A Regional History of Medicine in the Middle East

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Posted on July 26, 2020 by Benny Nuriely

In November 2019 some of our MidEastMed team members presented their work at the Middle East Studies Association annual conference that was held in New Orleans. We organized a double panel titled “Medicine on the Move: Medical Agents Crossing Borders,” which included colleagues outside the project. The panels dealt with transnational medical mobility in the Middle East and North Africa from the late 19th to the late 20th century, focusing on doctors, nurses and medical students, and the production of socio-medical knowledge. This mobility produced socio-medical knowledge and practices that forged continental, national, racial and cultural identities.

In the first panel, Nicole Khayat introduced her research (co-authored with Maria Vologzhanina) on Kulthum ‘Awda. Born in Nazareth in Ottoman Palestine, ‘Awda became as a professor of Arabic in the Soviet Union. Her journey was shaped by the changing political climates across empires, from the Ottoman and British occupation of Palestine, Europe in the First World War, to the Bolshevik revolution leading to the Soviet Union. Yoni Furas (Haifa University), presented his work on Dr. Sami Shihab. Born in Aleppo and a graduated of Montpellier’s medical school, Shihab worked in Gaza and Hebron for the British colonial Health Department. As a non-local, he was welcomed for his work but simultaneously regarded with suspicion for his seeming alienation from local traditions and customs. Furas showed how relations of closeness and remoteness are created within imperial rule. Benny Nuriely presented his work (co-authored with Liat Kozma) on medical students from African countries who studied at the Hebrew University in Jerusalem in the 1960s. Their experience in Israel yielded two contradictory stances. On the one hand, they criticized Jewish Israeli society for its racism toward black Africans. On the other, they identified with the young state of Israel, which was seen as a model for decolonized African nations.
            In the second panel, Mori Ram (SOAS) presented his work on how Israel’s export of scientific knowledge to Africa from the late 1950s to the late 1970s constructed racialized national identities. Israel’s rendering of medical aid was embedded in its geopolitical interests, interlaced with its distinction from Africa. Hratch Kestenian (CUNY Graduate Center) talked about Armenian doctors in the early 20th century. Kestenian focused on the ways they circulated medical knowledge, helping them to medicalize Armenian communities living across the Ottoman, the Habsburg, the Russian and the British empires. Hagit Krik presented her work on the British Overseas Nursing Association (ONA) across the Mediterranean in the 20th century. Focusing on ONA’s work in Palestine and Cyprus, Krik analyzed the ways ONA disseminated western medical knowledge, as well as a British model of the nursing profession. Francisco Javier Martinez (University of Évora, Portugal) presented his research on the impact of French colonial authorities on local and missionary doctors in early 20th century Morocco. After the French handed the monopoly over modern medicine to European doctors, local Moroccan doctors were forced to resort to traditional medicine.

            MESA in New Orleans was a unique experience. Our panels were well-attended, we met old friends and made new ones, and where else in the world is an alligator platter an option on the menu?