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Discourses and Practices of Scientific Development in the Twentieth Century

Panel II-25, 2023 Annual Meeting

On Thursday, November 2 at 5:30 pm

Panel Description
  • This paper examines the pathways of medical practitioners in the Levant during the interwar, taking Beirut as a focal point. In these pathways, Beirut was a multidimensional meeting point as it represented an intellectual hub with two medical faculties, one attached to the American University of Beirut (AUB) and the other to the Université Saint-Joseph (USJ) managed by French Jesuits. Beirut was simultaneously a point of arrival for those desiring a medical education, a point of departure for those having received said education and leaving to practice in the region and beyond, and an anchor point for those who decided to settle there after their studies. All in all, Beirut constituted a space of encounters and a place of passage for physicians. Nevertheless, this circulation was not specific to the mandate period, as Beirut became an educational center during the late Ottoman period. Yet, the mandates were a unique moment in terms of spatiality and territoriality. A transition is visible from free circulation within an empire to gradually more complex movements between nations newly created and not necessarily representing local populations’ opinions. In this context, physicians educated in Beirut kept pre-mandate networks and considered the new borders set up by the League of Nations in inconsistent ways. These professionals saw the region as a whole, communicating, collaborating, and navigating through it with the aspiration of creating a pan-Arabic community. Concurrently, the mandates’ administrations tried to impose boundaries to these “nation-states in the making” and, from the 1930s, we see increasing restraints on this circulation when it did not serve imperial purposes. The French, for example, encouraged a unidirectional circulation of the doctors trained at the USJ towards British mandates, as it contributed to the French influence in the region. On the other hand, the British in Palestine limited the practice of medicine to Palestinians or permanent residents from 1935, making the circulation of doctors less fluid. Through alumni journals from the AUB and the USJ, as well as administrative archives from the French and British mandates, this paper aims to demonstrate the particularity of the mandate period in the Levant in terms of medical circulation, with Beirut at its center. To do so, I adopt a transnational and trans-imperial approach, thus expanding the scholarship that considers the Levant as a whole rather than national entities during the interwar period.
  • In the midst of the “Women Life Freedom” uprisings in Iran, a quote from the representative of the Supreme Leader in Khuzestan province was circulated. It claimed that the majority of the arrestees are children of divorce, have a history of substance abuse, and have acted impulsively based on their emotions. What stands out is the kind of argument that a religious state official uses to discredit the movement. This paper inquires into this phenomenon from a historical perspective: How did mental health discourses gain so much popularity, enabling them to break the borders between the “traditional” and the “modern”? By analyzing parliamentary archives as well as the unexplored pages of public magazines from a period of intensive modernization in Iran, this paper highlights how citizens from different segments of Iranian society understood health. Previous literature on the 20th century scientific discourses emphasizes the role of middle class professionals in educating society. This paper, on the other hand, points to an anti-professional trend, which prioritized medical knowledge over medical professionals. Concurrently, popular magazines of the 40s-60s promoted the pursuit of scientific and medical knowledge, and they themselves played a part in making this knowledge accessible for their readers. Analyzing the contents of the scientific or advice pages of popular magazines, this paper offers a hypothetical answer to the question of the popularity of mental health discourses in Iran. I argue that using a combination of mystical/Sufi and scientific terminology was instrumental in the formation of an Iranian mental health discourse that could be accessible for a broader audience. For example, an article tried to help the readers understand themselves by offering seven kinds of reactions that humans show when they need to “escape” life’s problems. Among the reactions/solutions are Freudian expressions such as “regression” to childhood, as well as indirect references to mystical paths, recognizing “Tahzib-e Akhlagh” [Ethical Attunement] as the best strategy to deal with life’s problems, while there is not a single mention of specialists. In this way, the authors of popular magazines used the social capital and the accessibility of mystical terminology to the public audience in order to promote new scientific ideas to them, which had the extra benefit of localizing the “global” or ”foreign” knowledge of psychiatry, psychoanalysis, or psychology. This research, thus, contributes to our understanding of the local life of transnational scientific ideas within the context of Middle Eastern societies.
  • This paper examines the efforts of two women to improve the quality of life in Iranian rural communities, one who edited and wrote in a magazine aimed at providing resources and support, and another who worked directly with the peasantry – respectively, Shams ol-Moluk Mosahab and Najmeh Najafi. For nearly a decade between 1955 and 1962, Mosahab’s magazine Zendegi-ye Rusta’i (Rural Life) provided coverage of rural health and sanitation, nutritional information, cooperative marketing, water conservation, and other agriculturally relevant topics, with Mosahab’s prose deliberately crafted to be easy for out-loud recitation in teahouses and other traditional gathering sites in mostly illiterate Iranian villages. At the same time, Najmeh Najafi worked on the ground in a series of such villages to try and guide their residents towards similar goals but with more attention to fostering rural industry, significantly in the village of Sarbandan, Damavand. Both Mosahab and Najafi received funding and operational support from American non-governmental foundations, including the Near East Foundation, Ford Foundation, and CARE International, whose archives have provided this paper with information on the local reception of Mosahab and Najafi’s strategies, as well as insight into the gendered ideologies of American development workers in Iran during the period. Through a comparative analysis of Najafi and Mosahab’s approaches, challenges, and successes as reflected in these archives and in the published record of both women, the paper offers new insight into the popularization and institutionalization of rural development policy in mid-century Iran. This paper further takes the case of Najafi and Mosahab to argue that despite strong social and cultural barriers, women's labor and knowledge were and continue to be crucial for Iranian agricultural improvement, with their contributions undervalued and overlooked by both their American and Iranian contemporaries and in the scholarly literature.
  • Studies of development often take as their point of departure Truman’s 1949 Point Four Program. In it he outlined that the way to tackle the threat of communism was through technical assistance–or through development, especially, “helping people to help themselves.” What is interesting is that shortly after he announced it, he gave an address before the Annual Convention of the American Newspapers Guild where he referenced a model that exemplified Point Four’s aims: this was the work of the Near East Foundation (NEF) in the Varamin Plains, just outside of Tehran. The NEF is the second oldest humanitarian agency in the US, having been founded in 1915 as the American Committee for Armenian and Syrian Relief. In 1945 the Iranian government invited them to undertake a rural development programme, which began the following year as a demonstration project in 35 villages in Varamin. Following the project, Truman declared, ‘the village people are at work in new carpentry shops, vegetable gardens and orchards’--a process that he said was ‘now spreading throughout Iran’ and could be ‘matched many times over’ under Point Four. As it turned out, the NEF’s work would go on to influence USAID, the Ford Foundation, UNESCO and the Iranian Ministry of Education as they started similar projects in the 1950s. This paper will offer an account of the NEF’s project in Varamin on the micro-level. It combines the foundation’s scarcely used records at the Rockefeller Archive Centre with several Persian-language sources such as memoirs, oral histories and newspapers, especially Enteqad Baraye Dehqanan-e Iran (Critique for the Villagers of Iran), detailing peasants grievances against landlords and gendarmes. It shows that Varamin was emblematic of how villages across the Global South became key battlegrounds in the early Cold War. Like other rural development schemes of the time, the project illustrates the politics of seemingly innocuous development practices, refashioning peasant subjectivities amidst growing fears of communism. Moreover, the paper argues, the NEF’s project was a testing ground for global development interventions that have come into prominence in recent decades–particularly neoliberal ideas around economic growth being based on human capital, investment in people, skills and education.
  • Recent studies have explored the secular in Arab-Muslim societies, including Talal Asad’s Formations of the Secular (2003), Hussein Ali Agrama’s Questioning Secularism (2012), and Saba Mahmood’s Religious Difference in a Secular Age (2015). These studies have distinguished between “secularism” and “secularity”. Whereas the former refers to a political ideology entailing the separation of religion from politics, the latter pertains to conceptions of self, time, and nature associated with modernity. These studies share two characteristics: First, they explore secularity in Arab-Muslim societies as it relates to legal changes and state institutions; and second, they focus on the relationship between secularity and Islam. Less attention, therefore, has been paid to secularity as it manifests in social imaginaries and as it relates to non-Islamic ideologies, like secular Arab nationalism. To address this lacuna, this paper explores the character of secularity in Egypt during the highpoint of Arab nationalism, the Nasser period (1954-1970). Drawing upon Charles Taylor’s A Secular Age (2007), I argue that a central component of secularity in Nasser’s Egypt was a social imaginary that placed great faith in human progress and the human ability to master and manipulate the natural world through science, technology, and the state. This anthropocentric social imaginary, I further argue, minimized—or altogether removed—the presence God as an agent in human history. To chart the presence of this secular social imaginary, I analyze Egypt’s 1962 National Charter, which proclaimed an ideology of scientific socialism, and a collection of contemporaneous articles about the Charter printed in the newspaper, al-Ahram, which was considered the unofficial voice of the state. Together these texts provide a picture of the secular social imaginary in Nasser’s Egypt that exemplifies a deep trust in the state, science, and socialism to create the future. Although primarily concerned with theorizing the secular in the era of Arab nationalism, this paper concludes with a brief, but useful, contrast with another social imaginary of the time—one grounded in Islamic modernism as espoused by Mahmud Shaltut (d. 1963), the Grand Imam of Egypt’s al-Azhar mosque-university. The Egyptian state nationalized al-Azhar in 1961, seeking to channel Islamic discourses to support its own ideology. Despite doing so, Shaltut’s writings offer a far more theocentric social imaginary, one that depicts God as the primary agent in human history. By highlighting this contrast, my paper aims to give a nuanced account of the contours and effects of secularity in Nasser’s Egypt.
  • One of the main critiques of the modernization of Arab architecture has been its remoteness from the essence of local Arab identity following the steps of Westernization, which resulted in a gap in the transition to modernity. Many architects emphasized this gap; Palestinian architect Saba Shiber states, “the modern Arab city is confused”; it “has been literally ‘hit’ by machine civilization.” Egyptian architect Hassan Fat’hy highlights a “gap in the continuity of Egyptian tradition.” Iraqi architect Rifaat Chadirji states, “a gap exists in the architectural history of Iraq and other Arab countries.” This paper aims to explore another perspective in understanding the modernization of architecture in the Arabic context. This perspective advocates for decoupling the overlap between modernization and Westernization by examining the relationship between architecture and scientific knowledge. This study develops a narrative through a historical trace of the relationship between architecture and mathematics in Arabic sciences. I begin my argument by emphasizing that architecture, as a field of knowledge, was embedded under mathematics and it was very close to the craft of building in pre-modern writings. I support this argument by looking at the writing of scholars in Arabic sciences, including Al-Farabi, al-Buzjani, and Ibn Khaldun. However, following this period, Arabic sciences had been through a stage of decline in knowledge production that was directly reflected on architecture. While the question of when, why, and how this decline occurred is a large question that requires a significant effort of study. Yet, I provide a reading of nineteenth-century evidence in Egypt that reflects the state of architectural knowledge and its distance from mathematics. For this period, I look at the work of Al-Jabarti, Ali Mubarak, Rifa’a al-Tahtawi, and Western primary sources. I frame this period as ‘a stage of decline’ rather than claiming that Arabic sciences had been in ‘a state of backwardness’. Finally, I criticize the accusation against Western-trained Arab architects of being “Agents of Westernization.” I argue that the advancement of sciences, mechanization, and industrialization had a strong hegemony that has affected architecture in all regions, including the West. Many scholars in the West have criticized the impact of machine on architecture; Sigfried Giedion criticized the split between arts and sciences, thinking and feeling caused by mechanization; Alberto Perez-Gomez discusses the question of representation in architecture and claims that the way mathematics is integrated into modern architecture has led to the loss of many of architecture’s qualities.