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Entering and Exiting Transregional Medico-Legal Borders across the Twentieth Century

Panel VIII-12, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Saturday, November 4 at 11:00 am

Panel Description
The five papers compiled for this panel each touch upon, in different ways, matters involving health, disease, and illness that came up sharply against border control regimes across the twentieth century Middle East and North Africa. Some of the cases presented in this panel are concerned with precarious or marginalized individuals and groups who were seeking something across regional, colonial, and newly-sovereign borders. The ‘something’ they sought involved their mental, emotional, or physical health and well-being, be it psychiatric care in mental asylums or treatment for bodily infirmities and illnesses. One paper considers the implications of more traditional immigrants who crossed borders seeking to leave the Eastern Mediterranean for economic reasons and whose health became an unexpected liability vis-à-vis border controls within the diaspora. Other cases involve more tangible things sought across these same borders: medicine, including cures for diseases and drugs meant to improve bodily health. As the papers’ collective contribution will demonstrate, individuals did not entirely find what they sought and neither did mobile medicine and health materials reach their intended human or institutional hosts. Rather, people and tangible matters of health fell afoul of newly-instituted and constantly-changing medico-legal border control regimes. Each paper investigates intersections of health and border and immigration controls in the post-Ottoman, colonial/mandate, and post-colonial/statehood-era Middle East; in doing so, they reflect the value of taking a medical perspective on borders and immigration controls especially those that instigated deportations and forced removals. The scholarship produced by the five papers in this panel makes methodological and conceptual interventions into the histories of border control, immigration, and medicine. They highlight the methodological deployment of micronarrative and its usefulness in pushing social history and history of medicine into new directions. This utilization of microhistorical narratives pushes against the preoccupation with nationalist concerns in histories of the twentieth century, even when some papers do not explicitly trace the lives and experiences of human actors; indeed, it also considers the ways in which the materials negotiated with and were negotiated by borders and mobility controls. The papers also draw upon institutional history archives, and one uses discourse analysis to ‘read’ these archives. The papers demonstrate that medical knowledge and medical materials, when these appeared at borders, were a matter of negotiation and of expertise by the ill, undiagnosed migrants, patients committed to hospitals and psychiatric asylums, and travelers in need of medical support or moving medical materials.
  • Over the course of the interwar and immediate post-Second World War years in the Middle East, an individual migrant’s struggles with mental health, as well as their potentially having any one of list of physical and bodily ailments, became a potential disability that marked them as unfit for entry across post-Ottoman borders. Using personal documentary narratives of migrants (and/or their families and interlocutors) singled out for perceived mental and physical illnesses and conditions, and the correspondence by doctors, immigration officers, and health inspectors, this paper considers the development of the medico-legal border in both British-mandate Palestine and Egypt under the British-supported monarchy, focusing on the late 1930s through the 1940s. The paper is concerned with the experiences of transregional migrants whose health flagged them as undesirable to enter Palestine and Egypt. By assembling archival documents together as micronarratives, the paper seeks to establish the ways more precarious migrants made sense of borders and of their own illnesses, and the connection between the two when faced with immigration control regimes. Most, but not all, of the micronarratives explored here are focused on laborers or working-class migrants: individuals who likely crossed borders frequently, or who were drawn to Palestine or Egypt by the rapid pace of industrialization alongside regional and local economic downtowns. Finally, the paper will move historiography away from a sole focus on the border as the tangible geographical site of immigration control and public health: rather, it demonstrates the medico-legal border could be found at the hospital, the working-man’s café or hostel, or within the urban street. These transregional migrants are crucial to the history of the medico-legal border, in large part because their movements were ordinary and mundane, and because unlike European immigrants and travellers, they could more easily be deported out of Palestine and Egypt without recourse to consuls or courts. Their experiences also add to social histories of the Middle East, incorporating testimonies about illnesses and ailments that may have come from individual migrants, but which would have been influenced and shaped by social and cultural understandings of mobility control and mental and physical health. The research questions and methodology borrow from and build upon existing historiography on immigration restrictions and physical and mental health across imperial, colonial, and settler colonial sites, and place the mashriq and maghrib into conversation with global processes and phenomenon regarding the enforcement of the imperial and post-colonial medico-legal border.
  • Recent scholarship has argued for the resilience of regional patterns of mobility across the post-war colonial partition of the Levant, and foregrounded the agency of a range of characters who crisscrossed emergent borders. To a cast of muleteers, smugglers, rebels, and pilgrims (Abou-Hodeib 2020), this paper adds psychiatric patients. Across the first half of the twentieth century, hundreds of psychiatric patients from Palestine were admitted for treatment at the Lebanon Hospital for Mental Diseases outside Beirut. While consonant with the hospital’s aspirations to serve the wider region, the rationales behind these cross-border movements were complex, and particularly in the late 1930s and 1940s, these movements increasingly drew families, hospital authorities, and mandate governments into fraught and uncertain negotiations over responsibility for psychiatric patients across borders. Bringing together perspectives from histories of medicine and mobility, this paper concludes, can be productive for both subfields: by shaking histories of medicine free of methodological nationalism, on the one hand; and, on the other hand, by highlighting how mobilities which challenged, eluded, or exceeded the reach of the colonial state might simultaneously be driven by troubling intrafamilial dynamics.
  • In 1904, Katerina Ayoub Tayzar was deported from the United States for a “condition contracted prior to arrival.” After checking into the public hospital at eight months pregnant, the doctors had determined Katarina had been one month pregnant when she arrived in the country, thus carrying a “disease” that made her deportable under public charge laws. At her hearing, the judge recommended that a nurse accompany her to Ellis Island in case she went into labor enroute. As a woman from Syria, Tayzar’s understanding of labor, childbirth, and her body rubbed against law and the new field of obstetrics and gynecology in the United States. In 1903 the US government passed Public Charge laws stipulating anyone hospitalized in the country with a condition contracted prior to landing could be deported: pregnancy was one of these “conditions.” My project, “Time Change: Reproduction, Mobility, and Temporality in the early Mahjar” examines how Syrian women experienced changing notions of pregnancy as they traveled, and its intersection with migration law. My paper puts histories of gynecology and immigration into productive conversation, adding a new layer to both fields. The history of the development of gynecology in the Middle East is understudied topic, and I am interested in exploring how changes in the perceptions of pregnancy and the labor of childbirth translated for peoples from Syria as they traveled to other countries. Focusing on how pregnant women experience migration sheds new light on the uneven effects of medical borders. Focusing on Katarina Tayzar’s experience, my paper will expand our notion of when and where the border is located, and its intimate effects on migrants’ lives and sense of their body.
  • The post WWII era was a period of shifting political structures, economic circumstances, and demographics, but it was also a time when bodily waste emerged as an important resource for biomedicine. In the context of reproduction research, studies began demonstrating that urine of women after menopause contains both types of sex-hormones needed to induce ovulation, calling them follicle-stimulating hormone (FsH) and luteinizing hormone (LH). This made urine an important reservoir for hormones. As scientists and pharmaceutical companies in Europe realized that urine could be turned into gold, they started searching for cheap and concentrated sources – groups of women after menopause – in order to collect this golden liquid in great amounts. Collecting urine in Europe turned out too expensive, creating a need to search for bodily residues elsewhere. This talk concentrates on two scientific projects that sought postmenopausal urine in the Middle-East, and which grounded the region as a frontier of bioprospecting: One was the unsuccessful attempts of the Swedish Leo pharmaceutical company to collaborate with UNRWA in Lebanon to collect urine from Palestinian refugees in Gaza; Another was the initiative of the Italian/Swiss company Serono that established a long-lasting collaboration with the endocrinology laboratory at the Tel-Hashomer medical center, Israel. The second project, which relied on the collection of urine from women living in Elderly homes in Israel, became the basis for the development of Pergonal, a fertility drug that is considered a stepping-stone in the development of global reproductive technologies. In this context, elderly women were not perceived as a marginalized group of people, but rather cheap and valuable resources for science and the expanding pharmaceutical industry. The paper is based on an analysis of pharmaceutical companies’ records, scientific publications, laboratory notes and correspondences, as well as interviews with scientists, organizations, and donors involved in these two projects. It demonstrates how the emergence of the scientific-industrial complex, which was characterized the era, was heavily dependent on seeking and moving the waste of particular groups of people across borders within, from, and into the Middle-East. The paper also illustrates how the global pharmaceutical industry relied on the identification local demographics, and how Israeli endocrinology was established as a field of research on the basis of its understanding as a frontier scientific and pharmaceutical endeavor. Finally, it analyzes the relation between the accelerating movement of bodily substances across borders, and growing restrictions over the mobility the same people who supplied them.