GeoSemantics / The Geosemantics of the the 21st Century Oil Encounter / Antranik Cassem

Al Basrah Oil TerminalWikimedia Commons, 2009.

“Your eyes are two palm tree forests in early light
Or two balconies from which the moon light recedes
When they smile, your eyes, the vines put forth their leaves,
And the lights dance… like moons in a river
Rippled by an oar at break of day;
As if the stars were throbbing in the depths of them…”1


Drip… drop… the rain flows the refrain in Badr Shakir al-Sayyab’s famous 1954 poem, “Rain Song,” which deceptively begins in a romantic scene of beauty. The tone quickly sinks away from a sense of awe as the stars “drown in a mist of sorrow.” A sorrow echoed in the changing seasons, the ebb and flow of death and birth, and the sobbing al-Sayyab portrays as rising to tremble the narrator’s soul. “Rain Song’s” narrative thread is filtered through the material and political realities of al-Sayyab’s era as much as a series of distinct vignettes. The rain guides the reader through each scene and is a clear metaphor, water as the giver of life and the rain a chance for renewal. However, it is also an opportunity for al-Sayyab to question who will receive this water and the wealth to be gained from quenched earth: “When the earth turned green the hunger struck us.”

Al-Sayyab wrote “Rain Song” in exile in Kuwait after being hunted by the secret police for being a member of the Iraqi Communist Party, it was later published in the collection Inshodat al-Mattar [Rain Song] (1960)—for a wonderful analysis see Sinan Antoon’s essay. His exile and political beliefs manifest in his representation of the unceasing and uncaring effects of nature utilized by society to the detriment of “the hungry and naked people” and “the skeletons of miserable drowned emigrants.”2 The poem flows again and again between the power and awe of nature to those who live in lack under weeping skies. The potential possessed in the rain is overshadowed by the “thousand serpents” that will drink the nectar of the blossom Iraq will one day provide, a blistering critique of the state and elite exploiting that which is meant for all. Exhausted, the poem’s narrator cries, “O Gulf/ giver of pearls, shells, and death!” Here he summons and questions the sea as the gulf repeats his words to him, and the poem’s refrain again carries the reader off to another theme, drip, drop… the rain…

The refrain repeats to embody the impact of each drop, broken on the page on separate lines:  rain… rain… rain… [matar… matar… matar].  One of the theories about the origins of language is that it mimics nature. Like literature and language, Rain Song bridges human and natural realities, critically revealing injustice and power as it traces the contours of an overwhelming omnipresent force—rain, its impact, and its capacity to silence. The austere material realities endured by many are observed through floating eyes watching all, “Your two eyes take me wandering with the rain,” which could be al-Sayyab solemnly looking at Iraq from Kuwait or those of the child’s deceased mother. Another child nursed by his mother closes the poem with the hope that in the “young world of tomorrow, bringer of life/… the rain still pours down,” both neutral and potent, al-Sayyab ultimately leaves the reader with a sense of hope and continuity.

Water is a powerful theme, especially in Iraq, the land between the two rivers [bilad al-rafidayn], as it has long been said that the Tigris fed the Garden of Eden and gave birth to civilization. The Tigris and its twin, the Euphrates, have provided water to millennia of civilizations, passing through great and storied cities to unite in the Shatt al-Arab, north of Basra, the homeland of al-Sayyab, to form a 200-kilometer estuary as the rivers meet the gulf. Yet, if al-Sayyab were to be writing his famous poem today, it is doubtful that he would end on a hopeful note, dismayed by what he sees and the lack of rain to provide the drip… drops for his rain song.

As rains fail and with less water flowing downstream, Iraq’s water ministry warns that Iraq may have no rivers by 2040. A fate cast by the planet’s rising temperature and insufficient freshwater flowing from the Taurus mountains, with rampant damming by Turkey and poor water management on the part of the Iraqi state. Without fresh water flowing from the rivers, the sea is invading the estuary’s marshlands, salinating and further destroying them.  Before the great rivers slowly dry, they carry a deluge of contaminants from the petroleum and chemical industries that line the banks of either river, along with raw sewage.  While there is much blame to level at the Iraqi state, it is essential to recall the very effective and destructive US-led coalition that targeted civilian infrastructure (both in 1991 and 2003), much of which remains damaged—civilian infrastructure like sewage treatment facilities and the power stations needed to run them. The scale of the region’s environmental degradation is exemplified by the nearly 110,000 people who fell ill in Basra alone from polluted water after a severe freshwater shortage in 2018. Corruption and governmental negligence mean that sizable multinational oil corporations regularly discharge oil into waterways and contaminate the air.  A 20% rise in cancer cases in Basra between 2015 and 2018 is linked mainly to the oil fields in Rumaila, which British petroleum primarily operates. In the air, river, and sea float, petrochemicals, sewage, and unregulated contamination, a level of pollution that reveals the site of the contemporary “oil encounter.”

Amitav Ghosh coined the term “Oil Encounter” in his 1992 article “Petrofiction,” he references the historic meeting between Western and Arab countries in the 20th-century oil trade.3 Ghosh questions why there has not been a wealth of literature published on the heels of the widespread use of petroleum of the likes published after the Portuguese circumnavigation of the planet, an essential point, given the destruction and death that lay at the bottom of the petrochemical revolution and the ultimate significance of Vasco de Gama’s feat, chattel slavery. Aspects of the colonial encounter with petroleum transformed what was already common knowledge into an exotic resource from a “strange and ancient land” to be utilized by Western nations—as a 1948 newsreel, produced by the US and Saudi Arabia, describes. The newsreel, narrated by a US-American voice, melodiously celebrates the discovery and riches this activity will bring for “US interests” and the local people.  As if it were an orientalist wild west movie, the film begins describing the population as “a slumbering civilization.” Then it shows how progressively the desert landscape alters as large extractive machines and pipelines are constructed. From different perspective, this encounter is also articulated by Abdelrahman Munif in his novel Cities of Salt (1984), which Ghosh uses as a primary source to name the “oil encounter.”4

In the novel, the tranquil existence of the Atoum tribe of Wadi Al-Uyoun is interrupted by the strange people who abruptly arrive and make camp upstream from the village and begin to steal the water from the wadi for their purposes. The Atoumi resist, protest, and eventually sabotage the oil project. However, their attempts to halt the construction are dashed when they receive a decree from the Emir granting permission to these foreigners to continue their work, much to the shock of the Atoumi—a blatant betrayal of the people of Al-Uyoun on the part of the government. The construction of large machines and protruding metal from the earth is narrated mainly in the margins of the story Munif tells. This “development” process around the wadi makes it apparent that “the Americans exempt themselves from the cultures of exchange that animate the oasis.” As Rob Nixon articulates in Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor (2011), “the Americans remain indifferent to the eco-cultural history. Their presence along the margins of the oasis is acquisitive, not inquisitive as the newcomers stand inscrutably outside the wadi’s dense culture of narrative and commercial exchange.”5 An acquisitive presence that narratively takes on the tones of an “anticipatory elegy” and gracefully describes how the landscape around them and the Atoumi themselves are unsettled and remade. The result of this encounter is the material transformation of the wadi itself and displacement of the atoumi, each sent off to other villages and towns, and as one joined the “oil men” to work on their rig and interpret for them, and the father of a family snuck off into the night, rifle in hand to try and push them off. Even so the end the oil and Atoumi were forced out of place: drip… drop… the rain…

It is telling that Munif’s novel was banned in Saudi Arabia and other Gulf states since its publication or that the environmental journalist Ahmed Abdul Samad should be shot dead in the streets of Basra, with his cameraman in January 2020, after months of documenting the devastation wrought by the petroleum industry in the waters and air of the Basra. The 21st Century oil encounter is unfolding in the waters around Basra, one informed by the past.  Encounters sometimes obfuscate and disguise the degradation left by those in power, which is unveiled and critiqued on the page in literature and journalism—work that doesn’t always find its audience.

A rendezvous of circumstances resulting from years of wars fought for oil and the imposition of neo colonialism. All the while, oil’s continuous use slowly strangles the rivers that once fed God’s paradise. The 21st-century “oil encounter” is the latest in a chain of meetings that form a long link to the ancient world. Hints of this long thread are semantically buried in the word: Oil, petroleum, naphtha, and naft in Arabic. In English, “petroleum” provides a sense of the “where” of an encounter without the when: from Latin, petra (rock) and oleum (oil)—an etymological reading from English and Latin obscuring a more extended history of oil’s use. Petroleum or naft was never a new substance but was used, processed, and burned by the Akkidians, Babylonians, Umayyads, Byzantines, and Abbasids. The Akkidians and Babylonians referred to it as naphtu, in Assyrian naptu, and Greek naphtha. Naft was potentially translated into Arabic from Greek or the middle Persian naft, which meant wet, and was sanctified by the Indo-Iranian God Apam Napat, the child of the waters. Whether initially from Greek or Persian, naft may have a more imitative place in language, reflective of how it filters out of the ground, to resemble its etymological neighbors, whose roots’ also begin with the letter “n” [noon] that describe flow or emanation: puffing (of smoke) (naftha), spitting (nafth), blowing (nafkh), rise (nafaja), breathing (nafas), repel or frighten (naffara), or dispersing (nathra). A fiery water, or spitting tar, was long known to contain unique properties, as it coats everything it touches with a film, burns without end, erupting freely out of the earth as it blisters (naaffita) up, and covers the hand that reaches into it like connective tissue.

Like many scientific advances claimed to have been “discovered” in the Western world, naphtha, oil, naft, or petroleum, has been used in West Asia since time immemorial, as its various ancient names suggest. From second-hand reports, Herodotus described how it was used in the walls and streets of great Babylon. Greek conquerors later sought it to help seal their ships as they continued to the river Indus. The erroneously named Greek firedeployed by the Byzantines, was impossible to extinguish with water and floated on its surface, burning the wooden hulls of their enemies—a weapon thought to have been brought by a disgruntled Ummayad subject. The tar pits that paved the roads and sealed the great Islamic Caliphates’ walls were also exported to its great cities to cast light from lamps at night. The technology of refinement and utilization is noted as early as the 9th Century in Baghdad, nearly a millennium before the first tarred roads in Europe, in 1838.

Oil, petroleum, naft, or naphtha is a semantic object describing the result of a geological process lasting millions of years. Of the myriad contexts that fit into geosemantic categories, oil is one of the easiest to imagine, especially as the consequences of its use are effortlessly identifiable. Oil is a hydrocarbon made of the same stuff as all organic life on earth (carbon). The geological formation that leads to its existence results from layers of dead organisms buried under sedimentary rock and subjected to prolonged heat and pressure—petroleum is ostensibly a soup of our dead evolutionary antecedents. This loop between geological ages and our anthropogenic world comes into stark relief in the production, distribution, and contamination zones around Basra—one of the sites of the 21st-century oil encounter. A city residing in the world’s second-largest producer of crude oil, ironically also considered the fifth most vulnerable country to climate change worldwide, Iraq.  drip… drop… the rain.

As our contemporary civilization guzzles the graves left in the subterranean mucus soup that it coughs on, a subtle irony wafts in the air as the very thing that may collapse the confines of this civilization is built on the ghosts of the dead. Beyond the existential ramifications of the planetary addiction to fossil fuels are the fundamental and deadly realities working to satiate the material basis of the 21st century’s junkie existence. An echo of the famous quote, “History repeats itself, first as a tragedy, second as a farce,” rings with Tariq Ali’s conversation with Munif about his text, “Cities of Salt means cities that offer no sustainable existence. When the waters come in, the first waves will dissolve the salt, reducing these great glass cities to dust. In antiquity, as you know, many cities simply disappeared. It is possible to foresee the downfall of cities that are inhuman. With no means of livelihood, they won’t survive.” Munif says, “Look at us now and see how the West sees us…. The twentieth century is almost over, but when the West looks at us, all they see is oil and petrodollars.” What is the result of decades of “oil encounters,” is it the dire warning that Munif suggests?

Literature and language provide a long durée view of oil that presences geologic and civilizational timeframes, pluralizing Ghosh’s “oil encounter,” reflecting nature and critiquing power and injustice. After the recent anniversary of the Third Gulf War and the US-led second invasion of Iraq, neo-colonialism, like its prior iterations, has proven yet again to be without merit. As Mortada Gzar so aptly put it in the Los Angeles Times writing, “The magnitude of what Iraqis lost—and continue to lose—and how vivid our memories are of the war, as we must deal with the repercussions in our daily lives, whereas the war has become a blurry image for Americans.” Here blooms the realities and material alienation of the present stemming from concussive “oil encounters.” Whereas the war has grown to be a distant memory for some, so are the material consequences petroleum production, which fictionally uprooted the Atoumi and persist the waters around Basra. Perhaps there is a lack of petroficiton, maybe the black gold rush also elucidates Ryszard Kapuściński’s observation, in his book Shah of Shahs (1985), that “oil creates the illusion of a completely changed life, life without work, life for free, it expresses the eternal human dream of wealth achieved through a lucky accident… in this sense a fairy tale and like all fairy tales a bit of a lie.” Without doubt the “oil encounter” is all of the above: jobs for some, a new life for others, the maintenance of the Neo-liberal order and comfort based on its extraction, its forcible extraction from the earth and by removing whomever unknowingly lived above, as Munif pointedly describes. While al-Sayyab questions who will reap the nectar Iraq provides, this encounter also illustrates the destruction that made way for its flow and contamination. Ghosh notes that in the US context, no one wants to discuss oil because it is dirty; it implies wars far away, but as Gzar points out and as the increasing cancer rates detail, it remains a lived reality, one that consumes ghosts and lives from the past and present. The same blistering critique of the Iraqi state and global capitalism rings true today as it did when al-Sayyab wrote “Rain Song.” Ancient and present ghosts linger, just as the child in al-Sayyab’s poem kept asking after his mother when he could not find her, he was told:

“After tomorrow, she’ll come back again…
That she must come back again.
Yet his playmates whisper that she is there
In the hillside, sleeping her death for ever,
Eating the earth around her, drinking the rain”

Drip… drop… the rain and there is hunger in Iraq, but there may not be enough water or rain for a contemporary “Rain Song” or to help tide the new, young, and old ghosts living in the 21st-century oil encounter. 

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This is part of the cluster GeoSemantics. Read the other posts here. 

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  1. al-Sayyab, Badr Shakir. “Rain Song.” Fifteen Iraqi Poets, Edited by Dunya Mikhail, translated by Lena Jayyusi. New Directions Poetry Pamphlets; #12. New York: New Directions Books, 2013.
  2. Lines cited from “Rain Song”.
  3. Ghosh, Amitav. “Petrofiction.” New Republic 206, no. 9 (March 2, 1992): 29–34.
  4. Munīf, ʻAbd al-Raḥmān. Cities of Salt. 1st Vintage International ed.. New York: Vintage Books, 1989.
  5. Nixon, Rob. Slow Violence and the Environmentalism of the Poor. Massachusetts: Harvard University Press, 2011.