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Asfuriyyeh: A History of Madness, Modernity, and War in the Middle East


Hardcover: 344 pages
Publisher: MIT Press, 2020
Language: English

Asfuriyyeh (formally, the Lebanon Hospital for the Insane) was founded by a Swiss Quaker missionary in 1896, one of the first modern psychiatric hospitals in the Middle East. It closed its doors in 1982, a victim of Lebanon’s brutal fifteen-year civil war. In this book, Joelle Abi-Rached uses the rise and fall of Asfuriyyeh as a lens through which to examine the development of modern psychiatric theory and practice in the region as well as the sociopolitical history of modern Lebanon.

Abi-Rached shows how Asfuriyyeh’s role shifted from a missionary enterprise to a national institution with wide regional influence. She offers a gripping chronicle of patients’ and staff members’ experiences during the Lebanese civil war and analyzes the hospital’s distinctive nonsectarian philosophy. When Asfuriyyeh closed down, health in general and mental health in particular became more visibly “sectarianized”—monopolized by various religious and political actors. Once hailed for its progressive approach to mental illness and its cosmopolitanism, Asfuriyyeh became a stigmatizing term, a byword for madness and deviance, ultimately epitomizing a failed project of modernity. Reflecting on the afterlife of this and other medical institutions, especially those affected by war, Abi-Rached calls for a new “ethics of memory,” more attuned to our global yet increasingly fragmented, unstable, and violent present.


Joelle M. Abi-Rached, MD, PhD, is a Fellow at Columbia University’s Society of Fellows in the Humanities and an invited researcher at the École normale supérieure and the École des hautes études en sciences sociales. She is the coauthor of Neuro: The New Brain Sciences and the Management of the Mind.

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