Treating Minds and Spirits: Psychiatry and Non-Biomedical Healing Practices in 1920s-1960s Syria

By Beverly Tsacoyianis
Submitted to Session P2424 (Histories of Disability in the Middle East, 2010 Annual Meeting
19th-21st Centuries; Health; History of Medicine;
In 1980, Parisian-trained psychiatrist Abdul-Massih Khalaf pointed out that 20th century psychiatric assistance in Syria was characterized by observation, treatment, and monitoring of hospitalized psychiatric patients that ignored the social context of their situation. The medical, social, familial and professional measures of assistance outside of the hospital networks, according to Khalaf, had not been adequately addressed.
Using court records, scientific journals, interviews with medical experts, and patient case files from Ibn Sina Mental Hospital near Damascus, I contextualize the production of a syncretic society in Syria where multiple variables influenced conceptions of normality. For example, treatment for young, unmarried, urban Muslim men institutionalized in a French-financed asylum on the outskirts of Damascus differed greatly from treatment choices of families of low-income elderly women of the predominantly Christian town of Saydnaya whose treatment involved home visits by nuns bringing blessed olive oil. The academic and popular discourse of what illness and abnormality meant, and how illness and abnormality was to be treated, resulted in diverse approaches to identity and agency in the colonial Middle East. The development of notions of physical and mental difference and the various responses to such difference was the result of a localized system that syncretized an array of biomedical and cultural understandings of health. This enabled people to identify what they considered abnormal, engage in healing practices, draw support from social networks, and harness health-related issues for political change.
This study also traces the impact of new notions of genetics on the body and its place in social networks. For example, in what ways did siblings or parents suffering from illness affect the marriageability or respectability of other family members? In what ways were unhealthy individuals autonomous? Sources I have studied so far suggest that illness and disability blurred boundaries between afflicted individuals and their families. Ultimately, I hope to decenter the model in medical history that focuses on doctors and hospitals in order to emphasize the alternatives that shared the medical arena in offering treatment for illness. The study of syncretic and pluralist arenas for healing will help scholars move beyond totalizing assumptions of what "modern" meant in treatment.