Feature Article

Conference on Rafah Nashed by Julia Kristeva

The Syrian authorities imprisoned the psychoanalyst Rafah Nashed for over two months last fall. Julia Kristeva, French psychoanalyst and philosopher, writes about Nashed’s life and work

This speech was delivered to the Women's Forum organized by Lacan Quotidien and the Ecole de la Cause Freudienne, October 9, 2011.

By Translated by J. Todd Dean

There could be no better way to breathe new life into our respect for Lacan than to examine the collision, torn from the headlines, as it were, among psychoanalysis, politics, and women. We are living in a time that must be called historic for all three, one that will inevitably lead to debates, reflections, colloquia, seminars, movements, papers…My thanks for having invited me to present my reflections. Please allow me to briefly sketch out a few lines of thought that will lead to our main focus today: the endangered, feminine genius of Rafah Nashed.

  1. There cannot be a politics of psychoanalysis. It is the most intimate of experiences, as Freud and Lacan never stop pointing out to us, each in his own fashion. On the other hand, listening to the speaking-being is the very Copernican revolution of values and norms that opens new possibilities of a link to others. Such links constitute the very essence of the political. Because listening to the unconscious is what reveals the singularity of the one who speaks, it is inevitable that psychoanalysis confront the central preoccupation of the third millennium, which I would define thus: what meaning should one give to this singularity, which has become synonymous with happiness through freedom? Psychoanalysis is called to respond to this question. Why? Because Freud's discovery of the unconscious has transferred the religious and philosophical ambitions of an Occtit concerned about the rights of man to the very heart of scientific rationalism. And this approach, our psychoanalytic approach, to what is human is opposed as much to a pseudohumanism, ready to constrain sick people in the straightjacket of risk management, as it is to the terror that fundamentalist systems of religion and politics spew out, as well as to positivistic blindness. Rafah Nashed is the witness to this resistance when she tries to give speech to fear, in opposition to the Syrian regime.

  2. Is this the resistance of a woman, or of a feminist? What is feminism? What is a woman? Far be it from me to try to introduce you to this complicated continent, especially because, as you already know, it is the singularity of Rafah Nashed, the singularity of a woman who is a psychoanalyst in a specific cultural milieu, that I will discuss today. After the suffragists and before the interest of the feminist movement in the troubles of May '68, it was Simone de Beauvoir who first opened a bridge between the movement to emancipate women and the unconscious. This is not sufficiently recognized. She wrote—and not only toward the end of her life (in All Said and Done, 1972) —that Freud was "one of the men of the century [she] most admired." Yet, despite the criticisms (based on incomprehension) that she addressed to psychoanalysis since The Second Sex (1949), it is from psychoanalysis that Beauvoir draws the foundational idea of that book, which gave a slap to the establishment and which still disturbs. "Sex," she says, in essence, in referring to the point of view of psychoanalysis, "is the body as lived by the subject." "It is not nature that defines woman: it is she who defines herself, by putting nature to her own uses." Thus, Beauvoir puts to her own uses Freud's recasting of the metaphysical dualisms: body/soul, flesh/spirit, nature/culture. In considering "sex" as "psychosexuality," the existentialist reveals herself to be more attuned to Freud than the myriad phenomenologists who accuse the Viennese doctor of "biologizing the essence of man." Lacan would set out to radicalize this reworking of metaphysics, at the same time that Beauvoir's ambivalence brought about a type of feminism, especially in the United States, opposed to psychoanalysis. Despite all, these misunderstandings eventually gave birth to some movements that are better informed by the reality of psychoanalysis, which lead ultimately to the creation of Psychanalyse et politique in France. Above all, contemporary analytic practice and theory are in the process of developing an unprecedented analysis of feminine sexuality, and, more recently, of maternal passion, or what I call "reliance" (Kristeva, 2011).

  3. The phenomenon that is Rafah Nashed is written in this history and takes place in the new context of globalization. I insist from the outset on the social element in her research and her work, which has led to the scandal against which we protest so vigorously today. At the end of my talk, I will describe what are the most unique elements of her clinical practice and her thought, as they appear in texts published in the review Topique (Nashed, 2010), and in Psychanalyse (Nashed, 2011).

I. "Be not afraid." Because no official indictment has yet been made public, one is led to suppose that it is because of the discussion group led by Rafah Nashed each Sunday with the Jesuits of Damascus that she is suspected of striking a blow against the national security of her country. Open to people of all faiths, these meetings are intended to help the Syrians overcome their fear. In her articles published in French (e.g., Nashed, 2010), Rafah Nashed reports that, after studying clinical psychology under Sophie de Mijolla-Mellor at Paris-Diderot University, she worked at Aleppo in a hospital for the elderly, "where people lived who presented an incredible variety of psychoses, neurologic disorders, hysteria, mental retardation and physical handicaps that originated at all stages of life." She continued this difficult work in Damascus, at the Centers for the Mentally Handicapped, where she created "a space for talking, to help them to accept the physical handicaps with which they were confronted, and to think about children as being capable of having feelings of loss because of their handicap." Eventually her consulting room became, little by little, a "place to talk and to listen for people who suffer from the prohibition against such care" that characterizes the social climate of her country. "In the open," she says, "free speech is forbidden, forcing a thousand and one detours for expressing anything even slightly personal. It is also very difficult to say or express a 'no'; this is true in all parts of communal life: it is a cultural characteristic." Her consulting room became, then, "a place where the self [moi] can exist even though it is forbidden in the open. A place where one can get some distance from the relationships with family, work, society in general, since these relations are controlled by [social] fusion" (Nashed, 2010).

It is thus that Rafah, faced with the backwardness of psychiatry in Syria, with the fear of saying "I" and "no" in a land where tradition does not encourage personal speech, and under a violent and physically repressive regime, encounters difficulties introducing psychoanalysis into a therapeutic milieu dominated by behaviorism. With, first, a French Jesuit, then a Dutch one, among others, including a young Syrian Jesuit who had the courage to criticize the Church hierarchy for its complicity with the Damascus regime (in a text that appeared in a Syrian newspaper in August 2011), she did introduce it, however; specifically, in the sanctuaries of the Damascus Jesuits. In the end, Rafah ended up doing a trial of group therapy, based on psychodrama, with a Jesuit colleague who was himself an analyst.

Even though this was a purely clinical decision, it sends a powerful message: "Be not afraid."

You heard me correctly. I am drawing a comparison between Rafah Nashed's analytic work and the resolution of John Paul II when he launched Solidarnosc—which, after a series of economic, political, and social causes, led to the fall of the communist bloc itself. I realize I run the risk, making this link, of shocking many of the people in this room.1 Nonetheless, I insist on the comparison: they are similar, yes, but not the same. A figure of speech can suggest a resemblance between the psychodramas of Rafah, intended to nurse the fearful, and the call of a pope in Poland, yet still allow for difference between the analyst and John Paul II. This paradox, although disorienting, pushes us to actually think, by compelling us to ask, why does this matter to us? For that question to even exist, there must be a desire for understanding—what we could call psychical curiosity. It is this that Rafah tries to bring out in the fearful. "Be not afraid." You know how to say that—it's part of your culture, it is permitted (Scilicet2)—but she said that in Arabic. It is indeed with the feeble spark of psychic curiosity that Rafah rises up, in the face of Syrian power. And it is that same spark that I am trying to keep alive in us today, so that we can provide a future for her work, both modest and scandalous, disturbing to every tyrannical regime—the practice of Rafah.

II. Let's be serious. Nobody knows what will follow the current regime. Many of us fear that the revolution may lead to the empowerment of a fundamentalism that will be insidious early on, but disastrous in the long run. And it is precisely in response to this fear that I am addressing another aspect of Rafah's work: her research, her translation of psychoanalytic texts, which dynamically brings together psychoanalytic vocabulary (the vocabulary of Freud and Lacan) and the Arabic language, and tries to make psychoanalysis culturally relevant in the Arabic context. Thus, her efforts to interpret, in the light of psychoanalysis, Islamic religious experience.

Here we are at the heart of the fundamentalist threat that politics cannot resolve purely with laws, economic measures, or even military campaigns more or less supported by the UN. We must take up again the ambition of a Nietzsche who, addressing himself to "loafers in the public square" with the declaration of "the death of God," nonetheless poses "a probing question of the greatest import," that is, a question concerning God (Nietzsche, 1974). In other words, it is a matter of the relentless pursuit of the "transvaluation of values,"3 which are inevitably and traditionally religious, even if God is dead. Psychoanalysis, more than all the other human sciences, is positioned at the heart of our individual singularity, where that transvaluation concerns each of us.

The work that Rafah Nashed does in this area is still in an early stage, timid and halting, "just warming up," as Jacques-Alain Miller put it to me in a phone conversation. But this work is ongoing, and for me it represents the most impressive and promising part of the Rafah phenomenon.

A. Reminding us of the work of Moustafa Safouan, Moustafa Hijazi, and Sami Ali translating Freud and Lacan into Arabic, Rafah Nashed and her colleagues continue the effort, an effort that is "doomed to finding the word that cannot be found—an adequate synonym" of the originals. Thus, it is necessary that the group "give birth to psychoanalysis in Arabic": "we live psychoanalysis as a metaphor for translation and translation as a metaphor for psychoanalysis…We have discovered that psychoanalysis is a work of civilization, that is to say, a work of life,…which is almost impossible to communicate directly in Arabic…Arab society has not entered post-modernism." And it is here that Rafah makes a very important discovery, one that perhaps only a woman could so bravely uncover: contrary to the German of Freud (and the French of Lacan), in which sexual metaphors open up such a direct access to the unconscious, "in Arabic, metaphors (relating to sexuality) are all connected to the theme of death" (Nashed, 2010, p.124). Or again, seeking to clarify what the analyst listens for that is unique to Damascus, and in particular "why there is this fear of psychoanalytic speech," Rafah Nashed writes "psychoanalysis [in the Arab world] is found, perhaps, between the rejection of sexuality, in the usual sense of the term, and the esoteric language of the divinity" (Nashed, 2011).

B. You can imagine the fears that this woman is trying to understand, fears that go far beyond a political regime: they are bound to unquestioning religious belief.

Yet Rafah Nashed does not attack this head on. She does not target scarves or burkas, the imprisonment of women or the calls to jihad. Faced with the religious practices of Islam, Rafah and her colleagues take an interest in Sufism, because of the psychical link, in that practice, between "Me [Moi]" and "THEE [TOI]." Under the title "Betrayal or Love?" Rafah Nashed devoted a brief study to the erotic link between the mystic (Me) and his God (THEE), in the work of Hallaj (a celebrated 12th-century rebel mystic) in Psychanalyse (Nashed, 2011b). This "interior experience" resonates with the text of G. Bataille4, as well as with the "psychic apparatus" of Freud and the "topologies" of Lacan. Although her work relies very much on the work of Henry Corbin5 and Louis Massignon6, the psychoanalyst cautiously advances an interpretation of the equivocation of that mystic love that links the Me to its Big Other. At the same time an illusory union (with Allah) and a diabolic rebellion (from the side of Iblis7), the faith of the Sufist appears as the height of fantasy, where the subject identifies with the all-powerful Other in order to use that power to create an omnipotent self through a kind of "pere-version."8 But this equivocal union of self and Other is pursued at the cost of draining away that sense of omnipotence, and the acceptance of the loss of personal identity that such identification with omnipotence inevitably entails. Elsewhere, the sacrificial position, the feminization of the Islamic soul in its subordination to the divinity, which would then be the only masculine being, and the question of the "other" jouissance9 (neither male nor female, but "pure subjectivity," without needing to be either ecstatic or exterminating in the manner of al-Qaeda) are delineated in the article "Saying the Unsayable" (Nashed, 2011). Finally, Rafah Nashed concludes that it is "by its interest in the mystical and its jouissance that language (Lacan's language? The language of psychoanalysis?) can be understood and accepted by us" (Nashed, 2010, p.126).

I read these works as the beginning of a path our Syrian colleagues are trying to open, not in order to stigmatize religious experience, but in order to put it in question: to intensely analyze and deconstruct it. Is there any other reason to imprison this woman? Certainly. But I bet her jailors don't know it. And I bet that these paths can only be extended further, in spite of and in opposition to the persecution that has befallen Rafah.

Finally, the group around Rafah Nashed manages to point out that it remains attentive to the "new maladies of the soul" produced by current events. The group works, for example, with Iraqi refugees: their sadness, their traumatic and violent experiences—whether they be the victims or the perpetrators. And the group seeks to "bring about something that comes from our language, our culture," say Rafah's colleagues: "We do not want to make of psychoanalysis an empire of which Paris is the capital."

I understand the boldness and the ambition of this project and of this critique. And I propose the following: the jury of Simone de Beauvoir for the Freedom of Women, which I created in 2008 and which has honored six women, from India, lower Somalia, Iran, China, and even from Russia, will reconvene next week to choose the laureate of the prize for 2012, which will be announced January9 at Deux Magots in Paris. This will probably be a woman from Maghreb or Mashriq. I would like to submit that Rafah Nashed be nominated, even though we already have applications from many remarkable women, whose work has a larger impact and is more readily accessible.

But besides this, the Rafah Nashed phenomenon leads me to propose to you that our "Women's Forum" be enlarged by a permanent forum on the theme of "Psychoanalysis in Cultural Diversity." It could be called the Forum Rafah Nashed: Psychoanalysis in Cultural Diversity. It will periodically bring together French psychoanalysts and others coming from various cultural traditions that today are dying out or fighting among themselves. The goal of this forum will be to stimulate the transvaluation of those traditions that haunt the unconscious: I consider this transvaluation to be the sole radical opposition to fear and banalization. With a little luck, a prize entrusted to this forum and bearing the name of Rafah Nashed would be able to recognize a clinical or theoretical work that contributes to the development of psychoanalysis in the context of globalization.

With the liberation of Rafah, which we now demand, this will be our response to fear and to those who try to silence this woman who dares to say the unsayable.


Braunstein, N. (2003). Desire and jouissance in the teachings of Lacan. In J.-M. Rabatè (Ed.), The Cambridge companion to Lacan (pp.102–114). New York, NY: Cambridge University Press.

De Beauvoir, S. (1949/2009). The second sex. Translators C. Borde and S. Malovany-Chevalier. New York: Vintage Books.

De Beauvoir, S. (1972/1990). All said and done. Translator Patrick O'Brian. New York, NY. Paragon House.

Fink. B. (1995). The Lacanian subject: Between language and jouissance. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.

Kristeva, J. (2011, May 28). La reliance, ou de l'érotisme maternel. Retrieved from http://www.kristeva.fr/reliance.html

Lacan, J. (1973-74): Seminaire XXI: Les non-dupes errent. Unpublished manuscript. Translation available at http://www.lacaninireland.com/web/wp-content/uploads/2010/06/Book-21-Les-Non-Dupes-Errent-Part-1.pdf.

Loewald, H. (1960). On the therapeutic action of psychoanalysis. International Journal of Psychoanalysis, 41,16-33.

Nashed, R. (2010). Histoire de la psychanalyse en Syrie. Topique, 110, pp117–127. [The full text is available online at http://www.oedipe.org/fr/actualites/histoirenached].

Nashed, R. (2011a). Dire l'indicible (Saying the Unsayable). Psychanalyse, 21,33–36.

Nashed, R. (2011b). Tâsîn de la préexistence et de l'ambiguïté: Moi et toi, trahison ou amour? (Tasin of preexistence and ambiguity: Me and Thee: treason or love?). Psychanalyse, 21,53–59. [full text available at http://liberationrafahnached.org/?p=257].

Nietzsche, F. (1974). The gay science. (W. Kaufmann, Trans.). New York, NY: Vintage Books.

Thurston, L. (1998): Ineluctable nodalities: On the borromean knot. In Nobus (ed.), Key concepts of Lacanian psychoanalysis. New York: Other Press.

1. See http://orientem.blogspot.com/2011/03/agnostic-julia-kristeva-emerges-from.html for a discussion of Kristeva's views of John Paul II and the fall of the Berlin Wall. "Be not afraid" were the words with which John Paul II encouraged Lech Walesa to fight the Communist regime in Poland. The words, quoting Christ's injunction to Peter when he tried to walk on the water (Matthew 14:27), have enormous religious resonance, especially for Catholics. To appreciate how shocking this comparison may seem, consider that the Catholic hymn "Be Not Afraid" is recorded on Youtube by, among others, Islam4noone.
2. Scilicet is a Latin word that could be translated "you are allowed to know" (scire + licet), but which is also the title of a psychoanalytic journal published by the Freudian School of Paris during Lacan's lifetime. From this, one might unpack Kristeva's sentence thus: "You know how to say that because it is permitted/thanks to psychoanalysis, but Nashed was able to say it without the benefit of the School, in Arabic."
3. See http://www.hkbu.edu.hk/~ppp/top/top19 for a discussion of the development of this concept in Nietzsche's work.
4. "Erotism," I presume. My copy of this text (the City Lights paperback edition) has a close-up of Bernini's St. Theresa of Avila's face, in the throes of (mystical) orgasm.
5. Theologian and professor of Islamic studies at the Sorbonne. Died in 1978.
6. French scholar of Islam. Died in 1962.
7. A satanic figure in the Qur'an.
8. An untranslatable pun, based on the homonymy between the first syllable of "perversion" and the French for "father." The term was introduced by Lacan in his 21st seminar, "Les Non-dupes errent" (session of January 21, 1975). The point of the pun, per Lacan, is that a father is formally similar to the pervert's object; thus, where Freud's shoe fetishist says "Of course a shoe is not a woman, but nonetheless…," of the father it can be said "Of course he is not the source of all wisdom and authority, but still…" Thus, a father could just be a guy who wanted to have a woman who wanted to have children, but it is important to those children that he appear to be, in some sense, wise and paternal, even if that paternity is purely biological. As I understand it, Kristeva—through, I presume, Nashed—is saying that, for there to be a true mystical experience, the mystic must have a belief in the power of God with which he can identify. This identification leads, ultimately, to the capacity to give up any claim to power, but that cannot happen without the identification to start with. (It is not hard to imagine a similar extrapolation using Loewald's theory of therapeutic action, specifically, the idea of identification with a new object, to arrive at a similar conclusion [see Loewald, 1960 and Lear, 2003, pp.89-133].) If the would-be mystic is not duped by the identification then he errs, to refer back to the title of the seminar; that is, if he doesn't fall for the identification with God, he can never have the mystical experience he seeks. Of note, this theorization involves Lacan's "topologies," mentioned above; specifically, the (Borromean) knotting of the Imaginary, Symbolic, and Real—the three registers through which one experiences the world, according to Lacan (Thurston, 1998).
9. "Jouissance" is a very complicated concept in Lacanian theory, postulating a kind of limitless pursuit of enjoyment that inevitably involves some degree of pain, and no degree of satisfaction. See Fink (1995) and Braunstein (2003).