Accepted Paper:

The 'naked city': a shimmering mirage of nomadic state infrastructure in the Sahara Desert  


Konstantina Isidoros (University of Oxford)

Paper short abstract:

In refugee camps as non-lieux of incomplete development and states of exception, Saharan nomads have been re-ordering their ‘naked city’. Overlooked as flimsy structures, nomadic tents instead have architectural rationale, creating a novel sociospatial form of nation-state infrastructure.

Paper long abstract:

Refugee camps, as ‘spaces of incomplete development’ (Sanyal) and as ‘non-lieux’ (Augé), are rarely ‘plumbed in’ in the mundane sense of urbanising infrastructure. Correspondingly, nomadic tents are seldom studied, too easily overlooked as ‘flimsy’ irrelevant structures. In the Sahara Desert, following failed decolonisation (1975) and an ongoing war for self-determination, something hybrid is being constructed by the Sahrāwī nomads. Not immediately obvious is that their six refugee camps represent traditional nomadic encampments where tents are self-sufficient infrastructural units which together create an unexpected imaginary of a ‘floating’ nation-state. This deserves scholarly attention without epistemological restriction to the West’s own default imaginary.

My ethnographic data illuminate how Sahrāwī nomads have been using refugee tents as customary tents to re-order themselves and their sense of place. I suggest this has created a novel sociospatial form of nation-state, without the lower-level ‘plumbing’ of urbanising infrastructure. Using Agamben’s ‘state of exception’ where ‘everything is potential but nothing develops’ and Agier’s ‘naked city’, I argue that nomad tents have enough architectural rationale to agglomerate into tent-cities to form a tent-State. In re-theorising their own spatial concepts of abstract and concrete, Sahrāwī nomads are innovatively ‘floating’ the infrastructure of nation-state above their refugee camps, as a ‘waiting’ model to be transplanted upon return to homeland. The tacking between the concrete and the abstract in this Saharan context is situated in the shimmering mirage of the (in)tangible, (il)legitimate and (il)logic of international law.

Panel P060
The anthropology of infrastructure: ordering people, places, and imaginaries