That's Life!
By R. D. Flavin

That's life, that's what all the people say.
You're riding high in April,
Shot down in May
But I know I'm gonna change that tune,
When I'm back on top, back on top in June.

Cover of Sinatra’s That’s Life album and a NASA “Blue Marble” image (see credits below).

     Oh, I don’t feel well...  The last few of weeks have been an unexpected roller coaster ride with a recurrence of my “malaria,” or some other equally objectionable illness.  Passover, Easter, Patriots' Day, Earth Day – I wasn’t prepared for the spring holidays.  April annoyia and twistory (along with other neologistic portmanteau words) gave way to a trip down bad memory lane and the fetid non-fun of fever, phlegm, and pain.  After days of foreboding unease, I staggered to shelter with a sore throat, swollen glands, and sinuses which scented the air with the not so subtle stench of a north-central New Jersey beach from a summertime long past.  [Note: While sophomoric alliteration is not a requisite for ‘annoyia’, as the plural noun is a contraction of ‘annoying’ and ‘minutia’ or, perhaps, ‘trivia’, the previous sentences could be termed as such.]  Four days of writhing and coughing, separated with nights of sweating and groaning, and I experienced a hypnopompic state on the fifth morning in which I somewhat comfortably recalled Frank Sinatra singing his 1966 pop hit, “That’s Life.”  I nailed all the lyrics, too, or at least in my transitional state between dreaming and waking I remembered all the words to the song.  I'm sort of thinking, maybe, that the dreamy pretension of being able to accurately croon like Ol’ Blue Eyes likely caused me to finger-snap back into normal consciousness.  I’ve never been good at remembering lyrics and it’s always ...saddened me that I’ve needed to go karaoke and have the words directly in front of me.  However, as is said, ...that’s life!

     At a little after 9 am on April 22, 1971, being at the time an Army brat seventh grader in Panama and sitting half asleep at the back of my English class, I found myself staring at a green chalkboard upon which were written the words, “Earth Day.”  In all probability, I had about as much enthusiasm for the words, “Earth Day,” as I had for schooling in general, i.e., I was a clock-watcher waiting for lunchtime and the final bell of the day.

     The daily announcements soon commenced from a tiny speaker located near the ceiling at the front of the class.  Audio quality, as per the Canal Zone junior high school standard, wasn’t taken seriously and whatever the vice-principal was saying – as if any of the students cared – couldn’t be easily understood.  I kind of remember the vice-principal mentioning “Earth Day,” something else, and then I heard the voice of a young girl.  I wasn’t paying much attention.  Then, as the little hairs stood up on my neck and I saw that almost everyone in the English class was turned around in their desks and looking at me, ...I started to listen to the garbled voice of the girl.  It seemed familiar.  She was reading aloud a poem about a hunter staring at a deer through the scope of his rifle and getting ready to pull the trigger.  When I heard mention of the hunter seeing a tear form in the deer’s eye and begin to trickle down its cheek, I recognized the poem as one of mine from an English assignment of a few weeks previously.  Ouch...  My anti-hunting poem had been chosen to be read as part of the second “Earth Day” celebration and no one had asked my permission to be a Thumper for Mom Terra.  As the French would say, “C'est la vie!”

     The poem had been penned as a reaction to a recent (mis)adventure of my brother, Rob, involving a new shotgun, a two-toed tree sloth, and several attempts to shoot one of the slowest creatures on the planet.  Sure, the crying deer inclusion was cheap, but all’s fair in art and a seventh grade English class assignment.  In reflection, my brother’s bungle in the Panamanian jungle went better than mine.  In early October 1970, a week before the Orioles beat the Reds in the World Series, I clung to a drift-log and went for a joy ride in the swollen streams near the end of the rainy season.  During the dry season, the lazy, curvaceous creeks were calm enough for little lizards to run across, yet with the rains they were turned into angry torrents racing not unlike some toboggan courses, only with mud, branches, and lots of slamming into large tree-roots and things, before gushing into the canal.  It was a ride of a lifetime, though I got bit by a mosquito infected with some Plasmodium parasite and contracted malaria.  I was hospitalized for four or five days, I remember green jello, and watching the
Orioles and Reds split their last two games.  Fortunately, I was spared from undergoing a spinal tap to identify the particular strain of malaria because of my age and a few miserable young GI’s a few rooms away from mine rather reluctantly volunteered.  I’m unsure if they, too, had drift-logged or were just Cincinnati fans.

I said that's life, and as funny as it may seem
Some people get their kicks,
Stompin' on a dream
But I don't let it, let it get me down,
'Cause this fine ol' world it keeps spinning around.

Edgar Hernandez, the Swine flu virus, and Usāmah bin Muḥammad bin `Awaḍ bin Lādin.

      I’ve still got a bronchial infection (which, no doubt, could be sent packing if I’d lay off the cigarettes for a few days), there’s some coughing and sneezing, and  the fever is not entirely gone, still, I’m much improved.  Now, the same can’t be said for the suffers of the current swine flu outbreak.  The germ is resilient (Straw et al. 2006) and I hope things don’t get much worse.

     A little over a month ago, in the town of La Gloria in Perote, Veracruz, Mexico, a young boy became sick with what has now been determined to be a hybrid (antigenic) strain of swine influenza virus, and known on the street as Orthomyxoviridae Influenzavirus A/Swine/Mexico/2009 H1N1.  The lad, Edgar Hernandez, has recovered, but because of the circumstances surrounding how he became infected and his town’s proximity to Mexico City, the particulars of the outbreak are unclear, while the virus has traveled far from its rural origin.  Indeed, many parts of the world are now in full panic mode (passim
Webby & Webster 2003).

     More than half of the residents of La Gloria work at a nearby pig farm, Granjas Carroll de Mexico, and though there is no direct evidence yet linking the business to the current outbreak, it doesn’t seem to be that much of a stretch to connect the dots.  And, sadly, once the workers got to Mexico City with its planes, trains, and automobiles, the outbreak has reached some 23 countries in less than three weeks.  The World Health Organization (WHO) is eager to call this H1N1 outbreak a pandemic, though it remains a single phase short at epidemic level.  It spread quickly, has recently slowed down, and also seems to be less deadly than previously thought.  Questions remain about who made who sick, when, and where.

     Influenzavirus A is a very nondiscriminatory bug, it infects birds, humans, and other mammals, and often adapts to maximize its nastiness.  The participants change constantly, like some bio-orgy where anything goes, with, for example, birds infecting humans, humans infecting swine, swine infecting other humans who then go on to infect other birds (
Gorman et al. 1991).  And, awkwardly, that example left out horses and dogs, because they have enough of their own problems and don’t need any more.  The main subtypes of Influenzavirus A have been and remain extremely influential to human and animal history (Italian influenza < Medieval Latin īnfluentia < Latin influentia, and influere < Latin fluere or flow and stream <  Proto-Indo-European *bhleu- or to overflow and vomit).  Our English word “flu” arose from a belief that the stars had an undue influence upon us, though its roots extends back at least several thousand years ago when our ancestors lived next to a river that regularly swelled its banks and sometimes caused people to puke.  It’s been us (humans) against them (evil negative-sense ssRNA viruses) for a long time.

     While most are satisfied that the current H1N1 outbreak has its “ground zero” in Mexico and likely began with swine, it appears that the Mexican pigs aren’t that sick.  Go figure.  Last week in Canada, some hogs got sick, though virologists are claiming that it was humans who infected the swine and not the other way around (passim Bikour et al. 1995).  Someone will undoubtedly blame sneezing birds at one point and Al-Qaeda will put up a YouTube video taking credit for the infections and praising the merits of the Al-Qur’an 5:3 diet.

I've been a puppet, a pauper, a pirate,
A poet, a pawn and a king.
I've been up and down and over and out
And I know one thing:
Each time I find myself, flat on my face,
I pick myself up and get back in the race.

Brigette Bardot, Zebaleen garbage collector (Matuszak 2007), and Saudis waiting to buy Egg McMuffins.

     International reactions to the new H1N1 strain have been varied, with Mexico keeping it simple and straightforward, the United States encouraging everyone to wash their hands several times a day, China putting 300 hotel guests in quarantine for the foreseeable future (i.e., seven days or so) , religious authorities in Israel protesting the term “swine flu” because of Jewish kosher laws (yes, apparently even some animal names are "dirty"), and Egypt ordering the slaughter of over 350,000 pigs.  Iraq has killed three wild boars at the Baghdad Zoo because visitors are creeped out from fear that the large Sus scrofa might be infected with H1N1, and the Arab states of the Persian Gulf have set up thermal monitors to screen travelers and banned the sale of pork.

     The retired French actress and part-time whack animal activist, Brigette Bardot, wrote a letter of protest to Egyptian President Ho
snī Mubārak about the pig slaughter, though it’s unlikely she’ll get a response.  Mubārak is currently unhappy with his present ranking as 20th on a list of World’s Worst Dictators, down from 17th last year, and isn’t answering fan-mail.  Still, Brigette is not alone in her concern for Egypt.  It isn’t just about “unclean” or potentially infected food – the reasons are much uglier.

     Many in America may hope that we've reached a “post-racial” stage in our social evolution, with the election of President Obama, but a significant number of our laws continue to be maintained by our ongoing prejudices and remain elitist and unfair.  Europe has only barely begun to acknowledge its abuse of the Roma (var. Romani, Romnichal or "Gypsies"), their widespread sale into slavery which persisted until the late 19th century, and even their current status as unwelcome undesirables in many countries (Fonseca 1996).  [Note: ‘Tis the season for irony, as the Roma were in America before the Puritans landed at Plymouth Rock and were the subject of cruel immigration laws passed in 1885
(Hancock 1980, pp. 258 & 259), more than twenty years after Lincoln’s enlightened Emancipation Proclamation.  Oh, and to further the irony, it’s reported that freed African-Americans owned Roma as slaves, though the Wikipedia references under “Romanichal” are unclear (i.e., Chambers 1865; Hancock 1987; MacRitchie 1894).]  The establishment of Kurdistan doesn’t seem any closer, as both Iraqis and Turks refuse to relinquish control of lands that don’t belong to them (see my “Kurds in the Way?”).  Google Earth™, a leading geographical imaging software program, has recently elicited the anger of the elitist Japanese by releasing historical maps of neighborhoods where the Burakumin (Japanese “village people”) once lived.  These “outcastes,” so stigmatized because of their employment as tanners, executioners, and undertakers, rather than any ethnic or religious distinction, are still denied equal employment opportunities in modern Japan, as well as other societal exclusions (Shimahara 1984).  And, returning to the Arab Republic of Egypt, there’s the treatment of the Coptic Christian minority and the slaughter of over 350,000 pigs.  I’ll complain about the absence of a descent barbecue sauce, later.  For now, I’ll just discuss Islamic arrogance and intolerance.  

      Egypt, the “Land of the Pharaohs,” has experienced epic social problems since at least when Semites began showing up and seizing control, to wit, the Hyksos, and the pirate Sea Peoples, both hypothesized to have been Asiatic, Semitic, Canaanite, etc., and which culminated with the 639 CE invasion and conquest of Egypt by Semitic Muslims, who established a rule which continues until this day.  At least the Greeks, Romans, Persians, French, British, and Ottoman Turks all went home at various points – the Semitic Arab Muslims stayed.  The native Egyptians, those actually descended from the Neolithic North African hunter-gatherers who became agriculturists and developed the second oldest civilization (with a writing system) on the planet: a fair question might be to ask, “What became of them after all the wars and conquests are taken into account?”  Well, after going Greek, it’s sort of hard to go back...  Even the Romans were philhellenic.  After devising a hieroglyphic writing system, a less cumbersome hieratic script was introduced (along with the near-cursive demotic), and with the coming of the Greeks, the Egyptians chose to adapt the Greek alphabet (along with several demotic characters) to form the Coptic script.  The Copts are the ethnic and linguistic descendants of the ancient Egyptians, and also an oppressed minority in their native country (
Makari 2000; Pennington 1982).

     Comprising roughly 9% of the Egyptian population, the Copts have at times enjoyed the dhimma (Arabic “writ of protection”) as extended in Islamic scripture, The Qur’an
(Al-Baqara or “The Cow": Sura 2, Ayat 62), a precarious promise to the Ahl al-Kitāb (Arabic “People of the Book”) that is, Jews, Christians, and Sabians.  Yeah, sure.  In several other sections of The Qur’an extreme conditions of conduct are established for non-Muslims which openly threaten death if such conditions are not satisfied.  No major religion is entirely tolerant of those they disagree with (e.g., Jews and Christians and the ethical dilemma of “love thy neighbor” from Leviticus 19:18 and Mark 12:31), and fundamentalists are especially dissocial, yet we collectively dream of a Star Trek future of equality, egalitarianism, and eirenism.  The present Arab Republic of Egypt displays open contempt for the native Coptic population, indeed, they treat them like garbage, which in a sick way makes sense, because some Copts make their meager living from picking up and processing trash and waste products (Sedra 1999).

     At issue, here, is cult and custom.  The cult is Christianity and the custom is the association of garbage and pigs.  In the mid-1800s, Copts from central Egypt moved north to Al-Qahira (Cairo) and were allowed to become the garbage collectors/brokers of the city’s streets.  They were soon followed by more migrants into the city who were pig farmers.  An agreement was reached between the groups with some collecting the garbage and others feeding the garbage to the pigs, which were fattened, butchered and consumed by the Coptic community at large.  This practice, of feeding street garbage to pigs, was anything but new or local to Cairo, in fact, it’s global and in Egypt it goes back to 5000 BCE (Boessneck 1988).

     The Coptic garbage collectors and the pig farmers are now collectively known as the Zebaleen (var. Zabbaleen, Zabb
ālīn) from an Arabic term loosely translated as “rubbish people.”  The association with pigs concerns both health and diet, as pigs have long been used as landscape scavengers (they were allowed to freely roam the streets of New York City until the early 1800s) and their place on our menu has been guaranteed since Neolithic times, shortly after sheep and goats, and immediately before the domestication of cattle.  It’s said that street swine scavengers actually prevent the spread of disease by interrupting the cycle of transmission of certain intestinal parasites by consuming human feces, though it’s not a 100% effective method of control (Miller 1990, p. 129).  Still, as E. coli can double in population every 40 minutes or so in moderately warm temperatures, if one is accustomed to throwing one’s feces in the streets, why not employ some pigs to clean up (read: eat) said feces and limit the amount of E. coli around?  Just asking...  The Indian Hindus let their cows walk around the streets and I’m fairly confident they don’t do much for the environment except to pose for nice photographs.

     Setting aside Egyptian custom (food and sanitation), it would be best to address Egyptian cult (religion and politics) and the long standing controversy surrounding the consumption of pork.  Dr. Richard A. Lobban, Jr. (Emeritus Professor of Anthropology, Rhode Island College), at the end of his article, “Pigs and Their Prohibition,” summarizes with:  

“...the process of ancient Egyptian state formation included processes of ecological transformation, livestock competition, mythological evolution, and territorial conquest.  Pigs, a totemic symbol of the conquered delta were defeated by the falcon-god Horus, the totem of Upper Egypt and all of the subsequent pharaohs.  The rivalry between pigs – in the form of Seth and Horus, who was endlessly pursuing and distrusting Seth, who had murdered his brother and his father Osiris – is one of the very oldest and most enduring features of ancient Egyptian religion, which continues in the eternal combat of good and evil in Judaism, Christianity, and Islam.  Through the centuries Seth became increasingly identified with all elements of treachery and evil.  A late step in this progression was the Hyksos acceptance of Seth, giving the Egyptians still another reason to find Seth loathsome.
     At least for the rulers and their allies, both Seth and pigs were thoroughly disgusting.  Meanwhile, out of need or preference, pigs were still raised, donated, consumed, and extensively found throughout the Nile valley.  It was in these centuries – around the time of Ramses II or Ramses III – that Hebraic populations coalesced around a clear ethnic identity, and perhaps because of their link to, or admiration of, Egyptian aristocracy they also accepted and codified the taboo.
     The taboo was subsequently transmitted from the Egyptians to the Jews and was observed by early Christians until reforms were introduced that allowed the consumption of pig flesh.  With the birth of Islam in the 7th century, the taboo was also reborn in a simplified and refortified version that has become emblematic of this new religion until the present.” (Lobban 1994, p. 72)

Could the swine’s “unclean” status be the result of totem-politics?  It’s a better guess than, for example, citing famine in New Kingdom times with incidents of cannibalism and the well known similarity between human and pig flesh.  As a “Chosen” (read: elitist) people would certainly maintain a “Chosen” diet, it might be that avoiding pork was an arbitrary attempt at uniqueness without reason or cause.  Christians embraced their ham and bacon, while Islam followed the Jewish kosher proscription with their own haraam (Arabic “forbidden”) law concerning swine, although the fine print of The Qur’an allows for consumption if a life is at stake and pork is the only thing on the menu.

That's life
I tell ya, I can't deny it,
I thought of quitting baby,
But my heart just ain't gonna buy it.
And if I didn't think it was worth one single try,
I'd jump right on a big bird and then I'd fly.

St. Simon the Tanner, NAMRU-3 logo, and Zebaleen pig protest.

     Much like the Japanese Burakumin who toil in industries deemed “unclean” by elitist Japanese society, the Copts hold a special reverence for St. Simon the Tanner (no, not the one mentioned in Acts 10:6), sometimes called Samaan the Cobbler, a 10th century craftsman in Old Cairo who is believed to have helped Pope Abraam the Syrian of Alexandria move the Mokattam Mountain to impress the reigning Fatimid Caliph, Al-Muizz Lideenillah.  Afterwards, so the Copts claim, Al-Muizz converted to Christianity.  A few decades ago, the construction of a marvelous monastery was begun to honor St. Simon, however curious tourists encounter many difficulties reaching the monastery.  It’s located directly behind where the Zebaleen live, that is, the garbage dump of metropolitan Cairo’s 18 million residents.  To call the neighborhood a pig-sty might seem to be a cheap shot, but that's how that goes.

     In 1942, Pres. Franklin D. Roosevelt authorized the U.S. Typhus Commission which built several research laboratories around the world, one of which was in Cairo.  It’s initial success and encouragement from the Egyptian government led to the establishment of the U.S. Naval National Medical Research Unit (NAMRU-3) and the Virology and Zoonotic Disease Research Program located next to the Abbassia Fever Hospital, the largest hospital specializing in fevers in Africa and the Middle East..  The mission for NAMRU-3 is simple and straightforward: stop the nasty little germs before they stop us (Pinsky 2004).  Of course, being located near the Zebaleen neighborhood means they don’t have to travel far for research material.  Yet, with all the announcements from the U.S. Dept. Of Health and Human Services’ Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, I haven’t been able to find anything online from NAMRU-3 about the current H1N1 "swine flu" near-pandemic, even though they’ve been a WHO-sanctioned H5N1 "bird flu" laboratory since 2007.

      Leather, meat, disease and death, and with the addition of beer, broads, and broadband, it seems like a fun weekend!  Sorry, a bit of the fever is still with me...  It seems the bronchial infection doesn’t respond to antibiotics and ibuprofen is taking its sweet time taking the fever to the mat.  Returning, when one contemplates those insane urban overcrowding situations with filth, rats and sickness, surely Calcutta comes to mind, though the Zebaleen neighborhood of Cairo with its garbage dumps and pig pens must follow closely.  The reality rub reveals two major concerns apart from the sociopolitical oppression of a minority native population, namely, that the slaughter of over 350,000 pigs by the Egyptian government will have a tragic impact on the immediate economy of the Cairo pig farmers, and, also, ...that’s an obscene amount of wasted food!  Still, stoically, the slaughter might be for the best.

     Last Sunday, May 3rd, 2009, there was a violent protest with rocks, rubber bullets, and tear gas.  The number of injured, both Zebaleen and Cairo police, differs in various estimates, though all agree it was less than a couple of dozen.  So, too, with the number of those arrested and the number of pigs confiscated.  No deaths on either side, thank Arnold.  Well, that’s not entirely correct, as the Egyptian government has already started the pig slaughter and the number killed has passed a thousand and will increase every day.  It’s difficult to get accurate figures, as the Egyptian government, despite their happy, smiley eagerness to capitalize on foreign tourist monies, is more than a little heavy-handed when it comes to media censorship, with some estimates placing the Egyptian government as having the 10th worst record when it comes to censorship, at least for the online bloggers.

     The mainstream media may not get arrested or detained as often as the bloggers, but access to reliable information is difficult, though perseverance and luck are still basic tools of the trade.  One media source who forced a peak behind the curtain is the online Christian Science Monitor, despite ending it’s century-old print edition on March 27, 2009 due to financial hardship, it was still willing to publish a quote from a leading pro-government Egyptian newspaper editorial, which commented, “Killing [the pigs] is not a solution, otherwise, we should kill the people, because the virus spreads through them.”  Ouch...

     In America, sigh, with two deaths and roughly 1639 infected with H1N1 (as of 5-7-09), we’re letting the kids go back to school, stocking our freezers with cheap pork ribs, loins, and chops in advance of summer cook-outs, and, albeit only among the few, the paranoid, and the agenda-oriented attention whores, there’s talk of H1N1 combining with the HIV virus and producing ...airborne AIDS.  I’ve long been a fan of science fiction and zombie movies, but that’s a gloom-and-doom scenario I haven’t seen before.  Oh, my bad, that was Dr. Margaret Chan, Director-General of the World Health Organization, who warned of a mutant swine flu and HIV hybrid arriving in public places this fall.  Still, truth demands we attempt to distinguish between the possible, the probable, the impossible, and the improbable.

     The Egyptian government responded to the 2007 avian influenza A (H5N1) virus by mandating that all poultry raising be banned from metropolitan areas, like Cairo, which hurt the urban lower classes mightily, yet Egypt has been praised for its rapid response and lauded for having the lowest human death rate of all avian flu-affected nations.  Plans had been in the making for the Egyptian government to expand the ban to urban pig farming when the current swine flu near-pandemic broke out.  The government has pledged compensation of 1,000 Egyptian pounds ($177.44) per hog, but the pig farmers fear that it’s an empty promise and they’ll never receive proper remuneration.

     Pigs do seem to be chubby petri dishes and are known to facilitate the reassortment and emergence of new hybrid strains of Influenzavirus A.  That, I think, limits probabilities to variations of negative sense, single-stranded, segmented RNA viruses.  Maybe positive sense, too, with a burst of gamma rays or invoking a spell from the Necronomicon, I don’t know.  Perhaps a combination with Ebola or Hepatitis C might be theoretically possible, though it would seem unlikely to occur naturally.  In a bio-lab run by super-villains?  WHO knows, but the Shadow isn’t talking!

     I hope the Zebaleen get paid for their pigs.  I wish KC Masterpiece® would donate a couple of shipping containers filled with assorted flavors of their barbecue sauces to our troops in combat and that the Egyptian government would begin sending some of those dead pigs to Iraq and Afghanistan, but I’m reminded about the old saying about wishing in one hand and...  I suspect we haven’t seen the last of the new H1N1 strain this year and look forward to late summer and fall with pushers hawking Tamiflu on the street corner.

That's life
That's life and I can't deny it
Many times I thought of cutting out
But my heart won't buy it
But if there's nothing shakin' come this here July
I'm gonna roll myself up in a big ball and die
My, My...
Selected lyrics to "That's Life" by Dean Kay and Kelly Gordon (from Frank Sinatra’s That’s Life; Reprise Records, 1966).

Bibliography and Credits:
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Boessneck, J.  1988.  Die Tierwelt des Alten Aegypten.  Munich: C. H. Beck.  Quoted in Lobban 1994, p. 61.
Chambers, Robert, 1865.  Domestic Annals of Scotland from the Reformation to the Revolution.  Vol. II.  Edinburgh: W. and K. Chambers.
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Fonseca, Isabel.  1996.  Bury Me Standing: The Gypsies and their Journey.  New York: Knopf.
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somewhere between the best and the worst of times,

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