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Environmental Crisis and Political Movements in MENA & the Indian Ocean World

Panel II-11, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Thursday, November 2 at 5:30 pm

Panel Description
The second half of the nineteenth century witnessed a massive reordering of the world. In some ways it was a culmination of three centuries of change in the ways humans interacted with nature and with each other; in other ways, it was the product of more abrupt changes to the ways in which people made and exchanged things. This transformation as experienced in “the Middle East” has typically been studied through the lens of social and political history, and more recently cultural and gender history. The themes of European imperialism, “defensive developmentalism,” nascent anti-colonial nationalisms, capitalist incorporation, and religious revival have tended to dominate the narratives of Middle East history. Underpinning and driving these disparate narratives is the historian’s quest for locating human agency within and often against the intangible and inanimate structures determining conditions of life. An environmental “turn” in Middle East historiography has yet to happen even as several excellent monographs have appeared in recent years. Alan Mikhail has made perhaps the most forceful “argument for Middle East environmental history” to refresh some of the older thematic approaches and to demonstrate their global dimensions while avoiding the persistent problem of exceptionalism. Heeding his call, this panel seeks to explore the potentials and limits of environmental history for the revision of Middle East and Indian Ocean history as central to global history. The nineteenth-century transformation is traceable through, and was perhaps most intensely felt in, the changed relationship of various groups (pastoralists, peasants, urban dwellers, pilgrims, etc.) and individuals (saints, merchants, reformers, rebels, etc.) to the state. These histories have been and continue to be written, and they showcase multiple perspectives. We polemically submit that despite the claims of social history to represent subaltern voices, it is rarely an ordinary person from among the peasantry, pastoralists, or urban poor who is speaking; moreover, their “culture” remains opaque. There are obvious archival limitations that explain this lacuna. However, as environmental historians have argued, exploring human ecology has the potential of making legible lifeworlds previously sketched in skeletal outline if at all. The papers on this panel use the methods of environmental history to make the local and the global interactions that redefined the ends of life in the nineteenth century appear in vivid color, without one subduing the other. In the process, “the Middle East” as region is opened up to reveal the impact of transregional and planetary forces.
  • In 1879 Sayyid Fadl b. Alawi was ousted from his position as ‘Amir of Dhofar’ by a rebellion of tribes that had initially invited him to assume the role due to his Prophetic lineage. Previous accounts of this episode concentrate on the (trans-)regional politics as a background to rebellion or on biographies of the main players. For good reason, “the tribe” itself only appears as a vague collective. This follows usually from the assumption that there would be no way to write about “tribes” without relying exclusively on colonial archives thereby inevitably reproducing an Orientalist gaze. However, environmental historians have taught us that there is a way into the lives of pastoralists and their worlds that can use imperial and colonial archives more effectively and without reproducing their racialized assumptions. In this paper, I will test this method by revisiting the “first” Dhofar rebellion from the perspective of climate change, specifically the globally disastrous El Niño event of the late 1870s. The paper will inquire into the human ecology of Dhofar in relation to the wider Indian Ocean World with the aim of ascertaining the validity of the claims of environmental history in relation to social, political, and cultural history. Do we arrive at a thicker description? Does attention to environmental change add to or change our understanding of basic historical concepts such as agency, region, sovereignty, the political, and so on?
  • In the late nineteenth century, Kurdistan was the epicenter of environmental disasters – including frequent severe droughts, extreme cold spells, locust infestations, floods, and epizootics – famine, and violence. Peasants, pastoralists, and the urban dwellers, of the region, were in great anxiety while the Ottoman central administration and its officials in the provinces went about implementing a sophisticated policy based on political, economic, and ideological motivations. The Sheikh Ubeydullah uprising occurred in this imperial context under specific environmental conditions, as the spring of 1879 of drought conditions took an even more dramatic turn and was followed by an extreme cold episode in the winter of 1880. Ottoman and British archival reports routinely mention the severity of weather conditions and their consequences for the residents of Kurdistan. The peasants and pastoralists of the region sought help for ongoing drought conditions, crop failure, and livestock loss. Famine not only uprooted rural residents of the region but also drove them from villages and pasturelands into cities. Some of them sought shelter and refuge inside religious shrines. This paper intends to examine the Sheikh Ubeydullah uprising in the eastern portion of Ottoman Kurdistan against the Ottomans and Qajar Iran in 1880 from an environmental perspective. It will offer an alternative reading to conventional historiography that situates the Ubeydullah movement as the first Kurdish national struggle against Ottoman and Iranian imperial power. Thus, it reveals the role of transregional, global, and planetary factors in shaping an enduring political problem in the Middle East in general and Kurdistan in particular.
  • The historiography of oil in the Middle East has been framed in declensionist narratives, dismissing the human agency of local actors that operated within and against the mechanisms of oil production. By exploring human ecology – how humans shaped their environment, and how in turn this environmental reconfiguration (re)shaped human social reproduction – within the history of oil in Iraq it is possible to recover, indeed make legible, subaltern voices that were informed by and constitutive of the global politics of oil. An environmental history of the Tigris-Euphrates alluvium provides an intimate understanding of how local populations engaged with and conceived of late-nineteenth-century petro-capitalism, that swelled with, split off from, and were occluded by sources of imperial intervention in the Middle East. Using Alan Mikhail’s work as a framework of historical analysis in late-nineteenth-century Mosul, we begin to see how socioeconomic transformations – land management, peasant dislocation, and resource commodification – “alienated the products of the land as much as the products of human labor.” (Cronon 2003, 170) The legacy of colonialism in Mosul, both in terms of foreign (European) and localized (Ottoman) intercession into communal forms of resource management, is twofold: it illustrates a form of ‘environmental orientalism’, whereby imperialists characterized the lands surrounding the city as marginal and backward, and it made the city and its surrounding environs a potential lynchpin of global trade. As Camille Cole argues in “Precarious Empire”, Iraq was simultaneously fraught with environmental precariousness and considered a commercial nexus through which a latter-day ‘Northwest passage’ to India, and from there the world, could be developed.