Whirlpool of the Masses

The biopolitical response to COVID extends the reactionary orientalism that characterized the 1865 cholera outbreak in Mecca

After Bridget Riley, Bagatelle 1 & 2, 2015

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.

1. Ali Shariati. Hajj: Reflections on its Rituals (Chicago: Kazi Publications, 1992 [1972]).
At the centre of this hajj administration is the ambiguous figure of the crowd. For Ali Shari’ati, the crowd was oceanic: an “endless sea,” a “roaring flood,” a “whirlpool of the masses.”1 In his 1972 pilgrimage treatise, he describes a transformative landscape in which selves ritually dissolved into the communal as drops do within the sea. Yet the same crowd that is so central to the physical experience and religious grammar of the hajj, as Omer Shah notes, has also become a “laboratory” of risk management. The hajj, in other words, becomes a simultaneous event: an affective ritual and pillar of Islam but also a panoramic-scale operation in public health and biopolitics — tasked, in effect, with governing the corporealities and intimacies inherent to the pilgrimage.

2. Firmin Duguet. Le Pèlerinage de la Mecque (Paris: Les Éditions Rieder, 1932), 124.
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.
While recent hajj seasons are unreliable images of the far-off past, one is not wrong to see them in terms of history. The managerial and biopolitical strata of the contemporary hajj well predates the state of Saudi Arabia. Its contours were shaped, in large part, by the cataclysms of nineteenth century pandemics. With the globalization of new forms of industrial transport, there were no fewer than thirteen cholera outbreaks in Mecca from 1831 to 1863.2 One of the worst outbreaks occurred in 1865, in which 15,000 out of 90,000 — nearly one-fifth of all pilgrims in Mecca — died as a result.3 The outbreak in Mecca was soon internationalized and continued to be regarded as a pandemic until 1875.

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.

4. John Slight. "British Colonial Knowledge and the Hajj in the Age of Empire" in The Hajj and Europe in the Age of Empire, edited by Ryad Umar (Leiden and Boston: Brill, 2017), 86.
Tallied by hand, the earliest consular and bureaucratic records on choleric pilgrims in the India Office Records tell us rather little about the emotional, ethical, or social ramifications of epidemic diseases in Mecca. To be sure, this was never the intention of such records.4 And yet, contrary to these sterile registries of epidemic deaths, the few pilgrim testimonies that do grapple with the presence of disease offer us vivid yet contradictory terms of interpretation.

5. Mirza Irfan Ali Beg. A Pilgrimage to Mecca (Benares: Chandraprabha Press, 1896), 163.
For instance, in the memoirs of Mirza Irfan Ali Beg, an Indian pilgrim and civil servant, the valley of Mina is described as littered with the “dried bones of last year’s victims with the skin upon them.”5 Ali Beg is informed that the bones in the sand include those of choleric pilgrims that wandered into the valley in thirst. The imams and gravediggers of the city had fled and funerary cloth for corpses were depleted; and so, pilgrims were obliged to bury their fellow pilgrims in the shallow face of the earth.

6. Barbara Metcalf, “The pilgrimage remembered: South Asian accounts of the hajj” in Muslim Travellers, edited by Dale Eickelman and James Piscatori (London and New York: Routledge, 1990).
After describing this tortured landscape, Ali Beg moves briskly and without sentimentality. Barbara Metcalf describes his memoirs, among others written by Indian pilgrims of the era, as having internalized an imperial form of “scientific” reportage appealing to “British ideals” of representation and to civic pilgrimage reforms.6 Nevertheless, one can nevertheless note the memoirist’s conflictual sense of place and relation. His memoirs are located in a series of fraught and embodied tensions: that of a pilgrim who fares against the risks of disease from the supposed “miasmic” presence of fellow pilgrims while participating in rituals of the communal; that between the House of God and the impersonal graveyards of cholera; and lastly, between the ever-present traces of death — here, in the skeletal remains of former pilgrims — that, even while being recorded in his memoirs, are representative of those eclipsed from collective tally, memory, and commemoration.

7. Adrien Proust. Essai sur l'hygiène internationale (Paris: Libraire de l'Académie de Médecine, 1873), 258.
In other words, epidemic diseases were a common horizon at which nineteenth century Muslims encountered and socialized death. Yet, it is difficult to plot this history of affect and death-consciousness, no less because what dominates our immediate sources is a medico-logistical archive. However, read critically, these archives also testify to how cholera and pilgrimage alike revealed the latent intimacies of an age of “high imperialism.” As epidemic cholera travelled to Europe through the Suez Canal, so too did the spectres of choleric Muslims. In 1866, the third International Sanitary Conference convened in Constantinople. Held for the first time outside of Paris, the Conference — to paraphrase Dr. Adrien Proust’s words — had the panicked air of a body responding to “invasion.”7

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.

8. “Pilgrimage and Cholera.” Hours at Home (Issue 09, 1867), 425.
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.
Instead of being identified as victims, Muslim pilgrims were often classified as having a predisposition to diseases due to their “mode of life.” The hajj was described as “an outlet for [Muslim] fanaticism” otherwise constrained by the “civilizing” fetters of European empires8, while the medicalization of the trope of “Mohammaden fatalism” — once, Fatum Mahumetanum — broadly psychologized Muslim pilgrims as irrational, death-driven agents that willingly forsake public health and reason in favor of fevered religious practice. From popular and medical speculations about Islamic theology to unhygienic diets to even the influence of the sun on blood temperature, Muslim pilgrims were not always treated as neutral carriers of cholera. Rather, as racialized bodies and maligned behavioral subjects, Muslims were often identified with disease-production and disease-hood itself.9

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.

11. On intimacy as “heuristic,” see: Lisa Lowe, The Intimacies of Four Continents (Durham: Duke University Press 2015).
The concept of “intimacy” aids us in recognizing this ethical situation.11 Intimacy is revealed and rendered into innumerable internal frontiers in times of pilgrimage and pandemic. In the context of the hajj, this intimacy produced different, simultaneous meanings: a religious grammar in and of itself, a problematic of state and biopolitical governance, an index of a world of compressed spaces, and a specter of Muslim otherness. Put differently, epidemic diseases radicalize an awareness of our relations: the contact between body and body, vessel and port, colony and metropole. Anxiety suffuses the commingling of airs and the porous instruments of our touch, taste, and breath. The unconscious processes of our daily lives and the muscle-memory of the world are brought to light.