaction to events in Darfur, or to the toppling of Saddam Hussein, or indeed to the spate of beheadings and bombings in Iraq–is at its heart a moral crisis. These forces add a new layer of horror to Barrada's story, because there is a sense in which Barrada's severed head is speaking again, offering its compelling message anew.

Listen as the head hovers in midair and addresses its astounded listeners: "O wretched, miserable, desperate, idle, deprived, scared, oppressed people! You, escapees from reality to words, you seekers of solace in fantasies while truth stares you in the eye. You lull yourselves with the legends of Antara [sic] and Abu Zeyd and dream of the lands of Waq al-Waq. You dream of buxom maidens who feed you their breast burning with desire and who promise you pleasures that conceal hunger, oppression and frustration."

Unfortunately, this striking speech could have been written yesterday. For too many Arab intellectuals, Saddam Hussein remains the reincarnation of the epic folk hero Antar. One Egyptian lawyer recently told an Iraqi TV interviewer that to defend Saddam is to defend the honor and dignity of the Arabs, as if it were not possible to criticize the U.S. occupation of Iraq while rejoicing in the overthrow of a butcher.

For too many pan-Arabist politicians, the possibility of foreign intervention in Sudan is a greater problem than the overwhelming humanitarian disaster in that nation–never mind whether Arab militias have been fomenting genocide. An audience recently offered Khartoum's ambassador in Beirut loud applause when he stated that allegations against Sudan were part of a worldwide conspiracy against all Arabs. Indeed, for too many Islamists throughout the world, martyrdom has become its own nihilistic reward.

The seemingly permanent timeliness of Barrada's message suggests the circularity of Arab nationalist (and now also Islamist) politics. Its unwillingness to come to grips with its own failures only leads to greater failures. Yet each new crisis can be blamed on powerful actors intent on the destruction of the Arabs. That in turn validates anew the insecurities and frustrations that maintain Arab nationalism as a political force.

What happens when someone–or something–attempts to break this cycle? In Barrada's tale, the people react to the head's attempt to make them "call things by their name and embrace realities" in this way: They hurl abuse at the head. They speculate as to whether the head is a tool of a foreign power. They answer, "We don't have to put up with someone who insults us and reviles us."

The final judgment of the head is delivered at its state trial: Return the head to the corpse, orders a ghostly judge who has risen from the past, "and cut off the tongue."?