Wednesday, September 24, 2014

The Dogs of Cairo

Some of the most fascinating recent research in Middle Eastern history has been in the field of environmental history.  I have blogged previously about work on climate change in the region by Sam White and Ronnie Ellenblum, as well as a bit on the wood supplies which sustained Ottoman Egypt, using a work by Alan Mikhail.  Mikhail's most recent book, The Animal in Ottoman Egypt, is a fascinating contribution to the growing field of human/animal relationships.  One of its three broad sections concerns dogs.

Despite the book's title, this section also draws significant material from Istanbul, the Ottoman capital.  It chronicles how, during the early Islamic period, there were disputes about whether dogs were pure, based primarily on a Quranic verse and several hadith in which dog saliva was said to be unclean and require washing away.  However, the most common view reflected in written sources quickly came to be positive, noting their intelligence and usefulness, and highlighting the important roles they played in human society as guardians and hunting companions who often in stories sacrificed themselves for humans.

Mikhail demonstrates, through both images and written testimony, that dogs were everywhere in Istanbul and Cairo from the 16th through the 18th centuries.  They roamed the streets in packs, supported by religious endowments and government officials who valued them as consumers of garbage and a defense against rodents.  In addition to special watering troughs and feeding stations, there were laws to protect them from human violence.  Many people kept dogs as guards and carriers.  Religious writings were quoted on the beneficence of dogs for society, including the story that the prophet Muhammad prayed among dogs and a dog guarded the cave of the Seven Sleepers.

After 1800, things changed.  As Mikhail chronicles, this was actually part of a broader change in which animals of all species came to play less of a role as rural laborers, replaced by humans working en masse for other humans on large estates, especially with the rise of mechanization.  As other animals were squeezed out of the labor force, so were dogs.  Improved policing and sanitation removed their guarding and garbage-eating functions.  Dogs instead came to be seen as noisy and uncontrollable disease carriers, and authorities in both Egypt and Istanbul tried to eliminate them.  Religious writings were also quoted on their undesirability.  This radical new anti-canine ideology seems to have taken root among Egyptians within a single generation.  People began attacking them on the streets, and comparing someone to a dog became an insult in ways not previously attested.

Mikhail's book is, of course, not all about dogs.  I have already mentioned the shift by which animals lost their roles in the rural labor force.  In his conclusion, he considers how part of modernity is also the sidelining of certain classes of humans.  Machines can replace some humans as much as machines and humans replaced animals in the past.  Much as animals came to be acceptable only when managed in "useful" contexts, economically and culturally undesirable humans were enclosed in state institutions, such as hospitals for both physical and mental health.  If this is an ongoing process for a couple of centuries now, then where is it leading us?

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