"gam. noun—a social meeting of two (or more) whaleships, generally on a cruising-ground; when, after exchanging hails, they exchange visits by boats’ crews; the two captains remaining, for the time, on board of one ship, and the two chief mates on the other." Herman Melville, Moby Dick
I just wrote a little something on Infrastructures for Noema Magazine.
It starts by discussing the Rishiganga dam:
Early on the morning of Feb. 7, in the foothills of the Indian Himalayas, a massive flash flood crashed through the Rishiganga hydroelectric dam, sending a tremendous flood of water and debris down the Dhauliganga River. Villages, roads and bridges were washed away. A month later, more than 70 bodies have been recovered, but at least 100 people are still missing.
Scientists from the Wadia Institute of Himalayan Geology later flew a helicopter over the scene. A glacier on a remote mountain peak had apparently broken apart, fallen down a steep hillside and blocked the flow of the river. The water in the river built up and then burst through, causing the massive flooding downstream.
And ends thus:
Planners must not privatize the profits made from infrastructures while demanding public investments and socializing the risks. For infrastructure to work, for it to serve the public and steward the world’s air, water and soil for future generations, it has to be planned through more open, egalitarian and environmentally militant processes.
I was thrilled to publish a piece for the London Review of Books on China’s Belt and Road Initiative. Instead of wanting to look at it through the eyes of the Chinese or -more egregiously- US policy-makers, I was really interested in thinking about how the countries where the BRI’s infrastructure investments and constructions take place are experiencing the process. And it was really important for me to situate the BRI in a longer historical trajectory – of Chinese labourers and traders spread across the globe at the end of the 19th century, on to the South-South solidarity projects of the moment of decolonisation, to today’s BRI.
In a short story called ‘The Chinese Road’ written in the 1970s by the Yemeni-Ethiopian Mohammad Abdul-Wali, a Yemeni man befriends a Chinese construction worker on the new road from the port of Hodeida on the Red Sea, ‘cutting through the mountain’, to the capital, Sanaa, more than two hundred kilometres away. Abdul-Wali describes the competent and friendly Chinese labourers who live in tents with the Yemenis. They all learn Arabic, unlike an earlier group of foreigners: the British, sweaty and florid, with their colony in Aden, who remained aloof from the locals, and departed ‘leaving nothing behind but the hatred of [the] people’. The Chinese construction workers, by contrast, leave a lasting legacy.
The completion of the first paved road in Yemen in 1961 was commemorated in a series of stamps that also celebrated the building of a modern port in Hodeida with the help of Soviet engineers. By that point 1100 Chinese construction workers and engineers were building roads in Yemen. Work on the Sanaa-Hodeida road had begun in 1959, the same year China started blasting through the Himalayas to build the Karakoram Highway to Pakistan. In 1967, China completed the sky-high ‘friendship road’ between Lhasa and Kathmandu, and between 1970 and 1975 it built a railway between Tanzania and Zambia. Chinese railway experts were remembered respectfully by their local counterparts for passing on their skills.
The project includes a film by Hira Nabi on shipbreaking in Gadani, Pakistan, titled All that Perishes at the Edge of Land (2019), as well as Salwa’s conversation with myself and an artistic curator based in Vienna and Istanbul, Övül Durmuşoğlu. The conversation can be heard here:
I was invited by the lovely people of the Danish Institute for International Studies to give a talk on infrastructures. The abstract for the talk was:
Monday 19 October, 15.00-15.45 DIIS ∙ Danish Institute for International Studies Online via Zoom
Accumulation of capital in the maritime industry – like so many other forms of capital accumulation- is predicated on elasticity, evasion, and cooptation. The very mobile and fragmentary nature of the business of shipping; its amphibian nature; its global expanse; and its private and family-owned ownership structures undergird its ability to escape even the most basic forms of scrutiny and demands for accountability. Among the technologies used as an infrastructure for accumulation are offshoring of ownership and offshoring of ship registries (or flags of convenience).
At this webinar, Laleh Khalili sketches these legal devices, invented, facilitated and supported by all the great political powers and the largest corporations involved in the maritime industry. She will explain how these legal infrastructures provide the modalities of accumulation where the boundaries between licit and illicit are blurred and capital evades forms of labour or environmental regulation.
Laleh Khalili is Professor of International Politics, Queen Mary University of London. Her research comprises infrastructures, political violence, war, the politics of gender and masculinities, and collective memory, amongst other issues.
Conversations -formal and informal, over lunch or over Zoom- with Behrooz Ghamari-Tabrizi are always immensely fun: they are rich, go in unexpected directions and always invoke lots of new ideas, and lots of new ways of seeing even stuff I have written myself.
We had such a conversation a couple of weeks ago about Sinews. Here is the video: