How midcentury Arab thinkers embraced the ideas of Freud

<p>Nasser cheered by supporters in Cairo, 1956. <em>Photo courtesy Wikipedia</em></p>

Nasser cheered by supporters in Cairo, 1956. Photo courtesy Wikipedia


by Omnia El Shakry + BIO

Nasser cheered by supporters in Cairo, 1956. Photo courtesy Wikipedia

The world of Arab letters welcomed the father of psychoanalysis Sigmund Freud. Arab novelists, literary critics, psychologists, teachers and students read and reread Freud, one of the most polarising thinkers of the 20th century. In Egypt, the powerhouse of Arab cultural life, Freud became an almost familiar presence. An article in Al-Hilal, a popular cultural journal, noted in 1938 that a new generation of Egyptian students were imbibing Freud and Freudian ideas on the unconscious and the sexual drive.

During the Second World War German air raids on Egypt in 1941, the Egyptian writer Ali Adham wrote an article synthesising Freud’s ideas on the death drive (or gharizat al-mawt, in Arabic). Adham noted that, in war, gharizat al-mawt turned outwards towards the other – used not merely for the satisfaction of sexual pleasures, but also for the satisfaction of aggression and antagonism. Two years later, the academic psychologist Yusuf Murad, who would go on to found a distinctive school of psychology indebted to Freudian methods and practices, published the popular book Healing the Psyche (1943). The text introduced readers to psychoanalysis as a school of thought that provided techniques for restoring the self, particularly for those souls who suffered.

Freud never remained solely in the purview of scholars, nor were his ideas limited to the university setting. The first scholarly translation of Sophocles’ Oedipus Rex, without which any knowledge of Freud would be incomplete, was made by the belle-lettrist Taha Husayn in 1939. It was quickly followed by two adaptations. In the Egyptian playwright Tawfiq al-Hakim’s 1949 version, the central conflict of the play is recast not as between man and fate, but rather as between fact and (hidden) truth, a decidedly Freudian reading. But it was Naguib Mahfouz, the Nobel Prize-winning Egyptian novelist, who above all brought the Oedipus complex to life for Arabic readers. Readers of Mahfouz’s masterful The Mirage (1948) were introduced to Kamil Ruʾba Laz, the novel’s protagonist, who is both highly introverted and erotically attached and fixated on his possessive mother. Kamil’s attachment to his mother, Mahfouz tells us, was characterised by ‘an unwholesome affection which exceeded its proper limits … a kind of affection that destroys’. Mahfouz paints a complex psychological portrait of the young man, a troubled figure whose pleasure and pain is derived from an insular world claustrophobically arranged by his mother. In his youth, Kamil immerses himself in a daily dreamscape to escape a stifling reality. Eventually he finds himself, beset by sexual guilt, unable to consummate his own marriage. No wonder then that, in 1951, an Egyptian secondary school teacher of philosophy proposed prenuptial psychological exams in order to prevent unhappy marriages due to unresolved Oedipal complexes.

Perhaps the most astonishing use of the Oedipus complex in Egypt is to be found not in novels, but in the courtroom. In the late 1940s, Muhammad Fathi, a professor of criminal psychology in Cairo, ardently defended the relevance of Freud’s theories of the unconscious for the courtroom, particularly for understanding the motives behind homicide. In a series of articles for a popular audience, Fathi argued that psychoanalysis and criminology were entirely analogous disciplines. Psychoanalysis, Fathi noted, could help to interpret criminal behaviour, the deeper causes or motives behind violent crimes, and even the behaviour of police investigators. Psychoanalysis could even introduce us to that most intriguing figure of all, a character-type whom Freud had termed ‘the criminal from a sense of guilt’. Such individuals committed crimes out of a desire to be punished for their unconscious guilty impulses. A guilty conscience preceded, not followed, the transgressions of these criminals. Fathi provided colourful examples, such as that of a bachelor fixated on an older woman whose husband he attempts to murder. Such a crime, had it been committed, would furnish the punishment for the unconscious desire for incest and patricide. Egyptians hotly debated Fathi’s theories. Academic psychologists alleged that he had pandered to popular audiences and overreached in the explanatory power that he gave the Oedipus complex as it related to criminal intent. To Egyptians, Freud’s ideas were worth fighting over.

Significantly, Egyptians and other Arabs read and argued over Freud well before he was translated into Arabic. Mustafa Ziywar, one of Freud’s earliest Arabic translators, was also the first Arab member of the Paris Institute for Psychoanalysis. Ziywar would serve as a mentor to numerous Egyptian psychoanalysts who would later go on to illustrious careers in Egypt, France and elsewhere in the diaspora. Moustapha Safouan, a prominent Lacanian and one of Ziywar’s students, described him as someone who ‘would swear by Freud before swearing by God’. Ziywar supervised the series The Foundations of Psychoanalysis, in which the Introductory Lectures on Psychoanalysis and Beyond the Pleasure Principle were translated in the early 1950s by Ishak Ramzy, followed by Ziywar’s co-translation of Freud’s autobiographical study in 1957, and by Safouan’s seminal translation of The Interpretation of Deams (1958), as well as numerous other key Freudian works. Ziywar worked tirelessly for psychoanalysis to reach a broad audience. From Cairo in the late 1950s, he even hosted a series of popular radio talk shows on psychology, covering everyday problems such as hashish, gambling and depression.

In the 1950s and ’60s, such subjects began to occupy centre-stage in Egypt. The president Gamal Abdel Nasser had established a regime with ambitious social welfare programmes. In fact, the Free Officers group from which Nasser had emerged had dabbled with psychological theories before their assumption of power in the 1952 revolution, finding it useful for the psychological testing of army officers and pilots. Subsequently, with the establishment of the National Center for Sociological and Criminological Research in the mid-1950s, social scientists took a variety of social and cultural problems as their objects of study, often drawing psychoanalysts into their orbit. For example, two large-scale studies were undertaken on prostitution and on the use of hashish in Cairo, between 1957 and 1960, and from 1960 to 1964, respectively. The latter study was supervised by Ziywar himself.

For some, but by no means all, Freudian intellectuals in the newly independent Egyptian state, psychoanalysis became a tool of governance capable of creating a new postcolonial subject free from social and psychological ills. This use of psychoanalysis in the attempt to create or reform human subjects represents a dangerous tendency, one that is not at all unique to Egypt. This is precisely because what psychoanalysis offers, at its most profound level, is a recognition and critique of the fact that humans use the other as an object and instrument of pleasure, whether that pleasure is the drive for knowledge or the creation of governable subjects more easily adapted to their political and social environments. In the enthusiastic attempt to create a decolonised national citizen, psychoanalysts at times forgot such lessons of ethical and philosophical critique at their own peril.