“I hope that my project gets people curious about their history” – 5in10 with Lamia Moghnieh

Lamia Moghnieh. Picture private.

Lamia Moghnieh received her PhD in Social Work and Anthropology from the University of Michigan, Ann Arbor. She also holds an MA in Social Science from the University of Chicago and an MA in Psychology from the American University of Beirut. In her dissertation “Humanitarian Psychology in War and Postwar Lebanon: Violence, Therapy and Suffering”, she examines the humanitarian process of psychologizing suffering from war and displacement from Israel’s invasion in 1982 to the Syrian Refugee crisis in 2012. Based on 18 months of ethnographic fieldwork, this research looks at how humanitarian psychology — a new form of expertise — sought to produce therapeutic subjects that both experts and communities in Lebanon contested, appropriated and negotiated. In 2016/17, Moghnieh was a postdoctoral fellow of the Arab Council for the Social Sciences (ACSS), affiliated with the SOAM department at the American University of Beirut. She recently took part in a collective special issue publication in Contemporary Levant on “Ethnography as Knowledge in the Arab Region”, contributing a paper on “The Violence We Live In: Reading and Experiencing Violence in the Field” (2:1, 2017, 24-36). In the academic year 2017/18, she is a EUME Fellow at the Forum Transregionale Studien.

What was intriguing to you when you were a child? What is it that you always wanted to know about the world?

I was born in 1982 during the Lebanese civil war, so it is hard to separate what was intriguing to me as a kid from the violence that kept disrupting activities and the world outside. The war, however allowed for the creation of new and exciting children games like “the militia game” and games we invented to play in the dark when there was no electricity (e.g. the ever so exciting game of “chambre noire” and the “thinking game” or “yalla nodmor”). There was not much room for “playing outside” so I took refuge in books and Arabic children magazines like Samer, Ahmad and Majed. I read all the children books my parents gave me: Iraqi Baathist children literature on British colonialism, the “Ana Aqra’ book series”, British children’s books translated into Arabic, fun  stories about the prophet Mohammad and other grownup books from my father’s library: a coming of age lesbian novel and classical Arabic literature. One of my best childhood years was 1989,when schools were suspended in Beirut from escalating violence and we fled to my grandparents’ house in the South. There, I turned into a wild child fulfilling all sorts of playing outdoors desires: football, the militia game on-bicycles, Bayt Byout (or building houses). During that time I played for all the other years when I was locked inside in Beirut. Through these games we placed order and rules onto the chaotic and dark world, while books drew us from one contradictory narrative to the other, as if opening all the world’s possibilities at once for us.

How do you explain your current research project to your students?

My research is on the anthropology and social history of psychiatry and psychiatric disorders in Lebanon. To explain my project, I usually start with a question: How do universal psychiatric disorders, like schizophrenia and trauma, travel to transnational sites in Lebanon? For my PhD dissertation, I wrote about humanitarian workers and psychiatrists who had many difficulties finding war trauma in Lebanon, leading them to declare an “absence of trauma” in Lebanon. What happens when psychiatric disorders are simply not found? And what does that tell us about psychiatric science, suffering and war in Lebanon? In these questions, I try to separate essentialist arguments about culture (for example ‘people in Lebanon have or don’t have disorders because of a certain cultural essence’), and encourage students to think more about a form of anthropological critique that takes into account context and materiality. Furthermore, for my current research project on the history of Asfouriyeh— a psychiatric mental health hospital established near Beirut at the end of the 19th century— I feel it is useful to ask methodological questions like “what does it mean to study psychiatric institutions anthropologically?” and “who is considered abnormal in Lebanon in certain periods of time and who is not?”

Which stations of your academic journey were particularly formative to you?

Getting an MA in social sciences from the University of Chicago was probably the most formative experience to me as a student. There, I learned academic writing and reading and what it means to make a critical argument. Currently I would say that my postdoctoral fellowships with EUME and the Arab Council for Social Sciences have both been quite enriching in providing the support and interdisciplinary intellectual exchange to my growth as a scholar.

Do you think that academic mobility changes the way in which research projects are conceptualized? What are your personal experiences in this regard?

Anthropologists usually speak about “returning from the field” to write up in one’s academic institution away from the site where research has been conducted. The idea behind this is to separate methodology from writing and the research field from knowledge production and arguably to impose a certain form of objectivity. The relationship between mobility and knowledge production is something I think about as a researcher studying one’s own society, where context and academic culture seems to highly influence the ways in which research projects are envisioned and framed. From my own personal experience, moving from Lebanon’s academic sphere to the United States and then to Europe has certainly given me new perspectives and allowed me to look at my research from a distance informed by the encounters with other international scholars.

If you had one wish, what would you wish for the further development of your subject?

I wish for my project on the history of Asfouriyeh to inform a new kind of investigation into our own histories in the region and in Lebanon, uncovering often forgotten or neglected stories, sites, and events. I hope that my project gets people curious about their history and the way present is formed.


Please find Lamia’s talk on „Psychologization of War in Lebanon“ at the EUME Berliner Seminar here.



Citation: Lamia Moghnieh, “I hope that my project gets people curious about their history” – 5in10 with Lamia Moghnieh, in: TRAFO – Blog for Transregional Research, 30.01.2018, https://trafo.hypotheses.org/8758.

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