Alan Mikhail, ed., Water on Sand: Environmental Histories of the Middle East and North Africa (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012).
This fascinating volume provides an excellent overview of how environmental perspectives can enrich Middle East studies, thanks to contributions from leading scholars in the fields of global environmental and Middle East history. Chapters range in time from the medieval to the contemporary periods and in space from the French and Ottoman empires to the borderlands of the Eurasian steppe.
In a variety of clear and engaging styles, the contributors analyze the interplay of ecology with political practice, technological innovation and cultural understanding. They bring to light how the vast majority of the region’s inhabitants lived and died, providing a useful corrective to elite-focused histories. Nomads, fishermen and, notably, the victims of plague, famine and drought are given their rightful place in history. The more contemporary chapters illuminate the often-obscured roles that colonial park authorities, geologists, American water and oil experts, and World Bank staff play in the exercise of state power.
Thorny theoretical questions are explicit in early chapters by J. R. McNeill, Richard Bulliet and Sam White, which take a longue durée approach. McNeill observes that all regional environments have distinctive features that shape trajectories of economic, political and social change. In the Middle East and North Africa, these “eccentricities” include the interpenetration of land and sea, the resulting island-like pattern of settlement, the predominance of semi-arid grasslands, the lack of coal, and the abundance of animal labor and, of course, oil and natural gas. Bulliet seeks to explain some of the divergence between the Middle East and Europe with the relative costs of animal energy and water-driven mills. In Europe, he argues, the cost of animal power steadily increased after the twelfth century as human population growth meant that farmers earned greater returns from food crops than fodder for livestock. Costly grazing prompted the widespread adoption of water mills, and the rise of an entrepreneurial class of millers, both important elements of early industrialization. In the Middle East, by contrast, donkeys, camels, horses and oxen remained cheap and plentiful workers, since grazing rights were free. White similarly argues that the long “decline” of the Ottoman Empire vis-à-vis rival states can only be understood in the context of severe climatic changes that contributed to famine, disease and rebellion. He focuses on the long-term impact of repeated droughts and cold weather during the Little Ice Age from the late sixteenth to the early eighteenth centuries, which devastated crops, herds and human settlements in many Ottoman provinces.
Alan Mikhail’s comprehensive, well-annotated opening chapter points to how non-human actors can shape historical processes. In this vein, authors in the collection bring fresh interpretations to well-trodden subject areas. Nancy Reynolds revisits the construction of the Aswan High Dam through the prism of physical manipulation of rock by different communities over time and political uses of geographic expertise. Mikhail highlights the conjuncture of natural disaster and human-animal interaction in the spread of terrible disease, such as the 1791 plague in Cairo, where torrential rains and flash floods forced rats and humans into proximity and destroyed arable land and warehoused food stocks, resulting in famine and weakened bodily resistance. As suggested by Bulliet, however, domesticated animals are the most significant non-human actors in Middle Eastern history. Arash Khazeni shows how the tough, fleet horses bred by Turkmen tribes enabled them to conduct slave raids and unsettle imperial efforts at projecting power onto the steppes. There was a literary genre dedicated to horses and horsemanship under the Mughal, Safavid and Qajar dynasties.
Chapters on modern periods demonstrate that colonial and post-colonial state resource management was central to the consolidation of bureaucratic power and the attendant exclusion and dispossession. In North Africa, Diana Davis writes, French authorities enclosed large tracts of land in national parks, justifying the displacement of the locals on the grounds that their sheep and goats contributed to “deforestation” and “overgrazing.” Such assertions continue to underpin land use policies in Algeria, Tunisia and Morocco, though local ecologies are in fact long adapted to transhumant animal foraging. Toby Jones identifies control over water (and not just oil) as central to the success of the Saudi royal family and their American advisers in consolidating power on the peninsula. Jessica Barnes traces how expert debates around a land reclamation project in Egypt reflected conflicting bureaucratic and political imperatives. The resulting “compromises” in project design could not compensate for the physical lack of water. Karim Makdisi provocatively argues that the marginalization of the Lebanese Shi‘a was environmental as well as political and economic, and thus reinterprets their social mobilization as an “environmentalism of the poor” comparable to that documented elsewhere in the developing world.
In sum, this collection is richly rewarding for students, specialists and general readers interested in understanding the Middle East and North Africa in comparative and historical perspective.