Creaturely empathy with desert animals: A Kuwaiti environmentalist’s social media experiment

    07 Sep 2021

    “Ajmi’s special contribution has been his use of his social media to make conservation issues come alive in an intimate and unsettling way, to show how environmental destruction is playing out on animals themselves.” Let’s check the story by Matthew Chovanec published in Madamasr.


    For the first few seconds, it is unclear what the cavalcade is chasing out in the desert at dusk. The cameraman is filming from the driver’s seat of the moving car, his lens following a small black spot darting between the clouds of dust at the horizon. Suddenly, miraculously, the object zigs right in between the pursuing vehicles and then quickly zags off into the setting sun. At this point, the viewer can recognize the object: it is a wolf, panting and exhausted as it tries to escape at full speed. All of a sudden, the thrill of the chase gives way to a sense of dread and deep empathy for the poor, hunted animal.

    This sudden emotional shift is likely unintentional. But the hunting video has been reposted by a Kuwaiti environmentalist named Fanis al-Ajmi as a way to bring us in close contact with the wildlife of the desert. Despite the country’s arid climate, Kuwait is home to a stunning range of wildlife: over 420 species of migratory and endemic birds, dozens of mammal and reptile species, and around 800 species of insect. But like many countries in the region, Kuwait’s natural environment has suffered in recent decades at the hands of desertification, urban sprawl, habitat loss, pollution, and overhunting. These pressures have led to the local extinction of the Arabian wolf, Arabian oryx, striped hyena, jackal, various types of gazelle, and other species which have been recorded in cultural memory as far back as the pre-Islamic Muʻallaqat, the most famous of the qasidah form of Arabic poetry.  

    Strung out along the route in groups,

     like oryx does of Tudih, 

    or Wajran gazelles, white fawns 

    below them, soft necks turning,

    -Labid (translation by Michael A. Sells)

    During a period of crisis for wildlife in the region, Ajmi is bringing a new poetic sensibility to recording the experiences of animals. His curated work offers us an example of how social media can open up an intimate, dramatized, and an empathetic window into the world of animals.

    Fanis al-Ajmi’s argument about hunting

    Fanis al-Ajmi is a Kuwaiti engineer and labor activist who has worked on various government initiatives and other environmental stewardship projects. He has been particularly involved in the government’s 10,000 Tree Saplings planting project. With the cooperation of other state agencies and general enthusiasm from the Kuwaiti public, the project has already planted nearly one million saplings of native plants and trees in Kuwait as of July 2018. 

    Ajmi’s special contribution has been his use of his social media to make conservation issues come alive in an intimate and unsettling way, to show how environmental destruction is playing out on animals themselves. In the last couple of years, his posts have become particularly focused on desert animals, cataloging especially pictures and videos posted by local hunters. According to Ajmi, his friends and followers regularly send him things they see online, and he works to curate an extensive archive on his Instagram and Twitter feeds. Although much of this content was originally meant to be boastful or entertaining – to show off hunters’ neatly stacked piles of kill — when their content is reposted by Ajmi, they are suddenly turned into scenes of wanton slaughter and cruelty. The posts are deeply unsettling and can sometimes be hard to watch. Scrolling through his feed will reveal a mesh bag filled with frightened, captured birds; a gazelle tied-up, having its throat torn into by a pair of hunting dogs; a pregnant rabbit disemboweled, its writhing offspring pulled from its body cavity; wolves chased to the point of exhaustion and then shot. Like the animals used in classical Arabic prose going back to the writer al-Jahiz’s collection of treatises, Kitab al-Hayawan (Book of Animals), these graphic scenes are used to convey what scholar Jeannette Miller calls “the transcendent value of disgust.”

    Much of the appeal of hunting in the region is in the way that it invokes an idealized past. In particular, Natalie Koch has shown how falconry has worked to romanticize the Arabian Peninsula’s Bedouin past. Hunting is very much tied to iconic representations of Gulf identity, and with the rise of social media, it has become a favorite pastime for conspicuous consumption.  Hunters post images of fancy weapons, glamorous desert encampments, and ostentatious collections of trophy kills. Ajmi is confronting these invented traditions and ceremonial presentations of hunting by co-opting content for his own narrative. He has a particular story to tell about hunting in the Arabian Peninsula. “Muslims and Arabs once used to hunt out of a sense of need or hunger only and had beautiful values such as forbidding hunting in the times when animals were mating or when they had new offspring,” he said via email. In the past, hunters had an intimate connection with the land on which they hunted and understood the seasonal and migratory shifts in the landscape.

    In contrast to this vision of former symbiosis, contemporary desert ecosystems are under incredible stress due to the ways that hunting practices exploit nature without regard for its welfare. It is estimated that between 1.7 million and 4.6 million birds are illegally killed each year across the Arabian Peninsula, Iraq and Iran. Ajmi gives ample evidence of the ways in which hunters are killing fauna in the hundreds and thousands without regard for natural limits or ecological cycles. His written comments and captions use a traditional ethical appeal, lamenting how hunters have lost their way, no longer hunting from necessity but for selfish purposes like machismo and bragging (al-tabahi wal-tufakhir). In turn, a growing number of people are joining in on the conversation, creating a growing online community of like-minded environmentalists in the region who are making and sharing their own content.    

    Along with his focus on the immense scale of destruction, Ajmi gives attention to individual animals, emphasizing in animals what they share with humans: what scholar Anat Pick calls the creaturely — the material, the temporal, and the vulnerable. Pick’s beautiful book Creaturely Poetics: Animality and Vulnerability in Literature and Film (Columbia University Press, 2011) argues that these embodied qualities can form the basis of new ethics, in place of our traditional focus on intellect, emotion, or language – all things which create a harmful separation between us and other species. Ajmi’s work is centered precisely on building this new code of ethics. In one video from November 10, 2018, the camera is zoomed in on a hyena standing on a rock outcropping on the other side of a rocky desert valley.

    For seven whole seconds, the hyena stares in the direction of the camera, inviting interpretations of its mental state. Is it naively curious at the sight of distant humans? Is there a look of pleading in its eyes? This intense focus on cryptic animal emotions is reminiscent of the attention paid to the faces of the wolf and his mates in al-Shanfara ’s muʿallaqah. 

    Wide-jawed, gape-mouthed,

    As if in their jaws

    Were the sides of a split stick, 

    Grinning, grim 

    (translation by Michael A. Sells)

    In both the poem and the post, close attention is paid to the movement of the face in an effort to understand the mental state of the animal, something that is ultimately impossible to determine. This scrutiny, nevertheless, draws us into careful attention and empathy for the hunted animal. In remarkable ways, Ajmi uses digital mediums to recreate many of the rhetorical and emotional experiences that animals have provided throughout the long history of Arabic literature. 

    The changing desert 

    In classical hunting poems, seasonal changes in the environment were experienced and understood directly through animals themselves, like Antara ibn Shaddad ostrich kneeling on withered, crackling reeds in the dry reason or Amr bin Kulthum’s camel frisking in the vernal season. By following changes to animals and the landscape, Ajmi’s posts bring our attention to what is new and unnatural in today’s seasonal changes: the results of changed weather patterns as well as direct human harm. 

    A video from December 16, 2018, shows a patch of green grass growing miraculously in the middle of the desert, blossoming from a surprisingly wet winter.  A series of torrential storms had moved through the Arab Gulf the month prior, bringing large-scale flooding: 25 centimeters of rain over four days, more precipitation than Kuwait receives on average in a year. The desert responded by blooming in normally barren places. However, it is neither birds or wild beasts who are frolicking in the temporary meadow but a group of jeeps skidding about and spinning donuts. The cameraman eggs his friends on and laughs as the cars grind up the grass in their tires. In his commentary, Ajmi is aghast.

    “Their actions last seconds, but their destruction will last for years, the sand crumbles and the grass is torn up, and it will take a long time for the earth to heal itself, why this selfishness and vandalism, what is the fun in that?”

    Over the months of November and December, Ajmi tracked both the positive and negative effects of this intense period of rainfall: camels and their offspring drinking at watering holes, city streets being buried in mudslides, and the sprouting of rare flowers in the desert, like the bakhtari flower. While it can not be directly determined, there is an overwhelming probability that changes in seasonal rains are being caused by climate change.  

    As Bill McKibben says in his book The End of Nature (Anchor, 1989), we must alter our understanding of dramatic acts of nature to incorporate the ways that we now act as the secret force behind them: “If the waves crash up against the beach, eroding dunes and destroying homes, it is not the awesome power of Mother Nature. It is the awesome power of Mother Nature as altered by the awesome power of man, who has overpowered in a century the processes that have been slowly evolving and changing of their own accord since the earth was born.”

    A recurring scene in Ajmi’s posts is that of the hunter’s surprise and shock as animals approach them for aid. Several videos show animals risking the danger of humans to seek shade or water, which is provided by surprised, often laughing observers. Lizards run towards the shade of a jeep. In one video, a bird of prey finds salvation in a makeshift watering hole: a bit of water left by humans in a metal can. In another video posted on Twitter, a man provides a draught of water from a spray bottle to a stork perched on top of a watering basin.

    What these videos do not depict is the reasons why animals would be desperate enough as to approach humans for water. The famous watering holes and migration routes of the qasidah form of poetry have been disrupted or removed. The looming transformations that are quickly beginning to unfold due to climate change will pose even graver challenges to the future of wildlife in the wild region.   

    In the face of this intense ecological destruction, people are beginning to understand the fragility of wildlife and take steps to act as stewards to the many species of the desert. Ajmi shows hunters untying wolves from nets, a local man who has adopted a pet rock hyrax, and kids petting a monitor lizard and learning that it’s harmless to humans. In one video posted from an account from nearby Iran, conservationists have created artificial watering holes up in the mountains and remote locations in order to provide water for wild animals. Rather than annihilating God’s creations, Ajmi encourages his followers to be like these stewards of God’s creation. “This ingenuity is what our culture needs,” he writes.

    This stewardship is not entirely selfless. The way that Ajmi focuses on the bodily vulnerability of animals acts as a reminder of what may still very well be the fate of man himself. As the climate of the Gulf is set to become, again, increasingly hostile and even potentially unlivable, there is new relevance for understanding what animals can tell us about nature. To ignore the suffering of animals and to expedite their extinction through excessive hunting is to ignore nature’s warnings for how much the future of our own species may be subject to human cruelty or charity. The presence of animals, whether it be in the rahil – the travel section of a poem — or on Twitter, reminds us that technology and progress can be forces as harsh and blind as the desert itself. As Ajmi’s animals try to survive amongst the dangers of the desert and humans alike, they offer us an unspoken warning, echoing that offered by the poet Imruʾ al-Qais and his wolf.

    When we obtain a thing, both of us destroy it, and he who tries to cultivate my land and your land, will surely become emaciated.

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