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The River Has Run Dry: Water, Agriculture, and Social Organization in 19th Century Fez, Morocco
From Max Weber, comparative urban studies have posited that there is something distinct about cities and urban life, a premise that while productive has tended to isolate the city behind the walls from its broader social, geographical, and ecological context. Though not expressly Weberian, French scholars of the Maghreb during the colonial era also assumed a neat division between urban life and that of the tribes beyond the walls. Water allows us to interrogate this division to better understand the workings and experience of urban life. Like most of Morocco, Fez suffered drought between 1881 and 1883, which in the city sparked a particular crisis: the Oued (river) Fez, the lifeblood of the city, had run dry. Fessis appealed to sultan Hassan I (r. 1873-1894) for recourse and the sultan appointed a blue ribbon commission to investigate the human causes contributing to the lack of water. Encompassed in 14 folio pages, the committee's findings provide a detailed look at the city's system of water usage and its strains particularly in the face of intensification of agriculture on the Sais plain and the growth of new elite neighborhoods featuring orchards and riads at the western, uphill edge of the Qarawiyyin slope. Two broad themes emerge from the document. First, the importance of intra-mural irrigated agriculture. Echoing Beshara Doumani's emphasis on the significance of irrigated orchards in constituting Tripoli's (Lebanon) middle and upper classes, orchards concentrated between built up areas and the city walls in Fez contributed to the livelihood and prestige of many established Fessi families. These families had the most to lose from the lack of water, and many reported that they were forced to rip out trees and plant less thirsty annual crops. Second, the water system in Fez was a guide that residents used to understand the city's geography and it had a major part in constituting urban space. In contrast to scholarship that has emphasized shared notions of the social order rather than physical geography in constituting urban space in pre-colonial North Africa, the water system bound clusters of houses, neighborhoods, and entire districts together in a nested fashion based on shared interest in how water was distributed. In this, urban life, as much as rural, was organized around the critical question of water.
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Mediterranean Countries
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