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Slow Violence and the Environment in the Middle East: Reflections on Teaching

Mellow Sawyer seminar Postdoctoral Fellow Vasiliki Touhouliotis reflects on teaching a new course at the intersection of Middle East Studies and the Environmental Humanities at Washington University in St. Louis

The area known as the ‘Middle East’ has long been imagined by Western states, corporations, experts, and artists as a forbidding or degraded landscape inhabited by unruly peoples prone to senseless violence. More recently, as the region experiences and anticipates some of the worst effects of climate change with summer temperatures rising twice as fast as global averages, international governing agencies and humanitarian organizations have once again turned to blame environmental degradation and mismanagement as the driver of violent conflict and the massive displacement of human lives. This is epitomized, for example, in the widely circulated narrative that holds climate change and drought responsible for the war in Syria and for the mass exodus of people from the region more broadly. Building on earlier environmental imaginaries, Middle Eastern environments today are being rendered legible globally almost exclusively through the logic of security as their unlivability is turned into a “problem” for Europe and North America, justifying and propelling a deadly and debilitating regime of camps, walls, and police.

In “Slow Violence and the Environment,” a new course I designed and taught during the spring 2018 semester in the Department of Jewish, Islamic, and Near Eastern Languages and Cultures at Washington University in St. Louis, I sought to take a different approach to the environment and violence in the Middle East. Developed in the context of the “Grounding the Ecocritical” Mellon Sawyer Seminar and shaped by its critical interrogation of the term “wasteland,” my course examined the kinds of environments, both natural and social, produced by ongoing (post)colonial, capitalist, state, and humanitarian political projects across the Middle East.

Following scholarship in postcolonial theory, my students and I tracked how ideas about racial hierarchies, discourses of ungovernability, and orientalist environmental imaginaries together produce “sacrifice zones” of disposable people and places across the Middle East. We surveyed techniques of violence such as aerial surveillance and bombing, fossil fuel extraction, afforestation and desalination, segregated labor camps and settlements, and the toxic weapons that have definitively transformed Middle Eastern environments and what it means to inhabit them. Moving away from the assumption that violence is always immediate and spectacular, we drew on the concept of “slow violence” developed by literary and postcolonial studies scholar Rob Nixon to apprehend the multiple temporalities and the layered histories of violence in the region. Indeed, slow violence offered us a conceptual framework for understanding how a phenomenon like the air pollution caused by the U.S. military’s burning of trash in Iraq and Afghanistan constitutes part of the violence of war that belatedly injures and debilitates both people and their environments long after the withdrawal of troops.

At the same time, another goal of my course was to impart to my students a strong sense of how the very places dubbed wastelands—from the deserts turned oil fields of the Arabian Peninsula, to the bombed-out streets of Baghdad and Aleppo—are inhabited, represented in local idioms, and turned into sites from which to imagine and demand different futures. In other words, rather than focus exclusively on the official landscapes produced by occupying forces, extractive corporations, or even ostensibly apolitical humanitarians, we also turned to literature, film, art, and first-person testimonies to understand the vernacular landscapes that contest and refute them.

Indeed, in contrast to the barrenness that many westerners assume about the deserts of Arabia, our reading of writer AbdelRahman Munif’s novel Cities of Salt reveals it as a place of dense social relations where the social, economic, and environmental practices that once flourished were violently disrupted and foreclosed by the extraction of oil. Further contesting the myth of the desert as a wasteland, Munif shows the tactics—ranging from calculated destruction of oil company property to organized labor strikes—by which fossil fuel extraction was resisted. Oday Rasheed’s poignant film Underexposure with which we ended the semester similarly contests an official landscape of Baghdad as divided between insurgent and counterinsurgent forces, or as the site for a humane and liberatory militarism. Filmed on expired film shortly after the US invasion of 2003, Underexposure—which, as my students astutely pointed out, suggests both a shadowy darkness and the condition of being totally exposed—gives a detailed sensory account of the early days of the US occupation. Amidst the unrelenting sound of mortars, sirens, gun fire, and honking cars, a group of filmmakers struggles to document the destruction—at once material, social, and psychic—that not only overwhelms their representational tools but threatens to negate the very capacity to create art. And yet, the filming continues as Baghdad fills with death and wounds, as the Tigris river fills with plastic bags, and as the streets fill with rubble. “This is not a film,” the narrator declares, but “what dreams and memories leave behind.”

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