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  • "Heaven is Green":The Ecoglobalism of Refugee Desert Gardens
  • Yasmine Shamma (bio)

There's a place between two stands of trees where the grass grows uphilland the old revolutionary road breaks off into shadowsnear a meeting-house abandoned by the persecutedwho disappeared into those shadows.

("What Kinds of Times are These," Adrienne Rich)

There are ways in which the relationship between ecopolitics and migration will come to be further understood by the scholars and policy makers in the coming years, as the world begins to grapple with the extent of climate refugees and mass migration caused by environmental disasters in the era of climate change. Indeed, ecocritic Lawrence Buell links the emergence of ecoglobalism with economic modernization, explaining that "The emergence of U.S. ecoglobal imagination is symbiotic with the history of economic modernization," while also expressing an awareness that such linking risks leading to "capitalism-bashing (which blocks one from understanding how a 'responsible' ecoglobalism might arise as a messily partial yet partially honorable reaction against the conquest mentality itself)" (232). Buell gestures towards the slipperiness of such terms which inherently respond, in the case of Buell's work on American literature, to American settlement as a "culture of economic entrepeneurialism" (232); my own work with Buell's phrase "ecoglobalism" draws on its transnational [End Page 321] potential, as Buell offers a definition that reaches towards the implications of engagements with the physical environment, which, though site specific, is also inherently global. Or, more succinctly, I am interested in how one in "times like these" might, as Adrienne Rich puts it in her poem, "talk of trees."

Buell explains:

By "ecoglobalist affect" I mean, in broadest terms, an emotion-laden preoccupation with a finite, near-at-hand physical environment defined, at least in part, by an imagined inextricable linkage of some sort between that specific site and a context of planetary reach. Either the feel of the near-at-hand or the sense of its connection to the remote may be experienced as either consoling or painful or both. Diaspora can feel wrenching and liberatory by turns.


Buell is not the first to suggest the romantic implications of the wandering diasporic subject, before moving away from the implicitly understood complications of such romanticizing—that is, that the pastoral tradition, which Romanticism engages with, is arguably also a colonial tradition. What interests me here, though, is that the diasporic subject is the first example Buell reaches for, when describing what a lived-in ecoglobalism in action might come to mean. In my experience interviewing refugees of the Syrian migration crisis in the refugee camps of Jordan, I have found that the reverse happens frequently enough, too. That is, when diasporic subjects begin to discuss their wandering, they reach for examples of the unnaturalness of such wandering in discussions of things like trees that frequently take a spiritual turn towards imaginings of edenic landscapes.

In a 2019 interview on a late-night Arabic talk show, the Amal Program, a popular actor and comedian was invited to talk about the ongoing Syrian refugee crisis, and to my surprise, he too began talking of trees.1 The actor, Durraid Lahham, has been outspoken in his support of Bashar al Asad and unique in his decision to stay in Damascus throughout the entirety of the recent crisis and conflict in Syria. During the episode, the presenter asks why a public personality with the financial resources and professional mobility of Lahham would choose to stay in their country "during all the hard times." [End Page 322]

Lahham responds: "My dear, the days are very hard when one is not at peace with oneself. No, I am at peace with myself." He then invokes the Quran, citing a passage in which the sacred places which the three main prophets lived in or passed through are offered as emblems of "the fig, the olives, and Mount Sinai" (Abraham, Jesus, and Mohammad). As is customary with religious citations, the calling up of this verse evokes both an innocence and an austerity; a vulnerability and an authority. The audience and presenter, in this situation, are not fazed by the political implications of Islam, as throughout...


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