The Desert: Introduction



Welcome to the 44th issue of The Funambulist, which we are dedicating to desert epistemes and political struggles from its peoples. It is however important to problematize this very term “desert,” as it is fundamentally an exogenous (if not colonial) designation suggesting absence rather than presence. Absence of flora, absence of humans, absence of life… the misleading characterizations of the lands we propose to debunk in these pages are plethora. The reverse of that “stigma”—to insist instead on the plentiful characteristics of “deserts”—is something that several contributors undertake at the beginning of their respective texts in this issue. Perhaps, the very term “desert” should have even been proscribed to avoid its colonial designation over arid lands. The subsequent question that then arises is whether the entire reality contained within this term is also invented, and whether there is no commonality between Namib, Sahara, Gobi, “Gibson,” Atacama, or Mojave countries. The intuition of this issue is that there might actually be some commonality, which could be characterized (for better or worse) as “continentality,” as a sort of response to what we had called “oceanity” in our 39th issue (The Ocean… From the Black Atlantic to the Sea of Islands, Jan-Feb 2022). While many other areas of the globe are situated on one of the seven continents, they would indeed not qualify under this alternative conception of “continentality,” because of the way the oceanic climate impacts their entire ecosystem, making them a kind of hybrid. The countries we understand as “deserts” throughout this issue, on the other hand, can be tentatively perceived as the essence of the continental condition. 

Desert Continuum Leopold Lambert
The Desert Continuum. Locations in blue are places cited in the introduction. / Map by Léopold Lambert (2022).

Delineating exact and unalterable contours of such a “continentality” would however only reproduce the colonial, essentializing borders that categorize and render definitive some specific qualities of the land. What we can do however is to loosely trace these porous boundaries and, from it, observe the drawing of a desert continuum (see the map on next pages) that links Dakar to Ulaanbaatar by way of Karachi, Volgograd, Gaza, and Nairobi—considering cities, rather than mountains or other salient points, has to be understood as arbitrary geographical references here. Just as we talked in our issue on The Ocean about the political commonalities that islander nations could experience through the Ocean despite living thousands of kilometers apart, we can envision such a commonality throughout this continuum. In this regard, asking Maya Mihindou to create an artwork for both covers is, of course, not a coincidence.

One of these political commonalities is certainly the struggle against colonialism, whether it’s the European one, that of Europe’s settler colonies (Australia, the U.S., Argentina…), or of other imperial powers having set their interests on desert countries.

This issue tells the stories of a few of them: the Tuareg struggle in the west part of the Sahara (Maïa Tellit Hawad), the Nubian one in the eastern part (Menna Agha), the Dhofar Revolution in Oman (Ahmad Makia), the Aboriginal desert nations’ fight for sovereignty in so-called “Western Australia” (Jan Turner), or Namibian revolutionary activists’ praxis of desert farming in the Kgalagadi desert (Asher Gamedze). Moreover, deserts seem to remarkably present spatial characteristics that colonial sovereignty often fails to grasp, due to its incapacity to comprehend and exploit them.

Deemed as “empty” by colonial powers, deserts—like oceans, although countless specificities obviously remain—are nonetheless often the sites of resource extractivism and, in a reverse gesture, mass burial (see Daniel Borzutzky’s text about the Atacama Desert during the Pinochet rule). The second part of the 20th century has seen an intensification of Cold War-induced programs in colonized deserts. Space research centers and rocket launch pads were built in the Algerian Sahara by France (which also proceeded to transfer its center to colonized Guiana after Algerian independence), in the Gobi desert in so-called “Inner” Mongolia by China, or in the Kazakh desert by the USSR (then Russia, which has since then build another cosmodrome in eastern Siberia). To this list we can add the more recent private launchpad built by Virgin Galactic in the Chihuahuan Desert. Similarly, the same powers have bombed deserts as part of their nuclear “testing” programs (see Samia Henni’s text): France in the colonized Algerian Sahara, USSR in the Kazakh desert, China in the Gobi Desert, the United States in the Mojave and Chihuahuan deserts, as well as the United Kingdom and Australia in the so-called “Gibson” Desert, Israel in the Naqab, Pakistan in the Baloch desert, and India in the Rajasthani desert. The human and environmental consequences of these bombings remain dramatic today, at a scale that even exceeds the desert continuum. 

Yet, commonality through colonial violence is something we know all too well. And if not investigated further, we might simplistically conclude that colonialism is what creates relationality between people and environments. 

What this issue attempts to articulate, on the other hand, is the possibility for other forms of commonalities and solidarities. There is no doubt that such relationships have existed and continue to exist between desert nations, despite the distance between their lands or their fundamental differences.

In a private conversation, Maïa Tellit Hawad kindly shared knowledge about “intercommunity and transgenerational assemblies” between Tuareg and Toubou representatives, even as both nations continue to be portrayed as sworn enemies engulfed in “tribal wars” by Western media. She insists that during the Kaocen War against French colonizers in 1916-1917, Tuaregs and Toubous had also worked together to resist the occupation of their lands. Another example of this type of relationship can be seen in the alliance of the Dhofar Revolution, with the Iraq-born National Democratic Front for the Liberation of Oman, and the Arabian Gulf against the Omani Sultan and his British allies in the 1960-70s. In Daniel Borzutzky’s text, it is the words of Chilean poet Raúl Zurita that link the Atacama Desert in Chile, the Nazca Desert in Peru, and the Sonora Desert in the south-west of Turtle Island.

The general invisibilization of political struggles emerging from the desert—and at a more personal level, my own lack of deep engagement with them—does not allow me to go much further in such a space-time cartography of desert commonalities. Yet, if this issue were to arouse engagement in such a cartography (while bearing in mind that, as for all cartography, some invisibilization is to be attenuated, while others provide useful stealth), it certainly would have reached its goal. With this in mind, I leave you to the words of our guests, and wish you an excellent read. ■