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Slow Violence and the Environment in the Modern Middle East

Instructor: Dr. Vasiliki Touhouliotis
Spring 2017

Course Description:

While oil and violent conflict structure contemporary accounts and imaginaries of the Middle East, less attention is paid to the kinds of environments that capitalist extraction, imperialist ideologies, and militarized struggles over land and power produce in the Middle East and to the slow forms of violent they inflict on humans and non-humans alike. In this course, we ask: How
have ideas about Middle Eastern environments—as barren desert or as fertile crescent—given rise to particular kinds of violent practices, contaminated places, and degraded lives? In what ways has environmental transformation been both the target and effect of (post)colonial, capitalist, and state projects across the Middle East? And how do people actually inhabit,
represent, and resist these violent processes?

To answer these questions, we approach violence through postcolonial theorist Rob Nixon’s concept of slow violence. Against the assumption that violence is fast and spectacular, slow violence is the gradual and unevenly dispersed violence of global climate change, of fossil fuel dependency, and of toxic remnants of war. From the oil fields and desalination plants of Saudi
Arabia to the “blooming” desert of Israel to the dried up river beds of Syria and to the cluster bomb fields of Lebanon, we survey slow violence in the Middle East to understand the conditions that produced it, how it transforms the environment, and its racialized and gendered distributions. At the same time, we attend to the voices that inhabit the environments produced by slow violence to better understand how the multiple and overlapping temporalites of violence are lived in and the kinds of futures that are imagined and demanded.


As part of our exploration of questions about slow violence and the environment in the Middle East, students will critically analyze photographic, cinematic, and journalistic representations of the region throughout the semester. These will prepare students to produce a final photo essay on “times of violence” in which they will curate a set of images and use them to give an account of slow violence and the environment in the Middle East that departs from the mainstream accounts we have critically analyzed in class.

Image Credit: Ali Abdel Mohsen

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