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Environmental Imaginaries of the Middle East and North Africa

Diana K. Davis

Publication Year: 2011

The landscapes of the Middle East have captured our imaginations throughout history. Images of endless golden dunes, camel caravans, isolated desert oases, and rivers lined with palm trees have often framed written and visual representations of the region. Embedded in these portrayals is the common belief that the environment, in most places, has been deforested and desertified by centuries of misuse. It is precisely such orientalist environmental imaginaries, increasingly undermined by contemporary ecological data, that the eleven authors in this volume question.  This is the first volume to critically examine culturally constructed views of the environmental history of the Middle East and suggest that they have often benefitted elites at the expense of the ecologies and the peoples of the region. The contributors expose many of the questionable policies and practices born of these environmental imaginaries and related histories that have been utilized in the region since the colonial period. They further reveal how power, in the form of development programs, notions of nationalism, and hydrological maps, for instance, relates to environmental knowledge production. 

Published by: Ohio University Press

Title Page, Copyright

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pp. v-vi


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pp. vii

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pp. ix-xii

The modernist fables that underlie the developmentalist states of the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) have only recently begun to attract the attention of scholars in their own right. As French and British colonial fantasies of recovering the supposed agricultural productivity of Roman North Africa ...

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pp. xiii-xiv

Many debts are incurred during a collaborative project such as this. First and foremost, we would like to thank the contributors to the volume and Timothy Mitchell for writing the afterword. They are all exceedingly insightful, innovative, and accomplished scholars with whom it has been a genuine pleasure to work. ...

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Introduction: Imperialism, Orientalism, and the Environment in the Middle East: History, Policy, Power, and Practice

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pp. 1-22

Representations of the Middle East nearly inevitably include desolate scenes of empty and parched deserts, punctuated, perhaps, with a lonely string of camels, a verdant but isolated oasis, or a beach with large dunes of golden sand, sometimes with a pyramid, an oil derrick, or a minaret in the background. ...

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Chapter 1: “A Rebellion of Technology”: Development, Policing, and the British Arabian Imaginary

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pp. 23-59

We have inherited two contrasting images of Iraq. It is, on the one hand, the fertile crescent, the everlastingly prolific river valley, the very cradle of civilization; and, on the other, the archetypal wasteland, a barren desert of glaring sun and bleak horizons testifying at once to man’s and nature’s cruelty, ...

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Chapter 2: Restoring Roman Nature: French Identity and North African Environmental History

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pp. 60-86

French colonial occupation and expansion across North Africa in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries were closely connected with a widespread belief that the French were the heirs of Rome. Although the importance of the Roman legacy for several French colonial actions has been recognized, for example in the military, ...

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Chapter 3: Body of Work: Water and Reimagining the Sahara in the Era of Decolonization

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pp. 87-112

“If you knew the secrets of the desert, you would think like me; but you are ignorant of them, and ignorance is the mother of evil.”1 This supremely confident boast, attributed apocryphally to the celebrated Algerian intellectual, poet, and resistance leader, the Emir 'Abd al-Qâdir, illuminates the centrality ...

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Chapter 4: From the Bottom Up: The Nile, Silt, and Humans in Ottoman Egypt

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pp. 113-135

The Nile Delta and the Mediterranean have been pushing against each other for the past 10 million years since the river first began carrying dirt to the sea.1 For most of the last 7,500 years though, the Delta has enjoyed the upper hand. As the fifth-century B.C.E. Greek traveler and historian Herodotus sailed toward ...

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Chapter 5: Drafting a Map of Colonial Egypt: The 1902 Aswan Dam, Historical Imagination, and the Production of Agricultural Geography

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pp. 136-157

In December 1902, with much pomp and circumstance, Egypt’s British and Egyptian elite celebrated the completion of the first Aswan dam. The 1902 Aswan dam (Khazan Aswan) represented a dramatic new foray in the colonial government’s ability to manipulate the physical environment and allocate its most valuable resource. ...

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Chapter 6: Remapping the Nation,Critiquing the State: Environmental Narratives and Desert Land Reclamation in Egypt

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pp. 158-191

In 1998, the Mubarak regime announced that it would build the largest water-pumping station in the world, taking Nile water from behind the Aswan High Dam reservoir to irrigate portions of the southwestern desert. The government declared it would convert millions of acres from desert to arable land, transforming ...

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Chapter 7: Salts, Soils, and (Un)Sustainabilities?: Analyzing Narratives of Environmental Change in Southeastern Turkey

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pp. 192-217

Several thousand years after salinization led to the abandonment of irrigated agriculture among the early settlements of upper Mesopotamia, irrigation is emerging anew.1 With a host of technologies now available, and careful monitoring of soil and water conditions, planners and scientists are hopeful that a similar fate ...

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Chapter 8: Hydro-Imaginaries and the Construction of the Political Geography of the Jordan River: The Johnston Mission, 1953–56

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pp. 218-245

Shortly after the establishment of the state of Israel in 1948, disputes over unilateral plans for utilizing the Jordan River and its tributaries erupted between Israel and the riparian Arab states of Jordan, Lebanon, and Syria. Conflict became especially intense between Syria and Israel when the latter began construction ...

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Chapter 9: Environmentalism Deferred: Nationalisms and Israeli/Palestinian Imaginaries

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pp. 246-264

There are many different ways to think about environmentalism; it can be examined sociologically, politically, scientifically, and so on. Perhaps the most common themes in relation to Palestinian and Israeli environmental issues have to do with the overarching question of power and ideology,1 and to a lesser extent ...

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Afterward: Are Environmental Imaginaries Culturally Constructed?

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pp. 265-274

The modern history of the Middle East has always been the history of a human relationship with nature. The environment appears to define the Arab-Islamic world more than it does any other major region in world history. It is time to ask, as this book does, how this naturalized history came about. ...

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pp. 275-278

Samer Alatout is an associate professor in the Department of Community and Environmental Sociology, the Nelson Institute for Environmental Studies, the Graduate Program of Sociology, and the Department of Geography at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. He is also affiliated with the Holtz Center for Science ...


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pp. 279-286

E-ISBN-13: 9780821444252
Print-ISBN-13: 9780821419748

Publication Year: 2011

Research Areas


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Subject Headings

  • Middle East -- Environmental conditions.
  • Africa, North -- Environmental conditions.
  • Middle East -- Environmental conditions -- Historiography.
  • Human ecology -- Middle East -- History.
  • Human ecology -- Africa, North -- History.
  • Africa, North -- Environmental conditions -- Historiography.
  • Middle East -- Foreign public opinion, French.
  • Middle East -- Foreign public opinion, British.
  • France -- Colonies -- History.
  • Great Britain -- Colonies -- History.
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