Middle East Studies

Jennifer Derr – Living the Nile River

Thursday, November 21, 2019

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In October 1902, the waters of the Nile filled the reservoir of the first Aswan Dam, and Egypt's historic relationship with the river forever changed. Egyptian agriculture had long depended on the annual Nile flood, its rhythms demarcating the seasons and determining cycles of poverty and prosperity. Beginning in the second decade of the nineteenth century and stretching through the middle of the twentieth, the Nile River was engineered to support the production of new cash crops that included cotton, sugarcane, and maize. The construction of the dam tamed the river’s waters and produced new agricultural environments. The new river that took form—the perennial Nile—reshaped Egypt's colonial economy and the forms of subjectivity with which it was associated. From the microscopic to the regional, the local to the imperial, Jennifer L. Derr’s new book, The Lived Nile: Environment, disease, and material colonial economy in Egypt, places the environment at the center of questions about politics, knowledge, and the lived experience of human bodies. At the root of this investigation lies the notion that the Nile is not a singular entity but a realm of practice and a set of materially specific relations that structured experiences of colonial economy. The production of a new Nile River helped to mold the future of technocratic knowledge and shape the bodies of those who inhabited rural communities. In her talk, Derr will explore the material and epistemological histories of this profound transformation.

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Jennifer Derr is an associate professor of history at UC Santa Cruz. She received her PhD from Stanford and she specializes in the environmental history, history of medicine, and labor history of the modern Middle East, with a particular focus on 20th century Egypt. Her first book, The Lived Nile, was published by Stanford University Press in 2019.