Friday, November 29, 2013

Alan Mikhail's "The Animal in Ottoman Egypt"

Alan Mikhail is Professor of History at Yale University. He is a historian of the early modern Muslim world, the Ottoman Empire, and Egypt whose research and teaching focus mostly on the nature of early modern imperial rule, peasant histories, environmental resource management, and science and medicine.

Mikhail is the author of Nature and Empire in Ottoman Egypt: An Environmental History and editor of Water on Sand: Environmental Histories of the Middle East and North Africa.

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his latest book, The Animal in Ottoman Egypt, and reported the following:
Page 99 finds us in Egypt’s dogdom. It relates how changes in the social function of dogs led to changes in human attitudes toward the animal. Dogs in Cairo were historically what pigs were in New York City—sanitation workers. They consumed the city’s waste, thereby forging a productive social and economic niche for themselves among human communities. At the turn of the nineteenth century, more and more people relocated to Cairo, ideas about disease radically changed, garbage was moved outside the city’s walls, and the metropolis underwent a massive campaign of construction and urban transformation. These and other phenomena all dealt a critical blow to dogs. Humans now saw them as interspecies competitors for space, mangy potential disease vectors, useless noisemakers, and threats to ideas of civilization emerging in the period. The end result? Widespread dog eradication campaigns in Cairo (and other Egyptian cities) in the first third of the nineteenth century. For the first time since the founding of Cairo in the seventh century CE, dogs were purposely separated from humans.

This separation of species is one of the overarching processes followed in The Animal in Ottoman Egypt. In its three parts, the book traces how three classes of animals were actively separated from human animals through different historical mechanisms and forces. The three classes of animals are domesticated laboring animals, dogs, and charismatic megafauna. The interspecies separations the book examines all occurred between 1750 and 1850. This was a period in which Egypt, like many other parts of the world, experienced massive social, political, environmental, and economic changes. Egypt became increasingly autonomous as a province of the Ottoman Empire, beginning a move toward independence. Its cities grew in size. Its economy became increasingly enmeshed in global commercial networks and capitalist modes of exchange. The Animal in Ottoman Egypt argues that what happened to Egyptian animals’ relationships to humans was part and parcel of these other transformations.

To be specific—the story of domestic work animals explains fundamental changes in Egypt’s labor regime that saw humans replace animals as the preferred and dominant means of labor in the countryside. Page 99 and its neighbors elucidate how the history of Egypt’s dogs explains wider changes in understandings of urban sanitation, health, and the human and animal body. And the changing social, economic, and political roles of charismatic megafauna track Egypt’s shifting position in the nineteenth century’s global capitalist economy.
Learn more about the book and author at Alan Mikhail's website and the Oxford University Press.

--Marshal Zeringue