Interview with Omnia El Shakry

The next few months we’ll be highlighting authors who have published in Culture, Medicine, and Psychiatry.

Omnia El Shakry is a professor of history at the University of California, Davis. Her research centers on the history of the human and religious sciences in modern Egypt.

What is your article “The Work of Illness in the Aftermath of a ‘Surpassing Disaster’: Medical Humanities in the Middle East and North Africa” about?

“The article serves as a commentary on new work in the medical humanities in the Middle East, while posing a series of questions. What happens when we question the role of the expert and the idea of the detached rationality of expertise in medicine and psychiatry? How should we account for the cultural specificity of illness and of healing practices in the Middle East, particularly in institutional contexts in which the mental hospital aspired to function as a ‘healing collective’? Given that the Middle East has been at the center of a series of catastrophic events, how can we understand the persistent inability of modern medicine to understand physical anguish, but also spiritual pain, within this context? Middle East studies is, I think, especially well situated to consider these questions, precisely because the region is an arena in which so many of the experiments of group life—both in its traumatism and its healing—model distinct ways of imagining non-materialist understandings of illness, suffering, and healing.”

Tell us a little bit about yourself and your research interests.

“I am an intellectual historian interested in epistemology and ethics within the human and religious sciences. I am currently working on two projects– one is on the work of Sami-Ali, the Arabic translator of Sigmund Freud’s Three Essays on the Theory of Sexuality, author of a large body of original psychoanalytic writings, and translator of the poetry of Sufi masters. The second is on the vibrant movement of intellectual exchange between Muslim and Catholic scholars and religious practitioners in twentieth century Egypt.”

What drew you to this project?

“I was a participant in the conference “Power in Medicine: Interrogating the Place of Medical Knowledge in the Modern Middle East,” organized by Edna Bonhomme, Lamia Moghnieh, and Shehab Ismail in Berlin in April of 2019. The piece is a commentary on the specific articles that came out of that conference and are published in CMP and on the wider issues raised by the workshop. But it is more than that, it is also partly and indirectly a reflection on my own personal experience with illness, my frustration with biomedicine, and my dear friend and colleague Stefania Pandolfo’s inspiration and encouragement to see the ‘wound light.’”

What was one of the most interesting findings?

“I was especially struck by how intellectually generative it was to juxtapose Georges Canguilhem’s observation in the Normal and the Pathological that to be a living organism is to accept “the eventuality of catastrophic reactions,” alongside Jalal Toufic’s theorization of the “withdrawal of tradition past a surpassing disaster.””

What are you reading, listening to, and/or watching right now?

“I am currently reading David Marriott’s brilliant Lacan Noir: Lacan and Afro-pessimism. I am (almost) always listening to The Mountain Goats and I watch a ton of TV, which I affectionately refer to as ‘cheap therapy,’ and have been enjoying The Peripheral and the current season of Bob’s Burgers.”

If there was one takeaway or action point you hope people will get from your work, what would it be?

“That we should work toward imagining the non-West as a site for the production and critique of theoretical knowledge (or ‘theory’) within the human sciences, rather than merely a site for its consumption and circulation.”

Thank you for your time!

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