Arts & Culture

Pandemics in the Gulf: A painful past and a puzzling present

What has changed since the Spanish flu pandemic hit the Gulf?

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By Jenan Alhamli

Reading the history of the Gulf region, anyone would notice that the process of its documentation by its natives has neglected many of its events, cities and individuals. Researchers today almost always have to fall back onto the works of imperialists and orientalists, as the efforts made by the region’s few local historians have left many questions unanswered. To bridge these gaps, people would estimate dates for events that occurred but were deemed not worthy enough to be documented around the time they took place, such as birthdays, and if that person’s life was not considered significant enough, dates of death would also be left undocumented.

Some researchers may attribute this feature of our history to the primitive education that was available in the area at the time. For instance, my grandfather’s birth date was estimated to have been around the year the smallpox broke out in different parts of the Gulf in 1893, and he was one of the few lucky people whose birthday was associated with an important event from which we —his descendants—might be able to glean some glimpses of his life from its beginning.

But this article is not concerned with the history of the Gulf as a whole, but focuses instead on the epidemics and pandemics that broke out on its lands, leaving behind high death tolls that were survived by those who chronicled its events for the next generations.

Artwork by Shaima Al Alawi.

“The Great Annihilation”: Death and new beginnings

During this pandemic, I came across what is known as the “Year of the Plague” in my readings, during which an epidemic hit modern day Kuwait and parts of Iraq in 1831, claiming the lives of thousands at the time. The details of this ominous event was recorded, amongst others, by one of its contemporaries Uthman Ibn Bishr al-Najdi, who described the condition in the towns that this disease had taken ahold of by saying that this “Great Plague” had brought on the “Great Annihilation” to the peoples living there. In his book Inwan al-Majd fi Tarikh Najd, Ibn Bishr tells us that because the death toll had exceeded all expectations, the smell of corpses that were left unburied in homes and mosques lingered in the air. As for the animals that were owned by the locals there, they started roaming about the neighborhoods until many of them perished as a result of the lack of water and sustenance, which was the same reason that aggravated the number of deaths in addition to the epidemic itself. 

In the past months, social media users in Kuwait have circulated a story about a Kuwaiti family who had decided to lock themselves in their home during the Year of the Plague, and when one of its sons’ wives wanted to visit her family, she was allowed to.  Yet, upon returning from her family home (whom she discovered had died) she was forbidden to enter the house again, and at the door of her in-laws’ faced the same fate as her family’s. The remaining members of this family were amongst the few who survived this epidemic. Following his description of these apocalyptic scenes (at least to those who lived it) Ibn Bishr relays what later had happened to these cities that were emptied of its peoples. Many of those who had fled at the onset of this crisis, or who were away when it unfolded, returned. Of those who returned were also people who had heard about the money and property left behind by the dead, and had come to get their share of the inheritance on the grounds of their kinship relations with the deceased. It was as if this epidemic had ushered in new beginnings for those who were able to survive it. 

Artwork by Shaima Al Alawi.

The Spanish flu pandemic: Quarantine and mass death 

Despite the lack of modern healthcare services in the pre-oil Gulf region, and the ignorance of the missionary doctors who were dispersed across the region about the nature of the viruses they were facing, one of the most trusted and oldest practiced preventive methods—isolation— was fortunately practiced during this era. According to Warakat Min Tarikh Shamal Gharb al-Jazirah al-Arabiah, by 1908, the Ottoman Empire had added a permanent quarantine facility to its Tabuk railway station since the “number of pilgrims to Mecca was increasing”,  and the method was thought to be able to help “prevent the spread of infectious diseases.”

During the Spanish flu pandemic that swept the world from 1918 to 1920, and which had reached different parts of the Arabian Peninsula, including Riyadh and Manama, the peoples of these two cities practiced self-imposed isolation to try to curb the spread of the disease. Despite this effort, the Head of the Protestant American Medical Mission in Bahrain Dr. Paul Harrison, who was summoned to Saudi Arabia by King Abdulaziz bin Saud Al Saud, described the scene in Riyadh by stating that the virus had wiped out one tenth of the city’s population, and that such was the extent of the outbreak that donkeys and camels were made to carry two corpses at a time. As for the situation in Manama, it was not any better; the city had lost one fifth of its population (or about 20,000 of its 100,000 population), wearing out gravediggers in the cemetery behind the Mason Memorial Hospital (which is known as the American Mission Hospital today).

Artwork by Shaima Al Alawi.

The COVID-19 pandemic: Life goes on

With the arrival of the COVID-19 pandemic in the Gulf region, and the return of the most effective preventive method (isolation) for about five months now, enforced by law through partial or total curfews, the numbing of a once vibrant life has returned again. During these circumstances, we might hear opinions that are widely circulated and bandied about such as, ‘I wish I could just contract the disease and get it over with. I’m not one of the people facing a high mortality risk. Herd immunity, am I right?’. To those, my sister, one of the frontline defenders, responds with descriptions of what she sees everyday in the hospital she works in. Before she could even celebrate her first anniversary of working as a doctor, the number of patients she started losing over the last few months because of this virus became more than she could count. She would meet patients in the morning only to announce them dead by nighttime. Other patients would walk into the bathroom, she tells me, only to be carried out of it as corpses. Then there were those who would start eating their meal but would never get to finish it. 

Artwork by Shaima Al Alawi.

This virus, like other viruses that have spread across this region, is still a mystery to doctors and epidemiologists. Just like the missionary doctors who did not know the nature of these viruses over a century ago, doctors today still do not know many things about them in spite of all the modern medical developments that we have witnessed. We can say that the biggest change that took place since these historical epidemics is that today we live in the comfort of our own homes, shielded from the ugliness of the disease that is kept inside the hospitals around us. 

During this pandemic, my friend gave birth to a girl, and despite all of the precise methods that are available to us to mark this occasion, including the existence of a birth certificate furnished with all the details of the birth date, including both the Gregorian and Hijri dates, and the exact hour and minute she was born in, as per our tradition to mark important events in the region, we will always remember her as the baby who was born during the novel coronavirus pandemic.

Jenan Alhamli is a writer, translator and student from Kuwait.

The views of the authors and writers who contribute to Sekka, and the views of the interviewees who are featured in Sekka, do not necessarily reflect the views and opinions of Sekka, its parent company, its owners, employees and affiliates.

This article was translated from Arabic.