GRM 2010 GRM 2011

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Urban Space and the Campaign against Mosquitoes: Combatting Malaria in Bahrain and Muscat 1925-1945
Paper Proposal Text :
In July of 1939, Saiyid Said bin Taimur, Sultan of Oman and Muscat, wrote a lengthy personal letter to the British political agent detailing his plans to combat malaria. He stated, “The elimination of the mosquito will mean the prevention of Malarial Fever…The eliminating of the mosquito can only be brought about by destroying the breeding larvae and removing the breeding centres. These centres are standing water and waste water from houses and mosques. The removal of waste water from houses and other buildings is a sanitary undertaking” (IOR R/15/6/465). In the act of connecting the population’s well-being to the elimination of the ubiquitous sources of standing water that facilitated mosquito breeding, the Sultan effectively called for a dramatic transformation of urban space for the sake of public health.

Before obesity, diabetes, and heart disease became the predominant health issues facing residents of the Arabian Gulf, malaria-carrying mosquitoes were one of the greatest health threats. The provision of modern healthcare in the form of hospitals and clinics in the Arabian Peninsula has been a central feature in the changing urban landscape and the social production of space over the course of the twentieth century. Today, citizens and many non-citizen residents of the region enjoy government coverage of their medical care, generously endowed hospitals and medical schools, and even state-funded “medical tourism” abroad. These public health privileges are often framed as a characteristic of the oil-rich welfare state. Urban transformations motivated by public health concerns, however, predate the advent of oil wealth in this region.

Although representations of the Gulf landscape are typically dominated by images of parched desert, urban environments held innumerable sources of standing water in private and public wells, cooking pots, mosques, streams, irrigation tunnels, and even ponds. Starting in the 1920s and in tandem with global anti-malaria efforts, British administrations and local elites in Bahrain and Muscat decided that this standing water had to be eliminated for the sake of public health. By discursively constructing the presence of water in urban space as a serious threat for all residents, these administrators justified their ensuing efforts to transform intimate daily practices, including how local women and men collected water, prayed, cooked, and used the toilet.

In this paper, I read archival records documenting anti-malaria efforts in Bahrain and Muscat in 1925-1945 in terms of how urban space, urban politics, and urban society interacted in relation to disease control and public health. As Henri Lefebvre suggested, the space that people hold in their minds as their vision of how the world is arranged is fundamentally different from the material space in which they live their lives. This paper attempts to understand how anti-malaria efforts transformed both imagined and practiced urban space in Bahrain and Muscat. I argue that the campaign against standing water transformed urban space and created new forms of state intervention into private spaces in this region. I examine, first, how historical processes of framing the relationships between disease, \"native\" populations, and the intersections between cultural norms and sanitary practice in colonial British India served as frameworks through which administrators could interpret and envision urban space and the body politic in Bahrain and Muscat. Second, I consider how this discursive process that viewed health in Muscat through the lens of British experiences in other imperial settings facilitated specific material practices such as constructing infrastructure, importing medicines, and re-envisioning local sanitation and water use in public wells, private homes, and shared latrines. Finally, I pay attention to the telling gaps between ambitious agendas and the recurrent lack of funds and failures to execute these anti-malaria plans. As much erudite scholarship on imperial histories has shown, the disconnect between development schemes and their implementation was considerable in colonial settings, and often the act of spilling ink over “advancing” local populations served to create a façade of effort despite the lack of any real investment.

Today, the Zika virus has transcended politically and socially divided spaces and led to a world-wide discussion of disease transmission and mosquito elimination. Similarly, in Bahrain and Muscat in the mid-twentieth century, anti-malaria efforts reflected transnational flows of expertise as individual patients and practitioners depended on and contributed to the Arabian Peninsula’s global connections. The public health projects from this period offer rich material that demonstrates how the intimate political and societal connections between different municipalities in the Arabian Peninsula and Indian Ocean regions shaped the experiences of residents. Out of these transnational moments of healthcare provision on the ground in Bahrain and Muscat, I trace how public health programs functioned as constructed social spaces in which officials who considered themselves the harbingers of international expertise interacted with local practices and expectations.