Living and Dying in Water: Fluid Infrastructure Disruptions in Urban Egypt (1870-1935)
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Living and Dying in Water: Fluid Infrastructure Disruptions in Urban Egypt (1870-1935)


This dissertation is a spatial and urban history arguing that the history of modern urban Egyptian water infrastructure is manual, laborious, incomplete, and mediated through a series of visual and textual representations. Modern infrastructure, including dams, barrages, underground pipes, and taps, has generally been characterized as the exclusive realm of experts. However, the focus of this dissertation is the frequent, sustained, and provocative disruptions performed by the general populace that invariably accompanied and thus constituted water infrastructure projects. In four thematic chapters divided into two parts, my dissertation examines a set of related disruptions that have left distinct patterns in the archive. My evidence includes photographs, maps, plans, fieldwork in Cairo and Alexandria, court documents, Arabic-language newspapers and periodicals, and government reports. My method brings forward the substantial visual archive that has been largely unconsidered in modern water infrastructure studies to reconsider inherited narratives about the classification of free water as dirty water, water infrastructure modernization as a positivist process, and infrastructure itself as the realm of metal and concrete.

The first two chapters of this dissertation focus on thematic disruptions of living in water in urban Egypt. Chapter one examines the history of water carrying mediated through a series of photographs and maps. The water carrier and the tap form an imperative logistical and discursive axis that highlight the spatial implications of uneven water access. Chapter two analyzes the history of Cairo’s ancient canal, the Khalig al-Masri, closed around 1898. My research has shown that the largely unchallenged justification of closing the canal to protect public health is not supported by the evidence. Indeed, there was substantial public disapproval of the closure Cairo’s primary ceremonial, social and potable water source. The second part addresses disruptions brought forward by dying in water. Chapter three addresses the cholera epidemics from the perspective of frequent acts of resistance. The spatial history of cholera challenges public health experts’ claims that resistance was driven by ignorance. Rather, people understood the far-reaching implications of home invasion and the forced removal of sick family members. Chapter four explores a complex set of fluid and spatial relationships suggested in an 1883 drowning inquest file. This accidental drowning of a British soldier at Alexandria underscores the complex relationship of public propriety and social water spaces, and the concurrent dramatic foreclosure of open water sources that facilitated the expansion of Alexandria.

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