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n August 4, 2020 an explosion ripped through the city of Beirut. Killing over 200 people, injuring over 6500, and leaving approximately 300,000 people homeless, the explosion was traced back to 2,750 tonnes of ammonium nitrate that had essentially been abandoned in Hangar 12 at the Beirut port. The ammonium nitrate had arrived at the port in 2013 on a Russian-owned, Moldovan flagged, barely seaworthy rustbucket and was headed to Mozambique from Georgia. When port authorities refused to allow the vessel to continue its journey due to safety concerns, the ship’s Russian owner, as is often the case in shipping, quietly exited the stage abandoning ship, cargo and crew. While the crew was repatriated back to their home countries after prolonged efforts by the international seafarers union in 2014, the cargo never left the port until that fateful day in August, 2020. The logics that led to the Beirut explosion, as Sinews of Trade and War can tell us, are not exceptional but at the heart of the organization of global shipping.
In her sweeping and magisterial new book, Sinews of War and Trade: Shipping and Capitalism in the Arabian Peninsula, Laleh Khalili highlights the centrality of shipping and maritime infrastructure to global capitalism. For Khalili, “maritime trade, logistics, and hydrocarbon transport are the clearest distillation of how global capitalism operates today.” (Khalili, 2020: 3) In opposition to a process of separation, Khalili’s distillation is additive and the book emerges from bringing together a dazzling array of archives, trade statistics, shipping journals, memoirs, poetry, and fiction as well as conversations and research onboard cargo ships and landside visits in port cities.
The resulting text, at once insightful and intoxicating, intervenes in, and recharts, a number of conversations across disciplines. Joining a growing set of books that push back at what the theorist and photographer Allan Sekula (1995) noted as the “forgetting of the sea”—the deeply terrestrial and territorial modes in which the contemporary world and its conceptual vocabulary is imagined— Khalili navigates across space and time to emphasize the critical and crucial role of ships and ports in this contemporary world system. At the same time, the book (in true amphibious fashion) is nonetheless grounded in particular histories and locales. As Khalili emphasizes, histories of the Arabian Peninsula are often “radically bifurcated.” Either locating the Arabian Peninsula as a node in the cosmopolitan historical trade networks of the Indian Ocean or locating it in a “world undone and redone by oil.” (Khalili, 2020: 4) Maritime trade only appears as part of the Peninsula’s history even though the region’s ports are some of the largest and highest-volume ports in the world. Sinews of War and Trade productively bridges these literatures marking an important intervention in studies of the region. This ability to weave a tale that is at once anchored and unmoored, located in particular geographies, but also always exceeding that regional frame is one of many strengths of this book. This narrative structure and form also mirrors the ways ships and contemporary shipping are at once located in particular places, but also evade location.
Khalili confesses to an obsession with everything maritime and the book reflects this deep curiosity about everything and a hunger to tell stories. Sinews of War and Trade is filled with a number of compelling and often-dubious characters from shipping magnates, businessmen (this is a world almost exclusively full of men), monarchs, dredging engineers, and a ‘motley crew’ of seafarers across eight compelling chapters. The chapters are divided between four that focus on the “factors that constitute a functioning port: routes, harbours, legal infrastructures and zones, and land transport” (p. 6) three that emphasize the people and labor relationships central to making and operating ports and a final chapter and epilogue that reflect on the intimacy of war and logistics. Together, they tell rich and profound stories about “how ports and maritime transport infrastructures have emerged out of the conjuncture of so many histories, struggles, conflicts, and plans (half-formed, implemented, and failed)” (p. 6)— about the “sinews of capitalism and conflict.”
From mapping histories of capitalism onto the rise and fall of port cities; to narrating mobility and cosmopolitanism in the Indian Ocean; and finally recounting restive rumblings of freedom in the ports of the Caribbean and the Atlantic, ports and port-cities have been privileged sites to explore maritime pasts and global connections. Contemporary ports, these ghostly, machine-like, depopulated and invisibilized spaces have emerged as perfect locales to reflect on maritime (and global capitalism’s) futures. Sinews of War and Trade moves between these two visions of the port and port-city as its steams from port to port in the Arabian Peninsula.
The book begins with Khalili’s voyages on CMA-CGM ships and an evocative image of Admiralty Charts spread out on the navigation table in the wheelhouse. Khalili describes that these charts were updated every hour and traced, in pencil, the sea route of the ship. In spite of numerous technologies, this is a process of painstakingly noting by hand positions and deviations from routes. Khalili describes these nautical charts as a palimpsest of past routes, “erased and replaced on every trip.” (p.16). The first chapter then tells the story of these sea routes made by an interplay of centuries old navigational knowledge, pilgrimage, imperial jostling, and in more recent years, the speculative calculations of freight indices, such as the Baltic Dry Index. These new forms of route making, like the Admiralty charts described at the beginning of the book, nonetheless contain within them traces of the long histories and political machinations that created these trade routes.
We then return to land, leaving behind the ephemeral palimpsestic quality of sea routes and the book turns its attention to the materiality of cranes, dredging ships, sand, cement, and labor necessary to remake land and sea in order to construct ports across the Arabian Peninsula. Focusing on Dammam, Dubai and Aden, Khalili emphasizes port making as ecologically destructive, labor intensive and tied to wider political and economic currents not only in the Gulf but beyond. This system of port making is not just about transforming land and sea, but also shifts legal categories and understandings. In contrast to an imagining of the sea as either a utopic or dystopic space marked by an absence of law, this book emphasizes the profound ways in which law matters. Often serving as an adjunct to conflict, law and in particular arbitration is the key tool through which corporate and colonial interests continue to be preserved in the region. The chapter on legal zones and infrastructures presents a fascinating study of the ways in which oil companies shaped sovereignty over land and importantly at sea in the Arabian Peninsula. Additionally, excavating the histories of free ports and zones reveals the transformation of maritime relationships into profits and power where international law and the contract serve as the continuation and enabler of forms of domination.
Ports, as Khalili reminds us, are always Janus-faced, and the book also turns its gaze away from the azure and steamy waters of the Red Sea and the Indian Ocean to focus inland on the assemblage of roads and rail that connect ports to hinterlands. As Khalili notes, “[i]n the Arabian Peninsula, the exploration and exploitation of petroleum riches was also a significant factor in the development of hinterland infrastructures. But pilgrimage and trade were and continue to be important in road-planning” (p. 122). In opposition to imagining a singular high modernist state-centric origin story of infrastructure, this chapter emphasizes the multiplicity of interests and motivations at the heart of these projects. Though here too, oil plays a crucial role in setting up the infrastructural possibilities.
In addition to political histories and material forms, from cement to contacts, that make possible ports and systems of accumulation, shipping and port making is made possible by the labor (as well as the fantasies and fictions) of a number of people who, like maritime labor more generally, are simultaneously hyper-visible and invisible. Khalili tells a fascinating history of port operators, insurance firms, oil companies, sovereigns and banks and their competing agendas and technocratic and geopolitical visions in shaping trajectories of port-making. Here fiction, aspiration, and fantasy are as crucial as access to credit, land, and port capacity in determining success and failure. In a powerful chapter on landside labor, Khalili centers the important ferments of protest and, crucially, the political languages and visions of dockside workers, as well as the possibilities and limits of maritime solidarity. When we find ourselves back at sea, this time with seafarers who operate the millions of vessels at sea, Khalili reminds us that life on ships is back-breaking, mind numbing and dull. Photocopiers, paint cans, and a Sisyphean battle against rust amidst the constant din of motors and the overpowering smell of diesel constitute the sensoryscape of global shipping. Khalili, importantly highlights the racialized nature labor at sea, a racialization and exploitation that emerges from particular regulatory shifts and practices, from flagging out to dual labor contracts. The invisibility of seafaring, like the invisibility of global shipping, furthers these forms of exploitation, as demonstrated by the current COVID pandemic, with millions of seafarers ostensibly held hostage on ships, unable to disembark due to closed borders and quarantine.
The book ends with a focus on maritime transportation from the vantage point of conflict and war. Here, we see the slippage between land and sea borders and how bounties from conflicts have shaped the rise and fall of ports. This theme of slippage also characterizes the relationship between cannon and commerce and Khalili deftly demonstrates the fungibility between commercial and military infrastructures and transportation. Objects of war making transform rapidly into objects of commerce, but equally importantly, these objects can be reconverted back into military objects and outposts.
The labor regimes that structure life at sea, the regulatory systems that allow for the abdication of responsibility and the local, regional and global politics of maritime transportation and infrastructure, Sinews of War and Trade helps us understand, are designed to ensure accumulation for some and devastation—at times in spectacular fashion as in the case of Beirut—for many. At the end of the book, Khalili returns us back to the procession of ships in Abdulrahman Munif’s Cities of Salt and the glimpse of the demonic in this machinery of extraction. Her book cautions against “[u]nwarranted optimism” reminding us that this optimism “is the magical ingredient in capital accumulation” and what “sanitise[s] ports and ships and other places and peoples.” (p. 267)
Sinews of War and Trade is a powerful clarion call against this form of optimism and attempts to sanitize and make seamless global circulation. The sea is a site of horrors from the age of Sail to the era of the supertanker. Yet, as many have noted, from “a common wind” (Scott, 2018) that tied together free and enslaved in the Atlantic to the networks of steamships where colonial agents, but also, families, pilgrims, and revolutionaries travelled (Alexanderson, 2019; Sivasundaram, 2020; Tagliacozzo, 2013) in addition to horror, each era at sea contains within it currents of possibility. At the end of the book, this reader was left wondering about political possibilities and modes of cohabitation at sea. In all its texture, breadth, and depth the book and its assorted cast of characters oscillate between domination and (mostly futile) modes of resistance, all caught in churn that is maritime capitalism. Are there sojourners that we might encounter at sea, who do not replicate the optimism of port-planners, sovereigns, and technocrats, nor simply narrate tales of resilience at the margins? How might the inclusion of these travelers, beyond those we typically understand as maritime workers and the more than human worlds in which they are located, transform the story told in the book?
These worlds and actors are gestured throughout the text, in the monsoons, in the geographies of pilgrimage, in the interruptions of piracy, a recognition that there are logics and cosmologies that both shape, and at times, befuddle and thwart the extractive machinery of maritime capitalism. I’m reminded of interlocutors in coastal Somalia who were simultaneously critical of maritime piracy that had brought coastal Somalia to global attention from 2008 onwards and yet refused to condemn pirates. Piracy, as many noted, “was a way of making places and people bigger.” (Dua, 2019: 176) To be feared, I was repeatedly told, was a form of status in the world. Beyond resistance and domination, piracy was a form of relationality to wider currents, a way of becoming “known in the world.” These tales of piracy, like the evocative Admiralty charts at the beginning of Sinews of War and Trade contain within them echoes, and faded pencil markings that could help chart other itineraries and political possibilities. The challenge then is to keep those possibilities open without replicating, as Khalili compellingly notes, the “unwarranted optimism” that fuels machineries of extraction and exploitation.
Alexanderson K (2019). Subversive Seas: Anticolonial Networks across the Twentieth-Century Dutch Empire. Cambridge and New York: Cambridge University Press.
Dua J (2019) Captured at Sea: Piracy and Protection in the Indian Ocean. Oakland: University of California Press.
Scott JS (2018) The Common Wind: Afro-American Currents in the Age of the Haitian Revolution. London and New York: Verso Books.
Sekula, A (1995) Fish Story. Rotterdam: Richter Verlag.
Sivasundaram, S (2020) Waves Across the South: A New History of Revolution and Empire. London: William Collins.
Tagliacozzo, E (2013) The Longest Journey: Southeast Asians and the Pilgrimage to Mecca. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Jatin Dua is an associate professor in anthropology at the University of Michigan-Ann Arbor. He is the author of Captured at Sea: Piracy and Protection in the Indian Ocean (University of California Press, 2019).