HOW MANY SPINES DOES A CACTUS HAVE? REFLECTIONS ON OXFORD’S 5TH INTERDISCIPLINARY DESERT CONFERENCE (1–2 JULY 2021)

In this blog Manannan Donoghoe reports on the Oxford Deserts Conference held in early July which sadly did not have its traditional White Horse Press attendance due to COVID. We’ll be back for the 6th! Editor Saverio Krätli represented Nomadic Peoples very effectively. This piece will also be published in NP 25.2 (September 2021).

How many spines does a cactus have? How many stars in a desert’s night sky? These were some of the more innocuous questions posed in the 5th Oxford Interdisciplinary Desert Conference. The rest, provocative and slippery, uncertain and ambitious, were substantially harder to answer. Yet, in raising these questions, examining them from different angles, attendees found a fantastic synergy and a new appreciation for the diversity of eyes looking at deserts. 

Attendees of the 5th Oxford Deserts Conference

Proceedings began in an intimate tone with Sina Maghami Nick calling in from Iran to share live updates from the field. His research, exploring the lives of Bakhtari pastoral nomads, provided a vibrant portrayal of a type of everyday living usually uncaptured in such detail – a family sharing bread nestled into the folds of surrounding mountains, goats and herders passing along steep slopes, and striking vistas. Sina expressed an apparent harmony between the landscape, animals, and people; a ‘coded’ symmetry: ‘When you leave a community of humans to themselves, without structures, they easily live in peace. It’s coded within them’. 

This theme, the desert as a place in which living and non-livings beings are entangled in a mutual reliance, re-emerged in different forms throughout the day. Indeed, the transdisciplinary nature of the conference lent itself to this. An archaeological exploration of Karakum pastoralism (Paul Wordsworth) in dialogue with cinematic representations of the desert (Daniel Mann); emerging techniques to track large predators in drylands (Muhammad Farhadinia) conversing with the shifting ethics of researched-researcher relations in pastoralist communities (Jill Blau). In the bringing together of geological histories with cultural and social processes, there was a constant and clear through-line – in the landscape are inscribed social changes, and within social changes are inscribed implications for the landscape. 

In the presentations, we caught glimpses of the future too. Speakers described the likely locations of life-shattering earthquakes (Richard Walker), and the geopolitical implications of a changing publishing landscape (Saverio Krätli). Sam Woor, for example, presented us with an alternative understanding of the Arabian Peninsula. Reading the signs in ‘geoproxies’, such as dunes, preserved river channels, and spring deposits, Sam painted a different understanding of the landscape, holding more abundance, more capacity for life than previously thought. This has implications both for our understandings of historic nomadic movements through deserts, and insights for how cultures and landscapes may shift as climatic toping points are reached. It was clear that, in the desert, temporality is entangled as much as people and places.

It’s no surprise, then, that the desert has come to mean different things for many people. Indeed, speakers demonstrated the ongoing orchestration of a charismatic desert, with current geo-political projects re-writing ecological histories and re-shaping the landscape and its people in line with ambitious capital ventures. As Hollywood sells a neo-colonial image of emptiness, barren and bereft of life; a clean slate perhaps (Daniel Mann), others are selling a vision of potentiality, the sands waiting to be full of plentiful life. Vanessa Lehmann’s exploration of agri-business developments in Egypt was an intriguing highlight. Under monumental irrigation schemes to turn the sand into circular oases, the Egyptian state’s most abundant asset has become its most lucrative capital. The desert then holds promises, or as Lehman put it: ‘a soil for cultivating new lifestyles’. But in this there’s also ruin, dispossessing some and re-arranging the livelihoods of others.

These shifting landscapes inevitably raise new questions for the capacity for conflict resolution. In the final session of the day, ‘mobile peoples and desert discords’, contemporary struggles for self-determination were centred. Willem Odendaal and Jérémie Gilbert, for example, explored the experience of the Hai| |om in Estosha national park, facing difficulties in proving ancestral and cultural ties across a landscape vast in scope and locked with vested interests. Land ownership and indigeneity, deeply western concepts, seem poorly suited to the situation, creating obstacles that are preventing the nomadic communities from reaching sovereignty through legal process. In other cases, as in Turkana, Kenya, elite capture of decision-making bodies was a key concern. Introducing what he labelled an ‘Oppidan bias’, Cory Rogers described the tendency for urban, professional elites to crowd out pastoralist involvement in governance, pushing a vision of progress that lacked relevance to the lives of those at the face of development. 

Inevitably, after these conversations, we finished the day by circling back to Sina and his work on Bakhtiari pastoral nomads. Fielding a question from the audience on the role of the State in nomadic lives, he expressed it as a ‘force’, a constant and enduring presence not unlike the mountains they themselves were living amongst. However, unlike the mountains, the State’s intentions were less clear and, as development continued, the pastoralists found themselves increasingly in contact with opinions that cast them as ‘people of the past’. Yet, in his answer, Sina did not describe passivity, but rather emphasised ingenuity. The Bakhtiari have also changed – adopting aspects of contemporary lifestyles and technologies where it suited them and discarding others. 

Perhaps like the desert landscape they inhabited, the Bakhtiari appeared to exceed their representations. Changing, adopting and innovating, they held an entanglement of histories and futures; peoples, places, animals, and objects; diverse and as difficult to count as the spines on a cactus or the stars in a desert’s night sky.


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