The first time I read Professor Laleh Khalili’s work, I was awed by her political acuity and ingenuity in laying bare contemporary colonial hierarchies. As I digested her work, I absorbed the magnitude precisely because her research methods were fresh in laying out how the Global South has become a laboratory for trade. Not only was Khalili an academic interviewing the formerly incarcerated, but she was also a reflective emissary on cargo ships, dissecting the logistics of trade. Khalili is not just a scholar; she forges community by showing reverence for feminist scholars and writers at all stages of life.
Professor Laleh Khalili, an engineer turned social scientist, has long been engaged in research that explores trade, policing, and petrol. She is an Iranian American and Professor of International Politics at Queen Mary University of London. When I spoke with Khalili, she said she was drawn to engaging with ports and landscapes, not purely from an economic perspective, but from a human perspective. And we, in turn, are drawn to Khalili and her ability to convey in detail the social forces that facilitate internment. In Time in the Shadows: Confinement in Counterinsurgencies, she explicitly lays out how systems of detentions render counterinsurgencies as nonhuman. In her latest book, Sinews of War and Trade: Shipping and Capitalism in the Arabian Peninsula, she outlines how the maritime transportation industry distills the mechanisms of global capitalism. Khalili shows us how the sea functions as an intermediary for transporting and valuing capital and commodities. We also talked about her expertise as a scientist and social scientist, Edward Said, trade, and the importance of abolitionist writing, among other topics. Our conversations have been edited and condensed.
Edna Bonhomme (EB): You are a polymath who can sit with the technical details of chemical engineering as well as the broader political consequences of what it means to live under capitalism. In other words, you bridge science and the humanities.
How do you shift between these different modes of expertise? Does your engineering training inform your scholarly practice?
Laleh Khalili (LK): I have what you might call a “hard science background,” with both a chemical engineering degree and a history of working for a corporation as a management consultant. That training on one hand and business experience on the other gives me a degree of confidence to be able to speak to those subjects.
But I still suffer from massive imposter syndrome, principally because English is my third language (Persian and Arabic being my first and second). I moved to the US when I was 17 years old, which meant that I didn’t study all of the classics of social sciences and humanities. So when I decided to study politics, I had to start from the ground. That has never quite left me. I also did my PhD at Columbia University at a time when I was told by one of the members of my committee that researching Palestinians would make it very difficult for me to get a job in the US. All of those things probably added, layered, deepened my imposter syndrome.
But in another way, having not had the typical education in humanities also gives you a set of views and a set of experiences that allows for you to speak to a larger audience. As a management consultant for six years, I observed lots of different businesses; and the sensibility of an observer, it gives you confidence to be able to call bullshit.
EB: You mentioned Columbia University. Edward Said was a major cultural scholar there, and as an intellectual, he was a staunch critic of Western narratives of “the Orient” and a behemoth of postcolonial studies. To what extent do Said and other postcolonial scholars, serve as an inspiration for your work, especially as it relates to cultural criticism and discourse?
LK: Said obviously was at the pinnacle of the Academy. But he was also constantly called names, and had to withstand attacks by loads of people. But it didn’t stop him from doing the things that he felt were politically necessary.
I’ve written three books. The first two were proper academic books, with academic presses. I’m not one of those people that rejects what they have written—I really do like these first two books—but they are artifacts of their time. They were honest pieces of work. I put my heart and soul into them. But they are speaking to a very small audience.
What I want to do for the remainder of my career is be able to speak to a larger audience. If academia lets me.
EB: I read your work as a graduate student and I have friends who also read your work, some of whom are currently journalists living and working in the Middle East. It has been pivotal to those of us who were born and raised in North America; the imprecise messaging we were getting from the US government concerning the Middle East was quite vitriolic and we wanted something else.
One particular text that I was very inspired by is Heroes and Martyrs of Palestine, where you provide very detailed accounts of young Palestinians who were in Lebanon, Occupied Palestinian Territories, and so forth. And you thought through their space, not just in terms of their displacement and resistance, but also about the significance of transnationalism. This, for me, was very significant as someone who was seduced by anti-imperialist and leftist struggles as a teenager when the US invaded Iraq.
I wanted to ask, what was your motivation for unpacking the visual metrics of solidarity in Heroes and Martyrs, and how do you see the aesthetics of protests getting implemented as a political apparatus? Not just in terms of that text, but also as you are as a scholar today thinking about social movements and where we are in 2023.
What I want to do for the remainder of my career is be able to speak to a larger audience. If academia lets me.
LK: I actually would like to ask you about that too. Let me answer and then I will turn the question back to you, because one of the things that is quite pivotal in my life has been the particular experience of having lived through a revolution and having had parents who were political prisoners.
Solidarity with the transnational movements of the 1970s was part of our daily diet in my household, it was quite important in shaping me. But I didn’t necessarily want to go back and study Iran. As somebody who comes from a Haitian background but has chosen to go on and study the Middle East, you have also chosen to do other things, but nevertheless things that arise out of a commitment to transnational solidarities. Che Guevara, for example, would talk about Palestine or ANC. Amílcar Cabral would talk about Palestine. And that was really fascinating! Why was Palestine so big in this imaginary? And what happened with human rights discourses thereafter?
It’s the political commitments to something bigger than us that actually allows us to reach across boundaries. It is precisely because we are unlike, or we haven’t had the same experiences, that solidarity can be built. Standing shoulder-to-shoulder fighting the same enemy—even though our circumstances are different—is a much more powerful impetus for action than just feeling a sense of solidarity.
What about you? What do you think?
EB: Yes, it is complicated. I adore your statement about how our political commitments are bigger than us. What are the possibilities of actually imagining anti-imperialist, anti-military discourse beyond the nation-state?
LK: In recent decades, you are having this intensification of US violence, imperial violence outside of the country. But, at the same time, there was also an intensification of policing inside the country. This is all after the Iraq War and the withdrawal from it of course has translated into an intensification of policing because so many of the demobbed soldiers have joined police and prison forces, and most of these soldiers have probably not been treated for PTSD. You also have all of this equipment that the military is selling to the police forces, further deepening, entrenching the militarization of the US.
That war in 2003 has had afterlives that translate as violence on the backs and bodies of American citizens.
EB: Yes, and absolutely it speaks to the cruelty that is so endemic to North American society. The US has gone above and beyond to disrupt prima facie ideas about law and justice.
I’m currently completing a book about confinement and how that ties to contagion. Your book Time in the Shadows is very illuminating precisely because it explores counter-insurgency protocols and the ways in which the racialization of the enemy is crucial to liberal counterinsurgencies and, ultimately, creates a racial hierarchy.
LK: Most of the research that I did for that book was done long before the 2011 uprisings in the Middle East, the Indignado uprising in Spain or the Occupy movement in the US. It was also before the first round of Black Lives Matter, the Ferguson revolt.
So, a lot of the abolitionist thinking that has flourished since then was not available to me at that stage. We had Angela Davis, Ruthie Gilmore, Mariame Kaba. Angela Davis was one of my heroes when I was growing up. I loved that image of her holding her hand up with the lovely gap between her teeth and the big afro from 1972.
EB: Your arc as a researcher has also engaged with trade. And we live in a world in which goods and materials can quickly come to us, whether through the exploitation of Amazon workers or having access to smart phones.
I wanted to know what made you decide to go into the bowels of trade in this material and well-detailed sense, especially if we think about how globally connected we are within the world.
LK: So, ethnographically, I thought it was really important to talk about material globalization, not just as an abstract movement happening via big ships but also the persons that occupy these spaces.
I was, in part, inspired by Allan Sekula,who was a photographer and essayist who worked on logistics and shipping. One of the things that he constantly insisted upon is that photographs need to include humans. That was quite amazing to me because artistic representations of shipping are often devoid of humans. They focus on the sublime of these container boxes with their symmetry and angularity. There are no messy humans messing up the composition. Of course, Sekula was criticized for a number of absences in his work (most notably by Christina Sharpe for having a section called “Middle Passage” in his book, but then not really discussing slavery).
Still Sekula’s idea that humans needed to be in the picture made sense to me. I had been aboard ships and you see that this behemoth of machinery operates with these humans in it.
Your book is hopefully coming out soon. To what extent do you find that some of those confinement practices were generated around shipping and old quarantine practices?
EB: Yes, so the dissertation I wrote looked at epidemics in 18th– and 19th–century North Africa and the Eastern Mediterranean through the lens of plagued bodies and spaces. Rather than look solely at illness as a given, I tried to see how public health-like policies were meant to contain the plague, such as lazarettos or quarantine. All this started with the Venetians and impeled me specifically thinking about the port as a point of entry by which you could contain the contagion. At least at the level of merchants, goods, and materials potentially being the sites of vectors, but also being a site of control at the level of trade.
These ideas and rules have evolved; they have taken on new meanings. This is primarily in the context of the age that we live in and of the rise of the nation-state, specifically, border regimes that made it even more challenging to travel between empires that were far more possible 400 years ago.
Our idea of contagion has also evolved. In the 14th and 15th centuries, people thought of contagion in very religious terms: as a symptom of divine punishment or a reflection of bad air—that is, miasma theory. The idea is that a spirit or the air is the only thing that could infect you then, and now a microbe is often the source of infectious diseases. How we define a disease and how we navigate our risk for contagion is what I like to explore. So, I ask: who is making the decision? Is it going to be public health officials, is it going to be the government, is it going to be people deciding for themselves and trying to figure out their own ways of safeguarding their bodies?
The human, as you stated, is the centerpiece of the work that I do. The stories that people construct about contagion; the songs that they chant to heal themselves; the poetry about their ailing bodies; even the memorialization of people who die during an epidemic, how do we honor them and how do we provide diligent justice to their lives: all this is significant for me. Moreover, I want to think about what happens to the subaltern, and read against the grain, but also make space for Black feminist thought and think actively about the African diaspora as a whole. More than anything, I want to provide space for those who could not speak for themselves within a textual archive, but who obviously had agency in their lives and that complexity.
LK: It is really exciting stuff because feminists, and particularly Black feminists, have been really very good about talking about these incredibly massive global transformations, but then to bring it down to size, to make it visible, to make it touchable!
EB: Part of what I love about your work is your commitment to scholarship and supporting the works of emerging scholars and writers. You are currently based in the UK, where there have been various forms of labor disputes, especially challenging the devaluation of wages and pensions, the neoliberalization of the university alongside the rise of tuition fees, and the broader crisis in academia.
Can you talk about how these material dimensions might shape the future of the university or scholarship as we understand it today?
LK: So, there are different mechanisms at work in the UK and the US. In the US, it is a slightly different situation because you have people like DeSantis that are trying to limit what actually can be taught in universities through very direct legal processes. Tenure is being eroded and there is a formalization of adjunctification.
In the UK, the process is slightly different, in part, because until very recently, we didn’t have student fees. The democratization of higher education in the 1960s, ’70s, and ’80s is now being reversed by successive Tory governments. Their aim is to allow for some of the universities, specifically those aimed at working class students, to fail. They have introduced fees, they have stopped the full funding of universities by the state. They have made the different universities compete against one another. The caps on how many students can you recruit has been removed and more students would prefer to go to the more elite Russell Group schools. It’s an attempt to destroy education for the working class while creating a multitiered education system in which Oxbridge sits at the top.
Real education in things like art history or literature continues in elite spaces, but then you have other universities which are essentially credentialing factories to produce the homo economicus that is going to be going out and working in the corporate world.
EB: Yes, and what it also speaks to is that what is happening at the university is not unique to this institution. We see this in creative writing, journalism, and politics.
It is no accident that you have people like Rishi Sunak, who have attended some of the most elite universities, claiming to be champions of diversity and yet also being one of the richest people in the UK.
I love the philosopher Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò’s theorization of “elite capture” because he explains how some people of color who are invested in capitalism and neoliberalism can somehow then become the face of these policies.
LK: Absolutely. The Tories have been particularly good about putting those unrepresentative faces of people of color at the forefront and using them as alibis for policies that are terrible.
But let’s end on a positive note! We have 18 days of strikes coming up in the next few weeks. And just recently two precarious workers at Oxford have taken the university to court because they were union organizers and they were just recently let go and they are now arguing that education is being Uber-ized. Maybe, exactly like transportation, everything needs to be taken back into the public domain because public education should be available for all.