These Bodies of Water: An education on how water drives British foreign policy in the Middle East
Many of us were taught during our history lectures at university that it was the trade of spices, tea leaves, tobacco, silk and cotton that lured the British into colonising our nations in South West Asia and North Africa, and the discovery of oil in the 20th century that turned us from colonies into British protectorates.
But how many of us have paused to think that there is a far bigger resource in our region that drove British imperialism and which, if not under British control, threatened the end of its expansionist policies?
In These Bodies of Water, Egyptian-British playwright, poet, and author Sabrina Mahfouz dedicates an entire book to this resource – water.
Speaking to The New Arab, Sabrina Mahfouz describes how it was while studying for her Master’s degree that she discovered that water was a geopolitical resource that drove and continues to drive British foreign policy in the Arab world.
"Sabrina Mahfouz bends genres with a cutting-edge book that is part memoir, part historical non-fiction, part dialogue, and part spoken word and poetry"
“I took a geopolitics unit for my MA, so I was always interested in the way natural resources impacted political decision-making. When I was being interviewed for my job [at the Ministry of Defence] and the Suez Canal Crisis was brought up, I realised how little I'd looked into that and this led to a more thorough look at the region's waterways,” she tells The New Arab.
After researching the topic at length, Sabrina turned to the creative medium she knows best: theatre. In 2019, she took her play A History of Water in the Middle East to the Royal Court Theatre, an hour of poetry, music, and acting that swept the audience off on a journey across twelve Arab countries and shared the stories of women in each of those countries.
It received stellar reviews. But Sabrina did not want to stop there.
“There was so much research that couldn't be used for the play, as it was only one hour [long], so I knew I had to do something else with it. When the lockdowns began, for the first time in my life, like many people, I sat down to write for longer periods than I ever would have before, and so with the help of my editor Amy Perkins at Tinder Press, a book became possible,” she explains.
The result? A 250+ page exploration of the history of the British Empire in eight Arab countries – Egypt, Yemen, Bahrain, Kuwait, Iraq, Palestine, the United Arab Emirates, and Jordan – and polemic on how the waterways inside and around each of those countries were the driving factor behind British interests in them, both past and present.
These Bodies of Water is not your typical non-fiction book.
Just as with the rest of her work, Sabrina bends genres with a cutting-edge book that is part memoir, part historical non-fiction, part dialogue, and part spoken word and poetry.
She opens with a snippet from a conversation that took place while undergoing the rigorous interviewing and security clearance process to join the civil service, and she continues to invite us in on the interview throughout each chapter of the book.
“The book is primarily looking at the impact of colonialism on the personal and political,” says Sabrina. “I wanted to disrupt expectations of a memoir, a form of literature that arguably has a more colonial association, even in a decolonising sense, than other genres.
"Categorisation also has such an overwhelmingly colonial association, so this was a small, stylistic attempt to try something different. And on a more practical level, these are all the forms that I naturally write in, so it made sense to me to use them all whilst writing about my life and the things in history that interest me.”
As her white English male interrogator moves through the interview process, the othering of Sabrina becomes blatant, from the way he fixates on her previous job working at a strip club, to his suspicions and insistence on her speaking about her sex life, to his constant attempts to force words into her mouth.
It’s an experience that rings bells with many of us who are Middle Eastern, Muslim, female, or working class – or all of these.
But despite the othering, the attempted humiliation, and the scrutiny, Sabrina soldiers on with the process, believing that she will be one of a new generation of civil servants that can change the system from within.
"These Bodies of Water demonstrates how vital it is as Arab women to write about our lives, and to write our own histories. How due to colonisation, imperialism, occupation, and conflict, our [women's] very existence is often seen as political"
“This is a fictionalised version of that character and process,” says Sabrina. “It took place over a number of months, so of course, the elements focused on in the book are concentrated and magnified and existed within the context of the post-9/11 world that I had become used to existing in by then. It was really only when looking back, from a distance of years passed, that I was able to articulate and zone in on the aspects that made me feel uncomfortable.”
One of the most unique things about These Bodies of Water is how seamlessly intertwined Sabrina’s personal history is with political history. And as an Arab woman, the action of writing about one’s life can be seen as political, as for far too long either we have been ignored and dismissed from history, or we have had imagined identities and histories written for us by the West.
As Egyptian feminist and author Mona El Tahawy famously says, “the most subversive thing a woman can do is to talk about her life as if it matters.” And this is precisely what Sabrina Mahfouz does in her book.
Writing the vulnerable and dark details of your life is still considered taboo by many in the Arab world as if you are airing your dirty laundry in public.
But These Bodies of Water demonstrates how vital it is as Arab women to write about our lives, and to write our own histories. How due to colonisation, imperialism, occupation, and conflict, our very existence is often seen as political.
“It's one of the most difficult things to do and the consequences for some people in lots of places around the world would be too severe for them to ever attempt it, so I found strength in the freedom I had to do so to continue doing it, even though I never felt completely comfortable with it,” says Sabrina.
“Comfort isn't the point. I hope sharing personal experiences within such a sweeping political history helps people to see how impossible it is to extricate an individual life's moments and paths from the politics that surround it.
"I also did it to feel more liberated within myself. Shame comes from other people and it will always be there, if you can free yourself from it, then it's their problem and not yours – again with the privilege of particular freedoms.”
Up next for Sabrina Mahfouz? She has recently relocated to Los Angeles where she has turned her hand to TV.
“I've been working on TV projects the last couple of years as the theatres closed. An animation created by Ramy Youssef and Pam Brady is one of the main ones and I can't wait for people to see it – this comedy about a 12-year-old boy in New Jersey growing up in a post-9/11 world.”
We can’t wait to see it either.
Yousra Samir Imran is a British Egyptian writer and author who is based in Yorkshire. She is the author of Hijab and Red Lipstick, published by Hashtag Press.
Follow her on Twitter: @UNDERYOURABAYA