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Between the Living and the Dead: The Afterlives of War East of the Mediterranean

Panel VI-14, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Friday, November 3 at 4:00 pm

Panel Description
As the war on terror concludes its 20th anniversary, the world’s attention seems to have shifted elsewhere. Still the afterlives of these past decades continue to define emerging forms of life across the region. From Beirut and Damascus to Mosul and Kabul, violence and massive displacements have reshaped local social fabrics, leading to the rise of new therapeutic and burial geographies. These movements of the living and the dead, which transcend borders, as well as national and ethnic boundaries, have reconfigured modes of living across the Eastern Mediterranean. These transformations present new challenges to the imagination and articulation of ethnographic research and fieldwork. The panel asks: What does it mean to write ethnography in the wake of this history of war and its present? Ethnographies of the post 9/11 wars have often emphasized the US imperial war machine and its technologies of life and death in the Middle East. Much of this work has obscured local contexts and elided the intimate social relations and processes that define the complexities of everyday life and survival across the region. Through focusing on ethnographies based on long-term fieldwork, this panel explores three key questions: 1- How has this chronic violence–that generated immense experiences of loss, injury, and displacement–been endured in the movements and moral economies of bodies, both living and dead? 2- How has the unravelling of state infrastructure produced different pathways and social trajectories of care-seeking and trauma recovery within and across borders? 3- How do the material legacies of these wars continue to linger in individual and collective bodies, giving rise to new war biologies and ecological predicaments? This panel brings together ethnographic research based on a shared commitment to this changing regional context in the hopes of opening new epistemological and methodological horizons. What is the role of anthropology in shaping interdisciplinary conversations about the afterlives of war and survival in the region?
  • Prof. Omar Dewachi -- Organizer, Chair
  • Foroogh Farhang -- Presenter
  • Alexander Shams -- Presenter
  • Annika Schmeding -- Presenter
  • Mac Skelton -- Organizer, Presenter
  • Annika Schmeding
    After the U.S. invasion in 2001, access to land, particularly state-owned as well as agricultural and pasture-land, became potent political currency in Afghanistan. Land grabbing and distributing land to political networks transformed into a veritable source of income and way to establish political loyalties. Nomadic communities were not immune to the consequences. Indeed, in many ways, they were more affected than others by the differential allocation of power and authority that played a central role in their attempts to access and wield this resource. Nomadic identities were reconstituted in a politicized garb after the establishment of the internationally-backed Afghan government and the influx of international NGOs that administered the development and reconstruction sector. In the interface with what Fassin has called the “humanitarian government” (Fassin 2007), organizations and policy makers showed a strong interest in ameliorating the livelihoods of pastoralists and enshrining their rights in both the constitution and national laws. The outcome was the emergence of so-called “Kuchi” rights, a quasi-legal neologism referring to pastoral nomads and their descendants, that offered rights and political opportunities. However, other nomadic communities were excluded from this category. One of these—peripatetic communities—emerged as the new urban poor and part of the internally displaced population (IDPs) in need of attention from the international aid sector. This paper offers a new perspective on these constructed legal and social categories of recognition through the lens of the nomadic dead, and the people who care for them. Access to land—or lack thereof—is intimately tied to access to burial grounds and thus subject to sociopolitical pressures. This paper investigates how nomadic populations deal with legal categorizations that are paralleled by social stigma which impact care for the dead and burial. Based on long-term ethnographic fieldwork carried out in Afghanistan’s urban centers of Kabul, Herat and Mazar-e Sharif since 2013, it explores how the unequal status of pastoral (legally recognized) and peripatetic (unrecognized) nomads, intersected with social stereotypes to render one group integrated and protected and the other stateless. This status in life crossed the threshold into death, leaving families of the unrecognized facing conflicts and problems associated with burial decisions. Taking an approach that focuses on community negotiation, the paper considers how the different statuses of these otherwise structurally similar communities was navigated in the interaction between nomadic community and burial gatekeepers.
  • Mac Skelton
    The concept of war-related “therapeutic geographies” emerged a decade ago on the heels of the Arab Spring, during a period when the US had (temporarily) pulled out of Iraq and another set of wars in Syria and Libya were newly underway. As a product of these overlapping wars, social scientists and physicians in the Middle East region were grappling with the fact that the destruction and transformation of hospitals compelled many patients and their families to embark upon circuitous, transnational trajectories of care-seeking across borders. “Therapeutic geographies” captured the emergence of new transnational networks and circuits of care related to the immediate and long-term impact of war. A decade after the formulation of the concept, these transnational therapeutic geographies have continued to define the experience of illness for countless individuals and families in the Middle East region. New iterations of war, particularly the series of local and international conflicts related to the Islamic State in Iraq and Syria (ISIS), in addition to the COVID-19 pandemic, have continued to reshape local and cross-border pathways of care, with profound implications for the experience of illness, the lines between public and private, and the practices around palliation and dying. The challenge of this paper is to develop an ethnographic account that links ongoing transformations in the geographies and spaces of care with the illness experience of individuals and those who care for them. Building on eight years of ethnographic research with Iraqi cancer patients navigating oncology within and across borders during war, this paper traces the lives, care-seeking journeys, and deaths of cancer patients from the start of the ISIS conflict to the present moment. As the story of cancer in Iraq is not only about the war-related transformation of oncology but also unresolved questions around the carcinogenic afterlives of war munitions and waste, the ethnography is attentive to the ways in which patients and their caregivers draw associations between the uncertain pathways of care and the uncertain etiological status of the disease.
  • Foroogh Farhang
    Since the start of the Syrian civil war, displaced Syrians in Lebanon have adapted to not-quite-legal ways of living, dying, and moving around. The last decade has seen hyper-visible security forces scaling up along borders and border routes, and at the same time, the intensification of informal modes of mobility in and in-between the two territories. In Lebanon, strategies that rely on informality can be seen in every aspect of how Syrians navigate life, including but not limited to their camps, their pursuit of education, occupation or livelihood, and ultimately, their death and burial place. As part of the Lebanese state’s non-encampment policy, Syrians have been living in informal settlements. With no right to the land there can be no official cemeteries, setting Syrian traveling dead on the road to rent a resting place in more marginal Lebanese cemeteries, or to seek a more permanent plot in family graveyards back in Syria. In such circumstances, crossing the border to bury their dead in their hometowns involves navigating the barely visible but very real pathways shaped by political exile, illegal migration, and the informal economies that prevail in landscapes of war and displacement. In the face of economic, legal, and political hurdles, they leverage their cultural and geographic knowledge of the landscape to map out and maneuver around formal border regimes. This paper follows Syrian traveling dead from their temporary homes in Lebanon to their family graveyards in Syria as a point of departure for exploring the structures and strategies that are at play as Syrians navigate their restricted mobilities. By situating Syrians’ precarious navigation of cross-border burials in the landscape of informality, the paper proposes to move beyond the language of legal vs. illegal and instead attends to the often-grey zone of displaced persons’ movements across borders. Navigating informality has become a collective form of knowledge-production accumulated and passed on in Syrians’ everyday interactions in-person and virtually, helping them maneuver around the varying and shifting contexts of war within the authoritarian state of Syria as well as the conditions of displacement in the compartmentalized state of Lebanon. Taking into account Syrian border-crossers’ active negotiation of shifting bordering regimes helps us explore a new perspective into the ways in which sociocultural imperatives bend the ostensibly rigid bordering laws practiced on borderlines, as well as within national territorial boundaries.
  • Alexander Shams
    In early December 1995, crowds emerged from the vast Sadr City neighborhood in northern Baghdad, Iraq, and being walking north. Their destination was Imam Hassan al Askari’s shrine in Samarra, more than 100 kilometers away. Taking backroads through date plantations along the Tigris River, they evaded Iraq’s Baathist authorities, who had outlawed the “walking pilgrimages” that traditionally take place to Iraqi shrines on saints’ deaths anniversaries. As large crowds of Shia pilgrims arrived in Samarra, they were greeted by locals in the overwhelmingly Sunni city, who distributed food and drinks as they approached the shrine. The scenes confounded Baathist officials, who sent worried telegrams to police stations across the country demanding surveillance be stepped up to find and arrest pilgrims and those who greeted them. Throughout the 1980s-90s, Iraqi authorities sought to stamp out walking pilgrimages to the tombs of Shia Muslim holy figures, which dot the country. They allowed pilgrims to use cars, but specifically feared the horizontal connections and socialities that the act of walking created. The December 1995 pilgrimage stands out because of the geography involved: an overwhelmingly Shia suburb and an overwhelmingly Sunni city. After the 2003 invasion, US military authorities implemented a political system that positioned sectarian religious identity as central to Iraqis’ civic and political identities. These became increasingly clearcut amidst the 2000s civil war, in which the 2006 bombing of Samarra’s shrine was an iconic moment and trigger. Authorities have since carved up Samarra with concrete blast walls that ensure pilgrims have no contact with locals. In this context, the 1995 pilgrimage points to an earlier moment when a nominally “Shia religious ritual” to a “Shia shrine” became a space for solidarity and defiance of the regime among Iraqis of different sects to be expressed. In this paper, I draw on research in the Baath Party archives and ethnographic fieldwork in Iraq to explore the politics of walking pilgrimages to saints’ tombs before and after the US invasion. I investigate how these spaces challenged repression under the Baathist regime and how they became tied to sectarian identity after 2003. I then argue that the evolution of the Arbaeen pilgrimage since then has created renewed spaces of possibility for horizontal connections, even as sectarian actors constantly seek to assert control over the pilgrimage space and how it is narrated.