The Drowned and the Displaced: Afterlives of Agrarian Developmentalism across the Lebanese-Syrian Border
Keywords:Memory, farmworkers, Biqaʿ Valley, Syria, Euphrates Dam, agrarian reform, refugees
This article traces the layered significance of displacement for Syrians whose parents’ and grandparents’ villages were flooded after the Euphrates Dam in Tabqa was completed in 1973. Known as al-maghmurin (the drowned), many of the dam’s displaced descendants are now living as refugee farmworkers in Lebanon. Based on eighteen months of ethnographic fieldwork at the Lebanese-Syrian border, the article analyzes how these refugees grappled with the struggles, promises, and losses associated with Syria’s high modern era of agrarian reform against the backdrop of Syria’s ongoing war. Facing the uncertainty of long-term displacement, their vernacular narratives about the dam resurrected Baʿthist ideals of state-led agrarian development and expressed a yearning for stability. Such expectations of material improvement, however, sat in tension with an intergenerational history of economic insecurity, decades of rural outmigration, and their everyday predicaments as refugee farmworkers. This article shows how these histories took form in the maghmurin’s everyday talk about the dam: the servile agrarian past that Syria’s land reforms were meant to overcome, the many unintended displacements these reforms unleashed, and the ways they contended with these past displacements in the present. In doing so, it argues that the displacement of these refugees was not a singular event triggered by war but rather a fractured inheritance and ongoing afterlife of agrarian developmentalism and Syria’s long post-socialist transition.
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