[This piece was originally published in Arabic on the Jadaliyya Environment and Arabic pages. The original piece can be found here.]
This article proposes a new critical method in for the field of geography emerging from our collaborative study of the landscape in Palestine. We have been working for six years to elucidate landscape transformation within a community-based context. Along the way, we have developed a unique combination of methods that enable us to work as researchers embedded our communities to produce knowledge that is relevant to present crises and enables future work.
This article outlines the theoretical and methodological basis for our studies of the landscape. We begin with the theoretical basis for the central concept we are proposing for the study of the landscape, makaneyyah; in plural, makaneyyat. The concept emerges from a long-term engagement with both research modes grounded both in the local and global community, as well as an etymological interpretation of the root-word’s origins in ancient Semitic languages.
We understand the landscape not as a static stage, but as a living process, as a makaneyyah. Further it is composed not of individual components but is instead a formation of ecological and social relations that do not firmly separate between the two, between the human and non-human. Here, there is an important distinction between formation and system. A system is something understood as governed by rules. A formation is an arrangement that is always emerging and in-formation. Makaneyyah comes from makan or place, and ultimately from kawn, or being and kan, to be. Therefore, our process or takween puts an emphasis on the ongoing process of formation of the landscape’s biophysical and social structure.
This understanding of landscape and space stands in sharp contrast to traditional and even progressive schools in the field of geography. In the Arab world in particular, geography has struggled as a field to merge increasingly technical fields of cartography, GIS, and geoinformatics with more established fields of historical or political geography, where intellectual production has slowed greatly in recent years. Rather than focus on the fixity of borders, locales, and biophysical features, we explore the processes that bring those features into being. Where traditional geography seeks to fix and hold down features on the landscape, we seek to understand the process by which landscape is formed and features come into being and what roles they play. In particular, the makaneyyah is an arrangement of features that come together in a particular moment. Here we place an emphasis not only on space, but also on time as that which organizes space and brings it into being.
The distinction between fixity and process is not merely an intellectual exercise. Scientific tools tend to be object-oriented and divide modes of knowledge into separate fields. We believe the current situation in Palestine and the Levant, with climate crisis and political crises, require new modes and methods of studying the landscape as a living process or formation. We believe that academic methods of dividing fields of knowledge into objects and sealed categories have provided scientific and intellectual cover for much of the environmental degradation and damage that has been wrought as a result of the fossil fuel powered age.
For this reason, we developed the makaneyyah or takween methdology. It draws from the Arabic kawn, which emerges from Proto-semitic languages including Ge’ez and Akkadian, meaning “to be or exist in place.” Here, emphasis is on being or existing, which is a living, not a dead or fixed, form. In this understanding of place, time is given priority because it is the practice of being or existing that is primary to the place itself. It is to be in a place. This resonates with recent work across many fields in Palestine. For example, the poet Mahmoud Darwish, in an interview, wrote, “The geographical part of history is stronger than the historical part of geography” (Darwish, 1999). Here Darwish illustrates the tension between time and space and the way in which, for him, history or temporality elaborates and connects spaces. This stands in contrast to a traditional or nationalist understanding of space as the fixed and stable repository of historical events.
Similarly, in in his many writings on the geographical and land-based dimension of the Palestinian struggle, Edward Said (2000) writing on the Italian philosopher, Antonio Gramsci, wrote:
“Connected to all this, then, we must remember that most of Gramsci's terminology…is what I would call a critical and geographical rather than an encyclopedic or totalizingly nominative or systematic terminology. The terms slide over rather than fix on what they talk about; they illuminate and make possible elaborations and connections, rather than holding down, reifying, fetishizing.” (Said, 2000, p. 467.)
Here Said argues for the documentation and critical analysis of land-based formations based on an understanding of land or territory as heterogeneous and “discontinuous.” Here “critical and geographical” is, in our understanding, open in its posture to knowledge but also grounded with regard to the plant and human communities that give the landscape its form.
This has crucial implications for our study of the landscape in its diversity of form, genesis, and temporality. Putting Darwish and Said, themselves interlocutors, together, we emerge with an understanding of landscape and time as discontinuous and emergent, one that needs not a “totalizing” narrative to bring it into being, but rather a critical, and grounded analysis that enables future work.
We draw from the ancient Semitic concepts of kan and kawn to explore how places are always in formation rather than static. With the rise of cartographic and geographic tools of inquiry, geographic fixity became the dominant modern understanding of place and space. We seek to change this and give space and methods for new forms of geographic inquiry that will enable future generations of Palestinian and Arab researchers to confront crises in more grounded, open, and critical ways.
To face the existential challenges posed by climatic change and attendant crises, we must shift our understanding of the landscape and the human and plant communities it supports. Modern science must shift to enable critical analysis of the forms of knowledge and its separations that have enabled our current climate emergency.
Below, we describe the tools we use liberally from many fields, including interviews, seed collection, field transects, cartography, geoinformatics, botany, agronomy, and archival research including analysis of aerial imagery. Our research group is composed of people with training in geography, engineering, GIS, agricultural science, ecology, history, and architecture. Perhaps more importantly, our team works from within its context, coming from the communities and academic contexts that we study. We are embedded in our community, but we are not provincial, as we collaborate openly with colleagues in the United States and Europe and publish our research in international peer-reviewed journals. We strike a balance of what we call a “grounded openness” that avoids the traps of provincialism (local museumification) or detached globalism that seeks to homogenize and make local specifics interchangeable (Latour 2018).
The Makaneyyat instigator organizes data from archival materials containing very rich data on the uses of wild plants, as well as data from agricultural heritage interviews with elderly people about wild plants and their traditional uses. The instigator also works on networking with sophisticated global databases of wild plants such as GBIF. In addition, the instigator utilizes geoinformatic data generated from old and recent maps and aerial photographs, as well as regular images from fieldwork and interviews.
The Makaneyyat Configuration and Search Engine
The Makaneyyat research platform is a free and open-source platform for generating, managing, analyzing, and visualizing agro-ecological/ecological data, providing a rich historical baseline for future specialized research in the field of Palestinian agro-ecological agriculture.
This formation of spatial methodology occurred in an organic formative way through the interaction of all its elements, such as researchers meeting each other and combining their talents, abilities, specialties, and experiences, as well as the knowledge and methods derived out of their surroundings and society and through study paths and requirements. Participants and their research tools, their extended surroundings and society, the land and vegetation and its changes, and the interaction of past and present elements form the configuration of a makanneyah. We discuss below practical research tools within the research platform.
Geographic Information Systems
Modern geography techniques have been widely used in spatial data analysis and monitoring changes in land uses. Makaneyyat chose QGIS, a non-profit open source that is easy for everyone to purchase and download and has additional technical features compared to other programs.
Corine System (Corine Land Cover CLC)
The Corine system was used to coordinate information on the environment, focusing on the classification of land cover and land uses. The first level consists of five categories or “rows,” including artificial surfaces, agricultural areas, forest lands, semi-natural lands, and wetlands and water bodies; the second level comprises 15 rows, and the third level 44 rows.
The Dublin core program links all the spatial information downloaded to the database of this program so that it is freely available to all, in accordance with international rankings. Therefore, all information can intersect with each other. From here it is possible to produce new knowledge through the engine that allows the user to display all kinds of information, whether spatial or descriptive, within the same methodology.
Our makaneyyat studies are not limited to using modern technology to collect information, but can also employ books and sources that are not available electronically from many researchers and authors. The tool then empties certain contents from these books electronically, in a digitization process.
The digitization project consisted of many references and sources related to vegetation in the region of Palestine in particular and the Levant in general (due to the similarity of vegetation in the region). A member of the Makaneyyat project team worked for two years on the digitization of 63 books and sources from 1900 to 2014 from researchers and authors from several nationalities and foreign missions that were present in Palestine over the past hundred years; these books covered the vegetation in the region due to high diversity in Palestine from the different climatic environments in the region.
The digitization project transcribes the contents of many books and sources, both archival and modern (all not otherwise available electronically), by reading the source fully, extracting the names of plants in Arabic and English, translating them into Latin, and inserting the various colloquial names for each plant and their names in the different local dialects.
Researchers can use the database created by the Makaneyyat team in an organized and easy way, in order to access any type of plant in the search engine without having to read all references. For example, if the researcher wanted to search for the item chaste tree, Vitex agnus-castus, in Shukri Arraf’s book (1931), the engine will give access to one or more types of a particular variety of this plant, all its Arabic and local names, and all 63 numbered references of Vitex agnus-castus alongside the identification of the source name and page where the plant was mentioned. Thus, the engine provides quick access to the details of the desired item, in order for it to be searched quickly and accurately, in addition to linking the search engine with academic and scientific databases to confirm the final naming approved by international research centers.
After the long and precise work of numbering thousands of plant varieties, the Makaneyyat search engine serves as a scientific research tool held to international academic standards and is the first project on such a large scale in the Middle East/Arab world. It provides an asset and a practical methodology revolution for researchers and all those who are interested in this subject. In our makanneyat studies, we commonly use search, memorization, and transcription mechanisms alongside electronic sources and books, but our paths of knowledge are not limited to this. We have relied primarily on the surrounding society and especially on the population of the makaneyyah we study, and we have been able to gather an admirable amount of rich and very significant knowledge through interviews with local populations in the makaneyyah.
Oral Records (Interviews)
Interviews have focused on older men and women, determined by random selection or rolling. as they have a clear impact on the transfer of local knowledge, due to their expertise in the surrounding housing environment and contemporary changes in land use. When taking into account age, class, rural and urban life differences, oral recordings show many classifications and definitions that were challenging to explain by aerial photographs alone, because images are a rigid tool through which to explain changes and apply a narrative to a certain place. Images lack a narrative course and details from social, economic, and cultural aspects. Interviews, we conclude, are a treasure of living knowledge that shows us spatial knowledge details which can be overlooked by many other tools.
Interview methods may be a walk in the wild, where the person introduces us to the plants they see in front of them and talks about the area, its history, and the works that are held there. More details are gathered through asking many open and closed questions. A witnessed plant is documented by photographing it, collecting a sample for drying, and collecting seeds for replanting in order to preserve them from extinction.
Interviews are an essential part of the formation of the makanneyah. In addition, a field component allows researchers to have roamed the boundaries of the makanneyah and collected data from vegetation in place there.
Makaneyyat plays a role in studying the Palestinian landscape which is rich in seasonal and perennial wild plants. Research is mainly based on documenting sightings of wild plants, especially woody perennials, by taking pictures and identifying plant varieties and their locations followed by determining a spatial path using QGIS.
Seeds and drying samples are collected from different regions for a diversity of gene flow and adaptation factors, followed by field experiments where wild plants are re-planted. In addition, researchers track the life cycle of each plant and take into account its ability to germinate, bloom, form seeds, and regrow in the spring as well as its ability to withstand drought.
How to Use the Makaneyyat Engine
We detail here an introductory guide to using our research tool. The user opens the Makaneyyat website(https://makaneyyat.org/en) then presses “Explore” (top right) to reach the search page.
Filters can be used from the left side.
Any archived source can be chosen from the "Source" filter.
Informational data from the archived source is obtained at the bottom of the page, including: scientific classification of the plant; author's name of a source; source description; publisher; date; source; and language.
All of this information can be obtained in English and Arabic. The user is able to toggle between the two languages on the top right, as highlighted in the following two images:
The user can also choose filters according to the topic of interest under the "subject" filter; or a filter of scale (level 1, 2, 3, or 4); or a year from which data, such as aerial photographs, are available. For these filters, any non-geoinformatic data appears at the bottom of the page, while any geoinformatic data shows on the map.
The GBIF engine can be found on the top right of the page. Users can search for the Latin scientific name of any plant in the GBIF engine, to
pull it from GBIF’s general global database. It then shows us the locations of sights of these plants as red dots in the Palestinian territories on a map (as seen in the images below).
Another feature called “Polygon” can be used to search spatially. The user presses the “Draw Polygon” button located under the GBIF Data Search Engine (right of the page). Then, they determine on the map the area in which they would like to search for certain plants or features (they can use the GBIF Search Engine) to determine the sightings of certain plants in the area of a polygon drawn on the map. The user can also use one of the filters such as endangered plants under “Subject” in addition to Polygon to narrow information about these plants within the specified area.
The makanneyat methodology is mainly based on open scientific data coming from an absolute belief in open science to all, so makennayah has yielded diverse results from its search engine.
The Makaneyyat team has tried to work on a new vision of reading space and its capacity through our work and experience. The relationship between space and its topography of plants, animals and humans is taken as an independent dimension of complex spatial systems. It is a dimension that must be reached through many methodologies of different fields. Through work, experience, and a passion for spatial understanding, the Makaneyyat team mutated, adopting an interdisciplinary cross-sectional reading of different dimensions in a single space. This is a network reading that aims to connect with the experiences of other groups for alternative readings. At the same time, the team adopted a work methodology rooted in the research environment where study is based, Palestine.
This constant and ever-changing experiment proposes, in concert with similar experiments, new research methodological foundations closer to the field and with a multidimensional vision that more closely reflects the complexity of biospatial systems. We created a spatial engine to help us provide advanced agroecological systems to address the climate crisis by searching through valid information about agricultural systems from the past with sophisticated databases. This engine enables any of our researchers or any researchers, whether in graduate studies or in environmental institutions and organizations in the region, to work on building an agroecological system that can meet the challenges resulting from the climate crisis, such as drought. The Makaneyyat engine provides different tools and dimensions to consider the geography and vegetation of the past, present and potential future.
We have a very rich cultural and scientific heritage in Palestine. Therefore, we must use it to create new crops and new agroecosystems to address the climate crisis.
Arraf, S. 1931. Contribution to the study of the country's plants-second episode, Tarshiha.
Darwish, M. 1999. “I Discovered That the Earth Was Fragile and the Sea Light.” boundary 2, 26 (1), 81-83.
Latour, B. 2018. Down to Earth: Politics in the New Climate System. Cambridge: Bolitti Press.
Said, E. 2000. “History, Literature & Geography.” In Reflections on Exile and other Articles. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
For more, see also
Tesdell, O. (editor), 2018. Palestinian Wild Food Plants. Available at https://archive.org/details/palwildfoodplants2018