University of Virginia, College and Graduate School of Arts and Sciences

Tessa Farmer

Assistant Professor, Department of Middle Eastern and South Asian Language and Cultures, and Global Studies


“Cairo’s Sabils: Gifting Water”

My research focuses on sabils, or charitable water fountains, as a key location for exploring vernacular water architecture and investigating the underlying conceptual frameworks that give them life. Sabils are important parts of the built environment of Cairo, drawing on religious precedence and enacting everyday ethical notions of reciprocity. They are particularly important in the changing environmental conditions of Cairo and point to the ways in which vernacular and small-scale water infrastructure can add to the picture of urban water resilience in the context of Climate Change. As vernacular memorials, sabils operate as the conduit and material co-producers of hasanat (merits accrued with God) for the souls of departed loved ones. As nodes in neighborly relations, sabils engage neighbors in practices of asynchronous exchanges of the embodied kindness of a cold drink of water and the ephemeral gift of participating in the accrual of divine favor. Sabils are an important manifestation of local process of creative resilience, everyday practices of tinkering and collective action that probe the limits of the possible, work to remake the built environment and stich together fluid social networks, and stake claims to the city. Additionally, the project will investigate the diversity of material forms, practices of care and repair for clay and metal water infrastructure, embodied notions of smell, taste and temperature, a shifting history of social responses to a material context of hardship, and practices of neighborliness that draw on religious traditions to shape the livability and transversability of Cairo’s urban landscapes.


Tessa Farmer is Assistant Professor in the Middle Eastern and South Asian Languages and Cultures Department and the Global Studies Program at the University of Virginia, where she serves as the Track Director for the Global Studies-Middle East South Asia (GSMS) major. Tessa received her MA (2007) and PhD (2014) in Anthropology from the University of Texas at Austin. She conducted fieldwork in Cairo, Egypt between 2009 and 2019. Based on this work, her current book project, “Well-Connected: Everyday Water Practices in Cairo,” investigates the ways in which lower income residents of Cairo, Egypt work to obtain sources of potable water and deal with the ramifications of sewage in their urban ecology. A second project on charitable water fountains, sabils, is underway. Her research has been awarded funding by Fulbright Hayes, Social Science Research Council, PEO, the University of Texas at Austin, and the University of Virginia. Tessa’s work appeared in the Middle East Law and Governance Journal, the Journal of Sustainability Education, MERIP, and she co-guest edited a special issue on the Environment in the Middle East in the International Journal of Middle East Studies with Jessica Barnes.