Sophia Stamatopoulou-Robbins, Waste Siege: The Life of Infrastructure in Palestine (Stanford University Press, 2019).
Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this book?
Sophia Stamatopoulou-Robbins (SSR): Waste Siege’s unusual focus on the mundane stuff and practices of knowing and managing waste in Palestine, where other dynamics and objects tend to capture popular attention, was sparked by a moment when waste and infrastructure came into special focus. In the days following Hamas’s 2006 landslide victory in the Palestinian legislative elections, many North American and European commentators argued that Palestinians had voted for Hamas because of the movement’s commitment to providing services and infrastructures like trash collection where Fatah had failed to do so. They argued that infrastructure was a tool for popular mobilization because it was an object around which public expectations of government revolved. The argument that bad or missing infrastructures determined voting patterns was based on the assumption that waste and its infrastructures have a stable set of meanings.
I was troubled with this assumption. It tends to be reserved for countries deemed in need of development, where foreign states and agencies sponsoring infrastructures and services expect support to achieve specific political outcomes. Roads, bridges, and landfills become vehicles for quashing “radicalism” and “insurgency.” I also knew that international aid agencies, Israel, and even the Palestinian Authority (PA), had indeed promoted multi-million-dollar sanitation infrastructures in the hopes that they would win Palestinians’ hearts and minds by giving them a sense of being taken care of.
But, I wondered, how could anyone assume that Palestinians—who have lived without a state of their own and under six different political systems—Ottoman, British, Jordanian, Egyptian, Israeli, and Palestinian—in roughly a century and who currently live under as many legal systems, would have a predictable relationship to infrastructure and would predictably hold certain actors accountable when sanitary infrastructures failed? Absent that predictability, I asked: What is the relationship between waste, politics, and ethics in Palestine?
J: What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the book address?
SSR: Palestinians in the Israeli-occupied West Bank, whose work and lives my book depicts, are surrounded by what for them are unprecedented types and volumes of waste that they are unable to escape. I call this a “waste siege.” My premise is that this emergent, yet overlooked, siege shapes politics and ethics for Palestinians in unexpected ways. This means we need new language to position ourselves ethically and politically vis-à-vis ongoing injustices in Palestine.
In asking how waste is worlding, I took my cue as much from anthropology as from the interdisciplinary discard studies. I wanted to understand how people live in arguably unlivable environments and what the materialities of unlivability have to do with sovereignty, with how people experience ethics, sociality, and temporality.
The book tracks a variety of wastes at different scales—municipal trash, second-hand markets, toxic dumping, unwanted bread, and seeping sewage—to tell the story of how settler-colonial occupation, aid dependency, aspirations for capitalist modernity, and materialities of contemporary discards conspire to shape socialities, uncertainties, and horizons of the thinkable in Palestine. Waste Siege is the first book-length ethnography of waste and its management in the Middle East. And following waste flows and pileups means paying as much attention to Palestinian infrastructures (e.g., landfills) and what I call “infrastructural formations” (things like waste that can act as infrastructures by helping flows of ideas, people, and other things) as it does understanding Israeli occupation infrastructures (e.g., checkpoints, the Wall) that are the focus of most scholarly and activist commentaries.
One consequence of the book’s “deep dive” into the everyday work of municipal and PA infrastructure designs and management is that it opens an unusual window onto the subjectivities of Palestinian bureaucrats often overlooked, simplified or dismissed (by the left) as corrupt, neoliberal “outsourcers” of occupation or as hardcore nationalists (e.g., by Israel supporters). The book’s commitment to “thinking out” from unwanted, forgotten, and toxic materials like sewage and stale bread also brings the mundane, more-than-human, and more-than-political practices of living as an occupied person just as prominently to the fore, highlighting how today’s climate of environmental securitization shapes subjectivities of those the PA governs. Whereas there has been attention paid to toxic dumping on indigenous communities by settler communities, I want with Waste Siege also to consider how populations in occupied, militarized, incarcerated spaces think about and manage their own waste—as well as the fact that, as communities in such spaces, they can at any time become dumpsites for others’ wastes.
J: How does this book connect to and/or depart from your previous work?
SSR: This is my first book-length project. It draws on material from my PhD dissertation project, and expands and reimagines that research as a conversation with a wider set of audiences, including those interested in waste, ecologies, and infrastructure, as well as in Palestine. It departs from my earlier work on Palestinians’ digital place-making and on international solidarity travel to Palestine in its more sustained focus on how the materialities of things, and things-in-space, including technologies, shape experience and political possibilities. Yet it also develops my previous research by further investigating how ethical selves and politics are conceived in relation to Palestine as well, of course, as by exploring the worlds made in and through Palestinians’ experiences of twenty-first century settler colonialism. Threaded throughout this book and my earlier research is also an interest in understanding how, and to what effect, bodies, ideas, and objects circulate in, through, and outside Palestine—and how some are forced to remain in place. This thread seeks to question how lines of belonging (e.g., to the nation) and solidarity (e.g., organized around environmental protection) are constantly redrawn as a result of those circulations, exchanges, and blockages.
J: Who do you hope will read this book, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?
SSR: I can imagine a long list of topics (beyond the obvious waste, infrastructure, and Palestine) that could inspire people to read Waste Siege. It includes: environmental/ecological anthropology, indigenous environmentalisms, consumption, value, capitalism, modernity, science and technology studies, food, development, the state, governance, bureaucracies, time and temporality, risk; humanitarian aid, the nonhuman, borders and circulations, toxicity, expertise, reuse, and colonialism.
I hope the book will invite a wide readership—students, academics, policymakers, activists, people concerned with justice and war—to think outside the usual boxes that confine many people’s understandings of Palestine as a place and as a state project. That includes troubling the “romance of resistance” (Abu-Lughod 1990) that has colored media and scholarly commentaries on Palestinians’ practices by opening up a space for thinking about things like ambivalence (I think of this in part as an ethnography of ambivalence) and about how futurities and ethico-political positions can emerge from encounters with desired objects (e.g., infrastructures), as well as with unwanted materials (e.g., trash) that make up Palestinians’ (and others’) environments. At the same time, I hope that my depiction of waste siege as an ecology—any improvisation to mitigate its negative effects entails (re)using, that is keeping, wastes that besiege—will encourage people to see how the seemingly obvious lines between waste, infrastructure, and ecology, can become blurred. Thinking of waste as ecology rather than as ontological opposite to the environment (qua pollution) also allows us to see Palestine’s condition as a metaphor for our besieged planet.
J: What other projects are you working on now?
SSR: I am excited to have recently begun a new ethnographic project on Airbnb. This project extends my interest in infrastructure and sociality by investigating how Airbnb is transforming the relationship between subjectivity, real estate, and work in Greece. My aim is to understand the joint world-making of platform capitalism and austerity governance. How are kinship, aesthetics, and professionalism being remade by the proliferation of Airbnb listings and resultant property sales and renovations? My central fieldwork site is Greece, which has seen a veritable “gold rush” toward Airbnb in recent years. My fieldwork is also becoming multi-sited (e.g., including Israel/Palestine and beyond) as I follow the webs of international investors, realtors, and interior designers, to name just a few types of actors involved, who are imbricated in Airbnb’s social, infrastructural, and economic “ecosystem.”
Except from the book
On March 27, 2007, a sewage tank collapsed in the Gaza Strip, submerging the Palestinian village of Umm al-Nasir in many tons of raw sewage and killing five people. When the Palestinian Authority’s interior minister arrived on the scene a few hours later, he was chased out by the gunfire of angry villagers. Two and a half years later I attended the premiere screening of Gaza Is Floating, a documentary featuring the incident. The screening took place in the West Bank in the Quaker-run Ramallah Friends Meetinghouse, a beautiful stone building in Ramallah’s heart.
A coalition of sanitation-focused nongovernmental organizations (NGOs), international aid agencies, and Authority ministries had advertised the event, and a mixed Palestinian and expat audience of about thirty people attended. As we sat on white-painted pews, footage of the disaster in Umm al-Nasir rolled: people wore wetsuits to wade chest-deep through sewage, and a boy sat on a door in a lake of shit, paddling through it with a wooden plank.
We knew the odor that the film, as a visual medium, was unable to convey. Most of us had at some point driven through Wadi al-Nar on the road connecting the central West Bank to the south. A river of sewage flows through Wadi al-Nar. It flows across the West Bank, downhill and eastward from Jerusalem to the Dead Sea. Even those expats renting apartments in newly constructed Ramallah neighborhoods had likely smelled sewage backing up in overburdened drainage systems.
I had just moved to the West Bank. Attending the screening was one of my first steps as I tried to piece together how Palestinians manage waste that, during earlier visits, had for me been only a putrid but indistinct backdrop to the occupation. Like other travelers to Palestine, I had casually observed the difference between the spotless sidewalks of West Jerusalem, now a predominantly Jewish-Israeli area, and the debris-strewn road leading to Ramallah, a major Palestinian city, from Qalandiya checkpoint, which separates Jerusalem from the West Bank. I had smelled the odor of rotten eggs—sewage stench—in Tulkarem refugee camp. I had learned that Israeli settlers and soldiers use wastes to harass Palestinians, and in Hebron’s Old City I had seen chicken wire fencing above Palestinian shops, placed to catch trash thrown from above by settlers. I knew that Israeli trucks dump wastes on Palestinian farmlands.
But that night on my walk to the screening, I trained my gaze to foreground refuse. I noticed men in vests wheeling carts, picking up litter from the sidewalks in Ramallah’s market. I saw plastic bags of bread hanging off dumpster handles and an elderly woman sweeping the sidewalk outside her gate. I remembered seeing empty cardboard boxes stacked atop the makeshift roofs of fruit and vegetable stands in Jenin’s fresh produce market. I also recalled notes I had written the night before, following dinner with a friend named Ziad. Ziad grew up in Balata refugee camp in Nablus, a city forty-five minutes north of Ramallah. As we ate, he told the story of his brother’s death at the hands of Israeli soldiers. His story, surprisingly, was also about waste.
Ziad’s younger brother, Faysal, had been active in the al-Aqsa Martyrs Brigades, a secular coalition of armed Palestinian groups based in the Occupied Territory, during the second Palestinian uprising, or intifada. Palestinians across Israel/Palestine had been participating in years of large-scale demonstrations and strikes.3 Some had taken up arms to protest Israeli dispossession, violence, and humiliation. The intifada, which lasted from 2000 to 2006, had been characterized by intensified Israeli military violence against Palestinians, including incursions into, and closures of, cities and villages, targeted assassinations, mass arrests, bombings, and demolitions.
Faysal had gone into hiding after learning the Israeli army wanted him. To intimidate his relatives into informing on him, the army had ransacked his family home three times, demolishing some of its walls. Soldiers had left Ziad and Faysal’s elderly parents to sift through the humiliating rubble all over the floor, the broken tables, and the contents of their cupboards.
After news got back to the family that the soldiers had found and killed Faysal, the debris had become a testament to the period during which he had successfully evaded them. Sipping a beer, Ziad explained that his parents had cleaned the house with neighbors’ help but had left some bullet holes unrepaired for future visitors to see.
Used boxes sit atop a fruit and vegetable stand in Jenin, 2010. Photograph by the author.
My postdinner notes sketched my impression of Ramallah: “Litter everywhere. Uninhabited lots with half-built or half-crumbling houses. Scrap metal, fabrics that could’ve been curtains or duvets.” What can these disparate scenes tell us, I wondered, about how waste helps shape forms of sociality, politics, and self-understanding for people living under conditions of nonsovereignty?
Waste siege juxtaposes two words to deepen our understanding of each. It offers a way of understanding siege that differs in some respects from military sieges. Military sieges encircle from without. Seen from the viewpoint of waste, the idea of siege expands to include emissions from within, whether from within a territory or a body. Waste siege is constituted as much by movement and flow of waste as it is by encirclement—for example, by inflows of commodities that people discard and by outflows and circulations of refuse from economic and household activities. It is created by the chemicals and particles that waft and leak out of attempts to control those flows. People cannot escape even if they leave the place where the wastes first found them. Toxins follow them in their bodies, and dilemmas plague their minds as they move.
The study of waste as political material and the study of populations exposed to waste by the state reveal that many of the burdensome experiences of life under occupation in the West Bank offer less overt signs of who is responsible for them. When a Jenin resident smells sewage or stops in the street because her shoe strap breaks days after she purchased the shoes, an array of possible actors is available for blame. She may choose to blame street sweepers, UNRWA, the American government that withdrew its funding for UNRWA, the political party in charge of the municipality, the Authority, herself for walking that route or buying those shoes, China (where the shoes may have been made), the shopkeeper who sold them to her, or “the situation” (al-wadi’), a term Palestinians often use to refer to the occupation. She might blame the individualist ethos (anania) many see as having replaced the mass, cross-class solidarity that characterized life during the first intifada between 1987 and 1993, an ethos many remember as having inspired them to collectively keep streets clean. Ziad’s parents’ refusal to repair the bullet holes offers one condensed view of what adjudication of responsibility looks like. That Gazan villagers took up arms against a Palestinian official in Umm al-Nasir offers another.
Waste siege creates this indeterminacy around responsibility as a second-order burden following the first-order burdens (e.g., odor, disease, anxiety) of waste itself. Blame is not predetermined, established, or fixed. People experience waste as a material violation more open to interpretation than other forms of violence like bombings or incursions. Military siege makes a spectacle of the prowess of the besieger. It can be understood as a form of authoritarian governance, top down or outside in, an intensified form of rule that creates its own forms of order and that people can and will attribute to its presence. In the infamous nine-hundred-day blockade of Leningrad by Nazi-led forces, for example, over 1.5 million people died, largely from starvation but also when residents murdered each other to obtain ration cards or to eat human flesh. There could have been little question that those who ate wallpaper paste and shoe leather, and a woman who reportedly fed her eighteen-month-old to her three older children, did so as a result of the siege. Historians of World War II do not hesitate to place events in Leningrad during those nine hundred days under the title of “siege.” While there can be debate about who or what may have provoked military siege, the siege’s perpetrator and the fact of the siege itself appear self-evident.
Waste as siege, by contrast, makes accountability more opaque. Waste siege shares the feature of indeterminacy with other contexts: for example, after industrial disasters, where it is hard to trace or prove the toxic cause of disease. Part of this has to do with waste as a material type: it indexes the presence of people and processes that produced it without the producers having to be present. Waste’s murky indexicality can invite discursive displacement of its burdens onto singular actors, making its adjudication misguided or perpetually incomplete. In Palestine, it was striking that despite the range of possible responsible parties for a given burden of waste, people were quick to select one as their primary focus. They tended to narrow or hyperindividuate responsibility—for example, onto themselves or onto the Authority. Or they tended to open it up enormously by blaming China, for instance. Either way, frames for accountability seldom accounted for multiple actors. The diffuse material processes that lead wastes to besiege were obscured.
Waste siege can of course enact what Rob Nixon calls “slow violence” on a population by imperceptibly wreaking havoc on bodies and ecologies, as when sewage nitrates percolate into an aquifer, and when even nitrates’ casualties are invisible, as when intestinal troubles appear only years later. Yet waste siege differs from slow violence in that the waste that constitutes it is both mystifying and perceptible at the same time. People experience waste siege more acutely than they experience structural violence. Waste siege is always an encounter with sensorily accessible materials. It is there for all to see, smell, and feel. It is its relationship to ethics and politics that is obscure and mystifying.
Trash burn corner in the Old City of Nablus, 2015. Photograph by the author.
That waste siege obscures the diffuse reasons for waste’s burdens means that waste siege is always a problem whose sources exceed consciousness of them. It also means that the relationship between waste siege and military siege—in this case settler colonial occupation—tends to be obscured as well. Waste siege is not just another feature of occupation. It exceeds occupation. But it also interacts with occupation, distracting people from occupation. This is what reorienting politics means. Waste siege is sensorially obtrusive, yet blame varies too much to stick on anyone or anything in particular. It comes without consensus about responsibility. Even when waste is present in overabundance, the chains of responsibility leading back to occupation and to Palestinians’ resultant nonsovereignty tend to be less visible.
Waste siege’s obscuring quality means that the people with whom I spent time did not always understand their own uses of techniques for mitigating waste’s burdens as political. Like military siege, waste siege requires improvisations in order to navigate the everyday challenges siege poses, like scarcity. People ration goods, develop barter systems. Rationing may be seen by the besieged as a kind of resistance, as a way of remaining alive. Palestinians usually associate the condition of being political, and politics as a field of action, with encounters with Israel. Yet for them their efforts to manage waste siege are not resistance (muqawama) or steadfastness (sumud), the term used by Palestinians to connote national endurance in the face of colonial processes. Instead they view practices for ameliorating waste siege as matter-of-fact, mundane avenues for relieving pressures of equally matter-of-fact, if undesirable, materials in their midst. Without agreement on culpability, “resistance,” the concept that has dominated many observers’ understanding of Palestinian society and history for the past several decades, lacks an object and, arguably, is a less relevant analytic.