MESA Banner
Ecocritical Terrains: Rethinking Tamazghan and Middle Eastern Landscapes

Panel IV-14, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Friday, November 3 at 11:00 am

Panel Description
This panel is an investigation into what is gained when Tamazghan (broader North African, including parts of the Sahara) and Middle Eastern landscapes are rethought in an environmental perspective mindful of more-than-human ecologies. Whether as blighted landscapes or degraded environments, Maghrebi and Middle East natural landscapes have historically been conceptually produced as a reified, mostly uninhabited backdrop to human endeavors. Often cast as “wastelands” (McManus and Reynolds) by the domesticating forces of colonial modernity, Middle Eastern landscapes have come to acquire value through the dichotomy of value and waste, i.e., their ability to sustain extractive projects or, conversely, their inherent resistance to humans’ desire for dominion. Drawing on political ecology, biopolitics, and environmental humanities methodologies, this interdisciplinary panel asks the following questions: How does an ecocritical lens reshape conceptions of Tamazghan and Middle Eastern landscapes/deserts inherited from colonialism? How do actions carried out in and discursive practices built around landscapes shape their environmental valence and impact their futurity? What new entanglements between the human and the more-than-human do these spaces sustain? Bringing together scholars of visual arts, literature, cinema studies, anthropology, and environmental humanities, this panel engages these questions through five case studies rooted in different geographies and timeframes. The first presentation queries the use of atmospherics in 19th century Orientalist painting to depict deserts as conceptual rather than physical spaces. Tracing the resonance of ambiguation to contemporary photography, the paper examines the adjustments that a reintroduction of indigenous, Bedouin epistemologies brings to the question of representation of non-human spaces. Through the study of literature, the second presentation posits the existence of a corpus of earthquake writing marked by a material form of language born of bodily experiences of the geophysical environment that rearticulates relationships between nature and Maghrebi societies. The third presentation considers post-2011 Tunisian cinema’s use of landscapes. Through Michel Foucault’s concept of heterotopia, the paper shows how Tunisian film supplements political landscapes with natural ones to anchor a newfound sense of agency. The fourth presentation examines new desert ecologies emerging in Gulf Countries in relation to space exploration as forms of Islamic utopianism that complicate Western readings of the desert. The last presentation proposes a material ecocritical reading of Maghrebi space. Reading the geopolitics of illegal migration though a geophysical lens, the paper examines the planetary resonance of Maghrebi connectivity when examined through the elemental agencies of its natural spaces (Sahara and Mediterranean).
Art/Art History
Political Science
  • For centuries universalizing narratives construed North African landscapes as a blank canvas on which colonial dynamics of human exploration and exploitation could be inscribed. Yet the ever-increasing incorporation of natural spaces in the European Union’s process of border securitization in the face of global migration has overlaid new geopolitical coordinates onto these purportedly inert spaces. Since the late 1980s, the unequal mobility regime between global North and global South has increasingly strengthened, marking out the Mediterranean and the Sahara as two border zones where the eradication of undesirable migrants can be enacted. The mushrooming of detention camps in deserts, increased drone surveillance, the interception of rescue operations at sea, and the outsourcing of border enforcement to North African states have all contributed to the illegalization of cross-border movement, with the corollary effect of bringing further precarity to the unstemmed flow of crossings. European attempts at controlling the southern border of the Union have transformed the natural spaces hemming in the Maghreb into putatively impenetrable walls (Bensaâd 2006; Abderrezak 2018), a lethal border zone aiming to deter Southern migrants’ clandestine crossings, often at the expense of their lives. This paper examines the ways in which the geophysical (the Maghreb’s natural spaces, like the sea and the desert) and the geopolitical (the imperative to stem illegal migration) collide in Europe’s biopolitical management of illegalized migration at the continent’s expanded physical borders. Whether drowning at sea or dying of exposure in the desert, the border-crossers meet an untimely death through the mediation of weaponized geophysical forces. Interconnecting Achille Mbembe’s concepts of “necropolitics” and “borderization” (Mbembe 2019) with recent theoretical work in the environmental humanities and new materialism (Grosz 2012; Grosz 2017; Povinelli 2017), I offer a new reading of Maghrebi natural spaces in light of their elemental agency—rethinking land/waterscape in terms of substance (water, sand), as a necropolitical agent performing the death of exposed migrant bodies attempting to cross. By bringing together the geophysical and the geopolitical, this paper thus proposes a reframing of the Maghrebi region in elemental terms beyond its cultural and geopolitical histories. Through its incorporation into the order of Europe’s borderization, the Maghreb integrates an expanded geophysical map connecting it to sub-Saharan Africa and Europe through its natural interfaces. This paper eventually proposes a revigorated spatial model where the region’s liminality (El Guabli 2021) is redeployed along material, planetary coordinates.
  • In 2024, the UAE will open the world’s largest Mars simulation, a complex of interlocking geodesic domes that will replicate the environmental conditions of the planet Mars in the desert outside of Dubai. Last year, after a successful multinational “Mars mission” in the Dhofar desert, the Omani government announced plans to build a permanent space research center devoted to analog missions to the Moon and Mars. Why are these countries developing space programs focused on the future exploration and settlement of Mars? How do simulations and analogs in these desert environments allow us to better understand and experience otherworldly places? What new national and planetary imaginaries are taking shape in these desert spaces? This paper addresses these questions by tracing the genealogy of the UAE and Oman projects through publicity materials, interviews, and their press coverage in the Middle East. Building on recent work by anthropologists (Aima 2018; Günel 2019), geographers (Koch 2021), and political scientists (Grove 2021) on emerging desert ecologies in the Gulf related to space exploration, I examine the way these projects transform the desert into technoscientific frontiers that trouble the distinction between nature and culture, past and future, and colonizer and colonized. Ultimately, I argue that a distinctive feature of these projects is their appeal to an ecological utopianism rooted in an Islamic vision of the future that simultaneously reproduces and challenges western tropes of the desert.
  • “Pure Landscape” and Atmospheric Ambiguation: Picturing Deserts This paper draws on pictorial treatment of deserts by nineteenth-century European artists to examine contemporary photographic images of this landscape. With a focus on images that use aerial perspectives as the compositional strategy, the paper explains why the pictorial tactic of atmospheric ambiguation wherein the horizon line is obfuscated by, for example, the hazy rendering of crepuscular light or engulfing sandstorms has endured across centuries and how atmospherics contribute to imaginaries that see deserts as conceptual rather than physical spaces. The paintings of nineteenth-century artists Augustus Osborne Lamplough, Gustave Guillaumet, Charles Théodore Frère, and Eugène Fromentin allow us to conceptualize how the notion of ambiguity was used as a dominant pictorial strategy in English and French nineteenth-century depictions of Middle Eastern and North African deserts in contrast to the meticulous realism of quintessential Orientalist figurative works, such as Jean-Léon Gérôme’s celebrated painting The Snake Charmer (1879). This atmospheric obfuscation was not intended to generate confusion, but rather acted as a source of imperial power in the expression of the dual attitudes Europeans held towards the deserts of North Africa – for some they were spaces of desolation and death, while others considered them ahistorical expanses whose solitude offered spiritual rejuvenation countering the overstimulation of modern cities. This nineteenth-century paradigm has both continuation and consequences in the work of contemporary photographers, Sophie Ristelhueber and Fazal Sheikh, both of whom have used aerial perspectives to capture desert landscapes. My analysis of Ristelhueber’s Fait (1992) will foreground the artist’s unconscious perpetuation of Orientalist tropes by leveraging the abstraction of the aerial view to exploit ambiguity in the depiction of the post-war Kuwaiti desert, while my discussion of Sheikh’s Desert Bloom (2011) reveals his disruption of the desert’s essentialization by contextualizing the images within local knowledge developed in dialogue with Negev Bedouins.
  • This paper mounts an ecocritical investigation into representations of landscape in Tunisian cinema since the Arab uprisings. While scholars have begun to take stock of the changes in Tunisian and Arab cinema since 2011 (Gugler 2015; Taha 2021; Miller 2021; Shafik 2022), depictions of the physical environment have not received much attention. By attending to the cinematic depiction of Tunisian landscapes, this paper considers the way in which more-than-human ecologies have figured in the political dreams and disappointments of the past twelve years. It contributes to the growing body of work both on cinematic ecocriticism (Willoquet-Maricondi 2010; Rust, Monani, and Cubitt 2012; Birks 2021), and on art and media after the Arab uprisings. I will focus in particular on three films by Ala Eddine Slim, Akher Wahed Fina (The Last of Us) (2016), Tlamess (2019), and the documentary Babylon (2012), co-directed with Youssef Chebi and Ismaël. In these films, we see Tunisia’s dominant political concerns of the past twelve years transformed into explicitly environmental issues: a refugee camp arising from the desert on the Libyan border; empty construction sites; soldiers fighting a terrorist insurgency in the country’s forested northwest; a migrant alone in a fishing boat, floating on the Mediterranean Sea. Deploying little to no dialogue, extreme long shots, and long takes, Slim’s films foreground the physical environment over plot or character development. Two of his films, Akher Wahed Fina and Tlamess, end with the protagonists adopting a new life in the forest. I argue that these scenes constitute what Foucault calls a “heterotopia,” in that the forest acts as “a counter-site, a kind of effectively enacted utopia in which…all the other real sites that can be found within the culture, are simultaneously represented, contested, and inverted.” In these mythic, quasi-unreal scenes, the protagonists’ intimate, even intersubjective contact with the forest gives rise to a sensation of freedom. This suggests that in the postrevolutionary era, freedom is defined not only by one’s relationship to the political landscape, but to the natural landscape as well.
  • Major earthquakes in the Maghrib (in Algeria, Orléansville/el Asnam in 1954 and 1980, or in Morocco, Agadir in 1960) figure in a number of literary works from the region, but previous scholarship focused on the metaphorical and circumstantial aspects of earthquake representations, rather than the direct relationship between writing and seismic events (Segalla, 2020). This paper integrates earthquakes into the developing fields of Maghribi ecocriticism and environmental history (Davis, 2007; Davis and Burke, 2011) by treating seismicity as a constitutive element of the mutual interactions of environment and society that, from the habitation, design, and regulation of built environments to everyday discourse and aesthetic production, defines the region’s political ecology. For literary ecocriticism drawing on the concept of language materialism, which holds that linguistic utterances become meaningful relative to their material conditions, seismicity represents both an extreme and an everyday part of Maghrebi environments. Through literary close readings of earthquake literature in tandem with historical sources, I identify language elicited by the bodily and terrestrial experience of sudden instability and uncontrolled movement that transforms shelter into exposure in an earthquake. This language, neither exclusively referential nor metaphorical persists in literature long after the event, where its diverse deployments articulate relationships between Maghribi environments and societies. I focus on Algerian writer al-Ṭāhir Waṭṭār’s 1974 novel Al-Zilzāl (translated by William Granara as The Earthquake, 2000), set in seismically-unstable Constantine, between the memory of a 1947 earthquake and the premonition of an impending quake to mark the end of days. The titular earthquake, I argue, is not a specific event. It is a latent, inhuman, destructive force at the crux of the novel’s moral economy. Waṭṭār’s narration confronts two different deployments of earthquake language in its depiction of Algerian lands and bodies. The protagonist, a corrupt and violent shaykh who is seeking to insulate his properties from the upheaval of government land reform, traverses the bustling urban landscape of Constantine, encountering a diverse population he disdains. Using the register of Qur’anic eschatology (El Shakry 2019), the shaykh envisions an earthquake as divine judgment upon the city. Side by side, however, the novel incorporates as free indirect discourse the tumult of voices emanating from the jostling bodies crowding Constantine’s streets. The shaykh’s body is left literally shaking with an earthquake language that he fails to understand in relation to his environment.