The COVID-19 pandemic, which has spread to more than 200 countries and territories around the world since December 2019, has brought to the fore Arab novels and stories that talk about epidemics, diseases, and quarantines which millions of people lived through.
Some of these novels and narratives discuss a reality in which epidemics invade certain countries like Egypt, Sudan, Tunisia, and Algeria, while others were pure fiction, created from the imagination of authors. But they wrote in such detail about what happens during epidemics that it made people think that the authors were tracing real events.
In “Dreams of Resurrection,” Mohamed Gamal imagines events around a pandemic that transfers through travelers at an international airport, then spreads in Egypt.
One of the fictional novels that sparked controversy in the Arab world due to the similarity of its events with the coronavirus outbreak was “Dreams of Resurrection,” a novel written by the Egyptian author Mohamed Gamal in 2018. Gamal imagines events that revolve around a pandemic that transfers through travelers at an international airport, then spreads in Egypt.
There are striking similarities between what is happening now and the novel, especially since it touches on the spread of an influenza epidemic in countries abroad, particularly in Italy, and the panic that prevailed in many societies. Gamal talked about the wearing of masks, the spread of the disease’s signs and symptoms, the global horror, and the epidemic outbreak in Italy.
In a similar context, Egyptian author Ahmed Khaled Tawfiq – one of the first contemporary writers of horror, fantasy, and science fiction in the Arabic speaking world – narrated in the 40th issue of the “Safari Series” entitled “About Birds We Talk” in the 1980s, a mysterious chicken-linked disease. Tawfiq concludes his story by warning that: “The terrifying real epidemic is coming. It will start from somewhere in China or Hong Kong. . . . At that time, we can only count on the mercy of God . . . and then on microbiology and the speed of inventing a vaccine.”
What is remarkable is that Tawfiq predicted that the expected location of the new epidemic would be China, adding, “Pigs and chickens meet in the stockyards of Chinese farmers, thus every farmer hides a dangerous laboratory for biological experiments. In [these] stockyards, there are unique types of viruses that have not been heard from before.”
Some social media users and Arab newspapers likened the coronavirus pandemic to details in “The Eyes of Darkness.”
As well, some social media users and Arab newspapers likened the global coronavirus pandemic, which began in Wuhan, China, in December, to details in “The Eyes of Darkness,” written in 1981 by American author Dean Koontz. The book contains a strange reference to a deadly virus known as “Wuhan-400,” bearing the name of the Chinese city where the coronavirus first originated. But, unlike the current real-life pandemic, “Wuhan-400” is a biological weapon that kills everyone who faces it in the first 12 hours.
In Algeria, Ismail Muhanana wrote a novel in 2018 called “Hallucin” about a virus that infects humans and turns them into monsters. The story’s protagonists are forced to find a cure before the annihilation of human civilization. The subject of the novel is close to science fiction. The writer imagined a strange epidemic hitting North Africa and turning citizens into people driven by a hidden voice towards death. Another Algerian novelist, Ibrahim Saadi, spoke of a serious epidemic transmitted through speech.
In addition to the aforementioned science fiction novels talked about in Arab news and social media, and in parallel with the spread of COVID-19, there are other real and realistic stories that detail events similar to what is happening in the world today.
Seventy-three years ago, French-Algerian writer Albert Camus wrote “The Plague” (La Peste) about a virus that spreads uncontrollably from animals to humans, and ravages the quarantined city of Oran in Algeria, where thousands of people are forced to stay home to avoid being infected. Camus, whose book sales hit a record since the coronavirus began to spread, writes: “An epidemic seizes Oran, the disease transmitting itself from citizen to citizen, spreading panic and horror in every street.”
While readers may associate the plague with the new coronavirus and its transmission from one person to another, Camus did not only depict the suffering of people, he also studied the emotional dimensions of the epidemic and its relationship to the individualism that characterizes Western civilization.
He concluded by asserting that the survival of humankind lies in communication and social solidarity, not in selfishness and greed. An important lesson can be taken from Camus’ novel in dealing with COVID-19: the importance of social solidarity, patient support, and altruism in light of a global pandemic.
The importance of social solidarity, patient support, and altruism in light of a global pandemic can be taken from Camus’ novel.
At the age of 17, Ibn Khaldun, an Arab scholar of Islam, social scientist, and historian, lost his parents and many of his teachers and friends to the plague. In “The Muqaddimah” (The Introduction), Ibn Khaldun wrote about the Black Death that hit Tunis between 1348 and 1349: “Countries and tribes weakened . . . as if the universe’s tongue called for inactivity . . . as if it was a new creation, an updated world!” “The cause of the plague is mostly the air pollution, due to the urbanism, mold and humidity,” he added.
Ibn Khaldun considered that “the spread of the plague epidemic is a natural result of the weakness of the state and the large number of famines resulting from the migration. Thus, people are away from agriculture.” He explained that “the urban nature of the cities in which the sun does not rise well and the bad ventilation, has a negative impact on the individual’s personality and mental health.”
The events described by Ibn Khaldun about the paralysis of the world and heading to a new and updated one, can be likened to what is now being experienced by countries whose economies have entered an economic depression, and where the virus has also depleted medical resources and exhausted citizens.
Egyptian professor Taha Hussein’s autobiography “The Days” paints in vivid prose the spread of cholera in his village.
Egyptian professor Taha Hussein’s autobiography “The Days” paints in vivid prose the spread of cholera among the residents of his village, and the panic and terror they suffered. Hundreds died and thousands were incapacitated from the lack of treatment as patients began to eat garlic to heal. Hussein described the closure of schools, the work of medical personnel, and the fear of people, as if he were talking about the scene that the coronavirus is causing today.
“This day was on August 21, 1902,” he wrote. “Summer was a miracle this year. The cholera epidemic had struck Egypt, devastating its people, destroying cities and villages, and erasing whole families . . . schools were closed and doctors started following patients’ cases, and panic had filled the souls.”
Iraqi poet, Nazek al-Malaika, is best known for her poem “Cholera,” in which she describes the cholera epidemic that spread from Egypt to Iraq in 1947. The poet’s description of deaths and sadness during the spread of the disease is highly evocative of the current COVID-19 situation:
“Death, death, the figures are not specified
Dead, dead, there is no tomorrow
Everywhere a spirit cries in darkness
Everywhere a voice cries.”
“The Harafish” [a term that refers to the large underclass of poor and downtrodden in Cairo] is an epic novel written by the Egyptian writer Naguib Mahfouz in 1971. It describes the spread of the cholera epidemic in the neighborhoods of Cairo.
“Death does not differentiate between rich and poor, strong and weak, woman and man.”
“Every hour a death is announced. . . . Death does not differentiate between rich and poor, strong and weak, woman and man,” he wrote. Although a priori we may think this description also applies to the COVID-19 coronavirus, it turns out there are differences in who is most impacted. The virus has disproportionately taken a toll on minorities, the poor, the elderly, and those in poor health. The numbers are very clear in the US and the Western world. It is also affecting men more severely than women.
Recently there has been a lot of talk about the Moroccan writer Tahar Ben Jelloun in Arabic and French newspapers, who wrote a text entitled “Letter to a Friend,” to explain a journey with the coronavirus, from infection to healing stages. In his missive, Ben Jelloun talked about social inequality in the face of the pandemic in such personal terms that readers thought he had been infected with the coronavirus, especially since he had a famous work titled “Ablation” exploring pain, the plight of illness, and waiting for death.
“Ebola 76,” by Sudanese author and physician Amir Taj al-Sir, recounts events in 1976 between the Republic of the Congo and South Sudan, and the spread of the Ebola virus.
Last but not least, a famous novel in epidemiological literature titled “Ebola 76,” written by Sudanese author and physician Amir Taj al-Sir in 2012, recounts events in 1976 between the Republic of the Congo and South Sudan, and talks about the spread of a fever caused by the virus that occurred in a village near the Ebola River, which gave it its name. The novel contains many stories and human cases, and details what happened after Ebola was discovered.
Hence, writers and poets spoke long before the spread of the COVID-19 coronavirus, about epidemics, diseases, and the spread of viruses, and described the suffering of people affected—their fear of infection, escape from death, and the search for drugs and treatments. Some of the stories were fictional and others were real; yet in almost all cases, the events described over the decades in the literature are similar to the novel coronavirus’ impact on people’s lives today.