The Lived Nile
Environment, Disease, and Material Colonial Economy in Egypt
Published by: Stanford University Press
264 pages, 152.00 x 229.00 mm
- ISBN: 9781503609655
- Published: July 2019
In October 1902, the reservoir of the first Aswan Dam filled, and Egypt's relationship with the Nile River forever changed. Flooding villages of historical northern Nubia and filling the irrigation canals that flowed from the river, the perennial Nile not only reshaped agriculture and the environment, but also Egypt's colonial economy and forms of subjectivity.
Jennifer L. Derr follows the engineers, capitalists, political authorities, and laborers who built a new Nile River through the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. The river helped to shape the future of technocratic knowledge, and the bodies of those who inhabited rural communities were transformed through the environmental intimacies of their daily lives. At the root of this investigation lies the notion that the Nile is not a singular entity, but a realm of practice and a set of temporally, spatially, and materially specific relations that structured experiences of colonial economy. From the microscopic to the regional, the local to the imperial, The Lived Nile recounts the history and centrality of the environment to questions of politics, knowledge, and the lived experience of the human body itself.
The Introduction describes Egypt's colonial economy and outlines the book's main areas of intervention. The chapter describes the forms of agricultural production on which Egypt's colonial economy rested, arguing that while cotton was Egypt's top-ranking export, perennial irrigation facilitated the production of other crops, specifically sugarcane and maize, that also shaped the conditions of rural life. It then argues that bodily experiences of colonial economy included new encounters with disease, the experience of which was central to the production of the subject. This chapter next makes an argument that the experience of authority in the countryside was geographically variable and constituted by an assemblage of actors. Finally, the Introduction explores the nature of expert knowledge, arguing for the significance of acts of performance in constituting this knowledge.
Chapter 1 revisits the work of irrigation engineering and the construction of the perennial Nile River in the nineteenth century. This chapter chronicles the emergence of the profession and training of state engineers under Egypt's strong governor Mehmed Ali. It then compares these engineers to those in the British Empire. Finally, this chapter examines the processes through which British engineers learned Nile irrigation while working to establish themselves as colonial experts. The historiography of British irrigation engineering in Egypt has begun from the notion that British engineers possessed great skill. This chapter challenges this notion by situating these engineers within the historical context of nineteenth-century Egypt and revisiting their work in Egypt and the performative strategies they deployed to establish their knowledge.
Chapter 2 chronicles the construction of the first modern dam on the Nile River and the two subsequent projects to heighten it. The chapter charts the material processes through which the dam was constructed and threatened as well as the forms of political economic aspiration and erasure that were attached to the structure during its first three decades of existence. It argues that during the British colonial period and that of the interwar-period Egyptian regime, the dam helped to support a particular geography of capital production. It also lent the perennial Nile a degree of permanency and shaped the conditions of possibility for the production of expertise moving forward. This chapter also traces the progressive displacement of historical Nubia during the first three decades of the twentieth century.
Chapter 3 explores the histories of the areas of central and southern Egypt that were perennially irrigated, focusing on the production of sugarcane in Egypt. Beginning in the 1860s, Khedive Isma
Chapter 4 follows perennial irrigation into the bodies of laborers and cultivators in the countryside. The introduction and extension of perennial irrigation produced new agricultural ecologies and modes of environmental engagement, in particular labor. One effect of these changes was a dramatic uptick in the prevalence of the disease pellagra and infection with the parasites schistosomiasis and hookworm. The majority of the population in perennially irrigated regions suffered from at least one—and often more than one—of these diseases. Just as the bodies of many rural Egyptians were transformed, practitioners in Egypt formed colonial medical projects based on a racialized understanding of bodies afflicted by the diseases of perennial irrigation. They posited disease as normative and formulated ideas of the Egyptian epidemic as ancient, eliding the role of colonial economy in fueling disease.
Chapter 5 explores the history of the project to treat hookworm and schistosomiasis in Egypt. In the period preceding World War I, British occupation authorities organized a limited project to survey and treat hookworm. When the program resumed after the war, it was paired with that for schistosomiasis. Under the interwar-period regime, treatment programs expanded throughout the countryside, treating millions of Egyptians for parasitic disease. Efforts to treat disease were complemented by those of the Rockefeller Foundation to stem its spread through sanitation programs. During the decades of the interwar period, the ecologies of disease associated with the perennial Nile helped to shape the terms of medical expertise and gave Egyptian scientists and physicians an entrée into a field of tropical medicine that continued to be dominated by racial hierarchies.
The Conclusion summarizes the book's primary contributions to the literature. First, it outlines the role of perennial irrigation and the behaviors associated with it in fueling disease and the significance of symptoms in producing new normative habitations of the body. It then describes the role of treatment programs in producing national (physical) subjects. Second, the Conclusion describes the manner in which authority was constituted as a geographically and temporally variable assemblage in the countryside during Egypt's colonial economy. Finally, it discusses the significance for materiality in the production and practice of expertise and that of acts of performance in establishing expertise as authority among engineers and medical practitioners. The Conclusion then follows the constructions of the perennial subject into the period that followed the end of Egypt's colonial economy, exploring the afterlives of the environment of Egypt's colonial economy.
"The Lived Nile offers a creative and smart account of a river and a nation, fluidly braiding together a history of labor, disease, and political economy, brimming with keen insight and filled with unexpected turns." ~Gregg Mitman, University of Wisconsin-Madison
"The Lived Nile offers a highly original synthesis of environmental and political history. Jennifer Derr shows how the remaking of the Nile River in the colonial period remade the very bodies of the country's political subjects." ~Timothy Mitchell, Columbia University
"A brilliant book, The Lived Nile captures the complexities and unintended consequences of experts intervening in a river's flow—and the displaced and diseased bodies that result—in a most compelling story. This is history at its best." ~Beth Baron, author of The Orphan Scandal: Christian Missionaries and the Rise of the Muslim Brotherhood
"The Nile River has sustained Egypt's material economy for millennia, a role Derr argues has continued into the colonial era, though subject to external considerations. Egypt's integration into the British imperial economy as a producer of sugar and cotton, combined with the poverty of its landowning class, reshaped the material culture of the river. Highly recommended." ~S. L. Smith, CHOICE
"Jennifer Derr has written an innovative and well researched study....The book is concise, well organized, and a pleasure to read. It will interest medical historians and geographers as well as specialists in Egyptian and African history. The illustrations are well selected, and the bibliography is useful. With a massive new dam rising on the Blue Nile in Ethiopia, the book could not be timelier." ~Nancy E. Gallagher, Bulletin of the History of Medicine
"Situated at the intersection of the history of science, the history of medicine, and the history of the body, as well as environmental history and the history of technology, The Lived Nile stands out for the way it brings science and technology studies into conversation with the social and political history of the Middle East. This is an important undertaking, and a great deal of work still remains to be done before our field truly reflects what a global phenomenon the practice of science became in the modern world. Derr's book offers a timely contribution in this regard, bringing archival depth and conceptual rigor to her study of a part of the world that deserves far more attention among science studies scholars. This, in addition to its empirical richness and analytical rigor, should make it required reading for scholars interested in the global history of science, the relationship between science and capitalism, and the intersection between knowledge, the environment, and the state." ~Lukas Rieppel, Brown University, Isis: A Journal of the History of Science Society