“It’s a lot of sand”: An anthropological take on Trump’s Syrian withdrawal

Amidst the ongoing furore following the withdrawal of American troops from the Kurdish-controlled regions of Syria, US President Donald Trump has found himself in a bind trying to defend his abrupt policy intervention. The President has vacillated from threats to obliterate the economy of Turkey, to lauding his own “brilliant” strategy. 

On Wednesday the 16th of October, caught once again having to justify his decision, especially following the events of the last few days that have seen Russian troops move into those areas previously occupied by the US, Trump declared “Syria may have some help with Russia, and that’s fine. It’s a lot of sand.”

“They’ve got a lot of sand over there. So there’s a lot of sand that they can play with.”

In keeping with the President’s previous statements and behaviour, I can only assume this was meant derisively. That Syria has “a lot of sand” is meant to stand in for its lack of value. As a place that is sandy, it is not worth US lives; good enough for less valued Syrians and Russians but not good enough for Americans. A deeply racist and supremacist sentiment lies behind this kind of derisive aside, something that others have already well noted in analyses of the president’s words. 

But it also got me thinking about a more fundamental question. Why is it that we, in the Anglo-American world, devalue ‘sand’?

Good and bad sand 

Presumably, Trump’s reference is to a particular kind of presence of sand. After all, sandy beaches are okay, positively preferred, compared to their gravelly or stony manifestations elsewhere in the world. People talk about pristine sand-covered beaches longingly as a kind of ideal holiday destination. 

The problem seems to be where sand is located. Sand on the coastline – good. Sand inland – bad. So what we are talking about in effect, then, is deserts. The very word in English is synonymous with a sense of being bereft, a place without, empty, devoid of life. 

But this comes loaded with a very particular sense of what constitutes life, or at the least a kind of life, and a way of living, that is valued. When we think of abundance and prosperity, it is, I think, of greenery and lush vegetation that we imagine. 

This speaks to a particular kind of ordered landscape as well. Lands of deep jungles, native forests, and ancient woodlands are suspicious and broodingly disorganised, outside the control of regulating states and the ordered lives they bring. Prosperity and value are found in an emerald green field well-tended, in straight lines, perhaps set against a small cottage, a typically pastoral and bucolic scene. 

“Making the desert bloom” 

The Syrian Desert

Coming back to deserts, when we talk about them it is as places that are potentially habitable, under the right kind of guiding hand. Israeli kibbutzniks in the Negev, spoke of making the desert bloom’, by which they meant bringing to it irrigation and agriculture – the markers of ‘civilisation’ – something which they claimed the Palestinians had failed to do.

Desertification, on the other hand, is the exact opposite – the peeling back of civilisation and an oppressive march of an inhospitable nature, something to be fought and struggled against. Of course, this sense of ‘habitable’ again is for a particular form of life that is more valued than others. 

Yet, what if we were to reinterpret these landscapes? If we were to rethink the conceptualisations that have, thus far, held us to such a negative imagining of the desert? 

Reinterpreting sand and place

Some of this has already been done. In the Pacific, what were once glossed negatively as “small island nations”, an attempt to capture a sense of diminutiveness, of isolation, of a lack of the stuff (think land) that made for power and value, have been reimagined as “big ocean countries”. These are linked, rather than hemmed in, by the vast seas that surround them, themselves teaming with life and opportunities to make a life worth living. 

What if, rather than seeing the desert as hostile to life, as sand as negative, we saw these deserts in the way that those who have inhabited them for thousands of years have seen them? Like the Tuareg who inhabit the Sahara, what if we read the great sandscapes as open highways that spread wealth, culture, religion, and languages? Or, like the hundreds of Aboriginal communities in Central Australia who have inhabited the region for upwards of sixty thousand years, as a land alive and criss-crossed by songlines, mytho-poetic tracks for tracing stories of creation? 

If the American administration was more open to embracing the diversity of meanings that sand encapsulates, perhaps then, they might look more thoroughly to what the desert means to those who inhabit it, and not be so quick and keen to dismiss Syria as just more sand

[Image sourced at wikimedia commons: https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Syrian_Desert_(5079168819).jpg]

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