In a thoughtful article in The Guardian about burnout amid Covid-19, Christine Berry wrote: “The pandemic isn’t like a war, to be survived until the day when peace is made, and we can all exhale and begin picking up the pieces. It’s a new reality that will, at best, gradually fade into the background as the threat recedes and our coping strategies improve.”
This rang bells for me because I’ve been reading Anjuli Fatima Raza Kolb’s ambitious debut monograph, Epidemic Empire: Colonialism, Contagion and Terror 1817–2020. In it, the Pakistani-American scholar ranges over 200 years of history to argue that the West has long used the language of disease centrally in its methods of control.
What inspires Kolb’s thesis is Susan Sontag’s argument from Illness as Metaphor and AIDS and Its Metaphors about a pervasive and dangerous entanglement of war imagery and medical diction. According to the renowned American critic, similes and metaphors, signs and signifiers act as misleading bridges between wars and pandemics.
Kolb extends Sontag’s ideas to talk about the way in which terror and insurgency are widely positioned as a “viruslike” epidemic. Such imagery of contagion has, she submits, been the defining trope of Islamophobic discourse among imperialists from the 1857 Indian Rebellion onwards.
For one thing, colonisers traded in the language of Muslim extremism as a “cancer.” Another example from the present day is the pathologisation of violent extremists as members of an alleged death cult, even as individual perpetrators’ mental ill health is neglected or denied.
A final case in point is a horrible, fake story former American president Donald Trump told while on the election trail in 2016. He claimed that, during the Philippine-American War of 1899-1902, Gen John Pershing had shot dead dozens of Filipino Muslims with bullets dipped in pig’s blood. Kolb contends that, in marshalling this apocryphal tale, Trump hailed the blood as a prophylactic, inoculating the body politic against the Muslim other.
Trump portrayed his executive order to bar people from seven countries entering the United States as a quarantining. In this way, acts of war or hatred are somehow recoded as acts of care. The malicious “Muslim ban” is twisted into an innocent preventative measure to protect potential hosts from the parasitic invasion of foreign bodies.
Kolb is also influenced also by British historian Robert Peckham’s Empires of Panic: Epidemic and Colonial Anxieties, as she examines (neo)colonial anxieties around supposed super-spreader events such as the annual Haj pilgrimage.
Previous generations of Americans had been galvanised first by so-called Yellow Peril fears (ideas about the threatening movement of non-white Chinese and Japanese bodies) and, later, by terror at communism’s spread.
By contrast, the people seen as contagious in the 21st century are those almost two billion individuals around the world with affiliations to Islam. Through this lens, it is noteworthy that, in his forthcoming 2022 novel The Body by the Shore, Tabish Khair writes: “Muslims had been replaced by a virus as the global villain ... though with similar effects.”
In her powerful introduction, Kolb shows that, far from being eclipsed by Covid-19, the epidemic of metaphors has only accelerated since the novel coronavirus struck. Muslims’ villainisation, she says, has been “exposed and exacerbated” still further by the pandemic. Epidemiological tropes blur distinctions and erase the human, turning others into a single, indistinct mass associated with infectious disease.
Kolb investigates the “epidemic empire” in four regions: the South Asian Subcontinent, Algeria, Britain and the US. She largely reads against the grain of classic texts, including Bram Stoker’s Dracula, Rudyard Kipling’s Kim, Albert Camus’s The Plague and Gillo Pontecorvo’s film The Battle of Algiers.
She also appraises selected works by Salman Rushdie, and surprise bestseller The 9/11 Commission Report with a critical eye, and — more sympathetically — LOOK, Iranian-American poet Solmaz Sharif’s 2016 debut collection. Kolb’s readings show how 19th century novels and reports continue to impinge on our current realities, particularly as regards Islamophobia and racism.
Chapter 1, titled ‘Great Games’, deals in part with the Americans’ use of a fake vaccination programme against hepatitis B in northwest Pakistan as a cover for the illegal operation to kill Osama bin Laden. The repercussions of this were that many Pakistanis were left without full inoculation once the programme was summarily withdrawn following Bin Laden’s death. They could be forgiven for subsequently regarding public health measures with heavy scepticism, or from behind the veil of conspiracy theory.
Chapter 2 scrutinises cholera’s “Blue Plague” and risks posed by contaminated water. Kolb’s analysis of Sir Syed Ahmad Khan’s work is an exception to the general rule that in the book’s first half she is interested in colonial literature.
The third chapter, ‘Circulatory Logic’, interprets Stoker’s vampire against the backdrop of fin-de-siècle melancholy about the decline of the Empire.
Chapters four and five shift to Algeria and to Camus’s and Pontecorvo’s virologically-inflected creations.
The sixth chapter on Rushdie has much to say about contemporary occupation in Kashmir and a horrific “epidemic of blindness”, wherein pellet guns are wielded to take out young protestors’ sight. Such atrocities are played down in the Indian author’s mantra from his 2005 novel Shalimar the Clown: “a plague on both your houses.” These accursed houses belong to the occupiers and the Kashmiri insurgents, as though there were moral and firepower equivalence between them.
One of the strands in Kolb’s final chapter, ‘Cures from Within’, concerns the black swaths of redaction in The Senate Intelligence Committee Report on Torture (2014).
As can be seen, Kolb’s key texts are cultural as well as literary, and her focus is on metaphor more than disease. Epidemic Empire is nonetheless an instructive book for people around the world steeling themselves to enter a third year of this seemingly interminable pandemic.
Kolb cuts through martial metaphors to remind us that the present health crisis comes to a war-weary public. Exhausted as they already were by over 20 years of the ‘war on terror’, what the global majority now needs is vaccine equity rather than more sabre-rattling.
The columnist is professor of Global Literature at the University of York, and author of three books, including Rivers of Ink: Selected Essays
Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, January 16th, 2022