Middle East Research and Information Project: Critical Coverage of the Middle East Since 1971

Human figures are carved into a dead cedar tree in the Lamartine section of the forest of cedars, Lebanon, 2008. Jamal Saidi/Reuters

The coronavirus pandemic vividly highlights the fundamental links between people, health and the environment. From theories of the virus’ animal origins and evidence that animal-human disease transmission is tied to habitat destruction, to emerging studies that indicate a link between air pollution and the risk of COVID-19 infections and deaths, the current moment underscores just how deeply entwined we are with the natural worlds in which we live.

This issue of Middle East Report on nature and politics probes these co-constituted relationships between people and their environments in the Middle East. The image above of the Cedar of Lebanon, which adorns Lebanon’s national flag, currency and government buildings, encapsulates the issue’s thematic focus. The tree’s signature horizontal branches frame the image, a deep green against the blue and white of a cloud-dappled sky. But the tree at the center is dead, like so many of Lebanon’s cedars. Decimated by cutting, plagued by disease and threatened by climate change, Lebanon’s cedar forests now cover only 17 square kilometers, a mere shadow of the thousands of square kilometers of forest that used to span the slopes of the Mount Lebanon range. This tree’s dead branches have been sculpted into figures by Lebanese artist Rudy Rahme, part of a larger artistic work that seeks to ensure that the story of these dead trees lives on.

The plight of the cedar tree and its precarious future mirror that of Lebanon: The country has been rocked by unrest since nationwide protests against political corruption began in October 2019, a social movement made even more urgent by the August 2020 explosion in Beirut’s port, the spread of the coronavirus, myriad environmental crises and collapse of the economy and currency. In Lebanon, participants in recent anti-government protests to address these and other issues carried cutouts of the cedar’s distinctive shape with al-sha‘b (the people) emblazoned on them. This majestic species captures not only the nation and its turmoil, but also the enduring ties between nature and politics.

Previous issues of Middle East Report provide insightful reflection on a range of environment-related concerns across the region, such as resource crises (Fuel and Water: The Coming Crises, Summer 2014), water scarcity (Running Dry, Spring 2010), intersections of gender, population and the environment (Gender, Population, Environment: The Middle East Beyond the Cairo Conference, September/October 1994) and food provisioning (Food and the Future, September/October 1990). In titling this issue “Nature and Politics” we build on these earlier works while also signaling a broader conceptualization of the environment as an important zone of political contestation and social life in the region. The articles in this issue encourage new ways of thinking beyond narratives of environment in the Middle East that frame nature merely as a source of resources around which conflicts emerge. They push for a reconsideration of questions of citizenship, infrastructure and futurity, while foregrounding the agentive and sometimes toxic qualities of ecological worlds.

The issue offers new takes on much-discussed issues of energy and water. An article by Zeynep Oguz looks at how oil in Turkey, a limited resource concentrated in the Kurdish-populated southeast, has been a medium through which both Turks and Kurds seek to stake their claims. Moulay Ahmed el Amrani, Atman Aoui and Karen Rignall’s analysis of solar power development in Morocco challenges the idea that renewable energy is inherently progressive by showing how this megaproject has buttressed exclusionary political regimes. Naoual Belakhdar’s article examines how anti-fracking protests in Algeria in 2014–2015 were entwined with larger questions of equality, social justice and citizenship and prepared the ground for the protest movement known as the Hirak, which began in 2019 and is ongoing. Kenan Bezhat Sharpe interviews filmmaker Can Candan about Turkey’s longstanding ambitions to develop nuclear power, despite growing opposition, and his ongoing film project, Nuclear alla Turca. A primer by Jessica Barnes offers an introduction to the key issue of water in the Middle East, laid out with graphics and downloadable as a PDF, which is designed to be of use to educators and students.

A related set of articles looks at how energy and water concerns in the region are being shaped by climate change, both in terms of changing temperature and precipitation patterns and efforts to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Jan Selby dismantles the simplistic argument that the Syrian civil war was partly caused by climate change induced drought, demonstrating how this trope obscures a deeper and long-term structural agrarian crisis in Syria and regime politics. Gökçe Günel reflects on the ways Masdar City, an eco-city in Abu Dhabi, has changed since 2006, when work initially began, and since 2010–2011, when she was conducting fieldwork there.

A third cluster of articles centers on questions of land. Kali Rubaii probes the toxic legacies of war in Iraq by examining how cascades of environmental degradation are tragically rendered visible in birth defects. Tessa Farmer interviews Sophia Stamatopoulou-Robbins about her new book Waste Siege: The Life of Infrastructure in Palestine (Stanford University Press, 2020), which investigates waste management in the absence of a state. A photo essay by Simone Popperl focuses on sinkholes in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, Israel and Jordan, questioning what happens when the terra part of the terra nullis foundation of settler colonialism becomes unstable.

Finally, whereas many accounts frame the environment purely as an arena of problems—pollution, landscape degradation, climate change—the word nature reminds us that the natural world can also be a source of wonder and pleasure. Bridget Guarasci opens up the world of bird markets and pigeon breeding in Jordan. Caterina Scaramelli explores the Turkish state’s efforts to conserve wetlands, showing how these interventions are linked to histories of wetland drainage and development and have not always served the interests of those whose homes and livelihoods are anchored in these diverse ecosystems.

Through these contributions, “Nature and Politics” offers a timely take on how various populations in the Middle East are interacting with the natural world and the multifaceted political and social dynamics surrounding those interactions. It sheds light, also, on the ways in which elements within the natural world—be they rivers, animals, sinkholes or toxins—act back upon society. In this sense, both “natural” and “political” worlds are transformed through their mutual engagements and entanglements.

 

[The editors of issue 296, “Nature and Politics,” are Jessica Barnes and Muriam Haleh Davis with guest editor Sophia Stamatopoulou-Robbins.]

 

How to cite this article:

The Editors of Issue #296 "Nature and Politics," Middle East Report 296 (Fall 2020).
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