Anthropology Welcomes Global South Visiting Scholar Munira Khayyat

Feb. 6, 2024

Landscapes of War, Resistance and Repair

Alexander Foster, G2, Interviews Anthropologist Munira Khayyat (New York University Abu Dhabi)

AF: Munira, your appointment to the position of Anthropology’s Global South Visiting Scholar marks a return to Princeton for you, following a previous appointment to the Institute of Advanced Studies between 2018 and 2019. How does it feel to be returning to Princeton?

MK: It feels like magic! Princeton was a pivotal space in my life and my career where after years of toiling in deeply fraught worlds (I began my first job in Cairo in August 2013 on the terrible day the counter-revolution began in earnest, and my first years on the tenure track were shaped by the darkness of these years – this was good work, needed work, but also shattering work). Princeton is where I was finally able to take some time out to focus on my scholarship and writing, and it is where my first book finally came together. I was vitalized and inspired by the intellectual community at the Institute for Advanced Study and the Princeton Anthropology department; I was also healed and nurtured by the peaceful setting: the quiet, the woods, the deer, the fields. My time at Princeton was a magical moment out of place and time for me, and I feel that wave wash over me whenever I return. I also visited the Anthropology department in the Spring of 2022 as part of an exchange program between the American University in Cairo, where I taught for 10 years, and Princeton. During that short stay, I gave a talk at the department introducing my first book, which was coming out later that year. It was the perfect setting for my first book talk! A magical return…

AF: Here at Princeton, you will be teaching a course on Landscapes of War, Resistance and Repair. What do you hope students get out of it and with what questions do you want students to engage with most?

MK: War is a burning issue of our time. I grew up in war and I work on war and my understanding of war seeks to bring war “home” in theory. That is to say, I approach war as a lived environment and a lifeworld, which is what it is for many people on this planet, mainly in the Global South. My understanding of war is different from the ways in which war has been largely grasped in theory, as an exotic and “savage” exception to the normative worlds of “peace” in the Global North. My work carries the burning flame of my first teacher Michel-Rolph Trouillot: to banish what he calls the “savage slot” in anthropological theory and practice. In this short seminar, which is very topical to our current moment, I hope to entice students to think of war differently and to understand that war, far from being a violent and strange aberration, is in fact constitutive of our globalized world. As anthropologists, we are enabled by the methods of ethnography, with creative and conceptual tools gleaned from both the arts and the sciences, to bring unfamiliar worlds into the grasp of experience and analysis. But my hope is that we don’t stop there: my hope is that the startling truths we presence in anthropology shape political ruptures to mainstream complacency beyond academe. By “unsavaging” war, I hope to nurture a deeper understanding – and a more effective outrage – at war, which thrives-with colonialism, capitalism, racism, patriarchy, the nation-state and empire – the enduring structures of violence that make our wretched world. I would like students to consider war as a space of life and through this exploration to consider how “our” comfortable worlds connect and overlap with these “elsewheres.” In so doing – un-savaging anthropology and war – I would love students to ask sharp questions about knowledge, politics, location, and out of these questions to grow brilliant projects. I also insist on the artful craft of writing and creative presentation as essential to the process and practice of anthropology, and in this course we will be exploring this through ethnography, literature, poetry and film.

AF: Your first book-length text - A Landscape of War: Ecologies of Resistance and Survival in South Lebanon – focused on war as “a structure that is generative of life worlds” (13). For those yet to read your text, would you be able to give them an understanding of what the text is about and what you seek to do in focusing on war as the object of study?

MK: War from the North is most often thought of as a space of death – an unlivable place – but in my book I bring war to light as another vibrant-if-wretched life-world of the Anthropocene alongside other unlivable worlds such as the plantation, the reservation, sites of extraction and contamination, the violent state, migrant and refugee camps, slums. Northern understandings of war have been largely shaped by imperial distance and thus work on war is too often dominated by the narratives, tropes and concerns of imperial actors and stakeholders. If we consider war, we most often consider the experience of imperial (US) armies, or humanitarian outfits and development agencies. War becomes a violent event captured within the scope of trauma and crisis and always measured by the yardstick of “civilized” and “peaceful” worlds. Much work on war seeks to address panicked questions about how these worlds of war can even exist and they chart the distance/difference between “war” and “peace,” North and South, civilized and savage. But to those who inhabit war over lifetimes and generations, war and peace are not useful categories – no one is interested in showcasing their own exotic natures! Like many struggling to make lives in unlivable worlds across the globe, the end of the world is nothing new! Instead, inhabitants of war are concerned with the same pursuits many of us in “peaceful” worlds are: living a decent life, making a living, caring for hearth and home, pursuing projects and dreams. When we center ordinary activities in our understandings of war, war’s dramatic violence settles into a larger picture and we come to see these life-making practices as ongoing creative resistances to the necropolitics of war – and other destructive structures and processes of the Anthropocene.

AF: You note in your text that “landscape is the medium and method”, and elsewhere you ask that landscape is seen as a verb. What is the work that you see that thinking with landscape does, and why did it become particularly important for you in this context?

MK: Well, South Lebanon is the famed Biblical landscape of Galilee and one of the oldest continuously inhabited landscapes on Earth, with traces of human habitation from the Neolithic onwards: humans and their companion species have profoundly shaped “nature” here. Across South Lebanon, one stumbles across vibrant ruins from Phoenician times through the Romans and the Ottomans to the present, and the landscape contains many living spirits – both good and bad – who inhabit trees, rivers, hilltops, caves. The landscape cannot be ignored! So early on, nudged by interlocutors and companions – humans and otherwise – I saw the potential of landscape to gently and generously hold on to radical multiplicity: not only in terms of ethnographic textures and forms of narrative, but also with respect to our restrictive conceptual understandings. When I was writing my dissertation, tropes of ecologies and landscape had not yet taken over anthropology, so I sought conceptual inspiration and guidance from cultural geography, STS, art and literature. It was an eclectic bag! The work of Tim Ingold on the “Temporality of the Landscape” was an early inspiration and stayed with me: he shows us how to attend to the multiplicity of landscape without constraining it in a singular perspective. The writer W.G. Sebald and the painter Anselm Kiefer fired my intuition about how to subtly and powerfully illuminate war through landscape without resorting to tired tropes. I stitched together my text with many threads – South Lebanon was also a wilderness in terms of scholarship which had largely ignored it. So I have to say that I made it up the best way I could and it was slightly terrifying because I was in uncharted lands… But by the time I was finishing the book, landscape and ecologies had already taken hold in anthropology – it was gratifying to know I had had good intuition early on, and I was most happy to engage with these debates from a different angle – that of war.

AF: A key concept that you develop in this text is that of resistant ecologies. How did you develop this idea and what is the work you hope this concept can do in the field of anthropology?

MK: Resistance is the most common way that people understand their striving for life in the battlefields of South Lebanon (but also beyond). Resistance is also largely dominated by military action and political ideologies generated by the group that has been most successful at military resistance in South Lebanon – namely Hizbullah, also known as the Resistance (al-Muqawama). In honoring the resistance of all of those who live in this borderland and battlefield – who may and may not be connected to those who also fight – I sought to reclaim resistance as an ethnographic term with salience to my field and to reclaim it from obsolescence in social theory. I also wrested resistance back from monopolization by dominant political ideologies and military valences in South Lebanon. The phrase “resistant ecologies” is both literal and metaphorical. Literal in the sense that it references the ecologies – the multi-species networks of care that by design persist across seasons of devastation in South Lebanon such as tobacco farming and goat herding. Metaphorical because these resistant ecologies grow in all kinds of unlivable worlds – they are the meshworks of connection and care that nurture being through all kinds of rupture – not just war. I insist on resistance as a defiant and intentional attitude to neglectful, extractive, exploitative and deadly systems such as capitalism, industry, the nation-state and war. Resistance centers the agency of actors in such worlds. Survival is never a passive act.

AF: At some point in your book you mention the phrase “above us only sky” (used by John Lennon in Imagine). What is the role of the arts and the humanities in your anthropological reflections and way of writing?

MK: I love that you noticed this! A book has to end and that ending is always arbitrary. In realizing I had arrived at an ending, I wanted to sound a note of continuity, not closure. How better to do so by returning the attention of the reader to the landscape and, above it, the endless sky? The sky also references Mahmoud Darwish’s poem “The Earth is Narrowing Around Us” where he asks: “Where do birds fly after the last sky?” that I quote earlier in the same final ethnographic chapter “The Gray Zone.” The line from “Imagine” popped into my head and it was perfect: the opening lines of the book and the ending lines should always come from the muse! These lines from John Lennon’s powerful anti-war song urging us to imagine a better world were perfect to the task at hand. At the beginning of the book, riffing on the words of a song by Ziad Rahbani “The Lebanese National Resistance” I write “This book is not a book! It is a salute.” I chose to complete the salute with a song. Song, poetry, art and literature are indispensable to me: the best ethnography should, in addition to making scholarly interventions, seek to move its reader and bring the reader into new worlds and powerful feelings the same way effective art does, and I strive for that in my writing.

AF: Your move to Anthropology happened with your decision to study for the MPhil in Social Anthropology at Cambridge University, having previously studied History at the American University of Beirut. How has your training as a historian assisted you as an anthropologist?

MK: Growing up in war always gave me the sense of living history and studying history as an undergraduate in Beirut just freshly out of war was life-changing. History was my first love and it showed me, even beyond what I sensed, the wild worlds barely hidden by the surface of the present. My move to Social Anthropology in Cambridge came as a question of method: I wanted to be in the rush and tumble of the world and not in the archives. But my passions remained steady: my work is always attuned to the many layers of being that are co-present and to the wild depths of worlds that inform our being in it. You could say that landscape was my way of holding that maelstrom.

AF: Your second project, Heart of Black Gold, draws on the personal archive of your maternal grandfather to ask “how has oil — its extractive, shiny infrastructures, camps, big men, politics and corporations, its global ecologies — shaped lived environments?”. Can you speak to how this relates to your previous work in South Lebanon and whether there is a broader project that you are building towards?

MK: Heart of Black Gold is a work on the intimacy of empire and oil. It seeks to bring to light the lived dimension of global stories of empire and extraction that are often dominated by “actors” such as nation-states, big men and corporations. This work on a relatively unplumbed (and jealously guarded!) world continues some main themes in my previous work by centering the lived world, and through the affective power and detail of that dimension, which is too often silenced and obscured, pushing back on established and hegemonic understandings of the world, power and politics. Arabia and the US built an empire of oil that (violently) shaped vast landscapes of living across the globe, and this work sits at its dark heart – which is also filled with light. Here (once again!) we enter a gray zone filled with the presences of lives and stories that refuse to be contained by categories, concepts and borders. Another hidden landscape illuminated!

AF: For those students considering a career in anthropology, what would be your advice to them? What lessons do you wish you had learned earlier in your career?

MK: My advice is the advice I was given by Rolph Trouillot in our first conversation when I had just started graduate school at the University of Chicago in September 2001. Rolph asked me: what is your burning question? And he said: that burning question will guide you. And it has! In keeping alive the legacy of Rolph, such a brilliant human and thinker who left us too soon, I always tell my students to hold onto their burning question. It has served me well.