There is irony, Professor Michael Lowe acknowledged, in presenting his fifteen years of research at the height of a global pandemic. On October 6th, CMENAS kicked off the start of the 2021 Virtual Fall Colloquium series, Public Health and Pandemics Across the Middle East and North Africa: A Multidisciplinary Exhibition, with a guest lecture by Professor Michael Lowe from Iowa State University. At his colloquium presentation, Lowe discussed his work in Imperial Mecca: Ottoman Arabia and the Indian Ocean Hajj (Columbia University Press, 2020) which explores themes of global public health, migration, and international cooperation in the Ottoman Empire and beyond during the late 19th and early 20th centuries. 

To illustrate this period in history, Professor Lowe offered the story of Samsunlu Haci Mustafa Efendi –– the “patient zero” for the cholera outbreak in the Ottoman empire. Efendi was traveling back from Haj (a religious pilgrimage) to Istanbul by steamship. His destination? The second most populous district in the city. The Ottoman government's response to the outbreak appeared startlingly modern: Contact tracing and quarantine of the passengers on the ship, special instructions for how to dispose of Efendi’s body and should he die, and the disposal of his personal belongings to avoid further contamination and spread of disease. Yet despite the government’s acknowledgment of danger –– and the lingering fear from past cholera outbreaks that had lasted for months ––, the Ottomans, too, was plagued by bureaucracy. 

It was the Muslim Haj, the pilgrimage to Mecca, which drew the world’s blame and attention. The mass migration of the Haj made it perfect for spreading diseases, especially cholera. Quickly, the Ottoman Empire and the Muslim Haj became synonymous with the threat of disease. Yet, cholera did not originate from the Ottoman empire, but from India and spread through maritime trade. The disconnect comes from a campaign by the British government to draw blame away from their colonies in India and instead redirect national attention to the Ottomans. 

Part of what distinguishes Lowe’s research, and which reflects the ideals and values of CMENAS, is his use of archival material from across cultures. Lowe remarked that he wanted to avoid a “hollow” history that perpetuates the European colonial narrative; His work, therefore, used materials from British Imperial, Ottoman, and Turkish records. Lowe sought to make these archival materials “speak to each other… [and] speak back in Turkish and Arabic” to British colonial materials. 

While Lowe focused heavily on the past –– leaving students to draw their own important conclusions to their present lives –– the parallels between the cholera epidemic and covid-19 are significant. The development of covid-19 conspiracy theories mirrors the competing cholera-myths that a “miasma” (an unpleasant smell, vapor, or environment) caused cholera, as propagated by the British. The politicization of covid-19, especially in growing racism against Asian communities and the social distrust of vaccines and quarantine rules, can be seen in the tension between the British and Ottoman empires during the cholera epidemic. Even the ongoing trial and error of vaccine development and treatment today can be found in the Ottoman’s development of germ theory, the expansion of quarantine measures and the adoption of international public health standards in the 19th and 20th centuries. 

The Middle East’s history with cholera, Lowe argues, continues to echo in their approach to public health standards today. The stewardship of the Haj during the covid-19 pandemic has been careful and thorough –– an example of the lasting legacy of the Ottomans. In contemporary discussions of public health, the Middle East and North African region is often forgotten. Rather, western countries like the United States and the United Kingdom dominate headlines. In exploring a small portion of the history of public health in the Middle East and North Africa, Lowe brings to light an important and extremely relevant idea: Perhaps the world should look beyond the American and Euro-centric perspective in the fight to protect and promote global public health. 

A recording of Professor Michael Lowe’s Fall Colloquium lecture can be viewed here. The Colloquium Series will continue throughout the fall semester. For more information on upcoming dates and speakers, visit the 2021 Colloquium Series homepage on the Center for Middle Eastern and North African Studies website.