A Regional History of Medicine in the Middle East

WOCMES, July 2018

Posted on October 1, 2018 by Liat Kozma

Members of the project presented a panel titled: Mediators, Medicine and Coloniality: The Middle East and the Maghreb in the 19th and 20th Centuries on July 19, 2018 as part of the World Congress of Middle East Studies taking place in Seville, Spain (July 16-20).

Chaired by PI Liat Kozma, the panel comprised presentations by Benny Nuriely, Yoni Furas, Nicole Khayat and Samir Ben-Layashi.

The panel explored the mediation of medical discourse as a practice of modernization which introduced social and professional changes in the Middle East and North Africa. Positioned between the colonial powers and the subaltern natives, mediators manufactured international and pragmatic knowledge that entailed the grafting of Western faiths and traditions with local norms and power relations. The practice of mediation enabled cultural and political changes. The individual papers presented various mediators of the medical discourse during the 19th and 20th centuries, such as institutions, doctors, littérateurs, and translators.

Benny Nuriely's paper discussed the creation of a Jewish network of medical, welfare and migration expertise during and after WWII (1943-1947). By examining the relationships between Western Jewish medical organizations and the indigenous elite in Morocco, Nuriely demonstrated the discourse constructed about local Jews, that led to a long-term medical plan aimed at the assimilation of young Jewish Maghrebians within European Jewry. The network, as Nuriely showed, focused on helping forced migrants and modernizing young Arab-Jews for this purpose. Modernization was based on the introduction of new methods of hygiene, pre-natal care and child-rearing, as well as on discourses about the (unhealthy) child, and the (unfit) mother of Jewish North Africa. This discourse irreversibly changed the lives of hundreds of thousands of Jews from North Africa and Europe.

Modern medicine expanded in late Ottoman Palestine slowly and gradually from the second half of the 19th century. Missionary hospitals and doctors marked the beginning of this process, with their arrival and settlement in the cities and towns of Palestine already in the 1850s. Jerusalem, especially from the last decades of the 19th century, was at the center of this expansion, which triggered the emergence of a medical discourse and engagement that re-defined or re-evaluated public space. Indeed, matters of health, sanitation and personal or public hygiene became key features in the delineation of the modern Jerusalem, in reality and in aspiration. Yoni Furas’ paper focused on the elusive or contradictory roles modern medicine played in late Ottoman Jerusalem. On the one hand, we have cosmopolitan Jerusalem, a multi-ethnic, multi-religious community, a shared space in which mainly foreign doctors, nurses and administrators, Ottoman Turkish officials, local Arab and Jewish bureaucrats, engaged in the development of their city, or country—an engagement that, as we shall see, turned cleanliness, sanitation, and hygiene,, into the hallmarks of proper living, or better, of an ascending civilization. On the other hand, the paper highlighted some of the cracks in this new Ottoman utopia, focusing on the challenges modern medicine posed for the developing Ottoman provincial city and the tensions it raised within and between the different communities.


Nicole Khayat's paper examined the movement of medical texts during the 19th-century Arabic nahda. Her paper argued that medical texts provide a case for replacing the normally used divisive approach with an inclusive one, by exploring how the production, dissemination and purpose of medical texts took place. She suggested that the body of textual medical knowledge blurred distinctions between various initiatives, regions and even languages, and should be perceived as an important component of its modernizing project. The paper examined two foci of textual production: one, medical texts published in Cairo at the government-run Bulaq printing press during the first half of the 19th century; and the other, texts published in the privately-owned periodical al-Muqtataf (printed first in Beirut, then in Cairo) during the last quarter of the century. These two case studies demonstrated that texts were created through continuous negotiations and intersections, not only between texts and the individuals writing them, but within larger cultural and political shifts.


Samir Ben-Layashi’s paper discussed the cooperation-resistance relationship between the colonizer and colonized as a part of the colonial paradox itself in North Africa. His paper examined two influential Pasteur institutes (one in Algiers and the other in Tunis), which functioned as European colonial laboratories for research in parasitology and microbiology, in order to demonstrate three issues: (1) How Pasteurian medical knowledge was first and foremost a colonial knowledge issued in the colonies and only then found its way to the metropole; (2) how colonial knowledge moved and migrated, first, between the colonies (Algiers, Tunis, Dakar, Madagascar, Saigon) before it was transferred to “l’Institut Mère” in Paris; and (3) how North African population(s) on the one hand resisted the new medical norms and forms of Pasteurian medical knowledge, and on the other—adopted and incorporated it into their local medical and culture system according to their own understanding and perception of health, sickness, body, and medicine.