Joanne Randa Nucho is an assistant professor of anthropology at Pomona College and a filmmaker. Her research interests include critical infrastructure studies, urban studies and environmental inequality, as well as non-fiction film and video and visual ethnography. 

Infrastructure is good to think with, but it is always part of an enmeshed system. To make infrastructure an object of analysis is already a “categorizing moment” (Larkin 2013: 330). We must ask: where do infrastructures begin and end? When are they visible and to whom? Who has the privilege to experience infrastructure as seamless, and for whom is infrastructure’s “breakdown” a normal aspect of daily life? What systems are these infrastructures part of?

The readings in this list draw on a range of methodological approaches: ethnographic, archival, theoretical. They focus on the building, maintenance, and contestation over infrastructure in the Middle East, with a few key readings from outside of the region. Regardless of category, all are concerned with what infrastructure can tell us about politics, knowledge production, value and values. They also show us how central the question of infrastructure is to the constitution and changing nature of the Middle East as a region.

  Brian Larkin, “The Politics and Poetics of Infrastructure,” (Annual Review of Anthropology, 2013).
This review article has only marginal focus on the Middle East, but is an essential overview of recent approaches, including Larkin’s important work on the “poetics” of infrastructure, its aesthetic dimensions, and the centrality of poetics to the politics of infrastructure.

Begum Adalet, Hotels and Highways: The Construction of Modernization Theory in Cold War Turkey, (Stanford University Press, 2018).
Adalet takes up modernization theory as planned, implemented, and pushed back against within the “laboratory” of post-World War II Turkey. American experts and their Turkish counterparts, Adalet shows, regarded these infrastructure projects as necessary for economic development and a harbinger of civilization and modernity. Implementing these infrastructure plans and projects gave rise to various unexpected meanings and outcomes. The book is an essential reading about post-war Turkey, Cold War modernization, and the unexpected fragility of expert planning discourses as worked out in and challenged in particular sites.

Laleh Khalili,  “The Roads to Power: Infrastructure of Counterinsurgency,”(World Policy Journal, Spring 2017).
In this article, Khalili unpacks the relationship between logistics, infrastructure, and imperial/colonial processes of conquest to unexpected and powerful effect. She analyzes how the “very process of logistics provision does vital political work” in occupation and counterinsurgency, using historical examples as well as contemporary cases like that of Afghanistan. Khalili expands upon the topic of infrastructure building and logistics in a second article, “The infrastructural power of the military: The geoeconomic role of the US Army Corps of Engineers in the Arabian Peninsula” (European Journal of International Relations, 2017),where she analyzes the role of the US Army Corps of Engineers in producing “physical infrastructures” and what she calls “virtual capitalist infrastructures” in the Arabian Peninsula.

Valeska Huber, Channeling Mobilities: Migration and Globalisation in the Suez Canal Region and Beyond (1869-1914), (Cambridge University Press. 2013)
Huber takes up the Suez Canal as a means of studying the history of globalization. In it, she analyzes the impact of this “imperial infrastructure” on migration, labor history, and forms of mobility.

Jessica Barnes,  Cultivating the Nile: The Everyday Politics of Water in Egypt, (Duke University Press 2014).
In this book, Barnes draws on her ethnographic study of everyday practices of water use in Egypt, based on fieldwork with farmers, engineers and state officials, as well as international actors. She shows how practices of accessing, controlling, and routing water help to produce scarcity. Scarcity, then, cannot be taken for granted as something a priori to the human actions and technologies that direct the flow of water.

Julia Elyachar,  “Phatic Labor, Infrastructure and the question of Impowerment in Cairo,” (American Ethnologist, 2010).
Not all infrastructures are physical objects, recent research has made clear. But we can develop analytic tools to build on Abdoumaliq Simone’s seminal insight of “People as Infrastructure: Intersecting Fragments in Johannesburg” (Public Culture, 2004).  Drawing on long term ethnographic fieldwork in Cairo, Julia Elyachar brings together Marx and Malinowski to show how “phatic labor” creates, maintains, and extends “communicative channels” of “social infrastructure” that are as important to political economy as more commonly studied forms of infrastructure such as roads, internet, or electric wires. “Communicative channels” transmit all kinds of economic and semiotic value (cf Kockelman 2010 in a companion piece on channels and parasites) and are themselves objects of investment, empowerment and, as Elyachar shows in “Upending Infrastructure” (History and Anthropology, 2014), direct political contestation in times of revolt. This approach, together with her analysis of “semiotic commons of the popular classes” in Egypt as social infrastructure (“Political Economy of Movement and Gesture,” JRAI, 2011), offers a productive way to bridge between “stuff” like infrastructures and “immaterial” social interactions. Her forthcoming book, Embodied Infrastructure, further develops these themes.  

Joanne Randa Nucho, Everyday Sectarianism in Urban Lebanon: Infrastructures, Public Services and Power, (Princeton University Press, 2016).
Everyday Sectarianism analyzes the role of infrastructure in the reproduction of sectarian publics.  I show how infrastructures and public goods such as electricity, bridges, and roads differentiate, subtract, and reroute even as they create spaces of connection and conjoined action. Through ethnographic research, Everyday Sectarianism sheds light on multiple layers of infrastructures that continually recalibrate boundaries of “sectarian community.” 

Electric Infrastructure: Fredrik Meiton and Ziad Abu Rish
In “The Radiance of the Jewish National Home” (Comparative Studies in History and Society, 2015) Meiton shows how technocratic projects of electrification in Mandate era Palestine produced profound and lasting inequalities, a topic he explores further in his forthcoming book Electrical Palestine: Capital and Technology from Empire to Nation(University of California Press 2018). Another essential reading on electricity politics in the region is by Ziad Abu Rish, whose article about histories and contestations of electricity provision in Lebanon appeared in the pages of Jadaliyya.

Infrastructures of Occupation: Tawil-Souri and Stamatopoulou-Robbins
Helga Tawil-Souri’s 2012 article, “Digital Occupation: Gaza’s High Tech Enclosure” (Journal of Palestine Studies, Winter 2012) illuminates the ways in which Israel’s limitations on Palestinian internet and communications infrastructures, and ongoing processes of privatization create and maintain digital borders and forms of exclusion. Increasing access to digital technologies, Tawil-Souri shows, was supposed to “open up” spaces for communication and interaction and yet were used to create greater containment and exclusion. Sophia Stamatopoulou-Robbins’s article, “Occupational Hazards” (Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East, 2014) focuses on the contestations over plans for a landfill in the Ramallah and al-Bireh governorate. Journalistic accounts portrayed the opposition to the landfill as a matter of “nature” or “environment” trumping politics. Instead, Stamatopoulou-Robbins argues, it is bureaucracies of military occupation that render “environment” as separate from politics and always in need of protection from human action.

Energy Infrastructures: Mitchell, Jones, Vitalis, Limbert, Gunel
For obvious reasons, energy infrastructure has been a focus of important work in the region. Timothy Mitchells’ now classic book, Carbon Democracy (Verso, 2011) is a powerful history of carbon dependence and its significant political consequences, both in the region and beyond. Toby Craig Jones’ Desert Kingdom: How Oil and Water Forged Modern Saudi Arabia (Harvard University Press, 2010) demonstrates the crucial role of oil and water in the making of the modern Saudi State. Robert Vitalis’ America’s Kingdom: Mythmaking on the Saudi Oil Frontier (Stanford University Press, 2006) is an essential history of Aramco. Mandana Limbert’s In the Time of Oil: Piety, Memory and Social Life in an Omani Town (Stanford University Press, 2010) analyzes the impact of the discovery of oil in Oman, and the subsequent radical transformation of Oman’s infrastructures. Her discussion of post-oil imaginaries and futures that haunt the edges of Omani public discourse are compelling. Likewise, in a number of articles, including this one, and a forthcoming book, Spaceship in the Desert: Energy, Climate Chance and Urban Design in Abu Dhabi (Duke University Press, 2019), Gokce Gunel engages imaginaries of post-oil energy infrastructure through the model Masdar City, a “’futuristic’ eco-city” built by the government of Abu Dhabi and designed to run on renewable energies.

Urban Infrastructures: Ghannam, Monroe, Menoret, Harb and Deeb, Bou Akar, Fawaz, Verdeil
This is another generative theme of work on infrastructure in the region.
Farha Ghannam’s Remaking the Modern: Space, Relocation and the Politics of Identity in a Global Cairo (University of California Press, 2002) is a classic ethnography of a state project of working class relocation to a suburban housing project. In The Insecure City: Space, Power and Mobility in Beirut (Rutgers University Press, 2016), Kristin Monroe analyzes how the built environment and transportation infrastructures produce and maintain social status hierarchies and class difference. Pascal Menoret’s Joyriding in Riyad: Oil, Urbanism and Road Revolt (Cambridge University Press, 2014) explores the making of modern urban Riyadh (and modern Saudi Arabia) and “car drifting” as a practice of reclaiming urban space. In Leisurely Islam: Negotiating Geography and Morality in Shi‘ite South Beirut (Princeton University Press, 2013), Lara Deeb and Mona Harb explore the infrastructures of leisure in Beirut’s southern suburbs, and the ways in which pious youth navigate and negotiate notions of morality with a new culture of hanging out in the growing number of cafes and restaurants in the area. Other essential readings on urban planning and urban infrastructures include work by Hiba Bou Akar (she also has a forthcoming book, For the War Yet To Come: Planning Beirut’s Frontiers (Stanford University Press, 2018)), Mona Fawaz and Eric Verdeil, all who write about histories and contestations over urban planning in Beirut.

Studies of infrastructure in the Middle East are of growing importance for knowledge about the region. But as this growing body of literature makes clear, Middle East infrastructure studies have broader theoretical import and relevance for those studying global processes of financial speculation, privatization, erosion of the public sphere, ever increasing militarization, energy policy, and climate change.


[The Essential Readings series is curated by the Middle East Studies Pedagogy Initiative (MESPI) team at the Arab Studies Institute. MESPI invites scholars to contribute to our Essential Readings modules by submitting an “Essential Readings” list on a topic/theme pertinent to their research/specialization in Middle East studies. Authors are asked to keep the selection relatively short while providing as much representation/diversity as possible. This difficult task may ultimately leave out numerous works which merit inclusion from different vantage points. Each topic may eventually be addressed by more than one author. Email us at for any inquiries.]