Tuesday, 31 July 2018

Environmental Being in the Emirates; Get Innocuous! -- Addendum to 'We Have Never Been Urban'

On 16 July 2018, Hamed Bukhamseen + Ali Ismail Karimi (Civil Architecture), Pierre BĂ©langer, and myself joined forces to present divergent interpretations on the 'environmental landscape' -- from network ecologies to resource extraction to commonwealth governmentalities to the spread of civilization -- to position architecture and space as a planetary system of movement and governance, rather than a building with clear public forms and functions.

My address below extends from my work on environmental situationism, and looked to scale, matter, nature, and being, as speculative constructs for political observation in the UAE.


I am Ahmad. I am a geographer and I write about ‘wet matters’ a concept I had borrowed from Pierre’s edition for the Harvard Design Review, in which he portrays and narrates the ocean as the landscape’s ‘Other’ in light of our overdetermined reliance on terrestrial and landed frameworks for global forms of mobility and urban processes. I also write about the Gulf and its landscapes, as well as sex. When I say sex, I am mostly interested in the tormented expression of masculinity — dread, sadness, anguish, impotence, vulnerability, anger, frustration — and state-led mechanisms of biopolitical and population control.

In today’s presentation, I will narrate the various interests embedded in my practice and present them in the form of an instruction for members of the audience, many of who I presume are inhabitants of the UAE and its landscapes. I have also prepared it in consideration of Ali and Hamed’s request to echo some of the ideas explored in Pierre’s presentation and to provide the audience with varying tonalities and textures of what we might mean — or more truthfully what I mean — by landscape architecture in the Gulf.

Today represents the second time I work with Ali and Hamed and our relationship, like most of my relationships, is formed through formalized and sanctioned surfaces that are made for the transfer of knowledge and creation of dialogue: biennials, publications, presentations. I’d say the same rings true to my association to Pierre’s work which I have consumed through other formalized routes and formats: journals, websites, books, recorded lectures.

We come together in this room because of our connection to the art world, another formalized space, which is exploring architecture, and its associated disciplines of urbanism, geography, engineering, for its critical vocabulary and analysis of our systems of power. When I say systems of power, I am not referring to terminal, unseen, Orwellian power but the literal and physical landscapes of power: systems which provide motion and circulation. This includes everything from mineral mining to oil extraction to cargo and logistics shipping routes to airport surveillance to electricity grids to wastewater management to storage facilities for digital data, and worldwide planetary infrastructures that evade concepts of continent, region, or nation.

Another thing that brings us together is we are men interested in architectural discourse. When I previously mentioned ‘the tormented expression of masculinity’, I am not referring to physical masculine sexual violence and aggression, as expressed by the current Weinstein a la #MeToo movement, but ‘Victorian-genteel’ masculinities, personas who are led by epiphanies and who announce ambitious civil projects that are concerned with human and social progress.

This Victorian expression today has become a sanctioned contemporary masculine career which embodies different New-Age philosophies and expressed as social activism. This type of political activity for men was legitimized, I believe, after the success of the French Revolution and its ideals for equality, liberty and fraternity. As an example, when you learn about geography and the history of the discipline’s ‘human’ dimension, you will be directed to John Snow’s research that mapped the distribution of cholera in London’s urban neighbourhoods in the mid 1800s. Later, and after the methodological propositions of German thinkers like Alexander von Humboldt and Carl Ritter, human geographers began to explore how race, sex, and class were intertwined and expressed through urban planning or why veganism and nudity is more hygienic for urban living. Today, the discipline has many subdivisions, each establishing its own rules, inquiries and parameters, from feminist geography to critical geography to behavioural geography to psychogeography.

There are other cultural representations of this too, like in literature. Think of Joseph Conrad’s Heart of Darkness or Herman Melville Moby Dick or Leo Tolstoy’s Boyhood, all published in the 1800s, in which the novels’ male protagonist undergo an existential and moral crises, and by virtue the male creators/authors behind them, which all worked to create the modern, Victorianesque masculine expression: extreme, lucid consciousness.

I bring up these formalized routes, from the sanctioned ways of circulating knowledge and intellectual dialogue to these representations and remixes of toxic masculine behaviour, as I am trying to reveal to you my fatigue with these structures of socialization.

I believe we are induced into a trauma of collective social experience — and I say induced as implicated suggests a choice and selection in how we chose to live our lives yet we are already so politicized and institutionalized much before we are born or able to develop our own cognitive and critical thinking capacities — that all these efforts towards the making of a social identity, of becoming a social being, of being socialized, to be social, emerge as redundant and vacant exercises.

In response, I became interested in thinking about how we are induced into the environment rather than society. I’m interested in learning how fruits or pollen cause allergic reactions in different bodies; why we wear certain garments and fabrics to protect ourselves from different climatic conditions; why iron is found in our blood but also in the core of the earth. And these interests I have explored mostly in connection to Dubai.

Now, Dubai, Abu Dhabi and Doha too, have become the global standard of what contemporary urban living and development is, or more precisely, the threat of what might become the global standard for urban development and living. In the blurb for today’s talk, it stated that “given the complete bankruptcy of the architectural as a formal and political project in the Gulf, this conversation must imagine new natures, new systems for a new way of governance and life in the Gulf”. What Ali and Hamed are revealing in this statement, as will I over the course of this presentation, is that we, as peers who think about Gulf modes of inhabitation, must make amends with the concept that the inhabitation of this landscape is a catastrophic and apocalyptic endeavour. In that, it should not be here.

Today, Dubaization or Dubaification, is a common architectural theory to describe an urban development fuelled by an unfettered, unregulated movement of capital that is able to disregard contextual environmental, local, and human laws and customs. It is this ominous merger we are witnessing between government services and facilities, multinational corporate interests, real estate developers, and the entertainment’s industry advertising for leisure, retail, fitness, arts and culture, combined and smoothed out through very slick and savvy urban design projects, such as multi-use parks, green-community space, urban revitalization programs, co-working spaces, de-industrial appropriation etc.

The political dynamics that these urban projects reveal is a loss of a direct form governmental accountability — ie an interface between a receiving public and a political leader— and the life of an absolute technocracy that is connected to a very mobile and scattered oligarchy, which renders social ideology and political being(isms) as inapplicable within these ‘new’ urban systems and modes of governance.

Dubaification or Dubaization also refers to processes of mimicry in architectural fabrication enabled by the proliferation of architectural software modelling, which virtually imagines urban environments and then fully projects and simulates them onto a physical landscape. The ‘architectural render’ totalizes the landscape and in effect becomes the Total Landscape. This process dispossesses the landscape of any interest or feeling or being or symbology. Therefore, human intelligence and engineering expresses itself in a dominant form and the scientific, architectural human becomes the supreme creative force for society and the environment.

Now, I would like to think around how these global sociourban prototypes relate to their surrounding ‘natural’ environment, and more precisely to the surrounding environmental resource, which in the Gulf is crude oil extracted from a hot desert. Before that, I would like to declare that the finite, precious value associated with crude oil is now becoming more myth than actuality, and this because we have innovated technologies which make the discovery of oil so much easier as well as alternative energy solutions that mimic the sense of motion, circulation, and movement we have become accustomed to with the cultivation of crude oil.

Up until 100 years ago, the Gulf was considered to be a coastal area and it was not until the prospect of oil deposits inside the Peninsula’s lands did the land and its ecology become conceived as a precious, valuable, and habitable environment. Oil geological surveys ecologically conditioned the Peninsula’s lands as ‘actual’ space because of the potential of livable, ie monetary, resources located within it. After the discovery of oil, and its industrialization, did the extravagant, high-octane development of Gulf cities emerge as well as its national society, who today have critical geopolitical influence in international relations and the global economy.

Oil thus, through this national-environmental narrative, functions as an apparatus or blueprint for the way humans, ecologies, governments, systems are organized in the Gulf region, and becomes the Gulf’s ecological origin and human geography. Similar to the linear narrative structure of Darwinian evolution, in which humans evolve from the savannah and ape to modern, digital society, oil in the Gulf operates from the same narrative logic. This is not unique to the Gulf, in which its people become read alongside the environmental resources of their landscapes, but reverberates throughout history: fur in French Canada, nutmeg in Java, macadamia nuts in north-eastern Australia, gold in Johannesburg’s Witwatersrand range, tea in Ceylon, sugar in Guadeloupe.

What these narratives or blueprints work to say is that these human habitats are not populated by scientific or evolutionary or ethnographic beings but ‘matter’ beings. In the Gulf’s case, they are a ‘fluid-matter’ being or ‘wet matter’ being. And this conditioning of a regional-ecological subject made of matter, fluid or otherwise, is pitted against a universal, collective ecological species who descends from a forested and fertile Garden of Eden which developed from a nomadic to agricultural to industrial to urban existence; ie it is pitted against a global progressive civilization. As an example: the Gulf’s environment is a hot, lifeless desert with an extractive, exploitative industry populated by characters such as tyrannical oil-rich sheikhs and oppressed South Asian migrant labor class. What this comparative ecology says is the Gulf’s environment is a loss, or an ecological loss, because of the perceptions and operations of its environment.

It is framed as a loss because when confronted with the Gulf’s landscape, the humanitarian dimension to global human existence is compromised: how can we reconcile all global philosophies for love, friendship, collectivity, integrity, and universal institutes for human rights, social justice and equality when there exists brutal and exploitative landscapes such as the Gulf? (This is the nerve which makes it enticing to practice in the Gulf, whether as artist, thinker, architect, citizen: you are constantly negotiating where your moral compass lies in consideration of all the dynamics you find in the surrounding landscape.)

This platform of ‘ecological loss’ is however one of opportunity. It invites us to imagine a living or being through an environmental prism, given how ecologically embedded society is here, and because political and social existence is unavailable in the Gulf; at least, for a great majority. Moreover, why would there be a desire to implement political philosophies and ideologies of self-determination with the waning and decaying of the global democratic structure, and with the knowledge that full social recognition and political representation has not delivered its potentials.

Can we work towards an environmental being?

Jassim bin Jaber Rugragee is a well-known, venerated pirate of the Gulf coast between the 19-20th centuries. He was opposed to British presence and patrolling in the region and dissatisfied with the powerful and dominant local tribes and rulers. In fact, he was at such protest against these forms of governance he exiled himself and his community of followers to Khatif, an area next to The Creek of Udayd in what is today the Qatari Peninsula, and created an unaffiliated social zone. Over there, he established a very successful economy and society, which generated most of its success from pillaging and attacking marine vessels.

British vessels who were present in the Gulf region, mostly for trade and diplomacy, surpassed the capabilities of the Rugragee crew, from military intelligence to weaponry to number of personnel, not to mention their generous alliances with local Gulf tribes. Yet, none of the official powers were able to curtail the Rugragee’s crew activities and this is because of Rugragee’s familiarity and understanding of the terrain. Rugragee crew were able to attack the ships by mobilizing and weaponizing their understanding and sensitivity of the surrounding environment. Their political and governing practice was borne out of environmental site-specifity and know-how, spatial understanding and ecological embedded-ness.

This type of ecological weaponization is not unique to Rugragee crew but also why Napoleon or Hitler couldn’t invade Russia, as an example. Or why the current war by the GCC states on Yemen will never succeed as throughout history the Yemeni interior has never been occupied for the sole reason that the terrain is very difficult to navigate and populated by different communities who have great understanding of these spaces and have always been able to defend it against invaders.

Second is the work of a New Zealand scientist, Villette Sagagauetasi, who was conducting research on the Gulf’s marine ecology in the 1800s. It is claimed that Sagagauetasi left behind a book, Murmurs of the Submerged, on the ship The Sultanah, the first marine vessel to travel from the Middle East to the United States in 1840, from Muscat to New York. The fate of the scientist is unknown: sources claim that she could have been murdered, kidnapped, or had herself escaped during the journey. One of the reasons for her disappearance is that her book had detailed the different activities and political philosophies of the Crechy. The Crechy were a marine movement that advocated for mating practices between ship crews and sea creatures. This was to challenge, overpopulate, and destabilize, the political modes of governance that were consolidating on Gulf harbours which looked to preserve political lines of affiliation through blood, tribalism, and ethnicity. Through these processes of intermingling, beastiality, and creolization, the Crechy proposed an aquatic world of irregularity.

Political and creative practice, thus, is environmental situationism expressed through the natures of sexual and bodily practice, deviance.

Saturday, 28 April 2018

Dubai and The Impossibility of Urban Doom; or, Why Gentrification is Impossible in the UAE

On 28 November 2015, an article published in the Financial Times claimed that gentrification was a “latecomer” to Dubai. The piece, which would have benefitted from greater research, angling, and critical thought, reported on Dubai’s gentrification phenomenon — that emerged after the 2008 financial crash, hence ‘late’ — which converted older, ‘gritty’ neighborhoods, such as Satwa and Karama, into creative and leisure spaces. The crux of the short article was that these new urban typologies stand in contrast to the city’s corporate, fast-paced urban culture; and that was about it.

On the ground, in Dubai, however, there is a more nuanced interpretation to how inhabitants are contextualizing the term in their surroundings. They are associating gentrification with several developments occurring in Dubai and Sharjah’s older urban spaces, that have been appropriated into newer, slicker versions of themselves, or development projects that have overhauled what used to be there into leisure, residential, and retail experiences, usually, outdoor malls lined with expensive restaurants/cafes, novelty/concept stores, boutique hotels, and green space.

In light of these urban changes, some inhabitants have expressed grief over the loss of these older neighborhoods, as it demonstrates the city’s favoritism for neoliberal affluence and causes the displacement of residents, who are from poor and middle-income classes, or from older generations, and from specific racial and professional backgrounds: Asian, and manual/clerical, respectively. They explain that these districts are realized, not only through changes in surface and income-level, but, expressed through changes in ‘feeling’ and social characteristic. Consequently, what this development works to reinforce is the overwhelming melancholy of living in the UAE’s cities that continually adapt landmarks and communities, along with their extant social memories and interpersonal relations, in favor of new, hip, and polished societies and businesses.

Now, this form of redevelopment exists in the UAE, but diagnosing it as gentrification is clumsy, misinformed, and convenient, because the UAE’s built landscape cannot be comprehended through available models. The inhabitation of the UAE’s landscape requires, and continues to demand, an inventive imagination and occupation, so, when the urban landscape is addressed, an equivalent qualitative standard must be employed.

First, what inhabitants are witnessing in the UAE is the aesthetics of the gentrification mode and not the actual process. The gentrification mode can be best described as ‘performative living’, an international urban polity that expresses itself through consumer choice, such as bespoke lifestyle, health, and fitness products and services. The gentrification process, meanwhile, is a western metric, that is specific to some locations and their political imaginaries. Diagnosed in late 60s London and later in New York, it was theorized because of economic shifts, from manufacturing to service and creative-knowledge industries, which led to functional rearrangements in the local real-estate market, especially in the urban center, coupled with new consumer, ideological attitudes, such as DIY philosophies, environmentalism, and interracial social integration.

The UAE’s contemporary situation, meanwhile, emerged with the globalized tertiary-sector economy, and did not experience a de-industrial transitional society, as other places had. The gentrification critique, however, assumes that this socio-economic transition is inherent to the impacted district’s social history, which, in the UAE’s case, is not plausible. Rather, the connection of Western style gentrification to the UAE reveals the ongoing and wide-reaching affliction of its imagined postcolonial condition, which insists upon the superiority and unity the West, and the UAE’s aspiration towards it, as well as the conception of the West as a locked present that has exported some of its consumer freedoms, and liberal psyche, to the UAE.

The Western-centrism of gentrification is implied in its ideological construction, too, which portrays it as a conflict between deregulated property-led investor capital and the positivist politics of the welfare state and civic nationalism. The UAE’s apparatus, however, does not operate from the Atlantic mantra of civic freedoms and liberties, instead, it advocates for consumerist emancipation, industrial education, and secular, tolerant, de-politicized cosmopolitan subjects. As in, the built landscape is an embrace of capitalist ways of being, not an opposition to it, which, yet again, suggests that the transposal of gentrification is an awkward one.

This economic framework of the country, moreover, does not operate unknowingly on an imported people through subterfuge and trickery, as some media figures and social critics like to posit, but a trade-off performed for offshored social, economic, and political aims. Therefore, a better way to frame local gentrification is to not look for it in the built landscapes of the UAE, but to think about how a similar process might occur in the place one left from, or the place one might migrate to after their lived experience in the UAE, given the high rate of remittances, materials, and aspirations exported out of the Gulf; it is people who gentrify, and not some external cultural and economic force.

Third, gentrification processes assume that urban settlement is permanent and that population is intergenerational. Apart from the Emirati population, most UAE residents are born elsewhere and projected to die elsewhere as well. The process also assumes that intergenerational gaps are synonymous with changes in domestic behaviour, and that people express these changes through inter-urban or inter-nation relocation (gentrifiers tend to be the young who flee their parents, and their own, suburbanization). In the UAE, the demographic system is very dynamic and migration flows are very accelerated, composed mostly of singles and bachelors/ettes who arrive from other countries on 2–3 year work contracts. The gentrification model, then, is limited as it cannot account for the kafala system, and mass-transnational relocation processes, such as those prevalent in the UAE, as well as living structures bound to the duration of an employment contract.

Fourth, land in the UAE is not distributed on principles of georgism, wherein value generated from land is shared equally by all of its inhabitants, which gentrification bases its economic thinking on. Land in the UAE is an absolute structure that is strategically donated and gifted. Therefore, developers in the UAE, especially locally-based ones, are not real-estate offices in the classic sense of the profession because they are not businesses justified by a supply/demand chain solely; or, at least developers accused of gentrification are not, such as, Meeras and Al Serkal Avenue in Dubai, and Shurooq and Sharjah Art Foundation in Sharjah. They are bureaucracies, and allies of the State, who do not face the fear of immediate bankruptcy.

Urban development and public work programmes, meanwhile, are mandated by a centralized governmental system, through a variety of direct and indirect ways, mostly through the promises of architectural renders — a perfected tabula rasa model, in which the ‘barren’ landscape awaits the imposition of capital on its surfaces. Therefore, land value is not calculated for proximity to agricultural crops, or inherited from accumulated infrastructural, real-estate, or informational value (except for strategic port routes and oil-field sites). Rather, most of the UAE’s built landscape is made, narrated, and imagined into a financial reality; like it is all over the metropolitan world.

Fundamentally, what the UAE’s environmental and urban mentality reveals, historically and presently, is that it is a mobile, almost piratical, entity that does not cultivate, legally or otherwise, systems for settler sedimentation, thereby making gentrification, and other urban models, inapplicable. The use of gentrification locally, especially to distinguish between the ‘gentrified’ and ‘displaced’, is not attentive or considerate of inhabitants’ relation to their immediate surroundings and sense of ‘here’-ness, as living in the UAE is a multiversal experience, rather than a singular, fixed one.

In consideration of these itinerant dynamics, price and space in the UAE must change to indicate to its inhabitants the prospect of becoming the gentry, otherwise, the purpose of relocating to, and populating, the UAE is made obsolete. The place’s economic logic and emotional landscape practices income desirability, not only the collection of income, and so to perpetuate this desire, urban space must continually reinvent itself to keep people longing and to keep people working.

Saturday, 20 January 2018

The Indian Ocean Studies Framework: Malyalee Transnationalism

I was asked to introduce Dr Nisha Mathew’s talk, Dubai, The Migrant Imaginings of a Cosmopolitan World in Dubai, which was graciously hosted by Art Jameel. (I had some involvement in bringing and organizing the talk. Nisha was one of the conveners of the Asia Research Institute, National University of Singapore's conference on Gulf-South Asia relations. [I presented the Treading Gulf Waters essay at the conference.] I asked her to present a talk when she visited Dubai earlier this year).

What was meant to be a casual and intimate introduction, unravelled into a pensive mediation on Dubai and the Indian Ocean; it took me almost twenty minutes. Some joked and said they felt like they observed and listened to two talks. Others found the long introductory format rude and patriarchal!

I elected this format because, at that moment, I thought I must seize all opportunities and platforms to say things I think. I still do.

Here is a full transcript of the introductory note (a transcript from memory, btw, so this is not a live transcript from the recording and some of the content might have been expressed differently).



Welcome and thank you for joining us.

I am Ahmad Makia. I write about geography, urbanity, Dubai and sex. I will be chairing today’s talk.

First, I would like to thank the Art Jameel team for assisting us with organizing and supporting today’s talk. And by ‘us’, I am referring to peers and friends, some of whom are present in this room. We collectively come together to generate encounters, experiences, speculations, observations, interpretations, talks, performances, exercises, around the concept of Dubai.

Someone else interested in exploring Dubai is, Art Jameel. They’ve been in town for several years supporting a variety of local programmes and cultural initiatives. Today, they are working towards their largest effort yet, the Art Jameel Contemporary Arts Centre, which will host several gallery halls, a research/archive studio, a library, and artists/writer residency. It will launch in the upcoming winter season, and is currently under construction on the banks of what is considered the Dubai Wharf/Al Jaddaf area, opposite Dubai Festival City, slightly inward towards Ras Al Khor. It is one of the many venues and facilities that will come to populate Dubai’s new maritime corridor, the Dubai Creek Canal.

I bring up the location as I think it is reflective of where the city is today. Urbanists tend to teach you that state-led hydrological projects are not initiated for their commercial or utilitarian value solely, but that they are also created to say something about the state itself. That is, engineered intelligence over the environment. In this process, a seemingly ‘natural’ or ‘organic’ space is appropriated into something ‘naturally’ managed, which, subliminally, or not so much, demonstrates the creative forces of an authority. This phenomenon then contributes to very fixed and ever-present ideas of ‘the landscape’ in people’s imaginations; it is these fixtures that we hope to uncover and interrogate today.

Dubai’s previous engagements with hydrology looked to attract and seduce a foreign gaze inwards. Today’s cultural shift, however, as evident with the Creek Canal project, which I find to be an understated, yet marvelous, and entitled, engineering project, signals how the city no longer needs external purveyors, but that it justifies its actions for itself, thereby permitting it to do things like tax you, ask for your loyalty and devotion, and monitor your happiness and well-being.

On another scale, and in connection to Art Jameel and Dubai’s arts and culture sector, I desire to address the context of this room and presentation. In the late 2000s a variety of individuals, who hailed from various wealthy diaspora communities and had remade Dubai into home over the last forty years, initiated art galleries. In them, they displayed art works from their respective homelands, which they had been displaced from or left. In virtue of these gallery spaces, they transformed into community centres, in which its members were able to express an affinity to their homelands; more so than only being a place for the acquisition and viewing of art only.

This emerging, celebratory public congealed into the MENA arts, mostly Arab and Iranian art, which, today, is a very institutional, popular, and bureaucratic space. MENA arts found great appeal in the global art marketplace, who, like other creative industries (music, fashion, graphic design, etc), and like capital itself, is always looking for underrepresented and marginal voices, affects, products to keep itself relevant, sustainable, and marketable.

MENA arts, now MENASA (with South Asia), in which SA serves a new addendum to the voice of marginality cultivated by this imagined cultural region, -- which itself is created through the cultural statecraft of Dubai, Sharjah, Abu Dhabi, and Doha -- also developed in tandem with geopolitical shifts, and the liberal Western conscious to understand the cultural spaces of its militaristic encounters. This gaze and expectation then created a legitimate space for Middle Eastern art to be perceived in connection to diaspora, war, refugee and exile narratives, and its associated expressions for loss, despondency, and annihilation.

Today, there is a plethora of support programs that aim to nurture this voice and perspective, so as to ensure and sustain the MENASA’s (itself an economic construct) participation in the global fine art institutions, specifically in the West and in Asia.

Today, however, we witness a new development and turning from these local spaces. They are no longer only interested in showcasing themselves through their material acquisitions and possessions, ie their artwork collections, but also through support for immaterial cultural currencies: critical discourse, cultural studies, and knowledge development. These spaces are interested in shifting their alignment towards the knowledge economy and contributing to a wider intellectual community, especially, an Asian, post-colonial, and Arab, cultural space, as exemplified by the institutional support for this talk today.

This, I find, very relevant and contemporary, as most of what is considered at the frontier of experimental theory, literature, fiction, as well as the bodies of ‘new’ concepts and philosophies, is written in consideration for circulation and consumption in the contemporary art world. Harvard University Press’s semiotext(e), Ugly Duckling Presse, and Punctum Books, are some examples of contemporary arts in connection to critical thinking platforms. This merger is becoming especially prevalent, as the literary world is becomes more fulfilled with writing from professional academic affiliations, ie ‘creative writing’ departments/ degrees, while academia, especially the social sciences, further encloses itself by discussing the autopsy of its own theories.

So, hopefully, adding to this confluence of contemporary arts, the knowledge economy, and Dubai, I am very pleased to present Nisha Mathew’s talk, Dubai, the Migrant Imaginings of a Cosmopolitan World. Nisha is a Senior Research Fellow at the Middle East and Asia Research Institutes at the National University of Singapore. Her work is interested in the articulations of Malyalee transnationalism, especially in how it is refracted and expressed through the migrational history to the Gulf region, and how it then expunges out into the globalizing world. This is an offshoot from a larger strand of her work, which looks at conceptualizing the Western Indian Ocean world, through the material relations, gold especially, and affectations, between West Indian port cities and the coastal Gulf states.

Both Nisha and I have used the Indian Ocean Studies Framework in our own work. I will provide you with a contextualizing note about the framework to situate you in the academic discourse that Nisha’s work comes from, and hopefully, to encourage you to consider the framework in your own imaginative and creative pursuits.

The Indian Ocean Studies Framework comes in association to South-South relations, which I understand to be cultural realities existing between Asian, African, and American, specifically Central and South, continents, or Tricontinentalism, that are not read through the biased narratives of Anglophonic, European, or Atlantic forms of coloniality or diplomacy.

This, of course, emerges from the post-colonial academic consciousness that works to oppose the tradition of the linear progression of a Western civilization, and to address the stark narrative of an unequal and unjust relationship between a few metropolitan Western centres, and their concentration of wealth and knowledge, and a large poverty-stricken, corrupt, colonial, now postcolonial, hemisphere.

In response, the Indian Ocean Studies framework emerged as a methodological tool, in which a shared water rim is instrumentalized as a more ecologically friendly framework for understanding space, society, identity for communities in the Afro-Asian-American worlds. The framework allows for a reading that does not favor, and avoids, ethnic, national, continental, institutional, and religious connections, which have been diagnosed as limiting and oppressive.

What I find to be the most exciting proposal from the Indian Ocean Studies framework today, is that it is fashioning itself as an Asian method, and proposing a kind of Asianness about the world. Again, here, when I refer to the ‘Asian’, or the ‘Indian’ in Indian Ocean, it should not be understood ethnically or continentally, but that by invoking an Indian Ocean understanding of the world, we are able to reveal and deduce an Asian conception, or dynamism, of trade and mobility, that heavily informs and inscribes itself on what we understand today as global trade and mobility.

This thinking also works to problematize the features and narratives of ‘global’ civilizational progress, in that there was a time in which the world witnessed a decline in the Eastern dominions, and the rise of a Western power. As an example, the Indian Ocean, is being used to express a counter-discourse to the suspicious narratives around the eminence of ‘China’. If one is to look through the history of the Indian Ocean, trade has always extended and linked itself towards China, and thus the ‘Rise of China’ is not necessarily a new, and contemporary phenomenon, but that the Indian Ocean, as well as China, had to shift and reinterpret its activities, given the interruption and turbulence it encountered by Western colonial fleets, during the 18-20th centuries.

The framework is also demonstrative of the dynamism existing between South Asia and the Arabian Peninsula. The two areas have generally been connected through the history of British Raj colonial administration, or the movement of indentured Indian labor in the early 20th century, as you have in the Caribbean and Pacific islands, or even linked to the Gulf’s kafala sponsorship system in which it looks to South Asia to source its labor, muscle and energy. Rather, the connection and movement between the two areas is a ‘traditional’ and inherent occurrence from the Indian Ocean world.

So, many possibilities are being verbalized through the Indian Ocean. The domain has become quite sophisticated, that many scholars are now accusing practitioners of the Indian Ocean of overly romanticizing its surface as a place in which they are projecting their ideals, especially towards conceiving of an Asian cosmopolitanism. In this criticism, these scholars are being accused of being too ‘water drunk’, and this is because the ‘ocean’/water, as a cultural construct, is a romantic media from the cultural mainstream.

What I think these critics are actually trying to claim is that Indian Ocean scholars, most of whom tend to be postcolonial, are using the landscape to imitate what scholars in the Western domain enjoy in their own academic cultural establishments; Indian Ocean scholars, therefore, narrate stories in which they too are powerful. 

However, I find much of this discourse invalid and lazy, as the Indian Ocean does not sit at a great distance from me, or others who harbors its borders, in which we collectively long across its surface, hoping to arrive to a distant horizon, it is a surface in which you can swim into, and use a variety of technologies and infrastructures to travel on its surfaces. The Indian Ocean is an urban space that is used to express the connotations and continuities of global modernity. It is a practice that works to ensure that a person’s perception of space, or themselves, does not end where the national territory does.

What is incredibly exciting, for me at least, is that the Indian Ocean framework is providing a much needed destabilization to the Atlantic view of the world, which has standardized, and calibrated, collective aspirations for the civic national model and social republic. It is important to note that this ideology descends from developments in landscape technology, in which a slave-labor plantation economy transitioned towards an equal-wage industrial economy. In this socio-economic transition, demands for self-determination, and representation, were expressed as ‘land rights’: territory, soil, and property. On the other hand, the Indian Ocean framework, is suggesting a similar humanistic expression and articulation, that is represented through an an oceanic, non-object space. It is an active, almost unseen, technology, especially in how it is being conceived: commerce, trade, and mobility.

This kind of ‘water turning’ or aquatic conception, I think, is succeeding, as the Pacific is emerging as its own cultural terrain, and other water bodies are becoming expressive of a world that supersedes the myopia of global distinctions and identity politics.

In today’s presentation, we will do the same with the Gulf. So, to start, I ask you to not consider the Gulf terrain as an infrastructure of oil-wealth, or as a Khaleeji-Muslim territory, or in connection to the nations who share its waters, but as a fluid, circulatory, and interpretive domain. This proposed flexibility will be articulated through the Malyalee community’s connection to the UAE. As most know, the Malyalee community has expressed itself in the UAE through a variety of social classes, professions, and cultural realities. It has been able to identify itself autonomously in the UAE, and across the Gulf, next to an already well-expressed, and conceived Indian identity. It operates as a sufficient entity, mostly through its perspective and connections to the Gulf, which Nisha will be sharing with us today.

Please join me in welcoming her presentation, and we look forward to hearing your thoughts, observations, and questions afterwards.

Tuesday, 29 August 2017

Fleeing the Desert: Environmental Situationism in the Emirates

In the UAE, there is little consensus on what is considered the local environmental culture. What is also difficult to determine is a public who finds affinity and agreement on the hemispheric and geologic location of the Emirates. The available geographic narrative speaks of an environment that is either hostile or naive. Hostility is found in images of a desert landscape that is excruciatingly hot, unlivable and barren, or as an extractive and exploitative surface composed of global oil technologies, technocrats, and kafala-sponsored labor industries. Naivety, on the other hand, is conceptualized through preserved heritage sites of imagined prehistoric and tribal contexts that are eradicated by modern materials and amenities: concrete, glass, steel, semi-automated vehicles, and air-conditioning. This research, in turn, ignores these limiting perceptions of the landscape and proposes an environmental imagination of the Emirates through hydrology and livability.

Fleeing the Desert: Environmental Situationism in the Emirates
brings together perspectives from geography, anthropology, palaeontology, agriculture and technology, as intersecting thoroughfares that work to simulate an environment for the human habitation of the Gulf. It looks through a variety of water solution technologies and infrastructures -- such as irrigation, wastewater and stormwater management, saline farming, cloud seeding, water desalination, and potable water delivery mechanisms -- as well as the geologic features of the Gulf valley -- such as creeks, islands, wetlands, lagoons, marshes, oases, and canals -- to create an environmental vocabulary of the Emirates. Moreover, these hydrological spaces, invented or otherwise, problematize the history of the Emirates as only made possible by the 1960s oil discoveries and advances water infrastructure -- especially water desalination -- as a major initiation for the Gulf’s hyper-accelerated development.

The purpose of this research is to create a desirable environment that situates the Gulf on a planetary scale, rather than its usual imagination as an isolated, postmodern, and unregulated neoliberal vacuum. It is an elaboration and inspiration on the forms of Gulf environmentality, a marriage of environmental management with biopolitical governmentality, in which the landscape is engaged to make and create politics instead of collective social identities. This project assumes that the environment is a creation -- occupied, designed, inhabited -- in which water surfaces are appropriated as zones of evasion from concepts of social recognition such as roots, soil, territory, property and nationality. By exploring the history of water space in the Emirates, the project invites thought into the ‘offshore’ as a radical lived form.

Tuesday, 22 August 2017

Fleeing The Desert: Creeks, Pirates and Hermaphrodites

This body of work is informed -- or dare I say, inspired! -- by two stories. One is geology, the other piracy, and they are brought together to propose an exercise in advanced worldbuilding.

Dubai Creek:

Biogeographers tend to examine the relationship between a living organism and the environmental conditions in which said organism lives and operates. In opposition to the 'hard' disciplines of paleontology and archeology (ew) -- which is the clinicalization and deadinization of organisms by transforming them into objects: fossils, carcasses, lab experiments -- biogeography is an in situ design that explores the interactions between organisms and their surrounding biotic environment, like climate and vegetation. Biogeographers, thus, are considered fieldworkers. Another difference between the two is how they 'arrive' at information: lab workers, expect their studies to give them similar results over and over again, meanwhile, field workers, expect diverging and unpredictable results from the field.

Biogeography, in scholarship, is generally reserved for the study of pre-human and non-human living beings, and preoccupied with evolutionary questions. It spends most of its time exploring the global distribution and organization of organisms: how did -- and how do -- things come to be the way they are?

Human geography, then, articulates a similar relationship. It swaps organisms for humans and explores their ‘field-working’: how do they physically and affectively occupy their surrounding environments? Today, the discipline's studies are very sophisticated, like, why and where does love, affinity, companionship find itself in a given terrain? Field sites range from the nuclear family in the suburb, to queer pockets in dense urban cities (Westphalian, usually), and ideological community formations such as Copenhagen’s Christiania. Others address the sensorial and mental field: how does a pharmacy, immigrant family, or rumor of a neighborhood serial killer factor into one’s spatial understanding.

These geographers also ask how and why do humans shape the field in the way that they do (the pragmatic answer is shelter and sustenance). Is war and colonization an expression for landscape architecture? The field, too, is questioned as a concept in itself: isn’t it a human invention anyway? Where does this boundary of clinical lab and chaotic environment lie? By and for whom? Nature, they tell us, exists, because it is a fantasy supported by industries like syntax, media and pedagogy, that work to sustain its wide-reaching consensus. They confer that nature is an instrument and so is our relation with it, as well as our presence inside of it. The fact that it even exists should be a great mystery to us.

I desire to explore these practices and manners in Dubai, or the phenomenon of Dubai, an interest of mine, one verging on neurological obsession, and its Creek, which has been dredged up to make Dubai Island. Dubai Creek, in its earlier state, is considered a geographic anomaly. This is ‘scientifically’ agreed on because the Creek is an inlet of water that circulates inside a landmass with no evident water reservoir that replenishes it. This understanding renders the Creek as an existential vacuum. How come?

The Pleistocene (or, more casually known as the most recent ice age) is suspected to have caused the Creek’s unique geological formation. Ice Ages usually mean that water bodies congeal and freeze to form ice sheets, ie the Polar regions, and in this process absorb global waters, leading to the evacuation (or more ‘scientifically’, mass evaporation) of waterways and the generation of drylands. Global warming then is a reversal of this process. For the Arabian Peninsula, this glacial event caused the narrowing of the Red Sea, the creation of the Empty Quarter -- the world's greatest salt plain, or Sabkha -- and drying of the area’s many waterways, which are imagined to be part of the divine moodboard of the Garden of Eden’s ecological fiction.

Dubai Creek, as a maritime inlet, therefore, is a remnant of this environmental history, revealing the hollowing of the Peninsula into a dry, arid region. This climatic change motivates Dubai’s contemporary vivacity. (Disclaimer: when I say climatic change I am not referring to contemporary propaganda of the Green movement a la Al Gore, but climate change in relation to the geologic time-scale, specifically the most recent glacial event, that dates back 110,000 to 11,000 years ago.)

I say this because the presence of water, ie the Creek, indicates prosperity, or at least the biogeographer, that I aspire to be, rationalizes it as so. Water-space generates human and organism movement and encourages them to stay and settle in specific places, over others -- akin to what you see today as waterfront real-estate development: marinas, harbors, ports, beaches.

Pirate Crews:

The Lower Gulf is a region that includes the Qatar Peninsula, the littoral Emirates of Dubai, Abu Dhabi, Sharjah, Ras Al Khaimah, Lingah, Musandam and Hormuz: a choked cluster of port towns adjacent, yet separated, by the Strait, to the Gulf of Oman, the Muscat Governorate, the Arabian Sea and the Indian Ocean. This region carries an environmental spiritedness and situation that is not relatable to what is considered codes and progressions of the 'human civilization'. Or at least this is what I think.

What I mean by the ‘human civilization’ is, the ecological imprint, and lineage, of farming and irrigation technologies, domestication of animals, alliances with central and dominant rulers, human efforts at sedentarization, fossilization and monumentalization of architecture, harmonious and neighborly social interactions and forms of cohabitation that come into effect with the spreading of religious doctrines. Rather, the Lower Gulf is deviant, anarchic, and especially, flamboyant.

Up until the early 1900s, the Lower Gulf was a vibrant and aggressive terrain. It was made up of coastal Arab rulers, Omani Imams and Sultans, the Al Said Dynasty, who continue to rule over Oman, Wahabi governors, today’s elite ruling class of the Islamic Kingdom of Saudi Arabia, and Persian coastal authorities, purveyors of Musandam, Hormuz, and the islands of Abu Musa, Tunb Kabeer, Tunb Sagheer (an ongoing ownership dispute between UAE and Iran). These groups claimed for legitimacy and presence in the area. Most, if not all, their political activities were conducted on the waterways of what we geographically understand today as the Gulf region.

In this historiography, the Lower Gulf’s water terrain is best described as a technological zone where a variety of groups compete for personal and social aims. How? Through the combat skills of pirates: pillaging, racketeering, and plundering of vessels. In fact, I contend that it is through these activities that the Lower Gulf was socialized into an identifiable environment.

Prominent in the history of the Gulf is the ‘pirate coast’, a title it earned from the British imperial navy, because of local communities abilities to disrupt global maritime activities that facilitate the placeless transactions of capital. Pirates referred to a people with mastery and acclimatization to a terrain who directly opposed and threatened the dominant transactions of powerful and imperial groups. What set these groups apart from ruling authority is site-specificity, and their know-how of place, spatial understanding, and environmental embeddedness.

Historical figures such as the Rugragee's crew, or gang, and Sohail Atish created independent and unaffiliated maritime zones, to centralized powers, in the Lower Gulf during the 19th-20th centuries. These communities found their entire meaning in engineering attacks on vessels carrying goods to other places. Zafrah, as an example, an area close to Qatar's Khor Al Udayd -- note, another Creek -- became Atish’s temporary autonomous zone. After his repeated attacks on imperial vessels, no governing body -- really, the British Raj office -- was able to put him on trial for his plundering activities, since he was untethered to any ‘official’ jurisdiction. Eventually, many neighboring powers collaborated to patrol the areas Atish conducted his business in, yet none were able to curtail his activities, because they did not share the same environment.

Till today, the Gulf is shared by a variety of groups who are constantly and fluidly exchanging alliances: GCC vs. Qatar, as of late, and competing narratives of Arabian vs. Persian Gulf. What is consolidated today as the Gulf is a fragmented distribution of its hydro-power. These activities of pirateering, trickstering, profiteering, court-jesting, as well as haziness in affiliation and jurisdiction, I contend, is Gulf culture. In the local patois, Wasta suprastructures. Specially since these practices extend and inform the Gulf’s present, with people like the liberal technocrat, images and dreams of the tax-free haven, the building of its coasts as deregulated freezones, offshores, ports, and literary narratives that imagine it as a faceless and opulent non-place.

(Note: Some of the information in this section is adapted from Victoria Hightower's research Irregularities, Disturbances, and Piratical Undertakings: Mobility and Maritime Violence in the Lower Arab Gulf Emirates in the 19th Century)


(Is it not troubling to you when people ask you to casually speak about and summarize what you do. What impatient and cosmetic ears. How do you expect me to compress all the labor, thought, nuance, reflection, experience, and literature that has worked to do the work that I do.)


Maintenant, je m’enflamme de moi-meme

-- Jean-Paul Richter via Henry Miller’s Plexus

I have participated in various ‘thinking’ platforms, and their support of me, in form mostly, has worked to accelerate my disbelief in them, but also my own disquiet; something I hope to reveal -- actually, no, show -- to you here. Most of my work has been published, or facilitated, by the contemporary arts apparatus and the spaces it creates that are there to show -- and only to show -- loyalty to the Pavilion of Global Intellectual Thought. So, this blog, I guess, is an attempt at sobering up from all that.

I believed that capitalist logics and their regulation, organization and distribution of discourse shouldn’t be accounted for -- that heavily, at least -- in my own individual process of making, as the work, hopefully, is profound enough and able to speak autonomously and champion all the limitations that these vertical platforms impose. Some friends opted for over accelerating their production and association with these spaces, and legitimize this practice as a form of political autonomy. But WHERE does your theoretical principle emerge is a necessary, if not the only worthy, articulation.

When anxieties are expressed about interacting and engaging with these corporatized and homogenous structures, you are quickly silenced, and told of the benefits of implementing these ‘career moves’: sacrifices you make so that you are elevated to an eventual, utopic place where you become prestigious, fabolous, revered, and respected for your work. But there is no pinnacle, no Burj Khalifa, you are usually looking for these things in yourself most of the time, while others thieve from you, and make money, professions, industries to provide you with the illusion that you are those things. Always keep in mind, you are a blip and ordinary, and you don’t know anything. I am not sure who at the ‘height’ of their career, or with millions in their bank, or with great images of themselves, feels like they are on top of the world.

Many peers and practitioners interested in producing thought and intellect (and these are productions, cultivations, not latent gifts or talents bestowed on a specific group of people) are more than happy to surrender their thought to the Pavilion’s convention. Like myself. But there are some important ideas to express here regarding associations with legitimized spaces: ideas and people that are popular can only be treated with suspicion, not role modelled, envied, or idealized. Second, the fact that the Pavilion is visible to you already problematizes your implication with it or in it. You are seen, or more accurately, you are being watched. It is also disappointing that most of the content you do watch is not interesting, rather it is all too personal: explorations of selves, surgeries of vanities, and documentative attempts at healing personal traumas. People and their own individuality become the ‘work’, measured by how good they are at being business and socially savvy; shake-handy.

This space, I guess, is an attempt for lucidity, of what it is I want, or think, or believe: ability to confuse, disturb, disrupt, and extend out of my own subjectivity and personhood -- dramas really. To produce hazy affiliations...or none of them at all. Can I not be a person? Secondly, I know that knowledge does not appear through expected and formalized routes, or in the officiated logistical space, which means that perspective depends on the disregard to convention you chose to share your work and thought.

The blog is not an emancipatory space, neither in form nor as an imagination -- a bit dated, I’d say even -- it is an expression for thought without securing institutional status.

(Disclaimer: I make money by working as head of Sharjah Art Foundation’s Publications department, a Gulf-based non profit arts organization. Very troubling for my premise. This is me pretending to GET OUT.)


During my upbringing, pahlawan was a word used for someone who is acrobatic, not in the muscular sense, but in public presence: a ‘bent’ movement across time and space; someone who mutates. In Afghanistan, as an example, bodybuilders are called Pahalwans. In Malaysia and Indonesia, Pahlawan is a hero.

A powder box, meanwhile, in metaphor, is considered a place where people, girls usually, stash their secrets. It is also a weapon and repository in which secrets sustain or emerge.

The name of this blog, then, is informed by these terminologies, and places them together in lieu of cultures such as Bobby Marchan’s Powder Box Revue and the Jewel Box Revue (especially, the figure of Storme DeLarverie). These revues were cross-dressing shows of the 'hermaphroditic variety', and they experimented with sentiments I would like to explore here, not so much through bodily exhibitionism, but as concepts for expressing the extraterrestrial and irregular.

Thursday, 4 May 2017

Fleeing the Desert: Hydropolitics in the Wet Gulf


I am from the Gulf and I consider myself a cross-dresser. By ‘cross-dresser’, I do not mean someone who bends conceptions of gender or wardrobe or body or ethnicity only, but someone who bends interpretation of the human form. The ‘human form’ I invoke here is akin to this live performative gesture currently revealing itself to you. So when I say cross-dressing, I use it to describe an assumed and invented role; a role created to illustrate the possibilities of a collective species.

I have assumed many roles in my life and they represent what I do as a person, not as a profession or in duty to any kind of title or category that I've earned or inherited. This mode of character assumption emerges from an absence; the absence of images, vocabularies, materialities, thoughts, bodies, environments that are representative of my realities and dreams (is there any difference between them, anyway?). My work, therefore, is concerned with this distance and spends a lot of time thinking about how to transform the spiritual, sexual and existential feelings associated with the conditions which landscape our world.

I express my thoughts in writing but mostly through performative gestures of my public self, or 'State' Self, or 'Legal' Self . I do this for a variety of personal reasons, mainly history and its traumas, but in absence of my own dramas, my work, I like to think, is used to advance politics. These politics are not prescribed to me, neither do they fulfill a political ideology, or performed on behalf of a communal or regional public cause that I share an ancestral or ethnic affinity for, but a politics assembled through things that one happens to stumble upon, along with things one has assembled over time, which work to refine and texturize a version of the world. In this case, your world.

Politics is world-making and it is not something that is prepared for you. Politics is self-technology: efforts in bodily contemplation, radicalization, augmentation or realization. Weaponization of self, really, so as to be able to discern the contradictions, and nihilisms, in the world. It is these transfigurations of self in which I consider myself a cross-dresser. Why I bring attention to these gestures, witnessed or unwitnessed, is because they have allowed me to stumble your way today.

This is an experimental learning session.

Consider the entirety of this performance as my own cross-dressing show and this is the first time I am performing it.

You are allowed to intervene at any point that feels like it would be received favorably by me.

Most important, though, we are going to have fun because everything I do is situated in the Persian Gulf and there is no greater place.


In 2011, a friend and I got together -- a very new friend -- and created a publishing project called THE STATE. I believe the history and story of origin is unnecessary to divulge as it is too much about Gulf vanity (and I would probably get paid a lot more if I did a version of that story).

We were young, foolish, and especially precocious -- meaning we were afraid of coming out as people -- especially my new friend, or whatever representation I had of my new friend, or my new friend of me.

In the project, we were concerned with WHERE we were speaking from, Dubai.

We explored the city through architecture: the augmentation of bodies, prosthetics, toxicity in/with technology, holographic and printed landscapes, the weird sensation of the impending and oncoming, the hypernormalization of black screens and mirrors, radical forms of ‘self-representation’ in the postcolonial moment.

We used the city to learn about the contemporary, which I would describe as the portmanteau of globalizing sensations and impressions, and we used the fashion of technology to articulate and modulate a feeling: contemporary disrepair, I think it is. Our work moved towards a tapestry, generated from the feelings associated with habitation of a Gulf landscape. We discovered that when you look for ‘feeling’ in a place like Dubai, it becomes a transgressive experience, requiring a sophisticated and perverted emotional intelligence, because you will find the need to enjoy and entertain dubiousness and treachery, all in the meanwhile, questioning where those feelings come from, the past, present or future.

These explorations belonged to the meta-structure of the practice and we desired to create a local public around these ideas, through publishing and educational programs. Remarkably, we grew into something, a collective, a happening, a stumbling, a something. We, today, are Gulf practitioners, interested in creating a local mode, something self-written. To do this, we engage in a process of environmental selection, in which we contemplate the surfaces, landscapes, environments we live in and experiment with how they can mirror our feeling and being, of here or from here.

What also binds us together is the making of the city: its accumulations, compressions and accelerations -- as Dubai emerged in its surprising and unbelievable way, we similarly ‘emerged’ with it. We mimic the processes of this city and allow it to impregnate us with its fantasy, just like the landscape permits its inhabitants -- and leaders -- to do, and position our bodies as containers of this whirling energy. To express and transform it, we assume many roles and cross-dress, occupying and speaking on and about the multiversal world that is Dubai.


Fast-forward to the present and you will find another self-representation of me, in which I pretend to be a geographer from Dubai that is undressing the urban and ecological layers of the city. I am actually a geographer from Dubai, but in this text, in this exercise, I am outwardly appearing as such to you, and so I am cross-dressing into an imagined zone.

The character is a biogeographer who conducts research on the Gulf’s waterways. She selects an environment to design and convey a critical approach to Gulf politics. I imagine this person to be in their 50s, maybe 60s.

Read text entry below: Fleeing the Desert: The Archipelago of the Wet Gulf.


The Littoral Frontier is composed of the UAE, Bahrain, Kuwait, Qatar. They are high producing oil-regions who have managed to carve a space and identity outside the meta-Gulf/Peninsula oil region: Iran, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, Iraq, and Oman.

In the 1850s and early 20th century the Frontier became a navigable and recognizable landscape, ie embroiled into the European colonial apparatus. Therefore, the Frontier’s ascension into global politics, international relations, and foreign diplomacy, is recent. Before this period, the Littoral Frontier was treated with negligence, and not considered of strategic importance, especially since it was perceived to be a ‘barren’ landscape, and served as a rest stop for vehicles headed to India, the Indo-Malay Peninsula, Australia, New Zealand, and Chinese trading hubs.

The inhabitants of the Littoral Frontier, are, in historic records, two groups. Desert Wanderers, who are linked to the histories of inter-tribal domination and expansion of indigenous Arabian clans from Saudi Arabia, Oman and Yemen. Their lifestyles are perceived to be bedouin (that is never fixed, but always on the go). Some areas in the Frontier were also treated as temporary zones of refuge for communities escaping from dominant mainland rulers. The other group is Boat People. From the 1600s onwards, most of the Frontier’s inhabitation was by seafarers, marine journeyers, abandoned ship-men and the like. It served as a rest stop from global journeys and movements traveling across the Indian Ocean. Both of these migrational groups show how the Frontier operated as a pocket of outsiderness, from the larger area, and continues to as the area is still characterized for its mobile lifestyle and lawless urban development, which is usually pictured as ‘unhinged’ from the immediate environment.

Advancements in communication technology and infrastructure, specially telegraphy, imagined the Gulf into a geopolitical space. The laying of submarine cables for data and communication transfer was the earliest modeling of the Gulf as part of global indexes and atlases, in the late 1800s. This coupled with advancements in air travel remade the Gulf into a shared and totally global space. Sharjah, as an example, in the early 1900s, presented itself as a favorable air runway for journeys between the colonial world and the colonies, and eventually became appropriated into a strategic zone for global capital transfer, similar to the urban development of neighboring areas across the Littoral Frontier.

From the 1940s-70s, the Littoral Frontier’s currency shifts dramatically with oil and gas discoveries. Transitional governments were installed, such as the Trucial States, an indirect British-Raj colonial establishment in present day UAE, to fulfill the prospects of locating oil deposits, and generating operational field sites for global energy. Oil was initially found in Saudi Arabia, Kuwait, and Iraq regions, and later discovered in the Littoral Frontier, during the late 60s-early 70s, and the area becomes termed as a ‘late arrival’ to capitalism.

This history reveals that the Littoral Frontier served as a geopolitical interest for terminal global infrastructures and not as a direct colonial space. In contrast to neighboring Asian and Middle Eastern examples, and African and South American histories of coloniality and then post-coloniality, the Littoral Frontier was not imagined into the universalized imperial exchange of the Global South, such as imposed religious conversions and the building of public amenities like local railways, churches, schools, bueracracies, hospitals, etc. British post-colonialists were wiser in the later part of the 20th century, too. Deducing that direct presence and governance is a source for hostilities and agitations with local communities, a new political situation needed to be created, in which resources could be extracted with the least amount of local offense. Instead of instilling a government that is exclusively British, or foreign, it implemented, from a distance, authoritative local governments, that self-represent as absolutely accountable for local affairs.

In this formula, Britain crossdresses, local politicians crossdress, and the landscape crossdresses for global bounty: oil and the sustenance of seamless, accelerated movement. The Littoral Frontier, then, does not become a centralized nation, or an exclusive phenomenon, but a shared globality.


The discovery of oil revolutionizes the landscape of the Littoral Frontier by making it complete: plugged into the networks and surfaces of modernity. Oil wells become the associated forms of environmentality for the Littoral Frontier. The narrative today claims that if no oil existed behind the city’s surfaces, its unbelievable modernity would not exist. So, oil, becomes a well, a pond, a source, and the point of ecological origin, while the mechanics of the fossil fuel industry become the Frontier’s blueprint, verbalizing itself across the Frontier’s built and emotional landscapes.

Oil, in the global narrative, is an uncomfortable situation for human identification, as oil, on its own terms, proposes that it is sufficient for comfort and livability, a proposition represented, very exuberantly, by the postmodern, late capitalist, and accelerated development of the Littoral Frontier. This uneasiness is ameliorated because oil in the Frontier is extracted from a desert landscape, that is barren, hot and impossible. What becomes problematized with this environmental image is the validity of our universal developments as a humanity, our ethical principles, our holistic earthiness, our values for justice, kindness, love, and hope…how can any of it be possible in a landscape that is entirely built upon fossil fuel extraction, an industry that is perceived to be extremely antithetical to these civilizational means of progress.

The fossil fuel characterization of the Frontier, therefore, permits a range of hostile and anxious commentary, pornographic really, because oil fetish is conveniently oppositional to universal institutes of what is good and principled. The Frontier, when critically examined, is a shame, a disgrace to the planet, a human rights abuser, an extreme in density, scale, vision, governance; anthropocenic and apocalyptic. These critiques are further supported by the high-energy emitting systems required to sustain Littoral locales, and the unregulated neoliberal surfaces it operates on, as well as its exploitative forms of labor.

But the development of place and people is a violent endeavour, put very simply, and in the Littoral Frontier that is transparent. Rather, the anxiety surrounds the proposed universality of these politics of equality, politeness, and goodness. Moreover, oil surfaces are not an exclusive enterprise belonging the Littoral Frontier. Fossil fuel blueprints are planetary and what is witnessed on the streets Frontier is what is required to keep the world moving.

I propose that identifications of oil, or from oil -- an environmental style -- does not deter the effort and willingness to live, or be good.

The Dubai Marine Co-op Society, is responsible for providing potable water solution technologies to the Gulf and Arabian Peninsula Regions. It is currently involved in two hydro-projects in the Gulf: water desalination and rain-making.

Water Desalination:

All Gulf countries are considered in ‘acute scarcity’ of water, meanwhile the demand for water is continuously increasing in the Gulf regions, because of high rates of urbanization -- the statistic currently sits at 84%. Gulf water is warm, shallow, and salty. The population of GCC countries has risen 43 per cent from about 30 million in 2002 to nearly 43.5 million in 2010.

Water scarcity is not new in the Gulf or the world, and since the 70s, most water supply in the Gulf regions comes from the desalination of seawater, a process that extracts salts minerals from saline water to produce water suitable for human consumption and irrigation. The largest single operating desalination plant is Ras Al-Khair in Saudi Arabia, meanwhile, Kuwait, is considered the single largest country dependant on desalinated water totaling 100%.

After extracting salt water, large amounts of brine are produced, which have about double the salinity of natural seawater. For example, in a reverse osmosis desalination plant, water is taken from the sea and when the brine is discharged back, salinity will increase by 70%.

Dubai Marine Co-op Society’s solution: Deep Sea Trawling. To avoid ejection of high concentrations of brine by land-based desalination plants into the Gulf, the Co-op has designed mobile marine bottling plants which utilise deep sea waters to produce drinking water rich in marine minerals while smoothly disseminating brine over a large area of water, while the ship sails.


Since the 1860s, many drought-struck areas have commissioned a variety of quirky scientists and experimenters to engineer science for rainmaking. The most successful of these inventions is cloud seeding. Cloud seeding is a form of weather modification, a way of changing the amount or type of precipitation that falls from clouds, by dispersing substances into the air that serve as cloud condensation or ice nuclei, which alter the microphysical processes within the cloud.

The most common substances include liquid propane, silver iodide, and potassium iodide. The UAE is currently the most successful nation in the creation of rain by cloud seeding, reporting over 200 days of successful events. In 2015, as an example, almost 187 rain missions were ordered along the UAE. The Ministry of Presidential Affairs also has several grants and funds for its UAE Research Program for Rain Enhancement Science.

The Marine Co-op’s solution, Cloud Ionization: ions, or negatively charged particles, attach to the condensation nuclei in clouds and enable them to survive longer in the atmosphere. The longer they survive, the more time water droplets have to grow on their surfaces. The Co-op helped set up five ionizing sites in the Abu Dhabi-Al Ain area, with 10 ionizing emitters that sent trillions of these cloud-forming ions into the atmosphere. We have successfully reported more than 52 days of rain-making yet with major hazardous effects.

The Gulf regimes have achieved the ability to deliberately deploy technology and scientific methods of management to establish its political authority and re-engineer society in its own image. The result was the elaboration of a Gulf Environmentality, a marriage of environmental management with biopolitical governmentality. They, locally, have become Technostates through the management of water resources—not oil—and consolidate power at the center of the nation through hydro-programs of supply through desalination.

Water and oil are the two determining forces in the development of the Gulf and together become the defining forces of environmentality and ecological identity; they exist together rather than apart. The difference is mainly in perception, since water is a domestic supply, while oil is an international global commodity.

I contend that water has created more of the Gulf state than oil. As much as there is oil obsession or fetish in the Gulf, there also exists one with water. The difference is that the relationship with water is vulnerable, rather than powerful.

In Dubai, and in the Littoral Frontier, I position myself as a representative of the Gulf’s water affairs, and I engage with the landscape to make and create politics, rather than collective social identities. This effort creates what I call a politics for environmental situationism, which is that the environment you chose to inhabit, design and occupy, becomes the creative force for life. In this imagination, life is not bottled into a spirit or a singular body, but presented as a situation, in which the body instrumentalizes the surrounding environment as the its own accidental situation.

Water, just like oil, is imagined as a technology for diffusion and circulation.

Saturday, 15 October 2016

Fleeing the Desert: The Archipelago of the Wet Gulf

The day I found myself in a fish tank was when I conducted a study on the emotional behaviour of grouper fish in the Persian Gulf. After several weeks of observation, I identified that some grouper fish bow their heads down to point at each other. They make these signals when encircling a targeted prey to strategically orchestrate battle, recruit hunting partners, and then serve dinner. This study on grouper fish is significant because pointing, a major intellectual and cognitive gesture, has only been observed in humans and verified in some great apes and ravens.

I dedicated my life to the sea for two reasons. Once I had a dream that I sliced a fish’s stomach and found a book inside. Secondly, after graduating from school, I left home with no imparted or cultivated knowledge of my ‘native’ environment. You might or might not be surprised to know that in the UAE, where I’m from, most of us don’t learn about our local flora, fauna, fruits, minerals, botany, kingdoms, hunters, peoples. Rather, our sense of geography and history is an accumulation of many other places and faces. Till today, we have very little consensus on what we consider our environmental culture or ‘natural history’. We grew up knowing of falcons, gazelles, horses, peacocks (and camels of course!), but these are species favored, bred, imported, and collected by local enthusiasts, mainly as leisure and sport. So, for me, it became necessary that this information was corrected and adjusted. But how?

After several years of honing my interests in intervertebral paleontology, I was awarded a grant for researching ocean dispersal histories in the Peninsula region. We conducted this study through careful examination of proximal waterways: the Persian Gulf, the Arabian Sea, the Red Sea, the Strait of Hormuz, the Strait of Mandab, the Gulf of Oman, the Gulf of Aqaba, the Indian Ocean and the Mediterranean (via Suez Canal into the Red Sea).

My fieldwork in the Gulf coincided with the emergence of a new frontier for biogeographers: we know nothing. With the rise of genomic studies, the Pangea’s distribution of the world’s continents and organisms was called into question and eventually ruled as an artificial phenomenon. It turns out we did not become separated by water as previously thought. Rather, the water in-between lands emerged as its own biophysical space (with its own history and duration), which then complicated universalized understandings of organism distribution across earth. This, especially, because evolutionary history can no longer be marked by a singular geological event.

So, today, biogeographers still cannot fully grasp how animals and organisms become distributed the way they are today. How did monkeys from Africa get to South America? How did lemurs colonize Madagascar? Water bodies separating the continents have become literal-landscape representations of the leak in our understandings of society, ecology, mobility, and evolution. Therefore, it has become of great importance for peers and practitioners within evolutionary history to encourage daring and creative methodology. Ocean dispersal process is one of them.

In light of all this, I began with projecting the present into the past within my own fieldwork. In the Gulf, I cannot historically pinpoint a source of ecological origin because places like the Gulf tell you origins don’t exist anyhow. Rather, it shows how roots have taken on too many dangerous metaphors.

My research shows something different altogether. Ocean dispersalism in the Gulf descends from an island-cluster. I imagine them to be an archipelago of vegetational log mats that were expelled by a catastrophic flood event; biblical, fantastical, and academic literature have implied to the nature of this mat. On these mats existed several life forms, which in their new adrift state, developed in various ways. These mats varied in ecological size and scale. They married and circulated along Gulf waters for several millennia. Parts of the floating vegetation mats became beached along varying locations of what I’ll call the Blue Belt, the land rims harboring and sharing Gulf water. When parked on a new land frontier, the mats stay to advance a greater ecological interaction between its nutrients and the new plateau. These mats, I believe, comprise the biological underpinnings of the coastal Gulf identity.

The island of Bahrain is the most representative simulation for what a vibrant ecological Gulf log mat might have looked like. Also, the geo-formation of Bahrain indicates that this mat was bountiful enough to autonomously take root in water, meanwhile, other mats percolated into the continental landmass of the Peninsula. Ocean dispersalism in the Gulf habitats also shows that the island-cluster could have also formed some surfaces in the Seychelles, Mauritius, Reunion Island, the state of Kerala in India, Sri Lanka, Comoros Islands, and Zanzibar. (There also possible bridges into the Pacific, but this would need its own observatory.)

This habitat becomes visible when you inspect the urban nature of coastal Gulf cities, which are very self-enclosed but wildly sufficient within; like islands or ships. What this might mean is that these log mat habitats cannot persevere that far away from the shore, or from their ‘island mentality’, as biological interactivity ceases the further you move away from Gulf waters.

Secondly, very little from the adjacent hinterland is used for agrarian self-sufficiency, or as colonies of new species, rather, there is only some forms of nomadism and industry. This kind of development indicates two things. It could be that this log mat ‘stationing’ is rather recent since very little ecological and agricultural variety has developed in the interior. Secondly, Gulf cities are in a deep struggle with their beaching fortune, especially for organisms, as the insides of their new hinterland are both unfavorable and inhospitable for expansion, which is a tendency of most living things. (It is also possible that migration in land might have caused previous animal and organism death or extinction and thus associated with risk.)

The Creek Expansion project in Dubai, today, hints at this ecological heritage, where the terrain continues drifting and coasting across the water rather than eternally docking to a landmass. Dubai, within this marine constellation, is not just an imagined island but a literal one too: a place that shifts location, geographically fluctuates, is set apart.

The island, as a material form, is understood to be an elusive or amphibian-like geographic zone; a conceptualization it inherited from the geologic enterprise which treats the island as a landscape with high susceptibility for disappearance through flooding. This biological outsider-ness of islands is not dissimilar to Gulf landscapes as both mediate in terrains that do not descend from continental monolithic thinking.

This sense of islanding is also represented in metaphors of the Gulf as non - East or non - West, very rich and very poor, bleak unforgiving nature versus hyper industrious modernity. But the island, in this case, should not be identified as ecological loss but as place of transgression. This we see with Gulf polity which has evolved to become representatives of a kind of Third World-ness. And by Third World-ness, I am not ranking it as if within a hierarchy, but only allegorically. Third identities in species of some environments have developed to become organized terrains for demanding resource, i.e. economic, and cultural recognition. Socially, this is also mimicked, with the Third World international position now evolved to the status of empowered, rich, and ruling societies who would’ve been otherwise discredited within the myopia of US / Soviet political geography. These are concreted efforts for the inhabitation of a ‘Third’ ecozone, in a face off with a Western institution that would’ve treated this zone as poverty-stricken, tropical, non-Caucasian, and post-colonial but under Western rule. This identify fluctuation evolves from Third World as territorial bypass to a new, creative space resisting the lack of acknowledgment for ecologic frontiers.

Why I am proposing forms of ecological Third-ness, is because the Gulf is demanding new conceptions of ecological space altogether. Gigantic and absurd urban development might appear like a very anxious relationship with the environment, but what the organization and distribution of elements in the Gulf say is that they all work to destabilize the conception of the environment as we know it. If the log mat can withstand a desert terrain along with a metallic hydro-slopes made of snow kept at 0 degree C throughout the year, then it means that when we address the ecological nature of the Gulf, we need to be as inventive as the built landscape.

Phase two of the research is the Gulf tongue, a restaurant exploring local attitudes and tastes for varying island culinaries. Stomach will be the third, and like this we go.