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    More Relevant than Ever
    Psychology in the Arab World Today
    Interview with Jalil Bennani

    Morocco is among the African and Arab countries where there is currently the biggest uptake of psychoanalysis. Martina Sabra spoke to the renowned Moroccan psychotherapist Jalil Bennani about the reasons for this, and about the difficulties psychoanalysis in the Islamic world still has to deal with.

    Martina Sabra: How do you, as a psychoanalyst, see the recent social and political upheavals in North Africa and the Middle East?

    Jalil Bennani: It was initially a social uprising against the frustrations, humiliations, repression; a powerful, immediate, radical questioning of the conventional orders and above all the authority of the existing heads of state. Arabs have disproved the widespread prejudice about their supposed submissiveness and passivity. What struck me was that the main figureheads of the revolutions were not charismatic leaders, but wounded human beings. In Tunisia, the crowd identified with an itinerant stallholder: demonstrators recognised themselves in the suffering of Mohamed Bouazizi. This forces us to question the usual explanatory models. We have to recognise that in this instance the crowd was not looking for a hero, but identifying with a suffering individual.

    Yet the yearning for a so-called ‘strong man’ appears to be more popular than ever. How do you explain this? In your opinion, why is it that, on the one hand, large sections of society from the Atlantic to the Persian Gulf are in revolt, while at the same time many people are looking for easy solutions and simple identities; that they seem prepared to submit to archaic, patriarchal authorities?

    I see this as a kind of resurgence of that which has been repressed. In 2011 the rebellious youth shouted, ‘We don’t want any more bosses,’ and wanted to apply this motto to their own ranks. But it’s hard for an organisation without a leader to survive over a longer period of time and to implement its goals. The dictators have been driven out, but that doesn’t mean that the representations of paternal authority have been erased, or that people don’t need leaders, bosses or men of action any more. This repression is part of the reason why the boss was able to return, in his rigid and archaic form. Driving out fathers doesn’t automatically mean that you get rid of the prevailing forms of patriarchy. However, it must be noted that the traditional representations of manliness and paternal authority have been pretty much debunked. Mindless violence can be interpreted as a sort of psychic defensive reaction, an unconscious admission of this weakness. In this regard the psychoanalyst Fethi Benslama speaks of a yearning for the father. We know that this kind of nostalgia can sometimes lead to distorted perceptions of one’s affiliation and identity. It’s something we’re familiar with in migrants: they’ve left their home, and are not experiencing the social change that is actually happening there. But they don’t really settle in in their new home, either. Nostalgia evolves into an idealised picture, an imagined tradition, that has hardly anything to do with actual circumstances any more. This distorted perception can then impact on several generations.


    You started your medical studies in Morocco in 1967. In the 1970s you went to France to do your specialist training. Why did you decide on psychiatry, and what sparked your interest in psychoanalysis?

    I didn’t decide on psychoanalysis; it was rather the reverse. Let me explain what I mean by that. Whenever we make decisions or choose to go down a particular path, the unconscious plays a part. When I started work in France, after completing my specialist training in psychiatry, many of my patients were migrants from North Africa. All my attempts to treat their conditions with medication failed dismally. I therefore had no choice but to try psychoanalysis. It was absolutely imperative to talk to these people, many of whom spoke two languages. I was able to listen to them and to develop an approach based on the spoken word and its effects. This methodical approach is applicable to all patients all over the world, regardless of their language or cultural roots. However, many of the patients had something specific in common: because of their social and linguistic isolation, it was more apparent in them than in other patients the extent to which silence and suppressed desires can make a person ill.

    Historically speaking, we can say that in the 1980s psychoanalysis was much more fashionable among psychiatrists than it is today. It was quite normal for anyone training to become a doctor, like me at that time, to lie down on the couch and allow themselves to be analysed, too. It was only later that I discovered what effects psychoanalysis has on social relationships, norms and values. Psychiatry had interested me because I was curious, and because I wanted to understand people better. Psychoanalysis allowed me to continue on this path by submitting myself to investigation regarding my history, my culture, my language and my unconscious desires.

    What status did psychiatry, psychology and psychoanalysis have in Morocco at that time? Were there individuals or groups studying psychoanalysis? Were you in contact with such groups? Did you belong to any?

    At that time the psychology did not exist as a study discipline in Morocco, never mind psychoanalysis. There were political reasons for this, too. Psychoanalysis implied criticism of religion and of the prevailing discourses, and was considered subversive. Doctors of psychiatry were also only systematically trained in Morocco from the 1980s onwards. There were very few practising psychiatrists, almost all of whom had completed their specialist training in France. When I went back to Morocco in 1980, I wanted to familiarise people there with psychoanalytic methods and firmly anchor them by means of practice, lectures and essays. In 1985, together with some of my colleagues, I founded Morocco’s first psychoanalytic association: Le Texte Freudien – ‘The Freudian Text’. We weren’t yet able to offer specialist training, but you can say that we did at least make psychoanalysis known in Morocco. Later on, other associations and groups were formed: in 1992 we founded the Association Marocaine de Psychothérapie, in 2001 the Société Psychanalytique Marocaine. The time was ripe for this back then; the country was opening up. We had acquired a lot of experience; there was an increasing demand for specialist training. The presence of a psychoanalytical association enables people to be active beyond their medical practice: to meet up, collaborate on theoretical work – interdisciplinary work, too – and publish. Psychoanalysis spreads via private and public work. For this you need a minimum of freedom and democracy. In 2009 I was one of the co-founders of the Cercle Psychanalytique Marocain, now known simply as Le Cercle Psychanalytique, with the aim of documenting efforts to create an international presence. It takes time, you see. The story of psychoanalysis is a succession of fractures and secessions, a tendency that I myself haven’t managed to avoid, but which did permit me to keep starting afresh and, in doing so, to build on the experiences of the past.

    Do you remember your first encounters with the intellectual world of Sigmund Freud?

    In 1974 I was working as an aspiring consultant in a psychiatric clinic in France. I was conducting conversations with patients, and was supposed to follow these up by keeping a written record of my medical observations, making diagnoses and substantiating them. The psychopathology that lent comprehensibility and a certain degree of sense to the symptoms was closely connected with psychodynamic psychiatry and psychoanalysis.

    Freud’s texts were the basis for me. The books that had a particularly strong influence on me were The Interpretation of Dreams, Psycho-Analysis and The Psychopathology of Everyday Life. I did my clinical training with Dr Tony Lainé. He and his team observed psychic suffering from the psychoanalytical and from the societal and political aspects. There’s a whole philosophy behind this. It was not about sedating people with medication but about healing them, using the best possible means and without locking them up. It was the age of humanist psychiatry, which was a combination of various different disciplines. These encounters and experiences had a decisive influence on my subsequent professional career.

    What language did you read Freud’s books in – French or Arabic?

    Initially I only had French translations. Later I was able to read The Interpretation of Dreams in Arabic, thanks to Moustapha Safouan’s translation.

    The beginning of Arab psychoanalysis

    Psychoanalysis was founded in Europe; Western doctors ‘brought it with them’ to Morocco in the context of colonialisation. What was the significance of that for the general acceptance of its methods? What did it mean for you? Did you, or do you, regard psychoanalysis as a ‘Western’ concept?

    During the colonial period people in North Africa, especially in Morocco, became interested in psychoanalysis. This happened almost without people noticing, and unintentionally, thanks to doctors who initially came for a limited period without intending to introduce psychoanalysis as a method. But their presence left a mark in some psychiatric clinics and departments. In the Middle East, Egypt was the country where a small anglophone group existed from the 1930s to the 1950s, later dissolving as a result of social and political pressure. Lebanon, where psychoanalysis became firmly established from the 1970s onwards, came next. Not a lot happened in Morocco during this period, because French medical specialists were among those who left the country after independence in 1956 and the withdrawal of the colonial power. French psychiatrists were focussed on Franco-French patients; they had also paid hardly any attention to Moroccan and Arab-Islamic culture. René Laforgue was one of the few exceptions; he had been in direct contract with Freud in Berlin, but he was very controversial after the war. His work was not systematic; he made very crude generalisations, and was cut off from Moroccan reality.

    However, a crucial element in the mediation of psychoanalysis is scrutinising the respective cultural context, and working in the context of the language and culture of the respective country or society. From my point of view, I had to ‘deconstruct’ the theories of the colonial age, in the sense of Jacques Derrida, in order to penetrate them critically and situate them in the context of the period. In my opinion it is less a question of adaptation than the reappropriation of knowledge. In this way the cultural specifics, the ‘words’ (mots) of the culture, are capable of enriching the universal symbolic background.

    Sigmund Freud worked with representations, images and metaphors taken from ancient Greek mythology and literature, including figures such as Oedipus and Narcissus. Given this background, how was it possible for an adaptation or reappropriation of the central ideas of psychoanalysis to take place in Morocco, with its very different cultural influences?

    Psychoanalysis was founded more than one hundred years ago in Vienna. But the concept of the unconscious was and still is a hypothesis that withstands practical scrutiny. We encounter parapraxis, slips of the tongue and repression in individuals of all cultures. Apart from that, every culture has its own stories and myths. Take A Thousand and One Nights, for example. A story like that of the fisherman Jaoudar is a perfect example of how the fisherman is confronted with his incestuous phantasms concerning his mother, and how he frees himself from them. We are dealing here with the same objects as those that constitute the foundation of psychoanalytical concepts.

    Psychoanalysis according to Sigmund Freud addressed three great themes: the autonomous individual, sexuality, and religion. Freud came from a Jewish family; he was a confirmed atheist, and considered religion to be a kind of neurosis. What significance does Freud’s criticism of religion have for the way he is received in Morocco, and in other countries in the region?

    Psychoanalysis does indeed address the individual. The processes of social change in Morocco have resulted in people increasingly articulating themselves as individuals, questioning authorities, traditions and taboos. They have also been demanding more rights for women. Psychoanalysis has accompanied these developments by creating space for people to be heard as individuals, and by supplying a discourse that questioned the other discourses. As far as sexuality is concerned – traditions may perhaps be able to suppress it, but bans are very often ignored, because it is simply not possible to suppress individual desires. Young people destabilise the bans by evading them, by confusing the codes. We have also seen almost everything being called into question: women’s subjugation to male authority, the restriction of their role to reproduction, and their exclusion from the public realm. As far as religion is concerned, Freud did indeed describe it as a collective neurosis, but his position evolved in this respect and he did ultimately concede that the dimension of the sacred had its place. Today many practising people of faith come to analysis, Muslims and non-Muslims, all over the world. Analysis helps them to distinguish faith from neurosis.

    You have now been working as a psychiatrist and psychoanalyst in Rabat for more than three decades. How have ideas in Moroccan society about ‘insanity’ and ‘normality’, about psychic illness and health, developed in this time?

    Ideas have changed dramatically, especially since the 1980s, in many stages. In the 1980s traditional and scientific discourses and forms of treatment still existed alongside one another, whereby the traditional forms of treatment included the field of religion, the realm of marabouts and magic. People believed in the tradition on the one hand and science on the other, and the two intermingled.

    Gradually the two realms separated, although the two still existed alongside each other. With the passing of time, complex syndromes involving hallucinations and delirium were no longer interpreted as possession but as a sign of psychological illness. Today, symptoms such as, for example, hysterical crises, phobias, compulsive behaviour, psychosomatic manifestations, are no longer attributed to spirits; instead, people look for individual causes. This doesn’t mean that the traditional practices have completely disappeared: far from it. But scientific forms of treatment are becoming increasingly dominant. At the same time the tabooing of psychological illnesses has diminished. More and more people from all milieus go to see specialists for the treatment of psychological problems.

    As far as psychotherapy is concerned, be it behavioural therapy, family therapy or psychoanalysis, it develops primarily in the large cities. It is clear to many people nowadays that medication alone is no solution, but that language, talking, and comprehension of the symptoms are necessary. That’s the context in which psychoanalysis is returning and developing, but we are still right at the beginning.

    The significance of language

    How has your engagement with psychoanalysis changed your personal view of the world and of society? How has the method affected your self-image as a citizen and as a person? How has it affected your perception of the power relationships in your environment?

    First and foremost, psychoanalysis made me accord due significance to language, both in my clinical work and in my personal life. Psychoanalysis teaches you to call things by their name, but it also teaches you to be silent if there is nothing more to say, if you need time to think, if you should listen to the other. Psychoanalysis also allowed me to open myself to art and literature. It’s not an ideology, but it taught me to separate the individual from the collective. What happens on the individual level always affects the group. Today, psychoanalysis is more relevant than ever, in view of the constantly recurring primitive instincts, with their attendant cruelty and hatred, that we are seeing now in all the wars and armed conflicts. Dictatorships exist only in order to imprison and nourish hatred. Without the influence of culture and education, civilisation and our humanity will perish.

    What status do psychology and psychoanalysis have in Morocco today, as academic subjects and in public debates?

    Nowadays psychology is an ordinary subject in the universities in the big cities, in Rabat, Casablanca and Marrakesh. Psychoanalysis is represented by associations, and specialised training is on offer. The medical faculty of the University of Marrakesh has now, for the first time in Morocco, introduced certified further training in psychoanalysis, meaning that it is possible for young psychiatrists to acquire an additional qualification in this discipline. Psychoanalysis is recognised on all levels: as medical practice, but also as a discourse in societal debates, including in the media. It contributes to the opening up of society in that it questions the dominant discourses, whether political, ideological, cultural or religious. Of course, we will only be able to say psychoanalysis has really arrived when psychoanalysis mixes with the culture, when a Maghreb psychopathology develops that operates in the language of the country. Current work, even if there is not a great deal of it, is heading in this direction.

    Psychoanalysis, psychoanalytical terms and categories have become part of the public discourse, also in Morocco. Do you see a difference here between francophone and arabophone milieus?

    In Morocco, psychoanalysis has so far certainly remained a privilege of the francophone section of the population. But there are also some levels of arabophone society that refer to it, that challenge and question its methods, and accept the discourse – also where religion is concerned, especially when this is interpreted in a dogmatic, closed way as something that explains and regulates everything. Morocco functions as a bridge. Psychoanalysts in Western countries look to Morocco first in order to understand how customs and traditions function, and to find out how things are progressing with their discipline in this part of the world. I think that psychoanalysis will constantly rediscover itself here.

    The interview was conducted via e-mail and Skype by Martina Sabra, who also translated it from French to German.
    Professor Dr. Jalil Bennani is a psychologist and psychotherapist in Rabat. His numerous publications include Psychanalyse en terre d’islam [Psychoanalysis in Islamic Cultures and Countries] (Arcanes Eres/Le Fennec, 2008).

    Translated by Charlotte Collins

    Copyright: Goethe-Institut e. V., Fikrun wa Fann
    November 2014
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