Infrastructures of Belonging and Sectarianism in the Middle East

by Kyle Benedict Craig, Northwestern University

Dwelling in Conflict: Negev Landscapes and the Boundaries of Belonging, by Emily McKee (Stanford: Stanford University Press, 2016)

Seizing Jerusalem: The Architectures of Unilateral Unification, by Alona Nitzan-Shiftan (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2017)

Everyday Sectarianism in Urban Lebanon: Infrastructures, Public Services, and Power, by Joanne Randa Nucho (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 2016)

How does the built environment relate to processes of identity- and boundary-formation? The three books under review each offer rich case studies, drawn from research in the Middle East, of co-constitutive interactions between categories of identity and belonging and material processes. Together, they provide distinct and timely perspectives on ethnonationalism and the cultural politics of settler-colonialism, while turning to land, infrastructure, and architecture as starting points of inquiry.

Joanne Randa Nucho’s Everyday Sectarianism in Urban Lebanon traces the intersections between sectarian boundary making and infrastructure provision. The term “sectarianism” is often deployed as an explanation of violent conflicts between groups, invoking primordial attachments and immutable differences. It is the bogeyman responsible for all social and political unrest in the Middle East. Nucho presents an analytic corrective to this reductionism, showing that sectarian notions of belonging are deeply embedded within “the urban infrastructures and services provided and managed, in part, by institutions affiliated with sectarian parties and religious organizations, as well as municipalities and transnational organizations” (p. 4). Nucho argues that sectarianism is not a static or unchanging condition endemic to particular human societies, nor is it solely an outgrowth of religious affiliation. Rather, she shows that “membership in the sectarian community is relational: it is a node in a relational field” (p. 5). It is produced, affirmed, or reframed in everyday dialectics between social and material worlds.

Nucho’s ethnographic setting is Bourj Hammoud, a town northeast of Beirut which grew in the Mandatory period as French officials settled Armenian refugees there who were fleeing the Ottoman-perpetrated Armenian Genocide (1915-19). Many Armenians were eventually granted Lebanese citizenship, and built Bourj Hammoud into its current urban form. The Armenian Tashnag party maintains political dominance in the town, while being primarily responsible for infrastructure and social service provision. In addition, a network of nongovernmental organizations, churches, political parties, and community centers, which were founded in the initial period of settlement and were further consolidated during the Lebanese Civil War (1975-90), still function as key providers of social services.

The book traces the construction and mobilization of sectarian spaces and publics in Lebanon, by exploring three broad themes in this particular urban ethnographic context. First, Nucho examines sectarian conflict not as an always-present force within Bourj Hammoud, but rather as an affect that sits just below the surface, deployed to retroactively explain disputes between Armenians and other ethnic groups. According to Nucho, the collective memory of the Armenian genocide and the Lebanese Civil War imbue sectarian division with a kind of latency: its return is viewed as an inevitable reality. Second, Nucho examines the construction of the Armenian sectarian community through processes such as intra-sectarian credit and lending programs and urban property regimes, demonstrating how the logics of differential access to such services help to reinforce the boundaries of sectarian belonging. Third, the book investigates the multiscalar dynamics of sectarian infrastructure. Here Nucho details how Armenian residents of Bourj Hammoud leverage notions of community uplift to gain support from local and transnational NGOs for infrastructure projects. Throughout, Nucho demonstrates the emergent and processual, dynamics of sectarian inclusion and exclusion, rather than their primordial and a prior existence.

Emily McKee’s Dwelling in Conflict likewisehighlights the small, everyday practices that at once shape and respond to grand narratives about land ownership and national belonging. McKee’s ethnographic study takes place in the contested Negev/Naqab region, as it is known in Hebrew and Arabic, respectively. This region comprises the southern border of Israel, and was annexed in 1948. David Ben Gurion, the first Prime Minister of Israel, championed the Negev as a frontier for Zionist development. Given its large expanse and the fact that it comprised around 2% of Israel’s population at the time of statehood, early Zionist leaders viewed the Negev as an ideal site for promoting Jewish immigration and settlement and for developing the national body through manual labor—a core feature of early nation-building projects of socialist-leaning Zionism. The Negev was also a site for developing settler colonial narratives about “greening the desert,” turning a supposedly empty and neglected land into an oasis of the new Jewish state. Zionist settlement of the Negev relied on the erasure of the long-standing Bedouin Arab presence in the region through historical revisionism, forced displacement, and land grabs. In just one of many examples, in the 1950s Israel built a fence in order to force Bedouin Arabs to live in an area comprised of around 10% of the land they formerly occupied.

The Negev has recently held a more peripheral status in Israeli discourse and policy, triggered by a shift towards new frontiers such as Galilee, and Israel’s economic liberalization and thus declining emphasis on manual labor as a principal nationalist activity. Today, as McKee notes, Israelis from more central areas such as Tel Aviv and Jerusalem view the Negev as a wasteland, while many Israeli residents of the region complain of state neglect. Nonetheless, the contemporary Negev remains the site of fierce land disputes, as Israeli authorities continue to disrupt the Bedouin Arab population by rendering informal Bedouin villages illegal and forcing Bedouin communities to relocate to state-planned townships with poor infrastructure and minimal social services.

McKee conducted participant observation and interviews in a number of different sites in the Negev, including Jewish homesteads, Bedouin Arab townships, and unrecognized Bedouin villages, as well as working with NGOs and attending Knesset hearings. She traces how Israelis and Bedouin Arabs attempt to establish rights to land while navigating a legal system that overwhelmingly favors Israeli inhabitants over the Bedouin population. McKee also situates her ethnographic data within a robust analysis of the settler-colonial histories that inform contemporary land disputes in the region.

That ethnographic data is organized and presented through two primary analytic themes. First, McKee examines “environmental discourses” in the Negev and how they mobilize “claims about relationships between inhabitants and their landscapes,” naturalize boundaries between Jews and Arabs, and privilege certain notions of land use and property ownership over others (p. 10). Second, McKee deploys the notion of “political dwelling.” This concept urges readers to pivot from an exclusive focus on bureaucratic and policy initiatives with regard to land disputes, and rather engage with everyday practices such as shepherding, agriculture, and fence-building that constitute and are constituted by political and ethnonational ideas about rights and belonging to the landscape.

A key chapter of McKee’s book examines daily life in a state-planned township to which the Israeli government relocated Bedouin Arabs as part of a dual effort to disrupt Bedouin claims to land and also to “modernize” the presumably “backward” Bedouin population. McKee describes the profound sense of loss many in these townships experience as a result of being cut off from village lifeways. McKee found that in response this loss, township Bedouins adopted dwelling practices such as shepherding and urban farming in order “bring comfort and familiarity into an often alienating landscape” (p. 109). Such practices also allow Bedouin communities to limit their reliance on packaged, store-bought food. Such political dwelling constitutes a reorientation of bodily movements and sleep schedules, and so engenders numerous sensory stimuli that bring with them affective resonances evocative of life before forced relocation. “Within this context of segregation and land conflict,” McKee asserts, “even seemingly mundane dwelling practices are implicated in political contestations over identity, social belonging, and land claims” (p. 99). For example, Bedouin residents in unrecognized villages often describe their daily practices as acts of sabr, or patience in Arabic—a form of “making do” to borrow from Michel de Certeau—that is not a direct challenge to the Israeli state, but rather an attempt to exercise some level of autonomy in the face of state imposition. However, at times advocates for Bedouin rights as well as some villagers themselves describe daily activities as emblematic of sumud, or steadfastness, a popular term in the lexicon of broader Palestinian nationalism and celebrations of the Palestinian fallah, or rural farmer. Throughout, McKee illuminates both the social inequalities wrought by Israeli state policy, and the complex and multifaceted ways such inequalities are experienced, maintained, and challenged in the everyday.

Alona Nitzan-Shiftan’s Seizing Jerusalem examines the messy processes by which historical and ethnopolitical claims and exclusions are built into the design of urban environments. Drawing on archival data and personal interviews with architects and urban planners, Seizing Jerusalem traces the architectural history of the Zionist project in Jerusalem, particularly since Israel occupied the city after the 1967 war. Nitzan-Shiftan complicates dominant scholarly approaches that either frame architecture in Jerusalem as an apolitical enterprise that was appropriated by broader political forces, or describe the discipline as a direct arm of the occupation. In order to look beyond this binary construction, Seizing Jerusalem discusses the participation of a wide array of actors in designing, imagining, and constructing the city. These include politicians, urban planners, public servants, artists, cartoonists, and architects of various generations, disciplinary orientations, and nationalities.

While tracing the architectural history of Zionism in Jerusalem, Nitzan-Shiftan explores how architecture played a formative role in creating “facts on the ground.” In other words, architects assisted with the sanctioning of Israeli dominance in Jerusalem via erasure of the historical and contemporary Arab presence in the city. However, the book also reveals that ideas about the role of Jerusalem in the Israeli national project were far from uniform. In particular, this text examines the intersections of architectural and political modernisms and the often fierce debates concerning the merits of either developmental or situated modernism for reshaping the city’s national and urban topographies. On the one hand, developmental modernism refers to the position that architecture should represent notions of development and progress and, consequently, might support the Israeli state as forward-thinking and future-oriented. On the other hand, some actors wished to deploy situated modernism, with its focus on salvaging and preserving the social memory and biblical history of the city, while creating a continuity between a Jewish past and Jewish present. According to Nitzan-Shiftan, an examination of how these competing visions came to bear on the enterprise of architecture in Jerusalem warrants a reframing of architecture as verb, or what she terms “architecture in action.” This analytical shift underscores how built environments embody as well as shape ideas about what a space should represent and what purposes it should serve.

Both McKee and Nitzan-Shiftan draw out the parallels in Israeli and Arab social and spatial practices and narratives, and in doing so disrupt the binary opposition between these two groups. For instance, Nitzan-Shiftan examines the Sabra (Israeli born) generation of architects who attempted to produce built environments that veered away from massive housing units and the ideals of Labor Zionism. According to the Sabra generation, Labor Zionism, because of its desire to reject both bourgeois and oriental aesthetics, had done little to establish any sense of territoriality in Israel. Thus, in order to strengthen the connection between the Israeli citizen-subject and Jerusalem, Sabra architects turned to an unlikely source for inspiration: Palestinian vernacular architecture, which in their view “embodied the rootedness in place they sought” (p. 57). Thus, as Nitzan-Shiftan states, in this architectural shift “we can see how the colonizer is dependent on the identity of the colonized in order to define an authentic national identity and proclaim one’s visceral ties to place” (p. 61).

McKee, similarly, shows how although environmental discourses in the Negev work to reinforce binary oppositions between Arabs and Jews, these communities nonetheless often overlap. In particular, McKee describes how early Jewish settlers in the region at times saw Palestinian and Bedouin populations as groups to emulate, as they sought to achieve “rootedness” in the landscape. Some early Zionists adopted a “Hebrew Bedouin” identity premised upon the notion that the Bedouin presented an image of the ancient Hebrew, and so Jewish settlers could become closer to their ancestors by emulating these present-day people in the Negev. Still, current environmental discourses that emphasize Bedouins’ connections to land often frame them as backward in contrast to A modern and progressive Jewish Israeli. We could say then that such partial relations of emulation and imitation help smooth over contradictions within Zionist narratives that at times describe Bedouin Arabs as part of “nature” and the landscape that contemporary Israelis inhabit, and at other times attempt to erase the long history of Arab presence in the region altogether.

All three authors give nuanced accounts of particular spatial and temporal contexts while not engaging in “methodological nationalism” or “methodological urbanism.” Nucho’s final chapter, for instance, emphasizes that constructions of the Armenian community in Lebanon do not emerge solely through interactions between “local” actors and infrastructures. Rather, definitions of “local” in Bourj Hammoud are produced and deployed through collaborative relations at multiple geographical scales. She underscores how city-to-city partnerships as well as connections with Armenian diasporic charities help residents of Bourj Hammoud promote the “social value” of the Armenian community, even as they oppose or negotiate local infrastructural development projects. In such cases, “sectarian discourses arise in response to or in dialogic relation with shifting urban planning projects and urban visions” (p. 126). Nucho highlights such cases to argue that dominant development discourses that either romanticize “local” participation and decentralized governance or advocate for a securitized state that manages all territory and infrastructure both fail to capture how development projects are co-constitutive of shifting relations between various actors, affects, infrastructures, and materialities.

For her part, Nitzan-Shiftan turns to the transnational dimensions of Jerusalem’s post-1967 development to underscore her argument that “while architecture is an active form,” it is not “an instrumental means toward a predetermined political end” (p. 4). Nitzan-Shiftan shows how embattled Jerusalem mayor Teddy Kollek, who was in power from 1965 to 1993, developed a cultural politics based on the notion that Jerusalem is a global city with diverse ethnicities and religions. Kollek wanted to nurture participation from a global constituency in “the cultivation of the city’s spiritual beauty,” which he hoped would inspire a “peaceful coexistence” of the three major monotheistic faiths (p. 138). He drew inspiration from earlier British plans for the area, which combined a picturesque emphasis on the landscape with orientalist ideas about colonized spaces as the “primitive, sensual origins of the developed, enlightened West” (p. 153). To materialize his vision, he enlisted a cohort of international architects who helped design and plan projects such as a green belt around the Old City to protect it from high rises and modern architecture. Kollek also convened the Jerusalem Committee in 1970 to bring together a number of scholars, architects, and urban planners from across the world to help shape the future of the city. However, Kollek’s cultural politics provoked a number of clashes between different concepts for the ideal Jerusalem: as a postnationalist and post-Zionist utopia, as the eternal capital of the Jewish people, as a laboratory for cultural heritage in other parts of the world, and so on. Through a detailed historical analysis, Nitzan-Shiftan not only highlights the multi-scalar forces that have influenced the built environment in Jerusalem, but also shows that there has never been outright consensus, even within Israeli state institutions, about the meaning of the city.

Altogether these three engaging and detailed texts make major contributions to our understanding of the politics of built environments in the Middle East, and also expand our theoretical comprehension of the co-constitutive relations between spaces, nationalisms, and subnational group formation. These books will work well in advanced undergraduate and graduate courses on Middle East history and politics, urban anthropology, studies of place and space, and studies of ethnicity and nationalism. Nitzan-Shiftan’s book will work nicely for courses on architectural history, particularly those focused on modernism. I would also recommend Nucho’s and McKee’s works for courses on ethnographic methods. Nucho demonstrates how to turn a pervasive and often reductive concept such as sectarianism into a productive theme of ethnographic inquiry, thereby highlighting the capacity of anthropology to challenge simplistic generalizations. McKee’s book offers novel insights on ways to both “study up” and “study down” without flattening the power relations between one’s interlocutors. Of course, McKee’s and Nitzan-Shiftan’s case studies are timely additions to discussions on Palestine-Israel. Both works point out the underexplored discursive and material forces that perpetuate social inequality between Israelis and Palestinians while also calling into question the coherency of Israel’s settler-colonial project.

In many discussions of middle east politics, religion and “culture” are put forth as the definitive explanations for conflicts over land and resources. The texts under review highlight how materials and infrastructures carry within them layers of history that provide templates for peoples’ perceptions of themselves and their contingent relationships. An electrical grid, urban farm, or housing unit constructs unifications and divisions in space and time between ethnonational groups, stakeholders, politicians, citizens and non-citizens, and so on. By examining such human-material relations, these authors provide less simplistic, ahistorical, and subject-centric accounts of how ideas of difference emerge and boundaries are drawn or dismantled in the region.

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