Cry if it Rains,
Cry if it Doesn’t

Cry if it Rains,
Cry if it Doesn’t

Fatema Maswood

Traditional hydraulic structures and drylands earthworks are living technologies that reflect Tunisian farmers’ long-observed understanding of soils, context, and climate; as rooted and place-based infrastructures, they challenge solutionist and technocratic models of climate adaptation that prioritize metrics over social ecologies. How can understanding them allow us to know collective practices of future-building?

Sketches; Eight diagrams labelled from a. to h. showing water harvesting.

Sketches of water harvesting earthworks. 2019. Image courtesy of the author.


I am writing from Providence, Rhode Island—occupied Narragansett and Wampanoag land—where I am a settler, walking often above rivers and marshes that have been paved to accommodate the settler-colonial city. I am writing about one of the places that is my ancestral home, Tunis, although I have never lived there longer than a few months at a time. I am writing from design disciplines, architecture and landscape architecture, that are uneasy intellectual homes for me, or double-edged at least. They are lenses I use to make sense of the world and also diffuse practices steeped in unequal power relations, colonialism and reformism. I am writing as a queer body, trying to carry home within myself, and a spiritual body, trying to dissolve home into something much vaster than the self.

When I research and make, I am unraveling. I am following a long thread as it loops away from me and back, I am lost in the knots and then pulled free. Through artistic process, and sometimes design, through fluid forms of research that are part sense-memory, part engineering, and part archive, I am thinking on the inevitable end of colonization, the forms of it that manifest as violence against the land and all who dwell on it, and the fragments of it that are knotted deep within us. I do not arrive at claims, or seek bold conjecture. I am looking for something else that may arrive when I come to the end of the thread.

Some of the structures I draw and model are traditional hydraulic structures typically built of mud and stone, like terraces rippling across the face of a mountain, or check dams across the base of a valley. Bunds, pits, mounds, grids, ridges, wadi agriculture. Mostly earthworks, but not always. Some methods slow water movement and collect nutrient-rich silt. Others channel, harvest, convey, or detain. They are alchemical technologies, transmuting water into life by diverting the force of a flood or coaxing water to linger by the roots of rainfed plants.

I started drawing water technologies in 2018 after another bout of severe flooding in Tunisia—one of many disasters that would rarely make the news cycle and only come to me via my mother in Connecticut playing telephone with our family back home. Tunisia, with a semi-arid climate typically defined by long dry seasons and short bursts of heavy rains, is in a multi-year drought. Dam reservoirs are at historic lows. Previously reliable winter rains are now fitful events, a misting of droplets or a downpour on parched soils. Floods in coastal cities reflect a pattern of increasingly erratic climate events.

In many contemporary cities, sprawling tracts of permeable soil are trapped beneath dense layers of pavement and structure. Hydrological features too—streams, rivers, ponds, and wetlands—are encroached upon over time or paved over outright. Tunisia’s cities are no different; in the capital city of Tunis, much of the contemporary downtown was built on top of marshland during the French colonial occupation. Outward sprawl of the city has followed this pattern. Sebkha, or salt flats, incommensurable and mucky wetlands that hold and filter water, have been excised from the physiognomy of the city with fill and drainage canals. Flooding is one of the many, many consequences of these transformations.

At the time of those 2018 floods, I was researching stormwater infrastructure as part of my graduate degree in landscape architecture. I studied how cities attempt to peel back sprawling asphalt deserts, paved-over streams, and channelized rivers. I learned how to draw technical details of systems designed to slow water’s movement and filter out contaminants. I learned to calculate with runoff coefficients and peak flow rates. I learned to notice when a patch of green space in a city hid layers of engineered soil, geotextiles, perforated pipes, and concrete substructure. In professional settings, I used terms like “pre-development” to describe conditions that would often be more accurately described as “pre-colonial.” The precedents I studied were in temperate cities with well-funded public sectors. As forms of harm reduction, they did not transform the logic of contemporary urbanization, but rather wedged themselves into it.

I found that the methods I had been taught were, for the most part, ill-suited to the ecological, social, or political context of Tunisia. Where were the methods that were in conversation with the climate, the architectural and material history, the forms of engineering and technology that could only emerge through long association and deep understanding of a place? Where were the drylands methods, the cheap ones, the ones that understood each drop of water to be precious? And how could reading and writing these methods become an element of degrowing colonial-era land alterations on our own terms?


Methods of holding water in the soil, particularly the traditional Maghrebi drylands forms I am familiar with, are technologies that are maintained, modified, and adapted—a watch that ticks for thousands of years. In many places, they are continually maintained as part of a water commons. Earthworks are part of a knowledge base passed down generationally; understanding and re-directing the movement of water through the landscape is reliant on long-observed habits of the land and context. They are forms of engineering that have not run the course of their natural life, or obsolesced; rather, they are methods that have been effaced by colonization, replaced by filled-in salt marsh, large-scale dams, concrete-lined drainage canals, and pavement that grows slick with oil and pooling rainwater.

A generation away from a lineage of drylands farmers in the Sahel region of Tunisia, I did not receive this knowledge through transmission from elders. In the northeastern United States, where I was born and have lived for much of my life, the soil and climate offer little comparison to the sand and clay soil profile of my family’s land. Here, temporality is measured in winter snows, steady periodic rainfall, summers hot and humid as a mouth.  When I began constructing models, I did not carve them from earth with a hand tool, as a farmer might. I worked as I had been trained, as a researcher and designer. I made sketches based on text descriptions, annotating slopes and berm heights and soil absorption rates. I digitally modeled them in Rhinoceros and Grasshopper and cut precise ridges into blocks of blue foam and reclaimed elm wood with successive passes of a CNC router. I placed them in a bed of sand and projected Augmented Reality flood simulations onto them using a mounted camera. I asked software to trace iridescent contours and spill shimmering pixels symbolizing varying flood intensities.

I found moments of quiet in constructing tables, and comparing slopes and runoff coefficients. Building physical and theoretical models soothed my preoccupation with disaster. Modeling felt like permissible and logic-based fortune telling, the same type of chilly comfort proffered by actuarial tables that tell you when you’re most likely to die and what might cause it. But constructing an image of surety also generated internal conflict;  after a flurry of reconstruction and writing, I became stuck in the confusion of my own positionality in diaspora. I felt doubtful of my use of the word “we” to roll my experience into that of Tunisians living in Tunisia. Why had I made elaborate digital reconstructions of humble earthworks? Why had I approached solutionism with such fervor, surveying the land like a colonial-era cartographer? In some ways the grief I felt, alienated from home, deepened. I returned repeatedly to a line from a Claudia Rankine poem: “Who do you think you are, saying I to me?“

Years after making my first models, I still feel this hesitation. I have allowed myself to reframe my work to myself, not as an instrumental approach to designing away the violence of colonization, but as a personal practice of resurgence as defined by Michi Saagiig Nishnaabeg scholar Leanne Betosamosake Simpson. Reconstructing is piecing together our knowledge systems in the ways that I have access to. Modeling taught me how to read the land as a historical palimpsest. When I am back home seeing family or meeting farmers, I can now note where contemporary tractor furrows—artifacts of USAID programs pushing monocropped wheat in the 1960s—meet a system of traditional bunds. The traces of respective approaches are coterminous, sometimes difficult to differentiate. I also understand that each method is not a discrete, formal approach to be remolded into low-cost stormwater infrastructure proposals. Place-based water technologies are not mounds of a certain height, or soils of a certain permeability. They are manifestations of a social ecology. Each method represents a set of dynamic and evolving interrelationships and commitments to survival on the land. They embody a continuum between the soil and those that tend it. They are forms of collective infrastructure.

Photograph; A landscape with olive trees amid ploughed fields.

Olive field in Beni Hasan, Monastir, Tunisia. Image courtesy of the author.

The Soil

What if infrastructure is not merely wide highways, reservoirs, and wastewater treatment plants, but also collectivized forms of future-thinking, like the community oven that neighbors bring unbaked loaves to, or seed libraries, or the safety plans drawn up for queer gatherings? What else is infrastructure if not an anticipation of communal needs? Maintaining collective earthworks that divert floods or irrigate fields are also forms of kinship and caretaking, perhaps rooted in familial ties, perhaps in something else. Ways of being together, now and in the future, that don’t require a state, but the cooperation and commitment of a group of people thinking across time scales.

After I built the first round of models, I put them aside for a while and spent more time digging. I made holes, mounds, piles, heaps. I sifted soil and made blends—one part this to three of that—turned compost, inspected white threads of mycelium. I started too many experiments to keep, and co-founded the Providence Seed Library with the support of many librarians, sourcing, packaging, and distributing free seeds. I kept notebooks and spreadsheets that grew crumpled and stained with use. I kneeled down on the ground and looked at things closely. This is also practice, as in repetition towards recollection. Practicing ways of being that are less alienated, revivifying the knowledge that it is possible, that has been done, that is done all the time. I rely on this conception of practice to think against the low drone of impending disaster that undergirds everything, the inevitability of storm events and scarce water.

I wonder when waters everywhere will retake their rightful territory with justified fury. I wonder if the ability to survive a parched future will in fact shake out to a question of power and privilege. I wonder if our forms of development in the so-called third world will continue chasing this first one, or if the first world demarcates the first one to crumble. And if it crumbles, or when, what are the social ecologies we will lean on to transmute this soil that is thirsty and alienated from us too? I think it is this place, the one that meets fear to build futurity, from which collective infrastructures emerge.

Fatema Maswood (they/she) is a landscape and architectural designer, educator, and builder based in Providence, RI. They are an Assistant Professor at the Rhode Island School of Design. In 2021, they co-founded the Providence Seed Library in collaboration with Community Libraries of Providence. They have been the Artist-in-Residence with the City of Providence Office of Sustainability, a 2022 NAS Creative Community Fellow, and a 2019 National Olmsted Scholar Finalist. Maswood holds a Bachelor of Arts in Architecture from Barnard College and a Master’s in Landscape Architecture from the University of Washington in Seattle.

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