Back in the saddle

It’s been quite a while since I’ve posted anything here; once I finished the Grad School Survival Guide I kind of ran out of steam (especially since I sat on the job market not moving for quite a while — writing a “how-to” guide on how to be a Ph.D. collecting unemployment, as I did in the spring of 2021, just didn’t seem all that enticing).

So, very quick life update: at the last moment–literally, I had made up my mind to pursue opportunities outside of academia if this didn’t work out–I found a full time position at Our Lady of the Lake University in San Antonio (about 75 minutes away, which, in all honesty, isn’t a bad commute for the Greater Austin area).

Also, it kind of looks like Hogwarts.

I didn’t know OLLU was the kind of community I was looking for, but it turns out to be a pretty good fit for me: first off, I don’t have to move (the idea of living apart appealed to neither of us), but, secondly, as OLLU is a teaching institution, I can continue research and writing at my pace, but not with the pressure that comes with the tenure track at an R1–which was not something I particularly wanted to deal with.

My next article, which will be out in the spring in the Journal of Colonialism and Colonial History, sat in revision for 16 months (admittedly, I didn’t look at it for 15 of 16 of those months), but that’s how things are with COVID. I don’t need someone breathing down my neck about it.

Plus, people are nice at OLLU. We all say hi in the morning. And, even though the school is going through an enrollment crunch and budget issues like everywhere else, everyone seems pretty determined to make the most of it with what we have.

Plus, as the world history half of the history program, I have the opportunity to reimagine course offerings in line with the school’s identity as a majority Mexican-American campus as that aspect of the curriculum continues to be emphasized. I really am very lucky, in so many ways.

I was particularly fortunate because about six weeks after being offered the job, I found out that I’d been awarded a Fulbright US scholar grant … and OLLU let me take half of my first year off to do it. (Again, I am very lucky).

Which is why I find myself this morning in Cairo, drinking a cup of mint tea and typing furiously on my computer in my apartment that does not have a view of the Nile (it faces the wrong way and also it’s not actually on the Nile).

I’m back in the saddle, working on my book again. I’ve put out a couple of articles based on material from the dissertation, and the heavy critique on both is that they don’t have very many sources in Arabic, or from the Egyptian point of view. This is both fair and unsurprising; in 2016 when I was working on my dissertation I was unable to travel to Egypt, so I had to do nearly all of my work in the British National Archives.

I’d been intending for a while to try to get back here and acquire some of the sources I would need to revise the manuscript, and now I have the funding to do so. Life in Cairo has its difficulties (I stumbled into a tourist scam yesterday with eyes wide open and my pride is still a bit wounded), but it’s manageable.

In all honesty this isn’t the first post I’ve made about this research trip, but some of the posts will, by necessity, be password protected and written for a select group of friends, family, and colleagues until I leave Egypt. (And, remember, my book is about World War I, so, no, I don’t know anything about the mummies they just found. Stop asking me about mummies.)

So, it’s time to dust this thing off and see where it goes. Come along with me on this adventure!


I wasn’t quite expecting 5,000 people to have an interest in the ‘Spanish’ flu in Egypt, but … well, 5,000 people have read my previous post, which was also translated into Arabic (not by me, fortunately). And then I was cited by both The New York Times and Masry Al-Yawm, and have met (virtually) a few other people interested in the subject.

It’s been kind of exciting doing this all from the comfort and confines of my home, where I’m quarantined with a chemical engineer and three hyperactive cats (and a fourth who’s just above it all).

I’ve been trying to figure out what brilliant thoughts I could possibly use to follow up on the previous post, but none are immediately forthcoming, and they’re standing in the way of announcing, for those who are interested, this:

flier for Harvard talk

On Wednesday, May 6, 2020, at 3 PM U.S. Eastern time (8 PM London / 9 PM Cairo), I will be giving a lecture on “The Spanish Influenza in Egypt” for Harvard’s Islamic Studies program online. The talk will cover much of the material that’s in my forthcoming article–the one that won’t be out until next year–so, if you’re interested, you might want to tune in. (I don’t know if it will be archived).

An RSVP is required, which you do by following the link on the bottom of the event page on Harvard’s Website.

I’m extremely honored to have been asked — the director of the program actually found me through my blog post! — and even more elated to follow the incomparable and brilliant Nükhet Varlık (Rutgers& U South Carolina), who is speaking on April 30th (also 3 PM Eastern) on “Rethinking the Plague in the Time of Coronavirus.” (You can RSVP for her talk at

The “Spanish Flu” in Egypt

ترجمة هذه المقال إلي اللغة العربية من هشام فهمي

The article is finally out! Click here to read.

I haven’t said much lately because I don’t have much to contribute to the ongoing panic/dialog around the COVID-19 pandemic. Since there’s so much noise out there, I’ve decided to adopt–well, on this website anyway–a less is more approach.

Within the last week or so, however, as the pandemic has settled in to different contexts worldwide, I’ve found myself recounting the story of the “Spanish flu” pandemic in Egypt. This has partly been because there has been some criticism of the way the current Egyptian government has handled the pandemic, and this has caused some questions about how, previously, such things have been handled in Egypt.

I’ve written an article on it that’s been accepted by the Journal of World History, but it likely won’t appear until 2021. I do have permission to share the article here and on my profile once it’s out, but I feel like there’s a limit to how much of my own research I can discuss in public before it appears. (note: the key word here is in public. I can certainly respond to, say, questions that are posed, either below or by e-mail … )

However, the article is ten thousand words long, and a short blog piece about the pandemic in Egypt that addresses the questions I feel like I’ve been asked several times won’t venture too far into spoiler territory!

“Al-Anfilwinza al-Wafida.” Al-Muqattam, December 7, 1918, 2.

What was the “Spanish flu”?

So, first off, let’s all remember that it was called the Spanish flu because Spain’s uncensored press was the first to report on the unusual nature of the virus in the spring of 1918. It didn’t originate in Spain nor, as someone tried to argue with me on Twitter a few weeks ago, did it attract the name because more people died of it in Spain than anywhere else.

If you need more background on the global trajectory of the pandemic, I did a podcast about it a couple of weeks ago.

The pandemic lasted globally until 1920, and it went around the world in three waves. The second was the most lethal, although all three waves carried the same unusual mortality curve: in addition to the young and elderly, the highest mortality rates were observed in people aged 15-25.

The virus, a mutated strain of the H1N1 avian influenza, frequently caused victims to cough or spit up blood, their faces to turn purple or black, and, in victims with particularly robust immune systems, it caused their lungs to fill up with fluid. This latter was a frequent cause of death–misidentified as pneumonia early on–because the immune system was triggered into an over-response; fluid was produced in an attempt to counter the virus, and victims essentially drowned.

When did the pandemic hit Egypt?

The first wave of the pandemic appeared in Egypt sometime in late spring–around May or June. It attracted little attention, other than commentary on its appearance at an unusual time of year, and the Department of Public Health (a subset of the Ministry of the Interior) recommended that people should stay home if sick.

It wasn’t until the end of October–right around the time that the Treaty of Mudros was signed, ending Ottoman participation in World War I–that the lethal wave hit. The most lethal period of the pandemic persisted until just after Christmas, resulting in a large number of casualties in the last eight weeks of 1918.

The third wave is mentioned very briefly in the press–right after Sa’ad Zaghlul’s arrest in March 1919. Vital statistics–such as they are–seem to indicate that it was fairly mild, but given the fact that the country exploded into open rebellion and most government ministries were effectively shut down until midyear, it’s impossible to know for sure.

How did the Egyptian government deal with the pandemic?

Egyptian Gazette, November 18, 1918
Egyptian Gazette, November 18, 1918

At the time, Egypt was a British protectorate. The system known as the “Veiled Protectorate,” wherein Egypt was administered by the British but there was lip service given to an official fiction that it remained an autonomous Ottoman province had been done away with upon the mutual declaration of war between Britain and the Ottoman Empire in November 1914. Egypt was declared a British protectorate–it would remain so until 1923–and placed under martial law at the beginning of December 1914 (this was cancelled as a gesture of goodwill by General Allenby in May 1919).

The problem in Egypt, as in other colonial settings, is that colonial officials who held military rank were recalled to duty for the war, and many of them had been sent into Palestine with Allenby’s campaign starting in the fall of 1917, and remained there at the time the pandemic’s most lethal wave arrived a year later. This included much of the leadership of the Department of Public Health as well as most of the district medical officials whose job was to oversee health services for the civilian population.

Simply put, for most of the war, civilian medical needs were a far distant second behind military medical needs (and for this, I’ll refer you to my book that’ll be out sometime in the next decade).

Hence, when the pandemic hit Egypt, the Anglo-Egyptian government was caught with its pants down. Hospitals and clinics were overwhelmed. A meeting of the Alexandria municipality in early November turned into an ad hoc grievance session, with citizens angrily demanding that the head of the Municipal Health Department do more to control the pandemic.

It was mid-November before basic guidelines were issued to the public; schools remained open until early December. Markets, courts, and universities were closed. Cities and provincial governments issued directives, but many seemed haphazard in their approaches: in Cairo, cinemas were closed, but not theaters; bars were closed, but not cafes. In both Cairo and Alexandria, people complained about crowding on the city’s tramways, with local governments feebly admitting they could do little to control the environment.

Physicians–who were mostly Egyptians, Greek, or Syrian–were overworked; at one point the press observed that in Asyut doctors were making constant housecalls and working over 15 hours a day. The next week it was reported that all of the city’s doctors had caught the flu themselves and were unable to see patients.

It was reported that in some rural villages there was “no other business other than to bury the dead,” and that agricultural production had ceased. This is extremely important to note, as the entire economy depended on intensive agricultural production, and most peasants had little savings. Stopping work in the fields would only have happened under the most extreme of circumstances.

Were religious services suspended in 1918 like they are now?

Al-Muqattam, December 3, 1918.
Al-Muqattam, December 3, 1918.

Update: if they were, it happened late. Al-Muqattam reported on December 6 (the height of the second, and most lethal wave) that the Alexandria Municipality’s Sanitary Department had asked the Ministry of Awqaf to make sure mosques were properly ventilated during prayer services, and that the floors were being cleaned with purified water before and after.

This question has come up several times, especially with Ramadan looming now (Ramadan didn’t coincide with the worst of the pandemic in 1918). The issue is suspicious by its absence from the press, in fact, but I don’t know what to make of it (if anyone knows, please leave a comment or message me!).

The Anglo-Egyptian administration was very wary of stepping on toes that should have been handled by the Ministry of Religious Affairs (most colonial administrators had experience working in India, where the 1857 revolt loomed large in memory, and the British tried not to offend Islamic sensibilities). Hence, when Al-Azhar was ordered to close–which it was–this was ordered in its capacity as an educational institution, not as a place of worship.

Public celebrations of Mawlid an-Nabi, the Prophet’s birthday, were cancelled, as were permits for religious processions as well as funeral processions. I have not seen references to mass graves (this had caused uproar during previous pandemics), but people were encouraged to conduct quiet burials as quickly as possible.

How many people died?

Egypt. Ministry of the Interior. Department of Public Health. Annual Report for 1918. Cairo: Government Press, 1920, 36.

The officially calculated death toll was 138,000 people — over 1% of Egypt’s population according to the census conducted in 1917.

That said, Niall P.A.S. Johnson and Juergen Mueller[1] wrote an article in 2002 to try to compile a more accurate global total of the pandemic’s mortality, and they concluded that the method used in Egypt as elsewhere usually produced estimates that were too low, sometimes by as much as half. Hence, it seems more likely that the death toll would be closer to 170,000; the overwhelming majority of these deaths taking place in the last eight weeks of 1918. (To clarify: Johnson and Mueller have said that the method was inaccurate; the estimate of 170,000 is mine.)

The highest mortality rate in Egypt was observed in people between the ages of 10 and 20, with rural areas more heavily affected than urban areas. (I do have a theory about why this is, but you’ll have to read the article).

To put it in context, this would be the generation of young men and women who were left behind to run farms and keep things going while fathers and older brothers went off to work in the Egyptian Labour Corps, the Egyptian Camel Corps, and other work associated with the war effort, as agricultural wages had remained relatively flat even as inflation sent the cost of basic goods upwards by as much as 300%. They would have gotten through the war, and then perished just as it looked like things might return to normal. Socially, this must have been devastating.

I do think this is one of the reasons why rural residents were angry and ready to express that anger when the 1919 uprising began. (In my book, which I am still working on, I argue that people were hungry for most of the war. The influenza–the worst health crisis during World War I in Egypt–came after the end of the war, and made everything worse.) Political organizers from the Wafd and other parties who went into rural areas probably had their work cut out for them.

The influenza has, oddly, been omitted or ignored in most of the histories of early 20th century Egypt. I’m hoping my forthcoming article can start a conversation about some of the non-political events in early 20th century Egypt that have long been set aside in favor of the political narrative that tends to be emphasized in scholarship of the period.

Talk to me!

Even though I’ve got an article coming out, I’m interested in comparing notes with anyone else who’s working on this or similar topics, just because there isn’t much out there. I’m especially interested in hearing family lore–did someone in your family tell stories about the pandemic? Or can you fill in some holes in the narrative? Leave a comment, or e-mail me!


I wasn’t expecting this post to be so popular! I’m sorry that it’s not longer. I really wanted to just answer some of the usual questions, but I’m glad so many people are interested in the topic.

The Lecture I gave for Harvard on May 6, 2020 is now online:

A number of people on Twitter have said that they wished I’d written more about the political effect of the pandemic. I’m afraid that I just don’t have enough solid data to make stronger claims at this point.

I am still working on this, so if you have ideas please let me know.

1. Johnson, Niall P. A. S., and Juergen Mueller. “Updating the Accounts: Global Mortality of the 1918-1920 ‘Spanish’ Influenza Pandemic.” Bulletin of the History of Medicine 76, no. 1 (2002): 105–15.

. كريمة حسن .من «الإسبانية» إلى «الخنازير».. تاريخ من الأنفلونزا القاتلة. المصري اليوم، 5 يونيو2009، 14.

The Curious Case of the Thomas Cook Hospital in Luxor

Over the weekend, the Thomas Cook company went bankrupt and shuttered operations, leaving hundreds of thousands of people stranded worldwide and searching for flights home.

A number of us Twitterstorians became particularly concerned about the impending demise of the company a few days ago when Ziad Morsy, a martime archaeologist and Ph.D. candidate at the University of Southampton tweeted that Thomas Cook’s historical archivist had lost his job.

The Thomas Cook company was 178 years old when it collapsed (just over a month before Britain may or may not exit the European Union–coincidences which have been commented upon elsewhere). Some of its history in relation to British imperial history was covered by another colleague in a Twitter thread yesterday:

Inasmuch as it’s easy to point to the Thomas Cook Company’s early days as those of a commercial company essentially making money off of the expansion of the British Empire, there are occasional glimpses at a richer and more complicated role for the company in various contexts (@afzaque covers several of them in his thread, which is worth a read).

It’s these sorts of things that make the potential loss of the company’s archive particularly painful, as it is one of those out-of-the-box sources for material that can shed startling new light on historical periods.

And hence, I present …

The curious case of the Thomas Cook Hospital

I ran across the hospital while writing the first two chapters of my dissertation, which wound up comprising a comprehensive history of public health in Egypt between 1805 and 1914 as one did not already exist. (Wanna publish it? It’s not going to be in the monograph.)

The West Bank of the Nile, opposite Luxor, in 2010.

It was located in Luxor, a settlement that is notable mostly for what people were doing there thousands of years ago, as it is built on top of the ruins of what was almost certainly not known to its inhabitants as Thebes, but was one of the New Kingdom capitals of ancient Egypt. Across the Nile River, wide and lazily flowing at this point, is the pyramid-shaped hill that marks the location of the Valley of the Kings.

Given the numerous pharaonic sites that dot the landscape up and down the river from Luxor, Cook had the bright idea to utilize boat travel for wealthy tourists to visit them without the hassle of having to move constantly to new hotels every night. Luxor, at the epicenter, was the site of the train station from which Wagon-Lits and other operators operated sleeper trains to Cairo.

In 1890, Luxor was a small town — perhaps five thousand permanent inhabitants, which could swell as high as twenty thousand during tourist season when there was work to be had.

John Mason Cook–the son referred to in the company’s official name “Thomas Cook & Son” after 1865 — had the idea to open a hospital as early as 1887:

In 1887, he decided, driven by the reactions of rich foreigners–British, American, German–in the face of the unfortunate hygienic conditions of the local population, to construct a hospital. “Accomplished in 1891, inaugurated by the Khedive Tewfik Pacha, it comprised 26 beds (of which 8 were for women, 10 for men)*, the buildings well constructed, each isolated from the other, in a healthy and fortuitous position.”

*(no, this doesn’t equal 26).

Jagailloux, Serge. La Médicalisation de l’Égypte Au XIXe Siècle. Synthèse 25. Paris: Éditions Recherche sur les civilsations, 1986. (translation mine).

The hospital was co-directed by a Syrian doctor and an Englishman (only the latter–a Dr. Saimders–is named). Given that neither were in residence in Luxor in the off season (April to November), a third doctor–an Egyptian–was appointed to see patients in the off-season.

It was estimated that over 120,000 patients were seen, with over 2,000 operational procedures performed, in its first twenty years of operation. The hospital was presumably built primarily for the treatment of visiting foreigners, with Egyptians working in the tourist industry as a secondary priority.

“One of the Dahabeahs (sic) of Thos. Cook & Son Company (Egypt)”
Berlin: Cosmos art publishing Co., 1893.
Collection of the Brooklyn Museum

What is interesting is that, with Cook’s blessing, the hospital was opened to the public as well. In 1898, The Lancet enthusiastically reported that people were coming from over two hundred miles away to seek treatment at the facility. (“Egypt.” The Lancet 152, no. 3905 (July 2, 1898): 59.)

After the British occupation in 1882, funding for public health flatlined. Under Lord Cromer, the public health budget never exceeded 100,000 Egyptian pounds (at the time LE 1 = £0.95).

Hospitals in the provinces, which were already run down and developing a bad reputation among patients (most of them had been built in the 1840s), were frequently closed or moved to other, newer buildings that were not purpose-built to serve as hospitals.

The construction of private facilities was encouraged by the Anglo-Egyptian government; the government would not open new hospitals or dispensaries (a combination pharmacy/clinic used to supplement hospitals in smaller settlements) in towns that had “good” private facilities. Many of the hospitals were funded by local European communities to serve their own–Austro-Hungarians, French, Greeks, Italians, and Anglo-Americans all had their own facilities in Cairo and/or Alexandria, most of which referred their Egyptian patients to government facilities.

Hence, it is a point of curiosity for me as to what inspired John Mason Cook to open his hospital to the general public, especially given that his company did not lack for wealthy clientele to fill its beds.

It suggests that, even at the height of imperialism, with a company that can (and has) be considered an agent of an imperial power, things are never quite as simple as they might seem.

As I was writing this, Ziad tweeted me this tantalizing entry from the archival catalog:

Hence, the answer to my questions may lie in this box, whose future is now in doubt.

What you can do to help

If you’re one of us history types who has benefitted, or could benefit, from consulting the Thomas Cook archives, this thread has specific action items you can take to let people know that there is interest in saving the archive and not letting its contents be dispersed or destroyed.

Planning a Research Year: Part Two

Well! Yesterday’s post on Planning a Research Year got a little bit of traction, which also gave me a bit of material to work with for a second part right away.

More than one Tweep made a comment about something I wrote that I hadn’t even thought twice about when I wrote it:

She’s right, y’all. My bad.

First off, let me explain what in the world I was thinking when I wrote this:

I had one archive tell me point blank that they had nothing useful for me — disappointing, but far less disappointing that it would have been had I spend time and money going out there to get the same answer.

This happened, and I have no reason to suspect the archivists were lying to me. That said, the reason I feel comfortable saying this is that the archive in question belongs to an organization that was founded during my research period, and seemed, from its website and catalog, to only hold the international organizational files, whereas what I really wanted was reports from the Egyptian branch.

Knowing this to be the case, I reached out by e-mail to ask if they had anything from my target dates pertaining to the eastern Mediterranean region, and they responded that they did not. It was the answer I somewhat expected, confirmed.

That said, Ms. Hawkins is absolutely correct, especially when it comes to larger archives. The archivists at smaller, specialized institution know their collections pretty well. However, at the U.S. or British (or French or so on) national archival collections, where the material is so vast and covers so much time and space temporally, the likelihood is that, unless they have specialized archivists covering your specific interest/time/place, you’ll be dealing with people who want to be helpful but may not necessarily have the familiarity to assist you with your specific search.

After she tweeted me, I immediately thought of a conversation I’d had at the help desk at the British National Archives, wherein I pointed out that I had correspondence from one side of a conversation, and asked where I might find the other half. The very well-meaning archivist thought for a second and then asked if I’d considered trying the Egyptian National Archives in Cairo, since colonial correspondence that was kept in former colonies usually got transferred to the national archives after independence.

She’s probably right. At the same time, travel to Egypt for research was impossible at the time, which is why I was in London in the first place, and not in Cairo.

In short, if your gut feeling is telling you that there might be something there that’s useful to you, especially if you’re still at the point where articulation of your project involves a lot of handwaving and drawing diagrams on napkins (guilty!), by all means follow your instinct.

For example, as someone whose project morphed from the history of epidemics to the social history of disease, I’d often have to clarify that I wasn’t looking for medical reports, which is what most people assumed I wanted. You are, ultimately, the judge of what constitutes “useful” in the context of your own research.

Another excellent set of points from Dr. Zarrow.

The best advice is going to be from someone who has been there before.

Unfortunately, one of the best resources out there — the Archives Wiki that the American Historical Association used to run — has been taken down; a lot of it was out of date, but it did at least give a starting point on what to expect (helping a lot with number 2).

There was a short-lived project called World History Archives (I contributed several entries myself) but it seems to have been abandoned.

If you work on the Middle East or North Africa, Hazine is a good starting point.

The issue of <polite cough> “gifts” is one that you should be aware of. In smaller archives, in out of the way places, this is where having some recent local expertise is going to come in very handy.

I have heard, for example, stories about how flowers or the head curator’s favorite sweets from a particular bakery will start things off on a good note.

Remember that in a lot of places, the people who work at archives are going to be poorly paid public servants, and you’re asking them to do things for you. I don’t like using the word “bribe” here because it has such a negative connotation (if ‘gift giving’ becomes a daily practice, then we can call it bribery). Think of it as a token of your appreciation, expressed in advance.

I never got into the Egyptian National Archives to put any of that advice to practice, but in the days when I used to run study abroad programs in Egypt, my first visit on arrival in Cairo was usually to the supermarket near my hotel to pick up provisions–one of which was always a carton of Marlboro Red cigarettes. Each morning, I’d toss a few packs into my backpack and use them to earn the loyalty of our assigned tour guard, or help the door keeper at an out of the way museum suddenly remember where he left the key, and various and sundry things like that. (Cash can be so gauche to hand off in a crowd.)

Also…and this is key, especially for Americans who are seen as brash and rude…remember to start every conversation with a smile, a “Good morning. How are you?” before getting into what you need.

Every new person you talk to is a new person — a simple statement, really, but remember that even though you’ve told the same story sixteen times, you haven’t told it to this person. Patience is a virtue, often rewarded.

Next up

In another post, I will address another question that came up — how to reconcile all the funding applications with what you actually want to do during your research year. It’s not as complicated as you’re afraid it might be.