Treating the “Sick Man of Europe” – 100 Years Later

Posted in Feature

An Interview with PhD Candidate Benan Grams

Benan Grams is a PhD Candidate in the Georgetown History Department, currently doing research for her thesis on the topic of public health and the relationship between the Ottoman Empire and its Arab population in the early 20th century. Her research has taken her across Europe and the Levant, from London to Berlin and from Beirut to Istanbul, but the most challenging part came in 2015, when she returned to Damascus over a decade since she had last lived in Syria, a country still that was still experiencing the turmoil of a long-lasting civil war.

In Damascus, she found an environment that might generously be considered ‘less than ideal’ for doing research in. In Benan’s words, there were “no continuous, consistent efforts in archiving” due to a lack of funds and interests, forcing her to turn to unconventional sources of information. She networked, making contacts with those who might have potential leads on privately-held documents – a difficult task in a city where security concerns often made people distrustful of outsiders. Nevertheless, she found success, locating a number of family-owned private archives with documents stretching back over 100 years. This was not a normal nine-to-five archival research, however. Benan recalls that one needed to be well-connected, generous with one’s time, and available at a moment’s notice in order to get the work done. And although Syria remained in a state of war, Benan says that she largely felt safe there – most of the time. There was the occasional bombing “here or there” in the city, she adds.

Despite the unusual circumstances, Damascus would be the crucible in which Benan’s research topic was forged. Until her trip there, she had been working on another, broader topic investigating the social and cultural experience of the First World War in Damascus. While working with a selection of court documents from World War I, she stumbled upon a case dealing with 800 dead bodies that were discharged from a hospital in Damascus. Curiously, she could find no other reference to this hospital – not in the archives in Damascus, nor in the foreign correspondence archives in the former Ottoman capital of Istanbul. This oddity set her down the road of learning about how the Ottoman state created and managed health infrastructure in its Arab provinces and how the state and the populace responded to and interacted with various diseases and treatments.

Benan hopes that her research will encourage people to rethink how they perceive medicine and its role, both in the Middle East and in Europe, asserting that she finds her work “corrective of those that say that western medicine was already established” in the early twentieth century, in reference to the oft-perceived backwardness of the Ottoman Empire, the metaphorical Sick Man of Europe. She also hopes that her research will help people to see the continuities between Syria under Ottoman rule and Syria as it exists today in its state of civil war. She cautions that the two situations are ‘analogies’ rather than precise mirror images, but adds that century-old sources can have important information that is still relevant today, and, with these newfound insights, she wants “to show this parallel and give hope for what could be done” in Syria today.