[This article is part of a roundtable on the relationship between engineering, technopolitics, and the environment in the Middle East and North Africa. Click here to read the introduction and access links to all entries in the roundtable.]
I received a phone call one day from a man working in Hebron municipality in the southern West Bank. He asked whether I would be interested in joining the municipality’s sewage team. I froze. The idea seemed absurd. The chasm between what I did (anthropology) and what the team did (engineering) felt unbridgeable. Despite having been compelled by Bruno Latour and others who argue that sociological assumptions are encoded within engineering projects, I was bemused that engineers could see overlaps between my work and theirs. I was also terrified at the thought of bearing the responsibility to calculate the diameter of the pipes for a future sewage network. I politely declined, citing my lack of expertise and that I was soon to return to the United States. This interaction was a somewhat familiar experience while I was in Palestine conducting fieldwork for what was to become my first book, Waste Siege: The Life of Infrastructure in Palestine. Soon after arriving, for example, I interviewed Hafez Shaheen, deputy mayor of Nablus and a civil engineer. Over lunch he had asked whether I wanted to coauthor an article with him about Nablus’s waste management challenges. I never followed up, perhaps feeling pessimistic about finding common ground—including what questions our article would ask.
I am not particularly proud of either of these moments. Both involved me being less curious and imaginative than I would like to be. I start with them because they reveal how committed I was to holding a line between my work and that of my engineer interlocutors. My job, as I understood it, was to return to the United States with a sense of how waste management affected political authority and social responsibilities in Palestine. Waste was a medium for analyzing politics and sociality. That there were engineers involved, and that it was waste that was being managed, as opposed to water or electricity, were secondary concerns. Our foci were, thus, different: mine was social life, theirs was waste. Our taxonomies also differed. For instance, several engineers told me that I would have to choose whether to research solid waste or wastewater. They were two different engineering fields and two years were not enough to study both. In choosing both and including research on used Israeli goods smuggled into the West Bank and unwanted bread, neither of which counted as waste at all for these engineers, it seemed obvious that I was not thinking like an engineer. I was not organizing my thinking according to the classifications that understood waste in terms of how institutional actors could solve the discrete, if intersecting, problems of government they posed.
Our political proclivities were frequently at odds. I experienced numerous moments of dissonance and even deep alienation in this regard. Such moments included when municipal engineers made comments to me, comfortable that I was an outsider and would presumably agree with them, that Palestinians lacked the modern consciousness—often glossed as “civilization” (hadara) and “environmental awareness”—necessary for at-home separation of wastes for recycling. Or when engineers rolled out anti-poor policies like one in impoverished Jenin which installed prepaid electricity meters in households and attached waste management fees to the prepaid card. This rendered payment for both services automatic—and obligatory—whether or not families like the ones hosting me could afford to pay.
Our sensibilities also diverged. West Bank municipal and Palestinian Authority (PA) engineers were pragmatists. They thought in terms of the tools and timelines they had available to them. It was hard for me to relate for at least two reasons. First, my training in anthropology had taught me that being driven by practical application of one’s research was likely “problematic,” risking being theoretically less sophisticated and politically compromised. Applied anthropological research could echo earlier, foundational anthropological engagements that had openly worked with and supported oppressive social organizations—in particular, colonialism. Second, as a discipline that encourages imagining alternative political and social horizons, anthropology has afforded me the luxury to envision a distant future in which Palestinians would enjoy equal rights and freedoms. As a non-Palestinian, I did not have to think about Palestine’s immediate- and medium-term, except insofar as describing Palestinians’ terrible treatment today would engage American audiences in order to convince them to support work toward a just future. To address problems like waste in the meantime, I could imagine away the garbage and sewage flooding Palestine’s orchards, cities, and roads with an easy flick of my Mary Douglas wrist. I could think of waste not as a hard fact of life but instead as a matter of perception, what Douglas (an anthropologist) calls “matter out of place,” to explain how different cultures view disorder, an equivalent to the popular phrase “one man’s trash is another’s treasure.” Declining to collaborate with engineers thus laid bare epistemological and ontological frictions between engineering and the critical social sciences that seemed unresolvable.
The friction seemed unresolveable, that is, until I returned to New York. As I sat to write my dissertation, I realized that, in many respects, I had begun to think like my engineer interlocutors after all. Writing from my office in the basement of Columbia’s School of International and Public Affairs, where some of the policy that preserves Palestine’s status quo is conceived and promulgated, I could see how, for Palestine’s engineers, there were hardly other options. Their hands were tied by the occupation’s restrictions and by budget constraints. Israel would not permit incinerators—which took up much less land and facilitated reuse of discarded materials—and donors would not fund them, so it had to be landfills. Donors would not pay for small-scale wastewater treatment plants, so they had to be large, city-wide ones which required difficult-to-obtain Israeli permissions. Household-level wastewater treatment could bypass both the need for Israeli permissions and donor involvement. But experience and studies had shown that residents were reluctant to accept it.
I could understand why the engineers felt the need to be practical. They were responsible for solving problems in highly uncertain circumstances made uncertain by powers with significant control over their lives and work. One might say the only way to act at all was to work with what was certain. They had to assume existing funds and permissions from the occupying authorities and to think in terms of a period of time before a Palestinian state or refugee return. They had to account, and be accountable, for the toxicity of the waste floods, pileups, and fires it was their mandate to address. They had to reckon with high rates of cancer and respiratory disease, that precious land was being used as trash storage while groundwater was being polluted. Something had to be done, and quickly.
Why I (Initially) Came to Think Like an Engineer
My commitment to write from a place of solidarity with my Palestinian interlocutors likely informed this shift in thinking. I was writing for English-speaking audiences based in the United States, where it is still a feat to say “Palestine” and “Palestinian” without political backlash or censorship. My interlocutors’ lives were shot through with injustices of occupation in more ways than I have space here to describe. They were subject to indignities like being dragged out of their homes in the dark of night by Israeli soldiers, and kept in administrative detention, as had happened to Nablus’s deputy mayor, Hafez Shaheen, and his son several times. Some, like the wastewater engineers in the Palestinian Water Authority and others in Barta‘a municipality, had served years in Israeli prisons for political activism. Many had relatives injured or killed by the army. All suffered restrictions on movement that are a well-known feature of life for Palestinians. My engineer interlocutors were trying to do right by their families (e.g., by bringing in an income) and by Palestine (e.g., by creating waste disposal infrastructures) in ways that I could see as both reasonable and urgent.
Drawing attention to people dealing with the putatively universal problem of waste seemed helpful for compelling Americans to relate to people they have too easily thought of as subhuman and even killable. In other words, perhaps upon returning to New York, I also had a political desire to think like an engineer. Perhaps I sought to push my American readers, many of whom might imagine that Palestinian consciousness is only mired in nationalism, religious faith, or violence, to join me in thinking like an engineer—and in so doing to realize that thinking like an engineer could mean thinking like a Palestinian.
What Happens When You Think Like an Engineer
My new way of thinking, which resonated with that of engineers, had a number of unexpected analytical effects on my work. I suddenly had a hard time seeing what was anthropologically valuable about writing about what they did. If Palestinian engineers were forced to build landfills and sewage treatment plants “shared” with Israeli settlements, what was there to say that had not already been articulated by the NGOs, activists, and scholars documenting Palestinians’ oppression? Was my argument that Palestinians were only conduits of their own domination? Was their work a mere manifestation of occupation? Old anthropological and sociological tropes haunted me: was the Palestinian engineer the ultimate example of how a society reproduces itself?
At the same time, I was struck by a tension. On the one hand, it was possible to depict Palestine’s engineers as lacking the ability to choose what they do, to imagine them as non-agential cogs in a particularly oppressive social machine (settler colonialism). On the other hand, it was equally possible to think of these engineers as an elite class in their society with the power to shape and even to dominate it. Indeed, critical social scientific investigations of engineering, perhaps especially in the Middle East, often portray engineers as hubristic, despotic, or otherwise powerful figures who alter social structures and conditions through the projects they design. In the latter approach to engineers, the point of doing an anthropology of engineering is to reveal the problematic logics and effects of engineering. This framework spotlights the involvement of politics and culture in the technical and the role that engineers play in choosing how societies function. Engineers appear as sincere believers in the ideology their projects promulgate. They are (usually) men with “visions” and “narratives." I agree that there is good reason to be suspicious of engineers, as this roundtable’s conveners have outlined. Engineers have designed oppressive and exploitative projects, using outsized authority to make worlds that reflect their own values. They rarely consult those who will inhabit those worlds or attempt to bring about radical social changes that living sustainably in those futures would require.
But if we assume this as the starting point for understanding engineers, what room is left for considering and analyzing the work and experiences of what we might think of as “subaltern engineers,” like those trying to operate under a brutal military occupation? Does it matter if subaltern engineers’ work does not challenge the structures that subordinate them, but if they also feel morally and politically conflicted while doing that work? Is there a way to think of their ambivalence without dismissing it out of hand as an example of “cry and shoot”?
Two examples from my fieldwork are suggestive for what entry points into answering these questions could look like. A Beitunia-based engineer wrote the environmental impact statement for a PA landfill in the West Bank. Doing so supported the status quo in which the PA follows bureaucratic steps that Israel requires and seeks permission to build infrastructures that provide for Palestinians’ basic needs. The report preserved the PA’s obedient stance vis-a-vis Israel and helped the PA perform good environmental custodianship to Israel and donors. Around the same time, in a town hall style meeting at which PA representatives were present, the same engineer suggested that the PA should let Gaza’s sewage flow into the sea in response to Israel not allowing Palestinians to build wastewater treatment plants there. He said this loudly, standing up in a quietly seated audience. He suggested that the PA go rogue; that the PA weaponize Palestinians’ sewage by polluting the waters to the north of Gaza where Israelis and tourists lounge on beaches. I met another engineer while he was working for an environmental NGO in the southern West Bank. He was critical of PA environmental policy in our early conversations. Then he was hired as director of a PA regional waste utility. His new job was to support PA plans to build a wastewater treatment plant for his native Bethlehem. He did his job. But he also knew that Israel’s geopolitical and economic interest in controlling West Bank water in that area precluded the possibility of Israeli permission for the plant. He could offer symbolic support while feeling secure that the project would stall. In the meantime, he told me that he believed that the most environmentally sustainable option was for Bethlehem’s treated sewage to be expelled into the valley (Wadi Nar)—a plan that neither Israel nor the PA approved.
How would analyses of engineering look different if our goal were to understand engineers’ experiences rather than—or alongside—their “output” in the form of designs and infrastructures? Many Palestinian engineers are refugees. Some are women. Some are black. Some may identify as queer, though I was not privy to that kind of information. What if we were to apply the same attendance to structural positioning and complex subjectivity to engineers that we apply, say, to the anthropology of sex work or mothering? I realize that the question is provocative. Because engineers tend to be situated in a particular relationship to the state as a professional class of technical workers, such a framework seems like a mismatch. My point is that prevailing approaches to engineering and technopolitics have not sufficiently grappled with engineering/society relations among colonized or otherwise oppressed peoples, especially in settler colonial contexts where sovereignty is “nested” at best. The issue is structural as much as it is that the subjectivity of such engineers has itself been elided. On a structural level, colonized engineers’ relationship to the (settler) state trying to eliminate them cannot help but be much more complex and fraught than the collaborative relationship we usually imagine engineers to have with the state. When colonized engineers are authorized to work on behalf of a colonized, would-be state bureaucracy like the PA, their doubled relationship to both bureaucracies makes their work that much more worthy of careful attention.
Another example from my fieldwork that offers insight comes from a Palestinian Water Authority engineer I will call Tarek. Tarek experienced frequent harassment by the occupying authorities as a result of being a West Bank Palestinian, such as being stopped and harassed at checkpoints. Israel had imprisoned him for political activism in the 1980s. When he tried to travel abroad for conferences, he was humiliated and sometimes turned back by Israeli and Jordanian authorities. Yet he was also working to support the forceful installation of prepaid water meters in some of the poorest areas of northern Jenin, where he himself was from (and thus knew firsthand of the struggles of living there). Prepaid meters for electricity and water have often been called a “war on the poor” because they automate payment for services that fall under the category of “basic needs” or human rights, extracting payment or withholding the service in cases of nonpayment.
Tarek is undoubtedly a subject of settler-colonial rule, and that is the case not only in his status as its “victim” but also in his capacity as an engineer. Yet he is not only made out of colonial rule. He occupies a class status through an upward mobility success story that reaches beyond the borders of Israel/Palestine. Though I never learned how he reached his very successful position in the PA’s Ramallah offices from his modest roots as a villager from outside Jenin, his quietly stubborn and (by his colleagues’ accounts) extreme work ethic was an almost too perfect instantiation of Max Weber’s spirit of capitalism. It also suggested to me that he believed that individuals were responsible for their own betterment. Learning to pay for public services paired neatly with that belief. As a man in his forties when I first met him, he was also a member of the “Oslo generation” that had been taught that following the PA’s neoliberal order could bring not only personal success, but also, possibly, some form of liberation. This engineer was thus both subject and object of neoliberal governance and settler-colonial rule. When I pressed him on whether he agreed with prepaid metering, he was evasive. On the one hand, he spoke in the first-person plural “we” when he described efforts to institute the meters. But, on the other hand, he would not say that he agreed with the policy. Instead he repeated that prepaid metering was “working,” while also acknowledging that not everyone in his ministry agreed with this approach.
If I follow the reasoning I have just laid out, I find myself reconsidering the moments of alienation and dissonance that I had initially felt when engineers invited me to collaborate. These instances become useful diagnostics from which to foreground these engineers’ complex subjectivities. It was not necessarily misunderstanding that had led these engineers to invite me to collaborate; I also had to turn the scrutiny upon myself. My bemusement was based on a rather flat idea of how engineers think. Though I will never know exactly what they were thinking, it is possible that in extending invitations they were both conscious of our divergent views and found that divergence interesting or valuable. It is possible that they wanted to exercise different mental muscles by working with a social scientist who might say things like “dirt is matter out of place,” or with a Greek-American. Many of the engineers I met wore many hats—not only as engineers but also as researchers and faculty members at universities alongside their work in the public sector. Like anyone else, they sometimes thought and acted in contradictory and inconsistent ways, and their thinking changed over time depending on the circumstances in which they found themselves.
Palestine is a particularly helpful site from which to think more three-dimensionally about engineers. The uncertainty of Palestinian engineers’ circumstances (compared to those of engineers elsewhere), and the fact that it takes years and even decades for things to get built in Palestine, if they are built at all, create space for engineers to carry half-hearted, ambivalent, and changing attitudes toward their own work. It also allows them to strategically manage the relationship between their ambivalences and their everyday work practices. They can sign off on designs for an infrastructure project and be relatively certain that funding will be pulled, that new donor conditions will be attached to the project, or that the military will issue a spontaneous “stop work” order half-way through construction. This is incredibly frustrating, especially for people like Suleiman Abu Ghosh, the lead engineer in Nablus’s wastewater department, who spent his whole career designing and waiting for a treatment plant, and retired before seeing it built. But living in this level of uncertainty also affords a kind of oxygen—a freedom to think otherwise and to critique.
One implication of my journey through some of the tensions between anthropology and engineering is that I am learning to consider what thinking like an engineer really means. The critical social sciences tend to privilege the work of what an engineer does above other aspects of his/her subjectivities and positionalities. Perhaps our understanding of engineers is shaped, paradoxically, both by the trope of the standalone visionary man and by something like a Weberian understanding of the bureaucrat streamlined by a rule-based bureaucracy, abiding by idealized, universal principles. It is useful to remember, though, that Weber’s depiction of the bureaucrat bifurcated the bureaucrat’s experience into professional life and private existence. Even he, of the iron cage, left a back door for what he called “personality.” My experience learning to think like an engineer taught me to more rigorously interrogate the relationship between engineers and the institutions they serve. By relationship, I mean not only which institutions they serve but also how they relate to institutions that employ them. What do those institutions do for them, what do the structural conditions of work make possible or foreclose for them, and where might we see limits to the overdetermination of those conditions?
 Bruno Latour, Science in action: How to Follow Scientists and Engineers through Society (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1987).
 Mary Douglas, Purity and Danger: An Analysis of Concepts of Pollution and Taboo (London and New York: Routledge & Keagan Paul, 1966).
 Samer Alatout, "‘States’ of Scarcity: Water, Space, and Identity Politics in Israel, 1948-59," Environment and Planning D: Society and Space 26, no. 6 (2008): 959-982; Matthew Wisnioski, Engineers for Change: Competing Visions of Technology in 1960s America (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2012).
 Jessica Barnes. Cultivating the Nile: The Everyday Politics of Water in Egypt (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014); Gökçe Günel, Spaceship in the Desert: Energy, Climate Change, and Urban Design in Abu Dhabi (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2019); Timothy Mitchell, Rule of Experts: Egypt, Techno-politics, Modernity (Berkeley, CA: University of California Press, 2002).
 Sophia Stamatopoulou-Robbins, Waste Siege: The Life of Infrastructure in Palestine (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2019), 172-206
 Sa’ed E Atshan, Queer Palestine and the Empire of Critique (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2020).
 Audra Simpson, Mohawk Interruptus: Political Life across the Borders of Settler States (Durham, NC: Duke University Press, 2014).
 Max Weber, The Protestant Ethic and the "Spirit" of Capitalism and other Writings (London: Penguin, 2002).
 Max Weber, From Max Weber: Essays in Sociology (London: Routledge, 2009).