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Reconsidering the(ir) gaze: perceptions and interpretations of the natural landscape under colonial context in the Middle East

At the intersection of environmental history and the history of the Middle East, a growing body of scholarship over the past decade has focused on how Middle Eastern landscapes were described, represented and narrated by local and foreign observers. These ‹environmental imaginaries› were not limited to a description of the landscape, but usually included an account of how the environment had changed over time or was changing. In fact, the imagined landscape, inspired by biblical imagery, and the reality of the places visited did not match. Thus, travellers and observers exposed to the natural landscapes of the Middle East attempted to interpret what they saw. The colonial perspective, in particular, developed the idea that nature deteriorated due to the mismanagement of the local populations (Davis and Burke 2012). The supposed ‹deterioration› of the landscape implied that it had to be rectified through efforts to develop and rehabilitate the land and its environment. This perspective was common to both landscapes and peoples (Broich 2013).

Yet the colonial perspective of nature was not always consistent and often even contradictory. This panel takes the study of the colonial view of nature in the Middle East a step further by examining various encounters, experiences and visions of nature in the first half of the twentieth century. Specifically, we propose to bring forward the accounts of the Western viewers who travelled for different purposes – work and leisure – and came from various professional backgrounds, pastors, doctors, military officers, scientists, bureaucrats, engineers, etc. Contemporary Western travellers ‹read› the nature of the Middle East through multiple lenses; that is, through a set of representations of nature that included the relationship between nature and society as well as the role of technology. For instance, while some travellers considered modern technology as a means of overcoming ‹restoring› or ‹fixing› nature, others saw it as a disruptive element, ‹disenchanting› a previously pure and wild nature.