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Constructing, Shifting and Breaching Borders

Panel XIII-08, 2022 Annual Meeting

On Sunday, December 4 at 1:30 pm

Panel Description
  • The Persian Gulf is one of the world’s most critical strategic and economic regions. Since the establishment of international trade routes throughout the Indian Ocean region – extending as far south as Madagascar and as far east as Indonesia – control over who, what and how much passes north of the tip of Oman, through the narrow straits of Hormuz has been perpetually contested. Of arguably equal significance are the cities that dot the surrounding littoral regions, including, but not limited to those on the Iranian side, such as Bandar Bushehr. From the mid-18th century to the 1920s, Bushehr was the most important harbour city of Iran. Like other southern Iranian cities (such as Bandar Abbas and Hormuz), it did not come under direct Iranian rule until the mid-19th century. Despite its importance to an increasingly centralized Iranian state and foreign imperial powers, it has received considerably less academic attention. A vast and well-established body of scholarly works exists on modern Iranian history — particularly political and economic history since the Safavid period. However, few works are dedicated to Bushehr and among the few that have been written, many tend to examine it in the broader context of the southern littoral and Gulf economy. Those works also tend to use European archival sources almost exclusively while Persian-language sources housed in archives within Iran figure less prominently. Instead, this paper outlines a political and economic history of Bushehr using Iranian sources, including documents from the National Library and Archives in Tehran. Its central aim is to investigate Bushehr as a site of contestation between the Iranian government’s attempts to extend state power over the region and the British Residency’s efforts to undermine that power in the service of the broader aims of the India Office. The struggle for control over the region extended not only to trade and diplomacy, but also to local activities including to the politics and administration of the city. Thus, my paper includes a discussion of the efforts of the Iranian government to incorporate the region under its control through representatives to the national parliamentary council, through taxes and records and how the local population responded to these efforts. It tells this history from the point-of-view of different Iranian historical figures, including citizens, officials, intellectuals and nationalists. In doing so, it seeks to amplify Iranian voices within the historiography.
  • The incorporation of North African soldiers and veterans into the administrative apparatus of European empires in modern North Africa is a well-documented feature of colonial rule. This can easily seem to be an extension of the ongoing accommodation of some North African men with the political status quo. Such acts of accommodation, as Maghraoui writes of Moroccan colonial troops, were typically hailed and appropriated in colonial discourse, and condemned as collaboration or ignored by nationalist historiography, where a more nuanced account would land somewhere in between. Mohammed ben Driss (b. 1839) was one such individual whose life is a case study in imperial accommodation and the ambivalent histories of North African soldiery in European colonial armies. Born to an elite family near the eastern Algerian town of Biskra just after the French conquest, Ben Driss joined the spahis at 16, served in eastern Algeria, and won promotions for valiant service outside Paris during the Franco-Prussian War. He then participated in the suppression of a large anti-colonial revolt in the Algerian province of Constantine in 1871. In the aftermath, captain Ben Driss became agha of Touggourt, a Saharan oasis town, in 1872, a position which he held until 1879. The standard historical narrative of this peripheral figure has assumed his assimilation into the French colonial order: a spahi-turned-agha married to a European, Ben Driss was appointed and fired by the French, and naturalized as a French citizen in 1879. Yet during his rule, he embarked on an ambitious programme of political centralization and environmental transformation in the region around Touggourt. Furthermore, his appointment in 1872 could also be read as a French compromise with a powerful family network in a region where the imperial footprint was minimal. Laying out a new, revisionist biography of the spahi captain, this paper explores the ambiguous historical record of the Saharan borderlands of French Algeria after the end of the 1871 revolt. It reveals Ben Driss’ own observations about his political agenda as agha and his application, heretofore neglected, of new scientific knowledge to sanitary and economic challenges in the region, in addition to re-examining the archival record in light of published primary sources on the retired soldier’s reign that have gone unconsidered.
  • The Moroccan Eastern border region (namely L’Oriental) had been under state scrutiny and considered ‘useless’ (al-maghrib al-ghayr nafi’). This status was further reinforced by the border’s official closure in 1994 due to continuous diplomatic conflicts with Algeria. This conception of the periphery as “useless” was often depicted as one where state actors had limited control, thus allowing wide informal networks to structure and create order within the different communities inhabiting it. As Baduel proposes in his schema of the traditional state, ‘the periphery tends to escape continuously from the centre, which is not allowed by centrifugal powers to exert control in ways other than by recurrent negotiation, [and is] therefore in permanent tension with the peripheral forces’. This paper departs from these premises, and critically examines the relationship between centre and periphery in the Moroccan case. It does this by examining the recent creation of cooperatives as a means to alleviate poverty and to create employment at the borderland, particularly for the youth and women. In fact, between 2016, when both Morocco and Algeria started limiting smuggling activities, and 2021, an overall 570 cooperatives were created on the Moroccan side of the border with an allocated budget of roughly five million USD. Based on ethnographic fieldwork and semi-structured interviews with policymakers, cooperative owners, and borderland communities, I argue that cooperatives, largely portrayed as apolitical mechanisms, provide a platform for smallholders to address the dysfunctional socioeconomic effects of the border closure, particularly since the clampdown on smuggling activities in 2016. However, their creation remains a contested political process aimed at shaping borderland communities into docile and productive citizens. Their revival represents a ‘dramatic intensification of coercive, disciplinary forms of state intervention in order to impose market rule upon all aspects of social life’ (Brenner & Theodore 2002). This paper further argues this is a b/ordering process in which the formalisation of working-class populations enables the (re)production of hierarchies beyond the territorial border region through capital accumulation in both local and global centres. By examining state-cooperatives relations, this paper dislocates the centre/periphery dichotomy and offers a novel perspective on the bordering technologies that sustain, and are sustained by, the border. This view represents a move away from prior understandings of the borderland as solely produced by the geopolitical context and conflictual bilateral relations between Morocco and Algeria.
  • Between 1919 and 1932, Kuwait sat as the frontier for the expanding British Empire and Saudi state. These forces, manifested in British political agents and Ikhwan raids from the Arabian Peninsula threatened Kuwaiti sovereignty and security. This research focuses on the non-urban arid landscapes of the eastern Arabia as a site of international conflict and political intersection. Overlapping and competing conceptions of spheres of influence over the loosely controlled desert region created logistic and jurisdictional confusion. Drawing on sources from the British India Office Records and secondary scholarship, this paper argues that the overlapping frontiers of these growing political superstructures created ambiguity, confusion, and a disjointed political response which led to future territorial disputes. To achieve this argument, “Placing the Frontier“ details how the concept of the frontier changed the opinion of Kuwait’s neighbors toward the small coastal country. Aside from the British India Office Records, this research draws from scholarship on the nature of the Kuwait “frontier” by Frederick Anscombe, Anthony Toth, and Peter Sluglett, as well as material on the nature of space, place, and national identity formation in non-urban localities. The implementation of space and place theory in non-urban areas embraces the challenge of orienting the arid landscapes as the location of historic cultural and political interactions. Between the World Wars, Kuwait experienced the brunt of the political ambiguity surroundings its borders. As the frontier of two political systems expanding their territory in the region, the rural landscapes of east Arabia developed a fluid sense of place. Both professional and casual smugglers benefited from this jurisdictional unclarity which contributed to the concept of the unmonitored frontier. Through this research, “Placing the Frontier” explores the causes and ramifications of the “frontier” nature of southern Iraq and Kuwait during the early 20th century. The uncertainty over the border during this period later escalates into debates over the annexation of Kuwait by Iraq and the eventual invasion by Saddam Hussein.