Ismail, Shehab

Field: Middle East; Advisor: Elshakry; Year: 2011

Shehab Ismail is a doctoral candidate in Middle East history. He is writing a dissertation tentatively titled “Engineering Metropolis: Contagion, Capital, and the Making of British Colonial Cairo, 1882-1922.” In marked contrast to colonial agrarian visions, Cairo emerged at the end of the colonial period as the site of modernizing schemes that sought to socially and spatially reorder the city, ironically at the very moment when the revolutionary politics of 1919-1922 upended the colonial regime. Shehab’s dissertation probes the crises and pressures that led to this shift and the urban infrastructural projects that exemplified and embodied this changing approach towards the city.

Shehab’s project speaks to debates in urban history, science and technology studies, and colonial history. His dissertation excavates how capital and health interwove to remake the urban landscape, and how the property bubble and bust of 1897-1907 led to a housing crisis. It examines controversies over water supply that pitted lay against scientific claims to knowledge, arguing that taste became the perplexing site of tenacious resistance to one of the colonial regime’s pet modernizing schemes. And it argues that Cairo’s sewage system, by which colonial administrators sought to socially and technologically engineer the metropolis, was a rehearsal for ambitious schemes of town planning. The project grows out of broader interests in the political economy, phenomenology, and detritus of urban life and in the fraught attempts at ordering collective space and their breakdown. He is equally concerned with questions of technology, infrastructure, and the power of experts over society. The project is funded by a Mellon/ACLS Dissertation Completion Fellowship for 2016-17.

As a side project, Shehab publishes photo essays that come out of his walks in Cairo. Writing to a non-academic audience, these collaborative essays address his broader concerns while bringing visual and spatial analysis to bear on everyday practice of the urban. His essays appeared in Jadaliyya and in the daily Egyptian Al Masry al Youm.