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From the Womb to the Tomb: Birth, Disease, Sex, and Death in the Modern Middle East

Panel V-7, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Friday, November 3 at 1:30 pm

Panel Description
No matter whether or how often they surface in the historical record, all human beings are conceived, born, and then spend their lives passing in and out of ailments and illnesses, until eventually they die. This panel explores the tension between the universality of life and death and the particularities of historical context by diving into critical moments of the human life cycle in the modern Middle East. We approach a range of bodies spanning the human life cycle and at the intersections of global, national, and individual interests as a framing mechanism to explore how practices and discourses have intervened in and made sense of birth, disease, sex, and death. The first paper explores how, in postwar Arabia, foreign gynecologists were alarmed to find that their postpartum patients suffered from obstruction or closure of the vagina. It asks how these doctors made sense of this phenomenon, and what their scientific writings reveal about women’s experiences of childbirth. The second paper shifts from childbirth, the initiation of life, to pandemic influenza, a threat to life posed by disease. It examines how observers recorded the 1889-1893 influenza pandemic in Iraq by commenting on influenza’s mortality, ecological factors, and movement through regions and populations. Further, in comparing Ottoman responses to influenza in the late nineteenth century to British efforts to combat the same disease in 1918, the paper highlights important continuities between the two imperial efforts. The third paper shifts to family planning and sexuality in Cold War Turkey. It explores the impact of a 1965 law legalizing birth control methods by unpacking public debates and interactions between health experts and the rural and urban poor as birth control became widely available. Finally, our fourth paper interrogates the historiographical utility of official body counts as a means to conceptualize crisis. Using the Lebanese famine of the First World War as a case study, the paper explores how death operates as an emotive discourse in primary and secondary accounts of this disaster. In reconstructing modern Middle Eastern lives “from womb to tomb,” this panel interweaves a range of life stages and temporalities. Collectively, we approach life and death as elements of political struggle, scientific inquiry, and historical fascination.
  • Depictions of historical crises would seem incomplete without reference to the toll of the dead that the disaster left in its wake. Though mortality offers a simple, if grim, metric to gauge the magnitude of historical calamity, the power of death as a construct presents challenges to the accurate analysis of disease and disaster events. Contemporaneous death estimates were rarely accurate, and when provided, they frequently contributed figurative or narrative value to the writer’s audience that superseded the truth value of the numbers provided. While a reliance on death tolls might be evocative, uncritical reliance on such figures risks biasing the historical record and misrepresenting the nature of crisis events. This paper evaluates the use and misuse of death in crisis literature, using the primary and secondary accounts of the Lebanese Famine of World War I as a case study. In the aftermath of the war, various observers ventured death estimates that ranged from roughly 20 percent to half of Mount Lebanon’s population. Statistical collection methods at the time were unreliable, but the disagreement over numbers owed more to the figurative meaning that mortality offered to sympathetic readers. Sometimes this meaning was political, like in the selective use of statistics by pro-French or pro-Ottoman partisans in the postwar political discourse, but even ostensibly neutral accounts of the famine frequently used death and dead bodies as literary intensifiers in written depictions to show the severity of the crisis when simple words fell short. However, death is a value-laden concept that conveys deep and complex meaning for both authors and their audiences, and as such, historians must consider death’s literary and semiotic value when studying past disasters – it is not a mere fact. When writers invoked death and the dead, they did so with some intent: to generate sympathy, to solicit humanitarian donations, or simply to validate their own subjective interpretations of the famine’s dark landscape. Both the statistical variability of death tolls and the affective use of death in famine literature indicate that mortality is far too potent a concept to be invoked as a casual metric in crisis scholarship. The use of death statistics may be evocative, but using them without caution risks writing subjective values into the historiography that alter how we understand those disasters in the present.
  • During the nineteenth century, Ottoman Iraq was the site of many epidemics. For much of that time, cholera, malaria, and plague were the biggest challenges in the region, prompting Ottoman authorities to combat these diseases through quarantine measures and general improvements in sanitation and flood control. However, during this time, influenza was also a threat to Iraq, as it had been to the Ottoman Empire more generally and the world at large. This paper examines the effects of the 1889-1893 influenza pandemic (the so-called “Russian” flu) on Ottoman Iraq. Focusing on the first wave of the pandemic, which came to Iraq in 1890, the paper highlights some of the main issues that those who observed the spread of the disease felt compelled to record. These included influenza’s mortality, the ecological factors governing the disease’s appearance, and the disease’s trajectory as it made its way to Iraq. The paper also argues that the Ottoman state’s tepid response to the spread of influenza in Iraq was less a reflection of a general Ottoman disinterest in the disease, which also affected other parts of the empire, and more a reflection of the priority that Ottoman authorities gave to mitigating the effects of other infectious diseases in Iraq. Finally, the paper also points to some continuities between the Ottoman state’s response to influenza and Britain’s response to the disease, when it appeared in Iraq in 1918. Ultimately, the paper seeks to integrate the Ottoman experience into broader global narratives of the 1889-1893 influenza pandemic by emphasizing the specificity of place.
  • In the 1950s and 1960s, a cohort of foreign gynecologists working in Arabia’s burgeoning state hospitals published a series of studies documenting an alarming pattern they observed among local postpartum patients. Their medical concern was the prevalence of vaginal atresia, the obstruction or closure of the vagina. What made Arabian vaginas worthy of scientific consideration in international medical journals was the unusual cause of local women’s anatomical blockage. According to these doctors, while most cases of vaginal atresia around the world were congenital (a condition present from birth), acquired vaginal atresia was rare. But in Arabia, the doctors claimed, the usual ratio between congenital and acquired cases of vaginal atresia was reversed. In other words, for the foreign doctors and their scholarly audience, vaginal atresia in Arabia was distinct from similar cases elsewhere in the world—and thus worthy of comment in scientific writing for the global medical community—in that among Arabian women, it was an acquired condition rather than a birth defect. Why did acquired vaginal atresia generate a flurry of scientific articles? In the days following childbirth, the doctors learned, it was common for midwives or women relatives to place salt in the new mother’s vagina. This practice persisted into the mid-twentieth century as local women resisted the medicalization of childbirth in first missionary and then state hospitals. This presentation draws on these scientific studies to capture lived practices and biological experiences of postpartum women during the Gulf region’s transition to state medicine in the 1950s and 1960s. The presentation also integrates Arabic-language ethnographies and oral histories that address local practices of childbirth. It will trace how women pursued an assortment of health-seeking strategies even as various medical professionals clamored for control over childbirth in the modern Gulf.
  • In April 1965, the Turkish parliament passed the population planning law which ended the decades long pronatalist policies and legalized the use of birth control methods, including pills, the use of intrauterine devices (IUDs). The law, which was passed by a slim margin in the parliament, sparked political controversies and public discussions in the mainstream media before and after it was put in effect. Despite political tensions in the post-coup social and political environment of 1960s Turkey, the law was quickly institutionalized, resulting in the formation of new vocabularies of reproduction and population that became the subject of scientific studies by researchers from various universities in mid-1960s Turkey. However, Turkish government’s plans to disseminate family planning services in rural areas and newly emerging urban squatters was hampered by several obstacles. To address the budgetary, technological, and logistical shortfalls, Turkish authorities collaborated with the Population Council and Rockefeller Foundation to fund and facilitate family planning projects. A group of medical doctors, sociologists, and population experts joined a nation-wide family planning campaign and distributed birth control pills and IUDs to the hundreds of thousands of rural and urban poor families in Turkey. This paper explores the implications of the new technologies of family planning to understand formation of family, sexuality, and subjectivity in Turkey in the 1960s. What work did birth control pills and IUDs do politically, socially, and culturally at the intersection of transnational anxieties and local endeavors regarding social development in Cold War Turkey? How did rural and urban poor women (and men) receive and respond to health experts, Turkish or American, knocking on their doors with new technologies of medicine? In the framework of these questions this paper seeks to understand the affective and practical implications of emerging medical technologies and apparatuses in the lives of rural and urban poor women (and men) in Turkey.