Memory and the Repressed: The Possibility of Therapeutic Histories of the 1980s
By Idriss Jebari
In their hearts, historians are first storytellers who seek to offer intelligible narratives of the past. Ever since Hayden White’s Metahistory (1973), the border between history and literature has become less meaningful – to the joy of some and anxiety of others. Yet, valid questions remain: can a passage from a novel be used with the same factual authority as, say, a newspaper clipping, a police report, or a population register? What about a personal diary or a set of exchanged letters? Answering these questions brings up elements of the historian’s craft, the publicness of the novel versus the archival quality of other documents, and the referential quality of history compared to the creative nature of literature.
The porous relationship between literature and history forms the creative nexus that a range of writers have explored in the aftermath of violence in the 20th century. Authors from Primo Levi to Gyorgy Dragoman have demonstrated how literary testimonies on the Holocaust or life under the condition of dictatorship can lift the lid on unwritten pasts, paving the way for historians. Alongside them, Middle Eastern authors such as Amin Maalouf or Elias Khoury have played a similar role for the Lebanese Civil War, and probed ways to tie together contradicting experiences and issues of remembering and forgetting.
Digging deeper into the Middle Eastern context, we may even question the usefulness of a separation between the literary and the historical spheres, especially under authoritarian closure. In contemporary Egypt, for example, the historical field has been beset by governmental red lines particularly when they clash with legitimation narratives, difficulty of access to archives, or the dominance of “non-Historian Historians” such as Mohammed Hassanein Heikal or Tareq al-Beshri. As Pascale Ghazaleh argued in 2019, historians seeking to write peoples’ histories have resorted to alternative strategies, within the institutions and archives themselves, but also outside of them, from the built landscape to the school curriculum. This leads them to become “historians of the impossible.”
In turn, literature has provided an outlet for an alternative historical discourse to be produced, once excavated. According to the literary scholar Noha Radwan, Egyptian literature should be taken seriously as sources of historical knowledge. In a 2008 article, Radwan drew on three novellas to make her point that literature can inform the events of the Egyptian 1970s because their writers “consult the [historical] archive” to write them, which then grants them “a place in the historical archive about the discourse on Egyptian-American economic and political relationships…as part of a counter-discourse to [Egypt’s] hegemonic narrative.” In Egypt, as elsewhere in the region, it is because the facts inscribed in these novels would have likely remained outside the archive due to authoritarian erasure that their inclusion by historian appears warranted; particularly as the Arab states operate regularly in the field of history and remembrance.
These examples from Egypt invite us to visit the creative encounter between history and literature during the 1980s in the Middle East, a decade of violence that is starting to be processed. It is inspired by the EUME workshop on “The Literary 1980s in the Middle East and North Africa” (29 June – 01 July 2022) that brought together a group of literary scholars and historians to engage with such questions. In this blog post, I explore and probe their porous borders, particularly during moments of upheavals and battles over painful pasts of violence. I argue that each practitioner should learn from the other rather than work toward the erasure of disciplinary borders, as they play different roles toward understanding such violent pasts. This appears particularly clearly when considering the social life of literature and history: overcoming amnesia and inscribing people’s stories into an institutionalized recollection of the past. Nonetheless, the areas where they overlap creatively have the potential to change our respective thinking on violence, the past, and memory. Therapeutic history offers a choice candidate to go forward.
In a 2018 article in Middle East Topics and Arguments, I explored “therapeutic history” as a meeting point between literature, history, and socio-political life in Algeria and Morocco. I assessed the two countries’ experiences of transitional justice in their ability to “produce a new historical narrative of these periods [of violence] to heal the populations’ wounds by replacing a narrative of repressed memories, silence, and resentment with one of forgiveness and ‘moving on.’” Trauma scholars such as Martha Minnow have drawn our attention for the need to “break the cycle of hatred” or the reliving of historical trauma by introducing circuit-breaking acts between victims and perpetrators, often symbolic such as apologies or reparations, or rewriting national narratives that are inclusive of victim groups’ past experience of violence. South Africa after apartheid offers the paradigmatic case on how forgiveness can be performed and drive a fractured community toward healing rather than seeking revenge, or faced with the impracticality of full accountability. My article also highlighted the essential work carried out by literature prior to the processes of transitional justice that allowed civil society and the public to make pressing demands for the truth. In contemporary Algeria and Morocco, the memory of civil war or the regime’s authoritarian repression was carried by novels and memoirs sometimes a decade prior. They were serialized in newspapers or tolerated in the book market compared to other forms of public speech perhaps because of their literary status as works of fiction.
Where does the discipline of history fit in this process and why should it matter? Contrary to certain facile aphorisms, debating the past in the MENA region is not the exclusive domain of dusty old men in austere faculties but often takes up center stage, inflaming public passions. Nor is it sufficient to claim that “those who do not study history are doomed to repeat it.” While history has the potential to offer a reconciliatory narrative of the past to heal the nation(s), it can also be a source of conflict in itself. In the Turkish public sphere, for example, the question of the 1915 Armenian Genocide has sparked passionate debates from its advocates faced with their adversaries, all fighting over the Kemalist narrative of the past as told in an article by Duygu Gül Kaya. Similarly, last year saw French president Macron enlist the historian Benjamin Stora to draft a report on the French colonization of Algeria and a series of measures intended to “heal past wounds”, and facilitate an inter-state reconciliation between the two countries. Hence, the relationship between literature, history and reconciliation after violence appears worth exploring but seems to require specific circumstances to succeed. We might indulge in a counter-factual by asking if historical revisionism would have been possible in Turkey, France, Algeria or Morocco without the novels or movies of preceding years, or if these efforts would have been curtained by social and political backlash. Regardless, they now constitute a body of accounts and stories that tease historians particularly in the absence of accessible state archives. Under which modalities, and after which adjustments should this literature of the violent past be integrated in historians’ thinking as a potential archive?
These questions guided my discussion of the second panel of the EUME workshop on the “Literary 1980s” which was devoted to “Memory and the Repressed: Returns in Literature and Literary Fields”. The panelists were: Brahim El Guabli (Williams College) on “Amazigh Literature: Memory, Amazighitude, and the Construction of a Literary Field”, Sophia Brown (FU Berlin) on “Narratives of the Israeli Occupation, Then and Now: The Life Writing of Raja Shehadeh”, and Sibel Irzık (Sabanci Universitesi) on “The Black Book: Mapping the Imaginary Underworld of the 1980s in Turkey.“
These literary scholars helped us think about the multiple temporalities of literary accounts of past traumas, which diverge from the historians’ search for precise historical periodization; as such, this divergence presents an opportunity for a creative confrontation of views. In other words, the literature of the 1980s may be processing violence from the 1960s. Similarly, police violence or ethnic strife in the 1980s might only be explored in the 1990s or today. The time lag between the event and when it is processed in writing is an invitation to think creatively and fluidly about the “when” of this literature. In the following, I revisit some tensions that emerged from my positionality as a historian on these three papers in MENA literature, as a way of structuring possible future discussions regarding memory, violence and historical reconciliation.
Each paper in its own way demonstrates how literature offers a remedy against historical erasure by encoding collective memory in the text. Literature can lead the fight against amnesia by eluding state control when its authors deploy subversive strategies that give substance to otherwise suppressed feelings. These feelings include cultural alienation to rapid modernization or political clampdowns. The papers also confirmed the multitude of temporal relations to the past and the need to reach back into the sixties to identify the political origin of certain cultural movements, or imagine that certain events of the eighties might only be depicted several decades later, since time can often allow writers to confront their trauma more forcefully. Thus, the literary 1980s was a window into other temporalities, coming before and continuing on. Finally, the potential of these literary episodes to open a space for therapeutic history and national reconciliation is promising, though with several caveats: can it lead to better understanding between warring sides and promote empathy and humanization over victimhood? how do cultural movements of minority groups lead to producing more inclusive national narratives for the majority? and can literature purport to facilitate reconciliation while the violence is ongoing and prior to achieving some closure? The imperative of politics is perhaps a reminder that closure and reconciliation cannot be preempted but harnessed when the opportunity comes.
My first conclusion as a historian looking at three literary scholars’ treatment of the 1980s is that our fields converge on several points, but they remain distinguishable from each other. The areas of tension highlighted above between literature and history offer sites of productive engagement because they are dynamic and evolving. While literary and cultural initiatives prepare the terrain of transitional justice and redressing past trauma, they can also enrich the archive in certain circumstances, as long as we place reasonable expectations on them. Perhaps, then, the porous borders between literature and history in the MENA context should be seen as a transitory stage on the road to something else, such as the reconciliation between people’s experience of the past and the historical narrative about it. Here, we return to violence as a thread that connects and reveals the dynamic relationship that literary scholars and historians can have when working together. It starts by revisiting each side’s contribution, as can be concluded from the workshop on the 1980s in the MENA region.
What the historian brings is a grounded look at how the past is turned into a historical narrative. We are sometimes led to believe that violence contradicts and frustrates historical writing, especially regarding traumatic pasts. Furthermore, we repeat that moving on after violence is about remembering the past, and that the opposite of trauma comes in the shape of as rich and plural testimonies of violence as possible. On the first point, more of similar testimonies does not guarantee an analogous improvement of quality or quantity of historical production on any episode of violence, once the lid of silence is initially broken. On the second, violence is a central part of the process, from the moment archives are constituted – which documents are included or taken out – to the experiences and perspectives that become an accepted version of past events. These decisions are rife with violence and they are taken by communities, from official historians to ordinary people, on the level of violence that is necessary to sustain the larger whole, while offering an intelligible version of the past. These two points plunge us into the reality of producing history under violence and authoritarianism.
In turn, I have come to challenge the distribution of labor that relegates literary scholars and literature as mere providers of testimonies and raw material for historians to test (and sometimes, challenge) their categories, periods, and frameworks. Literature demonstrates a capacity to embrace contradictory viewpoints and the coexistence of ambiguous truths, as we often see in thorny debates including the memory of colonialism, ethnic and sectarian violence, and whether healing can occur without formal accountability or reparations. Therapeutic histories display how literary scholars have already been reflecting and constituting archives, the historical value of their corpus, and the political implications of their texts – traditionally, questions for historians that further demonstrate the benefits of cross-disciplinary conversations.
Hence, I reach the admittedly evident conclusion that historians and literary scholars have much to learn from each other. While we have been tempted to erase the borders between the two fields and depict them as being porous, I have argued here for the benefits of making them more visible in order to set up a creative showdown, not for its own sake, but to disrupt and generate new insights. One area which has benefitted from identifying the disciplinary fault lines has been to leave aside the imperative of “remembering” and focus more on the act of “forgetting” as a possible path toward reconciliation with painful pasts.
Idriss Jebari is an Assistant Professor in Middle East Studies at Trinity College Dublin who researches North African intellectual and cultural history and Arab thought. He has published on theory and practice of Arab intellectual engagements, and on collective memory of leftist groups in the Arab world and its role for reconciliation processes and transitional justice.
 Hayden White, ‘The value of narrativity in the representation of reality,’ Critical Inquiry, 7(1) (1980); Hayden White, “The Question of Narrative in Contemporary Historical Theory,” History and Theory 23.1 (1984), 1-33.
 David Cannadine, What is History Now? (Palgrave MacMillan, 2002), 67-8.
 Pascale Ghazaleh, “Past Imperfect, Future Tense: Writing People’s Histories in the Middle East Today.” Essays of the Forum Transregionale Studien 5 (2019), Berlin 2019, 21.
 Noha Radwan, “A Place for Fiction in the Historical Archive,” Critique: Critical Middle Eastern Studies 17.1 (2008), 80.
 Radwan, “A Place for Fiction in the Historical Archive,” (2008), 94; Laurie Brand, Official Stories: Politics and National Narratives in Egypt and Algeria (Stanford University Press, 2014).
 “Therapeutic History and the Enduring Memories of Violence in Algeria and Morocco,” Middle East Topics and Arguments (2018), 109.
 Martha Minnow, Breaking the Cycle of Hatred: Memory, Law, and Repair (Princeton University Press, 2002).
 Jill Salberg and Sue Grand, editors. Wounds of History: Repair and Resilience in the Trans-generational Transmission of Trauma. Routledge, 2017; Kimberly Lanegran, “Truth Commissions, Human Rights Trials, and the Politics of Memory,” Comparative Studies of South Asia, Africa and the Middle East 25. 1(2005), 111-125; Brandon Hamber, Brandon and Richard A. Wilson, “Symbolic Closure through Memory, Reparation and Revenge in Post-conflict Societies,” in The Role of Memory in Ethnic Conflict, edited by Cairns Ed and Micheal Roe (Palgrave Macmillan, 2003), 144-168.
 Gul Kaya, Dugyu. “Coming to Terms with the Past: Rewriting History Through a Therapeutic Public Discourse in Turkey.” International Journal of Middle East Studies, 47 (2015), 681-700.
 The latter’s methodology has come under fire from Algerian historians, political, and wider public for being exclusionary in nature and mostly concerned with reconciling French people with their own past rather than bringing in Algerians in this process. Susan Slyomovics, “Commissioning memorial reconciliation: The Stora Report and Algeria’s Ottoman Cannon,” Modern & Contemporary France (2022), online article; Robert Mortimer, “The Stora Report,” Modern & Contemporary France (2022), online article; Karim Benamar, “Malika Rahal, Historienne: ‘Le rapport Stora est un objet compliqué’” Liberté Algérie (20 January 2021) direct link: https://www.liberte-algerie.com/actualite/le-rapport-stora-est-un-objet-complique-353338
Further articles in the TRAFO series The Literary 1980s in the Middle East and North Africa:
Anne-Marie McManus, Trauma and the 1980s in Arabic Literary Studies, 09 June 2022
Samad Alavi, Against Remembering: The Fictional Truth of a Massacre, 10 November 2022
Citation: Idriss Jebari, Memory and the Repressed: The Possibility of Therapeutic Histories of the 1980s, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 18.11.2022, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/42762