On March 11, 2020, the World Health Organization declared the pandemic status of SARS-CoV-2. In the ensuing days, one witnessed (via. official livestream) scenes of an empty Masjid al-Haram, its uncanny stasis broken only occasionally by the movement of a guard or a South Asian cleaner. As the hajj commenced that year, many were struck by its visual austerity. Restricted to a ceremonial one thousand Saudi nationals, some even suggested that its sparse numbers offered us a “glimpse” into the shape of an earlier, near-primordial hajj. While this suggestion underestimates the size of the pre-modern hajj, its issue is rather one of misrecognition: far from reenacting the flows of Islamic antiquity, the organized austerity in front of us represented a highly modern, logistical, and medicalized pilgrimage infrastructure.
The operational plan of this year’s hajj further underscores this fact. The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia has broadened the scope of the hajj to 60,000 Saudi pilgrims and deployed a series of added health measures that range from “smart cards” to “smart robots.” Some of these technologies were perhaps more “smart” than others and some may be critiqued for being “performative” — aligned less with functionality and public health than with the state’s Vision 2030 brand of “Gulf Futurism.” Put differently, these measures are representative of the Kingdom’s self-fashioning expressions of medical modernity, pilgrim care, and a hyper-technocratic hajj.
3. John Slight. The British Empire and the Hajj (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 2015), 78; Danial Panzac. Population et santé dans l'empire ottoman (Istanbul: Les Éditions Isis, 1996), 115.
The crisis of epidemic cholera in Mecca resulted in inter-imperial border controls for pilgrimage, cordons sanitaires, quarantines, surveillance, and travel passports. Historians of this crisis have traced its influence on the flux and maneuvers of competing imperial sovereignties, and on regional state-making and governmentality; and some have even drawn evocative throughlines between the anxieties of its era and contemporary ones about race and mobility. Yet what strikes me, as a student of these archives and in the context of this present pandemic, is imagining their ethical legacies. Epidemic diseases were also carriers of social affects. For ordinary people, they constituted large-scale, if not global, horizons of experience vis-à-vis mass death, the symbolization of otherness, and the anxious circuits of new or unseen relationalities upon which cholera travelled. In this sense, there is a strange and faint parallel between plagues and pilgrimages: as heuristic devices, both reveal the intimacies and mutable boundaries that exist between individuals, crowds, and geographies.
It was a moment that evinced how thoroughly and inescapably enmeshed the world had become. Relations of space were compressed and cholera legibilized, to follow the grain of the colonial distinction, the interconnection between “the West” and “the Islamic world.” Yet as epidemic cholera testified to the dissolution of hierarchical spaces and the porosity of borders, a reactionary and racialized discourse followed the arrival of cholera in Europe through Mecca.
9. In view of this stereotype and the focalization of Islam as “epidemic villain,” it is worth noting that public health, cholera, and hygiene were concerns by and large taken seriously by nineteenth century Muslims. Of the several unsanitary features of hajj administration identified by the medical literature of the time, the central culprit of choleric water — which spread the bacterium and which compromised the basis of Islamic ritual hygiene — was not exacerbated by “Muslim fanaticism” as much as it was by inter-imperial negligence. Saurabh Mishra and Michael Christopher Low describe a common orientation toward disinformation, obscurantism, and science denialism taken by the British Empire vis-à-vis microbial theories of cholera, motivated in part by a political interest in avoiding international legal precedents for medical intervention and quarantine against its transoceanic colonies. Mohammad Tavakoli-Targhi further defamilarizes this stereotype in his genealogy of “Pasteurian Islam,” in which he notes how religious clerics and intellectuals responded to epidemic cholera through the medicalization of Islamic theological motifs — whereby Muslim hygienic rituals assimilated a “microbiological paradigm” while miasma theory and other obscurantist views about cholera continued to dominate British officialdom. (See: Tavakoli Targhi, “From Jinns to Germs.” Iran Nameh, 30:3 (Fall 2015, iv-xix).
10. Valeska Huber. “The Unification of the Globe by Disease? The International Sanitary Conferences on Cholera, 1851-1894.” The Historical Journal 49.2, 2006, 462.
With the centering of Mecca as a subject of global health intervention, colloquial assumptions about Muslim pilgrims — fanatical, fatalistic, unhygienic — partly informed the underlying prejudices of Eurocentic medical internationalisms. The historian Valeska Huber offers one compelling example of how these tacit biases obstructed the possibility of tangible political solutions in the wake of 1865: during the International Sanitary Conference in Constantinople, France led a forceful proposal for the Ottoman Empire to cease all maritime communication with Mecca, which would mean “detaining pilgrims without sufficient food or space” — a brute “solution” with a clear differential valuation for the health of Europe over the lives of Muslim pilgrims which as Huber comments, would have been “dismissed as completely anachronistic if aimed at a European region.”10
In the revelation of a world that had become tautly compressed and interconnected, epidemic diseases spurred a reactionary emphasis on the spatial, symbolic, and ontological frontiers between “Occident” and “Orient.” It was not simply a racialized bias enclosed within the sphere of popular culture, but as suggested above, one that obstructed the very medical and diplomatic internationalisms required to face the crisis of a pandemic. In this sense, the resemblance between this moment and ours is difficult to ignore — particularly, in Western anti-China rhetoric tied to mobilizations of race.
From the xenophobic politics of language surrounding “Wuhan virus,” to the street-level harassment of Asians, to bipartisan support under President Biden for a commission inquiring into the once right-wing “lab-leak hypothesis,” the pandemic of our time is no less mired by specters of the other. Yet, if nineteenth century cholera represented the shock of a globalized world marked by new displacements of time and space, the spread of COVID-19 represents, as Andrew Liu notes, “contemporary global interchange at its most prosaic.” Charting the itinerary of the virus through the flows of Korean and German workers in Wuhan, to tourists in Vietnam, to Sudanese engineering students and Iranian businessmen, Liu describes an international system that longer strikes us as novel or disconcerting — but rather as “utterly mundane” and “unremarkable.”
In representing epidemics, artists and writers have nevertheless, at times, mythicized its presence and abstracted its political implications. The plague becomes an existential condition, a humanist metaphor, and an appeal to universal communitas. Consider, for instance, Stephen Soderbergh’s Contagion which, despite its commitment to “epidemic realism,” courts this tendency. The global theatre of disease within the film is narratively resolved — literally, stored away out of sight in the high containment archives of the CDC — with the smooth, airy dispersal of vaccinations across quiet, middle-American households. In the midst of this pandemic, we must imagine the terms and empathetic structure of a “conclusion” that does not fall for this American narrative shorthand.