"Violence that would consume it whole and eventually damage the collective mental health of its people": Lebanese and Syrian narratives of trauma, war, and treatment, 1900-2018

By Beverly Tsacoyianis
Submitted to Session P5143 (Politics of Mental Health and Psychiatry in the Emerging State, 2018 Annual Meeting
Lebanon; Syria;
19th-21st Centuries;
LCD Projector without Audio;
This paper blends medical, social, and cultural history approaches with anthropological and literary methods to analyze trauma, anxiety, and conflict in twentieth- and twenty-first century Lebanon and Syria. Based on evidence in psychiatric records, interviews, film, and literary sources, this research shows that biomedical and vernacular frameworks existed in tandem and often in tension with one another as the tumultuous events of the past 120 years (world wars, genocide, famine, regional wars, civil wars, sectarian conflict, brutal state repression, migration and refugee status) necessitated survival strategies that sought to cope with the ruptures of the past even as they produced or exacerbated ruptures in communities, families, and individuals. Informed by Franz Fanon's research on "reactionary psychoses" in 1950s and 1960s Algeria, as well as theories in trauma studies and religious studies, this research analyzes hospital records from the Lebanon Hospital (Asfouriyeh) as well as more than 100 patient case files spanning the 1920s to 1990s from Ibn Sina Hospital (in Douma) to complicate the binaries of "sane" and "insane", "modern" and "traditional", and "science" versus "superstition" in healing practices. I draw from data collected in numerous interviews with Syrian psychiatrists, psychologists, and faith-based practitioners conducted between 2008 and 2017 to support my argument to include faith (in treatment, in the relevant system, and in local communities) as a significant factor in choosing treatment options. Coupled with ethnographic data, political analysis (including from Raphael Lefevre's Ashes of Hama), film analysis (including from Lina Khatib), and works of Lebanese and Syrian semi-autobiographical historical fiction and journalistic accounts from female writers Alia Malek and Samar Yazbek, this analysis also reflects on the ways individuals perceive their sense of a ruptured self and ruptured nation as well as the gendered experiences of political upheaval and disrupted social order. The sources also suggest that individuals come to perceive various treatments differently during periods of intense loss of human life, as with the Lebanese Civil War and the current Syrian Civil War. While filmic and literary sources have acted as both a window and a mirror, collective amnesia, self-censorship, and disparate and conflicted community collective memories appear to manifest in both Lebanon and Syria as coping mechanisms that alternately re-traumatize, diminish the significant loss, marginalize specific non-normative identities or dissenting narratives of experience, and perpetuate the conditions under which new trauma may occur.