Arid Empire

Arid Empire:The Entangled Fates of Arizona and Arabia

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A revelatory new history of the colonization of the American West, by way of camels, date palms, and Biosphere 2

**Longlisted for the 2023 Cundill History Prize**

The iconic deserts of the American southwest could not have been colonized and settled without the help of desert experts from the Middle East. For example: In 1856, a caravan of thirty-three camels arrived in Indianola, Texas, led by a Syrian cameleer the Americans called "Hi Jolly." This "camel corps," the US government hoped, could help the army secure the new southwest swath of the country just wrested from Mexico. Though the dream of the camel corps - and sadly, the camels - died, the idea of drawing on expertise, knowledge, and practices from the desert countries of the Middle East did not.

As Natalie Koch demonstrates in this evocative, narrative history, the exchange of colonial technologies between the Arabian Peninsula and United States over the past two centuries - from date palm farming and desert agriculture to the utopian sci-fi dreams of Biosphere 2 and Frank Herbert's Dune - bound the two regions together, solidifying the colonization of the US West and, eventually, the reach of American power into the Middle East. Koch teaches us to see deserts anew, not as mythic sites of romance or empty wastelands but as an "arid empire," a crucial political space where imperial dreams coalesce.


  • Arid Empire explores the dual relationship between colonization of the U.S. Southwest and diplomatic relations in the Middle East

    Hunter BasslerKPNX Channel 12
  • With lucid prose, a big narrative sweep and an impressive command of the facts, Natalie Koch exposes the connections -- both historic and modern -- between two dry spots on the globe with vastly different human cultures that forged strong economic and military ties. The 'double exposure' between Arizona and Arabia is a vital contribution to geographic scholarship, as well as a missing piece of the puzzle for residents of both America's backyard Sahara and the Arabian Peninsula's version of the Mojave.

    Tom Zoellner, author of Rim to River
  • I've waited for a book like this for a long time. Arizona's place in our collective imagination has been as a water-starved, overheated, dangerous crossing point for Latin American migrants. But it is these things and more. From the experimental agricultural programs to the refugee settlement communities and, yes, the camels, it has also been a site for the projection of imperial power in the Middle East, North Africa, and the rest of the world. Now that Natalie Koch has helped us see it so clearly, we won't ever be able to unsee it.

    Geraldo Cadava, author of The Hispanic Republican and Standing on Common Ground