Trauma and the 1980s in Arabic Literary Studies

By Anne-Marie McManus

What is a literary history of the present? There are many ways to imagine such a project and its debt to Foucauldian genealogy, from accounts of how literature writes history to how the notion of literature is a historical aspect of the present. This essay, part of the upcoming workshop, “The Literary 1980s in the MENA: Towards a History of the Present”, asks what trauma has come to name in Arabic literary studies since the 1980s. Approaching trauma as a situated, translational paradigm, it connects modes of reading for trauma in the anglophone field to the global rise of trauma since the 1980s, on one hand, and to Arabic novels depicting that era, on the other. It calls for critical attention to uses of the trauma paradigm in the field; the modes of subjectivity it produces and marginalizes; and the trajectories of historical narrative it authorizes.[1]

A buzzword of the contemporary, trauma is ‘everywhere’ – as are scholars, critics, and journalists wringing their hands over the term’s diluted meaning and denouncing it for the dominance of victimhood in political culture.[2] Such critiques highlight the powerful legitimating uses of trauma today. Establishing its presence might be a path for individuals to secure asylum, aid, or psychiatric treatment – all promises of better futures.[3] On the global stage, appeals to trauma carry moral weight in struggles for justice against war crimes and forced disappearances, a liberal political economy in which Euro-American novels play a key role.[4] In Arabic literary fields, writing about trauma can be a condition for recognition as a ‘serious’ literary writer.[5] Trauma’s ascent also signals a historical orientation that looks to “past violence” for the marks it leaves “on the present and future”.[6]

In its classical definition, trauma is a wound of the mind that provokes compulsive repetition of the injuring event, typically belatedly. The rise of trauma’s current, neurobiologically-inflected form is traced to 1980. That year, PTSD was formalized as a diagnosis by the American Psychological Association, the product of a political struggle led by activists and researchers who worked with Vietnam veterans.[7] Over the 1980s, trauma’s repetitive drive and unrepresentability dovetailed with the aesthetic and philosophical concerns of deconstruction in the US academy. Founding works by scholars like Cathy Caruth and Shoshana Felman in the 1990s established the anglophone field of trauma studies.[8] The critiques began not long after, including trauma studies’ imposition of a universal, Western paradigm of suffering on the world and the limitation of representing trauma to “experimental, (post)modernist textual strategies”.[9]

While trauma is commonly used in contemporary Arabic literary studies, it’s widely understood that the paradigm developed in anglophone contexts, notably Holocaust studies.[10] Several translations for trauma circulate in Arabic, including sadmah and faji‘ah, from whence the title of Nora Parr’s initiative in Palestinian literature, “What’s the Arabic for ‘Trauma’?”[11] Parr and others foreground the need to probe the theoretical underpinnings and assumptions of trauma approaches to literature in non-Western contexts.[12] This turn echoes an ongoing, postcolonial critique of trauma, most recently centered around Aminatta Forna’s novel Happiness.[13] Forna’s protagonist attributes today’s trauma episteme to the worldview of an “untouched”, privileged class: “raised under glass […] they lived in terror of what they could not control […] terrified of the slightest hurt, afraid of fear itself”.[14] Curiously, the postcolonial critique has little to say about colonialism’s historical role in shaping notions of mental health – an area well-documented in the MENA context.[15]

Photo: private.

While applauding interrogations of theory and its translations, I shift away from an emphasis on trauma as a foreign object. Arabic literary studies and its object are constituted by divisions – secular/religious, modern/traditional, and in this case, authentic/imported – that undercut a genealogical approach.[16] Trauma circulates today in multinational, fragmented, and multilingual Arabic literary fields. Viewed from a Syrian literary perspective, the Berlin-based al-Jumhuriya features authors who fluently deploy triggers and trauma to express experiences of pain and loss.[17] In the Syrian novel, Samer Yazbek notes anxiety medication in her war diaries, and Dima Wannous writes the war through a therapeutic setting. A dismissal of these developments as contrived or Western-facing would be cynical to say the least, perpetuating the denials of agency that many use trauma to name. As the contexts of literary production shift (often violently and in response to violence), so do its conceptual languages and forms.

Trauma can be critically read as global form not in its manifestations (i.e., the untenable claim that a universal subject suffers universally), but in its presumed capacity to translate something about human and non-human experiences. ‘Presumed’ is a key term: since the 1980s, “trauma, the universally shared wound, became a framework through which suffering produced by violence is made legible and recognizable”, yet it leaves out myriad “affective experiences”, collective constructs for meaning, temporalities of persistent violence, techniques of survival and healing, among many more.[18] In other words, trauma’s flawed translational dominance in the present is part of the term’s unfolding history between the MENA and the anglophone academy.

In this multidirectional, translational context, I see post-1980 engagements with trauma in Arabic literary studies as resources for more nuanced notions of the subject, memory, and time in situated contexts of violence. Literature is not an ethnographic document, meaning it does more than mirror conditions at the center of today’s debates about living in, with, and in anticipation of violence. The strawman of universal trauma thus risks distracting from the complexities of asking what trauma has, since the 1980s, named in Arabic literature and how its analysis can more expansively capture the translational efforts and frictions of narrating pain, loss, and survival.

Trauma and the 1980s

The 1980s in the MENA encompass events that have, in various ways, been conceptualized as traumatic in literature and its analysis. This is not to announce the 1980s as a traumatic decade – a vague claim, paradigmatic of our moment – or to minimize other events, such as colonialism or the Nakba.[19] More modestly, I list some 1980s events that were memorialized in literature or cultural analysis in such a way as to shape anglophone Arabic literary studies’ approaches to trauma.[20] They include:

  • Morocco’s Years of Lead. The state’s incarceration of its opponents produced a significant corpus of prison literature in Arabic and French, for which trauma has been a key analytical construct.[21] This stands in contrast to Syrian prison literature, also born of state detention campaigns in the 1980s, where the trauma lens has played a less significant role.
  • The Lebanese Civil War (1975–1990). Beginning in the late 1970s, a pioneering corpus of novels depicted the violence and disintegration of the subject. Less remarked on is the influence of this war on the visual and aural codes of artists growing up in the 1980s.[22]
  • Al-Infitah (economic liberalization) in Egypt, which coded the state’s suppression of the 1967 defeat, the rise of neoliberalism, and the crushing of leftist ideology.[23]
  • The uprising of October 1988 in Algeria, memorialized as the first step towards the Dark Decade of the 1990s. Novelist Assia Djebar’s works in the 1990s limn “the ‘unspeakability’ and disorder of trauma” yet also trouble the work of memorialization.[24] This approach critiques the National Liberation Front’s (FLN) state monopolization of public memory since independence, a form of historical censorship Algerian psychoanalyst Karima Lazali theorizes as national trauma.[25]

Literature’s need to write traumatic injury is thus often connected to state control over historical narrative, notably in Lebanon, where the civil war remains unintegrated into national memory. These erasures perpetuate the violence by silencing victims and blocking public mourning. Yet in Morocco and post-1990s Algeria, the opposite dynamic played out: states engaged in ‘therapeutic history’, defining victims and their possible mourning to the exclusion of other losses and their remembrance.[26]

Photo: private.

The affects of secular intellectuals facing the collapse of progressive narratives – from the Arab Left to anti-colonial liberation – provide a further tie across these sites. In a twist on the novel’s role in shaping the liberal trauma imaginary, writing trauma during and after events in 1980s MENA may have expressed and thereby assuaged “a postapocalyptic sensibility” among the literary elite that was “linked to a sense of enlightenment disempowerment”.[27] In the 1980s, this sensibility was layered with national and regional defeats, the perceived victory of conservative religious forces, and the ascent of neoliberalism.[28] In distinct contexts of collapse, the making and consumption of literature “brings at least the belief that one understands” – by narrating or refusing to narrate – the catastrophe.[29] Yet the prevalence of what could be called trauma narratives today, when MENA literary and cultural works express recursive, everyday apocalypse, goes beyond attempted masteries of unrepresentable loss. It’s in this context that scrutiny of the post-1980 trauma paradigm in the field takes on distinctive urgency.

Towards New Subjectivities

The implicit subject of trauma is a passive victim in need of care and protection; they are wounded by an encounter with a sudden, perhaps one-time event that they are subsequently bound to repeat and work through.[30] This trauma subject is also a historical construct who moves (or is healed to move) predictably and individually through linear time rather than becoming, for example, apathetic, oblivious, or ecstatic towards loss, or inhabiting the time of slow violence. If it is accepted that this subject and their narrative trajectory fails to translate the plenitude of human and non-human experience in Arabic literary studies, we might revisit post-1980 novels as situated expressions of what might be translated, or resumed, as trauma. Put otherwise, can Arabic literature of and since the 1980s offer a resource for thinking the present critically?

A brief example can be drawn from Elias Khoury in Beirut, in 1982, refusing the pastless present conjured by “the transformation of war into daily life, into a slow burning fire which runs and grows at the interior of the Arab continent”.[31] The spread of this slow fire as history grounds Jeff Sacks’ readings of Mahmoud Darwish’s poetics as “a lingering with loss in relation to language” that spans decades.[32] The losses that might be called trauma are sedimented, saturating the present and everyday life. “A new type of subjectivity” emerges within the present pervasiveness and historical layering of injury, “the confines of extreme vulnerability”.[33]

Consider the subjectivity appearing in Khoury’s experimental novel on the Lebanese civil war, City Gates (1981): “[the stranger] saw the fire devouring everyone […] the people were forests on fire, approaching one another and collapsing. And the odor was the same, the odor where the king is, the odor of old embers extinguished with waters, and the brackish water was on top of him and around him”.[34] An ambient, uncanny materiality shifts from fire to odor to water, overflowing and entangling the subject. Historical memory, from colonialism to the present, is no less present for being melted down, unnarrated, in a crucible of total violence. To say it is not narrated does not mean this memory is unnarratable, but rather gestures to its excessive presence.

Reading trauma through the 1980s might thus unearth unexpected continuities with the concerns of the present. Without letting the binaries of the trauma debates (individual/collective, victim/hero, authentic/foreign, etc.) dominate literary reading, scholars can explore through texts overlooked, unfolding genealogies of non-normative subjectivity, non-linear time, resilience, and healing in distinct MENA contexts. A promising critical interlocutor is the paradigm of ecotrauma, which rejects the subject’s “isolat[ion] from its socio-ecological surroundings.”[35] Still, great care should be taken with the politics of decentering the human in the MENA, where the degradation and mass loss of human life remain largely accepted realities of global politics.

An attention to continuity should not, however, marginalize the ongoing production of ruptures with the 1980s and its critical legacies. ‘Alaa ‘Abdel Fattah’s gloss on post-humanism appears in his collected prison writings, You Have Not Yet Been Defeated. After citing Donna Haraway’s post-humanist Cyborg Manifesto, he declares:

We shall look to the lizards, starfish and earthworms – those beings that can regenerate after any injury, no matter how grave. We shall accept that regenerated organs may not be identical to what was lost. They could appear mutilated, but look closer and you will see the beauty in monstrosity, for only the monstrous can hold both the history of dreams and hopes, and the reality of defeat and pain together.[36]

It would be possible to read ‘Abdel Fattah’s ‘metaphor on healing’ as a rejection of a certain kind of victimhood stance, in formation since the 1980s, as a legitimating posture for politics after defeat and suffering. Yet it would do ‘Abdel Fattah a disservice to reduce his writing to a debate with trauma studies. Rather, his claim of new lineages with starfish and earthworms – creatures that regenerate amidst slow, persistent violence – can be understood to rearrange a particular constellation of past, present, and future, one inherited by today’s revolutionary generation from 1980s intellectuals. Through what is essentially a rereading (not a suppression) of the meanings that past violence can yield, ‘Abdel Fattah defends a new, monstrous, but no less agentive subject for politics in a time of ongoing apocalypses.


References

[1] I thank Georges Khalil, Lamia Moghnieh, and Nancy Reynolds for their generous feedback.

[2] Lexi Pandell, “How trauma became the word of the decade”, Vox, 25 January 2022. On victimhood, see: Didier Fassin and Richard Rechtman, Empire of Trauma: An Inquiry into the Condition of Victimhood (Princeton UP, 2009), 211–12.

[3] On aid and futures, see: Lamia Moghnieh, “Infrastructures of Suffering: Trauma, Sumud and the Politics of Violence and Aid in Lebanon”, Medicine Anthropology Theory 8/1 (2021), 17–20; on the ‘hierarchy of suffering’ these uses of trauma enable, see: Lamia Moghnieh  and Stephan Milich, “Trauma: Social realities and cultural texts”, Middle East Topics & Arguments 11 (2018), 5–6.

[4] Lynn Hunt, Inventing Human Rights (WW Norton & Co, 2007).

[5] Felix Lang, The Lebanese Post-Civil War Novel: Memory, Trauma, and Capital (Springer, 2016), 15.

[6] Colin Davis and Hanna Meretoja, The Routledge Companion to Literature and Trauma (Routledge, 2020), 3.

[7] Ruth Leys, Trauma: A Genealogy (Chicago UP, 200), 5, 231–32.

[8] A founding figure for trauma studies in French was psychoanalyst Jean Laplanche, notably his revision of Freud’s Nachträglichkeit (“afterwardness” in Laplanche’s translation) in the 1990s. For the German context, see: Aleida Assmann, “Three Memory Anchors: Affect, Symbol, Trauma”, in Crisis and memory in Islamic societies: proceedings of the third summer academy of the Working Group Modernity and Islam, ed. Angelika Neuwirth (Würzburg: Ergon-Verlag, 2001). My thanks to Georges Khalil.

[9] Stef Craps and Gert Buelens, “Introduction: Postcolonial Trauma Novels”, Studies in the Novel 40/1–2 (2008), 5. The most prominent critique of the Western paradigm is Stef Craps’ Postcolonial Witnessing: Trauma Out of Bounds (Palgrave MacMillan, 2012).

[10] See: Tarek El-Ariss, “Return of the Beast: From Pre-Islamic Ode to Contemporary Novel”, Journal of Arabic Literature 47/1–2 (2016), 70–71; and Jeffrey Sacks and Nouri Gana, discussed below.

[11] See the project “What’s the Arabic for ‘trauma’? Compelling answers to a convoluted question”.

[12] Milich and Moghnieh offer an excellent overview, op.cit; see also Felix Lang, “No Such Thing as Society? A Critique of Hegemonic Notions of Trauma in the Research on Cultural Production”, Middle East-Topics & Arguments 11 (2018), 154–58.

[13] See for example: “Book Forum” in Journal of Postcolonial Literary Inquiry 6/3 (Sept. 2019), 388–422.

[14] Aminatta Forna, Happiness (Atlantic Monthly Press, 2018), 232. Forna participates in academic debates on her novel, an existing tradition in postcolonial anglophone studies. The barriers between professional theoretical analysis and literary production were often high in the MENA context of the 1980s to the present – but are shifting in today’s diaspora.

[15] See for example: Richard C. Keller, Colonial Madness, (University of Chicago Press, 2008); Ranjana Khanna, Dark Continents (Duke UP, 2003); and Beverly Tsacoyianis, Disturbing Spirits: Mental Illness, Trauma, and Treatment in Modern Syria and Lebanon (University of Notre Dame Press, 2021). A contemporary critique of trauma for Palestine is Lena Meari’s “Reconsidering trauma: Towards a Palestinian community psychology”, Journal of Community Psychology 43/1 (2015): 76–86.

[16] Jeffrey Sacks, “Futures of Literature: Inhitat, Adab, Naqd”, diacritics 37/4 (2007), 32–55.

[17] See for example: Yasmin Mashaan, “The Tadamon massacre reopens untold wounds”, Al-Jumhuriya, 5 May 2022; and in Arabic.

[18] Lamia Moghnieh, “(Interrupted) Writing in Apocalyptic Times: Suffering, Survival, and Rebuilding”, Perpetual Postponement, 20 December 2021.

[19] Rosemary Sayigh, “On the exclusion of the Palestinian Nakba from the ‘trauma genre’”, Journal of Palestine Studies 43/1 (2013), 51–60.

[20] A wider list would include the Iran–Iraq War and scholarship (e.g., Zainab Saleh’s Return to Ruin) on accumulated violence in Iraqi experiences.

[21] Susan Slyomovics, “The argument from silence: Morocco’s truth commission and women political prisoners”, Journal of Middle East Women’s Studies 1/3 (2005), 73–95; Brahim El Guabli, “Theorizing intergenerational trauma in Tazmamart testimonial literature and docu-testimonies”, Middle East-Topics & Arguments 11 (2018), 120–30; and Norman Saadi Nikro and Sonja Hegasy, eds., The Social Life of Memory: Violence, Trauma, and Testimony in Lebanon and Morocco (Springer, 2017).

[22] Marwan Tahtah, “Pictures of Beirut: Between the spark of war and the fire of uprising”, Syria Untold, 30 November 2021.

[23] For an excellent overview of 1980s Egypt, trauma, and debates on turath and historical memory, see: Yoav Di-Capua, “The Traumatic Subjectivity of Ṣunʿ Allāh Ibrāhīm’s Dhāt”, Journal of Arabic Literature 43/1 (2012) 80–83.

[24] Lucy Brisley, “Trauma Theory, Melancholia and the Postcolonial Novel: Assia Djebar’s Algerian White/Le Blanc de l’Algérie”, in Postcolonial Traumas (Palgrave Macmillan, London, 2015), 118.

[25] Karima Lazali, Le trauma colonial, (La Découverte, 2018).

[26] Idriss Jebari, “Therapeutic history and the enduring memories of violence in Algeria and Morocco”, Middle East-Topics & Arguments 11 (2018), 108–19.

[27] Dominick LaCapra, Writing History, Writing Trauma, (John Hopkins UP, 2001), xxv.

[28] Fadi Bardawil summarizes this sensibility of the Arab left in: Bardawil, Revolution and Disenchantment: Arab Marxism and the Binds of Emancipation (Duke UP, 2020), 4.

[29] LaCapra, Writing History, xxv. An example of refusal is Sonallah Ibrahim’s novel Dhat (1992), his response to the 1980s after eight years of silence. Ibrahim’s non-progressive narrative defies victimization, historical narrative, and causal explanation, crafting a new form for what the author announces as trauma (sadmah). See Di-Capua, op.cit., 96.

[30] Lamia Moghnieh, “‘The violence we live in’: reading and experiencing violence in the field”, Contemporary Levant 2/1 (2017), 30–31.

[31] Jeffrey Sacks, Iterations of Loss: Mutilation and Aesthetic Form, Al-Shidyaq to Darwish (Fordham UP, 2015), 159.

[32] Ibid., 67; on 1982 see: Ibid., 73.

[33] Nouri Gana, Signifying Loss: Toward a Poetics of Narrative Mourning (Bucknell UP, 2011), 160.

[34] Khoury cited in ibid., 164.

[35] Deniz Gundogan Ibrisim, “Trauma, Critical Posthumanism and New Materialism”, in The Routledge Companion to Literature and Trauma (Routledge, 2020), 230. See her overview of ecocritical approaches to trauma: 232–33.

[36] ‘Alaa ‘Abdel Fattah, You Have Not Yet Been Defeated, (Fitzcarraldo, 2021), 382.


Anne-Marie McManus is principal investigator of the European Research Council-funded project SYRASP (“The Prison Narratives of Assad’s Syria”, 851393) at Berlin’s Forum Transregionale Studien. Her research explores 20th and 21st-century literary and cultural practices around the representation of violence, time, and memory, drawing on both literary and anthropological methods. Along with Nancy Reynolds, she co-founded the interdisciplinary Wastelands seminar (2014–present), which investigates ecocritical and environmental approaches to the MENA and its representations, and which is supported by the Andrew Mellon Foundation. She was previously a EUME Fellow of the Alexander von Humboldt Foundation (2016/17) and received her PhD in Comparative Literature from Yale University (2013).


Citation: Anne-Marie McManus, Trauma and the 1980s in Arabic Literary Studies, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 09.06.2022, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/38945


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