Between Rivers: Recipes for Resistance, Resilience, & Resurgence

This project involves community-based mapping in collaboration with local peoples & nomadic tribal nations who live along the cross-border rivers & watersheds of the Middle East & North Africa.

Addressing the violence of colonialism and climate change, this project involves community-based mapping in collaboration with local peoples and nomadic tribal nations who live along the cross-border rivers and watersheds of the Middle East and North Africa. It engages community cartography, forensic botany, historical workshops, territorial and grounded research that will culminate in publications and cross-disciplinary conversations about overlooked environmental histories and long-term injustices in the MENA region. Together, these objectives and outcomes will establish a cultural, geographic, gendered, and territorial understanding of the multidimensional role of flora, fauna, and wet landscapes in food security, population health, and cultural expression at the core of community self-determination, economic subsistence, and territorial sovereignty for generations across the 21st century.

Based on the principal investigator’s lived experience and embodied knowledge, and the professional experience of the investigation team, the project is situated in the MENA region, starting from the lowlands of the Mesopotamia—between the tributaries and estuaries of the Tigris, Euphrates, Karun, and Karkheh Rivers that cross the Iraq-Iran border wetlands and eventually flow towards the Persian Gulf. This Mesopotamian region is historically known by traditional tribal nations and contemporary populations as Miyan Rudan (Farsi) and Bayn al-Naḥrayn (Arabic), whose transliteration simply but profoundly means “Between Rivers.” The geographic scope further extends to include the tributaries of this river region to Anatolia in the north, and to the Nile River Delta in the west, thus creating a geographic triangle of shared experiences, struggles, and discourses on environmental justice. Politically and culturally complex, this cross-border river region is layered with legacies of geopolitical struggles, histories of territorial dispossession, and environmental devastation; yet there persist traditional food cultures, ancestral plant knowledge, and territorial practices of water stewardship throughout the mountain valleys, plateaux, wetlands, estuaries, and shores of this fluvial region.

This research and territorial mapping project offers a deeper understanding of food and medicine cultures, and their intersecting ecologies tied to seasons, weaving traditions, ceremonies. It foregrounds the overlooked agency of plants and plant-based traditions in addressing climate change and violence of colonialism. It also offers a historical and contemporary understanding of relations between these traditions with water rights and Indigenous conservation methods, where tribal, rural, and marginalized urban women emerge as experts and custodians of restorative landscape praxes. The process of this research involves various modes of study and documentation, including interviews and recorded conversations, field research, archival research, film and photography, cartographic drawings, recipe tests, and weaving. The ambition of this project is to provide a dedicated space at University of Virginia to knowledge and histories of the MENA region that are highly overlooked by the technocratic elite or narrated predominantly through the anthropocentric and colonial gaze. If colonial strategies of displacement are rooted in the eradication of the basic means of subsistence first and foremost, then documenting traditional landscape praxis is a recipe for resistance, resilience, and resurgence while confronting the violence of colonialism and capitalism.

Desired outcomes

This project not only provides the space for cross-border and multidisciplinary debates on environmental histories and challenges across the MENA region, but it also places and positions traditional knowledge of flora and fauna, and water societies at the center of climate and environmental justice. For American scholars and citizens, this project fills an educational gap that exists in the United States regarding the racialization of Brown peoples—as a cultural construct that homogenizes populations of Muslim and non-Muslim backgrounds of Asian and African descent—in debates around racial justice; debates that often leave out matters of territorial dispossession and cultural displacement. It also brings attention to the share of United States’ foreign strategies and extended militarized territories on the perpetuation of environmental and humanitarian catastrophes—from war zones to embargoed states—as the root cause of the displacement of Brown peoples in the MENA region and beyond. The result of the research and collaborative mapping projects will be shared with several publics potentially through the following media: individual publications, report on field research (summer 2022), recorded conversations (Ottoman History Podcast, 2021-22), exhibition (Venice Architecture Biennale 18, 2022), and conference at University of Virginia (Fall 2022).