By Ali Khimji
If someone was sent to a place for a long time, and it was for reasons beyond control, you’d think that when given the chance to leave, that someone would jump at the opportunity.
However, this doesn’t appear to be the case in Abu Zabaal, Egypt’s last surviving leper colony. The doors have been thrown open, but residents don’t appear to be in a rush to leave. Abu Zabaal was opened in 1933 and was effectively an ‘open-air prison’, having little contact with the outside world. Over the last 10 years, Abu Zabaal became a thriving village of 6,000 people with plenty of local amenities.
In the past, people feared leprosy because it caused visible disfigurement and disability, was believed to be contagious, and was incurable until the 1990s. Leper colonies were located in remote locations, and they were provided with their own currency because it was thought that using mainstream currency would spread the disease.
The whole notion of being withdrawn from society can have detrimental effects on a person’s personality, and if offered a way back into society, they can become reclusive as they have made a home of their new surroundings.
This appears to be the case at Abu Zabaal and many people have built lives in the colony. The residents feel a sense of belonging and have no wish to re-integrate back into mainstream society.
There is also a parallel with prisoners on death row. Their perception of the world is based on them living their last few days, but if they are acquitted of their crime and released from prison, they feel lost and vulnerable and some even commit further crimes to return to the prison environment.
Those that have seen ‘The Shawshank Redemption’ may remember Brooks Hatlen, the aged convict who is released and commits suicide because he cannot cope with life outside; he finds everything is too fast-paced.
It doesn’t help if mainstream society has pigeonholed a particular group, and this is the case with lepers. This also throws up an analogy with the novel ‘Blindness’ by José Saramago, where an epidemic of blindness spreads in a unnamed city and the afflicted people are sent to a filthy, overcrowded asylum. The asylum breaks down into anarchy and this spreads to the city outside.