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      A Postcolonial Ecocritical Reading of Mahmoud Darwish’s “The Red Indian’s Penultimate Speech to the White Man”



            Inspired by the tenets of postcolonial ecocriticism, theories of settler colonialism, and indigenous ecologies, this study examines the connection Mahmoud Darwish establishes between the colonized people and natural elements in his poem “The Red Indian’s Penultimate Speech to the White Man” while making reference to Native American oral traditions and Chief Seattle’s speech. This article argues that Darwish’s poem expresses an inclusive perspective that requires appreciation of the interconnection between the national and ecological struggle of the colonized. The analysis in this article is premised on Darwish’s dictum in this poem that the resistance of the colonized against loss of homeland is also a resistance against loss of nature; that is, Darwish seems to argue that the ecological ethos is inherent in the resistance of colonized people against settler colonialism. In “The Red Indian’s Penultimate Speech to the White Man,” Darwish expresses consciousness of a history of colonial domination that aggressively exploitated natural resources and destroyed natural habitations that natives had nurtured and depended on for their subsistence over the years. In other words, the poet represents the central ecocritical argument that environmental issues are integral to the existence of colonized peoples.

            Main article text

            This article explores the link the Palestinian poet Mahmoud Darwish (1941–2008) establishes between nature and indigenous communities in his poem “The Red Indian’s Penultimate Speech to the White Man” (1992). Inspired by Native American oral traditions and Chief Seattle’s speech, this poem highlights the interconnection between the ecological and national struggle of the colonized people against settler-colonial atrocities. Darwish in this poem traces a history of settler-colonial exploitation of natural resources and destruction of the indigenous communities. As such, the poet shares the main ecocritical argument that the preservation of nature is essential for the sustainability of the indigenous communities.

            In simple terms, ecocriticism is the study of the relationship between literature and the physical environment; it “takes an earth-centred approach to literary studies.” 1 The term ecocriticism appeared for the first time in William Rueckert’s essay titled “Literature and Ecology: An Experiment in Ecocriticism” in 1978. Rueckert defines ecocriticism as “applying ecological concepts to the reading, teaching, and writing about literature.” 2 Ecocriticism, then, seeks to elucidate the role of nature, and the rhetoric of environmental ethics in a literary text, or to use ecological principles as a model for thinking about how literature functions. Thus, literature becomes a powerful manifestation of the human–nature connection and environmentally oriented politics. As Richard Kerridge and Neil Sammells argue, “ecocriticism seeks to evaluate texts and ideas in terms of their coherence and usefulness as responses to environmental crisis”. 3 An ecocritical reading can therefore be understood as an evaluation of the ecological contours and environmental caveats in a text that promises not necessarily to solve environmental crises, but, at least, to highlight and warn against them.

            Ecocriticism remained passive in scholarship until the Western Literature Association meeting in Loeurd’ Alene in 1989 when Cheryll Glotfelty and Glen Love issued a call for environment-based criticism. 4 After that, ecocriticism was introduced as a new and growing literary field in US universities and reached the United Kingdom in the 1990s. Loretta Johnson adds that “over the last three decades, ecocriticism has emerged as a field of literary study that addresses how humans relate to nonhuman nature or environment in literature.” 5 It has also traveled beyond American and British shores to Africa and Asia. This marks the transmission of ecocriticism from Anglo-American centrism into a tradition of the global south. In their introduction to Ecocriticism Reader (1996), Cheryll Glotfelty and Harold Fromm remark that “ecocriticism has been predominately a white movement,” and they urge scholars from different parts of the world to engage with environmental crises since they are global and are not limited to a specific region. 6 They state that “an adversity of voices are encouraged to contribute to the discussion” and widen the scope of the field by drawing connections between issues of injustice to both humans and nonhumans. 7 Following this political line of inquiry, David Schlosberg incorporates a transnational dimension to the discourse of environmental justice by asserting that ecocriticism has more recently started to show more inclination to examine the global nature of environmental concerns. 8 Other critics emphasize the commitment of ecocritics to ethical engagements. 9 With such slant of activism, ecocritical practice exhibits some overlap with other politically engaged critical approaches such as postcolonial scholarship.

            Ecocriticism can, then, be viewed as a political mode of analysis, which interprets the “convergence between the respective preoccupations of ecocriticism and postcolonial studies.” 10 The two disciplines share a common cause in two distinct ways. First, both disciplines demonstrate how colonialism inflicts human and environmental destruction and, second, they contrast colonialism’s binaries with inclusive forms of attachment. 11 Postcolonial ecocriticism rests on the assumption that the first wave of ecocriticism ignored the conditions of the inhabitants of postcolonial societies who are massively disadvantaged in the allocation of colonial and ecological risks. Thus, in addressing this shortcoming of Anglo-American ecocriticism, postcolonial ecocritics have pointed to the ecological implications of settler colonialism and the negative impacts of industries and other vectors of globalization.

            Ecocritics also engage with settler-colonial studies, which emerged first in Australia and New Zealand before it spread to Hawaii and Palestine and eventually to North America and Europe, and it “began as a response to the perceived limitations of postcolonial theory.” 12 This evolving field emerged from scholarship in Native American and indigenous studies that critiques the “post” in “postcolonial” as inappropriate for accounting for the ongoing systems of oppression and domination in certain contexts, including the United States, Canada, New Zealand, Australia, and Palestine. In such contexts, colonialism is not an event of the past, but rather a process that has not ended. The settler colonizers have come to destroy indigenous peoples and cultures and replace them through settlements. In brief, settler-colonial theory precisely examines the ongoing effects of colonial rule in the political and geographical contexts in which it still exists. This theory speaks to the focus of this article on a poem written by a Palestinian writer whose people have been living under the yoke of Israeli settler-colonial power since 1948, a poem that features a postcolonial, settler-colonial, indigenous, and ecocritical ethos. As Salma Monani and Joni Adamson argue, ecocriticism and the environmental humanities are taking powerful twenty-first-century directions that engage postcolonial and indigenous ecologies when responding to and confronting settler-colonial conceptions of nature and place, while emphasizing the importance of oral and written indigenous literatures in articulating potential ways of resistance to the colonialists’ destruction of nature. 13 As evident in Native American oral and written traditions, the key subject in indigenous ecologies is that the interactions between human and nonhuman entities must be based on relations of kinship and harmony. The texts analyzed in this article show that indigenous peoples have been active custodians of nature. Settler colonialism aims to rupture the relationship between indigenous peoples and their ecological world; it seeks to subvert their intimate connection; however, these colonialist practices have strengthened the Natives’ connection with their place/nature while defending their rights. Indigenous people’s narratives are replete with ecological issues and thoughts that stress the importance of appreciating nature and resisting imperial notions of science and technological progress. The ecological awareness of indigenous people, especially “Native Americans,” has been a source of inspiration and hope for the ecological movements around the world. As Veronika Kucharská argues, the image of the American Indian as ecological model has inspired the modern environmental movement, which entails that the discrepancy between “White” and “Indian” attitudes towards nature can be elicited from Native Americans’ perceptions of their relationship with ecology. 14 The ecological awareness of Native Americans has inspired Darwish to write his poem that addresses the ecological catastrophe that has resulted from Israeli-settler colonization of Palestine.

            In this article, we consider Darwish’s environmentally conscious poem “The Red Indian’s Penultimate Speech to the White Man” as an exemplary work of understudied postcolonial ecocritical poetry from Palestine. Intensely mourning environmental loss, Darwish’s poem provides an instructive portrayal of the human and ecological damage inflicted by settler colonialism, and, more significantly, it communicates environmental ethics that transcend restrictive or particular territory. The poem can however be described as a problematic work in its assumption of the voice of a community whose own voices, like those of the Palestinians, have until recently often been excluded from the Western canon or repressed by those who speak on their behalf. That is, Darwish’s use of a Native American perspective brings an ancient tragedy into the present practices of settler colonialism in Palestine.

            The striking parallels in the environmental history of Palestine and North America, explicitly referenced in the poem, are the central focus of this article, which is chiefly concerned with concepts of the environment vis-à-vis indigenous ecologies while simultaneously engaging with the human and environmental impacts of American and Israeli settler colonialism. In both contexts, the indigenous populations suffered dispossession, displacement, replacement, relocation, settlement expansion, restrictions on access to natural resources, and walls and fences that cut villages apart. We quote directly from Chief Seattle’s speech, which inspired the poem, demonstrating the value of reading these two histories together. In doing so, we aim to fit this work within a growing body of work taking environmental approaches to Palestine. Darwish’s poem draws an interesting parallel between the historical experiences of dispossession and settler colonization of the Native American and the Palestinian, and the similarities in the discourses of belonging, owning the land, and resistance. The poet assumes the persona of the native American figure who ecologically resists the violent colonial conquest, merging the figure of the Native American and Palestinian together, calling the colonizer to attend to the environmental ethics these two peoples have been observing across ages. Significantly, Darwish’s allusion to the conquest of Native Americans by Columbus and the foregrounding of the Palestinian story along this line is exemplary of Palestinian literature’s attempt to foreground the ongoing process of settler-colonial dispossession and the native’s relation with the land through historical comparisons.

            A few studies have examined Darwish’s poetry from a postcolonial ecocritical perspective, with a special emphasis on his advocacy for “green resistance.” Hamoud Yaha, Zalina Lazim, and Ravichandran Vengadasamy argue that Darwish’s poetry considers nature as an inspirational means of resistance, and it instructs readers that the interconnection between Palestinians and their nature constitutes one form of attachment and resistance. 15 Hamoud Yahya and Ruzy Hashim explore the representation of nature in Darwish’s Memory for Forgetfulness, stating that Darwish’s “green memories” of his homeland have been put into the service of his own textual struggle against the colonial negation of Palestine. 16 These two articles focus their arguments on the notion of nature-oriented resistance within the Palestinian context, yet their implications are relatively reductionist and limited to a particular context. In this article, we analyze Darwish’s poem “The Red Indian’s Penultimate Speech to the White Man,” arguing that Darwish’s ecological contribution shows an inclusive impulse that crosses national and geographical boundaries. As the title implies, Darwish builds on Native Americans’ sympathetic attitude towards nature to highlight his postcolonial, indigenous, and ecological consciousness. We have specifically selected this poem because it lends itself very well to ecocritical interpretations and comprises an inclusive ethos that depicts the unity and affinity between the colonized people and their nature, and it predicates an environmental crisis that has resulted from colonialism.

            “You have your god and we have ours”: The privileging of the pagan god

            Darwish invokes Chief Seattle’s speech in the title of his poem, and thus, from the outset, he points to the common fate of Native peoples confronted with the settler-colonial thirst to occupy their land, abusively exploit their natural resources, transfer, obscure, and even erase indigenous populations. Therefore, by means of providing context for Darwish’s deployment of Seattle’s discursive, environmentally centered parts of the oration, we wish to briefly chart the ecological concerns in the speech. According to Kucharská, Chief Seattle’s Speech “has inspired the philosophical outfit of the environmentalists,” and “the environmental aspects of the ‘Indian’ lifestyle were particularly stressed, as the ecological problems of the industrial countries became largely visible and the environmental movement began to grow.” 17 In fact, ecocritics have repeatedly noted the complementary relation between human beings and nature in Seattle’s words. The Indian chief of the Suwamish tribe wrote his speech in response to US President Franklin Pierce’s letter to him in 1854 during the Westward expansion. In that letter, Pierce suggested buying the territories in which they were settled, offering in return the creation of a reservation for his tribe. Deepshikha Kumari (2013) states that:

            It is Seattle’s belief that all things living or non-living, beasts, trees and human being[s] share the same breath. Hence, there is a deep relation between all the objects of Nature and Man . . . Seattle delivers[a] timely warning that if man continues to destroy nature for his personal interests, he will suffer . . . the consequences. 18

            The harmony between humans, nature, and the universe is undoubtedly a key lesson in Seattle’s speech. We maintain that the speech constitutes an invitation to the colonizer to reconsider the relationship between human beings and nature at three interrelated levels: commodification, hierarchization, and the transcendence of ethnocentric and racial differences. Indeed Seattle’s words underscore the disparity between natives’ and colonists’ ecological perceptions. Seattle’s speech introduces Native Americans as people who take care of nature and seriously consider their actions towards it, “and such ways are those that should be adopted by the whites in order to save their environment and their lives.” 19 Seattle, speaking on behalf of the Native American Salish tribe, considers the idea of selling lands both epistemologically and practically alien: “If we do not own the freshness of the air and sparkle of the water, how can you buy them?” 20 To him the transfer of the commodity logic to the domain of nature constitutes the unthinkable. The human being cannot trade off trees, meadows, grass, rocks, the fresh air, and the sparkling water if s/he is inclined to perceive him/herself as one element in this natural balance. The economic valuation and the commodification of human–nature relations ignore these important egalitarian, ethical, and ecological considerations that represent core values in the pagan creed. Time after time, Seattle mentions the permanent and sacred eco-social connections to geography, ecology, and the universe.

            Seattle’s words problematize the colonial mode of commodifying/utilizing the elements of nature. The idea of utilization has consistently failed to relate to nature in a way that encompasses both human and nonhuman needs. In fact, that is why settler colonialism, as portrayed in Seattle’s speech, exhibits no loyalties to old ideas or beliefs and fails to show sympathy, compassion, or even understanding to those who keep these kinds of loyalties. The father’s grave, the mother’s tears, the dead brother’s spirit roaming the earth are deemed sentimental and idealized models of relating to nature. Instead, the commodification logic favors the transformation of nature for economic benefit. Such a mode of commodification generates a state that is more or less devoid of emotional connections with the surrounding environment.

            This colonialist’s capitalist and egocentric attitude stands in contrast, according to Seattle, to the native populations’ affinity, spiritual connections, and the sense of a shared fate they have developed over the ages. They know the land, feel it, grieve for it, and shed a tear over its pain. Seattle’s “Man did not weave the web of life: he is merely a strand in it” represents a call to reinstate humans’ loyalty to mother earth. 21 His reluctance to sell the land is driven mainly by his anticipation that the interventions of settler colonialism will destroy what the natives have cherished all these years; the woods, the eagles will disappear, the horses will be tamed, the shores and the spirits of his people will vanish, too. In his speech, the spirit of brotherhood and sisterhood with natural elements transcends nature to reach human lives across racial lines. “One thing we know . . . our God is the same God”; “the Earth is precious to him”, and White and Native people “are all brothers after all.” 22 Utilizing an earth-based fraternity, Seattle demeans racial and color-based construction of spaces. He seems to say that we observe the sacredness of Earth, which is God’s gift to humans, from which the Native man emerged and has to take care of and honor. Seattle shows an awareness that the colonial project seeks to erase native communities and their history and target their land based on color dichotomy “White/Native.” The colonizers therefore introduce themselves as competitors over the land, imagining it as something to be conquered and subdued. Seattle emphasizes that the White’s vision of the land is consistent with the colonialist ideology of Manifest Destiny, which correlates with the Zionist ideology, the idea that the United States, and similarly Zionism, were to occupy new territories according to providential design.

            As Darwish redeploys these references from Seattle’s speech, he problematizes the imperialist hierarchization inherent in the chain of being as told in the three monotheistic religions and the potential violence that is practiced towards nature and its elements by the human being who, by “religious decree”, occupies the top of the chain. “Do you know the Buffalo and the plants are our brothers?,” Darwish cries out. 23 While this discourse authorizes a filial bond, sends a message of equality, and establishes non-hierarchical relationships between the members of the family, it simultaneously delegitimizes the idea of the “chosen man” and redraws the human–nature relationship along egalitarian considerations. As Graham Huggan and Helen Tiffin argue, “in assuming a natural prioritization of humans and human interests over those of other species on earth, we are both generating and repeating the racist ideologies of imperialism on a planetary scale.” 24 By drawing on Seattle’s speech, Darwish introduces an environmentally based conception of community. Darwish calls for a reimagining and reconfiguration of the human position in relation to nature; this necessitates an interrogation of the ways in which the human being has constructed himself as superior to nature, a hierarchization that has been complicit in colonialist and racist exploitation of ecology.

            The Old Testament, the Bible, and the Quran, all three books, tell us that Adam was blessed and he was entrusted to multiply and “conquer” the Earth and to preside over the sea, the sky, and the land creatures. Unlike all other creatures, Adam is made in God’s image. Therefore, we are told to believe, the human being has rightful mastery over nature and all its elements. Lynn White Jr’s popular essay “The Historical Roots of our Ecologic Crisis” implicates this hierarchical religious logic as one historical root for the modern ecological crisis. The author argues that “Christianity . . . has not only established a dualism of man and nature but also insisted that it is God’s will that man exploit nature for his proper ends.” These religious stories of the “chosen man” have been continuously misappropriated in modern/colonial contexts in the Native Indian and the Palestinian condition; for example, settler colonialism has called upon religious mythologies to control the land and to disown its native people. The settlers are often represented as pioneers, pilgrims, and new Adams. By drawing on biblical narratives, Israeli-settler colonialism has affected not only Muslims, but also the Christian community that had lived in peace with other religious groups before the colonial Zionist era. The land of these Christians has similarly been stolen, and their movement has been restricted by the Jewish state. Whereas Native Americans were, generally speaking, conquered by Christian communities who utilized the Bible for their own colonial purposes, that is they were the colonizing people, Palestinian Christians, along with Muslims, were the colonized people and both religious groups suffered from the same Jewish colonizer. Accordingly, Darwish presents an ecocritical challenge to the colonists’ god. When describing the god of the colonists as a steel god, he advances the idea that, in the Christian theology, and perhaps in all of the three monotheistic religions, the human being occupies a privileged position in relation to the plant and animal world:

            you have your god and we have ours,

            you have your faith and we have ours,

            so do not bury god in books that promised you a land in our land as you claim,

            and do not make your [steel] god a chamberlain in the royal court. 25

            Darwish’s words amount to an ecocritical privileging of a neo-humanist or deconstructionist rejection of ethnocentric discourse in favor of the more inclusive orientations towards human society and the entire global ecosystem. It is to be understood that commitment to the colonial project would necessarily exclude commitments to the mother earth gifted to humans by God who asked them to honor it. In his distinction between “your god” and “our god,” Darwish instructs against privileging the new “god of steel”, an extremely powerful and resourceful, yet merciless and abusive god of capitalism. The god of steel has consistently destroyed nature under the pretext of such grand narratives as nature exploitation, urbanization, settlement expansion, economic benefits, etc. This god of steel has inflicted much suffering not only on the societies and traditional communities it has conquered, but also on the complex dynamics these societies have continually sustained with their ecosystems. The buffalo massacre in the colonial American context and the olive grove massacres in present-day Palestine testify to the size of the damage inflicted by settler colonialism. Darwish’s adaptation of Seattle’s humanist plea amounts to not only a disruption of the privileging of the human being over the rest of nature but also to a larger call for a more human god that is not made of steel or gold or any other metal for that matter. It is a god who does not give permission to any religious group nor does it allow a “chosen” people to take the land of others by force.

            Postcolonial responses and the ecocritical consciousness

            Darwish has appropriated segments of Seattle’s speech to expose the grave extent to which biological and cultural diversity has been compromised in the colonial contexts. As he does so, he reinstates the traditional nature/culture binary but only to stage political resistance in the face of the ecological threats posed by the scientifically and technologically superior colonial powers. Thus, his text offers a unique blend of postcolonial and ecological perspectives where nature is not perceived as the other, but rather as a living entity, which shares the same fate as that of the natives, entangled by the apocalyptic consequences of the colonial project:

            here the eagle died depressed in suicide,

            here the strangers conquered us,

            And nothing remains for us in the new time,

            Here our bodies evaporate, cloud by cloud, into space,

            Here our souls glitter, star by star, in the space of song! 26

            Darwish’s reflection on the destruction of both humans and nonhumans by colonialist practices continues to be embedded in his rumination on the sacred and intimate relation between humans and other creatures, wherein the elimination of one of the components of the ecosystem will essentially mean the elimination of the others.

            Darwish presents the precolonial world as a seamless whole in which everything depends on everything else. As Yahya, Lazim, and Vengadasamy suggest, “compared to the undoubted importance of the human part, the whole ecosphere is even more significant and consequential: more inclusive, more complex, more integrated, more creative, more beautiful, more mysterious, and older than time.” 27 Such interdependence between these elements is considered sacred to the original populations, and maintaining it is deemed essential for all elements in the ecosystem, human and nonhuman alike. The observations of native populations that often developed into proverbs or popular mythologies inform this interdependence. “What is man without the beasts? If all the beasts were gone, man would die from a great loneliness of spirit. For whatever happens to the beasts, soon happens to man. All things are connected,” Seattle exclaims. 28 Along these same lines and without employing the cliché pastoralist representations of nature, Darwish, informed by an ecocritical and indigenous consciousness, objects to the colonial history of natural abuse and uses this history as a stepping board to build a model of ecological coexistence:

            Do not dig the earth any deeper!

            Do not wound the turtle whose back the earth,

            our grandmother the earth, sleeps upon,

            our trees are her hair, and our adornment her flower,

            “There is no death in this earth,” do not change her fragile creation. 29

            As Darwish eyes the relationships between the natural and cultural processes, the speaking voice stages yet another opposition between the natural (as in primitive and backward) and the cultural (as in progressive and advanced); indeed, he maintains this opposition all through the 330 lines of poetry. As he acknowledges the power of the technological tools to conquer, colonize, kill, disrupt, and destroy the environmental balance, the ecologically conscious voice aligns himself with the native perception of nature as he deliberately sets up their reconcilable difference between “our nature” and “your civilization,” “our pepples and your iron,” “our birds and your gun,” “our plains and your flaming horses,” “our dead and your mighty iron,” “our bleeding present and your clash of steel,” “my corpse and your brutal statues of liberty,” “my motherland and your sword.” This opposition signals a native voice who detaches himself from the modern tools of destruction, a voice that is bent not on war but on finding his peace in the shadow of a willow tree, who refuses to engage in this enormous brutality against the human and nonhuman native systems.

            There are many images in literature that reflect the ecological awareness of Native America. The best example is the image of the “Crying Indian” and others of the type that “does not only imply that the Indian is a conservationist and ecologist—but that the white man is not”. 30 Such images seek to highlight the differences between the Native’s and colonialist’s understanding of the relation between human and nonhuman entities. A Lakota writer Vine Deloria Jr. states: “the Indian lived with his land. The white destroyed his land. He destroyed the planet earth.” 31 Seattle’s appeal to the colonists to act less violently or more humanely works to destabilize claims to the superiority of the civilized discourses of settler colonialism over the simplicity of native populations:

            Our names are trees of the deity’s speech,

            and birds that soar higher than the rifle,

            Do not sever the trees of the name,

            you comers from the sea in war,

            and do not exhale your horses aflame in the plain. 32

            Driven by claims of progress and enlightenment, colonial interventions have repeatedly enacted ecocide for the thicket, the eagles, the buffalo, and many other plants and beasts. These interventions divided the whole, disconnected everything from everything else. As they act along with nature, the natives fear the voice of steel, know the arguments of modernity and its tricks, mourn their own demise, and, by the same force, mourn the demise of the environment. This demise is associated in Native American oral traditions with the coming of the whites, which marks “the ending of peace and primal unity and the beginning of loss and division.” 33 “In the old, old days, before Columbus ‘discovered’ us, as they say,” one White River Sioux story goes, “we were even closer to the animals than we are now. Many people could understand the animal languages; they could talk to a bird, gossip with a butterfly. Animals could change themselves into people and people into animals.” 34 These are all very good reasons for ceasing to trust the grand narrative of progress and to project the imminent demise of humanity. Darwish confirms that Native Americans instinctively know that and they have witnessed ways in which the colonialist conquest has caused ecological degradation that has profoundly threatened their survival. The above stanza however insists that divine leaves and birds will “soar higher than the rifle,” resisting these abuses. 35

            Zionists claimed that they have improved and developed the Arab community in Palestine. However, before Zionist settler colonialism, Palestine, as many documents have shown, was a site of economic, cultural, and intellectual exchange. As Salim Tamari argues in his book The Great War and the Remaking of Palestine, Palestine had enjoyed a rich history and thriving urban culture before Zionism embarked on its settler-colonial project in Palestine. The book challenges the Zionist claim that Palestine did not exist as a political, geographic, cultural, and economic space before Israel established itself. Tamari shows instead that the Zionist settler colonization of Palestine aimed to destroy the viability of the emergence of Palestine as a vibrant entity. Raja Shehadeh, in Palestinian Walks: The Vanishing of a Landscape, explicitly chronicles the ways in which Israeli-settler colonialism has aimed to reconstruct Palestine textually and materially. Raja Shehadeh’s Palestinian Walks deconstructs the modern–primitive opposition that nineteenth-century orientalist writers imposed on Palestine and in turn informed Zionist propaganda. Shehadeh’s memoir writes back “against colonialist (mis)representations of Palestine and its people and [seeks] to criticize the orientalist attitudes that preceded it.” As Qabaha continues to argue, “Shehadeh’s narrative sketches ways of challenging and questioning the assumptions of orientalist narratives that facilitated Israeli settler colonialism and [it] aspires to decolonize Palestinian history and depoliticize the Palestinian landscape.” 36 Analogously, upon his return to Ramallah in 1996, after 30 years of exile, Mourid Barghouti in I Saw Ramallah (as well as in I was Born There, I was Born Here), describes his overwhelming sense of displacement and dislocation upon finding himself a stranger in Ramallah, which looks different from how it used to be in the 1960s when he left it. Barghouti “focuses on the ever-increasing constructions of Israeli settlements and the Separation Wall which, according to him, have profoundly changed the identity of Palestine.” This new reality, according to Barghouti, “obstructs his return at both physical and psychic levels.” 37 The writer reflects on the ways in which Israeli-settler colonialism has sought to limit Palestinian mobility and cultural and economic development.

            The discursive thrust of Darwish’s poem is achieved when the speaker provides an ecologically viable mode of resistance to the overpowering force of colonialism. Israeli-settler colonialism introduced itself “as the power that animates, restores, rehabilitates, and cultivates the otherwise invisible, barren, desolate, and dangerous space beyond familiar boundaries.” 38 Darwish’s poem, although full of despair, acts as a custodian of Palestinian nature and history. A Palestinian scholar, Fayez Sayegh, argues Zionist settler colonization, which is inherently racist, aims to erase the Palestinian people and their nature. He argues that, whereas European colonizers aimed to racially dominate the nations they colonized and exploit their natural resources, Zionist settler colonialism aimed to racially eliminate the country they colonized (Palestine) and transform its natural sites into modern ones. 39 Darwish introduces himself as witness to the dispossession and loss of a place and natural landscape, which lay at the root of the bitter tragedy that has blighted all Palestinian lives. This mode, which represents a postcolonial ecological rejection of the subversion of environmental ethics, requires a state of living where the boundary between the human and the nonhuman is erased and where self and ancestral history is fused with the natural environment. Darwish epitomizes this fusion in these lines:

            We will hear our ancestors’ voices in the wind,

            and listen to their pulse in our tree buds,

            This earth is our grandmother,

            all of it is sacred, stone by stone,

            this land is a hut for gods that dwell within us


            Our history is her history. 40

            The natural scene has thus become a reservoir of memories, a book of history that preserves stories of the dead ancestors. Nature becomes a tool of resistance, a courier of the spirit of the dead that colonial forces can neither subjugate nor subject to silence. With this in mind, we can perhaps explain why natural objects, both animate and inanimate, are so venerated by the colonized people who insist on the necessity of the sacredness of the land that has a history that represents the history of the people who have honored it.

            Transnational overtones

            In his poetry, Darwish shares with Palestinian writers and intellectuals the idea that “indigenous stories and struggles are more powerful and rooted when waged together against the colonialist negation of the history and culture of native people.” 41 Darwish famously draws on the literatures of the oppressed and colonized while advancing the rights of Palestinians for justice and self-determination. This attitude is reflected in Steven Salaita’s examination, in The Holy Land in Transit (2006), the ways in which colonial discourses in North America and Palestine emerge out of similar philosophical and moral narratives of resistance to these discourses (2006). More recently, Salaita has developed the “inter/nationalism” concept that “demands commitment to mutual liberation based on the proposition that colonial power must be rendered diffuse across multiple hemispheres through reciprocal struggle.” 42 The author seeks to advance comparisons of American Indian and Palestinian society while eliciting solidarity and decolonial advocacy across the globe. In this last section, we demonstrate how Darwish’s poem endorses a transformation of postcolonial ecocriticism – informed by postcolonial solidarity and advocacy – from a local centrism into a “global shift,” or “transnational turn.” 43 In other words, Darwish’s poem disrupts the particularism of ecological activism and utilizes a holistic cosmic consciousness. Therefore, Darwish’s textual proclivity towards nature reservation resonates with a postcolonial ecocritical overtone that transcends geographical boundaries and seeks to cultivate a global awareness about the continuity of the ecological risks inherent in the colonial project ever since Columbus’s arrival to America:

            Columbus the free has the right to find India in any sea,

            and the right to name our ghosts as pepper or Indian,

            and he is able to break the compass of the sea,

            then mend it along with the errors of the northerly wind,

            but does not believe that humans are equal,

            like air and water outside the map’s kingdom!

            And that they are born as people are born in Barcelona,

            though they worship nature’s god in everything,

            and do not worship gold. 44

            Darwish reflects on ways in which Christopher Columbus tried to make the new world less strange and less unfamiliar by subjecting it to his own imagination, or even claim its ownership. Columbus has given himself the right to name, invert, or reverse directions, and dominate the new world. Darwish’s poem criticizes Columbus’s colonial and capitalist orientations that undermine or overlook human–human and human–nature mutual unity and affinity. Darwish subverts Columbus’s superiority by comparing the New World to the Old as if Darwish, as opposed to Columbus, is saying the New World is not prehistoric, or exists in a timeless void; people there are “the same as people in Barcelona, except that they happen to worship Nature’s God in everything and not gold.” While Darwish scrutinizes, in particular, Columbus’s experience in America, he universalizes this experience to instruct the colonizers that “all men are born equal”, and racial hierarchy is human’s product, not God’s. The only difference, according to Darwish, between the colonizer and the native is that the former seeks to achieve material wealth, “gold,” by exploiting the natural resources of the native community, thus violating the sacredness of the land, whereas native people assume filial bonds with the natural elements. This invokes again Chief Seattle’s strong argument in defense of nature and the role that humans should play within it. As such, Darwish’s endorsement of this argument does not simply mean sharing the same belief, but it instead represents an inclusive perspective that requires an appreciation of the interconnection between the national and ecological struggle of the colonized peoples, wherever they happened to be, inherent in their resistance against loss of nature and their non-conformity to the imperialist construction of the modern world.

            This transnational overtone becomes crucial in staging solidarity and rewriting the oppressive space in ways that redress the injustice which anchor the experiences of the colonized. In assuming the persona of the Native American, Darwish’s text demonstrates Palestine’s increasing reach in its solidarity with the oppressed. He draws on moral and human struggles, which construe his own identity not as national or particular, but as human. Not in solidarity with other oppressed nations and ecology, but as them. Darwish universalizes Columbus’s experience so as to say that the ecological destruction caused by today’s colonial practices dates back to that experience:

            Columbus the free searches for a language he did not find here,

            and for gold in our kind ancestors’ skulls,

            he did as he pleased with the dead and the living in us,

            Then why does he still see this annihilation from his grave to its end? 45

            This can be interpreted as an allusion to the contemporary atrocities of settler colonialism. This poem interestingly draws parallels between various historical experiences of dispossession and colonization, such as those of the Native Americans and Palestinians. Roger Waters argues that “on the surface, the poem narrates the last speech of the Native American to the white man, but it also speaks to Darwish’s beloved Palestine and its indigenous people, in fact, it is relevant to all victims of settler colonialism everywhere.” 46 Darwish probably used these chronicles of dispossession to amplify his sense of the Palestinian predicament as a human and global one; his consciousness is cosmic-oriented, and, accordingly, the particular cause of his nation becomes part of an ever-present struggle of the oppressed. Darwish’s distinct and powerful poetic language thus bears the weight of human and ecological suffering. It embodies human and ecological oppression, negation, and resistance. He argues that ecological risks inherent in colonial projects should be understood within this structure that persists after Columbus’s invasion, described by Darwish as “deadly war from the grave” after his death.

            Crossing borders and nations, this poem explores a global environmental crisis that results from consumerist and capitalist colonial projects. Its central concern around resource exploitation and racial criminalization upholds a multifarious struggle against colonialism and thus environmental destruction:

            Isn’t it time we met, stranger,

            as two strangers of one time,

            and of one land, the way strangers meet by a chasm?

            We have what is ours,

            and we have what is yours of sky,

            And you have what is yours,

            and what is ours of air and water,

            We have what we have of pebbles,

            and you have what you have of iron. 47

            Darwish asserts that the violent colonial conquest has never ceased, but it continues in the new age. The juxtaposition of the past and the present suggests a helpless plea for an irrevocable ecosystem, indicative of the profound displacement Palestinians and Native Americans and their environments have shared. Darwish’s allusion to the conquest of Native Americans by Columbus and its dissemination in the present aims to recapture Chief Seattle’s warning and prophecy. That is, Darwish renews Seattle’s warning against this continuity of ecological damage inherent in the colonial project that promises civilization:

            “We promise you civilization,” the stranger said,

            and said: I am the master of time,

            I have come to inherit your earth,

            pass before me,

            to count you corpse by corpse over the face of the lake,

            “I promise you civilization,” he said,

            to revive the gospels, he said,

            so pass, for god to remain mine alone,

            dead Indians are better to the lord in his heights than living Indians,

            the lord is white and white is this day:

            you have a world and we have a world. 48

            Colonizers have positioned themselves in a higher position than that of the indigenous simple people who used to live in harmony with nature. They established a dichotomy that suggests their superiority, and they consider their whiteness as a privilege that Natives do not have. Underpinning European colonialism is a racial hierarchy wherein their whiteness has even made them think they are the chosen people of God. As Frantz Fanon argues, the White colonizer would say “I am white: that is to say that I possess beauty and virtue, which have never been black. I am the color of the daylight.” 49 This color prejudice, which is associated with God’s privileges and religious devotion and virtues, has informed colonialist superiority since Columbus’s invasion of America. Darwish seems to allude to Columbus’s letter to the Spanish monarchs in which he writes:

            that were proper devout and religious persons to come among the natives and learn their language, it would be an easy matter to convert them all to Christianity, and I hope in our Lord that your Highnesses will . . . bring into the church so many multitudes, inasmuch as you have exterminated those who refused to confess the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. 50

            This colonial attitude seeks to subject both native inhabitants and their nature to its own use and power. They seek to reinvent their world and reorganize it on their own terms. It is therefore threatening to both human and nonhuman species.

            Such a practice can be seen as imperialist and racist against all components of the ecology. This form of ecological imperialism is called by the American environmental philosopher Deane Curtin “environmental racism,” which he defines as “the connection, in theory and practice, of race and the environment so that the oppression of one is connected to, and supported by, the oppression of the other.” 51 Environmental racism applies to those involved in damaging the environment on the basis of racial hierarchy. European justification for invasion and colonization of America and other parts of the world proceeded from the basis that non-European lands, people, and animals are insignificant without Western intervention. Therefore, colonizers consider their victory a victory over both humans and natural elements:

            right here the strangers conquered salt,

            the sea merged with clouds,

            and the strangers conquered the wheat chaff in us,

            laid out lines for lightning and electricity,

            here the eagle died depressed in suicide,

            here the strangers conquered us.

            And nothing remains for us in the new time. 52

            This colonialist attitude has historically been conscripted for the purposes of exploiting nature while “minimising non-human claims to [a shared] earth.” 53 Darwish mourns the loss of natural elements – corn husks and eagle – and the violation of the ecological system by colonial technology and modernity – lightning and electricity. Colonizers have reconstructed nature to create a world that features their violent technological and mechanical civilization. Val Plumwood called this practice “hegemonic centrism” which accounts “not only for environmental racism, but also for those forms of institutionalized speciesism that continue to be used to rationalize the exploitation of animal (and animalised human) ‘others’ in the name of a ‘human- and reason-centred culture that is at least a couple of millennia old.’” 54 The extraction of natural resources, the forced changing in human and animal settlement patterns, and the dissolution of traditional means of arranging and using land mean for Darwish a cosmic loss, an abyss that impels Darwish to communicate an “ecohuman” warning for the colonizer:

            O white master, where are you taking my people,

            and yours?

            Into what abyss,

            is this robot bristling with aircraft carriers and jets,

            consigning the earth?

            To what fathomless pit,

            will you descend?


            an ideology for the insane.

            Darwish presents the ecological harmony as the source of more than just basic human needs; it provides not just bread but also continuity. This is a call that suggests a cosmic identification and consciousness wherein the colonizer must realize that his practices are not environmentally ethical and its mechanical and technological victory presides on a cosmic loss – a loss for both the colonizer and the colonized. Darwish reminds the colonizer, who has the power to orient the world, that natural settings of both humans and nonhumans are intrinsic to their philosophies of being in the world. Darwish addresses the very ideology of colonization anthropocentrism, which is inseparable from Eurocentrism and used to justify those forms of European colonialism that see “indigenous cultures as ‘primitive’, and less rational.” 55 Such ideology that Darwish describes as “insane” underlies a violent, oppressive, unethical, and racist quest for domination over humans and their nature. Once conquest and settlement have been accomplished, or at least once administrative structures had been set up, a deliberate violation of the ecosystem is reinforced under conspicuously unequal governing powers.

            These governing powers that dominate the world still believe in the ideology that the land is there for their own services, ready to be subdued and used how they see fit. In retrieving Seattle’s speech from 1854, Darwish issues at the verge of the millennium warnings against today’s imperial projects, and like Chief Seattle, he offers a precedent for challenging environmental racism that underlies modern imperial powers. The two indigenous voices seem to share the belief that the critique of environmental racism is most successful when it invokes a critique of imperialism. While this ambivalent critique may be promulgated by many people today under the rubric of environmental justice, Darwish seems to instruct us that it has a long history that goes back as far as Chief Seattle’s speech is remembered and, likely, much further.

            In sharing with postcolonial environmental critics the idea that ecological damage has had profound effects on our health, civil and political rights, our very livelihoods, and our ability to survive, Darwish perhaps criticizes today’s administrations of most governing powers in the world that continue to reshape nature in ways to serve capitalist purposes. Darwish’s plea resonates with the most recent ecocritical outcry at Trump officials who prepared to transfer sacred Native American land to miners, an act which recalls a history of ecological degradation and bears witness to a story that has been as much attacked as the land. Native Americans in the area (Oak Flat) have compared this land transfer to historical attacks on their tribes. “What was once gunpowder and disease is now replaced with bureaucratic negligence,” said Wendsler Nosie. He continues: “Native people are treated as something invisible or gone. We are not. We don’t want to be pushed around anymore.” More recent expressions of transnational environmental solidarity reside in present-day demonstrations at Standing Rock, where thousands of activists from around the globe have joined in solidarity with the Standing Rock Sioux Tribe, asking the government to stop the construction of the Dakota Access pipeline, which aims to create a direct route to transport crude oil from the North Dakota Bakken region through South Dakota and Iowa into Illinois. The American administration is using force to disperse the protestors who argue that this project could poison the water supply and destroy ancestral burial grounds. Native Americans, like other colonized people, realize that defending their own nature entails resisting erasure and enclosure because “our history is her history,” in Darwish’s words; it means narrating their own story of loss and expulsion. 56 “We will defend the trees we wear,” the Native American in Darwish’s poem asserts. 57 Both Darwish and Seattle know that the more interconnected the relation between species that live in a given region, the more resistant nature should be to the destruction of the ecosystem, and the better these species of plants, animals, and humans can perform their defense against overpowering imperial and capitalist interventions.



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            Author and article information

            Arab Studies Quarterly
            Pluto Journals
            9 May 2023
            : 45
            : 2
            : 111-133
            © Ahmad Qabaha and Abdelkarim Daraghmeh

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            : 9 November 2022
            : 2 February 2023
            Page count
            Pages: 23

            Social & Behavioral Sciences
            postcolonialism,ecocriticism,ecological consciousness,colonization,environmental impacts,ecosystem


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