Excavating the Past

In Nawal Al Saadawi’s Love in the Kingdom of Oil, the unnamed narrator is an archeologist, “searching for gods in the bowels of the earth” (23). In the beginning of the sequence of dream-like scenes that make up the narrative, the woman leaves her home and her husband and “disappears without a trace.” The rest of the text switches between the police commissioner talking to her husband and her boss and the woman’s disorienting existence in the eponymous “Kingdom of Oil,” an unnamed repressive overpoweringly allegorical nation literally steeped in the oil that is everywhere in the novel – the  women must carry urns of the stuff on their heads to keep the place from drowning in oil.

In between attempting to escape this nightmarish place, the woman searches desperately for  vanished goddesses buried in the earth. There’s a connection between these alternating sections: while the police  search for the traces of the disappeared woman,  the woman  searches for traces (athar) of female autonomy in the form of a forgotten feminine imaginary exemplified by goddesses such as Isis.“I search for things that you don’t know about. Namu the first goddess of the waters and Inana the mother goddess and Sekhmet” (75).

Brinda Mehta puts it like this:

Archaeology is the basis of her existential wellbeing….the desire to reconnect with the land acquires monumental scope for the protagonist for whom excavating the buried treasures of the land in the form of the lost goddesses represents a remapping of the collective conscious to include repressed feminine.

She connects her excavation with cultivation: “My aunt used to dig up the ground and my mother also used to dig up the ground and sow” (23), as opposed to the search for oil “when she was in school as a child, she had learnt that oil is only found in the bowels of the earth” (24). She digs:

“As if the chisel was moving by itself. She slipped to the ground, digging with its little pointed head with an amazing determination. It kept digging with a stubborn determination, as if it was a child looking for it’s mother and knowing for certain that she was there, lying in that hole in the bowels of the earth” (61).

However, her search is repeatedly interrupted by people who tell her to stop looking: “Aren’t there any excavations here in the bowels of the earth?” “There’s only oil, woman” (79). Escape is impossible, loyalty to “your country” is paramount: “my mother was buried here and where your mother was buried, that’s where your country is” (32). Archeology becomes a metaphor for the entrapment in a more glorious past, the archeologiests decribed as despairing in the present: They had come to the archeology department in despair…they were attracted by mummies more than by living beings…their eyes dropped as if gravitating to the depths of the earth (14). Yet as Mehta notes, the fragments the woman hopes to find  “represent the shattered feminine unconscious…fragmented lineage requiring the restoration skills of the female archaelolgist.

Here is how Saadawi describes the genesis and theme of the novel:

 The 1991 Gulf war was important in the genesis of this novel: after the way the characters of this novel started to live with me. Oil was the reason for the Gulf War. Oil has been the reason for the continuing colonial aggression against us in the arab world for the past half-century. Arab rulers, including the Gulf kings and princes, collaborated with the neocolonizers. Millions of women and men in our region suffer poverty, ignorance and disease. My novel…is about that suffering. And it described what happens when its heroine tries to escape her oppression – in all its forms.

 

This book was slow-going but the archeology metaphor was a resonant part for me, perhaps because there are not many Arabic novels I can think of which feature archeologists or archeology. Bahaa Taher’s Sunset Oasis comes to mind, and perhaps his Aunt Safiyah and the Monastery, a brilliant short novel where the narrator is an archaeologist looking back on his childhood, although that is tangential to the story. In English, there are a few novels around the subject archeology in the Arab world, such as Sabiha Khemir’s Blue Manuscript and Yasmine Zahran’s A Beggar at Damascus Gate.

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