In a recent with Jadaliyya, the journalist and researcher Khalid Suleiman talks about his new book on the looming threats of drought and climate change in Iraq and explains the special role that art and culture can play in raising environmental awareness in the country. Suleiman makes special note of science fiction works that imagine future worlds of ecological catastrophe: ones in which the ice sheets have melted and Basra has drowned in seawater, or where climate change has made the surface of the country too hot for human habitation. The article gives the example of the story “Graffiti 2042” by Muhammad Khudair in which residents are driven by extreme temperatures to build a "subterranean" city. During a brief excursion above ground the story’s main character sees a friend of his painting a mural painted with the words:
“Woe to the prophecies which described what would be our ugly distorted lives”
تعساً للنبوءات التي رسَمت حياتَنا الشوهاء
Unfortunately, while environmental catastrophe has already begun to unfold in Iraq, Suleiman claims that practically nobody but fiction writers are thinking seriously about these threats. The prophecies, it seems, are not being heeded.
Not only has recent fiction in Iraq envisioned future environmental dystopia, but it has also worked to retrieve historical landscapes, and to reimagine the natural environment of Iraq as it exists today. While works like those by Muhammad Khudair work through the conventions of science fiction, other genres have used what Tom Lynch et al. refer to as “the bioregional imagination." Bioregionalism is a way of thinking about place that is grounded in the natural environment and people’s relationship to it. The term originated as part of the environmental movement referring to efforts to move past arbitrary political geographies in favor of thinking about place as being organized around naturally-determined boundaries such as ecosystems and watersheds. A bioregional imagination is those efforts to pay closer attention to what makes a place biotically unique, bringing with it a sensibility towards the natural world and our connection to it. A biological imagination also has the potential to act as a proactive force in an environmental movement forever rallying around the next disaster or impending crisis, allowing it instead to reimagine human communities that live sustainably in place.
Iraq’s own bioregional imagination is overwhelmingly focused on its waterways. For a country located almost completely within the Tigris-Euphrates watershed, it is no surprise how often Iraqi novels and poetry invoke the nation's lakes, rivers, and riparian zones, albeit most often in tangential ways or in the literal background. But it is precisely for this reason that the concept of the bioregional imagination is so eminently useful. It can help us both reveal environmental themes within fiction that are otherwise not explicit or didactic, and can also point us towards unique narratological framings and thought-provoking conceits used in novels without having to rely on overused and one-size-fits-all genre designations like “magical realism” or “picaresque novels.” Using the term bioregional imagination helps to reframe our assumptions of how generic conventions are being used, and to grant us a better understanding of a book’s implicit biocritical themes. Closer attention to the role of water bodies and ways in novels reveals how they are quite historically dynamic and often constitutive of the cultural worlds that novels depict.
Environmental Memory in Al-Sayyid Asghar Akbar
Published in 2012, Al-Sayyid Asghar Akbar by Murtedha Gzar has been hailed as a local adaptation of magical realist conventions to the Iraqi context. The novel tells the story of Al-Sayyid Asghar Akbar, an enigmatic character who arrives in the city of Najaf in 1871 by boat, and proceeds to peddle a sort of prophetic genealogy to the residents of the city. The novel uses a playful and exaggerated historical fiction to recount much of the history of late nineteenth and early twentieth century Najaf, taking up themes such as religious patronage, political cronyism, and military imperialism. Much of the reason for the designation of the novel as “magical realism” comes from the novel’s capricious mix of fact and fiction. Asghar Akbar’s own story, for example, is narrated unreliably by his three granddaughters from the distant vantage point of 2005. Through this theme of genealogy and family history, the history of the city is as well re-narrated from multiple contradictory angles. Yasmeen Hanoush has detailed the ways in which Gzar’s novel depicts the city of Najaf’s using unusual temporalities in a way that shapes the novel’s suspicious and even potentially magical eponymous character.
In quite a similar way, the geography of the city, and in particular its hydrology, is so continuously remapped as to make it come under suspicion. This eliciting of suspicion is exactly how Gzar triggers our bioregional imagination. As Lynch, Glotfelty & Armbruster say “one of the tools bioregionalists often employ to reterritorialize their lives and place is mapping. Liberated from the control of the official cartographers of states and nations, map-making can be an empowering tool of reinhabiting and reimagining place, allowing us to visualize in a nearly infinite array of contexts and scales the multiple dimensions of our home places."
One particular plot point that Hanoush focuses on in her article is the disappearance of a small imaginary town called Baghlat Abbas, which was told to have been located on the shores of the Sea of Najaf, an almost supernatural water body which once existed directly west of the town. Although located far inland and separated from the Euphrates river by several miles, popular lore adapted into the book tells of how Indian and Chinese traders were once able to pull their boats up to the city directly. In fact, the eponymous character of the novel himself arrives in Najaf on a ship called the Baghlat Abbas.
Due to association with other fictive and uncanny elements including the unusual ship, its eccentric captain, and the timeless character of the place, the "Sea of Najaf" (which is documented to have existed during a former historical era) comes across as a fictive place in the novel.
But there is also something very natural about the case of Baghlat Abbas and the Sea of Najaf as well. Although it may seem like an element from science fiction or fantasy, the water body known as the Sea of Najaf has in fact taken many different shapes throughout history. A look at the historical record of explorers and rulers, dating back as far as Alexander the Great, details an environment in constant flux. Overall, however, the Sea of Najaf for much of its history existed as a large freshwater lake whose proportions shifted according to seasonal rainfall. The Portuguese explorer Pedro Teixiera passed through Najaf in 1604 and described the lake in the following way: “In the rainy season, they are swollen by much water from that desert and form here as it were a great sea; whereof the water-marks bear witness, showing a difference of fifty palms between high-water-mark and the level at which I saw it, in the reason of least water. This lake is of no regular form, but has various arms." And rather than the stuff of fantasy, pilgrims from India, as well as European explorers, once really did arrive in the city by boat. As a wetland depression area, the Sea of Najaf was once fed by various inlets, including the Euphrates itself (scientists have confirmed that the river once flowed to the West rather than the East of the city). The Sea in fact only disappeared completely in the late nineteenth century when an Ottoman sultan is alleged to have blocked its main inlets with large rocks. After definitively drying in 1915, the area would become a collection of predominantly wetlands, orchards, and farmland, fed on a seasonal basis by heavy rains as well as a constant low-volume influx of water from springs, oases, and groundwater. The Sea of Najaf remained in this state for over one hundred years, enough time for several generations to pass and living memory of the Sea as a waterbody to come to seem like the stuff of legends.
However, in the early months of 2019, a flurry of were published proclaiming the return to life of the Sea of Najaf. After a series of torrential rains and flooding in from several inlets, the depression area filled completely with water, even requiring local residents to construct earth mounds to prevent the flooding of developed areas of the city suburbs. Once the water settled, the remarkable sight of a large lake, returned to life, drew visitors from all over the country who spent their spring vacations visiting the newly reformed lake. Drone footage shows a long line of cars with families swimming in the water and grilling fish. The revival of the lake has also inspired speculators and developers eager to build tourist facilities and even a canal which would once again join the Sea to the Persian Gulf.
Just as Gzar’s attempts to undermine received narratives of Najaf’s political and social history through a strategy of unnatural narratology, the subtle references to hydrological elements like the Sea of Najaf in the novel encourages us to disabuse ourselves of the habit of mind which sees water bodies and ways as geographically and historically fixed. By asking us to question the history of Baghat Abbas and the Sea of Najaf, Gzar performs what Serenella Iovino calls narrative re-inhabitation: “restoring the ecological imagination of place by working with place-based stories [and] visualizing the ecological connection of people and place through place-based stories." Just as the contradictory stories of Baghlat Abbas lead the granddaughters to go seek out the location of the town themselves, the novel Al-Sayyid Asghar Akbar encourages readers to ask what about the city’s mysterious hydrological history is fact and what is fiction. As Iovino says, a historical curiosity also leads one to better understand the ecological connection of people and place. For example, there is an important link, alluded to at several points in the novel, between religious patronage and water systems. As a sign of the city’s decline, residents complain about bones of the deceased swimming in the water of drinking wells and an outbreak of dysentery is traced back to a shallow well in Kufa nearby. In fact, the provision of drinking water by the construction of the "Hindiyya Canal" by Shi’i Indian Patrons in the form of a religious endowment in the eighteenth century is credited with completely reviving the city and making it a thriving destination for Indians arriving by ship. The entire machinery of the religious tourist economy of the city was lubricated, so to speak, by the shifting infrastructure of waterways.
Political Reterritorialization in The Old Woman and the River
The Old Woman and the River (Al-Sabiliat, 2016) by the late Kuwaiti author Ismail Fahd Ismail also allows readers to explore the waterways of Iraq, specifically the Tigris-Euphrates Delta and the Shatt al-Arab, with a bioregionalist imagination. The novel tells the story of an old woman named Um Qasem who is forced to evacuate her native village Sabiliyat on the Iran-Iraq border with the outbreak of the war between the countries in 1980. In order to protect its citizens, the government literally reterritorializes the village by putting it within an area of military zone operations, forcing the old woman and her family to move to safety in Najaf. But Um Qasem quickly becomes homesick and feels useless living in an adopted city. When her son brings her an orange to eat, she is overcome by nostalgia for her homeland remembering the orange orchard she used to see across the Chouma River.
Her imagination rises into the air to take form there. The place where she’d lived is the taste and savor in the mouth, the spectacle and image in the mind’s eye. She feels herself drifting away. If only she could go back there. She shuts her eyes and sees her husband moving back and forth between their conjugal room and the Hilawi date tree.
The old woman is so overcome by her connection to her origins, remembering her late husband and a specific tree in her home in the same breath, that she decides to simply walk back home with her donkey named “Good Omen,” a journey that would take approximately eighty-five hours to undertake.
In her , Marcia Lynx Qualey refers to Um Qasem as Don Quixote, with Good Omen playing the role of both her trusty steed and Sancho Panza. But using the shorthand “quixotic” misunderstands something crucial about Um Qasem’s motives. One could easily dismiss her return home as a simple form of senile obstinancy or simple homesickness, but that dismisses her actions as a kind of whimsical insanity. The term overlooks all of the ways that Um Qasem’s behavior both on the road and when she gets back to Sabiliyat are reflective of a deep and intentional ethics of stewardship and care. Her seemingly eccentric actions throughout the novel make sense as the actions of a woman deeply rooted in and responsible to a specific place. Her fantastical visions are not the equivalent of Quixote’s seeing monsters in windmills, but come from her own bioregionalist imagination. That is to say, they are animated by the stories and modes of discourse of her specific bioregion, and illuminate ecological crises where others cannot see.
Evading military convoys and security checkpoints, Um Qasem arrives home on foot. Once back in Sabiliyat she is dismayed to see what has happened ever since her village in the short time she was away. It seems as though the reterritorialization of Sabiliyat as a military operation zone was not merely a technicality. She discovers that the soldiers have built a mud dam across the Sayyid Rajab and Chouma river in an effort to thwart secret amphibious attacks by Iranian divers. This damming seems to have immediately dried out the area around her village and disturbed both the plant and animal life of the region. She surveys the area and sees all kinds of unsettling signs in the natural world. Being intimately familiar with the ecosystem, she can see all the signals of its disequilibrium. Close to her village, she notices the unchecked growth of sawgrass, a sign of neglect. She and Good Omen also startle a wild boar in a field, as wild animals have settled and made dens in the absence of humans. Elsewhere, the dense foliage and orchards filled with pomegranate, apricot, orange, and tangerine trees have all wilted. Um Qasem is dismayed.
It pained her to see the Shatt surging with water and pulsing with life while these rivers were reduced to deep muddy trenches overgrown with reeds and papyrus plants. What gave them the right to sentence the orchards to death?”
Seeing the desperate state of her bioregion, Um Qasem has no choice but to become its clandestine steward. She begins planting rose cuttings and fixing up the houses of those who have left. She also tries to care for the animals whose habitats have been destroyed by the dam. She takes a particular interest in a group of frogs who are slowly dying in a stagnant cement pool. Their desperate state drives her finally to sabotage military infrastructure by bringing down the dam during a thunderstorm, re-irrigating the orchards and streams surrounding her village. These types of actions are referred to by Berg and Dasmann as acts of re-inhabitation: “learning to live-in-place in an area that has been disrupted and injured through past exploitation.” Um Qasem is not merely wandering around like a madwoman, trying to go back to life as normal as though a war weren’t taking place. She is instead fully aware of the damage the war has already caused, and is re-inhabiting her village with a specific eye towards repair. Seen in this way, Um Qasem is no longer choosing to ignore the realities of the military zone, but is instead acting within the unique “terrain of consciousness” of her own bioregion as Berg and Dasmann call it.
She is eventually caught by the soldiers stationed nearby who are bewildered both by her ability to bring down an entire dam by herself, and by the fact that she felt a need to bring it down in the first place. After a long but sympathetic interrogation, Um Qasem finally reveals her motives.
Lieutenant Abdel Kareem asked her sympathetically, “You’re concerned about the land getting watered.”
“It’s a sin to kill the fruit of the earth."
But rather than laughing her off as raving mad, or punishing her as a saboteur, the soldiers are actually receptive to her suggestions that they place pipes underneath the dams to allow for partial irrigation. That she is able to endear herself to the soldiers and even win them over to her plan is due to the fact that she has acted as a local steward for them as well. From the moment she arrives in Sabiliyat she plies them with pickled vegetables and plates of grilled local fish. She even begins to play the role of a sort of adopted mother to one of them by the end of the novel. In a word, she is able to win them over to her biological imagination and her re-inhabitory project.
The interview with Khalid Suleiman mentioned at the beginning of this article emphasizes repeatedly the unique form and style that he took in composing his study of drought and climate change in Iraq in his book, using “a journalistic or literary approach that avoids theoretical language.” When asked what motivated him to write the book, Suleiman laments “the vast space that separates academic conferences and forums from the daily reality of people.” And so he begins both the interview and his book by showing off the power of the literary approach by use of a long story from his own life about a berry tree that his father planted in his house when he was a child. Next to the berry tree Suleiman’s father also digs a well that is initially dry and from which they never drink. But with time the well slowly fills and can be used to sustainably nurture the tree, which becomes an oasis for humans and animals alike. The story serves as a beautiful parable of the vernacular knowledge of environmental stewardship that Suleiman’s relatives “conducted through an organic and sensory relationship between the population and the dry landscape where our ancestors had chosen to live.”
What better way to describe bioregional literature’s mechanics than as fiction which mimics this “organic and sensory relationship” in its own engagement with readers? Rather than citing shocking statistics or warning of imprending crisis, Suleiman tries to build this kind of relationship with readers by using stories, making relatable and visceral his proactive attempt to reimagine human communities that live sustainably in place. Narrative is a profoundly effective invitation to participate in reimaginings of place because it does the work to “build a rapport” with readers; both by building a relationship of communication but also more literally by building a rapport in the word’s original sense of "an act or instance of reporting.” Likewise, bioregional fiction in Iraq roots its stories by working patiently with local conditions. Novels like Al-Sayyid Asghar Akbar and The Old Woman and the River creatively reimagine Iraq’s water bodies and ways using the entire narrative toolbox of speculative fiction— dubious narrators, fantastical events, eccentric characters, and subtle allegories— all to build out an entire infrastructure for creative reimagining focused on natural systems. It also adapts these conceits to local conditions, using everything from Shi’a clerics to the Iran-Iraq War, as a way to make these strange locations undeniably familiar. These novels do the work to coax readers into suspending disbelief for the sake of the fictional story in order to eventually have them train their speculative attention on places in the real world that need desperately to be reimagined.
 Milne, Anne, Bart Welling, Chad Wriglesworth, Christine Cusick, Dan Wylie, Daniel Gustav Anderson, David Landis Barnhill et al. The Bioregional Imagination: Literature, Ecology, and Place (Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press, 2012), 3–4.
 And one might be tempted here to refer to the region as Mesopotamia rather than Iraq as a way to emphasize it as a bioregion if not for its anachronistic and orientalist associations of the term.
 Murtaḍa Kazaar, al- Sayyid asgar akbar riwayat (Beirut: al-Tanwiir li-l-Tibaʻa wa-l-nashr wa-l-tawziʻ, 2012), 156.
 The Bioregional Imagination, 6.
 Yasmeen Hanoosh, “Unnatural Narratives and Transgressing the Normative Discourses of Iraqi History: Translating Murtaḍā Gzār’s Al-Sayyid Aṣghar Akbar," Journal of Arabic Literature 44, no. 2 (2013): 158.
 Pedro Teixeira, The Travels of Pedro Teixeira, trans. William F. Sinclair (London: 1902), 45.
 Serenella Lovino, “Restoring the Imagination of Place,” in The Bioregional Imagination: Literature, Ecology, and Place, ed. Tom Lynch, Cheryll Glotfelty, and Karla Armbruster (Athens: University of Georgia Press, 2012), 106.
 Isma‘il Fahd Isma‘il and Sophia Vasalou, The Old Woman and the River: A Novel (Interlink Books, 2019), 12.
 Ismāʿīl and Vasalou, 80.
 Milne, 6.
 Isma‘il and Vasalou, 150.