Natalie Koch, Arid Empire: The Entangled Fates of Arizona and Arabia – Verso, January 2023
A revelatory new history of the colonization of the American West, by way of camels, date palms, and Biosphere 2
The iconic deserts of the American southwest could not have been colonized and settled without the help of desert experts from the Middle East. For example: In 1856, a caravan of thirty-three camels arrived in Indianola, Texas, led by a Syrian cameleer the Americans called “Hi Jolly.” This “camel corps,” the US government hoped, could help the army secure the new southwest swath of the country just wrested from Mexico. Though the dream of the camel corps—and sadly, the camels—died, the idea of drawing on expertise, knowledge, and practices from the desert countries of the Middle East did not.
As Natalie Koch demonstrates in this evocative, narrative history, the exchange of colonial technologies between the Arabian Peninsula and United States over the past two centuries—from date palm farming and desert agriculture to the utopian sci-fi dreams of Biosphere 2 and Frank Herbert’s Dune—bound the two regions together, solidifying the colonization of the US West and, eventually, the reach of American power into the Middle East. Koch teaches us to see deserts anew, not as mythic sites of romance or empty wastelands but as an “arid empire,” a crucial political space where imperial dreams coalesce.
[Update: Thanks for the comment below for pointing to this 2019 open access article: See OA article Koch, N., (2019) “AgTech in Arabia: ‘spectacular forgetting’ and the technopolitics of greening the desert”, Journal of Political Ecology 26(1), 666-686. doi: https://doi.org/10.2458/v26i1.23507]