Is it possible to write an environmental history of a place you’ve never seen in person?
Since I started writing this piece a few weeks ago, the world has changed rapidly. I’ve mostly been too consumed with checking the news and trying to convert my course to an online format to post this. But I’ve also been hesitant, because as many of us (myself included) are now confined to our homes, the problem of place—research-related and otherwise—feels overwhelming. Then again, maybe this collective experience makes it even more important to reflect on what place means for our research. I don’t have any answers, but is is a question that has occupied me for many years, and I hope that in this moment we can tackle it together.
I am a historian of Iraq, focusing on Basra—in the south—in the late Ottoman period (c. 1880-1914). I am also a white American. For various reasons linked to the now almost three decades of continuous American military interventions and sanctions in Iraq, and like many other American scholars, I did not travel to Iraq for my dissertation research, but did most of my work in Istanbul and London.
Unsurprisingly, there has been significant debate among scholars of Iraq based in the United States and Europe around the question of whether to travel to Iraq for research and scholarly exchange, as well as about the ethics of using looted archival resources located outside Iraq. These debates have raised broader questions about who history is for, who it belongs to, and what the purpose of writing history really is.
In addition to these meta-concerns, which I continue to wrestle with, I have been struck by the particular issue of the role of place in environmental history.
Large parts of my dissertation deal with the date and rice plantations that used to dominate the southern Iraqi landscape. On a research trip to Kuwait, I visited a family who owned substantial date plantations in southern Iraq before war and the oil industry mostly destroyed them. Outside their house in Kuwait City, there were two date palms transplanted from their land in Iraq. I nearly cried when they offered me two bags of dates from the palms to take home, even though these two trees in a nice suburban neighborhood in Kuwait were hardly representative of the vast historical expanse of the Basra date groves.
But the environment I associate most viscerally with my dissertation is Istanbul. I can see the archive kittens growing up. I can taste stuffed mussels and rakı; I can hear ferries and guys selling sahlep and Rumi music on Friday nights. I love Istanbul in that uncomplicated way foreigners often do. But thinking about my research, just one of the main characters of my dissertation spent any substantial amount of time in Istanbul. Despite embracing the life of the metropolitan elite—he was the first person, for example, to import a car to Istanbul—Züheyrzade Ahmed hated the city. He felt its climate made him sick and he begged to be allowed to return home to his children and his date groves.
And yet, because of the time he spent in Istanbul, landmarks of his life were the only ones I was able to see in person. I found the place where one of his mansions once stood and the commercial building in which he ran a printing press and Arabic-language newspaper (now a secondhand electronics shop).
I found these discoveries delightful. But why is that? Even if I recognize intellectually that any place I visit now is not meaningfully the same as it was 100 or 150 years ago—that if I went to Basra, I would not find date palms—the embodied, multisensory experience of place is clearly an important aspect of the research process, at least emotionally.
I see part of the important critical move of environmental history as the insistence that people are not separate from their environments and that to study the history of one means to study the history of both. Taking a leaf from anthropologists, though, I wonder what that might mean for how we think about our own embodied positionality, especially in relation to experiencing (or not experiencing) places now while writing about their histories then.
I think about this question because my experience of place in my research is one of absence. But for those who can easily visit the sites you write about: what do you do there? What is at stake? How does your material experience of place affect how you think about the history of that place? I think that as historians who take seriously historical human-environment relationships and entanglements, we ought to be well-placed to question and analyze our own personal emplaced experiences.
On another level, and as a way of approaching the question of the significance of experiences of place, I think it might be helpful to think about what it means for history to be extractive. Obviously, many archival and archaeological materials have been removed from Iraq, whether openly looted or taken ostensibly for “safekeeping.” It is not just possible but easy to write a history of Iraq without visiting Iraq. I wonder if, by literally extracting historical objects and documents from Iraq, or anywhere else, we have made it possible to think the history and the place separately. Does this kind of distance—physical as much as conceptual—make other kinds of extraction and violence more thinkable?
On a scale perhaps more relevant to historians of everywhere: the collection of documents in national archives—though of course there are other kinds of archives—protects but also abstracts history from place. In doing so it imagines a new place with a new past. Going to archives is the quintessential historian experience. And while all archives have their quirks and specificities, often an archive feels like a no-place. You could be anywhere.
I think this is one reason we feel drawn to visit our research sites. To materially
connect history with place, even if we know it is not the same as it was. This
isn’t a bad thing to do, but it might be valuable to consider how we use this
kind of visitation to counterbalance the experience of extraction, and how that
affects the ways we write history.
 For an overview, see Arbella Bet-Shlimon, “Preservation or Plunder? The ISIS Files and a History of Heritage Removal in Iraq,” Middle East Report Online, May 8, 2018; Arbella Bet-Shlimon, City of Black Gold: Oil, Ethnicity, and the Making of Modern Kirkuk (Stanford, CA: Stanford University Press, 2019), 199-204.
*Cover Image Credit: Postcard of Basra, n.d., Personal collection, Fahad al-Abduljaleel, Kuwait City.