MIT Press, 2020

Book description (from the publisher’s website)

‘Aṣfūriyyeh (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 ‘Aṣfūriyyeh 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 ‘Aṣfūriyyeh’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 ‘Aṣfūriyyeh 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, ‘Aṣfūriyyeh 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.

Critical reception

The book received the 2019 Jack D. Pressman-Burroughs Wellcome Fund Career Development Award in 20th Century History of Medicine or Biomedical Sciences from the American Association for the History of Medicine “for outstanding work in twentieth-century history of medicine or medical biomedical sciences.”

“A remarkable, highly original, and elegantly written history of the Lebanon Hospital for the Insane, or ‘Aṣfūriyyeh. Joelle Abi-Rached insightfully links the changing fortunes of this Quaker foundation to the history of a society wracked by wars and sectarian conflict. Despite, or perhaps because of its own resolutely nonsectarian character, it ultimately lost its battle to survive, and it now lies in ruins, mute but vivid testimony to the decline and breakdown of both state and society in late twentieth-century Lebanon.”—Andrew Scull, Professor of Sociology and Science Studies, University of California, San Diego and author of Madness in Civilization: A Cultural History of Insanity from the Bible to Freud, from the Madhouse to Modern Medicine

“This beautifully written book, based on impeccable scholarship, is more than a political history of psychiatry in Lebanon through a study of the birth and death of one mental hospital; it will become an indispensable text for those who wish to understand imperialism and its subjects, changing ideas of normality and pathology, and the relations between religious and medical authority, as they played out in the ‘modernization’ of the Middle East.” —Nikolas Rose, Professor of Sociology, King’s College London and author of Our Psychiatric Future

“A very important new book has uncovered for exploration the history of psychiatry in the modern Middle East. It is the brilliant new study on ‘Aṣfūriyyeh, the most important Lebanese mental hospital to date, by the innovative and meticulous historian Joelle M. Abi- Rached. In this book, Abi-Rached took on a topic quite taboo in the Middle East through the ages: mental illness. Societies throughout the region have had to repeatedly confront the effects of mental illness, not just among families but also because instability and repeated wars in the region have aggravated mental illness among the broader population in the midst of major local, regional, and international turnovers. Although the book focuses on the Middle East and introduces many new insights in this regional context, it also offers a window into the impact of psychiatry and mental illness on other societies uncomfortable with the breadth of such central parts of modern life. I recommend the book enthusiastically to anyone concerned about the relationship of instability and stability in an age of wars and grave and repeated changes.”—Leila Fawaz, Issam M. Fares Professor of Lebanese and Eastern Mediterranean Studies, Tufts University and author of A Land of Aching Hearts: The Middle East in the Great War.

“Cette histoire apporte, à travers le portrait d’une institution psychiatrique, un éclairage passionnant et inédit sur l’histoire du Liban, dans la période qui couvre l’existence de cette institution de 1896 à sa fermeture en 1982, aux heures les plus sombres de la guerre civile….Dans cet essai de « topo histoire » et grâce à une approche fine et foisonnante des rapports de domination culturels et politiques, Joelle Abi-Rached invite le lecteur à considérer que la folie n’est pas toujours là où on l’enferme. Surtout au Liban.”—Elsa Martayan urbanist at the Paris City Hall, OrientXXI (18 February 2021).

Reviewed by Hannah Proctor in Tribune (9 March 2021); Mahmoud Chreih for Al-Akhbar (in Arabic) (24 December 2020)

This book “provides a compelling history in its own right but generously offers future lines of inquiry an essential point of departure. In the opening pages of ‘Asfuriyyeh, Abi-Rached states that her goal is ‘to save this influential institution from oblivion’. This is too modest a description of what she has achieved here, but it does capture a quality which I think characterises this remarkable history: a deep sympathy at its heart for ‘Asfuriyyeh, its reputation, and its people.” Chris Sandal-Wilson, History of the Human Sciences. Link (April 27, 2021)

“Abi-Rached’s impressive and far-reaching study, offering socio-political analysis of both the funding models (charitable waqf) and the institutional va-et-vient between multiple geopolitical actors from the Ottoman Empire through British, French and American interests, is a model institutional biography. But it goes so much further, far from just an institutional history, which would be an admirable work in its own right, this book radiates out to interrogate imperialism and its missionary dimensions, deviance, dependency, the intersection of medicine with religion and how these function along historical processes of continuity, stability, memory and ethics.” Claire Launchbury, Contemporary Levant. Link (September 17, 2021)

Made it to BookAuthority’s Best New Lebanon History Books (2021)

Reviewed in Isis: A Journal of the History of Science Society (2022); the Journal of the Behavioral Sciences (2022); the International Journal of Middle East Studies (2022); History of Psychiatry (2022); book forum in Studies in History and Philosophy of Science (2022); Arab Studies Quarterly (2021)


Neuro: The New Brain Sciences and the Management of the Mind ...
Princeton University Press, 2013

Book description (from the publisher’s website)

The brain sciences are influencing our understanding of human behavior as never before, from neuropsychiatry and neuroeconomics to neurotheology and neuroaesthetics. Many now believe that the brain is what makes us human, and it seems that neuroscientists are poised to become the new experts in the management of human conduct. Neuro describes the key developments—theoretical, technological, economic, and biopolitical—that have enabled the neurosciences to gain such traction outside the laboratory. It explores the ways neurobiological conceptions of personhood are influencing everything from child rearing to criminal justice, and are transforming the ways we “know ourselves” as human beings. In this emerging neuro-ontology, we are not “determined” by our neurobiology: on the contrary, it appears that we can and should seek to improve ourselves by understanding and acting on our brains.

Neuro examines the implications of this emerging trend, weighing the promises against the perils, and evaluating some widely held concerns about a neurobiological “colonization” of the social and human sciences. Despite identifying many exaggerated claims and premature promises, Neuro argues that the openness provided by the new styles of thought taking shape in neuroscience, with its contemporary conceptions of the neuromolecular, plastic, and social brain, could make possible a new and productive engagement between the social and brain sciences.

Critical reception

“In “Neuro,” Rose and Abi-Rached see the real problem: neuroscience can often answer the obvious questions but rarely the interesting ones. It can tell us how our minds are made to hear music, and how groups of notes provoke neural connections, but not why Mozart is more profound than Manilow. Courageously, they take on, and dismiss, the famous experiments by Benjamin Libet that seem to undermine the idea of free will. For a muscle movement, Libet showed, the brain begins “firing”—choosing, let’s say, the left joystick rather than the right—milliseconds before the subject knows any choice has been made, so that by the time we think we’re making a choice the brain has already made it. Rose and Abi-Rached are persuasively skeptical that “this tells us anything about the exercise of human will in any of the naturally occurring situations where individuals believe they have made a conscious choice—to take a holiday, choose a restaurant, apply for a job.” What we mean by “free will” in human social practice is just a different thing from what we might mean by it in a narrower neurological sense. We can’t find a disproof of free will in the indifference of our neurons, any more than we can find proof of it in the indeterminacy of the atoms they’re made of.”—Adam Gopnik, The New Yorker.

“Rose and Abi-Rached make a convincing argument for a more positive engagement between the social and brain sciences in their discussion of the effects of neuroscience on public understanding of the self. The authors suggest that humanists should not fear the triumph of a reductionist view of society as an aggregate of isolated individuals. According to Rose and Abi-Rached, human selfhood is not threatened by the idea that human beings are moved by forces beyond their conscious awareness. […] Neuroscience, they observe, may seem an unlikely ally of progressive social thought, but Rose and Abi-Rached express the hope with which most neuroscientists and social scientists can agree: that a greater engagement between the two may contribute to making neuroscience “a truly human science”. This book makes a valuable contribution to this process.”—Wayne Hall, The Lancet.

“In its self-confidence, eloquence, subtlety, and intellectual generosity, Neuro is a powerful demonstration of its own message: that the human and social sciences have “nothing to fear in the rise to prominence of neurobiological attempts to understand and account for human behavior.”—Cathy Gere, Isis: A Journal of the History of Science Society.

“The ‘neurofication’ of the humanities, social sciences, public policy, and the law has attracted promoters and detractors. What we have lacked until now is a critical but open- minded look at ‘neuro.’ This is what Rose and Abi-Rached have given us in this thoughtful and well-researched book. They do not jump on the neuro bandwagon, but instead offer a clear accounting of its appeal, its precedents in psychology and genetics, its genuine importance, and ultimately its limitations. A fascinating and important book.”—Martha J. Farah, University of Pennsylvania.

Neuro makes a significant and original contribution to our understanding of the impact of the brain sciences on social and cultural processes. The scholarship throughout is brilliant. This book gives us extremely perceptive, detailed, and illuminating analyses of what is actually being claimed in the various branches of the neurosciences. It will attract a great deal of interest and controversy.”—Emily Martin, author of Bipolar Expeditions: Mania and Depression in American Culture.

“I enjoyed reading this book. It provides an interesting and comprehensive map of the many sciences and quasi-sciences that have embraced the ‘neuro’ prefix. I also appreciate how Rose and Abi-Rached manage to examine the explosion of ‘neuros’ with a critical eye, but without dismissing the genuine prospects that it may hold.”—Michael E. Lynch, Cornell University.