By: Shehab Ismail

Jadaliyya (J): What made you write this article?

Shehab Ismail (SI): I was intrigued by a local event that left virtually no trace in the secondary literature on Cairo, a controversy concerning the taste and purity of potable water that erupted between 1905 and 1910, when Egypt was under British colonial rule. I wanted to explore what this event could tell us about everyday life in a colonial city undergoing significant transformations and about the forces that were reshaping it: the third cholera epidemic to hit Cairo since the occupation took place in 1903; the building industry and investment capital were remaking urban space by developing new residential areas that offered modern, healthy housing for elites and upwardly mobile classes; and old infrastructures of service provision became “unmodern” and informal with the extension of new ones. Under various pressures the colonial administration and the Cairo Water Company decided in 1905 to alter the source of water intake for the entire city, from the River Nile to deep tube wells, in order to make the water supply more amenable to scientific control and less vulnerable to contamination. Hygienists hailed the new scheme as a much-needed effort to modernize the city. Egyptians, however, disliked the taste of the new water and avoided drinking it, leading to an unorganized boycott and increasing reliance on water carriers supplying unfiltered Nile water. Five years into a public controversy, the government decided to revert back to the Nile. My article is an attempt to interpret this event differently from how colonial officials viewed it, as a clash between science and superstition, or as an allergic reaction to technology by “natives” wedded to tradition. In order to do so, I needed to unpack the connection between the sensory and the epistemic and to think through how lay Cairenes understood water and what kind of knowledge was rooted in everyday practices.

J:  What particular topics, issues, and literatures does the article address?

SI: Controversy has been a staple in the history of science and technology. By structuring the article around a controversy, I wanted to bring this field together with colonial history in order to explore themes of embodied knowledge and the history of water in Cairo. Controversies generate space where there is room for doubt and challenge. I highlight a moment when health officials questioned what they knew about taste and knowledge after years of popular opposition to the new water supply. It helped that I wrote drafts of this paper while I was reading about Flint, Michigan, in the news. Even when the Cairo water controversy subsided in 1910, its echoes were audible up to the eve of the 1919 revolution. Because the urban poor were at the forefront of this controversy, I also wanted to underscore how much the colonial world was shot through with asymmetries of power and hierarchies of knowledge. I retrace widespread rumors concerning potable water to the poor’s experience of dispossession under the colonial regime and its health authorities.

J: How does this article connect to and/or depart from your previous work?

SI: The article draws on some of the themes that I explore in my forthcoming book, tentatively titled Engineering Metropolis. The book tells a revisionist narrative of British colonial Cairo by zeroing in on the linked histories of public health, investment in urban property, and urban infrastructures, particularly sanitary infrastructures. Engineers were the often-overlooked agents of urban transformation that remade the landscape as it spawned new forms of knowledge, technologies, outlets of capital, and powers of the state. By exploring sites of engineering, my book sheds light on the divergent social visions of engineers and on the ways in which knowledge was concentrated, negotiated, and contested in colonial Cairo.

J: Who do you hope will read this article, and what sort of impact would you like it to have?

SI: My hope is that the article will find an audience among historians of science and technology, empire, and cities, as well as anthropologists of colonialism. I hope it will contribute to discussions on embodied knowledge, histories of water, and colonial science studies.

J: What other projects are you working on now?

SI: I am working on two projects. The first is the book project I mentioned above. The second is a digital history project on Cairo during the same period that is geared toward public, Arabic-reading audience. This project aims to create a website containing three interrelated elements: 1) a series of media essays that are based on my research, 2) an interactive map of British colonial Cairo that functions as a geo-coded archive of the city’s maps between 1874 and 1920 and as a cartographic complement to the essays, and 3) a series of videos by filmmaker/artist Ahmed Elghoneimy that alternate between documentary and fiction and that navigate contemporary Cairo while imaginatively echoing some of the historical themes of the essays. The impulse behind this project is to introduce audio-visual media, contemporary images of Cairo, as well as art forms not merely as illustrations but as forms of visual thinking and as building blocks for critical, historical narrative.

J: What are some of the conceptual or methodological concerns that informed your approach?

SI: I was struck by the idea that the urban poor disliked the taste of the new water supply so much that they avoided it even when it was distributed freely, despite the fact that water was relatively unavailable as the government tightened its grip on water carriers. An anthropological perspective on the controversy immediately opened up—except that I had no people to interview. The problem of distaste led me to an exploration of how Egyptians understood water. Yet, I wanted to avoid the assumption that there was a local “system” of knowledge that was shared by all. Class was a significant differentiator, and popular knowledge of water was a result of historical accumulation and hybridization of various medical traditions as well as the practice-based knowledge of apothecaries and water carriers. Instead, I thought it is more fruitful to think of taste as embodied knowledge, as a cultural and epistemic practice of the everyday.


Excerpt from the Article:

Written in 1918, the “Song of the Water Carriers” was a product of the legendary artistic collaboration between writer Badi‘ Khairy, actor Najib al-Rihany, and musician Sayyid Darwish on the eve of the 1919 revolution. It was part of a series of songs that expressed the grievances of craftsmen and service workers. The first two lines of the song disclosed carriers’ resentment of the Cairo Water Company, which had chipped away at their authority and livelihood since its establishment. The next lines introduced peculiar claims about the filtered water of the company: “it is an annoying company/its water impure/you’ll find it brackish/green and blue.” While the word negsa (najisa in classical Arabic) broadly means unclean, it particularly suggests substances that are ritually impure, which disqualifies the water for the purpose of religious ablution. The song proceeded to advance more outlandish claims about substances and chemicals that the company allegedly added to water, trusting the audience to recognize the tongue-in-cheek exaggeration that playfully referred to a recent history of shared distaste with the water supply: “[the company] adds/carbons and wine/sulphur phosphate/genie’s powder.” Finally, the song invited an imaginary female bystander to drink from carriers instead of the company. It advised her to urge “her husband” to buy a zir—the large clay pot traditionally used for filtering and storing water—and incited her to destroy the company’s public taps (wa inzili taksir fi al-hanafiyya). It is to this history of shared distaste with the company’s water that I now turn.

Geology and engineering were at the forefront of efforts to modernize Cairo’s water supply. Experimental borings and numerous geological studies led to the discovery of pure water deep under Egyptian soil. The finding created ripples of excitement among bacteriologists, water analysts, and urban officials who believed that they had found a source of potable water that stood no chance of contamination, unlike the Nile. Tanta, Egypt’s third largest city after Cairo and Alexandria, led the way to what experts viewed as a revolution of the country’s water supply. In 1896, German water engineer Karl Abel succeeded in finding an underground source of water beneath an impermeable stratum of clay forty meters below Tanta’s surface, which qualified the water as “artesian.” Analysts declared the water practically sterile, as well as excellent from a chemical point of view. Naturally, they recommended that Cairo should follow suit if it was possible to find the same kind of water underneath its soil.

All eyes turned to the capital, and the British administration responded with an ambitious scheme to modernize Cairo’s water supply. After the 1902 cholera epidemic, all the elements that galvanized city officials into action coalesced. The science and technology of providing an incontestably better water supply were available, and a precedent had been established in Tanta with the blessings of water experts. Both the government and the company were certain that there was enough water under Cairo’s soil for the city’s future expansion. The two parties signed another agreement and the new water supply began reaching the city’s taps in 1905. The new waterworks consisted of twenty-two deep wells that descended thirty to sixty meters into the subsoil of the northern neighborhood of Rod al-Farag. Three layers of wire gauze were attached to the intake tubes that acted as strainers and rough filters for the water that was pumped from the surrounding soil. With the limited expansion of free fountains to serve the poor, the government hoped to circumvent the remaining water carriers who still supplied crude Nile water to the public and, thus, to make the city more immune to cholera episodes in the future.

Urban authorities and hygienists received the new water supply with unreserved enthusiasm. They hailed it as a modernizing project that decisively ended decades of anxiety over the purity of drinking water. Sir Horace Pinching, the director of the Public Health Department, praised efforts to supply pure water to Egyptian towns as “the most important step taken up to the present by the government in the direction of improving the general hygienic conditions of the country.” Similarly, a correspondent writing for The Lancet declared, “Cairo is now to be congratulated upon having for the first time a pure supply of drinking water.” Public hygienists and bacteriologists shared in the excitement, as they had eagerly anticipated this development.

It did not take long for controversy to surround the new supply as unfavorable consumer reactions began to surface. The sensory qualities of well water and the capacity of consumers to discriminate between the tastes of water coming from different sources were central to the debate. Officials and experts, who encouraged and applauded the project for years, initially found it difficult to assess the seriousness and scientific viability of the complaints they received. They were in disbelief that the new water supply in Cairo was the subject of such diverse complaints. According to a report published in 1906 by the Public Health Department, it was significant that “only after it became public knowledge that the Water Company supplied well water instead of Nile water that different objections were formulated against the new supply.”

The sheer variety of objections was indeed bewildering. Some residents complained that well water was difficult to digest or that it tasted disagreeable. Others grumbled that the water had a purple tint. Women in particular claimed that the new water was unfit for household chores, since it prevented the foaming of soap and had a yellowing effect on linens. Additionally, there were reports that well water caused women’s hair to fall out excessively. Some doctors advised patients not to use it for domestic purposes.

These objections brought the urban poor’s understanding of water into sharp focus. Distaste with the new supply and unfamiliarity with the new source triggered red flags among laypeople. In 1907, the British Consul-General Lord Cromer wrote to the Foreign Office that the debate on the new water supply was dominated by “imaginary properties the native population believe it to possess—one idea being that it produces sterility among their women.” The special sanitary commissioner of The Lancet reported, “among the native population there was a superstition against drinking what they denominate “dead water.” They will often prefer to drink extremely foul surface water to a pure water coming from underground where they say it is dead and buried.”


Shehab Ismail, “Epicures and Experts: The Drinking Water Controversy in British Colonial Cairo,” Arab Studies Journal XXVI, no. 2 (Fall 2018).