Samuel Dolbee, Locusts of Power: Borders, Empire, and Environment in the Modern Middle East (Cambridge University Press, 2023).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Samuel Dolbee (SD): Historians are of course a product of historical circumstances, and I am no different. I conceived of, researched, and wrote this book in the shadow of the Iraq War, the 2008 financial crisis, and the Arab Spring and Gezi Park protests. I wanted to think about the environment as a material force in human history, I wanted to think of how it shaped/was shaped by human migration, and I wanted to think of how people used the environment as a means and object of protest, rebellion, and violence. I was also responding to a scholarship on the end of the Ottoman Empire and beginning of something else that I saw as divided—divided temporally between the Ottoman and post-Ottoman periods, divided spatially between different Ottoman provinces or post-Ottoman states. So in writing an environmental history of the Jazira region I was attempting to write an integrative account of the empire-to-nation story, one that was rooted in an environment that crossed borders and, in doing so, accounted for what borders meant in people’s everyday lives.
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
SD: The book is an environmental history of the Jazira region—an arid area stretching roughly between the Tigris and the Euphrates at the foot of the Anatolian plateau, which is today northeast Syria, southeast Turkey, and northwest Iraq. I tell this history by focusing on the region’s distinctive locusts. I trace how they were essentially eradicated by the mid-twentieth century and explain how that allowed for an environmental transformation, as a land once denigrated as a useless desert became Syria’s most productive agricultural lands in the twentieth century. Throughout, I also attend to how the fate of locusts was closely linked to the fate of humans, among them Arab and Kurdish nomads, Armenian deportees, and Assyrian refugees. It was not simply that these different people were often compared to locusts by others. It was also that their lives were profoundly shaped by them: they fled to the edges of cities when locusts ate their pastures, they ate locusts when they had nothing left to eat, they watched helplessly as locusts devastated their cotton crops, and, by the 1930s, they suffered from the chemicals sprayed to kill locusts. What this last example meant was that people compared to locusts also were hurt by pesticides intended to kill locusts, the figurative and the real converging in painful ways. Thus through locusts and these people, I account for how the Jazira transformed from a site of nomadic settlement campaigns in the 1870s, to the killing fields of the Armenian genocide during World War I, to the most agriculturally productive region of Syria in the twentieth century, and, finally, to the heartland of ISIS—briefly—in the last decade.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
SD: It is my first book, so I suppose I can only say (or, better, hope) that it is a departure from the abysmal creative writing I did in my younger years.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
SD: A challenge I had in the early stages of my research was to simply describe the place I was researching. Most people did not know what the Jazira was. And I often invited blank stares and a change of subject when I used the accurate yet unwieldy characterization of “the hinterlands of Aleppo, Diyarbekir, and Mosul.” At the fragile early period of research this sort of response could be crushing. But part of what sustained me was that other times, too, people—typically with some family connection to the place of the Jazira—knew immediately what I was talking about. And they would ask startlingly revealing questions, questions about Rojava, questions about the Armenian genocide. These were far from neutral topics to bring up with a stranger in Turkey then or now. I hope people from the Jazira can see something of their worlds and their families’ worlds in this book. I should note, too, that although peripheral, the Jazira has a way of bringing in important people. Mark Sykes, Ziya Gökalp, Gertrude Bell, and Midhat Pasha are just a few of the famous people who ended up there, and writing about it.
On a scholarly level, there of course has been huge growth in recent years in the field of environmental history of southwest Asia and north Africa. There is also justified skepticism of the field, given the long legacy of racist, environmentally deterministic scholarship that seems to align with it. What I hope my book shows—and what I know the work of many colleagues shows—is how connected environmental history, social history, and political economy are. We can argue about agency of locusts all we want, but peasants in 1930s Syria had little doubt about whether locusts could powerfully affect their lives, and they had very sophisticated critiques of the government’s inability to help them in this regard. It is the assumed disconnection of human politics from nonhuman nature (a disconnection we assume at our peril!) that shapes these views, and this itself is a historic development. I have also been inspired and in awe of the brave and meticulous work of many scholars on the history of the Armenian genocide. Part of what I am trying to do with the book is join them in integrating this event into regional history—as opposed to an event that falls into a sort of temporal black hole between the Ottoman Empire and its end and a spatial one in the often forgotten Jazira region. So I wanted to examine what the genocide looks like, and what unexpected episodes of resistance and survival appear if we look at the Jazira before, during, and after the genocide rather than just as an endpoint.
Finally, I will add that in this series an earlier participant whom I admire described how his work was a product above all of his “undisciplined reading habits.” I do not think I can boast of being a reader of such eclectic scope as he, but I do feel similarly in that some of the books that most shaped my thinking were about Japan, the Central Valley of California, and Ukraine, stretching across environmental history, political economy, critical geography, history of science, and borderlands history. If any undisciplined readers out there with no interest in the Ottoman Empire find this book and like it, I will be very grateful.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
SD: I thought I was working on disease—and I still have a project fermenting there—but I am also slowly realizing I have something on the way about plants and trees and migration. A few years ago I was sitting with a friend in a town by the Euphrates and we were reading about the history of the town on our phones and its legacy of silk production and, hence, mulberry trees (the leaves of which were used to feed the silkworms). I looked up and realized we were sitting under mulberry trees, and mulberries littered the sidewalk all around us. I think part of what attracts me to these topics is the timescale of trees—they outlive their original owners and planters in some cases, and the same trees from the past might even remain alive today. So I am interested in, for example, how the grapevine-pest phylloxera in the Mediterranean led to the expansion of grape cultivation and raisin production around Izmir, then its demise, and then how the Greek-Turkish population exchanges led to refugees bringing their grape vines with them elsewhere. Or the centrality of poplars and eucalyptus trees to villages built for genocide survivors by an Ottoman Armenian agronomist. Or how the “Antep pistachio” became invented as a product of the Republic of Turkey. It also means that, in addition to filling up my phone with pictures of historical documents, I also now, thankfully, have a lot of tree pictures. And more excuses to eat grapes and pistachios as a research experience.
J: Should we judge this book by its beautiful cover?
SD: Yes, please! It is all thanks to the work of the brilliant graphic designer and illustrator, Meredith Sadler. From a laughably simplistic stick-figure rendering of locusts that I drew, Meredith created something I find quite stunning. She additionally did all of the maps in the book. Also noteworthy is that the lower left of the cover reveals small hills known as tell. These were not naturally occurring geological formations but rather the accumulation of dirt on the ruins of ancient cities. European travelers and Ottoman officials alike saw these hills and believed they meant the Jazira could be a densely populated agrarian powerhouse for the empire. What they did not know was that locusts were actually using these very same hills for different purposes: to both procreate and lay eggs. I am glad the detail made it onto the cover, because I think it powerfully captures the complicated relationships embedded in environmental history that bring together both cultural and material histories. Locusts were using an ancient human infrastructure to feast on the expanding grain cultivation of the Ottoman Empire. The hills that made humans dream of a different future for this region were the same hills that locusts were using to prevent that future.
Excerpt from the book (from the Introduction, pp. 1-9)
“The desert journey continues very boringly,” wrote a reporter for the Istanbul newspaper Akşam in the summer of 1928. The train was headed eastward from the outskirts of the Syrian city of Aleppo. “To pass for hours in the middle of a brown expanse amid suffocating heat in a train car that is always shaking is,” the reporter complained, “unpleasant.” It would get worse. Suddenly, a droning insect flew into the train car. And then another. They were locusts. Someone closed the windows. But the insects continued to collide into the side of the train “incessantly.” In their percussive onslaught, the reporter might have heard the rhythm of the region’s recent history. After all, it was these creatures that had helped make a landscape that witnessed nomadic sedentarization campaigns, the Armenian genocide, and interwar refugee resettlement. The train hurtled onward.
The most common locust in the region was the Moroccan locust (Dociostaurus marocannus; Turkish: Fas çekirgesi; Arabic: al-jarad al-marrakishi). The name derived from where a Swedish entomologist first “discovered” the creature. In reality, the insects lived in a wide range of places, from Morocco to Central Asia. In most years, they remained harmless grasshoppers, but sometimes – because of a mix of precipitation, population density, and weather – they accelerated into what is known as their “gregarious” phase. Their population exploded, and their physiology changed. They swarmed and ranged up to 200 kilometers (124 miles). They blotted out the sun and consumed nearly everything in their path. In the words of one observer, they left nothing behind but “black stumps and their own excreta.” They were particularly destructive in zones of expanding cultivation, where planted fields existed alongside their preferred desert and steppe egg-laying grounds. In fact, the insects seemed so connected to human cultivation that elsewhere they were referred to in Arabic as the “human locust” (al-jarad al-adami).
Unbeknownst to the bored reporter on the train and overshadowed by infamous figures such as Sykes and Picot, the locusts on the railway in 1928 were in their own way etching borders. In their flight, destruction, and perhaps even excrement, they mapped out an agroecology known as the Jazira – now largely forgotten to those who live outside of it – that stretched from the Tigris to the Euphrates at the foot of the Anatolian plateau. Extending between the cities of Aleppo, Diyarbekir, and Mosul, the Jazira was arid yet fertile, straddling the line where rain-fed agriculture was possible. For centuries, the Jazira functioned as an administrative unit. But when the Ottoman Empire worked to transform the region in the mid-nineteenth century, it attempted to do so through provinces that divided the connected landscape. When locusts moved across the Jazira, they did so beyond the bounds of provincial borders and often beyond the control of state officials.
Border-crossing movement persisted after the end of the Ottoman Empire, when the insects – and the railway – ensured that Syria and Turkey were curiously linked. The railway had been built in the waning years of the Ottoman Empire with the aim of connecting Berlin and Baghdad. After the Ottoman Empire dissolved in late 1922, a number of successor states emerged in its place, including the Republic of Turkey and the French Mandate of Syria under the neocolonial League of Nations. In the process of dividing once-unified imperial holdings, French and Turkish officials sought a borderline to separate Turkey and Syria and the Ottoman past from the post-Ottoman present. They found such a demarcation in the railway. As the railway moved east of Aleppo, it became the actual border between the countries, Syria to the south of the line and Turkey to the north. Officials thus transformed an infrastructural project intended to rejuvenate the Ottoman Empire into the actual dividing line between post-Ottoman states. Locusts paid little heed to these divisions. In the key of one map depicting the insects’ cross-border range, officials had replaced the symbol denoting the railroad. In lieu of the Ottoman infrastructure-turned-cleaver of post-Ottoman states was the thick blue line denoting the range of the locusts. What the map characterized as “the border of the winged” extended from Syria into southeast Turkey.
As locusts moved across Ottoman and post-Ottoman borders in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, they animated a mobile ecology entangled with people, including Arab and Kurdish nomads, Armenian deportees, and Assyrian refugees. The groups occupied different relationships to states, with some objects of reform and others targets of destruction. Yet in the Jazira, all of these people encountered locusts, which they variously fled, feared, and, in some cases, ate. They were also connected culturally. In fact, all of these groups found themselves compared to the insects at one point or another. Locusts of power, then, refers to the way that locusts shaped not only the “everlasting nature-imposed condition of human existence,” as Marx put it, but also the imagination of people in the Jazira. The play on the phrase “locus of power,” moreover, alludes to the significance of the Jazira’s place on political and environmental margins for this kind of power.
Indeed, in moving on the edge, both locusts and these groups of mobile people sometimes managed to evade state officials. As a result, locusts and the many moving people of the Jazira might seem marginal in the sense of being unimportant. But in fact, they were marginal in the literal sense of being on the edge of desert and non-desert, one province or nation-state and another. And this place gave them power, similar to what Stephanie Camp, borrowing from Edward Said, has termed a “rival geography.” While this position allowed them to carve out some measure of autonomy, these forms of resistance or agency did not exist separately from the structures of power against which they were articulated. Like the Pacific coast of Colombia, the wintertime snows of New England, the small plots of postrevolutionary rural Haiti, or the floating coast of Beringia, the Jazira was a space that simultaneously protected and limited its people. Its landscapes could be used as a weapon, but the mix of arid ecology and political borders also made the Jazira a place into which people might escape.
But it would not remain so. If locusts made the region seem a wasteland to outsiders, the Jazira’s status also invited violent efforts at demographic engineering. In 1858, Ottoman officials could do little against locusts but compel peasants to collect the insects’ eggs and pray that a Sufi-blessed holy water might attract the insectivorous starling. By 1939, people all across the Jazira could realistically imagine a world without locusts thanks to chemical insecticides and expanded cultivation. Across this same time period, the Jazira shifted from being the site of nomadic sedentarization campaigns to the killing fields of the Armenian genocide to the location of interwar refugee resettlement. With the virtual eradication of locusts, the region known for its verdant grasses and flocks of sheep became some of the region’s most productive cotton- and wheat-growing lands in the twentieth century. At the same time, its people also became defined and targeted in relation to nationalist projects in new ways. Monocrop agriculture and minefields fortified the border that locusts – and people – had once easily crossed. Nevertheless, the Jazira and the power of its place on the edge would not be gone forever. Its particular political ecology has been the scene for various imaginings of Armenian, Assyrian, or Kurdish national homes, and in 2014 even became the heartland of the so-called Islamic State. Though often presented as outside of history, these recent events are connected to the region’s legacy of agrarian development, state violence, and popular resistance.