Frances S. Hasso, Buried in the Red Dirt: Race, Reproduction, and Death in Modern Palestine (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2022).

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?

Frances S. Hasso (FH): In 2011, I started working on research for a book on contemporary Egypt. My second monograph, Consuming Desires: Family Crisis and the State in the Middle East, which substantially focuses on Egypt, was released a few weeks before the first Arab revolution erupted in Tunisia in December 2010.

During a 2014 five-week fieldwork trip in Cairo, however, I decided the situation was too dangerous to continue. That research became the basis of a series of journal articles on gender and Egyptian politics (the last is currently under review). Beyond the danger, I felt the ground was shifting so quickly and the situation was so opaque I was not sure I could produce a quality book-length work. I returned from Cairo to Palestine for the first time since 2000 to give an invited talk in mid-March 2014 at Birzeit University’s Institute for Women’s Studies on the occasion of its twentieth anniversary. The paper was titled “Reflections on Remembering, Forgetting, and Denial in Egyptian Storytelling.”

Ironically, I had a decade earlier shifted my focus away from Palestine because I was so demoralized about the nature and purpose of academic work on Palestine. But I could not ignore the sense in 2014 that reorienting to a project on Palestine was deeply important and felt like I had in some senses returned home. Ultimately, I use many kinds of sources in the book to tell a story about Palestinian life, death, and demography in the twentieth century. The focus on death, broadly speaking, was shaped by the fact that when I visited Palestine again in early 2016 for a short exploratory fieldwork trip before my teaching semester began, I had death on my mind given the recent passing of a young family member. Shaped by my sense that I was more likely to learn new things and contribute to knowledge by studying the Palestinian past, I decided my focus would be on the Mandate. But even that historical endpoint shifted, as did my methodological orientations and empirical sources.

This was an iterative book shaped by my intellectual concerns and political commitments, what I learned by talking to Palestinian scholars, friends, and acquaintances, and what I learned in field, reading, and archival work. In short, I allowed Buried in the Red Dirt to find its path, which not incidentally included a late realization in the manuscript that “race” was so central to my argument it required more research and explicit discussion.

J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address? 

FH: Buried in the Red Dirt speaks to a broad range of literatures too numerous to elucidate here. It includes a substantial bibliography and is published Open Access Creative Commons by Cambridge University Press thanks to a fellowship from Duke University Libraries. It is already available as a beautiful hardback and will be available in paperback. Each chapter offers its own argument and analyzes particular material. Most chapters open with a story crafted from archival material. In fact, chapters are full of stories that bring to life understudied people and matters.

Chapter 1 shows that lack of British investment in healthcare for Palestinians was systemic and endemic to a colonial ecology segmented by nationality, religion, and race. Combined with colonial and settler-colonial extraction that produced poverty and hunger, the outcome was a Palestinian median age of death between two and three years old during the Mandate period. This contrasted dramatically with Jewish morbidity and mortality rates given the Zionist movement’s investment in Jewish healthcare.

Chapter 2 shows exactly how the British logic of “efficiencies and economies,” or fiscal austerity, limited healthcare provision for Palestinians in Mandate Palestine. Despite acknowledging the structural production of hunger, poverty, and disease, British officials often culturally condemned Palestinians for ignorance, lack of maternal care, parental inefficiencies, and backward foodways. Not surprisingly, gendered-racialized dynamics and material tensions were prominent in the archives as colonial authorities governed Palestinian-serving Infant Welfare Center nurses and midwives but provided little money for healthcare. Many scribbled notes in the archives relate to policing the boundaries of registered Palestinian midwives who dared to use specula to examine pregnant women, give injections to the ill, or independently set up shop.

Chapter 3 engages with British and Zionist discourses and practices on demography, eugenics, and mothercraft, which overlapped substantially. British authorities frequently expressed concern with higher Palestinian birth rates, which they racialized from early in the occupation, and recognized that poverty and limited investment in Palestinian welfare and infant, child, and maternal healthcare produced higher mortality rates. The chapter discusses transnational maternalist and breastfeeding campaigns, which were motivated by classed and racialized eugenicist concerns to reduce infant mortality and increase fertility among “white” better-off married women, and the conditions of the appearance of these discourses in Zionist archival records in Mandate Palestine.

Chapter 4 shifts the focus of the book to what I call non-reproductive desire in Palestine by comparatively examining relevant legal genealogies and co-existing layers of law on birth control, especially abortion, using a sweeping historical approach. The purpose of the chapter is to undermine simplistic reliance on “religion” or “culture” to explain birth control ideologies, practices, and restrictions in historic and contemporary Palestine. No other chapter like this exists, as far as I know. This and the following chapter show that contraceptive use was licit and available and abortion, while often “technically illegal,” was always an important method of birth control for women in all communities.

Chapter 5 explores Palestinian Muslim and Christian as well as Jewish contraception and abortion practices during the British colonial period and since, despite legal restrictions. The first section analyzes abortion prosecutions reported in Hebrew-language newspapers during the Mandate period to illuminate public tensions and actual practices, including sex, that crossed religious and ethnic boundaries. The second section focuses on a failed application by a German Zionist sexology institute to the British censorship board to show a Swiss film advocating “medical abortion,” and examines Zionist pronatalist discourse for Jews during the Mandate and the status of birth control for Jews in the colonial Yishuv and early settler-colonial Israel. The final section focuses on Palestinian infant and child death, contraception, and abortion practices during the Mandate period and since, using archival sources and twenty-six interviews I conducted with elder Palestinian women and additional informants from all over historic Palestine and Jordan.

Chapter 6, titled “The Art of Death in Life,” proposes that demographic competition with Jews has been largely irrelevant to Palestinian reproductive desires and practices since 1948, a year during which they viscerally and universally recognized the importance to Zionism of the double action of “Judaizing” and “De-Arabizing” the land. Representing Palestinians as hyperbolically reproductive has had at least three consequences. First, it projects and magnifies onto Palestinians what are, in fact, Zionist and Western pathologies and anxieties reflected in the policies and priorities of their governments, knowledge industries, and foundations, motivated by geopolitical, ideological, and material interests. Second, it misses the range of socio-economic, psychic, and contextual factors that have shaped Palestinian reproductive and anti-reproductive desires and practices. Third, it distorts our ability to see the emphasis on creative, political, and social struggle and regeneration in the face of social and political death in the futurities articulated after 1948. The chapter considers African American, African, Black feminist, and Western queer scholarship on death, futurity, reproduction, and liberation to further illuminate my investigation of Palestinian life and death. Queer inflected deliberations on optimism and pessimism invited me to push harder against the seam of Palestinian anti-reproductive desire by considering forms of flourishing and belonging that do not require heteronormative reproductivity.

J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

FH: I hope everyone reads this book and I would like it to reset some discussions in different fields, including feminist, sexuality, NGO, and governmental. I hope “serious” scholars who disconnect quotidian life, sex, and reproduction from “politics” in Palestine also read it.

J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

FH: Buried in the Red Dirt obviously draws on my interests in gender and sexuality, and their relationships to power on multiple scales. My interests in race and racialization, as well as imperialism and colonialism, in relation to embodiment, gender, and sexuality are longstanding. The focus on health, medicine, and demography is new. I have a substantial oeuvre of publications on Palestine that are social movement oriented, including my first monograph, Resistance, Repression, and Gender Politics in Occupied Palestine and Jordan (Syracuse, 2005), which focuses on the history and demise of the Democratic Front for the Liberation of Palestine and arguably the Palestinian Liberation Organization as an independent revolutionary organization post-Madrid and Oslo, with comparative attention to internal gender dynamics in multiple political fields. The book is now available Open Access Creative Commons. I co-edited with Zakia Salime Freedom without Permission: Bodies and Space in the Arab Revolutions (Duke, 2016), for which I wrote an original chapter on the intersections of police-sex-sectarianism in Bahrain. And I already mentioned Consuming Desires, which examines the rise of new forms of marriage among Sunni Muslims in Egypt and the United Arab Emirates. The book considers Islamic jurisprudence vis-à-vis state law and explores the anxieties and desires of different kinds of subjects and institutions regarding marriage, sex, divorce, and citizenship since the late twentieth century. It challenges the too facile feminist reliance on modern state law and interventions as core solutions to “family crisis.”

J: What other projects are you working on now?

FH: The fieldwork for this book opened up questions I could not address while keeping an already substantial book focused and coherent. I conducted tens of interviews with multiple generations of Palestinian nurses, midwives, and even physicians trained in different epistemologies of care. I would like to explore what I learned about how medicalization and litigation have changed Palestinian sensibilities to health, embodiment, and sex since 1948. I recently conducted archival research on the correspondence and papers of Christian Missionary Society medical workers in Palestine, since European missionary institutions (and to a lesser degree private Palestinian practitioners) provided most allopathic medical care to Palestinians during the British Mandate. I look forward to carefully analyzing this material.


Excerpt from the book (from the Introduction, pp. 31-36)

Colonial Palestine and the Global Color Line 

Race is central to the plot in Buried in the Red Dirt. I take as axiomatic that racial projects articulate with sexuality given their concern with biological and social reproduction or, in Michel Foucault’s terms, biopolitics: who people have sex with or marry, who has babies and how many, who deserves citizenship, who is worthy of health and life, and who merits illness and premature death (Foucault 1978, 138, 139, 140, 145). White racial and population anxieties and discussions of race more generally were increasingly prominent at global conferences by the turn of the twentieth century. Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds write that the “assertion of whiteness was born in apprehension of imminent loss” as colonized peoples continued to revolt (Lake and Reynolds 2008, 2). The racist dimensions of international politics were manifest and explicitly challenged during the many months of intensive meetings at the Versailles Peace Conference of 1919 – at which was established the scaffolding of postwar colonial and imperial arrangements, including the British Mandate over Palestine.

White powers often described the struggle for “world domination” as a “race war” in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries (93, 242). British imperialists distinguished between white and nonwhite (or “coloured”) peoples and assumed the former should rule and the latter should be ruled, defining “Syrians” and Afghans, for example, as “nonwhites” (9, 6). White supremacy and race consciousness informed national and international discussions about geopolitics, economics, birth and infant mortality rates, the nature of justice, and the social implications of “contact” between populations as Euro-American empires expanded and cross-continental migration became more feasible (e.g., 10–11). These debates among intellectuals, scientists, journalists, professionals, military leaders, and politicians translated into immigration and citizenship policies, international labor regimes, and geopolitical conflicts.

Although white racial supremacy was a global concern in the first twenty years of the twentieth century and was absolutely relevant to Zionism and the workings of the Palestine Mandate, scholarship on the British and Zionist colonization of Palestine has rarely addressed these projects as racial and racist, with specificities, to be sure, but in alignment with other Western imperial and settler-colonial projects. Irrespective of anti-Semitism and the historically situated and to some degree malleable nature of whiteness as a social construct, Zionist settler-colonialism was understood by its advocates and their British and US allies to be a white socioeconomic project. Racism in Mandate Palestine expressed itself through civilizational discourse, extraction from the native population, the biopolitics of colonial categorizations and counting, and the systematic maldistribution of life, death, and wellbeing by investment priorities. Such maldistribution by priority is underplayed as a systemically racist dimension of settler-colonialism and colonialism in Palestine.

Racism and white supremacy have been “trans-statal” and “global” from their genesis (Jung 2015, 193, 194). In 1900, W. E. B. Du Bois famously termed as “the color line” that “belts the world” the ways “differences of race” were used to deny “to over half the world … opportunities and privileges” in presentations at the first Pan-African Congress in London and the third meeting of the American Negro Academy in Washington, DC (Du Bois 1900a, 625; Du Bois 1900b, 47–48). Black, brown, and yellow peoples, Du Bois argued, will be “beneficial” to “human progress” and influence “the world of the future by reason of sheer numbers and physical contact,” pointing to the global salience of racial comparative population discourse at the time (Du Bois 1900a, 625). The “color line” was always “plural,” argues Moon-Kie Jung, shaped by reigning systems of accumulation and extraction: slavery, colonialism, settler-colonialism, and imperialism (Jung 2015, 195).

Du Bois’s 1900 accounts reproduced Orientalist tropes of Asian “moral and physical degeneration” and “dumb submission” with the exception of Japan (Du Bois 1900b, 49). He commended British and Belgian imperialists for ending slavery and introducing “rapid development of trade and industry” in parts of the African continent. Instead of condemning US imperialism (“new ownership”) in Puerto Rico, Hawaii, Cuba, and the Philippines, Du Bois aspirationally called for “sympathy and alliance” with the “masses of dark men and women” as they are “united under the stars and stripes for an America that knows no color line in the freedom of its opportunities” (49–53). More critically in the same period, colonial subject and West African and Caribbean intellectual Edward Blyden, speaking before the 1903 meeting of the British African Society, called out the ignorance of Europeans who believed in “absolute racial difference [and] his own absolute racial superiority,” physically, intellectually, and psychologically (quoted in Tilley 2011, 222; also see 225–226).

By 1910, Du Bois harshly condemned white supremacy as a “religion” in his essay “The Souls of White Folk,” which he updated and published in Darkwater, informed by the brutality of World War I (Du Bois 1920, 1921). He analogized the “modern” white man to a thieving “Prometheus” “tethered by a fable of the past” and insisting on his divinity: “Neither Roman nor Arab, Greek nor Egyptian, Persian nor Mongol ever took himself and his own perfectness with such disconcerting seriousness as the modern white man” (Du Bois 1920, 497–501). Du Bois recognized that the extraordinary danger of white supremacy emerged from demographic, economic, and psychological senses of “threat,” including from “little Japan,” whose government’s “eventual overthrow … became a subject of deep thought and intrigue, from St. Petersburg to San Francisco” (504).

Substantial historical evidence indicates elite white defensiveness in the face of “colored” challenges to global power arrangements in the fin-de-siècle and early twentieth-century world. This was the case despite the fact that “racial thinking could take stronger and weaker forms” – for example, in colonized Africa – and colonial states “employ[ed] multiple and contradictory definitions of race, tribe, and ethnicity” (Tilley 2011, 220; Tilley 2014, 779). The 1911 Universal Races Congress at the University of London, a famous site of international elite exchange on race and racial amity, included multiple plenary sessions with more than fifty English-language papers submitted in advance by researchers and political leaders. Although the majority of papers challenged racial supremacy and the coherence of race as a category, the opening address by Sir Phillip Stanhope (Lord Weardale) expressed white global anxiety regarding the “remarkable rise of the power of the Empire of Japan, the precursor, it would seem, of a similar revival of the activities and highly developed qualities of the population of the great Empire of China” (quoted in Lake and Reynolds 2008, 252).

I am mainly concerned with discussion of Jewish settler-colonialism at the 1911 Universal Races Congress. Drawing the Global Colour Line: White Men’s Countries and the International Challenge of Racial Equality (Lake and Reynolds 2008) offers essential insights that invited my own race-specific questions about the two decades that preceded the British Mandate and intensified Zionist colonization in Palestine. Lake and Reynolds write that Du Bois was impressed with many participants at the 1911 Congress, including (in his words) “two Egyptian Feys” who “were evidently negroid, the Portuguese was without doubt a Mulatto, and the Persian was dark enough to have trouble in the South.” Among the presenters who deeply impacted Du Bois and, I contend, informed his ardent Zionism, was the British Jewish novelist Israel Zangwill (Lake and Reynolds 2008, 258, 257).

Zangwill’s paper, “The Jewish Race,” was rhetorically crafted to first make a case for Jews as a superior race that required “a territory” to “live its own life” (Zangwill 1911, 271). Expressing the eugenicist logic of the era, Zangwill wrote that in comparison to “the yet uncivilized and brutalized masses of Europe, when, for example, the lowest infant mortality or the healthiness of its [Jewish] school children is contrasted with the appalling statistics of its neighbours, there is sound scientific warrant for endorsing even in its narrowest form its [Jewish] claim to be ‘a chosen people’” (268–269, 275). In the second half of the essay Zangwill switched rhetorical gears to align with the racial constructionist orientation of most Congress papers (including by Franz Boas) and Jewish European anthropologists such as Maurice Fishberg (see Falk 2017, 71, 87). Zangwill asserted the “comparative superficiality of all these human differences,” that “every race is really akin to every other” (otherwise how could Jews so easily assimilate?), “every people is a hotch-potch of races,” and Jews were mainly “white” but included other ethnic groups and colors (Zangwill 1911, 276).

Given Jewish whiteness, Zangwill continued, Jewish religious difference is more important for “surviv[ing] the pressure of so many hostile milieux – or still more parlous, so many friendly” (277). Zangwill presented Jews as having limited options: they could assimilate, which in settings of lower “civilization” (such as Central and Eastern Europe) was a recipe for their “degeneration” to the level of the majority. In advanced settings, on the other hand, “emancipation” had brought “dissolution” of Jewish difference through assimilation. Zangwill concluded his essay in the white settler-colonial spirit of the times: A “Jewish State, or at least a land of refuge upon a basis of local autonomy,” was “the only solution left to address this dilemma” (279). Zangwill had in fact established the Jewish Territorial Organisation (ITO) in 1903 to acquire land for a Jewish settler-colony “under British protection,” especially for “refugees from Russian persecution,” somewhere other than Palestine given Ottoman resistance to such a project in “Zion.” Zangwill’s 1911 essay illustrates the importance of a kind of Jewish social-eugenic maintenance project as a driving impulse for Jewish settler-colonialism, not only anti-Jewish racism.