Literature of isolation in the time of pandemic as collective memory and the new Saudi Vision


by Dr. Nuha Baaqeel

The impact of COVID-19 has presented serious threats to global public health due to its rapid spread, as countries around the world continue to combat the pandemic.

In the wake of the outbreak of the spread of COVID-19 across the country, the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has enacted effective, comprehensive precautionary measures, including home isolation and quarantining for those affected by the virus in order to limit its spread as well as to ensure the public health and safety of its citizens.

In response to the health policies of home isolation and quarantine, an additional, important action has been enacted by the Saudi Ministry of Culture, which has launched an initiative named, “The Literature of Isolation” (adab alozlah). This initiative proposes that Saudi citizens use their time during home quarantine doing something useful, such as writing literature.

The initiative’s goals for writing literature are to encourage the development of literary talent in Saudi Arabia, by asking writers to express their feelings in writing, as well as to use writing as a means of catharsis through the expression of their emotions and exchanging ideas and concerns. Thus, this initiative serves as an opportunity to document current events and the time spent staying at home during the pandemic. The writing of literature is further encouraged as a way of creating social interactions through social media that help to spread a sense of optimism and hope.

One of the main benefits of the Literature of Isolation initiative is to invite citizens’ reflections on the writing of literature as a tool for the creation of inclusive communities in Saudi culture, with a focus on a broad range of literary forms: poetry, drama, fiction, and non-fiction, as well as traditional and non-traditional literary forms, such as online hypertext, graphic novels, and crowd-sourced serials and novels.

An additional benefit of the Literature of Isolation initiative is to encourage narrative close readings and analysis that emphasize a formal language focused on community-building, along with political and ideological investigations specific to Saudi life.

Even more importantly, from a scholarly perspective, it is my belief that the Literature of Isolation initiative will allow for the creation of a new collective memory for Saudi history and culture. By writing our memories and experiences of the current pandemic, it will assist the new Saudi initiative in creating a platform for the representation of the Saudi quarantine era in a specifically Saudi context; in other words, in a literature written by Saudis themselves instead of outsiders.

Michael Rossington (2007) has asserted that collective memory is something that is deliberately created as “ways of remembering and giving significance to [memories]...fostered and shared by family, religion, class, the media and other sources of the creation of group identities”. His words thus underscore how the importance of such cultural practices as writing literature serve not only for the retention of memories, but also as a locus for their creation and interpretation through the passage of time.

Therefore, writing literature during this pandemic refreshes our understanding of collective memory. Because ideas expressed in literature provide the memories and experiences on which our conception of nation can be built, the Saudi ministry conceptualizes literature as the site where the nation can undergo a process of collective memory,” or transformation, as “languages encode national value” (Keya & Zoubir, 1990, 22).

Thus, the act of writing literature can offer us an open-ended space where multiple perspectives and alternate narratives can be constructed, allowing for new modes of reflecting on fragmented, yet collective memories as new expressions of the nation-in-making. For these reasons, the Literature of Isolation initiative launched by the Ministry of Culture in Saudi Arabia is focused on a work of collective memory “not as the continuation of the past that has been but as the past that makes sense of the present“ (Cubitt 27).

The understanding of Saudi society through writing our collective memory importantly further supports our collective experience in terms of the ways in which the Saudi New Vision 2030 is constructed. As the experience of the pandemic has invariably marked everyone who has come into contact with it, these effects will be equally diverse; therefore, the unity of the Saudi collective memory will necessarily be internally divided into a multiplicity of differences.

For this reason, the experience of Saudis writing Saudi literature will provide a rich, new narrative for collective memory of Saudi Arabia as a way of remembering both a national and global crisis as well as a mode of healing from its wounds in ways that importantly gesture toward a new collective configuration of the Saudi nation.

In terms of its content, the Literature of Isolation initiative will explore the national dimensions of the current coronavirus pandemic through both individual and collective experiences through remembrance and different modes of representation. This initiative for Saudis writing Saudi literature further offers a mode of catharsis premised on the literary work of putting together the pieces of Saudi intellectual and social life in order to fashion a legacy for new modes of thought that meet the demands of the present pandemic as well as align with the New Saudi Vision 2030.

Ultimately, this new vision calls for a legacy of Saudi remembrance and collective experience that necessitates a radical rethinking of literature and its function in contemporary society. In doing so, the Literature of Isolation initiative supports the Ministry of Culture’s long-term vision, and additionally builds a platform for the future development of a new Saudi literature, thus making Saudis writing a new Saudi literature well-worth our time as we reach out to each other during this time of isolation.

— The writer is assistant professor at Taibah University, with a PhD in English Literature from Sussex University, UK. Currently, she is a visiting scholar at Oxford University, UK.