In this essay, John Barber argues that sound suggests a new and valuable way of approaching and considering Arabic electronic literature. Based on the oral histories of Arab cultures, the use of sound in Arabic electronic literature provides a way of knowing and being in a literary world, real or imagined. Sound makes readers re-think their relational experiences with others, with themselves, and the spaces and places they inhabit. These shifting relationships promote interesting opportunities for Arabic electronic literature.
One might suggest a central consideration of Arabic electronic literature is the shape-shifting nature of electronic literature in general. What one sees when looking for electronic literature depends upon the perspective from which one looks.
I suggest another way of considering electronic literature: by listening. This essay considers sound—especially that of the storyteller's voice, but including environmental and mechanical sounds as well—to be at the heart of every literary experience, whether contextualized in print or pixels.
This centrality of sound draws directly on the rich oral history of Arab cultures and storytellers who, using only their voices, provided narratives that helped people understand their external and internal worlds. Speech, used in storytelling, provided a way to express abstract thought, to share ideas, history, memories, and culture.
With the advent of writing, speech was recorded, and more easily distributed. These opportunities were dramatically increased by the technologies of printing and reading. Writing, printing, and reading also offered a way to preserve and distribute speech, thus promoting sharing of collective memories.
Although the technologies of speech and writing are fundamentally different—speech based upon hearing and writing upon seeing—at the heart of each is the sound of the storyteller's voice. Whether hearing the storyteller's voice in person, or imagining it through reading, that sound directly engages our imaginations. Sound provides a way of knowing and being in a world, whether real or imagined. Sound, at the heart of literary experiences, prompts engagement that is participatory, interactive, experiential.
Sound helps us re-think our relational experiences with others, with ourselves, and the spaces and places we inhabit. These shape-shifting relationships promote interesting opportunities for considering sound at the heart of literary experience as we move from oral to written traditional literature to different forms and genres of Arabic electronic literature.
When I use the term "sound" I mean vibrations of acoustic energy that travel through air, or some other medium. These vibrations are "heard" when they reach our ears and register in our brains as sound(s).
A sound may arrive from an unseen source. In such cases, we must use our memories of sound(s) previously heard, or our imaginations, to discern the source and meaning of the sound(s). For this reason, Bruce R. Smith suggests that knowing the world through sound is fundamentally different from knowing the world through vision (Smith 2003).
Knowing the world through sound(s) is primary, beginning before we are born. Hearing is one of the first senses to develop, and for approximately 4.5 months before we are born we are bathed in a rich soup of sounds heard from both inside and outside the bodies of our mothers. After birth, a baby reacts immediately to sound, before its vision fully develops (Murch 2005).
Michael Bull and Les Back suggest that sound is primary for knowing and being in the world. We hear a sound and it provides immediate clues as to where we are, and what to expect. Even if the sound is acousmatic, originating from an unseen source, we can use our experience with and memory of previous sounds heard to determine what we are hearing, and what that sound means (Bull and Back 2003).
To examine these ideas, I consider two Western pioneering works of electronic literature—34 North 118 West by Jeremy Hight, Jeff Knowlton, and Naomi Spellman (2003), and Under Language by Stuart Moulthrop (2007)—as well as three contemporary video poems by Mohamed Habibi—Just Words, Matchbox, and Mug. I select these examples for their strong emphasis on sound and because they suggest a framework for situating sound-based Arabic electronic literature.
34 North 118 West
Jeremy Hight, with Jeff Knowlton and Naomi Spellman, created and released 34 North 118 West in 2002-2003 as a wireless guided tour for a Los Angeles art museum. This pioneering locative narrative combined audio, digital media, and Global Positioning System technology (GPS) to create an interactive series of narratives about a once thriving railroad depot situated at 34 North latitude, 118 West longitude in downtown Los Angeles, California, during the first half of the 20th century.
Participants walked through the four-block area formally occupied by the railroad station and other businesses with a laptop computer, a GPS device, and headphones. GPS tracked and overlaid their position on a map displayed on the computer screen. Easily identifiable locations were also displayed. Approaching these "hot spots," participants triggered recorded narratives and soundscapes created from historic, ethnographic, and architectural information about the area.
Other sound effects—squeaking wooden cart wheels and musicians entertaining on busy street corners, for example—were triggered by hidden GPS locations, each waiting to be discovered by wandering participants. The idea was for these sounds to connect physical locations with events, activities, narratives, and lives of a past dismissed by urban change. Signs, displays, and other physical elements and/or details at each location augmented the narratives, providing metaphors and symbols for interaction(s) with the characters and history of the area defined by the geographic coordinates 34 North 118 West.
For example, at the site of a former tire factory, a worker describes how bits of rubber rained down on Los Angeles after the plant caught fire. A waitress at the train station restaurant talks about the harried passengers she serves. A railroad worker tells about cleaning the tracks after people committed suicide by stepping in front of trains. A cook, the station clock inspector, and others provide additional narratives. As participants moved throughout the area, triggering narratives, they developed a sense of the work's larger scope and concept.
Hight, Knowlton, and Spellman investigated the half-square mile area around the former railroad freight station for more than a year, digging through the histories of the buildings to learn about people who worked there. They crafted narratives from the hidden and/or lost information they recovered.
Hight contends this approach to storytelling helps organize forgotten historical and cultural information into meaningful narratives about a place, a time, and people. Hight calls these narratives "sonic archaeology in the urban landscape," or "narrative archeology" (Hight 2013).
Wandering about the area and evoking multiple narratives, one uncovered the hidden history of this once thriving part of downtown Los Angeles. These narratives of forgotten or faded histories, lost buildings, tensions still present of past persons, all buried in memory, could, Hight contends, return with sufficient ability to sustain listeners simultaneously in two separate realities at the same location, one present, the other past (Hight 2013).
Pioneering electronic literature author Stuart Moulthrop released Under Language in 2007. Moulthrop calls this work a "textual instrument," an artifact akin to literature but structured like a game (Moulthrop, 2007). The work features a screen display interface that responds to mouse clicks. Using this game-like interface, users select ten lines for a poem. Few instructions are provided for interaction, however, leaving the reader and/or player to learn the rules for the work. When all ten lines are selected, the program displays them on screen, along with a closing graphic, chosen by the program to reflect the quality of the final text. Repeat as many times as desired for different poems. 1
The work shared the 3rd International Digital Literature Award Ciutat de Vinarós Prize for Digital Narrative with Isaias Herrero Florensa's Universo Molecula.
Moulthrop's title, Under Language, speaks to the underlying computer code that drives the work. He uses the term with both seriousness and slapstick. Under language speaks to both the necessity to notice how writing intersects code, and the consequences of a collision (collusion?) when poetry meets code. 2
So, "under language" underlies and infuses Under Language, which is, fundamentally, a generative textual work, meant to be experienced visually, on the screen. But the brilliance of this work is Moultrop's sonification of the underlying five layers of computer code. The first is a series of computer-voiced renditions of ActionScripts programmed by Moultrop that operate the work. The second layer is a series of ambient recorded collages of tunings across radio broadcasts. The third level consists of pseudo-code, again voiced by text-to-speech technology. Comments and summaries, ostensibly voiced by the ten-line poem at the heart of this work, constitute the fourth level. The fifth level is an audio collage, where the poem's ten lines are each vocalized, as well as comments seemingly from the poem's self awareness of its creation.
These vocalized narratives of the "under language" for Moulthrop's work are not specifically ordered, but rather assembled from user choices of lines of text for a generated poem. Still, the result provides unprecedented access to the interactive affordances beyond the program's screen-based visual displays.
Moulthrop's point is that under language (the underlying code) is the language of computer programming, and is inseparable from the work titled Under Language. With Under Language, the work, he argues that to experience electronic literature we need to appreciate the underlying code. 3
I extend Moulthrop's point by arguing that Under Language, rather than a visual work, is an example of sound-based electronic literature. Hearing the under language vocalized we understand the presence of hidden narratives concurrently creating and commenting upon our experience of the work's visualization, and, indeed, writing the larger context for its experience. Rather than visuals augmented by sound, Under Language is a work of electronic literature where sound is augmented by visuals, where sound is at the heart of the literary experience.
Contemporary examples of Arabic electronic literature by Mohamed Habibi extend the idea of sound-based electronic literature. Habibi, a Saudi scholar and poet working in the genre of video poetry, has for the past decade shared his work through his YouTube channel (Habibi 2018).
Just Words (2'11") begins with a flashlight beam illuminating what appears to be a blank wall. All else is black, and silent. The focus changes and the beam illuminates Arabic writing on a piece of paper. Sound begins—insects and rhythmic clicking. Text appears superimposed on the screen, below the image of the paper, reading,
Almost unseen, a hand turns the paper to expose another, again with Arabic writing.
The sound continues. One now has the sense of discovering this text in a darkened room, at night. Turning the paper—might we say "pages" now?—reveals another, again with writing. The superimposed translation reads,
in the morning
The rhythmic clicking becomes more rapid, intense, almost insistent. Another page flip . . .
We carry our dreams
page flip . . .
to dry it out.
Another page flip . . .
it won't fly away;
Two page flips . . .
as we'll clasp them.
At 1'35" the scene changes to ten white "pages," each inscribed with Arabic writing, secured from a line by clothes pins (3 groups of 2 pages, 1 of three pages, and 1 of 1 page) near a window. Daylight illuminates the room, and the pages.
One has the sense these pages represent the dream portrayed in the first scene of Habibi's video poem, and that these parts of the dream are drying in the morning light. At first this tableaux is silent, but the sound of rustling pages fades in as the pages move in an air current from the nearby window.
A dissolve at 1'58" returns us to the first scene: a piece of paper illuminated by a flashlight beam, the rest of the room in darkness . . .
The night insects and rhythmic clicking sounds begin. The page is turned . . .
are . . . Just words
Fade to black, and end.
Matchbox (1'52") also begins with a black screen. The sound begins quickly: footsteps running, dogs barking, some vocalizations that hint at physical effort. Memories of similar sounds suggests this is perhaps someone running.
At 0'30" the running stops, the runner seems to take a breath, and we hear a series of sliding, scratching sounds. Silence as Arabic writing appears on the screen, from top right across, then back to the right margin before beginning a new line. The screen fills with writing.
The soundtrack begins anew—breathing, running, dogs, the same sliding, scratching sound. More Arabic writing appears on the screen, right to left, appearing to be written as we watch.
Several more scratching, sliding sounds until a match lights in the darkness. Briefly, we see the face of a male(?) child illuminated by the flare of this igniting match.
Four seconds of silence and blackness passes until the soundtrack—running feet, breathing, dogs barking—returns. English writing appears on the screen, left to right, as if being typed in real time . . .
—who runs out of the door
like a pullet
who gets up to glance at his injured
who walks by anyone to reassure
They send you out
to the neighborhood
along the dark street,
where the walls are painted with ghosts
to get a matchbox.
A match is lit, again briefly illuminating to face of a young person. End.
Like Matchbox and Just Words, Mug (3'59") begins with a black screen. The rhythmic clicking, heard in Just Words, begins the soundtrack and is quickly followed by birds, geese, and a crowing rooster. Night sounds follow immediately—insect sounds and human vocalizations in the background.
At 0'46" a small circle of white light appears in the lower right quadrant of the otherwise black screen. It begins to gyrate, seemingly synchronically with the background insect sounds.
At 1'20" the insect sounds stop. Silence until 1'26" when one hears the sound of liquid being poured onto some surface. Suddenly the white light is interrupted by small, circular waves. Immediately it is clear: the liquid heard is being poured into a container of liquid. The white light is a reflection of a light in that container.
Silence as we watch the white light, now tiny and surrounded by a ring of light like an orbiting moon, move on the surface of what we now understand as liquid.
At 2'00" the sounds of ducks and geese return. Arabic writing appears on an entirely black screen; the reflection of the light in the liquid is gone. Sounds of ducks and geese and rhythmic clicking continue. A rooster crows. Sounds, seemingly, of something walking, slowly, carefully, on gravel. Slow zoom into the text.
At 2'25" a second screen of Arabic writing appears. The sound changes to nighttime insects. Slow zoom into text.
The white light, which we now know is a reflection in liquid, reappears. Night insect sounds continue as a third screen of Arabic text overlays the visual. The reflected light dances behind and in the center of the text filling the screen.
The text disappears. More liquid is poured into the container. The reflected light is disturbed. The sound fades out as a final screen of Arabic text appears, as if being written onto the screen.
Translation of the text to English is problematic as the Arabic itself appears incorrect, perhaps a bad translation from another language. Still, the text speaks to images . . .
It is not surprising that the ear depends upon imagination
surrounded by sounds.
A rooster crows for the time of prayer.
Frogs croaking foretell the smell of rain.
A dog passes nearby, pauses, continues on his way.
Your eyes, staring up for a long time,
suddenly look down to the mug into which you are pouring water.
You were in the mug where the water reflected the moon.
The reflected light of the moon dances in the mug at the bottom of the screen. Fade to black. End.
These works of electronic literature by Hight, et al., Moulthrop, and Habibi each promote our engagement through their effective use of sound—vocal, environmental, or mechanical.
For example, 34 North 118 West is no longer available as an in situ experience. The recorded narratives are available, however, and several were given to me by Hight, along with permission to remix them in a way so to capture a sense of the original, larger work. For all practical purposes, these sounds—a train crossing, a street band, a street salesperson, narratives of individuals living in the area—are all that remain of the work.
In my 13'00" recombination, I utilized an Aristotelian, linear narrative structure of beginning, middle, and end, with the sound of a passing train as bookends. Other approaches would be equally valid. The results from any approach is for the sound-based narratives of 34 North 118 West to provide effective access to this work—no longer available—a facsimile for the intent and content of the original work. 4
Under Language is still available in its original context thanks to a website maintained by the author, Stuart Moulthrop. Like Hight, Mouthrop was generous in providing me the original sound files from this work, as well as permission to create experimental remixes.
Using sound files provided by Moulthrop, I created a 14'20" audio narrative by arranging individual sound files following their numbering from Moulthrop's original content database to create a serendipitous narrative. Other methodologies could easily be used. As with the original work, there are five layers (as described previously) to this re-conceptualized narrative. The reader and/or player is responsible for making sense of the artifact. 5
Missing in this effort is the direct interaction the user/reader/player/participant has with choosing the lines of the poem. But, remaining is the direct experience with the under language, the sound of the computer programming underlying, supporting, creating the original work.
The three works by Habibi, while each an example of video poetry, incorporate strong, and one might argue essential, sound elements. In Just Words, we see a hand turning individual pieces of paper on which are inscribed Arabic words and/or phrases. But it is the sound of these pages turning that sparks our imagination, encouraging us to ask for more perspective on this literary experience. What are these pages? How do they relate to one another? Who is turning the pages? What are we, the reader and/or viewer to think of these words and their display?
In another scene we see these individual pages hanging from a line, like fish or dried fruits, evidence of their collection and display outside their native element. But again, it is the sound of these pages, this time rustling in the air moving through a nearby window, that makes clear what we are seeing is only one (diminished?) context in which these words might be experienced. Taken out of context, do these words still convey the same meaning(s) as when bound with others into the form of a book? Again, what are we, the reader and/or viewer to think of these words and their display?
In Matchbox, we see nothing but blackness. Only at the end of this video poem, when a match is struck and thus illuminates the face of a young boy, do we understand that what we are seeing is the darkness of night. Only with the appearance of the text superimposed at the end of the video do we have full context for the poem. Once again, it is sound, this time the striking of a match that brings the visual elements together providing an interface with which one can engage with the essential nature of the poem.
What does all this mean? Why is it important?
I would respond first by noting that these examples of electronic literature demonstrate how sound connects and surrounds us with multiple, concurrent aspects of a single narrative. The result is a deeper, richer literary experience, prompted largely by the active engagement of our imaginations to express another sense or esoteric meaning, beyond visualization, regarding the original work.
In this regard, sound-based literary artifacts may include audibility of text, promote sound as text and meaning, and increase awareness of the author's and/or speaker's voice(s) in the text.
Interactive works of electronic literature are often orphaned by changing operating systems and other software platforms. Sound(s) may be all that survives, or all that is available. Recombining / reconfiguring / reimagining these sounds could promote immersive engagement(s) arguably superior to what might be possible through textual description, even transcription.
These works also encourage us to explore how different aesthetic conceptualizations and material practices of voice and other sound(s) inform the basis of literary expression. For example, sound and poetry might be considered an exchange between language and code, and thus at the center of our understanding of language arts. The desired outcome is to expand understanding of literature and textuality as vehicles for exchanges in and across media, languages, and cultures.
Finally, this focus foregrounds an approach to literature characterized by what Edmund Carpenter calls the verbal, musical, and poetic traces and fragments (figures) of oral culture (Carpenter 1970).
All this suggests a way of approaching and considering Arabic electronic literature. Based on the rich and deep oral histories of Arab cultures, sound provides a way of knowing and being in a literary world, real or imagined. Sound makes us re-think our relational experiences with others, with ourselves, and the spaces and places we inhabit. These shifting relationships promote interesting opportunities for Arabic electronic literature.
 In his artist statement, provided to the author, Moulthrop
describes the origin of the term "textual instrument:"
"[Textual instruments is] a term I borrowed from John Cayley many years ago to describe things that might look like literature, but also like structures for play, though not necessarily what we would call games. In fact, this one lies pretty close to game space, having rules, a scoring system (albeit invisible), and even a simple agon in which you compete against the perversity of the puzzle-maker, and constraints of the clock (Moulthrop 2018)."
 In his artist statement, provided to the author, Moulthrop describes the inspiration for the term "under language.": "The phrase "under-language" was invented by the comics artist, Alan Moore, in an interview he gave in the early 1980s. He used it to describe the essence of comics art, which is neither verbal nor visual, but something that underlies and infuses both modes. The term gets at the essence behind Moore's great genius for irony and verbal-visual puns. It also provides a convenient reminder that everything, these days, tends to mean more than it seems (Moulthrop 2018)."
 Similar to Under Language, Moulthrop's Radio Salience (2007) is an interactive image-text-sound instrument with a game-like interface that explores indeterminacy, accident, and resonance, taking as its muse the breathless voice of the airwaves and radio. At the center of Radio Salience, the player (user? listener? reader? participant?) watches an array of four image panels, showing component slices from various larger images, fading in an out of view. When any two slices match, slot-machine style, the participant clicks one of the two images to see the full image and initiate a digital voice reciting a gloss or reading. In between, one hears ambient sounds, very much like a radio being tuned past multiple stations. There is no contest, or score, no leveling, no way to win, lose, or escape. However, if you click while none of the four images match, you die and start anew.
A complex work, Radio Salience explores the nature of literacy in both print and electronic environments. The work makes the important point that the fixed nature of literature, long a cornerstone for print-based literary works, is a product of the medium through which it is disseminated. Rather than the target of literature and its chosen delivery device, with Radio Salience the participant is the device whose choices about reading matter, thus replacing the passive experience of more traditional, print-based literacy. Throughout, sound is central, and although the selections may seem random, even nonsensical, they contribute to understanding the potentiality arising from this online, interactive work. This is certainly a different experience than more traditional reading experiences. I curate further information about this work, and provide listening opportunities here http://www.nouspace.net/john/archive/radioelo/moulthrop/radiosalience/radio-salience.html
Patterned after the first video game, Pong, Moulthrop's Sc4nda1 in New Media (2012) explores new forms of writing in digital contexts. The participant controls one paddle to interact with the constantly moving pixel of light bouncing from one side of the screen to another. Behind this arcade action, animated and evanescent text scrolls down the screen, impossible to read. Participants can "win" access to six higher levels, where they can read a new installment of the transient text accompanied by brief sounds. These readings are filled with puns and word play, alongside more serious rumination on remediation. If one lingers on a reading, the words slowly dissolve into numbers. As a result, Sc4nda1 in New Media converges philosophical meditation with a retro video game. The sounds provide context(s) in this new space. I curate further information about this work, and provide listening opportunities here http://www.nouspace.net/john/archive/radioelo/moulthrop/sc4nda1/sc4nda1.html
 I maintain an archival webpage for this work, titled 34 North 118 West, within my portfolio of creative sound-based works. See http://www.nouspace.net/john/archive/radioelo/34n118w/34n118w.html for more information and a listening opportunity.
 I maintain an archival webpage for this work, titled Under Language, within my portfolio of creative sound-based works. See http://www.nouspace.net/john/archive/radioelo/moulthrop/underlanguage/under-language.html
Bull, Michael and Les Back, eds. 2003. The Auditory Culture Reader. Oxford, UK: Berg.
Carpenter, Edmund. 1970. They Became What They Beheld. New York: Outerbridge & Dienstfrey.
Habibi, Mohamed. 2018. YouTube. https://www.youtube.com/user/habibi1366/videos
Hight, Jeremy. 2013. "Narrative Archaeology." NeMe, 25 March. http://www.neme.org/texts/narrative-archaeology
Also available: http://www.academia.edu/203311/narrative\_archaeology
Moulthrop, Stuart. 2018. "Artist Statement." "Under Language." radioELO. http://www.nouspace.net/john/archive/radioelo/moulthrop/underlanguage/under-language.html
Murch, Walter. 2005. "Womb Tone," Transom Review Vol. 5 No. 1. http:/transom.org/2005/walter-murch-part-1/
Smith, Bruce R. 2003. "Tuning into London c. 1600." The Auditory Culture Reader. Eds. Michael Bull and Les Back. Oxford, UK: Berg, 127-135.