It’s an empty landscape, blindingly, unbearably white. A figure in stark black, holding a red handkerchief, lies - sleeping or dead - in the emptiness. In the distance, over rolling hills only a few shades darker than the sands, a single black bird flies as if moving out of frame. You can’t tell where it is, or when. If it’s from a historical archive or a camping trip gone awry. If the white sand dunes are in the Sahara, or the Negev, or Rub' Al Khali in Oman, where this particular image was shot.
The next wars are the water wars.
The photo series Silsila chronicles Palestinian-Iraqi artist Sama Alshaibi’s eight-year travels through the deserts and endangered water sources of the Middle East. Centering around migration, borders, and environmental demise, the photo series blends the beauty of the deserts with its desolation, and uses a surrealist touch to reflect on the water crisis taking hold of the Middle East.
Al Rahhalah (The Wanderer)
Alshaibi started with an impulse that is somehow even more ambitious than capturing the Middle East’s water crisis: to retrace the steps of legendary 14th-century scholar and explorer, Ibn Battuta, a desire rooted in her own lived experience. Alshaibi grew up in what she calls the ‘double displacement’ of being Palestinian and Iraqi: her mother, born in Jaffa in 1946, became a refugee in Iraq after the Nakba. During the Iran-Iraq war in the 1980s, her family fled Iraq, moving around the Middle East before moving to the US.
The Middle East and North Africa is - by far - the world’s most water-scarce region, with 17 countries falling below the water poverty line.
From the age of 13 until 21, Alshaibi and her family lived as undocumented immigrants in the United States. After her family was found by the CIA during the first Gulf War and threatened with deportation, they appealed for and won refugee status, finally gaining US citizenship in 2004, 17 years after their arrival. After a lifetime of forced displacement, Alshaibi wanted to harken back to a different experience of migration.
“There was a time when migration and movement was about curiosity in one another,” she says. “Rather than fleeing one’s homeland and looking for another place to live, and nobody else wanting you.”
Ma Lam Tabki (Unless Weeping)
As a result, Silsila is built on, around, and subverts notions of migration and territorial boundaries, and the central notion that these man-made symbols disintegrate in the mass expanses of the desert. “The desert doesn’t respect boundaries and borders,” explains Alshaibi. “It’s void of centres and margins. It’s an entity that doesn’t adhere to these human and nation projects of trying to divide and separate. And water behaves in that same way.” In that same impulse of deterritorialisation, Alshaibi largely refuses to name where each of her images were shot, preferring instead to lean into the statelessness of the work, focused as it is on migration and borders.
There was a time when migration and movement was about curiosity in one another. Rather than fleeing one’s homeland and looking for another place to live, and nobody else wanting you.
Alshaibi worked on the project from 2009 to 2017, when she finally decided to retire it. In that time, she cyclically made her way from the US to every desert of the Middle East and North Africa. Even the countries she could not find her way into because of security concerns or the lack of visa processes - Iraq, Syria, Saudi Arabia, Yemen, and Libya - she came as close as possible to on the borders.
Working with fixers and drivers, Alshaibi used the travels of Ibn Battuta as a kind of roadmap through the region, describing things that she wanted to see and going location scouting for similar landscapes. At every turn, she had to reset expectations that, no, she did not want to see the historic Roman ruins tour. “People didn’t understand at first; these areas I was asking to go to, they’re of no importance to anybody but the people who live nomadically through them.”
“I wanted to be in dried riverbeds and lakes,” she continues. “I wanted to be in as many crystal lakes as I could find. The thing I was looking for most was land void of human presence. Way off the highway, beyond the telephone poles, beyond the electricity pole, land and water that felt very touched...Sometimes people know were those were, a lot of times they didn’t. A lot of my fixers and drivers would be calling their grandparents because they remembered a story of a place they had told them, and somewhere they hadn’t been to and don’t know how to get to.”
Al Tariqah (The Path)
Because she was working with disenfranchised, often minority, communities in the desert, Alshaibi was exposed to issues that are not often cared about in Casablanca, Cairo, Beirut, and Dubai, the centres of population and power of the Middle East. “It wasn’t originally what I was seeking in the work, but water wound up being every conversation I had with the people I was living amongst. The drying of groundwater, the inability to farm, the oases becoming overburdened. Why generations upon generations of people who come from nomadic lifestyles are being forced to give it up and move into city centres.”
It wasn’t originally what I was seeking in the work, but water wound up being every conversation I had with the people [minority communities} I was living amongst.
The Middle East and North Africa is - by far - the world’s most water-scarce region, with 17 countries falling below the water poverty line according to the United Nations. Per capita water availability in the region is 6 times less than the global average, and expected to get twice as bad by 2050. Climate change, poor resource management, wasteful colonial-era farming practices, and unsettled and politicised shared water resources are all contributing to the problem. Today, around 40% of the population of Arab League states are already living in absolute water scarcity.
Fatnis al-Jazirah (Fantasy Island)
“The next wars are the water wars,” says Alshaibi. “And I would argue that in some areas, they have already started. Water will cause the next wars, the next displacements, the next epic massive refugee displacement, because of water stress, the further disintegration of water quality, and then the lack of fresh water.”
The water crisis is here, but it’s not hitting all of us equally.
In conversations about climate change and environmental demise, it’s important to remember that it is an issue that confronts marginalised, disenfranchised, often minority populations first, and hardest. It is these geographically, politically, and economically disenfranchised communities that Alshaibi was working with: Amazigh communities, Palestinians under occupation, and low-income communities.
Shatt Al Jarid (Lake of Jerid)
Just a few minutes beyond the idyllic hotels and desert camps of Erg Chebbi in eastern Morocco, Alshaibi explains, Amazigh families are choosing which one of their kids could go to school, because water scarcity and electricity shortages have driven the price of living up, including the price of schools and supplies. According to local communities, it is the fact that they are Amazigh that plays into government decisions. “[They feel] that they are second-class citizens when it comes to the issue of water, where water is given and not...That the government is controlled by Arabs and they are second-class citizens.”
One of them is that desalination is a very dirty process, a very energy-consuming process. So it’s a large contribution towards the nation’s carbon footprint.
Similarly, in Palestine, it has become well documented how water rights are systematically violated by the occupation, with Israeli authorities controlling all major West Bank water sources and annual quotas of Palestinian water usage. Traveling through the same country that her Jaffa-born mother was displaced from, Alshaibi was also exposed to the disenfranchisement of Bedouins in the Negev desert. Much of the Arab Bedouin population lives in unrecognised villages that lack water resources (as well as electricity and other infrastructure). For perspective, the average Israeli citizen has access to 300 litres of water per day, 3 times the WHO recommended average, and more than 4 times the average Palestinian in the West Bank.
Dar Al Islam (Adobe of Islam)
Epitomising the politicisation of water against a marginalised community is perhaps Iraqi Kurdistan, who have had water violence committed against them by Iran and Turkey within the past year. “You can stop the flow of water going into - or flood - the marshes. You can stop routes by basically draining marshes, which uproots a culture.”
You can stop the flow of water going into - or flood - the marshes. You can stop routes by basically draining marshes, which uproots a culture.
The same dynamic was in the process of being rectified in the south of Iraq, when government corruption derailed a civil engineering water sanitation and marsh repopulation project last year. The municipal water supply in Basra was so contaminated by saltwater that thousands were being sent to the hospital, causing massive protests in September of last year. “The problems in Basra in the south of clean water is a very big issue,” says Alshaibi. “So people are being left to their own devices. And when they were protesting not that long ago, they were met with violence.” Dozens of protestors were killed by security forces in Basra last year for demanding better public services.
Rub' Al Khali (The Empty Quarter)
It might be easy to point to current political failure to explain the aggravated water crisis rolling from the margins into the centres of our nations, but to do so would be to mystify the history of the problem. “For the issue of water,” explains Alshaibi, “you have to think back to colonial farming practices that created such issues, territory lines being driven into arbitrary spaces that gave water control to one country and not another. So it’s backwards-looking, it’s forwards-looking, and mindfulness of the present, and how seriously we need to take our interdependence as people who share this region.”
For the issue of water you have to think back to colonial farming practices that created such issues, territory lines being driven into arbitrary spaces that gave water control to one country and not another.
Alshaibi does not bring up mindfulness merely to point to the personal-spiritual element of her work, but also to point to the rampant unconscious extraction practices of today. The UAE, for example, is considered a success story in resource management. Cities rising virtually from the desert, with no resources to speak of besides gallons and gallons of oil. But the UAE’s resource management - particularly its desalination - betrays the ethos of our time.
“So this is a very wealthy nation that can afford to desalinate its water,” explains Alshaibi. “But there are a number of problems. One of them is that desalination is a very dirty process, a very energy-consuming process. So it’s a large contribution towards the nation’s carbon footprint. In the immediate, that brine is being dumped back into the water. Besides all the toxic chemicals that are killing the wildlife and the coral reefs, the fishermen who lead simple lives of fishing as a means of economic sustainability can no longer do so.”
In a nutshell, Alshaibi phrases it like this: “It only exacerbates climate change, by having a process to produce water that is actually only going to create a more semi-arid region.” It is perhaps this phenomena of cyclical mindlessness, more than anything else, that Alshaibi brings to attention with Silsila.
Alshaibi describes being exhausted, by her own work, by the work she was seeing, by Arab cultural creation after the Arab Spring and its accompanying disappointments. Something would happen, work would be created in response, and the wheel would churn without a moment to pause. In this cycle of crisis, reaction to crisis to survive, and inadvertent exacerbation of the crisis, we get lost. By taking a moment - and weeks at a time - in our region’s deserts and endangered water sources, Alshaibi sought to remind us of what is simple, actually necessary, and what we still insist on violating in the pursuit of modern life, ultimately, to our own detriment.
You can see more of Sama Alshaibi's work here.