The Egyptian Oedipus: Remembering psychoanalyst Moustapha Safouan

David Tresilian , Tuesday 24 Nov 2020

News last week that eminent Egyptian psychoanalyst Moustapha Safouan had passed away in Paris at the age of 99 will have brought back memories to many

Moustapha Safouan
Moustapha Safouan (1921-2020) photo: AFP

Born in Alexandria in 1921, after attending Alexandria University Safouan went to Paris after World War II in order to continue his studies, soon becoming interested in psychoanalysis and in the work of French psychoanalyst Jacques Lacan. The latter was then far less well-known than he was subsequently to become, but nevertheless even then was determined to take Freud’s ideas in directions that he believed were being ignored by other centres of psychoanalytic thought, notably in New York and London.

According to French psychoanalyst Elizabeth Roudinesco, writing in the French newspaper Le Monde on 15 November, while Safouan was always a Freudian, he also remained attached to Lacan’s work throughout his career. “Well-known and respected throughout the English-speaking world and across Latin America,” as well as in France and throughout the Arab world, Safouan was “the author of a dozen important works on psychoanalytic theory and practice”, she wrote, naming theoretical works such as Etudes sur l’oedipe (1974), La Sexualité feminine (1976), and L’Inconscient et son scribe (1982).

Shortly after the publication of one of Safouan’s non-psychoanalytical works, Why Are the Arabs Not Free? The Politics of Writing, in 2008, he spoke to Al-Ahram Weekly in Paris about this book and about aspects of his career. The interview, with David Tresilian and first appearing in the newspaper in January 2009, is reproduced below.


Towards the beginning of his most recent book, published in French last year as Pourquoi le monde arabe n’est pas libre: politique de l’écriture et terrorisme religieux and in English one year before (Why Are the Arabs Not Free? The Politics of Writing), the Egyptian psychoanalyst Moustapha Safouan remarks that issues of language, power, and the relationship between them have been a constant preoccupation throughout his career.

This is a book that has been 40 years in the making, Safouan says, and in it he presents his thinking on what the English edition calls the “politics of writing” and the relationship between writing, politics, and political freedoms in the Arab world.

As anyone who has ever tried to learn Arabic swiftly discovers, the language is divided into two main parts. While the written language has remained remarkably constant over time, with the result that the language of the Quran is close to that of modern books and newspapers, the spoken language has changed and developed into different dialects. Broadly speaking, Safouan’s argument is that this linguistic situation, termed diglossia, has had negative effects on the development of Arab societies and on accountability and democratic rule in the Arab world.

In order to achieve a democratisation of the language, revaluing that of the population as a whole at the expense of that of the elites and of the spoken language at the expense of the written, Safouan recommends that the prestige of the classical language be reduced in favour of the colloquial dialects. This would have the effect of reducing the gap that he feels exists between the language of everyday life and the language of authority, and it would reduce any feeling of powerlessness as a result of a lack of formal linguistic expertise.

When properly used, the spoken language can be just as sophisticated as the written, Safouan says, citing his own translations into it as evidence, for example of Shakespeare’s play Othello. The point of this translation was to show that Egyptian colloquial Arabic, when placed in the right hands, can express even the most sophisticated ideas and that it can reproduce something of the rhetorical range of Shakespeare’s drama.

While Safouan admits that the linguistic arguments of his book are not new — they build on generations of unease at what the late Egyptian writer Youssef Idris once described as the “huge, strange gulf that separates our written language from the simple and fluent idiom in which we speak” and owe more than a little to the French anthropologist Claude Lévi-Strauss’s analysis of speech and writing in his book Tristes tropiques — he adds a political component to these sociolinguistic observations.

One of the reasons why genuine political participation has been so difficult to achieve in Arab societies, Safouan believes, has to do with this gulf between the written and the spoken language. Reduce that gap and people would be more inclined to contribute to the political life of their societies. Just as importantly, they would be more confident that their voices would be heard.

While Safouan’s most recent book concerns issues of language, writing and politics, he is more widely known for his work in psychoanalysis. However, as he revealed during a recent interview at his home in Paris, this work and the career that has gone with it almost did not come to pass. Had it not been for difficulties registering as a foreign student at Cambridge University in England at the end of World War II, Safouan would likely have followed his first interest in philosophical logic and quite possibly would never have developed an interest in psychoanalysis or decided to follow it as a career.

His professor at Alexandria University, Abul-Ela Afifi, was himself a Cambridge graduate and was even related by marriage to R A Nicolson, previously professor of Arabic at Cambridge and an eminent orientalist. When the question of Safouan’s next steps in his academic studies came up, Afifi was understandably keen that his former student should go to Cambridge to study philosophy, where the faculty was dominated at the time by the erratic Austrian genius Ludwig Wittgenstein and counted Bertrand Russell among its members.

If there was disappointment that Safouan could not go to Cambridge at that time, he does not show it when remembering these events more than half a century later at the end of a long and illustrious career. Asked about his choice to study in France and to study psychoanalysis, Safouan says that “it was not a choice at all, since I was supposed to go to Cambridge to study logic. However, priority was given to returning English soldiers, so I had to go to France instead, where I registered at the Sorbonne to study philosophy.”

Once in Paris in the possibly rather cold climate of the immediate post-war years, Safouan found himself without a real programme of study, or with what he describes as only “a very vague programme”.

Feeling aimless and perhaps rather like a fish out of water in the forbidding environment of the Sorbonne, Safouan decided to see whether psychoanalysis could suggest a way forward. He went for analysis with the French analyst Marc Schlumberger, describing him as a “rare example of a tactful psychoanalyst.” Through Schlumberger, and as a result of his growing interest in psychoanalysis as a field of study as well as a form of treatment, he got to know Jacques Lacan, later one of the best-known and most controversial of all French analysts.

This was in 1949, long before Lacan achieved the kind of celebrity status that arguably blighted his later career. In October 1949 Lacan began to give accounts of his work in progress to a group of pupils who would meet in his apartment in Paris for a few hours a week. These sessions, which carried on through the early 1950s at Lacan’s home and later moved to St Anne’s Hospital, grew into Lacan’s famous “seminars” on every aspect of psychoanalytical thought, from the earlier sessions on psychoanalytical doctrine, such as the seminars on Freud’s technical papers and his ideas on the ego, to the later, more speculative sessions in which Lacan introduced algebraic notation to express his views on the “logic of fantasy” and “the Other to the other.”

Safouan was one of the few members of this early group to follow Lacan’s thought as it developed, and he is fierce in his defence of Lacan against common charges of obscurity or obfuscation. On the contrary, Safouan says, it was during this early period that Lacan “really introduced the basics of what he had to say. I was supervised by him, and I attended his seminars and would meet with him later to talk through what had been said.”

Lacan, Safouan says, “really felt what your question was. He talked to you directly. He was extremely sharp. He had a different way of doing things from all the other training analysts, all of whom thought their job consisted of telling you what to do. Lacan was not like that at all, and he never made ex cathedra statements.”

On the other hand, Lacan was probably still best experienced through the almost Socratic circumstances of training analysis. Safouan praises Schlumberger for his habit of behaving “as a linguist by calling attention to what you were saying,” and his memories of Lacan, too, focus on the virtues of direct discussion.

Asked about Lacan’s famously forbidding written works, such as the two volumes of Ecrits that contain worked-up versions of his conference papers and the multi-volume séminaires, which, reconstructed from notes made at the time, are still appearing in France and, rather more slowly, in English translation, Safouan says that “my relation to him was through oral contact and not through the written works. I don’t like his written style at all. It is not my cup of tea, and I don’t care for his over-elaborated style.”

Indeed, Safouan’s own works, whether on psychoanalysis, in which he has intervened on matters concerning psychoanalytic training (Jacques Lacan et la question de la formation des analystes, 1983), female sexuality (La sexualité féminine dans la doctrine freudienne, 1976), and Lacanian teaching (two volumes of Lacaniana, published in 2001 and 2005), or in his recent book on language and politics, are marked by lucidity and a careful attention to detail, not necessarily virtues to be found in Lacan’s writings.

There still remains the question, however, of how a young man with an interest in philosophical logic could possibly have ended up as a psychoanalyst of a Lacanian persuasion, particularly since psychoanalytic styles of thought, and a fortiori, the writings of Lacan, are often seen as beyond the pale by those with formal philosophical training, at least outside France.

Safouan has an answer to that question, too, pointing out that “when I registered at the Sorbonne to study philosophy and started to go for psychoanalysis with Lacan, talk about language was at its height. Linguistics was then seen as the ‘first science,’ and the study of language was the nearest thing you could get to logic, in fact was logic. My interest in psychoanalysis, which at first glance might seem to have nothing to do with my interest in philosophical logic, is in fact due to a common interest in language.”

One of the features of Safouan’s recent book is its connection of abstract linguistic considerations to directly political consequences, and the book does not shy away from expressing strong opinions, notably regarding the military regimes that held sway in much of the Arab world in the post-independence period. The Nasser regime in Egypt, for example, Safouan describes as “a disaster” on almost every count, having particularly dire consequences as far as the development of popular participation in government was concerned.

“How can you create democracy by putting police everywhere,” he asks rhetorically during the Paris interview. “The fact is that under Nasser civil society was more forbidden than it was at any time under [King] Farouk. Even under Farouk and the English there was some civil society in Egypt: at least such organisations existed, much more than they do now.”

Finding himself “trapped” in Egypt during the 1950s, Safouan turned to translation, an activity that brought together language, philosophy and psychoanalysis, while at the same time providing a practical task that would help provide succour, given the circumstances at hand. The first fruit of this was Safouan’s well-known Arabic translation of Freud’s The Interpretation of Dreams, which, he explains, was undertaken partly as a vote of confidence in classical Arabic, a language, Safouan says, “in which I was brought up and educated and which I admire and love.”

Like James Strachey’s famous English translations of Freud that were appearing at more or less the same time, Safouan’s Arabic translation is a work of literary value in its own right, since, as with Strachey’s versions, the translator’s task lies in trying to find an equivalent in another language for an entire system of thought developed in and out of Freud’s German text.

Safouan’s ambitions were not, however, restricted to translating Freud. On the contrary, he says, “I wanted to prove that Arabic, which had accomplished the miracle of assimilating all the scientific and philosophical heritage of the [ancient] Greeks, could assimilate modern philosophy as well.” As a result, he began a translation of one of the most complicated of all modern philosophical texts, Hegel’s Phenomenology of Spirit, publishing an Arabic translation of the famous “Preface” in Beirut.

Appalled by the political repression of the Nasser regime and perhaps also depressed by the apparent popular acceptance of it, Safouan also translated Etienne de La Boétie’s Discours de la servitude volontaire, a work to which he makes frequent reference in Why Are the Arabs Not Free? La Boétie, best known as the friend of Montaigne immortalised in the latter’s essay “On Friendship,” wrote this work in the early 1550s, arguing that tyrants have power because people “voluntarily” accord it to them.

Today, Safouan continues to lecture, and though he has reduced his clinical responsibilities he still sees patients. This year he will be publishing another book, this time on psychoanalysis rather than politics, but still having a characteristic emphasis on language.

In answer to the question of how he would situate his own contributions to psychoanalysis Safouan is uncompromising in his loyalty to Lacan, arguing that the latter was “the only psychoanalyst who really kept in touch with the questions bequeathed by Freud. His theory of the object and the castration complex and his emphasis on masculine and feminine desire... all these try to provide answers to questions left by Freud. All other tendencies in psychoanalysis are contaminated from the start by psychology.”

For the rest, he continues to follow events in Egypt with a keen interest, regretting that “a newspaper is no longer as important as a loaf of bread” as it was in his youth when politics in the form of the struggle against British colonialism produced a feeling of common citizenship, at least in the cities.

As an Egyptian citizen, Safouan says, “I subscribe to any political movement that aims to increase participation and accountability,” including through reforms to the teaching of Arabic in schools in order to place greater emphasis on the spoken language.


From Why are the Arabs not Free? The Politics of Writing by Moustapha Safouan

‘The varieties of Arabic languages’

THE THESIS that the varieties of Arabic languages spoken currently in many different countries represent languages different both from each other and from the Qureish Arabic, the language of the prophet’s tribe and in which the Quran was thus revealed, is no novelty. It was already affirmed in the fourteenth century by no less an authority than the great Arabic thinker Ibn Khaldoun in his well-known Introduction [Muqaddimah]. Nobody has ever explained better than him the difference between knowing a language by birth and oral transmission, and knowing it by study and learning. Study may enable someone to know the structure of a language, but the structure itself is not the language. The learner may thus be compared to someone who can say something about the art of sewing without having the ability to sew. In Ibn Khaldoun’s terms, they have the knowledge of the faculty but not the faculty itself.

I can only agree with him in affirming that the differences between the spoken Arabic — and I am mainly thinking of the idiom spoken in Egypt — and Qureish or Quranic Arabic are as significant as those between Italian and Latin. Whatever the semantic and syntactic affinities between Italian and Latin, an Italian speaker has to study Latin in order to understand it.

If we compare spoken Egyptian and classical Arabic we can note that in classical Arabic the predicate usually precedes the subject, whereas in Egyptian the subject precedes the predicate. Moreover, the negative and interrogative particles are not the same and they obey different word-order rules. This is also true for demonstratives. Nouns in classical Arabic decline, but they don’t in spoken Egyptian. Phonological differences are no less important... As for vocabulary, it is true that an enormous quantity of words are common between the two languages. However, most of these have changed through the centuries, some changing the order of letters and some dropping or adding letters. And that’s before we start talking about meaning change and neologisms. To all this we must add a substantial number of words that go back to ancient Egyptian. For example, Egyptian peasants still use Coptic names to indicate the months of the year.

Before the Arab conquest there were three languages current in Egypt: Greek, which continued to be the administrative language after the Roman conquest, Latin and Coptic — the native language. As for the Arab conquerors, they were not all from the Qureish; many if not most belonged to other tribes which spoke different idioms, so that the Egyptians had to make, you might say, their own cocktail of Arabic, which was not necessarily the same as the Qureishi tongue. More of them came to talk their Arabic as more of them converted to Islam for a variety of reasons, amongst which one has to note the exemption from the tax each adult Christian male had to pay, the jizya. When in AD 705, Abdel-Malek Ibn Marawan issued a decree imposing Arabic as the official administrative language, many Copts had to learn it in order to keep their offices. The distinction between the written and the spoken languages, which had existed in Egypt from the beginning of its history, was thus revived in a new form.

My understanding of the political significance of this divorce between political and demotic Arabic and the key place of writing in the perpetuation of despotism crystallised when I read the work of our great poet Adonis, entitled The Book. It is one of the most revolutionary books I’ve read in Arabic literature. Apart from its provocative title, it lays bare the truth of our political history as having been a series of assassinations in a struggle for power. But it’s written in such a high style that it’s a difficult text even for the educated, without taking into account the vast majority of illiterate folk. So, it’s no wonder that The Book has remained a “dead letter”. I may say that I once heard Adonis declare that he won’t ever write except in “grammatical” Arabic because he prefers writing in a “dead language”. One may wonder if his choice doesn’t also represent his method for dealing with the condition [the German-born American political philosopher] Leo Strauss describes in his Persecution and the Art of Writing. The authorities are happy to ignore such books because in the unlikely event that they themselves have understood them, they know that their message will only reach a very limited number of people.

It was thus the greatest modern example of classical Arabic which made me determined henceforward to abandon the classical language and to write in demotic Egyptian. Adonis’s poem is merciless about the misplaced pride taken in this language and its terrible political traditions. It makes clear why the educated chatter of intellectuals seemed so vacuous and vapid. The reason why I opted to translate Othello into vernacular is thus clear: to enable ordinary people to read great writers in the language they learn at the breast and in which they spend their lives from birth to death.

*A version of this article appears in print in the 26 November, 2020 edition of Al-Ahram Weekly

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