Al-Ahram: A Diwan of contemporary life (516)
In 1932 Al-Ahram began a clean-up campaign, literally, publishing a series of articles on the benefits of cleanliness of the home, streets and body. Obviously, the stories simultaneously tackled the dangers of ignoring personal and environmental hygiene. Professor Yunan Labib Rizk* looks at the crime of grime
"Cleanliness is one of the most important, if not the most important, rule of hygiene. If health is the machinery of life, cleanliness is its tools and spare parts. In the words of the famous John Wesley, 'Cleanliness is next to godliness.' And as the Arabic proverb puts it, 'Cleanliness is an article of faith'."
The previous passage is from one of a series of articles appearing in Al-Ahram in the summer of 1932. Not only is much of this study on hygiene still applicable today, more than 70 years later, but its originality and encyclopaedic breadth make it interesting and valuable in its own right.
The author, like the owners of Al-Ahram, was of Lebanese origin. As'ad Khalil Dagher was born in Kafr Shima, was educated in the American University in Beirut and worked as a teacher in the American schools in Sidon. From an early age he had a passion for literature and history. The latter enthusiasm led him to write two works of his own, one on William the Conqueror and another on the state of nations and the tribes of Israel. At the beginning of the 20th century he, like many of his countrymen, immigrated to Egypt where he took up work for Al-Muqattam newspaper. Not long afterwards he began to serve in the Sudan Agency, the representational office of the Sudanese government in Egypt. Whatever Dagher's motivations for joining this service, which employed only British and Lebanese, the job afforded him the time to pursue his interests in literature and writing, which included translations, studies on various subjects and poetry, producing some 20 works during this period.
After leaving the Sudan Agency he founded Al-Midmar, a magazine Al-Ahram described as the first Arabic periodical to serve the fine arts and sports. However, the magazine fell victim to the ruse of a group of journalists who, unable to compete with it, prevailed upon newspaper agents and vendors not to sell it. It thus met an early demise, two years after it was founded.
Dagher's literary background and extensive erudition reflected itself in the lyricism of his prose which would be just as stimulating today as it was to readers of this series on health 70 years ago. The study is all the more intriguing because Dagher had an excellent vantage point. By 1938, he had lived in Egypt for over 30 years. But he also lived in a non-Egyptian environment, primarily among British and Syrian-Lebanese expatriates. Thus he had the advantage of a detached, bird's-eye view.
If cleanliness was an aspect of piety, it also had some very practical advantages. In his first article, Dagher writes, "The benefits of cleanliness are innumerable, its beauty defies description and its costs are too paltry to mention. All one loses is the filth and germs which are the allies of incoming and epidemic diseases and ravaging epidemics, while the only cost one sustains does not exceed the price of a small quantity of water and soap. Cleanliness is the best precaution one can take to safeguard one's health."
As this series appeared in summer, it was only natural that the author stressed the importance of cleanliness in that season, "when the intense heat causes increased perspiration". He continues: "It is common knowledge that the human body contains millions of pores from which it excretes noxious substances. Were these substances not to be excreted they would poison our bodies and kill us. Cleanliness is the best aide to the process of perspiration because it keeps the pores permanently open. When skin dirties, the pores become blocked, thus obstructing the excretion of noxious substances, with consequences too dire to contemplate."
Proceeding from the general to the specific, Dagher, in his second article, discusses two issues: the relationship between hygiene and beauty and urban cleanliness. "If beauty resides in the harmony of the parts of the body, its flesh resides in bodily cleanliness and purity. Indeed, some have gone so far as to say that cleanliness is superior to beauty because it is impossible to conceive of beauty as something unclean. Others have rendered cleanliness of the body and its attire a byword for virtue, purity of heart and stainless character."
The "cleanliness of our streets" was not a luxury, or merely a measure of beautification to make cities more pleasant to live in, with no repercussions on people's health. "Those who make this claim overlook the fact that the fundamental key to the health of urban dwellers is the ability to breathe fresh air, free of all impurities. This can only come about when streets are kept clean of all filth and contaminants. People whose businesses and circumstances compel them to make their way to their destinations on foot -- and many they are -- can only take delight when the strain of walking is alleviated by streets that have been swept, washed and freed of all dust and rubbish."
Dagher proceeds to take readers on a brief tour of the streets of the capital and other cities in order to illustrate how conditions were far from salubrious. "The more we enter the innermost lanes and alleyways, the more we find, in spite of the efforts on the part of the Ministry of Health, heaps of dirt, rubbish, refuse and every form of malignancy and filth repugnant to the eyes and nose."
And the situation was worse in summer, "when the sun beats down on the earth and scorches its fine dust, preparing these minute particles to become airborne with the slightest gust of wind, to coalesce in the form of a dark cloud that hovers in the oppressive air and then to fall upon the streets in heaps. If you add to this the amounts kicked up by people's feet, animal hooves and cart and automobile wheels you can realise how great the quantities of dust are. Indeed, thanks to the neglect of sprinkling the streets, you can see this dust rise in a rampage that blinds the eyes." If that were the only problem, the situation might not be so bad. However, the streets suffered an affliction far greater than dust: "this consists of the substances that some home and shop owners vie with one another to throw from their doors, windows and balconies. Scraps of fabric and paper, remnants of food, the pits and peels of fruit, dirty water and other waste matter are cast directly onto the street, or collected in kitchens first to be dumped in the street later. And thus our streets are transformed into breeding grounds for mosquitoes and flies." One supposes we should count Dagher lucky not to have lived to see the "black clouds" that hover over Cairo at certain times of the year.
In Dagher's opinion, "the authorities in the governorates and directorates generally perform most of their duties with regard to ensuring that streets are swept and kept free of the various kinds of filth that find their way there." Rather, under the headline, "Who is responsible?" he holds citizens themselves at fault for "subjecting our streets to filth and waste on an hourly basis, thereby destroying in a single day what the health authorities build in a month." Moreover, this blight would persist until "people learn the need to keep their streets clean and to desist from this despicable habit that causes them both shame and harm." However, there were actions that the municipal authorities could take. "Our hope is that they place large rubbish bins at the end of every street and alley, that they spray the streets more frequently and that they spray before they sweep so as not to scatter the accumulated dust and dirt in the faces of pedestrians, customers in coffeehouses and people sitting in their balconies."
But cleanliness of the streets was an extension of cleanliness of the home, to which Dagher devoted his third article. First, however, he felt he needed to define what he meant by "home" -- "the place in which people shelter themselves at night and which they use as their dwelling by day." Homes could range from the humblest huts to the most luxurious palaces. They could be made of mud and straw, of wood, brick or stone, or of steel and concrete, depending on the degree of civilisation a society had attained and on disparities in wealth. More important than such material matters was people's sense of home. "This is the place where people want to reside and abide. When they are away for any length of time, it is to this place that their hearts yearn and their thoughts return. If you come across a resident who cherishes his love for his nation or if you hear a foreigner reiterating fond memories of his country and a passionate longing for his homeland, then know that both think of their country as their home, the place where they were born, were raised and reached adulthood. Thus, the home is mankind's soothing breeze, the source of the light of companionship, the reservoir of solace and the font of cheer. Beneath its roof water flows clear, the breeze grows cool, wounds are nursed and the ailing heal, and within its shade troubles fade and bitterness dissolves. It is the heart of one's yearning for one's village, city and country, and the origin of one's love for one's nation."
If it seemed, therefore, a moral imperative to keep the home clean this, in large measure at least, was because of the bearing this had on its members' health. Dagher writes: "The inhabitants of a home cannot hope to enjoy full health and to keep illness and disease at bay so long as they fail to meet the home's due of domestic cleanliness." Nevertheless, it surprised him that even though people were fully aware of this fact, they ignored it, to their great detriment.
Domestic cleanliness, moreover, had nothing to do with the luxury or the humbleness of the home. "The house could be made of mud and reeds or woolen tenting and still be clean and spotless. Or it could be a vast and luxurious palace, an epitome of the heights of splendour and elegance of which human architectural design is capable, and filled with the most precious furnishings, yet were one to roam its halls and chambers, and inspect more closely its corners and hidden recesses, he would find dirt of every shape and hue. You would find rooms, doors, windows, ledges that cleanliness had never set sight on. You would see dust and substances no less odious than dust clinging to the drapes and curtains, embedded in the folds of the silk and brocade behind the ivory bedstead, engraved in the crevices of the gold and silver plates and vessels, and lurking beneath the couches, cushions and other fineries and objet d'art. And were you so intrepid as to make your way to the kitchen and bathroom you would find grime and dirt installed deep within every nook and cranny."
It was not only grime and dirt that had taken up residence in such homes. Filth extended an open invitation to pests and insects, and to the diseases and discomforts they caused human inhabitants. Mosquitoes, flees, flies, ants, bedbugs, weasels, cockroaches -- these were only some of the vermin that negligence of domestic cleanliness courted. Of these, Dagher felt that flies were potentially the most dangerous. "They are the most prolific transmitters of typhoid, hepatitis, measles, conjunctivitis, diphtheria, smallpox and other diseases. Indeed, as small as they are, flies are potentially more dangerous than foxes, tigers or snakes, and people have every right, especially in summer, to cry out in protest against these ever so small but ever so pernicious insects."
The best remedy for these pests, in Dagher's opinion, was not the various domestic insecticides which, in all events, frequently failed to accomplish their objective. Rather, it was to eliminate the causes that brought them into the home in the first place. "Flies breed in refuse bins and mosquitoes and other insects breed in dirty water, remnants of food and other waste substances," he cautioned readers.
It was also his opinion that housewives bore the primary responsibility for domestic cleanliness. "It is they who claim to lay the foundations of the home and carry the beacon of domestic tranquillity. Perhaps they have cause to blame men for neglecting cleanliness and tidiness. But they must always bear in mind that cleanliness goes beyond the clothes that are seen by outsiders and the furniture that is seen be visitors. True cleanliness entails ridding every inch of the home and its furnishings and utensils of dust and grime and this can only be accomplished through continuous sweeping and washing."
From the environment both outside and inside the home, Dagher moves, in his fourth installment, to personal hygiene. In fact, in his opinion, the importance of clean streets and a clean home, however necessary, paled next to the importance of the cleanliness of the body. "The danger of living in a dirty home on a dirty street is far less than allowing the body to accumulate dirt and filth," he writes. This was because the human body was more vulnerable to dirt than a house. "While contamination penetrates the house from outside, our bodies are exposed to contamination from both outside and inside."
This assertion leads him to return to the subject of dermal excretion -- "the discharge of perspiration, which contains a large quantity of minute noxious waste substances, through the pores in the skin." These "noxious waste substances" consisted of "a mixture of fatty and animal substances and salts, or various types of excreta." He goes on to inform readers that scientists estimated that every square inch of skin had approximately 2,000 sweat glands and that the human body as a whole had more than five million of these glands. "They also say that the quantity of waste products excreted through the pores of the human body ranges from between 500 grammes to 750 grammes in any 24-hour period."
These waste products sully the skin and sully the clothes that come into immediate contact with the skin. More importantly, "if a person neglects the duties of personal hygiene, the substances block the pores thereby obstructing the skin's ability to breathe and exposing the body to many pernicious illnesses. Indeed, scientists have discovered that animals perish if the process of dermal excretion is interrupted just as they die if their air supply is cut off."
Once again, too, Dagher stresses how much more important bodily hygiene was in the summer than in the winter. Changing one's outer clothing and washing one's face and hands were not enough, since "these activities alone are not sufficient to protect the body from the dangers of external and internal contamination." Rather, "true cleanliness entails that you change all your clothes, both those that are visible to others because they get soiled from outside dust and the like and those that come into contact with the skin because they get soiled from bodily excretions. In addition, you must wash every part of your body, from A to Z, so as to cleanse it of residual sweat and the impurities and waste substances contained therein."
Although it was commonly held that "cleanliness is next to godliness," it surprised Dagher that many people ignored this maxim. Indeed, he found this scandalous because it was "in violation of all religious strictures, ethical codes and the laws of medicine and hygiene." He expounds further. "All religions exhort bodily cleanliness and prohibit any attempt to approach God through prayer in a physically impure state. Ethical mores disdain all that is impure and unclean, beyond which the failure to give personal hygiene its due produces bodily odour, which is despised by all one's fellow men."
Dagher opens his fifth installment with a physician's advice: "Tend to your cleanliness and you will not have to give health a thought. An ounce of prevention is worth more than a pound of cure. It is common knowledge that people who are attentive to the cleanliness of their home, their person, their food and drink are taking the best precautions. These are the people who enjoy the most robust health, untarnished by illness or disease."
It helped little that certain folk beliefs and customs were inimical to cleanliness. Dagher devotes a considerable portion of this article to the contributions various government agencies could make to raising the public's awareness. Educational institutions, above all, had a major role to play. "Schools can be of no small service in promoting the cleanliness of their students, whose bodies are surrounded by rings of dirt and whose clothes are generally covered with layer upon layer of grime."
However, he adds, it was not enough to rely on schools alone in order to achieve the necessary reform since "students are not the only people who need to be educated." He, thus, suggests the press as an important conduit for imparting the necessary knowledge, even though he realised that the effect of the press would be limited because the majority of the populace was still illiterate.
The medical profession, too, had a major, if not the greatest, onus to bear. These were the professionals who were "the most aware of the dangers of ignoring cleanliness and hygiene and the most informed on the pernicious properties of dirt and filth." In addition, "by virtue of the authority of their profession, they are in the most advantageous position to rectify a considerable portion of this problem and to instruct their patients and their families, especially mothers, in the principles of cleanliness and hygiene which, however simple and straightforward these principles are, still count among the most important and beneficial lessons that doctors can impart."
Another group of professionals whom Dagher considered of paramount importance to the process of "remedying what ignorance has destroyed" were religious officials and the clergy. It was their duty, he believed, "to instruct the naïve and simple-minded from their podiums, to guide them to the conviction that cleanliness is the symbol of sanctity and purity and that uncleanness symbolises evil and depravity, and to remind them that God Almighty ordered his pious worshipers to be as pure in body as in mind."
But as though Dagher felt his advice might drive people to go too far, he devoted the end of his final article to what he termed the "mania of cleanliness." Some people, he observed, were so obsessed with cleanliness that they "never stop cleaning and washing, rendering life miserable for themselves and those around them." These were the type of people who were constantly washing their hands and everything their hands touched because they were driven to hysteria by the merest particle of dust. Moderation in all things was a virtue, including moderation in cleanliness, he advised, adding that excess caused "unbearable distress and intolerable hardship."
With such sage counsel As'ad Dagher concluded the lectures he delivered to Al-Ahram audiences 70 years ago. Nevertheless, his
* The author is a professor of history and head of Al-Ahram History Studies Centre.