The Arabic Freud: An Interview with Omnia El Shakry

Omnia El Shakry, The Arabic Freud: Psychoanalysis and Islam in Modern Egypt (Princeton University Press, 2017)

ʿIlm al-nafs might be translated as both psychology and the science of the soul. Attending to the routes (roots?) of psychoanalysis in postwar Egypt, Omnia El Shakry asks what it means to think of Islam and psychoanalysis together as “a creative encounter of ethical engagement.” This is both the task and provocation of The Arabic Freud: Psychoanalysis and Islam in Modern Egypt (Princeton University Press, 2017).

The book’s opening epigraph comes from the Egyptian psychoanalyst Moustapha Safouan: “In truth, we find treatises on the soul in Arabic works that evoke the Freudian division among the parts of the personality: id, ego, and superego.” The Arabic Freud, then, explores the multivalent encounters between psychoanalysis and Islamic thought, turning and returning to the question of the unconscious and the modern subject. At once disruptive of the oppositions that drive narratives of incommensurability between psychoanalysis and Islam (i.e. attempts to “put Islam on the couch” and civilizing missions of psychoanalysis) and conductive of the epistemological resonances between discursive traditions, The Arabic Freud offers and inspires ethical possibility.

El Shakry studied in Cairo, New York, and Princeton, where she focused on, among other topics, the modern Middle East, European intellectual history, and the history of colonialism. Now Professor of History at the University of California, Davis, she is a founding member of the Middle East/South Asia Studies Program there and teaches courses in History, Critical Theory, and Cultural Studies. She is the author of The Great Social Laboratory: Subjects of Knowledge in Colonial and Postcolonial Egypt (2007) and editor of Gender and Sexuality in Islam (2016). “Even though as a historian my intercourse is with the dead,” she says, “it’s still an encounter.” El Shakry works within this encounter, this transferential space.

Joel van de Sande


JOEL VAN DE SANDE: How did you come to The Arabic Freud?

OMNIA EL SHAKRY: I have always had a longstanding interest in the social sciences. At the American University in Cairo, I studied psychology, and specifically depth psychology. While there, I read a fair amount of Freud, as well as feminist psychoanalysts like Juliet Mitchell. I had settled on psychology as an undergraduate only after an elusive search for the perfect social scientific discipline, in which I was particularly drawn to anthropology. It’s not surprising, then, that I would eventually become a historian of the social sciences. In conceptualizing the Arabic Freud, I imagined it as lingering on the border between the historical and the ethnographic. I wanted to historically reconstruct and stage an encounter between psychoanalysis and Islam. I was also thrilled by the idea of immersing myself in the psychoanalytic canon while trying to think differently about the question of the self. I didn’t want to write a reception history, in the sense of simply recounting how Freudianism traveled to other parts of the world. I tried instead to imagine how thinking about Freud in another context might speak back to psychoanalysis as a tradition.

VAN DE SANDE: How does “encounter” as it is understood in psychoanalysis inform your account of philosophical encounters? In what ways are you providing a psychoanalytic reading of philosophical encounters?

EL SHAKRY: Psychanalysis is not only a theory but also a practice, a living practice and discursive tradition. People sometimes approach psychoanalysis as an inert object, a repository of concepts that can be mobilized or used by the scholar, almost in an instrumentalist fashion. But I think it’s important to remember that psychoanalysis is a practice in which two individuals­­— or as Lacan would say, more than two—are interacting, a practice in which there is an ethical encounter with the other. How might one think about philosophical and historical encounters, such as that between psychoanalysis and Islam, as embodying the question of ethics and what it means to relate to the other in a way that does not entail an instrumentalization, or a use of the other as an object? In fact, what psychoanalysis offers us is a critique of the pleasure that comes from the use of the other as an object (including an object of knowledge). It creates a space in which to think through questions surrounding encounter as being profoundly ethical, as well as epistemological.

In terms of writing the history of philosophical encounters, one of the questions I think my book raises is what it means to write the intellectual history of the non-European world. There has been a tendency for intellectual questions—some of the more profound questions surrounding ideas and the philosophy of ideas—to get sidelined. Instead, particularly when writing about the Middle East, there is often a focus on ideas as epiphenomenal to politics. In other words, one might have written a book like this and reduced the question of the self to the question of decolonization, for example, or focused on psychoanalysis as a handmaiden of colonialism. And yet, for me, intellectual history must be intellectual; what we can learn from the critical theory, critical discourses, and critical practices emanating from the elsewhere of the West? What can we learn from languages of the self that have been constituted elsewhere?

VAN DE SANDE: Your subtitle is “Psychoanalysis and Islam in Modern Egypt.” Could you elaborate on your account of modernity here?

EL SHAKRY: One way to think about modernity is to think about it as something that is staged across the space of human and historical difference, and that’s one of the arguments that Timothy Mitchell, Stefania Pandolfo, and others make in Questions of Modernity. In other words, can we think of the modern as something that is staged between or across the European and the non-European? In my first book, The Great Social Laboratory: Subjects of Knowledge in Colonial and Postcolonial Egypt (Stanford University Press, 2007), I focused on the concepts that we tend to conventionally associate with modernity: questions of governmentality, the formation of “population” as an object of study, the health and welfare of populations, etc. as they were shaped across Arab and European knowledge formations. These questions do in fact animate the movement from the colonial to the postcolonial and they are significant questions. They show up in the field of psychology as well. But in the Arabic Freud, I wanted to tackle a very different set of questions. I wanted to address the question of modernity from the perspective of tradition. Oftentimes the modern is conceptualized as coming after the (traumatic) cut inaugurated by colonialism, and a chasm separates the pre-colonial from the colonial. This cut can be viewed as a series of ontological and epistemological ruptures or breaks that sever what came before colonialism from what transpires afterwards, namely the formation of modern processes of governmentality or of subject formation. In the Arabic Freud project, I was more interested in thinking about the trace, of that which preceded colonialism and which endures, rather than the cut.

Specifically, it was the idea of a discursive tradition that helped me trouble the way we think about temporal unfolding. I draw on Alasdair MacIntyre and Talal Asad’s conceptualization of tradition which enables us to think about the presence of the past both in the present and in the future, and in the historical moments that we’re analyzing. It also enables us to think outside of conventional historicist and teleological frameworks, and that’s something that I really appreciate. So, the question of modernity appears very differently here than it appears in my first book. Again, this is not to say that questions surrounding decolonization and so forth – the standard questions that we would think about for this time period, the mid-1940s through the 1950s, the moment of the Nasserist project (and elements of that appear in and out throughout my text) – are not important. But I wanted to think about epistemological and ethical questions surrounding the nature of psychic life and about man’s relationship to the Divine, which we might not capture if we focused singularly on questions of nationalism, industrialization, decolonization, and the contours of the new human subject in the postcolony. The latter are narratives that we’ve already spent so much time on as historians, and especially as historians of the modern Middle East.

VAN DE SANDE: That makes me think about worlding psychoanalysis, a project that I see this as being a supplement to, a challenging of the universality of psychoanalysis…

EL SHAKRY: Yes, it is very much about what Ranjana Khanna calls the “worlding of psychoanalysis,” by challenging its allegedly pristine universality. For me, this cannot be done by subsuming this history into the global, which might be yet another Hegelian ruse. I recall here Robert Young’s White Mythologies: Writing History and the West. Young helps us think through the tenacity of the Hegelian dialectic in the writing of history. Is there a way to write history that does not make a pretense to render transparent and eminently visible the entire globe? This would be a history of mastery, which would be the same kind of history that G.W.F. Hegel was writing in his Lectures on the Philosophy of World History or the histories that others wrote and continue to write in his aftermath. Might these be different modes or different iterations of historical writing that cannibalize the rest of the globe in the extraction of an epistemological surplus value? Can we think about writing histories that do not aspire to totality or purport to comprehensiveness? This reminds me again of Young, and of thinking about the relationship between history and totalization. And yet, even within totalizing narratives there will always be an incompleteness, an “irreducible heterogeneity” as Gyan Prakash and other subaltern studies scholars would say, and so what happens to this irreducible heterogeneity that cannot be assimilated?

VAN DE SANDE: What do you see as the role of psychoanalysis in history and in the academy more generally?

EL SHAKRY: This is a question I was recently asked by the journal Psychoanalysis and History. I think as historians we can think about our relationship to our historical interlocutors as a relationship of transference. What psychic stakes do we hold in our objects of study, and how do those investments both delimit and enhance the stories that we tell? Ibn ʿArabi develops the Qurʾanic concept of the barzakh, which is a liminal space, an isthmus between consciousness and unconsciousness, between life and death. In a very small way as historians, because we intercourse with the dead, we could be said to inhabit that space of the barzakh. What would it mean to think about this in all of its weight and also for the creative possibilities that it enables?

Psychoanalysis also offers us the deepest, most critical conceptualization of temporality that any philosophical tradition has to offer. Some of the concepts that have informed most how I think about history or how I write history – contradiction, overdetermination, repetition, and refinding– all of these concepts which really trouble conventional notions of history, of cause and effect, and of historicism, are to be found in psychoanalysis. When I think of the critique of historicism, I immediately think about what it means to teach my world history class, The World since 1850, in a non-historicist fashion. Thinking about how the unconscious interrupts the chronos of history can be one way of getting at that. When I teach the Great War, I talk about the death drive and I have students read Freud’s Thoughts for the Times on War and Death. These are a few different ways that I think psychoanalysis still has a place in the academy. Its place is certainly not psychology, disciplinarily speaking. And I may be in a minority in thinking that it has a place in history. Comparative literature, anthropology, these are perhaps more hospitable homes for psychoanalysis.

VAN DE SANDE: I wanted to ask you about translation, a key method that appears in your book. Can you tell me about your own practices of translating texts in your research and how your approach to the practice of translation influenced and was influenced by your argument?

EL SHAKRY: Translation is part of my everyday practice of research. I have never actually published any of my translations as translations, but in my scholarly practice when I’m reading primary source Arabic texts, I sit with the text and I do this kind of work, this labor. It feels very much like a constitutive labor of translation. And I often think of translation in a doubled sense. On the one hand, I am translating the work of my interlocutors into English, but they themselves are also translators, translating across Arab and European languages and life worlds. What are their processes of translation, and how do they write about translation?

When I began, belatedly I must admit, reflecting on questions of method, I thought about Ibn ʿArabi and how he approaches or thinks about the practice of reading the Qurʿan. There are debates in the subfield of Ibn ʿArabi studies—what, precisely, is he doing when he’s reading a Qurʿanic verse? Is he engaging in hermeneutics, an interpretive or esoteric hermeneutics, which in Arabic would be a ta’wil? Michel Chodkiewicz makes the argument that actually he’s doing something different; he’s looking for isharat, which are allusions, specific allusions that are found in the Qurʾanic text. This resonated with me deeply and informs my own practices of translation.

For example, Yusuf Murad, a central figure in The Arabic Freud,  makes a passing reference to Abu Bakr al-Razi’s Spiritual Physick in one of his popular texts. These moments in the text, these allusions, can become a lever from which one can open onto a different world. You could think about it as a process of ethical attunement with our historical interlocutors. That is the space of transference, to inhabit this space with your interlocutor. The work of translation is a combination of being in this meditative space, but also of doing this work of labor.

And then I also have to say that I love dictionaries. I have always loved them. Dictionaries are historical sources, and I use quite a bit of them. Yusuf Murad was a member of the Arabic Academy of Language and he produced a dictionary of psychological terms, and they’re masterful. I’m writing an article now that functions as something of a coda to the book on a diasporic scholar, Mahmud Sami-Ali. He was born in 1925 and translated Freud’s Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality into Arabic. It’s translated from the original German, while looking at the English Standard Edition, which actually charts Freud’s own editorial changes. It is in this sense a critical edition and a meta-text. Sami-Ali appends glossaries to his translations, and it is fascinating to read the discussion of a term like drive (trieb) to see how in Arabic the distinction between instinct and drive is being drawn out. What are the terms that are being used? How are older terms like Ibn ʿArabi’s al-la-sh‘ur being repurposed in a psychoanalytic manner, while retaining an earlier epistemological resonance? It certainly helps one to appreciate this polysemic, polytemporal world, and the multiple languages that people inhabit.

VAN DE SANDE: Could you say more about the coda?

EL SHAKRY: Sami-Ali is a diasporic Egyptian intellectual who spends much of his career in France as a professor of psychology. Prior to doing the 1963 translation on the Three Essays, he participated in a study on prostitution in Cairo. And so, his work addresses my earlier interest in thinking about sociological research on marginalized populations. The prostitution study was a broad social survey that did all the sorts of enumeration that you would expect, but Sami-Ali’s role in the study was clinical, and he did clinical work with these imprisoned prostitutes. Most interestingly, he had them do drawings because many of the prostitutes were illiterate (the term that he used). The women were asked to ‘draw a house, draw an animal.’ These women figure in his later theoretical works that he writes when in France, works on projection, on imaginary space and so on. But this will be an article, or series of articles, not my next big project.

VAN DE SANDE: How has the Arabic Freud shaped what’s coming next?

EL SHAKRY: It really has shaped my next book project, both empirically and conceptually. I’m very interested in what happens when different discursive traditions come into contact. Partly through some of the life histories that I encountered in the Arabic Freud, I’ve become interested in thinking about a series of encounters that take place throughout the 1940s and 1950s and beyond, between Catholicism and Islam. There’s a Dominican Institute for Oriental Studies that is established in Cairo in 1953 that becomes the hub of this encounter, although a lot of engagement takes place prior to its establishment. To be clear, I’m not conceptualizing this in terms of the literature on interfaith relations. Nor am I interested in the question of the political status of minorities, per se. I really want to engage, once again, questions of epistemology and questions of ethics. What I want to do is study specific concepts, such as the oneness and unity of God; practices, like agape, sincerity, and truthfulness; and sensibilities, like inwardness. I’m especially interested in thinking about how these are shaped across the space of this encounter and across the space of these divergent traditions, while thinking about comparative theology and philosophy and co-constituted histories of spirituality.

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