How midcentury Arab thinkers embraced the ideas of Freud


Egyptian leader Gamal Abdel Nasser cheered by supporters in Cairo, 1956 PHOTO/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 Ru?ba 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.

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