Environmental Imaginaries of the Middle East and North Africa

Edited by Diana K. Davis and Edmund Burke III
Afterword by Timothy Mitchell

“This well-edited volume can be helpful both for scholars who would like to focus on particular geographic areas of the Middle East and North Africa, and for those interested in a wider view of this region’s history. By questioning dichotomies built by ‘orientalist’ and ‘postcolonial’ scholars alike, the articles gathered in this volume offer a fresh and unusual perception of the region and its history during the past two hundred years. Taking into account the fact that the environment is always a human one, these questions should be asked not only by environmental historians, but by sociologists, anthropologists, and—even more important—political activists in this region as well. It is essential for understanding what is going on there.”


Environment at the Margins profitably engages the ecocritical idea that authoritative stories and suggestive stories work together as society-wide, discursive wholes.”

Journal of Historical Geography

“(T)he collection contributes as much to research on orientalism, imperialism, and nationalism as to environmental studies. Nevertheless, it is the focus on the natural world that keeps the work grounded and takes it into new terrains, literally and metaphorically…. It should serve as a useful corrective to uncritical declensionist accounts of the region still found in world environmental histories.”

American Historical Review

“These outstanding essays create new pathways for applying Edward Said‘s foundational thesis of Orientalism to nature and environment in the Middle East and North Africa over three centuries to the present. Summing Up: Highly recommended.”


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.

Contributors: Samer Alatout, Edmund Burke III, Shaul Cohen, Diana K. Davis, Jennifer L. Derr, Leila M. Harris, Alan Mikhail, Timothy Mitchell, Priya Satia, Jeannie Sowers, and George R. Trumbull IV

Diana K. Davis is an associate professor of history at the University of California at Davis. She has published in Environmental History, Geoforum, Cultural Geographies, the Journal of Arid Environments, and Secheresse. She is the author of Resurrecting the Granary of Rome: Environmental History and French Colonial Expansion in North Africa.

Edmund (“Terry”) Burke III is a research professor of history at the University of California at Santa Cruz. He is the author of numerous books, including Genealogies of Orientalism: History, Theory, Politics, edited with David Prochaska.

Table of Contents

  • List of Illustrations
  • Preface by Edmund Burke III
  • Acknowledgments
  • Introduction. Imperialism, Orientalism, and the Environment in the Middle East
    History, Policy, Power, and Practice
    Diana K. Davis
  • 1. “A Rebellion of Technology”
    Development, Policing, and the British Arabian Imaginary
    Priya Satia
  • 2. Restoring Roman Nature
    French Identity and North African Environmental History
    Diana K. Davis
  • 3. Body of Work
    Water and Reimagining the Sahara in the Era of Decolonization
    George R. Trumbull IV
  • 4. From the Bottom Up
    The Nile, Silt, and Humans in Ottoman Egypt
    Alan Mikhail
  • 5. Drafting a Map of Colonial Egypt
    The 1902 Aswan Dam, Historical Imagination, and the Production of Agricultural Geography
    Jennifer L. Derr
  • 6. Remapping the Nation, Critiquing the State
    Environmental Narratives and Desert Land Reclamation in Egypt
    Jeannie Sowers
  • 7. Salts, Soils, and (Un)Sustainabilities?
    Analyzing Narratives of Environmental Change in Southeastern Turkey
    Leila M. Harris
  • 8. Hydro-Imaginaries and the Construction of the Political Geography of the Jordan River
    The Johnston Mission, 1953–56
    Samer Alatout
  • 9. Environmentalism Deferred
    Nationalisms and Israeli/Palestinian Imaginaries
    Shaul Cohen
  • Afterword
    Timothy Mitchell
  • Contributors
  • Index

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In Series

Series in Ecology and History

Related Subjects

World History · African History · Environmental Policy · Environmental History · Global Issues · African Studies · Middle East · Northern Africa



Retail price: $29.95, S.
Release date: Feb. 2013
280 pages
Rights: World


Retail price: $59.95, S.
Release date: Nov. 2011
280 pages · 6 × 9 in.
Rights: World


Release date: Nov. 2011
≅ 280 pages
Rights: World

Additional Praise for Environmental Imaginaries of the Middle East and North Africa

“This volume goes far beyond the current work in ‘colonial studies’ which tends to discuss ‘imperial visions and imaginings’ without grappling with the much more important issue: how these colonial visions of other peoples and other landscapes were instrumentalized on the ground in ways that drastically affected real people’s daily lives and livelihoods—and the nature of postcolonial states and societies.”

Julia Clancy-Smith, author of Mediterraneans: North Africa and Europe in an Age of Migration, c. 1800–1900

“Perhaps in no other region of the globe has the environment been so central to its constitution and history than the Middle East. If nature has come to define the Arab-Islamic world, what are the historic forms and tropes through which this naturalization has been achieved and how has the environment become an object of knowledge? What are the imaginaries which shape our understandings of the region’s environment and why have they had such tenacity and durability? These questions are central to this excellent and path-breaking collection of provocative papers which address the complex cultural, political, scientific, and biophysical ways in which, for example, oil, the nomad, the desert, and so on are built into compelling and efficacious environmental narratives, policies, and practices. An exemplary political ecology of the MENA region.”

Michael Watts, University of California, Berkeley