Photography © 2019 Mohammed Abouelleil Rashed
For a few months in 2009 and 2010 I was a resident of Mut, a small town in the Dakhla Oasis in the Western desert of Egypt. My aim was to become acquainted with the social institution of spirit possession, and with sorcery and Qur’anic healing (while keeping an eye on how all of this intersects with ‘mental disorder’ and ‘madness’). I learnt many things, among which was the normalness with which spirit possession was apprehended in the community: people invoked spirits to explain a slight misfortune as much as a life- changing event; to make sense of what we would refer to as ‘schizophrenia’, and to make sense of a passing dysphoria. It was part of everyday life. The way in which spirit possession cut across these diverse areas of life got me thinking about the broader role it plays in preserving meaning when things go wrong. To help me think these issues through I brought in the concepts of ‘intentionality’ and ‘personhood’. The result is my essay More Things in Heaven and Earth: Spirit Possession, Mental Disorder, and Intentionality (2018, open access at the Journal of Medical Humanities).
The essay is a philosophical exploration of a range of concepts and how they relate to each other. It appeals sparingly, though decisively, to the ethnography that I had conducted at Dakhla. If you want to know more about the place and the community you can check these blog-posts:
And this is a piece I published in the newspaper Al-Ahram Weekly (2009) voicing my view on some of the practices that I had observed: To Untie or Knot
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I wrote this back in February, in the height of the events. Now, ten months on, I am struck by the innocence with which one embraced what was going on. It was exhilarating and beautiful. Such a striking contrast with the bitterness, self-delusion, and rumour mongering that characterises the revolution now.
A while ago I spent some nice hours at the Hampstead mixed pond with my good friend C.K. It was one of those rare, sunny and liberating London days; the view of the pond was complemented by the beautiful bodies basking in the sun, of whom I specifically mark out a certain person C.K. would definitely remember. What struck me the most that day, apart from the sun, was a sign we saw on the way out of West Hampstead Rail station. Never before have I seen a perfectly legible and perfectly constructed sign accompanied by small print indicating that it is a ‘Temporary Sign’. I was curious, and decided to ask one of the guys working at the station the reason behind this unusual signing. Seeing his reaction, I could tell he hasn’t been asked this question before: he paused, delivered a few ummm’s, and gave a non-sensical answer. I assumed he doesn’t know.
I was still baffled. To my Egyptian temperament, used as it is to a certain degree of chaos, and a large dose of unpredictability (you sometimes get signs to the same location pointing in opposite directions), the presence of a sign is itself an event, let alone a sign on the sign telling you the latter is temporary. What in the world could be the reason behind this unusual practice? Maybe, I thought to myself, we could approach the deciphering of this practice in the same manner anthropologists used to approach the unusual rituals of the natives. After all, while the sign is itself familiar to me, the practice, or the logic underlying it, are completely alien.
First things first: Let’s assume, for the sake of our attempt to understand, that the train or station operator have installed this warning because the signs will change soon, whether in message or location. That in itself is not unusual. It’s good to know if things will change soon, but it’s good to know if things that matter will change; why on earth would a sign saying ‘Way Out’ matter to the extent that we must be forewarned about its temporariness? This, it seems to me, is the question we must stay with for a bit. Perhaps this unusual behaviour by the natives is motivated by a desire for completeness; for saying things as they are. This is a temporary sign so we must indicate that it is a temporary sign for all to see. It doesn’t matter if it matters to anyone that this is the case; we must present the truth in all its trivial manifestations. But let’s be generous here. Maybe someone had complained before that a sign was not provided with an indication of its future status even though the lucky sign was relived of its signing duty within two weeks of its life in sign-world. And maybe that person was of the variety that spend their time collecting stamps or modelling trains; in short someone who has a pretty weird idea of fun and an unhealthy dedication to completeness. National rail, so the argument goes, had put up this warning just so they would stave off his sort and have some peace of mind. But, frankly, given all the sympathy, empathy, and all the pathys in the world I couldn’t bring myself to imagine such a person exists. It would be unimaginably sad that someone did find this worthy of complaint. So the problem remains: why on earth did they put up this sign on the sign?
Here I must flex my anthropological muscles and think laterally. Have I ever encountered other instances of pointless signing? Yes! How about a bag of peanuts with a warning, for all nut phobics, indicating that ‘this bag contains nuts’? Surely, as pointless signs, or warnings, go this must win the prize. How did this come about? I can only think of one possibility. In each institution, company, and factory in Britain there are two sets of employees who work in the same location yet never communicate, never ever. The first set of employees gather the nuts and put them in bags that say ‘nuts’. The second set of employees are blind; they feel around for the bags of nuts and assuming they do not indicate their contents push a large button that prints ‘this bag contains nuts’ on each bag they can get hold off. By the time the first set of employees realise the silliness of what the second set have done, it is already too late. And given that they never communicate there is no possibility of remedying this error. Perfect. Q.E.D.
Now the same argument can be applied to the sign I saw at West Hampstead rail station, only changing the employees a bit. The first set are perfectly normal national rail employees who design and print perfectly useful station signs. The second set are elves. Yes, just that, short elves with long-pointed ears, and they all own large stencils saying ‘Temporary Sign’ and cans of black paint. When London is sleeping they cruise around spraying their temporariness all over the station signs. It turns out, after all, that none of the signs are temporary! They are there forever…..
We live in the midst of man-made objects, among tools, in houses, streets, cities. We become used to thinking that all of this exists necessarily and unshakably. Cezanne’s painting suspends these habits of thought. This is why Cezanne’s people are strange, as if viewed by a creature of another species. There is no wind in the landscape, no movement on the Lac d’Annecy; the frozen objects hesitate as at the beginning of the world. It is an unfamiliar world in which one is uncomfortable and which forbids all human effusiveness. If one looks at the work of other painters after seeing Cezanne’s paintings, one feels somehow relaxed, just as conversations resumed after a period of mourning mask the absolute change and give back to the survivors their solidity. (1964:16).