One of the masterpieces of Classical Arabic Music is “Iski al-Ittash”, which literally means, "quench the thirsty". It is a “Muwashshah”; a lengthy form of lyrical poetry, known to be originated in ِAndalus during the Arab rule in Spain, before its spread in Syria, especially in Homs and Aleppo; the latter being the capital of the Syrian north, conserved this musical genre and derived other forms from it.
The refrain of the poem is a supplication to God, addressed as follows:
Oh Generous Giver,
Oh Most Merciful,
Oh Most Gracious,
Grace those who need you!
Quenching their thirst!
for they are losing their minds of thirst
Pleading with God for water or rain in a poem as such did not rise from solely artistic purposes. Rather it’s linked to a historical reference when Aleppo went through a severe drought 300 years ago, which had complex impacts, ranging beyond direct impacts on crops and livestock to an array of indirect impacts associated with sanitation, nutrition, loss of livelihood, and displaced populations.
The fact that researchers remain conflicted over the origin of the poem, and its source, covers the historical information about it with uncertainty. One idea, however, which appears to be central and agreed upon, is that it was meant as a prayer for the heavens to bring back the rain they withheld.
The recurrence of such incidents of drought and famine, at earlier as well as later points, in the history of the middle East that have not only had their effects on vegetation and demography, but also marked these periods with significant political changes that we continue to witness today in Arab Spring movements.
How the lyrics of a popular Aleppine song, help explore the undeniable influence of climate and political changes on the eastern part of the Arab world
A famine during the Ottoman period
Some historians suggest that “Iski al-Ittash” dates back to the 15th century, since a version of the supplication poem was found in a manuscript attributed to the North-African Sufi Sidi Ali Wafa. Many resources record that when the Nile suffered a significant shortage in its water levels, Wafa composed these lyrics as a form Istiska’ a prayer, a traditional practice in Islam that continues to exist until our present time.
The emergence of such musical literature during the period between 15th and 18th century is not without context. During that period the Levant, as well as vast parts of the Ottoman Empire, experienced severe climate change, followed by an economic turmoil that led ultimately, among other factors, to its decline.
As a repercussion of the Little Ice Age; a cluster of cooling waves that hit the Northern Hemisphere during the 1500s and lasted until the 1700s. As a result, the weather in the northern Middle East region became predominantly cold and extremely dry, accompanied by significant periods of severe drought. In order to contain the socio-economic consequences of the climate crisis, the Ottoman Empire encouraged the rural populations to migrate to the urban centers of the Empire-a strategy which backfired, ultimately causing significant demographic change, economic challenges and famine.
It did not take long for the socio-economic shifts to reflect on socio-political conditions back then. The major cities have become congested with climate refugees, who lacked the proper sanitation, or proper health care with the inevitable shortage of medical care. Poor health conditions, and financial crisis pressured the population into civil disorder and fueled the occurrence of social upheavals.
Historical major political events from the end of ancient kingdoms, the disintegration of the Ottoman Empire, to the Arab Spring and the Lebanese Uprising may have one common factor
From Urbanization to Desertification
“The Curse of Akkad”, a poem that goes back to the decades preceding the downfall of the Akkadian kingdom, tells how prince Naram-Sin, destroyed the temple of the God of the rain. As a consequence, the clouds ceased to rain, which led to the death of the crops, famine and poverty
Climate change has always been a determining factor in the eastern region of the Arab world. Whether in the Levantine corridor or in the plain area framed by Tigris and Euphrates rivers (today’s Iraq), ever since the beginning of human history, climate has facilitated the rise, as well as the decline of social communities and economic prosperity, and consequently had direct effects on cultural and political progress.
More than 10,000 years ago, and after a long period of severe global warming that was succeeded by the Ice Age, white glacial sheets were coating almost the entire Northern Hampshire. This has resulted in a favorable climate condition, which prevailed across the Levant, paving the way for the first agricultural revolution to take off.
Therefore, the ecological abundance in the area allowed the expansion of activities like gathering and hunting in primitive communities, who were known as the Natufians. They would later forge the transition into early forms of agricultural settlements, where humans became familiar with the variety of plants, cultivated lands, produced crops, and domesticated animals. And there, an urban form of life emerged when Uruk, the first city was founded near Euphrates in Mesopotamia.
Then, the occurrence of another climate crisis, scientifically known as Hiatus Palestinian, would change the course of history in the region, when a long period of ecological stability will be abruptly terminated by waves of massive droughts and scarcity of rainfall that eventually led to the demise of prosperous civilizations, including the Akkadian Empire in the Levant.
“The Curse of Akkad”, a poem that goes back to the decades preceding the downfall of the Akkadian kingdom, tells how Naram-Sin, the grandson of the ruler Sargon, destroyed the temple of the God of the rain. As a consequence, the clouds ceased to rain, which led to the death of the crops. People were devastated with thirst and hunger due to the drought which plagued the land.
The current climate change, caused by global warming, seems to have especially affected the Arab world, albeit, the grievances that mobilized the popular uprisings during Arab spring crystalized in political demands, calling for the end of dictatorship, striving to bring decades of tyranny, oppression and corruption to an end. Severe climate conditions from which most of the Arab countries still suffer, however, have definitely created new socio-economical dynamics, which have fueled frustration and discontent among the people.
The Disastrous Impacts of Droughts and Dictatorships
Presently, droughts, combined with the poor and reckless governance of dictatorships, mismanagement, and lack of strategies that tackles water scarcity and desertification, have pushed the population out of rural areas towards the urban centers, forming poverty belts surrounding the big cities, squeezing an already dwindling middle class, widening the gap between the wealthy and the rest of the population, threatening food security, undermining social stability, pushing people into a sharp edge of hopelessness and despair.
Today, turbulences and turmoil loom all over the region, disastrous civil wars and the increasing poverty rates in Syria and Yemen with no end in sight; frequent unrests in Iraq, a severe economic crisis in Egypt, which now explores the possibility of betaking military solutions to face the expected effects of the Ethiopian Dam on the Nile. Additionally, more than one million asylum seekers reached Europe since 2015.
The terrifying difference between past incidents and today’s crisis is the following: the climate reasons behind the current situation, is neither caused solely by geological occurrences, nor by God withholding rain. This time, we, the humans, have contributed to our own climate crisis.
Sources: Climate change and crisis in ottoman Turkey (c.1300 - 1923) and the Balkans by Sam A. White (Columbia University); "Climate stress drove wave of Arab Spring refugees," by Megan Rowling; "The drought that led to the death of a whole civilization," by Fiona Zublin.