Translating Western Conceptions of “Nature” to the Middle East – 2009

(photo by M. A. Al Awaid)

Risse, M. “How Can You Hate the Sun?: Translating Western Conceptions of Nature.” Humanities Education and Research Association, Chicago, Illinois. April 9, 2009.

I got the idea for this paper while attempting to teach Charlotte Smith’s sonnet “The Sea View.” The fourth and fifth lines are:

Or from his course celestial, sinking slow,
The summer-sun in purple radiance low,

We had discussed the concept of ‘symbol’ so I threw out “What is the sun a symbol of?” Instantly several students called out “Death.” “Yes,” I said, quite pleased, “In this poem the sun is a symbol of death, but normally what is the sun a symbol of?” Pause. A little whispering. “Death,” repeated the students.

I stopped, thought it over and decided the direct approach was best, “Why is the sun a symbol of death?” More whispering. Finally, a brave student raised her hand, “It is hot, you die.”

Oh. Well, yes, I thought, remembering of the Empty Quarter, an immense sand desert on the northern border of Oman. Then I explained that, actually, the sun is normally a symbol of LIFE and we continued with the poem.

A few months later, I had a chance to go camping in the Empty Quarter. The group I was with drove off the tarmac road onto a gravel road, after an hour we saw the last village, then the road turned to hard-packed sand. Then we turned off the sand road into a landscape of flat hard sand with constantly shifting hills, several hundred feet tall, of fine sand which was red in the sun and beige/ taupe in shadow. We drove for several hours and saw no-one. No cell phone coverage, no water, no animals, no plants, no noise.

There was no way to keep a sense of direction – the sand hills all looked the same and to avoid them we would have to cut left and right, driving over smaller dunes, about ten feet high. I could not stop thinking about our water supply. Getting stuck on a sand dune would mean a lot of digging out, no one around to help, no shade, it was only 1 pm and the sun wouldn’t go down for hours… then I remembered “It is hot, you die.”

The next time I taught “Sea View,” I had a much more enlightened approach. It was the beginning of the ‘2-way symbolism’ method which I have used for the last three years. I introduce the concept of ‘symbolism’ and immediate jump into articulating the difference between symbolism/ connotations in ‘Salalah culture’ and ‘Western culture.’ As we work through poems, short stories and novels my students and I constantly tack between their knowledge base and mine.


I live in Salalah, an urban area with about 40,000 inhabitants in the southwest corner of the country, close to the border with Yemen. There are few Western expats, almost all English teachers or skilled technical advisors. There are only three people who teach literature in my university, so I do everything: poetry, prose, drama from every era and every country.

The classes are mainly woman, with only one to four men. I make my students sit in a circle, but it is still very segregated, men sit next to each other (by the door) then TWO empty seats between last guy and first woman. Boys and girls are in the same classrooms until fourth grade but are in sex-segregated schools after that (before enough schools were built, men would go to school in the morning and women would go in the afternoon). What happens at home depends on the family, some are quite strict (a girl can only speak to her brothers, father, uncles and sometimes male cousins), others allow a girl to meet, for example, friends of her brothers who might be sitting in the majlis [living room].

My students come from three distinct sub-cultures: town, usually native speakers of Arabic and sometimes more conservative; the villages next to the sea, usually native speakers of a non-written, Modern South Arabian language; and the mountain villages, almost all native speakers of a non-written, Modern South Arabian language. Thus, English is often a third or fourth language for my students and, given the few numbers of Western expats, I am often the first American and/ or first Western woman they have spoken to. I lived in Sharjah, in the United Arab Emirate, for two years before I moved here three and a half years ago, and I am learning Arabic, but the cultural learning curve is just as steep for me as it is for my students.

At first, I thought it would be a good idea to use ‘nature poems’ in my classes, to steer away from religious, political and sexual images but I soon learned that nature is an inherently unstable construct; mountains, the moon, rain, goats, and even the humble grape, present interesting translation challenges.

The impact of Salalah geography on nature symbolism became clear when I gave students a list of place nouns and asked them to write the connotations. In response to “river,” students wrote “paradise.” There are no rivers in Oman and the idea of having an endless supply of “sweet” [not salty] water is, indeed, a sign of paradise. “Mountain” brought out several responses. “Picnic” was a favorite, as was “strength,” both would make sense in Western terms. “Difficulty” might also make sense, but I think Westerners would use ‘difficult’ in terms of ‘difficult to climb a mountain,’ whereas my students wrote ‘difficult’ in terms of the hard life in the mountains.

Even today, life in the mountain villages, with less access to health care and stores is more arduous than city life. In this vein, one student wrote “old houses” as her reaction to “mountain” but the most frequent response was “honor,” again an answer that might be misunderstood in Western terms, i.e. that the mountain has a ‘presence,’ it is a symbol of nobility or pride, whereas my students meant the people who lived in the mountains had honor, unsullied by the superficial concerns of the city such as beauty, money or power.

Students responded to the noun “sea” in two very different ways. One was the typically romantic view of “beauty, “forgetting problems” and “riches;” in the other word cluster I saw evidence of a people long used to accidents and disasters at sea. Students wrote “secrets,” “uncertainty,” “perfidy,” “sadness,” betrayal,” and “treachery.” After living here for over three years, equating the sea and “betrayal” makes sense in a way it never did when I lived in near Baltimore, in Boston, and in Seattle. When three fishermen from a village two hours away did not return home at night, several locals called me to tell me. And for the next week, as helicopters flew out from the nearby air force base to search, staff and students at the college would constantly ask me if I had heard any news, male students would miss classes to go out in their own boats to look and all the female relatives of the three men stayed home. I was told repeatedly which students in my class were related to the men (“You cannot mark her absent Miss, she has to stay with her family these days!”) and which students were from the same village (“She is from Sadah, so she is sad, Miss, she is thinking too much”). The sea is an immediate, physical presence here. No wonder when I tried to teach “Seafever”:

I must down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,

My students all decided that the ‘lesson’ of the poem was – do not go to the sea.

In an opposite example, the full moon in the west is always linked to danger, especially werewolves. The full moon means witches, ghosties and things that go bump in the night lurk about and it’s the time of accidents. “Oh swear not by the inconstant moon,” cries Juliet. Juliet, who is of course, Romeo’s “sun.”

To my Omani students, the full moon is the ultimate symbol of beauty and safety. One of the highest compliments for a woman is ‘moon-faced’ and a full moon means you can walk at night (when it is cooler) and not lose your way. “She walks in beauty like the night” is the perfect poem to teach in Oman.

It was amazing, as I started to study representations of nature, how much changed, altered and fell away. I expected, for example, that my students wouldn’t have a background in imaginary of snow, ice and frost, but I was taken aback when it came out in a discussion that my students all assumed that snow was painful, in that it would hurt if you stood in falling snow.

Semester by semester, I got better at explaining literary references to nature, both real and imaginary. After teaching Poetry of the Romantic Era, I am now an expert at explaining (with appropriate hand gestures) the differences between fairy, sprit, elf, gnome, and dwarf. I can do moth/ butterfly/ bee/ fly/ mosquito/ gnat/ spider/ bug/ insect/ ant/ cricket/ grasshopper/ lizard/ chameleon/ centipede/ snake and scorpion in under five minutes.

The learning process was always two-way as, gradually, my students taught me what they knew. For example, John Keats’s “To Autumn”:

Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness,
Close bosom-friend of the maturing sun;
Conspiring with him how to load and bless
With fruit the vines that round the thatch-eaves run;
To bend with apples the mossed cottage-trees,
And fill all fruit with ripeness to the core;

A nice, classic, seasonal poem – which makes requires some serious rescrambling in the context of Oman. The traditional calendar for the region I live has four seasons: “Harvest” (September to December), “Winter” (December to March), “Hot” (March to June) and “Autumn” (June to September).

Thus ‘autumn’ in Salalah is June, July and August when the monsoon clouds bring mist and fog which turn the Qara mountains green. The plants grow and flower in a way which would be coded “spring” in the west, but it’s cloudy, wet and cold, i.e. “fall.” In September, the clouds depart and you have lovely hot, sunny days with meadows of flowers and grasses, i.e. “harvest.” In December, the “winter winds” start, blowing sand and forcing people into jackets and scarves. In March, “winter” turns into “summer” with temperatures over 100, high humidity and the plants are dead, until June, when “autumn” starts.

For Keats, “Autumn” is the time of gathering crops – but for my students, “autumn” is the growing season, a time to relax. You reap in September, after autumn is over. It was a wonderful poem for ‘teachable moments.’ I covered the board with charts trying to correlate Western seasons to an Omani timetable, as the students gamely threw out words in Arabic and their local languages trying to create a workable conversion. I finally brought in the child’s poem “The Twelve Months”

Snowy, Flowy, Blowy,

Showery, Flowery, Bowery,

Hoppy, Croppy, Droppy,

Breezy, Sneezy, Freezy

to explain the Western concept. But in my “Introduction to Literature” class, we ran into trouble with Emily Dickinson’s “Brook”

Why, look out for the little brook in March,

When the rivers overflow,

And the snows come hurrying from the fills,

And the bridges often go—

And later, in August it may be—

When the meadows parching lie,

Beware, lest this little brook of life,

Some burning noon go dry!

Of course, in Salalah, March is the time the brook is dry and parched, August is the time of rain and clouds, when the brook might overflow.

And speaking of clouds – clouds here are a symbol of happiness and life (no killer sun!). Rain is a symbol of delight and pleasure. Except when rain is a symbol of death. Rain in the mountains create flashfloods, a danger to flocks, people and houses, as demonstrated this winter with the rainstorm in the Hadramut area of southern Yemen which killed hundreds of people and destroyed whole villages.

There are certainly times as a professor when I earnestly wish for FEWER teachable moments, for times when I could simply enjoy a poem with my students instead of endless attempts to articulate a database of symbolism they are only semi-aware they have. “What is a “goat” a symbol of?” I ask. “Motherhood!” “Dirty!” “Wealth!” “Victim!” “Generosity!”  And there goes the lesson plan, flying out the window, escaping from the next 15 minutes as we walk through the concept of goats in a Bedu culture (milk-giving and hence symbol of life, connected to motherhood and wealth), goats in an urban culture (dirty), goats in a religious context (sacrificed at the Eid al Adha in a recreation of the Abraham/ Isaac story), and then goats in the West (associated with the devil).

Dogs are always a symbol of something negative, ugly and bad. “Loyalty” or any positive virtue would never be associated with a dog. Camels, as common as cows in Wisconsin, are the symbol of patience; hoopoes, a small bird, are the symbol of letters between lovers.

I cherish the moments of connection – black cats and owls, symbols of death and danger in both cultures. Luckily, the Hallmark mentality grew out of Persian/ Arab garden symbolism so red roses/ white jasmine/ white doves/ nightingales are equivalent in both cultures. Horses, hawks, and falcons represent freedom and strength. Sharks are danger; dolphins, friendliness; crows are bad luck; foxes, deceit; lions, strength and power; ants, co-operation and working together.

Colors also have a lot of cross-over. Red has the same love/ death dichotomy. White is purity. But green here is only a symbol of life and hope, closely linked to Islam, as seen in the flag of Saudi Arabia. Only descendents of the Prophet Mohammed are allowed to wear green turbans. There is no linking of green to jealousy or sickness. Blue doesn’t carry any of the weight it does in the West where it expresses sadness (feeling blue), happiness (blue skies) and honestly (true blue). It is difficult, almost embarrassing, every semester to run through the fact that ‘black’ in Western culture is always associated with death and mourning. Every female student, of course, is dressed in a long, shapeless black cloak, with a light black scarf covering her neck, hair and all of her face except from her eyebrows to lower lip. I am still ashamed that when one of the secretaries removed her scarf for one moment (in my office, with the door locked) to show me her new hair color, I blurted out, “Oh! you have ears!” Representations of body parts would require a whole other paper!

Representations of plants are also a difficult area, as college students are not usually famous for their knowledge of horticulture. I have spent more time than seems believable trying to explain: peach, pear, plum, wheat, corn, hay; the Christian symbolism in an apple, lily, pine tree and palm frond; the Greek/ Roman symbolism in a pomegranate, olive tree and narcissus.

To get to “grape” we had to start at briyanai, an Indian rice dish. “You know the small things on top of briayani? yellow or brownish? chewy? (I would mime chewing) small (I would mime holding a raisin), dry? sweet?” Someone would get the idea, and throw out a word in Arabic, others would nod. Then I would explain that this ‘raisin’ used to be a ‘grape’ – bigger, green or red…. Someone would say Oh! and I would know we had the necessary lingistic breakthrough. Much discussion in Arabic and the local languages followed, until everyone was clear and then we could continue.

Trying to understand their point of view, I have asked about the fruits that grow here, banana, papaya, guava, mango, tamarind etc. but “What is it is a symbol of?” elicits the answer “food” accompanied by a confused look. What does the crazy western teacher think guava is a symbol of? Most of the ornamental plants in town (bougainvillea, hibiscus, oleander, bamboo, and begonias) are imports and thus not part of their cultural construct.

The three plants which are central to their understanding of the world are the cedar tree, date palm tree and basil. The cedar is a symbol of Lebanon. Every part of the date palm was important for life in pre-modern Oman, the fruit for eating and trade, fronds were woven to make shelters, the trucks used to build houses and boats. Basil (called ‘ray-han’) is mentioned in the Qur’an as growing in paradise. It is not used for cooking, but the plant is found in most gardens, including the campus where I work. Students walk by, grab a few leaves, crush them in their palms and inhale the scent to ‘cleanse’ and refresh the spirit. The closest equivalent I can think of in Christian terms is sticking one’s nose deep into the branches of a pine tree and breathing in “the smell of Christmas.”

One aspect of representations of nature in the West which I was not aware of until I started having to try to explain it was the constant linking of height to God. The opening shot of “Sound of Music” with Julie Andrews singing and spinning in the high Alpine meadow makes sense to Westerners in a way that has no meaning to Omanis. Allah is everywhere, the idea that you could be ‘closer’ to the Divine Being by moving your physical location is almost blasphemy. Western culture is based on the Ancient Greeks, for whom the gods were always ‘up,’ either on Mount Olympus or in the sky, written into the stars. The Christian God is in heaven and heaven is up.

The whole Romantic movement further strengthened the link, as in “Lines Written in Early Spring” by William Wordsworth

I heard a thousand blended notes,
While in a grove I sate reclined,
In that sweet mood when pleasant thoughts
Bring sad thoughts to the mind.

To her fair works did Nature link
The human soul that through me ran;
And much it grieved my heart to think
What man has made of man.

That God – Nature – human soul connection, so clear in Western symbolism is not essentially part of my student’s world view. I, unreflectively, gave them “Ode on Solitude” by Alexander Pope.

Happy the man, whose wish and care
A few paternal acres bound,
Content to breathe his native air,
In his own ground.

Whose herds with milk, whose fields with bread,
Whose flocks supply him with attire,
Whose trees in summer yield him shade,
In winter fire.

Blest! who can unconcernedly find
Hours, days, and years slide soft away,
In health of body, peace of mind,
Quiet by day,

Sound sleep by night; study and ease
Together mixed; sweet recreation,
And innocence, which most does please,
With meditation.

Thus let me live, unseen, unknown;
Thus unlamented let me die;
Steal from the world, and not a stone
Tell where I lie.

“What do you think?” I asked after we had reviewed the vocabulary. Silence. “Sad,” one of the students finally answered. “Sad?” I asked, “why?” “He’s alone!” The next semester I taught “The Lake Isle of Innisfree,” by William Butler Yeats.

I will arise and go now, and go to Innisfree,
And a small cabin build there, of clay and wattles made:
Nine bean-rows will I have there, a hive for the honeybee,
And live alone in the bee-loud glade.
And I shall have some peace there, for peace comes dropping slow,
Dropping from the veils of the morning to where the cricket sings;
There midnight’s all a glimmer, and noon a purple glow,
And evening full of the linnet’s wings.
I will arise and go now, for always night and day
I hear lake water lapping with low sounds by the shore;
While I stand on the roadway, or on the pavements grey,
I hear it in the deep heart’s core

The students’ reaction was the same, the poor narrator must have done something really awful to make him leave his people, his family and have to go live all by himself. In a prose class I taught one of May Sarton’s essays about living alone and the majority of the class revolted, “Miss! No one can live alone! Impossible anyone would live alone!”

I laughed and reminded them that, in fact, I lived alone. The girls looked stricken, feeling they had been impolite to remind their teacher of her pitiable state. “But you are different,” one said quickly, trying to rally, “You are….” she tried to think of a rationalization. “You are different,” she repeated. After class three women came up to me to apologize, “When we said, no one can live alone, we meant us, not you!”

Islam and family are the most important elements of my students’ lives, and although in the West, Islam is always connected to desert life, the omni-present metaphors connecting God and nature that permeate conceptions of Christianity, don’t translate into my students’ lives. “I look to the hills from whence come my help” does not make sense to them. To be alone in nature, is to be isolated and forlorn. “Solitude” is not something to write an Ode about, but something to be avoided.

Poems mentioned

Seafeaver, John Masefield

I must down to the seas again, to the lonely sea and the sky,
And all I ask is a tall ship and a star to steer her by,
And the wheel’s kick and the wind’s song and the white sail’s shaking,
And a grey mist on the sea’s face, and a grey dawn breaking.

I must down to the seas again, for the call of the running tide
Is a wild call and a clear call that may not be denied;
And all I ask is a windy day with the white clouds flying,
And the flung spray and the blown spume, and the sea-gulls crying.

I must down to the seas again, to the vagrant gypsy life,
To the gull’s way and the whale’s way where the wind’s like a whetted knife;
And all I ask is a merry yarn from a laughing fellow-rover
And quiet sleep and a sweet dream when the long trick’s over

She Walks in Beauty, Lord Bryon

Of cloudless climes and starry skies;

And all that’s best of dark and bright

Meet in her aspect and her eyes:

Thus mellowed to that tender light

Which heaven to gaudy day denies.

One shade the more, one ray the less,

Had half impaired the nameless grace

Which waves in every raven tress,

Or softly lightens o’er her face;

Where thoughts serenely sweet express

How pure, how dear their dwelling place.

And on that cheek, and o’er that brow,

So soft, so calm, yet eloquent,

The smiles that win, the tints that glow,

But tell of days in goodness spent,

A mind at peace with all below,

A heart whose love is innocent!


The Sea View, Charlotte Smith

 The upland shepherd, as reclined he lies
On the soft turf that clothes the mountain brow,
Marks the bright sea-line mingling with the skies;
Or from his course celestial, sinking slow,
The summer-sun in purple radiance low,
Blaze on the western waters; the wide scene
Magnificent, and tranquil, seems to spread
Even o’er the rustic’s breast a joy serene,
When, like dark plague-spots by the Demons shed,
Charged deep with death, upon the waves, far seen,
Move the war-freighted ships; and fierce and red,
Flash their destructive fire.—The mangled dead
And dying victims then pollute the flood.
Ah! thus man spoils Heaven’s glorious works with blood!