n July 7, 2020, the Secretary General of Hezbollah, Sayyed Hassan Nasrallah, called for an agricultural jihad, explaining that resistance begins through self-sufficiency in Lebanon’s agrarian fields (Haidar, 2020; Yee, 2020). A month later, the Beirut port was pulverized by a 2.7 kiloton explosion that impacted a radius of over ten kilometers. The destruction of this infrastructural epicenter that provided food security to Lebanon through imports and warehouse storages obligated the country to embrace food sovereignty with urgency. While the terms food security and food sovereignty have multiple definitions, their synonymous use in this context aligns with the Iranian government’s strategy to support its population after the 1979 Islamic Revolution (Babar and Kamrava, 2015; Salami, Mohtashami and Naeini, 2015). The use of the terms in political speeches is rooted in fear that is shared by multiple Middle Eastern and Arab countries who are well-aware of their food insecurity and familiar with the historical and ongoing weaponization of food and its use as a tool in foreign policy.

Food as a geopolitical weapon is etched in the collective memory of the Middle East. As Woertz (2013: 108) explains: “military vocabulary pervades the talk about food security. Authors have seen the food weapon at play, whether it is the second Gulf War or Israeli politics in the occupied Palestinian territories.” The collapse of the Bretton Woods agreement followed by the OPEC crisis in 1973 heightened the weaponization of food. However, the outcoms of the US grain embargo on the Soviet Union in 1980 proved that commodity capitalism speaks louder than political alliances. Woertz (2013: 114) clarifies that “Australia, Argentina, or the European Economic Community happily picked up the slack and delivered food to the targeted countries.” The outright use of food embargoes was too blunt, and according to Woertz (2013), damaged US reputation. Instead, provisioning or restraining food aid has continuously proven to be a more viable force to align foreign interests.

In this essay, I explore how “connections and disconnections” (Coward, 2015: 98) of networked infrastructures of food logistics in Lebanon are rewired to forge new power relations during pivotal moments. By bringing Laleh Khalili’s (2017) reading of empire building through infrastructure and Martin Coward’s (2015) definition of infrastructure as a connective tissue of ‘hot spots’ and ‘cold spots’ in conversation with Simon Jackson’s (2015) analysis of the Great Famine (1914-1918) in Mount Lebanon, I highlight how food logistics produce a new “social order” (Jackson 2015: 64). I then reflect on whether Lauren Berlant’s (2016) infrastructural ‘glitch’ in the current crisis of food logistics can possibly unravel an opportunity for a rooted regional emancipatory food sovereignty. More specifically, could the ‘glitch’ present an occasion for collective, rigorous, and creative labor towards the life-giving force of what Winona LaDuke and Deborah Cowen (2020) call “alimentary infrastructures”?

Famine: a tool for social production

Laleh Khalili (2017: 96) highlights how infrastructural projects go beyond “tactical military functions” to act as “instruments of social engineering” and “means of economic integration” that mold the “hearts and minds” of the local population. In Lebanon, food logistics and provision of food aid are tactical political tools that determine elections and alliances. Local and global actors hold the power to either give generously or withhold wrathfully, controlling the masses beyond hearts and minds but by flesh.  

Lebanon’s familiarity with manufactured famines begins towards the end of the Ottoman Empire with the forging of its contemporary borders. The naval blockade of the Allied Forces, Ottoman cash-crop policies, and the local hoarding/speculation of food supplies aggravated food scarcity by 1915. According to Jackson (2015: 64), the “blockade-then-relief” strategy, brokered by local intermediaries in 1919 and 1920, “served both to nourish the establishment of a new social order and to create what Didier Fassin has called the new “hierarchies of humanity” (Fassin 2012 cited in Jackson 2015: 64). Martin Coward’s (2015) reading of infrastructurally disconnected cold spots, and alternatively hot spots that are infrastructurally connected and embedded within the global network, became spatially embodied in Lebanon’s landscape through the circulation of and access to food. 

Coward (2015: 96, 97) reads infrastructure as a “connective tissue,” one that “articulates heterogeneous subjects and spaces” and simultaneously “erodes the usefulness of the city as a distinct place or concept.” The blurring of boundaries through connectivity is coupled with the dire need for security. As Coward (2015: 97) writes, “[s]ecuritization of infrastructure is oriented toward preventing, pre-empting, or recovering from disconnection.” Therefore, the securitization of infrastructure is political since it entails power relations of inclusion and exclusion. 

Jackson (2015: 65) complicates the binary act of inclusion/exclusion or infrastructural connection/disconnection through the “humanitarian managerialism” of Charles Corm, a Lebanese poet and businessman who assisted the French in assuaging the famine. According to Jackson, Charles Corm’s food brokerage in Beirut was not just mere provisions of nutrition for survival, but rather a simultaneous reformulation of pre-existing class hierarchies and the “assembling of the Mandate’s social formation” through inclusions and exclusions (Jackson, 2015: 66). Jackson (2015: 70-71) elaborates: 

“[…] humanitarian practice at the war’s end worked not through binaries – of humanitarian and recipients, foreigners and locals, international practices and local implementations – but instead through a struggle to stabilize the meaning, limits, and categories of humanitarian activity and imperial politics within which it is nested. Particularly in key spaces such as depots and soup kitchens – pinch-points in the flow of food –  where desperately hungry people queued for their rations, the production of new hierarchies, the basis of the Mandate’s social formation, occurred through the egalitarian premises of emergency revictualing.”   

The famine depressed the inhabitants collectively to a common level of dire desperation for basic subsistence. Coward (2015: 97) substantiates the threat of disconnection as “a threat to life itself.” He (Coward, 2015: 97) further elaborates how infrastructural connections and disconnections establish “modes of relation.” In post-WWI Lebanon, the disconnection through the famine and subsequent re-connection and inclusion of select people, constructed the foundations of “a new social order” (Jackson, 2015: 71). By 1920, the French Mandate annexed the surrounding agricultural and coastal lands to Mount Lebanon establishing the sovereign boundaries of a modern republic. Accordingly, how will the current infrastructural disconnection and exclusion of Lebanon reformulate the spatial organization and the socio-political hierarchies?  

The Deep Freeze: proliferation of ‘Cold Spots’ to reset/rewire

Lebanon is constantly connecting, disconnecting, and re-connecting its modes of relation to maintain food security. In 2011, the start of the war in Syria disrupted Lebanon’s food supply routes. Hadi Fathallah (2019) explains how Syria’s trade corridor was inaccessible due to military security concerns. This disconnection from land transport disrupted “access to regional agricultural markets for Lebanon, Turkey, Iraq, and Jordan” but re-routed food supplies to maritime and air routes, increasing costs by 60 percent (Fathallah, 2019: 1). The war in Syria prompted a gradual regional infrastructural disconnection. 

In October 2019, the country’s banking sector collapsed. Trade and finance had been the pillars of Lebanon’s economy since its inception. However, the strengthening of the banking system came at the expense of national agricultural growth. Local food production was neglected throughout its modern history (Gates, 2006; Nasr, 1978; Salibi, 1988; Traboulsi, 2012). By 2019, Lebanon imported 85 percent of its food and the financial crisis increased food prices by 628 percent (Chehayeb, 2021). This pushed three million Lebanese into poverty and over fifty percent are food deprived (World Food Program, 2021). 

In 2020, the Covid-19 pandemic, hyperinflation, and the Beirut port explosion exacerbated food insecurity. The pandemic interrupted global food supply chains and substantially increased prices of staple products. This was particularly disruptive for import-dependent countries (Covid-19 Brief Impact on Food Security). The port explosion destroyed the country’s main artery for food flows and logistics, including the storage warehouses and the grain silos. Food aid from NGOs and foreign countries, flown through the Beirut airport, is the main access to nutrition for the deprived population (Reuters, 2020).  

Finally, by early February 2022, Middle East think-tanks cautioned that a Russian invasion of Ukraine could trigger famine in the MENA region (Taylor and Slim, 2022: 00:23:10). As the war in Eastern Europe unfolds, Lebanese bakers struggle to supply bread, while customers grapple with the price of a loaf. Ninety-five percent of the country’s wheat is imported from Ukraine and Russia (McDonough, 2022), leaving Lebanon dependent on other foreign suppliers such as the US and Australia. However, the global rise in oil prices will render imported food supplies unaffordable. Hyperinflation, the pandemic, the rise in oil prices, the collapse of the financial sector, the port explosion, and ongoing wars have halted the circulation of food.

The disruption of food logistics creates a cold spot, or rather, a deep freeze, that ignites a traumatic collective memory of the Great Famine of 1915-1918, during which an estimated three-fourths of Mount Lebanon’s population perished (Ahmed, 2021). These fears are compounded by headlines that read “Lebanon’s crisis among the world’s worst since the 1850s” (World Bank, 2021). The dangerous outcomes of relying on precarious logistical systems of ‘food security’ supports the call to self-sufficiently attain ‘food sovereignty.’ Can this disconnect – or in Berlant’s words, ‘glitch’ – be an opportunity to establish a regional emancipatory politics? 

A ‘glitch’ towards emancipatory politics and food sovereignty 

Lauren Berlant (2016) defines a ‘glitch’ as the failure of infrastructure. They question whether the ‘glitch’ creates occasion for commoning infrastructures as a means to decolonize. After delving into the many understandings of the term, Berlant (2016) reads ‘commons’ as simultaneously political and “embodied human action.” They (Berlant, 2016: 399) write:

“The commons is an action concept that acknowledges a broken world and the survival ethics of a transformational infrastructure. This involves using the spaces of alterity within ambivalence.”

Berlant unravels the tensions between the definition of the commons and our human desire to be anchored in a familiar system, even when the spatial realities indicate its failures. Their (Berlant, 2016: 401) critique of the terms “sovereignty” and “belonging” illustrate their conception of the commons as a form of “self-dispossession [which] does not feel like a loss. Yet the presence of the sublime tells us to attend to the affective work of becoming common.” This self-dispossession is freeing and allows one to let go of “property, sovereignty politics, tradition…” (Berlant, 2016: 407) which are projections of a citizen bounded to and by a nation-state that carries a singular dominant narrative and a set of fixed and indisputable values and laws that materialize as “normative infrastructures from the state and commodity capitalism” (Berlant, 2016: 408).  

What would postsovereign infrastructures of “embodied human action” (Berlant, 2016: 399) look like in Lebanon? How would the collective self-sufficiency project manifest amongst the multiple sectarian and populist groups? While Hezbollah’s agricultural jihad is rooted in resistance, it partially embodies Berlant’s notion of the postsovereign, where its loyal constituents are experiencing the “affect, of being receptive, in real time” (Berlant, 2016: 402). Yet, Hezbollah only provides access to this common infrastructure exclusively for its supporters while simultaneously being driven by institutional capitalism for ‘others.’ While a jihad for self-sufficiency is a reaction against imperialist modes of governance including the assembly of its social hierarchic formations, the spatial manifestations of the resistance adhere to the same form of violent exclusion. The only path onward is through building a truly common infrastructure that concurrently sustains and celebrates life. 

To life

Winona LaDuke and Deborah Cowen (2020: 244) critique the “current economic system predicated upon accumulation and dispossession that denigrates the sacred in all of us.” Referring to the Anishinaabe cannibal monster, the Wiindigo economy is depicted as a life-devouring cancer which, “is organized by an extraordinary expansion of military, security, and carceral power that destroys, separates, and contains people based on race and nationality” (LaDuke and Cowen 2020: 244). The exacerbated food insecurity in Lebanon is built on the logics of the Wiindigo economy, where food is discussed through economic, political, and military vocabulary. Food, a source of life, is reduced to a tool for accumulation, dispossession, and perpetuation of a society in continuous conflict. LaDuke and Cowen (2020) call for a transformation – a renaissance. They (LaDuke and Cowen, 2020: 245) coin the term ‘alimentary infrastructure’ as “infrastructure that is life-giving in its design, finance, and effects,” explaining that the life-giving infrastructure is “capable of sustaining not only the body, but the spirit and law as well” (LaDuke and Cowen, 2020: 252).

Numerous regional and local initiatives are striving to attain self-sufficiency including Arab Network for Food Sovereignty, Ardi Ardak, and Jibal. Ardi Ardak (my land is your land), is a grassroots collective that aims to build alimentary infrastructures, focusing on local production and endeavoring “to provide market access and adequate infrastructure for rural small-scale producers” (Foodtank, 2022; Sheldon, 2022). It is important to note that just as Charles Corm was brokering food aid in post-WWI, many ‘grassroots’ initiatives have intimate relations with global actors. While this may conflate interests and re-assemble Lebanon’s socio-political body, the food crisis might alternatively provide a pivotal opportunity for fostering alimentary infrastructure that nourishes the commons transcending political, economic, and sectarian divisions – a collective engagement with a life-giving alimentary infrastructure that is truly a self-dispossessed postsovereign common. Lebanon, as a microcosmic message to the world, is suspended at the crossroads of collective death or vibrant life. The outcome depends on how Lebanon responds to this food crisis. 




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Anahid Z. Simitian is a PhD student in human geography at the University of Toronto with a background in architecture. Her research interests include political geographies of the Middle East and feminist political ecologies of food security and food sovereignty.