Updated: Apr 15, 2021
A Brussels Arcade (Courtesy of Ghada Reda)
Throughout the period between November 2019 and March 2020, I have been travelling like a shuttle between Germany, Belgium, and Egypt. My research journey with MIDA was just starting, which meant an enormous amount of paperwork I had to do across the borders of these three countries. In the background, I can clearly remember now, some brief and seemingly irrelevant news reports of a disease outbreak in China were gradually creeping their way into news websites and TVs wherever I looked. Another thing I can clearly remember is the gradual increase of the font-size/air-time dedicated to this particular piece of news. Even as the WHO declared a state of global pandemic, I was in Cairo airport not realizing that the flight I was about to take would be my last until further notice.
Completely oblivious to the real gravity of a global pandemic; I was completely absorbed with my upcoming research. Looking forward to a packed schedule of activities and trainings all around Europe, I dreamt of tracing the steps of the Arab scholars who explored Europe and its culture in the colonial period. I hoped to somehow leave a trail of intercultural communication and mutual understanding similar to those they left in the texts I use today as sources
Leuven without a soul
What followed my arrival to Belgium in March 2020 was completely different, yet uncannily similar, to what I envisioned. Between a national lockdown, and a research schedule that doesn’t stop, reality started to acquire a certain magical character. Witnessing the empty streets of this yet unfamiliar country almost felt like an archaeological adventure into the relics of a long lost civilization. It was precisely in this moment that what a pandemic meant almost became touchable. Regardless of the disease causing the pandemic and the embodied suffering resulting from it, the very social fabric of humanity’s existence was subject to a fundamental threat. Yet, life goes on, and deadlines are deadlines. We know for a fact that the same humanity has survived pandemics of much larger scale, and we have to keep on working to stop disaster and prevent it from happening again.
(Excerpts from my diary on my 40th day in Belgium)
(Illustrated Police News 1892)
After this first and personal encounter of the Corona pandemic in Europe, I encountered it again in a most unexpected place, a 19th century travelogue. While researching Ahmad Zaki Pasha, a great Egyptian philologist and a self-proclaimed “Oriental Orientalist”, I encountered his brilliant travelogue Travelling to the Conference (السفر إلى المؤتمر), published in Cairo in 1893. One of the most detailed travelogues written by an Arab on late 19th century Europe, it covered the young Egyptian intellectual’s six month trip through Italy, France, the United Kingdom, Spain, and Portugal to attend the International Congress of Orientalists in London in 1892.
Towards the end of Zaki Pasha’s trip, he recorded contracting an unknown illness that he described as an “imported epidemic/outbreak” (نزلة وافدة) that hit Madrid towards the end of 1892. Zaki pasha made a point of comparing the daily death rate in Madrid before the epidemic (41) and after (66), stressing how it mainly killed the elderly.
Zaki Pasha upon his return from Spain in 1893
The outbreak Zaki Pasha experienced the one of the very last recurrences of what we know today as the 1889-1890 pandemic, known more colloquially as the Russian flu and the Asiatic Flu, an outbreak of an unknown pathogen that caused severe respiratory symptoms and fever, resulting in estimated million deaths worldwide. In tracing the geographical spread of the first outbreak in 1889, we ended up designing the following map to show the scale and speed of the spread:
(Courtesy of Ghada Reda)
Upon realizing that this wide and fast spread happened while air travel was still in the infancy of passenger-less hot air balloons, my ears started picking up a promise being whispered by the dying 19th century. Space and time were no longer the same, not just for human bodies, and we have been warned multiple times before. The rapid development of transportation and communication technologies held the promise of much easier living, but it also held the promise of everything in our increasingly interdependent lifeworld falling apart due to the smallest of actors. Throughout the 19th century; a select few scientists were able to catch the echoes of this most dreadful promise. In 1855, one year after John Snow started sculpting the epidemiological method needed to fight the recurring cholera outbreaks in London, the terror of the third bubonic plague pandemic was released upon the world. But even this reincarnation of the black death was not enough of a warning of what was to come. Compared to the flu or COVID, the bubonic plague moved slowly, and had a preference for the colored bodies of the colonized poor in India and China. And even as Louis Pasteur and Robert Koch began to solve the puzzle of Germ Theory in the 1860s and 70s, the world was yet to encounter a pathogen contagious enough to exploit the true potential of the increasingly contracting time and space. And it happened for the first time in 1889, and for the much worse second time in 1918 with the Spanish flu, and over and over again to this very day.
Hindsight is amazing, it enables one to look back upon events of the past in such a straightforward and meaningful way, shouting “never again” in the face of all past threats. Yet, the “present-sight” is more problematic and grainy, with an endless pool of practicalities blocking any truly clear view of reality. I was led to believe that this is precisely why we have sciences in general, and history in particular. Humanity, in its totality, was wise enough to recognize the necessity of a caste of people who specialize in developing the necessary tools for making sense of what came before in order to avoid what comes next. Why then do they never really listen to them?
What prompts this very generalizing and essentialist question is the fact that I happened to encounter a research paper, published in 2005 by a virologist affiliated to the very same university where I presently type these words. In this paper, the researchers traced multiple human and animal coronaviruses to a common ancestor that emerged around 1890. Now I realize that one research paper does not mean much in terms of evidence, but I cannot help but mention the irony of how this very same researcher received multiple death threats for recommending the closure of restaurants as a member of the Belgian scientific committee on Coronavirus.
This story provokes many questions beyond its apparent anti-scientifism. First and foremost the question on the nature of the bridge connecting the main direct product of scientific work, the journal article, to the public sphere of social ideas. Throughout writing and researching this blog post, I encountered a characteristic disjunction hindering the movement of scientific knowledge between different disciplines, and to a much worse extent the movement towards the non-scientific sphere of public memory in the form of stories destined to be consumed through multimedia.
I believe that we, as scientists of all sorts, have a certain responsibility towards extending the fluidity and reach of our methodological infrastructure by envisioning and trailblazing new avenues for expressing and communicating our findings. I find particular inspiration in what Anthropology has to tell us on the roles of storytelling and visual language in communicating cultural ideas through time and space. I believe we have much to gain from considering the mobilization of our efforts towards establishing a codified and bequeathable language for communicating science visually.
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