Jennifer L. Derr, The Lived Nile: Environment, Disease, and Material Colonial Economy in Egypt (Stanford University Press, 2019).

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

Jennifer Derr (JD): My inspiration to write this book came from different directions. Firstly, I have spent many years of my life living in Egypt. It was important to me to engage its rich history in a deep and sustained fashion. Writing a work of Egyptian history encouraged me to consider many facets of what I had observed while I lived there. The project also demanded that I work in the Egyptian archives, which was a tremendous opportunity to immerse myself in the day-to-day lived realities of Egyptian history. Because of my experiences in Egypt, I wanted to try and write a book that had meaning to Egyptians, speaking to themes that resonate with how people understand their own history. Whether that will be successful remains to be seen, but the project was, in part, my endeavor to give back to Egypt for all that it has given to me, since I first studied there in 1996. 

Secondly, the book grew out of my deep interest in better understanding the relationship between questions of health and the environment. This issue has never been more relevant in the United States than now, especially with the ongoing crises over access to safe water in cities and towns throughout the country. This link between health and environment is not a recent development; it is timeless. In Egypt, the transformation of agricultural production to support colonial economy and the damming of the Nile had important implications for the health of the environment and those who lived within it. I wanted to explore how these developments were important at different scales, for the lived experiences of the body in rural communities and also in the production of knowledge about medicine and health.

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

JD: The Lived Nile explores the transformation of the Nile River, which began in the second decade of the nineteenth century and stretched through to the middle of the twentieth. This history includes the construction of the first modern dam on the Nile River, as well as that of other pieces of irrigation infrastructure. The book engages in the history of civil engineering, within the framework of the British Empire in particular. I consider the significance of materiality in the production of engineering expertise, and also in the acts of performance that rendered knowledge expertise.

The production of a new Nile River was also central to the history of cotton production, as well as that of sugarcane and maize. In that venture, the book is in conversation with the rich body of historiography concerning the social history of the countryside and the economy of colonial Egypt. I was particularly interested in the history of agricultural labor and how labor affected the bodies of laborers, in large part through their experiences with disease. With respect to disease, one of my primary objectives was to explore how we, as historians, might look for manifestations of voice in the archive that extend beyond articulated words, and how we might acknowledge and trace physical experiences of pain.

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

JD: This work reflects my training in political economy and labor history. It argues that histories of political economy are also environmental histories and that acts of labor are often central to the relations that tie our bodies to the environment. Moving forward, The Lived Nile is a bridge onto an intellectual program that explores the connections between the histories of science, medicine, and the environment.

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

JD: I am interested in reaching historians of science and medicine, environmental historians, and scholars of the Middle East. With respect to the history of medicine in particular, I hope that The Lived Nile will help to push the field to be more global, more diverse, and more nuanced in its approach to the production of knowledge in local contexts beyond the United States.

Outside of academia, I hope that people who are interested in a broad range of topics find the book. This audience includes those who want to learn more about the history of Egypt, broadly speaking, as well as those who are looking to learn about the engineering of rivers and the deep histories of what we now refer to as the “Neglected Tropical Diseases.” 

J: What other projects are you working on now? 

JD: Currently, I am working on a new book project that explores the history of the liver (the organ) in twentieth-century Egypt. The book chronicles the fate of Egyptian bodies, specifically their livers, through a collection of epistemological, political, and environmental changes that shaped the history of Egypt beginning in the early twentieth century. It traces the intersections of different diseases in the livers of Egyptians, namely infection with the Schistosoma mansoni parasite and the hepatitis C virus, the measures used to treat disease, and evolving conceptualizations of disease among Egyptian physicians and scientists. One of the objectives of the project is to chart the contributions of Egyptian physicians and scientists to our understandings and treatment of liver disease. I am considering the history of the field of tropical medicine in the second half of the twentieth century from the vantage point of Egypt and thinking more broadly about how we might conceptualize the histories of fields of biomedical expertise, in this case hepatology, as more global.

With the help of an NSF CAREER grant, I am also pursuing a five-year research agenda that will explore the interconnections among the histories of science, medicine, and the environment. With respect to the histories of science and medicine, one significant aim of this program is to think critically about and support research in the post-colonial global south. In the modern Middle East in particular, there is very little work that explores the histories of science and medicine. The program supported by the grant will include workshops and support for graduate training as well as my own research.


Excerpt from the book 

From chapter four: Cruel Summer: Environmental Labors and the Scales of Subject Making

Before the introduction and extension of perennial irrigation, when the flood determined the calendar of Nile agriculture, the Coptic month of baramuda was marked by festival and storm. Beginning on the 9th of April, baramuda inaugurated the dry season that followed the harvest of wheat in Egypt, the Ancient Egyptian holiday of Shamm al-Nisim, the celebration of harvest and the coming of spring. Egyptians picnicked on the holiday, eating boiled eggs, green onions, and a fermented and salted grey mullet called fasikh. While the name, Shamm al-Nisim, likely derived from “Shemu,” the final season of the Ancient Egyptian agricultural calendar that began following the harvest of wheat, its rendering in Arabic, literally the “the smell of the winds,” calls forth its overlap with the beginning of the khamasin, the sandstorms that began in this season. When summer arrived, fierce winds from the south and the west, nau’ and samum, blew gusts of hot and sandy air.  

As the season turned, so did relations among human bodies and a world of microorganisms. The dry season was a time of illness: When there were outbreaks of plague, it was during spring that its victims burned with fever, their bodies wracked with ache. Warm weather also invigorated the parasites that infected human bodies; those who labored to irrigate summer crops were most prone to infection. Finally, aggravated by the sands of the khamasin, bacterial eye infections, ramad, flared in the heat of summer. Eyes infected with bacteria reddened and swelled. The follicles of their inner lids, al-lahmiyya, became exaggerated, developing the look of raw meat. Abraded by eyelashes turned inward, some eyes were blinded. Like the crops that they tended, bodies changed with the seasons.

The introduction of perennial irrigation produced new multi-species agricultural ecologies. Part and parcel of these motional ecologies, human bodies were transformed as the prevalence of disease soared in regions with access to perennial irrigation. Rates of infection with the Schistosoma haematobium and Schistosoma mansoni parasites that cause schistosomiasis and the Ancylostoma duodenale parasites that produce hookworm climbed dramatically, as did the numbers of those suffering from the disease pellagra, which results from an overreliance on the consumption of maize. The first three chapters of this book explored the relationships among authority, capital, expertise in the production of a material perennial Nile River. Chapter 3 also chronicled the everyday forms of violence and contention that marked the cultivation of cash crops in Egypt’s colonial economy. This chapter, “Cruel Summer,” follows the waters of this river into the bodies of those who lived and labored on its banks, exploring how they were sickened through the practice of the perennial Nile and how newly diseased bodies came to posited as normative within the project of colonial medicine.


The ecologies that labor made 

This morning I am weary, my entire body is sick; I am weary, I am weary; ya awla

Stiffened, like a stick, or as dry leather; I am weary, I am weary; ya awlad

You unceasingly exhaust me, I fear you, oh, stalk of the shaduf; I am weary, I am weary; ya awlad

I tremble like a leaf, looking at the stalk of the shaduf; I am weary, I am weary; ya awlad

My hands are bruised, on the wood of the stalk of the shaduf, I am weary, I am weary; ya awlad

My hands are injured, I call out for a doctor; I am weary, I am weary; ya awlad

He heals my hands, and then says, pull the stalk of the shaduf; I am weary, I am weary; ya awlad

Give me a good doctor, a bit of respite; I am weary, I am weary; ya awlad

The world is quite bad; because I did not rest; I am weary, I am weary; ya awlad …


 — Excerpt from a folk song describing the use of the shaduf for irrigation


Before the introduction of perennial irrigation, the agricultural year was divided into three seasons, each marked by different forms of labor. When the flood arrived in late July or early August, Egyptian cultivators monitored the rising river, repaired breeches in its banks, and made cuts in the earthwork that bounded the Nile to allow floodwaters to soak and fertilize the large basins that lined the Nile Valley and covered the Nile Delta. During the winter season that followed the flood, cultivators tended the year’s primary crop. It was this crop that sustained rural populations and when taxes were paid in kind, helped them to settle their debts to the state. The dry season that followed the harvest of the primary winter crop was a time of relative rest, punctuated by the labor necessary to irrigate limited stretches of summer crops.

The cultivation of summer crops was taxing. They needed water when the Nile was lowest and the work of lifting this water to thirsty crops from an anemic Nile was painful. Many cultivators irrigated during the summer with the shaduf, which consisted of a basket or bucket attached to the end of a wooden crossbar, fitted with a counterbalancing weight, and balanced on two vertical supports planted in the soil a meter apart. Work on the shaduf took a toll: Men spent the length of the day in the summer sun, whipped by wind, and soaked by the water that fell as they repeatedly raised and lowered the instrument. The lever of the shaduf, al-`ud or al-qibad, scarred their hands: “My wound has gangrene, it has rejected ointment, my wound from the water hardens on me.” A poor man’s tool, the shaduf and the bodily transformations that it wrought were dreaded, one folk song exclaiming, “The stalk of the shaduf made us wood and leather, the stalk is disgraceful, it makes the old cry.”

Wealthier cultivators with the means to own draft animals used an animal-propelled waterwheel, the saqiya, which displaced the bodily pain of irrigation onto the backs of animals. In stark contrast to the injuries bemoaned in ballads about the shaduf, those dedicated to the saqiya celebrated the cornucopia of fruits and vegetables that the instrument watered: “Water of the saqiya, go to the right, water of the saqiya, go to the left; Water the grapes, the peaches, the pomegranates; I think that the red heifer missed the lupines; She has grazed the grass that grows on the mounds.” While the use of the instrument was preferable for human cultivators, draft animals were vulnerable to their own forms of biological breakdown. Alan Mikhail charts how, in the late eighteenth century, a series of outbreaks of rinderpest – cattle plague – devastated the livestock population, producing an agricultural labor crisis.   

The practice of perennial irrigation was associated with new seasons of agricultural production and forms of labor. The cultivation of cotton was labor intensive. In one typical schedule, the crop was planted in March or April. Cultivators watered the crop regularly after planting, but when the heat arrived, irrigated every eight days. There were multiple pickings, beginning in June or July and ending in December or January. Men irrigated the crop, women and children gathered cotton bolls. After picking, cultivators dried the crop and then removed the boll from its stem, either by hand or in later years, with a gin. They then used their feet to press cotton into large bales for transport. In the early twentieth century, those who grew cotton typically planted in April, irrigated every two weeks during June, July, and August, and harvested their crops in September.

In addition to the labor of clearing and maintaining canals, the calendar of year-round agriculture that perennial irrigation enabled demanded that cultivators spend more time engaged in the act of irrigation. The two and sometimes three crops produced each year needed watering, which depended on the work that cultivators performed lifting water into canals and from canals to crops. These tasks were accomplished with the help of implements that included the saqiya and steam-powered irrigation pumps. However, the cheapness and availability of agricultural labor meant that much of this work was performed manually. The shaduf continued to be used but as perennial irrigation spread, the tanbur (Archimedean screw) which consisted of a screw-shaped implement encased in a long cylinder that laborers turned to pump water into irrigation canals, replaced it as the most common irrigation implement.