Zombies are usually seen as terrifying and mindless creatures, especially in recent American literature. In Arabic culture, however, zombies can represent both a passage of time and a reflection on the past. On Monday, the Middle East and North Africa studies (MENA) department hosted “Arab Zombie Arts,” a lecture by Samuel England, an associate professor of Arabic and African cultural studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison.
In his talk, England discussed how the undead have been portrayed in two main pieces of classic Arabic literature: “What ‘Isa Ibn Hisham Told Us: Or, A Period of Time” by Muhammad al-Muwaylihi and “Epistle of Forgiveness” by Abu al-ʿAlaʾ al-Maʿarri.
“A Period of Time” tells the fictional story of the recently resurrected al-Basha and his living friend ‘Isa ibn Hisham as they walk through the recently modernized city of Cairo in the early 20th century. Al-Basha wanders around the city in a daze as he learns how Egypt, no longer under the Ottoman Empire, has westernized with new institutions such as a civil-code court system. While al-Basha is seen as a zombie in most ways, he is well versed and well spoken, understanding the changes as they are explained.
“Arabic literature fixates on the undead,” England said. “However, they see it more as a reflection on the passage of time than Westerners do.”
The idea of a man from ancient times examining how the world changes in the future, however, is a concept first brought up in “Epistle of Forgiveness,” a lengthy letter written by Abbasid-era poet al-ʿAlaʾ ala-Maʿarri about change and forgiveness. While this piece of work was popular at the time of its publication and is well known in the Arab world, Western scholars often consider its importance based on the West’s “discovery” of it and how it influences modern writers.
“Many Western scholars who have retranslated this work claim that it owes its fame to the rediscovery of in modern times by a ‘Western Arabist,’” England said. “I don’t believe it. Why do they think that it owes its existence to Orientalists rather than to the Arabs who would have heard it and known its worth?”
In both pieces, zombies are seen as people who are capable of thought, but need modern concepts to be explained to them, such as al-Basha in “A Period of Time.” This concept has trickled into popular Western science fiction works such as the “Star Wars” and “Matrix” series, where the main protagonists need big chunks of information to be explained to them by mentors.
“The intelligent-but-lost zombie character is brought to the very edge of anxious modernity,” England said. “They have to look past modernity and colonialism and also reflect on their pasts to make sense of it all.”