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Climate, Water, and Ecology

Session XI-08, 2022 Annual Meeting

On Sunday, December 4 at 8:30 am

Panel Description
  • By the late nineteenth century, the city of Ismailia in the Isthmus of Suez was dubbed the “emerald city.”1 Ismailia is located strategically halfway along the Suez Canal, between Port Said and Suez, and on Lake Timsah in Eastern Egypt. While the Suez Canal provided the economic and diplomatic raison d’être for Ismailia’s establishment, the city’s life and development depended on the fresh water canals built at the same time, bringing water from the Nile River to Ismailia, and used for horticulture, the city’s inhabitants, or transferred via other new canals to Suez and to Port Said. These canals also enabled the development of new green urban spaces on both poles of the canal: Zamalek in Cairo and Ismailia along the Suez Canal. Yet the “greening” of the desert was not simply about creating modern, livable cities. The infrastructure built by and for the Suez Canal Company itself—the freshwater and maritime canals, the railway and tramway lines, and water treatment plants—also relied upon the investment into agricultural research and the strategic acclimatization, transportation, and planting of trees. The research they sponsored sought solutions to silting, water evaporation, wind, and heat—problems which had led many canals built under Mehmet Ali to fall into disuse by the mid-nineteenth century.2 This paper argues that the politics of “greening the desert” was not only a rhetorical strategy to assert civilizational superiority, to inspire imaginations, or to draw workers and tourists to these cities, but also about the very practical and material need of the Company to maintain the infrastructure upon which it was founded, and was connected to broader commercial, agricultural interests. 3 Through the lens of the Suez Canal Company, this paper thus aims to draw connections between urban and rural landscapes, and between ideals or rhetoric about green space and the commercial interests of agro-scientific research. Using primarily the correspondences, printed materials, and photographs from the Suez Canal Company archives, writings by employees, and agricultural journals from the time, this paper will shed light on the Company’s and their employees’ interests in agricultural research and experimentation in the Isthmus of Suez in the mid to late nineteenth century.
  • In the beginning of Yousef Al-Sibai’s novel Al-Saqqa Mat (The Water Carrier is Dead), we follow a water carrier named Shousha, accompanied by his son, on his rounds in the quarter of El-Hosayneya in Cairo. First, he stops at the local water company standpipe to fill up his goat skins. He has several to fill and load onto his two-wheeled pushcart. In contrast to Shousha, the new tap attendant is a silly man who twirls his mustaches and never moves far from his seat next to the tap. Shousha is unimpressed. This man has never carried a skin in his life, nor filled a zir. He knows nothing of the craft of the water carrier. Prior to the founding of the first corporate water company in Cairo in 1865, the water carrier was the primary water infrastructure of Egypt. Investment in pipes, pumping stations and other facilities of water infrastructure modernization soon after seemed to herald the decline of manual water carrying. But water infrastructure modernization was uneven, and water carriers remained an essential part of urban life well into the twentieth century. Despite this, the water carrier remains largely unstudied. This is a considerable oversight, as the water carrier is vital to the history of water infrastructure modernization in urban Egypt. In this paper, I follow the flow of water on the back of the water carrier. Following the water carrier provides us with a history of water in modern cities that brings forward the contingent, manual, and human nature of infrastructure. It disrupts the assumption of infrastructure as manufactured and discrete object: cold, commercial, static, and passive. The water carrier delineates infrastructure as a space made and remade, a series of structures converging piecemeal, patched, and requiring maintenance, a place of persistent human effort and labor. Infrastructure is thus a space of perpetual ambivalence, and the water carrier’s necessary place within it highlights fractures in the modernity project. Indeed, photographs of water carriers in line at standpipes disrupt the monolith of modernity as infrastructure becomes a place (and space) to wait, as much as to move.
  • This paper addresses a lacuna in the field of modern Egyptian history concerning state-society relations in communities bordering bodies of water. Traditionally, historiography on Egypt in the 19th and 20th centuries focuses primarily on the peasant and, to a lesser extent, the Bedouin populations of Egypt. I study the formation of modern state sovereignty during the Khedival and Colonial periods of Egyptian history in the 19th and early 20th centuries in the northeastern lake of Manzala and northwestern lake of Burullus, paying attention to relations between fishing villages and the urban centers of Damietta and Alexandria. I look at attempts by different state institutions — the private estate of Khedive ‘Abbas Hilmi II (Daira Khassa), the Interior Ministry, and the Egyptian Coastguard — as well as private entities such as European companies and large endowments (waqfs) in controlling the mobility and labor of fishermen. Rather than viewing the formation of state sovereignty as a top-down process, I pay attention to how the State, as a layered and fragmented entity, inserted itself into a regional political economy that was centered around a system of exchange between several commodities — fish, salt, and cannabis (hashish). This exchange system rested on a transregional smuggling network, through which Egyptian fishermen partnered with Bedouin barley farmers and salt smugglers in the hinterland of Alexandria, as well as with hashish smugglers through Ottoman and Greek territories in the Eastern Mediterranean. On a broader note, this is a study of the everyday interaction of Egyptian subjects with bodies of water, as I also pay attention to their affective geographies around lakes, ponds, and seashores.
  • In September 1959, Lebanese president, Fuad Shehab, signed an agreement with Louis-Joseph Lebret. Lebret was the founder of the Institut international de recherche et de formation en vue du développement harmonisé (IRFED), a Paris-based institution set up to provide technical expertise to developing nations. During its Lebanese mission, IRFED conducted a series of studies that formed the basis for a set of comprehensive development projects in Lebanon. These beginnings became a critical turning point in Francophone development politics as Lebanese experiences came to shape how experts and politicians viewed regional versus urban development. Put simply, this was the critical moment fueling the turn to regional planning. I investigate French and Lebanese collaboration on state development and social welfare projects in rural Lebanon from 1958 to 1970. During his presidency, aided by French experts, Shehab sought to implement infrastructure and welfare projects to bridge socioeconomic disparities between the developed urban coast and the poorer rural interior. Shehab believed that economic inequality and lack of state outreach inflamed sectarian and class tensions between citizens, leading to the Civil War of 1958. I look at how the state designed and implemented projects; how communities at the site of development perceived them; and how these plans and the reactions they engendered influenced global discourses of development and planning. My work contributes to two key research lines. The first is in Lebanese historical accounts of postcolonial Lebanon.The current historiography of Lebanon focuses on its pre-nation state Ottoman roots, or its period of French colonial rule (1920-1943). Rarely do historians investigate Lebanese social and economic structures in the post-independence era and rely even less on Lebanese state records, while the scholarship remains Beirut-centric. By using recently uncovered Lebanese documents from agencies like the ministries of General Planning, Industry, and Agriculture, my research looks at Lebanon after its independence, during the years of heightened nation building, while focusing on planning at Lebanon's peripheries. The second, is in larger development histories. By highlighting the role of on-the-ground politics and the actions of state and non-state actors in Lebanon, I show that development is made, not by experts sitting in tall buildings of international organizations, but in the specifics of every city, region, and country. I also emphasize the importance of debates in Francophone development work given the focus on Anglophone development in the literature.
  • Nineteen years since the 2003 invasion and occupation of Iraq, and thirty-two years since the beginning of the 1990–91 Gulf War, legislation has been introduced in US Congress that would remove the “burden of proof” to “establish a direct connection” between certain health conditions and exposure to toxins in numerous overseas conflicts for US military veterans seeking benefits from the US Department of Veterans Affairs (VA). Veterans who were deployed to Iraq as part of either the “Global War on Terror” or Gulf War would become eligible for VA benefits for listed diseases. An obvious—though neglected—question lingers: If the dangers of wartime toxic exposure for US veterans who were deployed to Iraq are finally being acknowledged, what about Iraqi civilians, for whom toxic exposure was not part of temporary deployment overseas, but rather an ongoing and tormenting daily reality? Toxic contaminants that were introduced to Iraq by the US military include burn pits and depleted uranium (DU) weapons. The severity of toxic living in Iraq renders an existing framework of toxic exposure insufficient. Exposure suggests forced contact with toxic substances. In Iraq, people are not merely exposed but are rather drenched or saturated for years in inescapable conditions of confinement in which their health is constantly under siege. Using a concept I identify as “toxic saturation,” in this paper I demonstrate the urgent need for the US government to address ongoing environmental injustice in Iraq. Now that reform is underway for the compensation of US veterans, what about cleanup and reparations for Iraqi civilians? What about justice for Iraqis, who have been subjected to ceaseless toxic saturation with no escape? My research draws from interviews with experts including Sinan Antoon, Iraqi novelist and scholar; Mozhgan Savabieasfahani, environmental toxicologist and co-author of a groundbreaking study about birth defects in Iraqi children; and others. Works by authors including Omar Dewachi, Kali Rubaii, Hannah Arendt, Antony Anghie, Aimé Césaire, Rachel Carson, and Helen Caldicott are analyzed. I also address recent developments in international law, including the Nuclear Weapons Treaty, entered into force in 2021, in the context of the argument that the Gulf War was “the second nuclear war” in history after the bombings of Hiroshima and Nagasaki (Caldicott 1999). I look at toxic saturation’s historical impacts on civilians in Vietnam and Japan, analyzing the pattern of the US government’s lack of adequate reparations for victims of war toxicity.