A curious thing about so-called peripheries is they tend to encompass the lived experience of most of the people in the world today. It is only through a hegemonic perspective—one emanating from and enacted in “centers” of power by the Lord Curzons of a century ago and the President Erdoğans of today—that populations and spaces are deemed to live outside of an imagined core.
In his 2005 book, Planet of Slums, the late historian and social theorist Mike Davis pointed out a simple fact. Improvised urban settlements (slums, shanty towns, squatting, etc.) are far from a negligible side effect of modern capitalist development. Such spaces have become the prevailing environment in which most humans construct their livelihoods. More recently, geographer Teo Ballvé, drawing on his extensive fieldwork in Colombia, has argued that peripheral borderlands are not pre-given spaces. The “frontier” is made at the intersection of local, state and global practices and flows. If intellectual and physical labor is required to make and maintain margins, peripheries, borderlands and frontiers, then rethinking these spatial and material conditions is required to upend and unmake them as well.
The contributions to the winter issue of Middle East Report take up this challenge by critically examining a range of ostensible peripheries and borderlands within North Africa and the Middle East. Indeed, this region as a whole—what Edward Said understood as an “imaginative geography”— has itself been variously framed and treated as both central and peripheral to world affairs since its inception as an imperial idea in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. As Matthew Ellis examines in his contribution to this issue, an enduring trope in political analyses of the region is one of chronic instability rooted in the alleged artificiality of borders drawn by the hands of Europeans. But looking to the actual histories and struggles of the people living along borderlands, such as the emergent frontier between Egypt and Libya during the collapse of the Ottoman empire, reveals a more intricate story. Local stakeholders—not just central states or foreign empires—were a driving force in the elaboration of new lines in the sand.
The centrality of peripheries in the making of modern states, markets and identities could equally be witnessed in the Ottoman Empire’s ambivalence toward the region of the Jazira in the waning imperial decades. Samuel Dolbee traces Ottoman administrators in the Jazira as they struggled to tame what they viewed as ungovernable spaces (deserts) and the people who dwelled there (nomads). Their efforts to centralize a periphery were often undermined by their social and geographical preconceptions of the region—preconceptions that continue to inform Turkish foreign policy toward Syria today.
Historically and in the present, peripheries and borderlands call into question the seeming totality and power of the state as well as the myth of separate-but-equal sovereignty imposed globally after World War II. As Max Gallien argues, looking to North and West Africa, the Maghrib’s resistance to neoliberal pressures to integrate politically and economically in recent decades has fostered a rich political-economy of informal trade across and within its countries. But in the post-9/11 and post-2011 eras, the center has begun to falter. States across North Africa feel they can no longer afford to turn a blind eye to their peripheries, whether internal peripheries or those at the margins of their international frontiers. New discourses and practices of counterterrorism and border security have severely disrupted established livelihoods across the region, setting into motion a permanent crisis of mutually reinforcing economic dispossession and coercive state penetration. These dynamics—and resistance to them—are scalar, appearing at the regional but also the neighborhood level, as Najib Hourani and Safa Rawashdeh document in their analysis of displacement from and reconstruction of the Syrian city of Douma.
The Sahel region—the belt of savanna lands on the southern edge of the Sahara Desert— offers perhaps the most vivid demonstration of how these dynamics have played out in recent decades. The US-led securitization of the Sahel, starting in 2003, disrupted local economies of survival and legitimized otherwise insignificant Islamist insurgents seeking to create a new front of resistance to regional tyranny and North Atlantic global dominance. Having embedded themselves in informal trans-Saharan economic networks, these insurgents received a boost in materiel and personnel following the collapse of the Libyan state in 2011 at the behest of NATO-backed rebels, with arms flooding the Sahara. Regional disruptions intersected explosively with long-standing patterns of discontent and rebellion in Northern Mali. Soon the whole of Northern Mali fell under the grip of an “Islamic State,” triggering a French military intervention in early 2013 to rescue Paris’s client regime in Bamako. Fast forward a decade and those French soldiers have seemingly been replaced by Russian military contractors from the infamous Wagner Group. This changing of the guard in the Sahel, Hannah Armstrong writes, has as much to do with the increasing presence of Russian security interests in the region as with the adamant failure of French troops and Algerian diplomats to do anything but exacerbate intercommunal tensions.
The peripheralizing effects of the global “War on Terror”—from Somalia to the Sahel—can likewise be witnessed in the war in Yemen, where journalist Mohammed Al-Qadhi sketches a portrait of Taiz. This city, located far from either of the county’s historical capitals, has been the most protracted center of conflict in the eight years of war. As Al-Qadhi argues, despite its continued peripheralization, the struggle over Taiz remains a central—if not the central—barrier to peacemaking.
The contributions to this issue also look beneath the surface of so-called cores and peripheries to examine the movement of people and goods from the bottom up. Following the pathways of gold from artisanal mines in Mali—some of which are located in the transnationally securitized regions discussed above—to jewelry shops in Dubai, Bruce Whitehouse shows how a confluence of UN peacekeepers, mercenaries, narcotraffickers, gold smugglers, climate change, international regulations and non-existent state enforcement mechanisms result in the continued impoverishment of the Sahel periphery. Discussing his award-winning book Black Markets and Militants: Informal Networks in the Middle East and Africa, Khalid Mustafa Medani similarly takes a bottom-up approach to an analysis of the micro-practices of Sudanese migrant laborers in Egypt. Medani’s conversation with Noora Lori touches on the everyday involvement of workers in informal and illegal markets, how Islamist movements have been embedded in these networks and the resultant reinforcement of regional and global neoliberal systems of production and domination.
Foregrounding the agency of populations at the periphery, as well as efforts of states and “centers” to control these spaces, sheds light on evolving power relations within and beyond the Middle East and North Africa.
Read the first article in MER issue 305 “Peripheries and Borderlands.”