For the past four years I have been writing a historical novel set in 1901, during what is known as the third plague pandemic, an outbreak of bubonic plague that killed millions of people in Asia but not so much in Europe. For the past two months, friends and family, editors, and journalists who are aware of the novel’s subject, Nights of PlagueI have been asked a lot of questions about pandemics.
Above all, they are curious about the parallels between the current coronavirus pandemic and the historical outbreaks of plague and cholera. And there is an overabundance of parallels. In all of human history and literature, what pandemics resemble is not just the coincidence of germs and viruses, but the fact that our first reaction is always the same.
The initial response to the outbreak has always been to deny it. National and local governments are always slow to react, distort the data and manipulate the figures to deny the existence of contagion.
On the first pages of Plague Year Diary, the most enlightening literary work ever written on contagion and human behavior, Daniel Defoe He tells that, in 1664, the local authorities of some London neighborhoods, trying to make the number of deaths from the plague seem less than it was, dedicated themselves to registering other invented diseases as official causes of death.
In his 1827 novel The couple —Perhaps the most realistic novel that exists about an outbreak of plague—, the Italian writer Alessandro Manzoni describes and supports the anger of the population at the official reaction to the 1630 plague in Milan. Despite visible evidence, the Milan governor ignores the threat and is not even willing to cancel the celebrations for the birthday of a local prince. Manzoni shows that the disease spread at full speed because the restrictions were insufficient, its application was lax and his fellow citizens did not respect them.
Much of the literature on contagious pests and diseases presents the carelessness, incompetence, and selfishness of those in power as the sole instigators of the fury of the masses. But the best writers, like Defoe and Camus, offer their readers the possibility of glimpsing more than politics under the wave of popular fury, something intrinsic to the human condition.
Defoe’s novel shows us that, behind the endless protests and infinite rage, there is also an outrage against fate, against a divine will that witnesses and perhaps even condones all that death and human suffering, as well as against institutions of organized religion, who don’t seem to know how to deal with anything.
The other universal and apparently spontaneous reaction of humanity to pandemics has always been to create rumors and spread false information. In the past, rumors were mainly fueled by misinformation and the inability to grasp the global situation.
Defoe and Manzoni wrote about people who kept their distance when they were on the street during epidemics but, at the same time, asked for news and anecdotes from their respective towns and neighborhoods, to compose a more general image of the disease. Only then could they aspire to evade death and find a safe haven.
In a world without newspapers, radio, television or the Internet, the illiterate majority had only their imaginations to discern where the danger was, its gravity and the degree of torment it could cause. This dependence on the imagination gave each person’s fears a voice of their own, tinged with a lyrical tone: localized, spiritual and mythical.
The most common rumors during plague epidemics were about who had introduced the disease and what its origin was. In mid-March, when panic and fear began to spread throughout Turkey, the director of my bank branch in Cihangir, the Istanbul neighborhood where I live, told me with an air of complicity that “this thing” was economic retaliation of China against the United States and the rest of the world.
The plague, like the evil incarnate, has always been portrayed as something from outside, which had already hit somewhere else without enough being done to contain it. In his account of the spread of the plague in Athens, Thucydides began by stressing that the outbreak had started far away, in Ethiopia and Egypt.
In The couple, Manzoni described a figure that has been present in the popular imagination during epidemics since the Middle Ages: Every day there was a rumor about that malevolent and diabolical presence that prowled the darkness spreading infected liquid on the handles and fountains. Or maybe there was an exhausted old man who had sat on the floor inside a church and was accused by a passing woman of having rubbed her coat all over the place to spread the disease. And then, right away, a mob would gather ready to lynch him.
These unexpected and uncontrollable outbreaks of violence, gossip, panic, and rebellion are common in accounts of plague epidemics since the Renaissance. Already in the Roman Empire, Marco Aurelio accused the Christians of the Antonine smallpox plague, because they did not participate in the rites to obtain the favor of the Roman gods. And in subsequent epidemics, Jews were accused of poisoning wells, both in the Ottoman Empire and in Christian Europe.
The history and literature of plagues shows us that the intensity of suffering, fear of death, metaphysical terror and the feeling of living something extraordinary that the affected population experiences, also determines the intensity of their anger and their political unrest.
As with those ancient plagues, unsubstantiated rumors and accusations based on nationalistic, religious, ethnic and regional identity have significantly influenced the course of events during the coronavirus epidemic. The fondness of social networks and the right-wing populist media to give a loudspeaker to lies has also contributed to this.
But today we have access to an unbelievably greater volume of reliable information on the pandemic we are experiencing than at any previous time. That’s another reason why the powerful and justifiable fear we feel is so different. Our terror is fueled less by rumors and more by accurate data.
As we see the red dots multiply on the map of our countries and the world, we realize that there is nowhere left to flee. We do not need our imagination to fear the worst. We gaze at images of large black army trucks transporting corpses from small Italian towns to nearby crematoriums as if we were watching our own burial.
Now, the terror we feel excludes imagination and particularity and reveals how unexpectedly similar are our fragile lives and our common humanity. Fear, like the idea of dying, makes us feel alone, but the awareness that we are all experiencing a similar anguish brings us out of our loneliness.
Knowing that all of humanity, from Thailand to New York, shares our concern about how and where to wear a mask, the safest way to handle the food we have bought and whether we should quarantine is a constant reminder that we are not alone. It produces a feeling of solidarity. Our fear stops mortifying us; We discover a certain humility in the fact that it fosters mutual understanding.
When I see the televised images of people waiting in front of the largest hospitals in the world, I understand that my terror is also felt by the rest of humanity and I do not feel alone. Over time, my fear embarrasses me less and it seems to me, more and more, a perfectly sensible reaction. I remember that old saying about epidemics and plagues, which says that those who are afraid live longer.
In the end, I understand that fear provokes two different responses, in me and perhaps in all of us. Sometimes it pushes me to shut myself up, in solitude and silence. At other times, it teaches me to be humble and practice solidarity. I started thinking about writing a novel about the plague 30 years ago and, even then, what most interested me was the fear of death.
In 1561, the writer Ogier Ghiselin de Busbecq – who was ambassador of the Habsburg Empire to the Ottoman Empire during the reign of Suleiman the Magnificent – escaped the plague in Istanbul by taking refuge six hours away, on the island of Prinkipo, the largest of the Princes’ Islands, located to the southeast of the city, in the Marmara Sea. He warned that the quarantine laws in place in Istanbul were too loose and declared that the Turks were “fatalistic” because of their religion, Islam.
Approximately a century and a half later, even the wise Defoe wrote in his novel about the plague in London: “The Turks and the Mohammedans […] they professed predestination ideas and believed that each man had his predetermined end. ” My novel about the plague was going to help me reflect on Muslim “fatalism” in the context of secularism and modernity.
Whether fatalistic or not, historically, it has always been more difficult to convince Muslims than Christians to tolerate quarantine measures during an epidemic, especially in the Ottoman Empire. In addition to frequent commercial protests by shopkeepers and farmers of all faiths, doubts about female modesty and intimacy in the home were added in Muslim communities. At the beginning of the 19th century, these communities demanded “Muslim doctors”, since at that time the doctors were mostly Christians, even in the Ottoman Empire.
Starting in 1850, when steamship travel began to become cheaper, pilgrims on their way to the holy Muslim sites of Mecca and Medina became the most prolific carriers and spreaders of infectious diseases in the world. At the beginning of the 20th century, to control the traffic of pilgrims to the two cities and the return to their countries of origin, the British established one of the main quarantine offices in Alexandria, Egypt.
These historical events were responsible for the spread of the stereotype of Muslim “fatalism” and the preconceived idea that they and the other peoples of Asia were the sole cause and carriers of contagious diseases.
When at the end of Crime and Punishment, by Fyodor Dostoyevski, the protagonist of the novel, Raskolnikov, dreams of a plague, the narration responds to the same literary tradition: “He dreamed that everyone was condemned to a strange and terrible new plague that had come to Europe from the depths from Asia”.
On the maps of the 17th and 18th centuries, the political frontier of the Ottoman Empire, where the world beyond the West was thought to begin, coincided with the Danube. But the cultural and anthropological border between the two worlds was marked by the plague, as well as the fact that it was much more likely to spread to the east of the Danube.
This situation, in addition to consolidating the notion of innate fatalism that used to be attributed to Eastern and Asian cultures, reinforced the preconceived idea that plagues and other epidemics always came from the darkest corners of the East.
The picture that many local historical accounts give us is that, even during the great pandemics, the mosques of Istanbul continued to officiate funerals, the bereaved continued to visit each other to offer condolences and hug each other with tears, instead of worrying so much Because of the origin of the illness and how it was spreading, she was more interested in being properly prepared for the next funeral.
However, during the current coronavirus pandemic, the Turkish government has adopted a secular attitude, has banned funerals for those who have died of the disease and has made the resounding decision to close mosques on Fridays, when the faithful normally They gather in large numbers for the most important prayer of the week. And the Turks have not opposed these measures. Our fear is great, but also cautious and patient.
For a better world to emerge from this pandemic, we must embrace and cultivate the feelings of humility and solidarity engendered by the moment in which we live.
Orhan Pamuk, Nobel Prize for Literature in 2006, is the author of the forthcoming novel Nights of Plague.
English translation by María Luisa Rodríguez Tapia.