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No Asylum in this Land: Discourses of Trauma, Madness and Mental Health in the Middle East

Session II-17, 2022 Annual Meeting

On Thursday, December 1 at 5:30 pm

Panel Description
This panel builds on the rich tradition of early scholarship on the history of medicine in the ancient Middle East and the subsequent scholarship on the history of the psy- disciplines (psychoanalysis, psychology and psychiatry) in the modern Middle East. The participants will present on local discourses and modalities of mental well- and ill-being in the wake of the influence of the psy-disciplines and contemporary humanitarianism. We explore how, in the past several decades, local and globalized understandings of wellbeing—particularly as related to the experience of war and political turmoil—have informed conversational, literary and archival representations of the spaces where the psyche meets the body and the soul. One paper analyzes literary, filmic, and medical sources from the 1940s to 2000s to argue that supernatural and psychiatric understandings of illness and treatment were shaped not only by culturally meaningful practices but also by immediate political goals tied to gendered, ethnic and class-based identities in Israel and Palestine. Analysis of these treatment modalities contribute to conversations on notions of the worthy and sacrificial body and encourage us to consider multiple discourses of national strength, family politics, and individual worth. A second paper will look at trauma and the notion of sumud in Lebanon, tracing the different debates in psychiatry, social sciences, art and politics on trauma and suffering in the 1980s, in 1996, 2006 and today. Informed by ethnography and archival research, it will also link these discourses to prior narratives and understandings of mental health in Lebanon. A third paper will consider how literature on, and from, the Lebanese diaspora negotiates notions of madness and the supernatural alongside each other in considering the psychological legacy of the 1975-1990 wars—even as they were still unfolding. The paper argues that literature of the time intimately engaged in conversation with the globalizing discourses about trauma emanating from former colonial and imperial powers, complicating its assumptions through the introduction of traditional cultural frameworks for understanding collective legacies.
Disciplines
Anthropology
History
Literature
Participants
Presentations
  • In this presentation, I argue for a language of wellness found in Ghada al-Samman’s Lebanese civil war trilogy, predicated not on the language of trauma and mental health, but on an interwoven cosmology of the supernatural (or spiritual), the moral and psychological. Through close-readings of Bayrut 75 (1975) [Beirut 75], Kawabis Bayrut (1976) [Beirut Nightmares] and Laylat al-milyar (1986) [The Night of the First Billion], I plot these themes by attending to the intersections of the figure of the sorcerer/sorceress, a humanist-nationalist discourse of guilt, and the figure of the mad(wo)man. As the trilogy unfolds (simultaneous to the ongoing wars), these themes (and their corresponding figures) assume an ever greater portion of al-Samman’s content as she establishes the crucible in which her characters dwell in a series of wars whose end remains far from certain. I find that the choice to present the experience of Syrians and Lebanese (including those in the diaspora) in these terms is significant for two reasons. First, it remains faithful (albeit with some literary license) to the centrality of the roles of religious faith; cosmologies of magic and spirits; notions of kinship; and the post-independence formulation of madness that were intrinsic to Lebanese culture. As such it offers a vernacular understanding of the impact of political strife on collective wellbeing—one that gives color, depth and dimension to human experience in ways that have been overshadowed by the subsequent popularization and globalization of discourses of trauma and mental health. Secondly (and relatedly) I hold that this narrative choice is significant in that it suggests an intentional strategy by the author. While writing and publishing some of her trilogy, al-Samman was an expatriate living in Paris—an arena in which the discourses of psychoanalysis and psychological trauma had a long history, and which would have been ready-made frameworks for discussing the situation in Lebanon. That al-Samman chose not only to elevate the vernacular over the European metropolitan model of wellness in her fiction, but also actively questioned the explanatory power of European psychiatry and psychology in her writing, is a powerful ethical stake that demands our closer attention.
  • This paper analyzes literary, filmic, and medical sources from the 1940s to the present to argue that supernatural and psychiatric understandings of illness and treatment were shaped not only by culturally meaningful practices but also by immediate political goals tied to gendered, ethnic and class-based identities in Israel and Palestine. Analysis of these treatment modalities contribute to conversations on notions of the worthy and sacrificial body and encourage us to consider multiple discourses of national strength, family politics, and individual worth. Reflecting on a source base that includes the text of legislation (such as the Equal Rights for Persons with Disabilities Law of 1998 in Israel), Hebrew- and Arabic-language press sources, two films, historical fiction, two memoirs, oral history interviews, records from public and private hospitals and centers in Gaza, Bethlehem, Jerusalem, and nearby sites from the British Mandate period as well as the period since 1948, this paper suggests possible future directions for research in the connections between political violence, stigma, treatment, and policy reform. Considering publications such as Bashir and Goldberg’s 2019 The Holocaust and the Nakba: A New Grammar of Trauma and History and Wilkinson and Kleinman’s 2016 A Passion for Society: How We Think About Human Suffering, this research applies a blend of medical, social, and cultural history approaches inspired by interdisciplinary research in trauma and disability studies. This paper suggests that Palestinian and Israeli societies are inextricably linked to questions of collective and individual sacrifice that frequently stigmatize illness even as everyday life and national goals perpetuate conditions that sicken and traumatize the very bodies expected to build a stronger, healthier nation. In such an atmosphere, "treatment" has at times amounted to deliberate forgetting and rewriting of the past and present, rather than facing the root causes of illness to attempt a national, collective, or even family reckoning. Applying theories in disability studies research would call for education and policy reform to raise awareness, destigmatize non-normative bodies, promote inclusion and equity, and encourage future organizing.
  • Drawing on 24 months of ethnographic research and on literary and archival sources, this paper explores the multiple discourses on psychiatric trauma that circulated in psychological, cultural, and political debates around self, affliction, and violence in Lebanon. I argue that psychiatry’s cultural authority and its intellectual impact on these debates merit an examination that takes seriously the role of psychiatric science in the making of political and social understandings on self, culture and the other. I take trauma and post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) not as allegoric concepts but as therapeutic objects that provoked debates on modernity and ethics, religion and postwar living, afflicted subjectivities and the nation in Lebanon. The paper traces these debates among psy practitioners, state and political actors, sociologists, humanitarian workers, literary scholars and cultural artists in the Lebanese civil war, Israel wars and present day.