Psychoanalysis with the oppressed

Ian Parker reviews Lara Sheehi and Stephen Sheehi’s Psychoanalysis Under Occupation: Practicing Resistance in Palestine

You will need to get this on a pirate site if you don’t borrow it from a library because it is a whopping £120. That’ll set you back more than the cost of a session with an analyst, but you will learn more. And you don’t need to know much about psychoanalysis as such to follow the compelling accounts by radical mental health practitioners in Palestine. These are practitioners committed to sumud, the wilful collective agency and steadfast resistance of people thinking and speaking and acting against Israeli occupation. You will learn something about the difference between psychiatry as a medical doctrine that usually amounts to little more than pushing drugs with terrible ‘side effects’, and psychology as an attempt to correct bad thoughts that people have when they are living in an impossible situation, and psychoanalysis as a ‘talking cure’; if you give people space to speak about their oppression they will come to realise that, as the black feminist Audre Lorde had it, ‘your silence will not protect you’.

Lara and Stephen Sheehi show that breaking silence is therapeutic; working with unconscious fantasy about trauma and against the kind of victim-status that the Israeli state would like its Arab citizens to experience repetitively and with no escape, is liberating. In Palestine speaking truth to power is liberating. This book shows that this is possible, and how it is actually taking place now. The book is committed to giving voice to practitioners putting themselves on the line as Palestinians, working with Palestinians, and to the ‘patients’ who become more than that, become more than patient, open and able to change and to change the world, to challenge occupation.

Even if you know nothing about psychoanalysis, this book is a case study in the best kind of ‘action research’ that was developed in ‘liberation psychology’ in Latin America, and, fuelled by the work of the revolutionary Algerian psychiatrist Frantz Fanon, it lays bare the micro-politics of oppression and resistance. Just as Fanon was able to do in his work in the psychiatric hospital at Blida-Joinville during the Algerian liberation struggle against France, Palestinian mental health practitioners show us how Israeli apartheid works its way into every consulting room and how the settler-colonial state implants itself inside the lives of Palestinians.

You will read, for example, how a therapist responds to the question as to whether politics enters into the consulting room with a description of working with a client when tear-gas is seeping through the windows. From the demand that practitioners take their oral exams in Hebrew to the ‘supervision’ of their cases by Israelis, these Palestinian practitioners are forced to make decisions about when and how to work in and against the state institutions and when and how to construct other independent networks.

Some of the claims are tough to read, but are made with the full knowledge that they must be faced head on if the collective nafs of the Palestinian people is to be honoured and built. The Sheehis are working in Arabic in Palestine – they were prevented from entering Gaza during the time of their research interviews, talks and workshops – and so they explain how key terms, like nafs, have a multiplicity of meanings (in this case translating the ‘ego’ of traditional psychoanalytic theory as well as the ‘psyche’ or ‘soul’ of a people).

Among the popular mainstream psychological motifs that buttress the occupation of Palestine that this book dismantles is the notion of ‘dialogue’. One of the Palestinian therapists points out that their Israeli colleagues are only interested in ‘dialogue’ on condition that the oppressed acknowledges and foregrounds the pain of the oppressor. Once the ‘distress’ that is caused and replicated by the occupation is treated as equal on both ‘sides’, there is a slippery slide into the demand that the Palestinians renounce violence.

This concern with ‘dialogue’ that is designed to depoliticise the conditions of life of the Palestinians, and even while the practitioners go for ‘supervision’ in their Israeli colleagues’ offices – offices in buildings that were once Palestinian homes – is the basis of humanistic psychological interventions. Those kinds of psychologists love Martin Buber, one of the Israeli national treasures who basically arrived in the land of Palestine and generously suggested that the problem would be solved by the two peoples having half each. The book notes in passing that Martin Buber occupied the house of Edward Said’s family, Palestinians exiled to Egypt.

But then, it is also clear that these radical practitioners are in favour of dialogue when it is focused on real conflict and on the empowerment of the Palestinians. The book draws on the work of Israeli Jews who speak out against the occupation and who also put themselves on the line in supporting radical therapeutic work. The question the book poses again and again is how a ‘psychotherapeutic commons’ will be built that will enable the oppressed to speak, not for the sake of the beautiful souls of the oppressors – a common concern of mainstream state-licensed ‘dialogue’ that is designed to break the Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions movement – but for the sake of Palestinians themselves. Here in this book they speak as Palestinians, laying the basis for all Palestinians to speak.

 The book is attuned to conceptual debates in the left that underpin the psychoanalytic work they describe, and apart from anything else, the detailed footnote referencing of each and every claim and theory they draw on is worth reading the book for. They are grounded in practice as Lebanese Arabs working for many years with people who are effectively prohibited from speaking the words ‘Palestinian’ and ‘Nakba’ in Israeli state institutions.

This is explicitly self-consciously about psychoanalysis as a progressive indigenous healing practice. That will be very surprising to those of us who think of psychoanalysis as being an individual treatment tailored to the needs of the neurotic rich worried well. Against the usual colonial narrative that traces the way that psychoanalytic ideas enter Palestine through Jewish émigrés, this book shows how widespread psychoanalysis is throughout the Arab world. It is also doing much more, however, and turning a reflexive self-critical gaze on psychoanalysis itself. Through close attention to how it actually works in practice under occupation, the Sheehis engage in what could be called a ‘decolonising’ of psychoanalysis. In fact, the mental health practitioners they speak to, and give the last word to, are already themselves decolonising psychoanalysis while they make use of it to decolonise their people.

This is revolutionary psychoanalysis, not as a ‘critical social theory’ of the kind that circulates in university departments, and the book takes great care not to ‘psychologise’ or ‘psychoanalyse’ the political struggle that is the context for the clinical work they describe. They are focused on the practice, practice in context. Politics is in command here, and that is what makes this approach to mental health something subversive. It is a wonder that this book was published by Routledge, a mainstream publisher, and there is so much that is wonderful and inspiring in it, for anyone who has ever wondered about the social context of mental distress and what can be done about it.

Lara Sheehi will be giving the 16th Hurndall Memorial Lecture online on Tuesday 14 December under the same title as the book ‘Psychoanalysis Under Occupation’.

You can read and comment on this review which was written for Anti-Capitalist Resistance

This is part of the FIIMG project to put psychopolitics on the agenda for liberation movements